BOGOTÁ — In times of plague, one has the impression, as did the medieval poets and painters, that death is marauding unchecked, scything away and decapitating at every turn. The reaper invites any and all — popes, monarchs and laborers — to join in its jig, and its explicit and imminent proximity prompts people to adopt two opposed, yet complementary, attitudes toward life.

The first is to make the most of our remaining time to create or reflect (the spiritual approach). The second is to spend it as you please, preferably in carnal pursuits like eating, drinking and sex, and measure life's returns in sensations, not works. The spiritual path would earn us a place in heaven or an earthly reputation for good deeds. The carnal choice offers us this world. It urges you to seize the day and "live till you die," for that is all there is.

Some devote themselves exclusively to one or the other side. The puritan, hermit or monk (and some poets) are entirely given to their meditation, prayers or craft. The rake, the libertine or spendthrift (and some poets), only have time for pleasures. "Let us eat and drink/ And sing and be at ease/... for tomorrow comes death" is the poet Juan del Encina's refrain.

I shall not declare for one or the other side, but both, as both sides are right. Whence my alternation between work and enjoyment, feasting and fasting. Life seems to me more a pendulum than a straight line.

This ancient drug, fruit of man's life and labors, lightens the pandemic's afflictions and distress.

Studies in Europe and the United States undertaken in this unusual time show a sharp rise in the consumption of things like wine, beer, whisky and spirits in general. I used to abstain from Monday to Friday. Now I drink alone or in company and in the real and imagined life, regardless of the day or pretext.

The World Health Organization, alarmed by increased drinking in households, has warned that boozing more can impair the immune system, and make us more vulnerable to this virus. They are right, being serious people. Yet this ancient drug, fruit of man's life and labors, lightens the afflictions and distress the pandemic is causing in our lives, work and economy.


A barman mixes a cocktail for delivery wearing a mask and gloves. — Photo: Yevhen Kotenko

Many speak reasonably of the ills of excess drinking: It can aid cancer, rob us of some years and fuel household violence or car accidents. All that is true. But they should also speak of the benefits (at least to those not abusing), of drinking a little. It dissipates shyness, can foment camaraderie, improve how we see ourselves and make us more attractive (to others). It brings us a little oblivion and carefree cheer. It can start a fight, for sure, but also reconcile. Many peace treaties are made or sealed with a drink. Were it not for the benefits, people would not drink so much, because they are neither blind nor entirely silly.

It is said that in the Great Plague, London's theaters were shut almost continuously from 1606 to 1610. A fifth of the city's residents died of that plague. Precisely in those years, Shakespeare, confined to his home and kept away from The Globe theater, composed some of his most important works. The chronology is not easy, as experts disagree, but it seems King Lear was the fruit of that quarantine.

The joy of living and the tragedy of plagues are in any case, present in his work. The plague strikes Verona, and impedes Friar John from taking Romeo's letter to Juliet to the city of Mantua. Ultimately in this tale, it is the hazards of the plague that seal the lovers' fate. Unless I am mistaken, Shakespeare wrote (the spiritual life) and lived (carnally) in equal measure, for unless you live fully, could you write and describe life in its fullness?

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