I don’t think any of you reading this article would have imagined yourselves isolating in your homes, eyes glued to the news, eating your weight in tea-soaked digestives. Yet, here we are. These are incredibly strange, frightening but also fascinating times we’re living in. It’s important to keep the mind active, and attempt to process some of this Covid-19 disorder and adapt to our new albeit temporary lives as cave-dwellers. For me, philosophy provides this avenue for meaning, hope or perseverance when they’re in short supply for many of us today. We’ve got to ask: what can we take from literature and philosophy? How do we cope with isolation? The Tribune, from our underground apocalypse shelter, will shine a ray of UCD light in these increasingly dark times, and get you thinking.
Recently I’ve dusted off the book ‘The Plague,’ by the French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus as it deals with much of the same issues we’re encountering in our day-to-day lives and on the nightly news. The novel tells the story of the Algerian town of Oran as it suffers in the grips of a rat-borne Black Death style plague, that forces its populace into quarantine or to aid in the fight against the spread of the gruesome disease. Many of the citizens of Oran are capitalistic and commercially minded folk much like nowadays, that are bombarded with explanations and sources of meaning from the likes of newspapers touting miracle cures and local religious figures claiming it’s an act of divine biblical retribution. The narrative features a number of characters, like Rieux a doctor on the front lines of combating the plague, Cottard an ex-criminal who makes money smuggling goods into the quarantined city and Tarrou a moralising and contemplative figure who inquires into the meaning of all this suffering. These characters act as a slice of modern capitalist society, all of which are complex and have their own set of reasons and moral codes. Some decide to work empirically and scientifically against the amoral spread of the disease, while others use it as a chance to satisfy their greed and many will simply be confused and retreat into themselves for comfort. Yet, no matter where you are in the world we all share that collective surprise and shock at something that suddenly frustrates and disrupts our often overly narcissistic worldview. Like in the novel, when Rieux suddenly discovers the carcass of a dead rat at the foot of some stairs, disrupting the flow of his daily existence. It shows how meaning can be stripped away incredibly quickly, and without consulting you.
After a considerable amount of time in isolation, Oran’s citizens begin to focus less on the personal woes of their own suffering and the inconveniences of quarantine, and want to help in fighting the disease. They come to recognize the plague as a crisis that affects everyone collectively, and that they must act collectively to bring it to an end. They confront their social responsibility and attain a new found vigilance and join the anti-plague efforts. This is what the world’s population immersed in the mindset of capital and the market will have to realise and confront. That only through the collective and global efforts of humanity can we recover from this crisis, let’s just hope it won’t be too little too late. Camus’ work shows that something as serious as a virus cannot be seen as merely a minor annoyance to be overlooked. We’ve only to look at the sheer amount of people disregarding social-distancing and flocking to parks or beaches in the good weather. This crisis is not about how you will fare if you fall ill, but about those around you who will have a far more serious experience of it.
However a couple of things are important to remember going forward, this virus is allowing us to reflect on the economic and social conditions of the less-privileged, the way politicians and corporations can benefit even in times of suffering (we only have to look at the amount of pubs in Dublin that fired all of their staff with one day notice or stayed open against HSE mandates) and how many elements of our daily lives have and will undergo change. We must be ready and develop a globalised worldview, alternatives that reach all the way to the fundamental things we take for granted can and must be toiled over and theorised into the future.
Keep this in mind, even though it may sound cliche, take one day at a time. Structure can be incredibly helpful, while also balancing it with something impromptu. You don’t need to be constantly “efficient” and “productive” to have a worthwhile day. Appreciate time with your family, if you’re lucky enough to have a good home environment as some people definitely don’t. Speak to your friends often but make sure to fit in time for yourself. I’ve found creative work like drawing or writing while listening to new music as a much needed respite. Maybe try something new. If you’re working on assignments, many publications have been granting free access to their stores of articles and ebooks for the next few months, and don’t be afraid to ask for an extension. Limit your access to the news and social media, but never let yourself become ignorant or blunt your own critical capacity. Now is not the time for unmitigated panic, but for reflection and action. Finally, if you’re feeling slightly abandoned by the world around you right now, turn to the books for inspiration in these trying times and know that we’re all in the same boat of quarantined solace, which in a sense is a sort of distant but connected community.
Aaron Collier – Philosophy Columnist