God only knows when it began, but I can tell you this: it is never going to end. I don’t mean the pandemic, the origins of which are more or less clear, temporally if not yet biologically, and I don’t mean our great national hunkering-down, which hadn’t even started back on the Groundhog Day it now so resembles. I mean a minor, unexpected, and vexing byproduct of them both: the feel-good chain e-mail, some version of which you have almost certainly received since you’ve been stuck at home. Friends! I know these are trying times, so, in the interest of bringing a little joy into all of our lives, I’m inviting you to join in sharing a beloved poem/recipe/Bible verse/inspiring quote/home workout/elephant joke/photo of yourself in your favorite Renaissance Faire outfit/drawing of a cat in a litter box. This is meant to be FUN!, so please don’t spend too much time on it. It shouldn’t take more than fifty hours of wondering how to graciously decline this request followed by another thirty hours of ignoring it followed by six hours of obsessively refining your recipe for microwave chocolate-chip cheesecake in a mug. When you’re done, simply add your name to the seventh empty slot below, copy and paste this note into a new e-mail, move my name to the third slot above your own, hit “reply all” to send your response to the non-blind-carbon-copied strangers on this note, then forward it to twenty friends you never want to speak to again.
I am being, perhaps, overly harsh. These are trying times, and, assuming you steer clear of pyramid schemes, I can think of no good reason, if it makes you feel even the slightest bit better, to discourage you from sending Joyce Kilmer or Psalm 91 or Chicken Surprise winging around the Internet. I can, however, think of a very good reason to discourage you from sending any of those things to me, which is that your Great Chain of Being E-mailed will promptly rupture. In every one of these that I have ever received, and they are numerous, I am the weak link, by which I mean I am the intransigent link. The issue is not that I am an introvert, liable to feel invaded by what , in describing these e-mails, “social homework.” Nor am I temporarily running a third-, fifth-, and eighth-grade classroom out of my kitchen while simultaneously running a legal-aid office out of my bedroom. As a childless magazine writer whose peaceful rural home makes a quarantine look basically indistinguishable from Yaddo, I do not have the excuse of being too overburdened to rummage through my cookbooks.
But am I going to send you my favorite soufflé recipe? I am not. There is a scene in “The Sopranos” (I can tell you this because, in a rare welcome side effect of stay-at-home orders, I finally got around to watching it) in which, following the death of Tony Soprano’s mother, his sister tries to convince everyone gathered for the memorial service to share a special memory of the deceased. One problem with this kind of organized emoting is that it is wildly at odds with the funerary traditions of Italian-Catholic mobsters. Another is that the late Mrs. Soprano was so manipulative, embittered, narcissistic, and homicidal as to render her entirely eulogy-proof. But the chief problem is that Tony’s sister, being similarly manipulative and murderous, is incapable of proposing the idea without coming across as equal parts deranged, disingenuous, and smarmy, like Madame Defarge doing a turn as a camp counsellor. Watching the scene, in which all the other mourners studiously examine their freshly shined loafers, I felt a combination of vicarious horror and dismayed recognition. This was a month or so ago, and already it felt strikingly familiar: a bunch of people who don’t want to participate in something but also don’t want to express their real feelings about it, given the prevailing atmosphere of solemnity, solidarity, and grief.
All this is to say that there are few things in life more irritating than coerced participation in an allegedly uplifting group activity. Granted, the line between that and just being a good sport can be a fine one, and it is drawn in different places by different people. The family dinner where, guest or not, everyone at the table is expected to join hands in prayer before tucking into the pot roast? To my mind, perfectly acceptable. The corporate retreat where everyone is expected to take part in restorative breathing exercises before the budget meeting? Unforgivable. You may have the opposite feeling. Because of these differences in opinion, it is possible to play neutral about feel-good chain e-mails—to claim that whether they are a wholesome stress-reliever or a demanding intrusion is simply a matter of taste. But that is not quite true. I love taste. It is infinitely branching, endlessly interesting, and, all told, one of the most delightful and comic realms of human existence. But the thing about taste is that, although we all absorb some of it from outside influences, it is, by definition, a private matter—which is exactly what it ceases to be the moment you foist it on someone else. That is the problem with the chain e-mail. Other people’s vinyl recliners do not show up in your living room and require you to sit on them.
The defining feature of chain e-mails, in other words, is that, unlike taste, everybody is obliged to share them, in every sense: endorse them, participate in them, send them along to others. For those of us who are disinclined to do so, that makes them—beneath their banal, formulaic, exclamation-mark-heavy prose—precision-engineered traps. It’s not just that they are a pain in the neck. It’s that they are designed to make you seem like a pain in the neck, a feat they achieve by falling somewhat short of being actually horrible: because they are basically well-intentioned and, in the scheme of things, basically inoffensive, it is impossible to criticize them without seeming mean-spirited, especially in these dire times. Which is a problem, because it is precisely in these dire times that the feel-good chain letter, which had its last recrudesce not only before the coronavirus but before SARS and before MERS日本一本一道经典视频 and before a quarter of the world’s current population was even born, has suddenly come back to haunt us.
日本一本一道经典视频When the chain e-mail itself was born is, as I said, a matter of some mystery. To an unimpressed recipient, it may seem like the regrettable offspring of multilevel marketing and the four-page family holiday letter, but in fact its roots are much older than both of those. One person who has tried to unearth those origins is the folklorist Daniel W. VanArsdale, the curator of an archive of more than nine hundred chain letters and author of a digital publication called Chain Letter Evolution. VanArsdale traces the form back more than a thousand years, to early religious texts that include demands for their own reproduction and promises of good fortune or eternal salvation to those who comply. But it took many centuries, plus the rise of printing technologies, widespread literacy, and international mail, for the chain letter to assume its modern form.