The new book “Love in the Time of Contagion: A Diagnosis” explores the lockdown experiences of singles and couples and new approaches to love, intimacy and vulnerability.
Author Laura Kipnis is a cultural critic and professor at Northwestern University, where she teaches filmmaking.
An excerpt from “Love in the Time of Contagion: A Diagnosis.”
As a registered domesticity-resister, for the last ten or twelve pre-COVID years my own coupled life had been conducted in a state of contentiously romantic semi- compatibility, in two separate one-bedroom apartments in New York City. One was uptown in Harlem and the other downtown in Chelsea, maybe twenty-five minutes apart on the subway. By mid-March 2020, as COVID cases rose alarmingly in the area, riding the subway felt dicey and New Yorkers were being ordered to shelter in place.
The basic options were Alone or Together, so we crammed ourselves into the Harlem (less cramped) one-bedroom for the duration, not knowing how long that would be. At least there were no on-site kids, parents, or animals— our situation wasn’t as crowded as others’, but it wasn’t as though there was room to think, get away from each other, or do anything the other person didn’t feel compelled to comment on at length.
From three or four nights a week together, we went to spending seven (or was it ten?) nights and days a week together, working from home, nowhere to go. The streets were ghostlike and cold. “My schedule for today lists a six- hour self-accusatory depression,” to borrow from the Philip K. Dick mental health handbook, which fairly approximated my own mental state. Like many other housebound citizens, I embarked on a Sisyphean project of cleaning and organizing, and in a state of industrious mania spent the first weekend on-site reorganizing my boyfriend’s bookshelves by subject and subcategory, to the point that I alone now know where any particular book is located. I attacked closets and bathroom cabinets, making some unwelcome and frankly disgusting discoveries.
Another person’s psyche is a foreign country, no less than your own obviously, but that’s another story. Forcible domestic confinement was like being an anthropologist embedded with some remote indigenous tribe, trying to decipher its barbaric rituals and obscure mythologies. I fear the experience may have deformed me, perhaps for life.
Despite having authored a book mocking the strictures of coupled domesticity, I became perversely energetic about, for instance, policing the (increasing) household alcohol consumption because drinking suppresses the immune system (I read) and I didn’t want my mate dropping dead of this malignant fucking virus and leaving me alone, a state I used to savor but the prospect of which now felt (against the backdrop of a barely functioning government and a collapsing healthcare system) terrifying.
Random field notes from the early days of immersive coupledom: feeling simultaneously comforted by the little domestic routines and imprisoned by the endless neurotic repetition compulsions. The feeling of knowing another person way too well and also not at all. The dread at being chained to the other person’s psychological inchoateness, like a concrete block dragging you to the bottom of the Hudson, punctuated by moments of curative grim levity. Dependence vying with distrust. Feeling in equal measures marvelously understood and criminally misidentified. Both less and more alone. “I love you but I can barely stand you,” one of us said to the other.
Excerpted from "Love in the Time of Contagion: A Diagnosis" by Laura Kipnis. Published February 8, 2022 by Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Laura Kipnis.