“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I can’t be sure.”
These are the opening lines of Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger. If these words seem gruesome, it’s because the reader has an expectation that a ‘normal’ person simply must know when his or her mother died.
But does it really make any difference if my mother died today or yesterday?
The Stranger, like so many other books and songs, reminds me of living with the dominant presence of the Coronavirus. The days become indistinguishable. The virus—or death even—has become an intimate part of all aspects of my life.
Camus’s story about Meursault, whose mother is dead, might be regarded as absurd. Instead of grieving at his mother’s funeral, Meursault falls in love with a girl. Afterward they go to the beach, where they bathe and make love. The girl wants to marry Meursault, and he tells her that it is of no consequence, but if she really wants to, he will go along with it.
Today or yesterday, marriage or no marriage: Nothing really matters to Meursault. As if nothing is important. And that is exactly the point: Nothing—or death, to emphasize my point—is important.
Since mid-march, I’ve been imprisoned—together with my wife and our three children—in our apartment in Barcelona, Spain. As a family, we do many things. Many more or less normal things, like cooking, eating, playing, working, homeschooling, reading, training, and watching a film together daily.
Listing all these things, I can’t help realizing that I actually do nothing when it comes to fighting the pandemic. Of course, I’ve—we all have—been told that we do good by staying home.
Still, I wonder: How can doing good feel like doing nothing?
When I do nothing, I do so to the level that any Buddhistic monk would envy my capacity for non-doing. Non-doing resembles what we refer to when we say that something has presence. Life has presence. The Latin word prae-esseliterally means “to be in front of.” After 41 days (and counting) of imprisonment, I feel like standing more directly in front of life. It’s within reach; I can touch it, smell it—and, at the same time, I am also just being a witness to a crucial part of life, to the doctors, nurses, garbage collectors, and supermarket employees who are doing what the government calls essential work.
So, I wonder some more, whether all this doing nothing is absurd? After all, being a writer is not on the list of essential jobs.
When you write, it’s impossible to distinguish the story from how it is being told, its style, and general mood. The stories being written now will have another rhythm. Perhaps a kind of non-rhythm. For example, while doing nothing, it doesn’t matter what day it is. Presence doesn’t exclude time, but it binds time to a now and here. This is a liberating experience. Most of us are much more here: present.
Maybe that is why I never really did find Meursault’s behavior in The Stranger absurd; rather, it confirmed his capacity of being present with something much more important: death.
The coronavirus is raising many questions, but one seems to be of great importance: How do we accommodate death? How do we live with the daily presence of death?
The French essayist Michel de Montaigne said that to philosophize is to learn to die. The idea came from Plato, who saw his mentor Socrates condemned to death because he encouraged young people to think. Socrates could have avoided the punishment, but he chose to drink the poisonous potion of hemlock.
One way of learning to die is to acknowledge the questions that the end of life confront us with. How can we minimize the estrangement that can arise in our meeting with death? Why does death make so many feel uncomfortable?
I assume that the answer is not only—as typically proposed—related to the fact that death makes us reflect on whether we manage, or managed, to live sufficiently, whether we were attentive and full of appreciation and gratitude. Death is not what makes life meaningful per se. Quite the contrary, life is what makes life meaningful and worth living. I see the daily presence of death as a test of how well I live with nothing, for example, doing nothing, not being capable of doing anything, or more, accepting my mental or spiritual limitations.
Doing nothing is for many people—in our current coronavirus—the same as doing good. But is it good in the sense that we come closer to dying without being dead? Perhaps it’s similar to Gandhi’s non-violence philosophy, which was not a resignation, not even the kind of refusal that is found in Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and his “I would prefer not to”; rather it was doing non-violence. Nothing can, therefore, be done.
So, doing nothing should not make people feel inferior or impotent. I don’t. Rather I am grateful to be witness to so many courageous women and men making things work.
Many years ago, I accepted that I have a need to invent or create ideas, thoughts, or worlds of fiction. I don’t think that words can stop a virus, but perhaps they can heal wounds caused by the virus. Literature and art can challenge, shock, and expand our field of experience. It is difficult to share sorrow without the aid of art. What binds people together in Europe, where I am placed, is not the European Union; political solidarity is almost absent in the region. The borders are closed. Each nation is responsible for their own actions. What connects people are music and relieving words of compassion. Literature is like a string of sentences tying the past to the present, while throwing a lifebuoy of words into the future.
Death can easily steal time, as people stay in front of their screens slurping the corona news 24/7. It can also make time stand still. During these weeks, most people will experience why the French philosopher Henri Bergson defined time as duration. An hour can feel short or very long, even though 60 minutes is 60 minutes. Bergson can teach us that accepting what is real can be both a positive or negative experience, though it doesn’t change what time really is.
Paying attention to the passing present moment is also a way of qualifying what forms of life we might leave behind when we can leave our apartments. What will I not forget? Which life is really worth living?
During the crisis, we are confronted with the basics: Life is movement. Something in life moves us, makes us feel alive. Is death part of it? Yes. Love is another pole. It takes courage to accept the presence of death—that is, to be willing to risk everything for nothing.
The coronavirus makes me become nothing, not feel like nothing. I am impermanent, constantly changing, becoming someone else. I hope that I might be of a kind of use, when and if I am capable of affirming life when it passes through me. Catching life with a word. Actually, becoming nothing makes me think of the British philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, who once said that “in the moral life the enemy is the fat relentless ego.”
I believe that this corona-experience is good for my moral formation.
The morale might be something like: Doing nothing is good, and when I become nothing, I am good. Why? Becoming nothing makes it easier to resonate with all life’s movements.
First published in The Mindful Word, April 2020