One defining feature of the COVID-19 pandemic, now nearly a year old, is isolation. People, including me, have spent months alone, or sometimes, with a few family members. They celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s and birthdays alone. People who are exposed or fall ill quarantine. Others are hospitalized and die alone. Exacerbating the isolation and loneliness is the rarity of public mourning for the dead. Without that mourning, affirming the reality and tragedy of what is happening, the experience becomes surreal.
One show that speaks to these feelings of isolation and surreality is Russian Doll, the time loop narrative released on Netflix in 2019.
Particularly now, with many dark days still ahead of us, we are called, out of this love, to bear witness to each other: to observe the increasing number of the dead; and to make room for and observe other people’s stories besides our own.The less you know about Russian Doll prior to watching, the better, so for the sake of those who haven’t seen it, I’ll just say that where Groundhog Day has only one person knowingly experiencing the same day over and over, Russian Doll has two: strangers initially who grow close over the course of the eight-episode series.
Throughout, the characters insist on the relativity of their own experiences. “We are unreliable narrators of our own stories,” one character tells the others. From within our lives, the idea is, it’s impossible to perceive our full reality. We need other people, with other vantage points besides our own, to make sense of what we are experiencing and to change our lives.
But for Russian Doll, the need for an outside narrator is more urgent than simply providing an outside perspective. Other people, telling (and living) our stories along with us, are in a sense necessary for our basic reality. Nadia, the main character, repeatedly encounters a homeless man (enigmatically named “Horse”) in the park on her loops through time. On one loop, as he relates a story, which may or may not be true, about how he dropped off the grid, she interrupts: “How do you know that you’re real? Do you think that we need people to be, like, witnesses?”
He responds, “I’m here. That’s where you know.”
In other words, the answer to Nadia’s question is Yes. We know we are real, our experiences are authenticated, through other people’s witnessing of them. “I’m here,” Horse responds. It is through our presence with others, and theirs with us, that our life has reality and meaning.
That word witnesses is particularly important. By “witness,” the show means not a kind of vague moral support; it means being present to intervene in the other person’s life in concrete, effective ways, being willing to tell the truth and to help them tell a coherent story in their lives.
Jewish scholar Emmanuel Levinas wrote of the importance of witnesses, of people who testify to the lived experience of others, lest the moments of their lives be lost forever. Put (very) simply, witness and memory are necessary to substantiate experience. Only through the witness of other people, their willingness to make room for us, are our lives made real. A theory worked out in the wake of the Holocaust, in which six million people were lost with little or no trace, Levinas’s ideas about witnessing are crucial for ethical relation to others, especially during times of tragedy and loss. In such times, witnessing “make[s] present that which is impossible”: for Levinas, “the deaths of six million whom we never knew, and the lives of” family members. For us, the deaths of the four hundred thousand plus lost to COVID-19. To witness somebody is to give their life reality, especially when it would otherwise be swallowed by tragedy.
So when Nadia asks whether being real depends on other people being witnesses, she is not using a metaphor. Nadia, importantly, is a Russian Jewish woman, we learn her grandparents survived the Holocaust, and much of the story takes place in an old Jewish school, converted to apartment buildings. While I suspect that the show writers did not, in fact, draw on Levinas specifically, Nadia’s Jewishness suggests Levinas’s frame is a valuable one for understanding her experiences. Both in the liminal space(s) of looping time and her own lived experiences, including a childhood with a mother gradually losing her grip on reality and an adulthood in which she actively avoids and even disrupts commitment, the lack of witnesses makes her life (lives?) less real. It also prevents her from witnessing for others, untying her from the knot of human commitment. Without witness––whether she is performing it or receiving it––Nadia is put in jeopardy. To experience loss without a witness is to be swallowed up by it, to become less real.
There are consequences if we refuse to serve as witnesses for each other, or if we lack witnesses. In Russian Doll, as one character tumbles into madness, she destroys her mirrors; as other characters likewise increasingly lose control over reality, their mirrors also disappear. Mirrors, of course, reflect our own reality back to us. They are an external source of reality, prevent us from getting lost in our own head. They symbolize, in effect, the presence of witnesses. Without mirrors, without this ability to see ourselves through another person’s experience, we too will lose our grip on reality.
This, of course, is why Russian Doll resonates during COVID-19. At the time I am writing this, we are nearing five hundred thousand people lost to the virus, more than the population of New Orleans or Colorado Springs. We have lost these people largely without public memorials. Not until the pre-inauguration memorial along the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool was there any meaningful civic remembrance for the dead.
Those of us who remain are also more isolated than before, working and eating and recreating alone and in our own homes, seeing fewer people on a day-to-day basis. Many of us have also gone months, or even a full year, without seeing close family members. We too lack witnesses to our own reality.
What Russian Doll suggests is that this lack of witnesses contributes to the feelings of surreality, of liminality that so many of us are experiencing. We feel like we’re all losing it a little bit because we don’t have somebody to testify to our shared reality, nor do we (as commonly) take on that role for others.
We feel the poignancy and loss for the dead particularly acutely given that we have little public witness to their loss, to how their absence(s) have changed the future we all inhabit. Russian Doll’s argument underscores the ethical importance of Twitter accounts like FacesOfCOVID. Through such accounts, people lost to the virus are remembered, made real, through the storytelling of others.
In Jewish philosophy, the act of serving as witness is, fundamentally, an act of love. Levinas, noting the pain and limitation involved in serving as witness, concludes “humans open themselves up to one another as a demand of love.” This willingness to open oneself to another, to make space for their story, so that they may become real, is the kind of love that God shows toward humankind.
Mary Doria Russell writes of this in her novel, The Sparrow: “There’s an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality. But to make creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist. So He breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists.” This (re)telling of the creation narrative underscores that God, in making humankind, willingly added our story, with the attendant Fall, to the divine story out of Love. The act of making room for another, ensuring their reality, is a divine act. In performing it for each other, particularly at times of crisis and grief as now, we are following God.
Our own Christian tradition often assigns a different meaning to witness, associating it with proselytizing. Yet Levinas’s connection of love with witnessing brings to mind Christ’s second commandment: that we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. Contextualized by the first commandment, that we love the Lord our God, the second carries the implication that we love God by loving our neighbors. The work of witnessing––of testifying to another’s reality––belongs to us, then, emerging from our calling to be loved by and to love God.
Particularly now, with many dark days still ahead of us, we are called, out of this love, to bear witness to each other: to observe the increasing number of the dead; and to make room for and observe other people’s stories besides our own. In turn, we are called to allow other people to observe our own stories. For the characters in Russian Doll, bearing witness to each other asserts their reality in the face of tragedies which would otherwise swallow them up. For us, the tragedy of COVID and its attending isolation and forgetfulness similarly compel witness. Witnessing (being present with each other and intervening in each others’ lives) is, ultimately, a radical act of love. As we bear witness to each other, we (re)orient ourselves to the reality and value of human beings. Even as civic failures cause real people to slip through the cracks and be forgotten, the act of witnessing restores, through memory and attention, the significance of each human life.