Travels with Long Covid: an itinerary in books

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In June, having unfortunately succumbed to ;long Covid’, my summer took on a shape I did not imagine after I had finished my third year.  However, my itinerary has been no less exciting than I first imagined, and actually involved much more travelling. When you read, the concerns of your body dissipate as your mind contemplates the contents of the pages.  It is an exercise that requires only rational faculties, which mercifully survived the onslaughts of the virus. Reading enabled me to escape my stuffy bedroom and ill-health to travel through time and space.  If this travelling was not enough, reading each book was to converse with the greatest minds of history.  

Socrates once mused: ‘How can you wonder your travels do you no good, when you carry yourself around with you?’.  This ancient wisdom is surely true – you cannot fly away from your problems and anxieties.  It is the mental perception of new surroundings that has vitalising qualities, rather than the physical fact of being there.  My travels with ‘long Covid’ have shown that the reverse is also true.  You can experience the mental benefits of travelling if only your mind is there with the aid of a book.  

My first journey was to the ancient Mediterranean with Herodotus as my guide.  I beheld the Persian Empire rise from the mire under Cyrus, I witnessed awestruck as the Pythia, a priestess possessed by Apollo, uttered the will of the god and repeatedly shaped the course of Greek history.  Soon after, I arrived in Euripides’ Thebes.  This is a magical world where Dionysius, the wine god himself entered the city as a flesh and blood being.  The line between human and animal is permeable; a Bacchic trance impelled the queen to tear her son to ribbons using only her hands, and Cadmus, the city’s founder, along with his divine wife Harmonia were transformed into snakes.  Insidious enchantment pulsates to Dionysius’ intoxicating tune, himself shifting shape and gender, as the feverish music of pipes and draughts of wine cause people to lose their minds.  

‘It is the mental perception of new surroundings that has vitalising qualities’

Imperial Rome was no less fantastical.  Via Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, I was led me on a whistle stop tour of the personalities and cruelties of the Caesars.  With glee he narrated the colourful tapestry of depravities and eccentricities that lie behind the stony marble facades that represent them today.  The quips of the Romans came to life, for example, Domitian was notorious for torturing flies to death for his pleasure.  When a courtier was asked if the anyone was in the emperor’s room, the quick-witted man replied, ‘not even a fly’. 

Fatigued from the decadent capital, I decided to seek sanctuary on seventh-century Lindisfarne in the company of St Cuthbert and Alistar Moffat.  I followed Moffat as he narrated his family history and reflections on mortality, as we tramped through the Scottish borders.  This is a place heavy with spirits from the pagan past and pockmarked by oases of calm and lasting historical memory.  Finally arriving at the island of the tides, a peace came over me from Moffat’s serene prose.  In this island off Northumberland, buffeted by howling North Sea winds and once by terrifying Vikings, an aura of harmony and satisfaction persists through the centuries.  

Suitably refreshed, I travelled to Dostoyevsky’s St Petersburg.  I inhabited the psyche of Raskolnikov, a penniless student who murders two women.  He believed that his evil would be vindicated by the good he would do with the murderous proceeds.  However, feverish guilt, anxiety and disgust overwhelm him.  In the background, Tsarist St Petersburg is a hellscape, sweltering hot and populated by bestial figures tarred by every vice.  The good are subjected to suffering and derision beneath a deaf heaven.  I found the conclusion of Raskolnikov’s redemption through Christianity completely unsatisfactory.  His murderous utilitarianism was not renounced because it was philosophically shown to be false, only bad for his soul.  

Jaded by the idea that morality and goodness doesn’t exist on an objective footing, I turned to Plato, the grandfather of Western philosophy.  He removed me from materiality itself and led me to a disembodied world of perfect ideas and forms.  This otherworldly experience must have been similar to that of Bezos and Branson when they beheld the curvature of the earth and the terrifying abyss of space.  

Now back to ‘real’ life with mostly restored health, I am planning the shape of my next summer. As fascinating as this one was, I think I’ll do something more relaxing next time. Perhaps Ibiza.

Image: Rana Sawalha via Unsplash

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