Summer of discontent

In recent times, as the reality of mortality has impinged ever more forcefully upon my consciousness, I have fallen into a routine of working through the winter and taking extended summer breaks, in an attempt to maximise my remaining time in the sun. This year I had scheduled another long, secluded retreat, but events disrupted my plans somewhat, as I heeded the call to help combat the national emergency.

Obviously, being obliged to work in a well-paid job for a few months instead of taking a holiday doesn’t exactly make me the biggest victim of the coronavirus pandemic, and, truth be told, I could probably have weaselled out of it, since what I ended up doing was mostly routine. I did cover for people who were off doing more important things I guess, which was just about enough to convince me that I had fulfilled my civic duty, and to confirm my rather narcissistic belief that I am a vital cog in the health service machine.

Whatever, the government has decided, almost certainly prematurely, that we are over the worst of this, and that everyone should get back to work already, so I’m set to slot back into my usual winter post at the end of next month.

I do have some belated time off before then, and I had considered going away somewhere, but the options are limited, the weather is getting colder, and, in any case, I’m not sure that I’m in the right frame of mind for relaxation. There’s a low-level haze of unfocused anxiety floating around on the edge of my awareness, which might just be due to me not having had a break for a while, though I think it’s more likely to be my brain’s fairly reasonable response to the objectively terrible situation we find ourselves in.

What’s most unsettling of course is much of it is beyond my control. The thing over which I have most influence – my personal risk of contracting coronavirus – is the thing I’m least worried about. I should be able to do something to ameliorate the effect of the epidemic on my immediate community, since I’m not completely out of touch with the local activist scene, and perhaps my professional skills, such as they are, will come in useful if and when the second wave of infection hits. But when it comes to the big bugbears lurking in the background – Brexit and the US elections – my only recourse is writing about them in this blog, which seems unlikely to make a significant difference.

Still, even useless activity feels better than doing nothing, so look out for some posts excoriating Johnson and Trump, as I attempt to exorcise my feelings of impotence by superstitiously scribbling.

Alternatively, I could make like a Polish pachyderm, and up my weed intake. It would probably take elephant-sized doses to calm me down though…

176400

Today is another one of those dates that seem like they must have some sort of significance, and certainly the proliferation of marijuana-themed ads across the internet today is a sign of something, though I expect it has more to do with the increasing commercialisation of weed than anything more deep and meaningful.

A few of my friends, who have unexpectedly found themselves with time on their hands this month, are planning to celebrate the double 4/20 in an appropriate fashion, but it’s a long time since getting high on a Monday night was something that I could seriously contemplate, even if we weren’t in the middle of an international health emergency.

Perhaps in a month or two, as the population grows increasingly unmellow about being cooped up indoors indefinitely, the government will develop a more liberal attitude towards the social benefits of dope. Sitting on the couch all day watching TV is exactly what people need to be doing for the foreseeable future, so the case for legalisation on public health grounds will be unanswerable. It won’t do much good for those of us who are having to work through all this, but I guess we will be able to enjoy it after we retire.

Thoughts on La Peste in the time of Covid-19

Mentioning The Plague last week inspired me (like everyone else on the planet apparently) to re-read my old copy of Albert Camus’ classic novel.

[Some spoilers ahead – if you haven’t read The Plague already I’d highly recommend it.]

I first read La Peste when I was at university, more than 30 years ago. Although chronologically the mid-1980s are slightly closer to the present day than to the late 40s, when the book was first published, culturally my student days firmly belonged to that period after the Second World War when the conflict was still a living memory. It was thus natural that I read the work as allegorical, specifically relating to the German occupation of France, which Camus had lived through, and which he played a central part in resisting. This was certainly how it was received when it came out, though the novel’s nuanced depiction of what had become a French national myth was not universally popular, and Camus was criticised by contemporaries, including Satre and de Beauvoir, for representing the conscious evil of Nazism as an apolitical pestilence.

The last month or so has, unsurprisingly, seen a flurry of articles attempting to relate The Plague to our current circumstances. Interestingly, the authors of most of these pieces seem to have taken the novel more or less at face value, as a story of men struggling to persevere in the face of an overwhelming epidemic, and have dismissed or overlooked the connection with the Occupation. I guess that is understandable, given our present concerns, though I think that it does reflect an underlying current evident in modern-day discourse; a tendency towards ahistorical analysis that is so focused on what we are personally experiencing right now that it cannot appreciate that the past isn’t always best understood when viewed through the prism of our latest preoccupations.

Having revisited the beleaguered town of Oran, so vividly depicted in The Plague, I can see how the book can be appreciated as a straightforward narrative, as, at that level, it is a gripping story. Camus masterfully builds a sense of dread as the unseen enemy relentlessly advances. The main characters may inhabit allegorical roles, but this does not obscure their individual humanity. Key scenes, such as the death of M. Othon’s son, or Grand’s grief outside the toy shop, are powerfully moving. The resolution is somewhat downbeat, but satisfying in its ambiguity. (I would like to have seen Dr Rieux reunited with his wife; this perhaps betrays my over-sentimental nature). There are some shortcomings; the complete lack of non-white characters in a story set in North Africa for example, or the way that the female characters are mostly ciphers who exist only to illuminate the male characters’ internal motivations. Overall though, after reading the novel one can appreciate why Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.

Despite the seeming relevance to our present difficulties, I would still say that The Plague is essentially about France’s reckoning with the legacy of the Occupation, though Camus clearly broadens that out to encompass a theme familiar from his other work; the necessity of struggling against the absurdity of existence. The pestilence is life itself, with all its arbitrary cruelties, and the protagonists grapple with the question of how to live and act ethically, when everything is ultimately meaningless. Some, like Paneloux, look to God to guide them, though they are forced to acknowledge that His intentions are incomprehensible. (Secular orthodoxies, as Tarrou points out, are little more helpful). Tarrou and Rieux find purpose in doing what needs to be done to relieve suffering; the former is somewhat demoralised by the scale of the challenge, while the latter is sustained by focusing on the immediate tasks, and by his belief that humans are mostly decent (as exemplified by Grand, who, despite his own problems, makes his contribution uncomplainingly). Rambert (the character with whom I can most identify) is initially angry to find himself cast into the situation by misfortune, and makes plans to escape, but cannot bring himself to abandon his fellow citizens, and joins in the fight. (Rambert, unlike Rieux, is at least rewarded by seeing his wife again). Even Cottard, who accommodates to the new situation, and profits from it, is portrayed sympathetically, as motivated by fear and weakness rather than malice.

I’m not sure that the current crisis, significant though it is, has quite reached the level of seriousness of a world war, where individuals are forced to confront such pressing existential dilemmas. Certainly I have not felt moved to closely examine my ethical outlook, though perhaps that is because my response to events has been largely dictated by my professional circumstances, and I have not, as yet, been obliged to make any choices that are more difficult than usual. I hope that, if it comes to it, I will act as admirably as Dr Rieux, though I suspect than I will lean more heavily on ideology than Camus would have approved of.

In Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins, Henri, the character based on Camus, recalls the intensity of wartime, when he “was busy writing his editorials, a revolver in his desk drawer.” I don’t know if I want to go through that much excitement (and it would obviously be better for all concerned if the situation was resolved without too much more social disruption), but perhaps this dislocation will do me some good in the long run, even if it is only to force me to make my own peace with the Absurd.

Isolated musings

One might think that our current circumstances, while clearly troubling, would at least provide some encouragement to bloggers, especially those inclined towards philosophical speculation, as the enforced idleness allows plenty of time for writing, and the situation naturally inspires commentary on all sorts of deep topics, like the nature of society, the limits of scientific knowledge, or the ultimate meaning (or meaninglessness) of life.

And, who knows, perhaps some bloggers are seizing this opportunity to compose memorable posts, but, as readers may have noticed, I am not among that number. I’m actually a good bit busier than usual, as the health service gears up to meet the challenge of the anticipated wave of infection. I’ve been redeployed into the sort of forward position that I haven’t occupied for a couple of decades, so I’ve spent the last week or so furiously refreshing my basic skills, which has at least kept my mind engaged. I’m glad to have the routine of work, which gives me an excuse to get out of the house, keeping me anchored to some sort of normality, though it also allows me access to information indicating that we are not quite as prepared for the coming storm as the the government would like the population to believe, which makes me think the immediate future may get quite rough.

So, it might be difficult to find time to post much over the next few weeks, but I guess I should try to make the effort, because these are the kind of times that’ll I’ll look back on in the future, and be glad that I recorded my contemporaneous impressions. Perhaps, if I live through this, I may even produce my own version of La Peste.

Viral concerns

Despite the occasionally gloomy tone of this blog, I am by nature a basically optimistic person, aided, no doubt, by the fact that, as a older, white, male, I can be reasonably confident that society is arranged to minimise the chances of anything really bad happening to me.

I am thus unsure that I am treating the looming Coronavirus pandemic with the requisite degree of seriousness. I live in an advanced, industrialised country, with a freely-available, high-quality health service; everyone I know who works in public heath is pretty sharp, and well able to handle this sort of situation. The city where I dwell, while not completely off the beaten track, isn’t particularly cosmopolitan, and is geographically situated in such a way that it would be fairly easy to control people coming in and out. Personally, I’m in good shape physically, and not in the age range that seems to be most at risk of serious complications. All things considered, I probably shouldn’t be panicking, despite all the alarming stories on the news, with scenes of hazmat-suited personnel quarantining entire neighbourhoods, and the ever-lengthening list of countries where cases are cropping up.

And indeed I am not too worried; my biggest concern at the moment is whether my spring holiday travel plans will be disrupted. I guess that this complacency may come back to bite me, but one can’t live life fretting about things that one can’t control. If people start dropping dead in the street then I might consider wearing a face mask and using hand sanitiser, but until then I’ll keep calm and carry on.

02022020

Today, the 2nd of February 2020, or 02/02/2020, is a palindromic day. The previous one of these was 20/02/2002, but that didn’t work in the US, where they inexplicably put the month first when writing the date, nor in China, where, more logically, they use the yyyy/mm/dd format. The last global palindromic day was way back on 11/11/1111, though I guess no one in North America or the Far East would have been interested in the Julian calendar in those days. The next one is due in 2121, on the 12th of December.

I’m fond of things like this, that seem as if they must have some deep cosmic meaning, even though the scientific part of my mind knows that it’s all quite arbitrary. I’m self-aware enough to recognise that it’s an attempt to ward off existential despair by imposing narrative order on a chaotic universe, but even an absurd hero has to embrace irrationality sometimes, so I’ll allow myself this little foible.

Last exit to Blighty

So, today was my final day as a citizen of the European Union. On a practical level, this is a bit of a non-event for me; the UK’s departure will not have any huge consequences in the short term, since there is now a one-year transition period where everything stays much the same, and even in the longer term I’m not likely to personally suffer any significant detriment, because I’m an old, middle-class, white male, and we generally do OK, whatever the circumstances.

Still, I’m feeling rather bereft. The EU, for all its many faults, represents an optimistic vision of an internationalist future, born from the ashes of a terrible war. That we are now retreating behind a national frontier, trying to regain a mythical past, seems like an ominous development.

Then again, it probably won’t work out as badly as I fear. The social gains of the last seven decades are not just going to disappear, however much the right try to turn the clock back, and in years to come we might look back on this episode as a minor bump in the highway of human progress, the last stand of reaction against the tide of history.

Anyway, whatever it says on my passport, nothing can change how I define myself; I’m a proud member of the worldwide proletariat, and I will be until I die.

2020 vision

[I guess it bodes ill for my serious writing career that I have been unable to resist such a painfully obvious title for today’s post, but I was up late last night, so I think I can be excused.]

What lies ahead for SLS as we enter the new decade? I expect that we will feel compelled to continue commenting on the unfolding political situation, on both sides of the Atlantic. My prediction is that the Brexit question will actually calm down a bit now that Boris Johnson has a solid majority and, no longer beholden to the ultras in his own party, is able to negotiate a sensible trade deal with the EU. Things are likely to get more lively in the US though, since the long-awaited impeachment process has significantly raised the already-high stakes in the 2020 presidential election. Donald Trump will be going to jail if he loses, giving him the motivation to abandon the scant regard he has for constitutional niceties, assuming he allows the election to go ahead at all.

Away from politics, I would like to start posting longer, more considered, pieces on broader cultural topics, perhaps once a month or so, but that’s an ambition I’ve had for several years now and it’s never happened yet, so we’ll see.

And Second Life? I did renew my annual subscription back in October, which cost about $90, even though the only way I have of accessing the grid these days is via an old copy of the now-defunct Lumiya app on an elderly tablet, which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t produce a particularly satisfactory graphical experience. Theoretically that shouldn’t matter too much if I just wanted to interact with people, but the perennial SL underpopulation means that one has to wander around for ages before bumping into anyone, and it’s difficult to stay interested without something pretty to look at. I should try to get back into virtual living again, because I’m sure SL will just disappear one day, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone. It might be quite interesting to compare my thoughts about it now with my first impressions from back in 2007.

So, politics, culture, Second Life, that should keep me busy for the next twelve months. I may even find time to cover our other main neglected category, psychology. I could do something tomorrow on avoiding procrastination….

Out of the wild

Every summer for the past decade or so I’ve thought to myself that it would be good for my long-term sanity to get away from civilisation for a few weeks, and just mellow right back. Unfortunately I’ve always had too many pressing responsibilities to make this a reality; until this year, when, through a fortunate confluence of circumstances, I managed to drop out of society for the best part of two months.

I didn’t go to live in on old bus on the tundra, Christopher McCandless-style, but I did rent a fairly remote cabin, which, while not entirely off the grid, was isolated enough that I could go days without seeing another human. I couldn’t quite bring myself to completely ignore the news, but I did eschew the internet, instead perusing the newspaper once or twice a week when I ventured into the nearest village for supplies. I read a bit, listened to some music, took some long walks, and scribbled a few observations in a notebook, but most of my time was spent just sitting in the woods, tuned into nature and letting my thoughts wander. (There were some mind-altering substances involved, but not to the extent that one might expect).

So what did I learn during this sojourn in my head? That the world actually moves quite slowly, and I don’t need to update myself every five minutes. That I’m comfortable, perhaps a little too comfortable, with just myself for company. That I’ve reached a point in my life where I enjoy remembering the past more than planning the future. That I haven’t lost the ability to spend hours just watching clouds, and sunlight on grass, and leaves moving in the breeze, like I used to do when I was a kid.

I’m certainly tempted to make this a permanent arrangement. I could just about afford to, financially, and untangling my various relationships, while a little more tricky, wouldn’t be impossible. Just thinking about it makes it seem more attractive.

The current state of the world seems like another good reason to check out, but it’s also the thing that gives me pause. It’s clear that there are going to be some battles to be fought, and it would feel self-indulgent to absent myself from the field just when things are hotting up. Not that I think that any contribution that I might make will be decisive; more that, for my own self-respect, I need to be around to be counted.

So it looks like I’ll have to reluctantly re-engage with society. I’m going to give myself one more night before I face it though…

Don’t worry, be happy

Today is International Day of Happiness, so I’ve been trying to think positive thoughts all day, and mostly succeeding. In times of national crisis like this there is definitely something to be said for forgetting about the big picture and just living in the moment. Despite all my angst over the political situation, my life is mostly very agreeable, and will probably continue to be so in all the ways that really matter, whatever happens. I’ll try to hold on to that thought over the next week…