-“Doctor…my mother got infected in her New Jersey nursing home— she died alone.”
The patient (whom we will not identify even with a fantasy name) mentioned this terrible piece of news “a la pasada” [i], without even a hint of emotional angst. We do not doubt that, whatever the circumstances of their bonding, she might have been saddened by the loss, compounded by the cruel isolation of the pandemic. However, her tone of voice clearly expressed the exhaustion we suffer with the interminable list of new infections and deaths in the USA, the hardest hit country due to Public Health mistakes.
We must confess that we personally do not watch or read the about the latest developments all day long, every day. In the morning we dutifully peruse the online editions of The Washington Post and The New York Times while we are having some breakfast. When we are working in our office we might alternatively tune in to radio programs from France, Italy, Spain, Argentina, and Uruguay. Finally in the evening we watch the news in CNN, RAI, France 2 and Telefe for two hours. Really? That much?However, in the late evenings we prefer to enjoy a Netflix series or a movie. On Sundays we read the papers in the morning and then binge-watch all kind of sports.
Even tough we are well informed about the daily tally of victims in many parts of the planet, we noticed that we are becoming a little bit more numbed every day to the sheer magnitude of the terrible sanitary and economic tragedy we are bearing. Recently we were shocked when we learned that a parking attendant in the Miami facility (where we do consulting work) had contracted the disease and passed away a few days later. However, we are trying hard not to be overwhelmed by the daily stories of suffering. Sadly, it might be the only way to control our anxiety and remain operational for the daily tasks we are supposed to carry on with integrity, endurance, and expertise. Given that this pandemic will last many more months, how will we end up emotionally?
There are a few critically important books that you read early on and then for some catastrophic circumstances like this pandemic, you feel obligated to go back to. The short novel L’étranger [ii]created by Albert Camus early on his career is one of them. We first read it in one of our clandestine raids of our dear father Mario’s library and we absolutely did not like it due to its unabashed nihilism throughout its pages. We forgot about it until two years ago our son Giani gave us another copy as a gift. We looked at it with curiosity but put it in a bookshelf without much afterthought.
During the forced Social Isolation we have endured, we snooped at many books we have largely ignored, for various reasons; it did not take long to catch our attention. There was and still is a good reason: its brutal nihilism is in sync with our mood. The central character, succinctly named as Meursault, is a lower level functionary in the French bureaucracy of colonized Algeria that commits an irrational crime in an ordinary day and is tried for it. The narration is anchored by three major instances of indifference:
- Indifference No.1: the death of his mother. The book start with this line: “Today, mother died. Or yesterday, I can’t remember.” [iii] The initial 30 pages are filled with he mechanically detached account of his “participation” in his mother’s funeral, without ever expressing a hint of sadness or desperation.
- Indifference No.2: the killing of the Arab. During a Sunday outing to the beach with friends, Meursault provokes a fight with an innocent and murders him. The exact moment of the crime is described as: “all my being tightened up and I wrapped my hand around the revolver. The trigger ceded…” [iv]
- Indifference No.3: the end of his life. After the initial deception of being condemned to death, instead of being acquitted with a short prison sentence, Meursault accepts his end with resignation. The book ends like this: “In order for everything to be consumed, in order for me to feel less lonely, the only thing I had left was to hope that there would be a lot of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet with shouts of hate.” [v]
Meursault is marked by a triple indifference that conveys the idea that there is no sense in human existence and that we should not waste any time trying to find it. He incarnates the philosophical movement of Existentialism that was totally seducing the European intelligentsia when the book was first published in 1942. Dismissing the great humanistic heritage of the Old Continent and the religious experiences of many faiths, that intellectual mode infected and paralyzed many learned spirits. Why bother to study, work, make families, etc., if everything is finally senseless? Better do nothing and rest.
There are two major ways in which the same Albert Camus renege from that failing philosophical stand. First of all, his prose—initially considered too simple and worthy of a simpleton by the French intellectual mandarins of that time—shows a richness of details that turn it into a truly sensorial tour de force. In the program L’heure Bleu [vi] of Radio France Inter for four consecutive days they presented a recording of the very same Camus reading chapters of this book. His clear voice, his rhythmic progression of the story and his unrelenting enthusiasm showed that he was satisfied with his writings, for which he had certainly invested a lot of time and efforts. Nothing is casual there.
Camus died prematurely after a fatal car accident that fortunately spared his kids. He showed until the very end of his life an uncompromising intellectual stand and participated in progressive causes, surely minding the future of his children. He nonetheless believed that Algeria, his country of birth, could remain as a French colony, albeit with many civic and economic improvements for natives. Until today. Algerians have a difficult, ambivalent attitude towards his figure and influence in their society.
After reading several books that he wrote later, we believe that Camus outgrew that initial phase of Existentialism and he came to appreciate Life’s value. Similarly we must understand that one day this horrible pandemic will cease, and we will be able to resume our lives, albeit in a rather modified and weird way. The fact that Death is so omnipresent in our daily lives does not mean that we have to give up living and working towards the future of our children; on the contrary we must strive more forcefully to create a much better society for them. Thank you Giani for giving us this opportunity.
Featured image is a famous scene form Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Death and Antonius Block chose sides for a game of chess.
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23256490
Stay distant. Stay safe. Stay beautiful
What do you think? Please tell us.
Don’t leave me alone.
[i] Expression in the Castilian language that would mean: “something done as if you were passing by it and peeking from the side of your eye.” It gives an idea of emotional detachment, of hurriedness, of not really caring about it.
[ii] Albert Camus, L’étranger, Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1942.
[iii] Ibidem as above. Page 9. Our translation.
[iv] Ibidem as above. Page 93. Our translation.
[v] Ibidem as above. Page 93. Our translation.