difficulty in dying
May 8, 2020, 8:14 pm
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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

an element of our world of great importance has been lost

The philosopher Thomas Dumm wrote a book called Loneliness As a Way of Life.  Dumm says we are lonely when we feel we have lost a part of the world that is very important.  In an interview, Dumm describes loneliness as:

“being present in the place of our absence.”


“the experience of the pathos of disappearance.” By that I mean to suggest that we feel, when we are lonely, as though an element of our world has become lost to us, has disappeared, and that this element is of great importance to us.

We generally see loneliness as a personal and private matter.  Not so this philosopher, nor his source philosophers.  On a terrifying, global political level, Hannah Arendt links loneliness with totalitarianism and nationalism:

It was Hannah Arendt who claimed that totalitarianism emerges from a deep and politically encouraged form of loneliness. Ideology and terror, Arendt argued, are twin techniques of political domination over a polity that is prepared by a deep loneliness to turn away from engagement in order to find some sort of relief from their own isolated selves. Rather than face their loneliness and try to overcome their ghostly existence, they join in a collective enterprise against something else, all in the name of love of country.

Dumm claims America is an example of this kind of totalitarian state.   Continue reading