You would think, given the individual’s sacrosanct place at the center of a political modernity imposed across the world, you would think, given your own sense of having a body and through it a life (habeas corpus), that there would be some sure measure, when persons die, wherever persons die, of how many persons have died. But no. There are countless ways to count persons, to decide where a person ends and another starts. Stick to sheep! Counting persons would only confound the mind, and if sleep came it would be a tangled, gnarled sort of sleep.
Lévi-Strauss maintained that a traditional society was most ecologically viable when it did not exceed 250 (288). Students of such societies understand now this was not just a material and environmental limit—having to do with how much one could extract from an environment without destroying it—but also a mental and invisible one, having to do with an ecology of ghosts. Danowski and De Castro: Amazonian peoples prefer to maintain a steady population rather than to grow, “for people live in other people, with other people, for other people” (104).
Ancient peoples know that reality is many-sided. This is why, said the prime minister, we cannot be sure how many persons have died from this sickness.
It is not because we lack the means, he said. We have the world’s best information technology systems, we have a unique biometric identification system that links your gas and water connections and your food rations to your fingerprint, we have even borrowed from a fellow unapologetic nation the flying horse technology allowing us to gently watch over every citizen so as to better keep track.
But we are a deeply philosophical people with roots stretching back into an ancient seer past. We know that despite appearances, reality is ever-elusive, shape-shifting, deceptive, a mirage that we must step through if we are to see the truth. We have known for millennia, long before the West caught on, that most stories are untrue, that news is fake, that the world itself is an illusion. And of such a land, you demand a body count?
Consider, moreover, that in these parts many persons may share the same name. Take H.B. the father of the nation’s nuclear program and H.B. the cultural critic. Not the same thing at all. Take R.S. the world-renowned maestro and R.S. the spiritual leader—very different kettles of fish. Take Z.H. the percussionist and Z.H. the former president—apples and oysters. Not to speak of the numerous lesser-known homonyms filling our villages. It is not easy to sift through all this.
So, he said, based on careful consideration of all the data points gathered by several fact-finding missions, some venturing intrepidly in the nation’s interest into far-flung unruly lands, we can confidently say that it is 478,007 persons who have tragically lost their lives. Consider how much lower this is to the death toll of the richest country in the world, and all the more so if you count deaths per capita. You see, we are the pharmacy of the world. Only what a shame, he said, that the opposition has been spreading lies about the benefits of the vaccine, hence so few have shown up for the jab, despite plentiful supplies (thanks to such thoughtful planning). A great shame, he said. Pharmacy of the world, he said again (evading the reporter’s question: Mister Prime Minister, how do you respond to the new study led by renowned epidemiologist R.L. which suggests that the country’s death toll may be twelve times higher than what your government has logged, which would be… [quickly doing the math] over 6 million?)
Finally, said the prime minister, in a country such as ours there is the matter of reincarnation, which complicates the math (ignoring a second reporter’s persistent follow ups: Mister Prime Minister, does a rising population mean that there are new souls entering the world? Wherefrom? Are they the souls of animals who have been squeezed out of the world and have nowhere to go? Is the only way to live now to live [if this is the right word] as a human? Is this a plank of the majority’s strategy?)
Henri Michaux, traveling through this land in the 1930s: Here, take care to be reborn neither a widow nor a dog (for so cruel are their fates) (286).
My mother, observing this land in her last years: I would like not to come back at all.
You would think, given that all living things breathe, given what we know about breath and life, you would think, given what we feel in our diaphragms when we breathe and when we can’t, that there would be agreement about what it means when a person can’t breathe. But no, it is no simple matter. Long ago, we left the realm of subsistence to enter the giddier spheres of speculation. Luce Irigaray: thinking itself became a replacing of “nature” by rarefied, lifeless thought-correlates, no longer a space wherein to live and breathe but a vacuum-packed landscape of endless mind (19, 182n15).
Witness the disagreement over what was what in the second wave, as this ancient land gasped for breath. Air to breathe, wrote Arundhati Roy, had become “the new currency” on the nation’s “morbid new stock exchange,”with Twitter engorged with pleas for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds with ventilators, while officials got to work on their multipronged response. One: issue powerful denials of oxygen shortages. Two: invoke colonial-era laws to arrest authors of pitiful tweets (such rumormongers give a bad name to the nation).
Three: issue wherever possible subtle reminders of ancient civilizational wisdom when it comes to breathing. The West has nothing to teach us in this matter! If anything, they are responsible for leading us astray from our cosmic breath-force! Lamentations of a tele-godman: “patients just don’t know how to breathe properly, and therefore, spread negativity…” The bendy, hirsute, multi-million-dollar yogi’s video went viral to 800,000 views: “God has given us free oxygen, why don’t we breathe that? How can there be a shortage when God has filled the atmosphere with oxygen? Fools are looking for oxygen cylinders. Just breathe the free oxygen. Why are you complaining about shortage of oxygen and beds and crematoriums?” (BBC).
No, breath is no objective matter. It is no less slippery and constructed and ideological than everything else, if anything more so. Do not believe all you hear about breath.
Benjamin Crump: “The question that the family has, as many citizens, is: Why don’t police believe Black men when they say “I can’t breathe”? Why is it always met with further torture?”
You would think, given our superior technologies for seeing and knowing and measuring, given drones and aerial photography, that one would know for sure when a large rainforest was burning. But no! Trust not these reports nor those pics nor those gullible eyes! “This story that the Amazon is going up in flames is a lie and we must combat it with true numbers,” said the president (Spring and Marcello).
The prime minister liked that president (and several others like him in the world, who seemed to him strong and manly). Ultimately, they derived their power not from not believing in facts (contrary to appearances) but from not believing in ghosts. Thus, they saw not the broken spirits of trees, animals, humans—silent, swollen seas of them—wandering in their midst.
The “man with empty eyes and a mirthless smile” (Roy) grew his beard, turned inwards, doubled down on his downward dog, dropped from his favor the poet whose verse no longer carried his praise but sang mirthlessly of corpses in the Ganges. How dull! He had to keep trim, and his jackets had to fall just so. He avoided press conferences (including the one imagined here), printed his picture on every vaccination certificate, blew it up onto outsized “Thank you, dear leader” billboards strewn across the land.
He pushed out of his mind the cadavers, the gasping, the numbers, the reports of overflowing crematoria visited by stray dogs. He was moved to tears sometimes, for example by the invention of the fake hand (a latex glove filled with warm water) that mimicked for the dying a last human touch (Brogle). It was essential to concentrate on the messaging. Over time, the poet would die, the people would forget. In the evenings he practiced yogic breathing, whereby the brain and all parts of the skull are cleansed and re-energized (Bernier).