When future historians tell the tale of this unending nightmare, they will have plenty of primary source material from which to draw. But to save themselves some trouble, those distant scribes might simply lift passages from The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Carroll’s wonderful nonsense poem from 1876.
On the constancy and conviction of Doug Ford or Jason Kenney or François Legault, for example, they might observe, “He was thoughtful and grave — but the orders he gave / Were enough to bewilder a crew.” On the various restrictions that have kept large shopping centres open and small outdoor patios closed, they might note that “the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes.” On the clarity of public health messaging, they might recount how officials “all spoke at once, so that none of them knew / One word that the others had said.” And on the daily numbers, they might point out that politicians “had hoped, at least, when the wind blew due East, / That the ship would not travel due West!”
Historians will also have to outline Ottawa’s efforts to keep the good ship of state off the rocks, even after the government unplugged its Global Public Health Intelligence Network foghorn. So they might explain how “the Banker endorsed a blank cheque,” while our fearless captain, the Bellman, “had only one notion for crossing the ocean, / and that was to tingle his bell.”
The chroniclers of this strange time will be in good company; generations of scholars have turned to The Hunting of the Snark to interpret many things, from the Tichborne Claimant who captivated Victorian England to the ravages of tuberculosis, from conceited vanity to the search for happiness. In 2019, the Canadian engraver George A. Walker even used it to shed light on Donald Trump and his administration’s toadies. “It works hard at a surface of plausibility and then leaves us bewildered about just what has happened, or is happening,” the critic Adam Gopnik wrote of Carroll’s book. And because of that, “its potential applicability is ever expanding.”
In the context of today, when too much of Canada finds itself careening into yet another menacing wave, perhaps the most salient passage of the epic poem is not about the Bellman who guides his ship with a map that’s “a perfect and absolute blank” (though that also feels apt) but about those of us who can’t get off this doomed vessel even if we wanted to, especially the proprietors who have lost their small businesses or the parents with schoolchildren suddenly back at home or the lonely and scared long-term-care residents or the front-line workers still awaiting the jab: “The Beaver had counted with scrupulous care, / Attending to every word: / But it fairly lost heart, and outgrabe in despair, / When the third repetition occurred.”
There have been outliers from the start of this ordeal: those who ride the subway without a mask or who pop down to the Caribbean for a quick hit of vitamin D. But most of us have listened. During the first wave, we listened because our Bellman, particularly when compared with that captain down south, had “such a carriage, such ease and such grace! / Such solemnity, too! One could see he was wise, / The moment one looked in his face!” During the second wave, we listened to his renewed warnings and wanted to believe it when we were told, “Let me say it once more. / It is this, it is this that I dread!” But now the third wave is here, and about the only thing left to do as we’re stuck in our homes is emit strange noises of agony.
Early on, an epidemiologist told me that the novel coronavirus was one that didn’t follow the rules. Was it inevitable, though, that its history in this country would read as a nonsensical fable? Was it inevitable that tens of thousands of us would die? That we would see record admissions to intensive care units more than a year on? That we would go months and months without visiting our extended families? That we would still be unable to hug those we love but don’t live with? That we would be attending funerals online?
Of this moment, which is surely not over, the historians of tomorrow will surely write, “The Bellman perceived that their spirits were low, / And repeated in musical tone / Some jokes he had kept for a season of woe — / But the crew would do nothing but groan.”