coromandal


difficulty in dying
May 8, 2020, 8:14 pm
Filed under: chronotopes | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Looking back at 'La Peste' by Albert Camus - The Hindu

How very lonely dying must be. How much more lonely today as we isolate to keep the virus from spreading.

In normal circumstances, confined to bed whether at home or in hospital, with media – a book and a TV perhaps – the nurse, the occasional visitor for company, but mostly we’re left with our memories of people we miss and of friendships. Our thoughts form around muffled sounds of talking in the hall, pets in the courtyard, household work, local construction. The curtain, window and door are important thresholds that let in the outside to enliven our minds. The images are pleasurable as each reminds and promises us of our deep connection to the world.

In the time of cholera and covid, the isolation is even worse without visitors, and wary nurses suited in layers of protective equipment, gloves and masks.

Our towns play roles in our relative isolation when sick. At the start of his novel La Peste, excerpted below, Albert Camus’ narrator tells us – before the rats start to die, before the concierge catches the deadly plague – how lonely death can be, and how the conditions of death can vary widely depending on the conditions of the place you inhabit. The town he describes, Oran in North Africa, is a scrappy place, uninspiring, with hardscrabble business affairs, hot and dry with climate extremes and dark nights. All are features that conspire to attenuate the discomfort of an invalid – he hears the despair of the city and and is unsettled.

There is a hint in the passage that an environment can help us to die better. A place that is “inspiring” and affords “small attentions,” and “something to rely on,” render comfort to the sick. These aren’t physical attributes, they’re intangibles. A pandemic by definition circles the globe and the conditions for the sick vary widely from luxurious to squalor. But thankfully, inspiration, support and attention are intangibles that can be built into any place on the planet. This is how we support the sick and dying in the time of covid.

What is more exceptional in our town is the difficulty one may experience there in dying. “Difficulty,” perhaps, is not the right word, ‘discomfort” would come nearer. Being ill’s never agreeable but there are towns that stand by you, so to speak, when you are sick; in which you can, after a fashion, let yourself go. An invalid needs small attentions, he likes to have something to rely on, and that’s natural enough. But at Oran the violent extremes of temperature, the exigencies of business, the uninspiring surroundings, the sudden nightfalls, and the very nature of its pleasures call for good health. An invalid feels out of it there. Think what it must be for a dying man, trapped behind hundreds of walls all sizzling with heat, while the whole population, sitting in cafes or hanging on the telephone, is discussing shipments, bills of lading, discounts! It will then be obvious what discomfort attends death, even modern death, when it waylays you under such conditions in a dry place.

La Peste, Albert Camus



death in your mouth

Material life or … spirituality or … death in your mouth.

Simon Critchley describes how materialism and spirituality are the diametric options for living that we tend to follow en masse in this life, and how they enslave us.  Both are escapist strategies:  materialism is the handmaid of forgetfulness; spirituality of assurance of endless life.

But to learn to know death realigns our lives to our own mortality and frees us.

There are two very aggressive contentions in this idea: that to ‘know’ death will have a freeing effect; and that to deny death is hate yourself.  Does it follow that to be materialist or spiritual, are forms of self hatred?

Here is Critchley’s description from the introduction to The Book of Dead Philosophers:

We are led on the one hand, to deny the fact of death and to run headlong into the watery pleasures of forgetfulness, intoxication and the mindless accumulation of money and possessions.  On the other hand, the terror of annihilation leads us blindly into a belief in the magical forms of salvation and promises of immortality offered by certain varieties of traditional religion and many New Age (and some rather older age) sophistries.  What we seem  to seek is either the transitory consolation of momentary oblivion or miraculous redemption in the afterlife.

It is in stark contrast to our drunken desire for evasion and escape that the ideal of the philosophical death has such sobering power.

[…]

To philosophize, then, is to learn to have death in your mouth, in the words you speak, the food you eat and the drink that you imbibe. It is in this way that we might begin to confront the terror of annihilation, for it is, finally, the fear of death that enslaves us and leads us towards either temporary oblivion or the longing for immortality. As Montaigne writes, “He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” This is an astonishing conclusion: the premeditation of death is nothing less than the forethinking of freedom. Seeking to escape death, then, is to remain unfree and run away from ourselves. The denial of death is self-hatred. …

The Book of Dead Philosophers, Simon Critchley



to unprotect ourselves for the sake of bigness and of love

Summoning up a whirlwind of illogic, Margaret Thatcher once said, “And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”  That was the beginning of the end of the idea of society in contemporary western life.  This new idea has run its course for the better part of two generations.  It has had enormous impact on our lives and our politics.  There are evidences of it in everything from personal attitudes to public policies.

I can think of numerous examples of how the idea that society, or a commitment to the public good, is essential to having a good life has ebbed away.  On a personal level, the incidence of competition and lack of empathy among friends and colleagues is higher and harsher than it used to – and needs to – be.  Professional jealousy and character assassination at work particularly, as people angle to get ahead, are commonly accepted, where I don’t think they used to be as much.   Continue reading



into the arms of the priests
September 3, 2009, 12:33 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , , ,

Here is a bit of dialogue from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal in which Jons, the Knight’s squire asks a fresco painter in a church about his painting of death and the plague.

The Seventh Seal is about a Knight who is returning to his castle after spending time fighting in the Crusades.  He is devout, preoccupied, a believer.  His squire Jons is a much better source if you like your information straight up, as we see in this scene.

The Painter knows who butters his bread and is the conduit for a culture of fear used by a priesthood to control their people.  Of course, he won’t admit it, but the insightful Squire has no problem labeling the art as propaganda.

JONS:  What is this supposed to represent?

PAINTER:  The Dance of Death.

JONS:  And that one is Death?

PAINTER:  Yes, he dances off with all of them.

JONS:  Why do you paint such nonsense?

PAINTER:  I thought it would serve to remind people that they must die.

JONS:  Well, it’s not going to make them feel any happier.

PAINTER:  Why should one always make people happy?  It might not be a bad idea to scare them a little once in a while.

JONS:  Then they’ll close their eyes and refuse to look at your painting.

PAINTER:  Oh, they’ll look.  A skull is almost more interesting than a naked woman.

JONS:  If you do scare them …

PAINTER:  They’ll think.

JONS:  And if they think …

PAINTER:  They’ll become still more scared.

JONS:  And then they’ll run right into the arms of the priests.

PAINTER:  That’s not my business.



we bore him away
May 12, 2008, 7:32 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , , ,

“Blithe was the morning of his burial, with bird and song and sweet-smelling flowers. The trees whispered to the grass, but the children sat with hushed faces. And yet it seemed a ghostly unreal day,—the wraith of Life. We seemed to rumble down an unknown street behind a little white bundle of posies, with the shadow of a song in our ears. The busy city dinned about us; they did not say much, those pale-faced hurrying men and women; they did not say much,—they only glanced and said, “Niggers!”

We could not lay him in the ground there in Georgia, for the earth there is strangely red; so we bore him away to the northward, with his flowers and his little folded hands. In vain, in vain!—for where, O God! beneath thy broad blue sky shall my dark baby rest in peace,—where Reverence dwells, and Goodness, and a Freedom that is free?”

~from W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903) in which he describes the Atlanta funeral procession of his infant son