Monday, August 3, 2020

And let’s not forget the Scandinavians: Paulette and the task of post-colonial theory

And let’s not forget the Scandinavians:
Paulette and the task of post-colonial theory[1]

When I was growing up in Lebanon, my father was a reasonably influential military/political figure. ‘Reasonably’ meant he was not influential enough to be elected to parliament and he was not a rich businessman, but he had enough clout and enough following to influence the economic and political fortunes of such people. As such members of parliament and ministers regularly came to our house. They needed my father to secure their power and my father needed them to secure his prestige. That’s how clientelism worked. My mother played an important but very traditional role in this process: her ‘table’ (the food she offered) was famous, and often people we met would directly tell her how much they yearned to be invited to lunch or dinner at her place. While my mother was indeed a mean cook, she nonetheless had a lot of help. My father benefited from what was called a military ‘ordonance’, basically a chauffeur and a gendarme, Hanna, who worked as a full time cook in our house. What’s more, for whatever reason, his wife also worked at our place. Her name was Raf’ah.
Raf’ah was mentioned as often as my mother when it came to cooking because of her kibbeh. She came from a village in northern Lebanon and did her kibbeh the traditional way: she put the meat, the herbs and the crushed wheat in a jeren (a special kibbeh mortar) flipping it with her hand and pounding it rhythmically with a wooden pestle. I loved Raf’ah who, beside cooking, often looked after me and my two sisters. I would often sit next to her when she was making kibbeh, and she always spoiled me by rolling a mouthful of kibbeh with her fingers when it was ready and putting it straight in my mouth. She spoke to me in French: ‘viens, viens ici, yaa habibeh’, ‘you are so handsome. If you were older you could have married my daughter Paulette’. I was six or seven at the time but she often would talk to me about Paulette… ‘Paulette est belle’, ‘Paulette est très jolie’.
It was not until a couple of years after I’ve known Hanna and Raf’ah that I met Paulette. My father was driving to see his brother who was a judge in Tripoli and it was decided we would give Raf’ah a lift to her village on the way there. My father sat in the front next to his military chauffeur and Raf’ah and I sat in the back. The first thing she said to me when we got into the car was, now you will see Paulette. And indeed, when we got to her house, she called for Paulette who dutifully showed up. I was stunned to see her. I was nine or ten and she was in her twenties. I thought she was incredibly beautiful. But she was strangely ‘western’ (today I would have used ‘White’): exceptionally white skin, blond hair and blue eyes. I did not dwell on her whiteness then though it certainly came to my consciousness as a mark of distinction. Two other things stood out from that first encounter. Paulette la très jolie had very sad eyes. And she also spoke French. She gave us a perfect: ‘Bonjour’. I still remember her ‘Bonjour’ and I still remember that even for me, a ten year old or so at the time, there was something not exactly right about how perfect this Bonjour was. French was well understood everywhere in Lebanon, and everyone around me said ‘Bonjour’, but how well one says ‘Bonjour’ (ie, how French you sounded) was a mark of class distinction.
I saw Paulette a few times after that. And every time I saw her I couldn’t take her out of my mind for many days after: her beauty, her whiteness and her sad eyes. When I was twelve or thirteen, my dad had retired, and Hanna and Raf’ah no longer worked for us, I heard my mum say that Paulette was marrying a lawyer from Zgharta, the main Christian town in North Lebanon, situated above Tripoli. The implication was she has married well. I remember my father saying: ‘well, she is beautiful, but this guy must love her since he didn’t care’. I also remember not understanding very well what my father was saying. I thought maybe he was referring to the fact that she was a lower-class girl.
I did not hear about Paulette for another four or five years. I was finishing high school and it was the year before the civil war started. I was home when I heard my Mum speaking on the phone, sounding very distraught, and saying ‘oh no’ ‘oh no’ ‘God give you patience Raf’ah’. When she put the phone down, she had tears in her eyes. I ask what was going on. She tells me: ‘Paulette entaharit’ (Paulette has committed suicide).
I stood there stunned by the news. And further stunned when she said with anger ‘her father that son of a dog (Ibn el Kalb) should have helped’. I had never heard Mum or Dad say anything bad about Hanna. We all loved him and had fond memories of him. And he was always perceived, and spoken about, kindly. So I couldn’t help but get upset and say: ‘Hanna?! Ibn el Kalb?’. Mum looked at me as if I should know something I didn’t: ‘No! Not Hanna! Hanna is not Paulette’s father. Can’t you see that her father is not Lebanese?’ Then she filled me in: her father is a retired French officer who continued to live in Lebanon after the French mandate forces left. Raf’ah says that he raped her, but, Mum added, ‘who knows? he might have seduced her and she might have fallen in love with him’. When Paulette was born she hoped for a while that the officer will marry her. Instead he left to live in Lyons and never came back. But he paid for Paulette’s schooling. Later he flew her to Lyons a couple of times but these ended in disaster according to Raf’ah’. Mum shook her head reflexively. ‘Poor Paulette,’ she said, ‘she was never a happy child. She carried a heavy burden’ ‘her beauty was her curse (haleha mseebeta).
I was totally taken aback. I felt exceptionally naïve for not having thought at any point that Hanna was not Paulette’s father, something that seemed so obvious to me now that it has been brought into the open. At the same time, Paulette’s whiteness, her sad eyes, all the French spoken by Raf’ah and Paulette came back rushing through my head as well as my Dad saying that her husband ‘didn’t care’.
I had forgotten all about Paulette until a day, while researching for my PhD in the mid-1980s I came across a text by Michel Chiha, one of modern Lebanon’s ‘founding fathers’. Chiha, like many Christian Lebanese thinkers at that time engaged in considerable intellectual labour to prove that the Lebanese were ‘white people’ not ‘Arabs’. He clearly perceived the latter as a lesser/backward ‘race’. Here is from the article based on part of my thesis that I published later: 
Like others before him, but more ‘scientifically’, Chiha moves to demonstrate the Lebanese link with the Phoenicians. As importantly, Chiha informs his audience, that the Phoenician alphabet is today used by ‘the quasi-totality of the white race’. ‘To which we belong’ he hastily adds (Chiha, 1984, p. 38). Reviewing the many people that had invaded Lebanon, he takes a special interest in reminding us that of the ‘thousands of Westerners who came from Europe, without forgetting the Scandinavians, many never went back’ (Chiha, 1984, p. 32). He goes through considerable pain to show that after those Westerners many other non-Arab people came and stayed. The ‘racial proof’ that the Lebanese are not Arabs accumulates... To end with, Chiha injects into the Lebanese more of his favourite sperms: ‘And let us remember a fact that we cannot neglect. Only in the last twenty-five years, the mixed marriages between Lebanese and Westerners have produced thousands of children...’ (Chiha, 1984, p. 34).[2]
I thought of Paulette immediately when I read this sentence. It was characteristic of the Christians of Lebanon, and particularly the Maronites, to always want to see Western-Lebanese colonial relations in a good light. Colonialism is often imagined within anti-colonial thought, metaphorically and not so metaphorically, as a process of rape. But too often, with the usage of the imaginary of rape, comes an expectation that the only way of thinking it is outrage. While some colonised people joined the colonisers in imagining, at least at the metaphorical level, that what took place was nothing like rape, others were able to think that being colonially raped included the acquisition of something positive, so one should try and not dwell on the rape itself but on what resulted from it. The Maronites were not alone in thinking this way. But it must be said that they excelled at it. Even when joining the struggle for independence against the French mandate, they managed to do so by saying that it was important for the French to leave in order to maintain the love that the Lebanese felt towards them. 
It came to me that in the very fact of celebrating how ‘très jolie’ Paulette was, people, including Raf’ah, her mum, were not only participating in the process of uncritically valorizing western beauty, they were also willing to turn the blind eye as to how this beauty was acquired. In her hope that he would end up elevating their sexual encounter to an all-encompassing relationship, in calling her daughter ‘Paulette’, in her continual usage of the French language, and the way she celebrated her beauty, in all this Raf’ah was acting in a  quintessentially Maronite way, willing to make the best out of, both her colonial impregnation and its outcome. This is not to diminish the dimension of the process in which she is also a victim of the colonial process. 
Seen through the eyes of Paulette, however, this drama has a very different, and as it turns out, unbearable dimension. As the child of an, actual or metaphorical, colonial rape she was an inheritor of a whiteness that was valorised by all those around her. Paulette was also made to further augment the value of her whiteness through the perfection of the French language, as a sign of paternal identification (or perhaps a hope for paternal identification). As such, and at one level, her colonial/paternal inheritance was a form of cultural capital that she, or her family, were able to deploy, to engage in strategies of upward social mobility. And yet, and here I can only guess, the very value of her inheritance had also an excruciating dimension that was hard for her to live with. The very value of her inheritance was a reminder of the horrendous way she had inherited it.
Paulette’s story offers a further critique of those facile attempts at revalorizing colonial history by producing lists of benefits (such as economic, medical and educational) that have supposedly come from the introduction of capitalist modernity into the colonial realm. It is well established that those attempts happily forget all what colonialism has taken away from the colonies and from the colonised. It is also well established that such attempts uncritically accept the positive nature of the modern colonial inheritance. Paulette’s fate highlights the way, this logic of listing benefits falsely separates what colonialism has bequeathed the colonised from how it has bequeathed it. An anthropology of colonial inheritance as an extension of the anthropology of the gift takes us precisely into the subtle effects of this ‘how’.
More importantly perhaps, the above is an invitation to think the difficulty the colonised have negotiating their colonial inheritance. This is true of even the most anti-colonial among them. Establishing the way colonialism imposes and valorises and makes the colonised inherit certain languages, ways of being and ways of thinking is easier than negotiating a way of living with such an inheritance. This is especially so when the inheritance itself shapes the very tools we have in our possession to negotiate it. Even the most post-colonial of theories, that creatively and powerfully showed the way the colonised can subvert their inheritance in the process of inheriting it, such as Homi Bhaba’s conceptualisation of mimicry, owe more to a colonial inheritance than they sometimes wish to delve into. This has had a lasting effect in the field of post-colonial academic writing.
Faced with the inability to eliminate and transcend such contradictions, certain de-colonial critiques are increasingly taking an absolutist turn. They aim for a ‘decolonisation of everything’ in ways that are motivated by fantasies of cleansing (one’s self, one’s culture and one’s territory from the effects of colonialism). And yet, there is something profoundly colonial and modern in these fantasies of cleansing. Indeed, I would say that the very nature of such absolutist de-colonial critiques, fails even more so than those before them to free themselves from what they are critiquing. To me the story of Paulette takes us in an opposite direction. I think of her tragedy as grounded in the difficulty of the colonised to live their colonial inheritance as both a privilege and a burden at the same time. And when I think of the contribution of thought to a post-colonial future, I think of a theory that can precisely confront the difficult task of finding how to negotiate and best inhabit such an inevitably contradictory reality, rather than fantasise about its elimination.

[1] This text benefited from a number of excellent editorial questions and suggestions by Carol Que.
[2] Ghassan Hage, Maronite White Self-Racialisation as Identity fetishism: Capitalism and the experience of colonial whiteness, in Karim Murji and John Solomos (eds), Racialization: studies in theory and practice, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005

Friday, May 29, 2020

Clarifying to Obscure

One would think it was as clear as… but I just read a person on twitter explaining that the infamous Central Park woman who rang the police falsely claiming that she is being threatened by an African-American person was ‘not racist’. To understand what she did, this person wrote, we need to go into 'the complex history' of the dynamic between dog owners and bird watchers in Central Park.

Most of us who work on racism and colonialism know the implication of the trope of ‘complexity’ when it is deployed in this way and on such occasions. We know that those who appeal to complexity in similar contexts are hardly ever driven by some kind of ‘empiricist desire’. Even when the complexity referred to is indeed there to see. For instance, It is pretty certain that there is a complex history and dynamic between dog owners and bird watchers in Central Park. 

The problem then is not the truth or falsity of the complexity but the fact that the complexity is used to conceal rather than to further expose what is increasingly salient. That is why those who deploy complexity in this way never say: it is racism *and* it is more complex than this. Instead complexity has to always do a work of negation. You say 'all non-indigenous Australians are the inheritors and beneficiaries of the theft of Indigenous land' and someone is bound to tell you that this is untrue, extremist and simplistic and 'reality is far more complex than this'. You say the Zionist movement colonised Palestine and there will always be someone shaking their head at how naive and unsubtle you are for 'things are far more complex than that'. 

What we are dealing with here then are 'white strategies of complexification' that take the form of a litany of 'white obscurantist clarifications,' for the strategy is indeed one of ‘clarifying’ for the purpose of obscuring.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

To those who will be waiting: US, Australia, Palestine again and again

(The name of a recently deceased Indigenous Australian is mentioned below)

Ahmaud Arbery
He ain’t going home
Veronica Marie Nelson Walker
will not be back to country where she belongs
Hamdi Naasan
Mech raje’ ’a beyto l yom (he’s not going back to his house today)

Trayvon Martin
He ain’t going home
Kumanjayi Walker
will not be back to country where he belongs
Mohammed Abu Khdeir
Mech raje’ ’a beyto l yom

Tamir Rice
He ain’t going home
Trisjack Simpson and Christopher Drage 
will not be back to country where they belong
Iman al-Hams
Mech raje’a ’a beyta l yom

Terence Crutcher
He ain’t going home
Tanya Daywill not be back to country where she belongs
Khalil el-Mughrabi
Mech raje’ ’a beyto l yom

Walter Scott
He ain’t going home
Thomas Hickeywill not be back to country where he belongs
Faris Odeh
Mech raje’ ’a beyto l yom

W meen raje’ ’a beyto l yom?
(but guess with me: who is going back home tonight?)

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Saramago’s Blindness.

Saramago's novel Blindness is about a pandemic of blindness where people only see a milky white substance. In the first part, the blind are confined in an old asylum guarded by soldiers and the novel describes life in confinement. In the second part, the confined realise that the soldiers guarding them have gone and that in fact everyone has gone blind. here the novel turns to describe blind people trying to survive in a city where everyone is blind. 
on one hand the novel does not aim for realism: for instance, we only have a glimpse of how people who are already blind and rely on braille, and other markers for the visually impaired, can rise to become a new dominant governing elite in such a world. There is an assumption that all what would follow if everyone goes blind is chaos and hobbesian-like tendencies. on the other hand, the novel is exceptionally realist, Saramago goes to great length to capture what an individual and collective experience of blindness entails. a remarkable achievement.
By the end of the novel it become clear that at least one chief aim of the novel is to be a morality tale: the personal and social degradation experienced in this state of blindness is but an extreme concentration of the way we degrade ourselves and each other when we are not blind. It made me think of an ‘ethics of the senses’ that is perhaps strongly present in Nietzsche.
just like those of us who can hear well can hear without listening - that is, without assuming the social and ethical responsibility towards ourselves and others that the possession of a sense of hearing put before us - there are those of us who have banalised the possession of the sense of sight, such as we fail to experience it in it’s full intensity. we can look very well without seeing, without fully ‘taking in’, what we are looking at. without, as Nietzsche put it, bringing in those interests and affects which transform seeing into seeing something.
In the face of Covid19 we practice physical distancing. And just as people in the novel lost their eye sight, we have lost our physical capacity to be physically close to people. Thus, the novel’s take on blindness invites us to think. Just as blindness brought out what we did not see even when we could see, is our physical distancing bringing out the social and affective distance that marked how we relate to people even when we could still be in their proximity? That is, do physical confinement and distancing bring out the question of how much have we allowed ourselves to ‘take in’ and be ethically responsible for our closeness to people when we were practicing physical proximity? 
There are no easy answers here for i have actually heard a number of people say that they have become closer to some people now that they are no longer in their physical proximity. and as Amine Maalouf says about his relation to Lebanon in his book Origines: ‘there are loves that only flourish at a distance’

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Writing Challenge: 500 words max of speculative pessimistic autobiographical writing

23 February 2027,

Today is my 70th birthday. It’s also the 7th anniversary of the night I went out with friends for a live performance of Gounod's Faust at the Sydney Opera House, followed by dinner at Mr. Wong, one of my favourite Sydney restaurants. How were we to know then, 7 years ago, that it was to be the last time we go to a live performance and the last time we eat out at a restaurant?
I still remember how we met at the northern gate of Sydney’s Botanical Gardens and jokingly asked each other if we’ve caught the ‘coronavirus’ as everyone called it then. Two weeks later it was no longer a joke, someone we all knew was in intensive care at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Randwick. 
Not that taking the pandemic seriously helped. We all religiously followed the government’s directive in the first few months and we joined with everyone celebrating Australia’s capacity to ‘flatten the curve’ (one of the early obsessions in the first year of the outbreak) only to realise by the end of 2020 that we are dealing with a wildly oscillating pandemic where flat curves were mere moments of respite in the virus’ intensity of circulation. 
The virus accentuated one of the worst contradictions of our era: the more it was clear that the world was inevitably interconnected the more people acted as if each nation was an island. The illusion was easier to maintain when your nation is effectively an island. But this has not stopped the virus from continuing to spread in all kind of ways.
I was forced to retire on my 65th birthday 5 years ago. For this birthday, I received last week my category 7 medicare card. This indicates my new 70+ age group and the medical care one is entitled to get for that group. No one says it openly, but everyone knows that, as the health system is struggling to cope, the card indicates that you are not a priority. You are expendable. 
More than 7 years since I have seen, let alone hugged, my daughters. Who would have thought that Australia will return to being something like a penal colony again. We used to say this metaphorically sometimes. But there is nothing metaphoric about it today. Australia is for all practical purposes a heavily policed prison for its inhabitants. It is not just that we cannot leave the island. It’s illegal to even try. When tracking apps were introduced, some lefties were worried that the app will be used for political purposes to hunt leftist dissenters. It was much worth than that, the app was used to just keep track of you regardless of politics.
Still we know that we are better off than the people of the United States where, because the elections of November 2020 could not happen and no elections was possible since, Donald Trump, who was president before those elections, and already becoming visibly senile, is still in power - in the role of a so-called care-taker president. we are no longer sure what exactly is happening there.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Prelude to War

Yesterday was the 45th anniversary of the Lebanese civil war which started on the 13th of April 1975. I’ve been wanting to tell this story for some time now. So now is a good time.
It was in the late spring of 1974. I was doing my ‘retraite’. This is a period where you ‘retreat’ with some of your friends to study before the baccalaureate exams. This was my Baccalauréat 2ème Partie. My final year at school. We were in a mountain resort which is usually full of tourists in summer. But this being spring, it was mainly the local villagers that were prominent in the streets. The ‘retraite’ was a mixture of fun and hard work. We did a lot of work. But we also had a lot of fun. As much fun as a bunch of 17 years olds occupying a house on their own can have.
One of us was a serious car freak. He not only knew everything about car mechanics but he was already a serious driver. His name was Grégoire Audi. I later heard that not only he became a successful dentist somewhere in Europe but that he ended up racing older prototypes of cars at Le Mans. I am dwelling on this because it has everything to do with what happened during that retraite.
As part our fun time, Grégoire was teaching us powersliding. This is where you turn a corner with your car by making it slide into place in order to maintain speed and traction.
So here we were on this road and ahead of us was a sharp turn. We wait for cars to pass, and when there is no one coming we take turns at negotiating the turn by doing a powerslide.
At one point, Grégoire was explaining to us something about turning the steering wheel that all of us were not doing so well. A car passed us. He waited a bit. Then he sped through the corner showing us how to sharply turn the steering wheel while accelerating. For some reason, the car that had passed us a short time before had slowed down. And as we surged through the corner we found ourselves slightly too close to it. Not dangerously close, but uncomfortably close.
We stopped. The car ahead of us stopped. Grégoire was saying something like ‘Damn idiots why did they slow down?’. But suddenly the two guys who were in the car got out. 
They had revolvers in their hands. 
The one on the right, pointed his gun up in the air and pulled the trigger. The sound stunned us. The guy was now pointing the gun at us. We were petrified. The guy shouted: ‘Come out of the car you sons of whores’.
Then he said: ‘Kneel on the ground. Kneel all of you’.
We all knelt. I don’t know about the others but I knelt and I was very close to peeing in my pants. Then the guy asked: ‘are you from here?’
My friend who had invited us to his house replied that he lived here. The guy with the gun said: ‘Whose son are you? what's your father's name?’ My friend told him his father’s name.
The guy said: ‘your father is a respectable man but that doesn’t mean you own the place. Do you understand? Next time I’ll take you to the Party’s headquarters and we’ll ask your dad to come and get you! Do you understand?’ My friend replied ‘Yes’. The guy said ‘Now you go home all of you’.
They were members of the Phalangist Party. My friend actually recognised them. I did not have the intellectual tools to think this at the time but I clearly remember feeling a distinct sense of class and regional resentment in the way the two guys were behaving. Especially from the guy who did the shooting and the talking. Regardless of the fact that we might have genuinely scared him as we surged behind him, in the way he talked to us, in the way he talked about my friend's father, in the way he said 'you don't own the village', there was a kind of ‘my time has come you bourgeois city dwelling shits’ oozing out of the way he spoke to us.
While I consider this my first taste of the civil war to come, it was, however, what happened afterward that signalled to me that a major transformation was taking place.
Throughout my youth my father had been an influential Colonel in the gendarmerie. And at the very moment when those guys were terrorising us, and even though, I was very scared, I was also thinking ‘you wait till I tell my dad about you fuckers’. And indeed, the first thing I did when I got home was ring my dad and tell him. He asked me a few questions, asked me to put my friend on the phone. Asked him a few questions. I was sure they will end up in jail. But towards the end of the week as my friends and I were out to get a pizza, we had to endure an uncomfortable encounter with those same two guys. Not only this, but the guy who pulled the gun on us looked us straight in the face and said: ‘keefkun? (how are you?’ and he added ‘I hope you are studying well.’ 
When I went home. I asked my father what happened. He muttered an answer in a way I've never heard him speak before. He said, that he called the local police headquarters and he was told: ‘These are members of the Phalangist Party. We cannot touch them’. It became clear to me then that a new social order was coming into place.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

What can Camus’ La Peste tell us as we struggle against the Coronavirus?

45 years since I’ve left Lebanon, and even though I do most of my academic reading and writing in English, I still am far more at ease reading novels in French. So, when I decided to start reading novels dealing with pandemics, Camus’ La Peste* was the first book to come to my mind.
I have read the novel twice before. The first time for my French literature subject at High School in the early 70s, and the second time, for the ‘Existentialist Philosophy’ subject at Uni in the late 70s. So I haven’t looked at it for a good forty years. I remember enjoying my first reading, the picture of an actor dying on stage and the bourgeoisie literally ‘running for their lives’ out of the theatre, abandoning all pretense of refinement, appealed to the sixteen years old counter-culture boy who harbored a genuinely venomous hostility towards the conservative cultural manners and morality of the Lebanese bourgeoisie.  I also enjoyed reading it the second time and I thought it spoke more generally and very deeply about ‘man’s moral choices’ in the face of ‘death’. Neither in the first or the second reading did anyone tell me about the autobiographical dimensions of the novel and that the plague was among other things referring to ‘the German occupation’ during WW2 and the different ways people related to it. I read this much later in Tony Judt’s review of a new translation of the book twenty years ago (New York Review of Books, November 29, 2001). Nor did anyone draw my attention to the fact that this was a novel set in an Arab city with no Arabs in it. I heard a Lebanese academic speak about this much later. I have also noted in this last reading that while women, unlike Arabs, are present in the novel, none are presented as being serious human subjects with agency and existential problems of their own.
But all this critical knowledge did not stop me from reading the novel as being about what it says it is about, a plague epidemic, in a town, Oran, that could be any town in the world – actually, not any town. For, as Camus tells us on the second page of the novel, there are ‘towns and countries where people have, every now and then, an inkling of an otherwise (un soupçon d’autre chose). In general, it doesn’t change their lives. Except for the fact that they’ve had that inkling.’ Not so, Oran. ‘Oran’, he tells us, ‘seems to be a town without such inklings; in other words, it’s completely modern (p.12).’ From this sentence onward, reading the novel was a total pleasure for my anthropological imagination – anthropological in both a philosophical and ethnographic sense. I can say that I enjoyed this third reading even more so than I enjoyed the first or the second. Most importantly, many of its passages offered a very astute description of people’s various practical and moral behavior in the face of a long term epidemic. Those descriptions related usefully to the situation we are in today as we face the Coronavirus pandemic.
The first passage that spoke to me in this way was when Camus was describing how people were having trouble accepting that their predicament was going to last far more than they imagined it will. ‘When a war breaks out, people say: ‘It can’t last long. It’s too stupid.’ And, no doubt, a war is certainly too stupid. But this does not prevent it lasting. Stupidity always gets its way (p.41).’ Even though I have experienced the Lebanese civil war where this happened again and again, I was reading this while people around me, and I myself, were in a state of denial, refusing that this can last for a long time. We humans, Camus says, have problems believing that plagues last. ‘We tell ourselves that they are unreal bad dreams that will come to pass. But they don’t always come to pass. And from one bad dream to another bad dream it is men who come to pass, and the humanists first, because they haven’t taken their precautions (p. 41).’
By the time the plague epidemic looked like it was nearing its end the townspeople were now more inclined towards prudence and were in no hurry to celebrate (p.243). But before that, even when they come to accept that the plague has captured their present, people find it difficult to think that it has also captured their future. They keep thinking the future as they did before the plague, as a future that went without saying. It was this ‘stupid human confidence in the forthcoming (p.67)’ that made people kiss each other on the railway station’s platform ‘sure that they were seeing each other again after of a few days or a few weeks at the most (p.67).’ But quickly their imaginary of the future adapts, and, as the narrator puts it: ‘if some among us were tempted to live in the future, they refrained from doing so, as quickly as it was possible, as they felt the wounds that the imagination ends up inflicting on those who trust it (p. 71).’
Furthermore, when people are asked to sacrifice certain things, they are far more brave doing it while they thought the crisis would only last for a short time, when they come to accept that the present (in its plagued form) is bound to last a long time, people experience an abrupt ‘collapse of their courage, willpower, and endurance’ and they fall in the holes of hope they’ve dug themselves in. They drift through life rather than live it, they become victims ‘of aimless days and sterile memories, like wandering shadows (p. 72).’ Even if not is such a dramatic fashion, all this made sense of some dimensions of my behavior and the behavior of the people I have been in touch with during this on-going crisis. Interestingly, Camus has an ‘existentialist’ solution to this. In such times of crisis, life only acquires substance if we consent ‘to root (our)selves in the solid earth of (our) distress (p.72).’
Another interesting dimension of living through the plague that I thought was masterfully examined by Camus is the tension between our sense of self as an individual and our sense of self as a general category. To use a sociological Durkheimian language, the extent to which our sense of personhood is structured around us being an individual fact or around us being a social fact. People have problems and they think their problems are unique and they go to officials to treat the uniqueness of their case. But the officials facing the plague are dealing in social situations. 
Thus, while one key character, Rambert, initially experiences himself as having a compelling reason to leave the confinement of the city, the doctor, Rieux, whose help Rambert is seeking, refuses to help him in the name of the public good. This is staged as a struggle between those who seek individual happiness versus those who seek social or collective happiness. Rambert who is seeking his own happiness in wanting to join his wife outside the city accuses the doctor of seeking ‘an abstraction’. For, how can one struggle for social happiness if one is unable to help individuals reach their personal happiness? But Rieux has no problem with the idea that he is seeking an abstraction. Abstractions are real and concrete. For, as he put it, the pest was itself an abstraction. It does not just kill people individually. It kills them by the hundreds. It kills a high percentage of a population, and, ‘like abstractions in general, (it) was monotonous.’ (p. 87). 
This reminded me of my friend Paul Dugdale who is medical doctor but also a public health manager. As he put it to me once, ‘I do not deal with a broken leg. I deal with things like “a high percentage of broken legs among the elderly”.’ Rieux takes this further. He concludes that: ‘to fight against an abstraction one has to resemble it a little bit’ (p.87). Thus, an individual is not just ‘thought of’ as an abstraction by someone thinking statistically. Individuals are partly abstract or inversely, abstraction is part of what they really are. Abstraction, then, is a mode of existing, not just a way of thinking about someone – it is an ontological category as anthropologists would say today. And it is this part of ourselves that is an abstraction that social reality particularly conjures in times of pandemics. 
Therefore, Camus wants to also convey to us, that in such times, there are no individual heroes in the sense of an individual that shines compared to others. The heroes, as the narrator ends up saying, are all the people who do what they have to do, including the boring bureaucrat doing his job. Rambert himself, in the end, stops seeking his own individual happiness and decides to stay and fight the plague with others. While Rieux never stopped him from doing so and even tells him that ‘there is no shame in opting for one’s own happiness.’ Rambert replies that its true, ‘but there can be shame in being happy by oneself (p.190).’
Throughout the novel, it is often argued that ‘life’ itself is all that matters. Interestingly enough, this is not a universal declaration about the intrinsic importance of ‘life’. Life matters because the plague, by wanting to take it away constructs it as the most important thing there is. It is because of this that what matters is fighting the plague and not allow it to do its job. As the narrator put it: 
Many fledgling moralists in those days were going about our town proclaiming that there was nothing much that can be done against the plague and one should just kneel before fate. And Tarrou, and Rieux, and their friends might reply saying this or that, but their conclusion was always what they knew for sure: on must fight, in whatever way, and there must be no bowing down. The crucial aim was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying and being doomed to the final separation. And there was only one way to do this: fight the plague (p. 125-126).
Despite his ‘existentialism’ Camus often ends up with a ‘biopolitical’ conception of life as ‘biological life’. When the priest Paneloux tells the doctor Rieux that ‘you too work for the salvation for man’s salvation’. Rieux replies: ‘Salvation is too big a word for me. I don’t go so far. I’m concerned with man’s health; his health before all else (p. 199). But one must ask today is the opposition between the secular and the religious allowed to overdetermine the opposition between life as health and life as salvation? Is there no way to think salvation as a way of thinking life as ‘more than just health’ other than religiously?
At one point in the novel, a possible answer emerges with the fusion of life and love, in the conflict between Rambert who sees his life as only worthwhile in so far as he is seeking love and Rieux who is seeking to save lives. As they argue it out, Rambert tells Rieux:
"You see. But you're capable of dying for an idea; one can see that right away. Well, personally, I've seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don't believe in heroism; I know it's easy and I've learned it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves."
Rieux had listened to the journalist looking at him attentively. Still looking at him, he gently says:
"Man isn't an idea, Rambert."
Rambert jumped off the bed, his face lit with passion.
"Man is an idea, and a precious small idea, once he turns his back on love. And that's my point; we -mankind - have lost the capacity for love. We must face that fact, doctor…
This seems to me a crucial question to ask today as we engage in all the ‘techniques of the body’ that we are invited to engage in to save ourselves and ‘the population’ we are part of. What kind of human being and what kind of ‘life’ are we saving when we engage in such techniques? Are we simply protecting ‘life’? or are we going to end up saving a ‘life’ that is further impoverished of anything that can be articulated to it such as love, or the idea of salvation. 
* Albert Camus, La Peste, Paris: Gaillmard, (1947) 2011. Translations are mainly my own.