Monday, December 14, 2020

Awkward Freedom

How much much does abnormality need to impinge on our existence before normality caves in? This is a very 2020 question.

In his account of a tour of Mexico's border towns a couple of years ago, Paul Theroux repeatedly expresses amazement at their 'civic pride' amidst all the cartel violence. In effect, it appeared that he could not quite cope with the levels of everyday normality he kept encountering.

This weekend I read that 1 in 500 people in New Jersey have died this year from covid-19.

In a town of 500,000 this would equate to something like 1000 deaths over the course of 10 months, actually somewhat more extreme than the prevailing stats for violent fatalities in Mexico's notorious border communities. Has 'normalcy' duly collapsed in New Jersey? I suspect not.

A major part of the 2020 narrative has been so-called complacency — people going out and acting normal when they supposedly shouldn't. From this perspective civic-mindedness involves self-isolation, rather than picnics in the park or museum visits.

Yet when he wrote The Plague in 1947, Albert Camus seemed to grasp something vaguely counter-intuitive: that the more calamitous the circumstances around us, the more we feel the urge to break out and enjoy the moment. 

He seemed to be suggesting that there is a fundamental human instinct at play here that transcends blinkered selfishness. In his novel we come across a 'parade' of young people on the streets attempting to demonstrate a "passion for living that grows in the midst of great misfortunes", a pervasive inclination which deepens as the plague takes an ever more profound hold on the locked-in city of Oran. 

"When they saw that it was serious, they remembered the enjoyment. All the anguish which is painted in the daytime on the faces is then resolved, in the fiery and dusty twilight, in a sort of haggard excitement, an awkward freedom which infects a whole people."
I am reminded too of Antony Beevor's extraordinary account in Downfall  of the grand apocalyptic blowout that took place in Hitler's Berlin bunker as the Soviet's closed in.

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