This is a theme on which I have already touched in my posting about Transcendentalism which I encountered through Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was distinguished through his Self-Reliance. It is a point that is still uppermost in my mind. Don’t rely on others, because they will let you down. Don’t do something because others do it. Expect nothing from the mass or the crowd. Be critical about churches and the clergy – including me! Cut the bullshit, mean what you say and say what you mean! Travel less, stay away from mass tourism and be yourself in relation to nature and beauty. Those are bold things to say.
This evening, I will not approach Transcendentalism or self-reliance from an academic point of view, but from the experience most of us are living through. We are “locked down” in our homes, confined, in order to stop the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from areas with more cases than others from person to person. The idea is to prevent hospitals from being overloaded with critical cases. The idea of lockdown is to prevent travel except defined cases like work or buying essential food and medical supplies. It also prevents gathering of people in which any infected (even if non-symptomatic) person would reinfect others.
Laws have to apply to all, and I have become aware of how collectivist our society has become. This will inevitably make people think of Orwell’s Big Brother and the dystopian heritage of Nazism and Soviet Communism. To be frank, I find it absurd that lockdown forbids long solitary walks and hikes, mountaineering, sailing and other such activities, because they do not necessarily involve social gatherings – and therefore risks of propagation of the virus. Here in France, all pleasure boating has been forbidden since mid-March, and only now are professionals like fishermen and boat conveyors being allowed to put to sea. In an ideal world, we would be trusted to use common sense. Unfortunately, some people are still flouting the lockdown rules for frivolous purposes, congregating in parks, and causing the State authorities to take stricter measures. We are all responsible for each other. The point of wearing a mask is to protect other people against us, unless we are using an FFP2 mask, which is hard to find. If the other person is wearing a mask, then we will be protected – at least about 80 to 90%. The pandemic has made us into a single collective society in which our own feelings, opinions, gripes or whatever else have no importance.
Lockdown has brought most of us into self-reliance, but one that does not involve kicking against the pricks, but living with what we have. For example, I need to make something in my workshop – a flatbed for my small boat trailer to take some stuff to the dump. I don’t have the materials I need, at least not ideal ones, so I have to become inventive. I can’t go to the timber yard or the DIY shop, because they are closed until 11th May, the date presently chosen by the Macron government to begin the deconfinement process. So, I rummaged through my workshop and found bits of old wood to “jury-rig” a trailer flatbed. I’ll be starting work tomorrow, and then, as the rubbish dumps re-open, I’ll be able to get rid of the eyesore of stuff to get rid of.
I am very lucky to be living in a house in the country with an outside garden and yard. I have plenty to do even though I have no translation work at present. Lockdown is a hard thing to live through psychologically, because the anxiety is always there about the virus itself and the effect on the economy. I fear that my wife is cracking at the seams, and there is little I can do about it. Being an “Aspergers” autistic person has been a great advantage for me, because I am much less reliant on social support and contact. Spending a lot of time alone at home is quite normal for me. I also had the experience of being a working guest with a monastic community, following the monastic way of life and spirituality. That for me was very hard, but I had time out each week for a long excursion in the Vercors hills and the little villages. Even all that did not prepare me for something that may turn out to be a “Spanish Flu” of our own times, exactly a hundred years after the post World War I tragedy involving millions of deaths.
They are (normally) letting us out on the 11th May. I might be allowed to go sailing!!! Maybe I’ll have to wait a little longer, because it will all be in stages. They have to stop mass travelling and tourism, and they can’t allow gatherings for sports, concerts, etc. until they are sure there will be no second wave. The assumption is always the same, that we all want to crowd up and socialise with large numbers of people. Few of us are content to be alone even when we are out of the house!
I returned to Emerson’s essay and his mention of travelling. In his day, travelling was reserved to the rich. Now, it is crowds, large numbers of people all wanting to do the same thing at the same time. I last travelled by aeroplane in 2013 when my mother died and we needed to be in England quickly. Prior to that, I made four trips to the USA and experienced the post 9/11 security procedures in the airports. Now what I have noticed about the current pandemic is that much of the propagation is the direct result of mass tourism by planes and cruise ships. The virus moves because people move. My wife and I visited the Mont Saint Michel last January, when there were few tourists – because in the high season it is jam-packed and most unpleasant. Even in January, it is plain that the place is made for mass tourism. Is tourism worth it? This may be a lesson we all learn from being impeded from travelling: having to have an attestation paper just to buy food and get stuff from the chemist’s. The borders are closed in Europe. I would not be allowed to go to England even if I wanted to at this time. I can take my wife to work because she has no driving licence, because she has to work, and I have a legitimate excuse of helping a family member. Our life is certainly crimped, but we live with it. I have no desire to return to crowded cities, queues, jostling, the wasps’ nest colony, etc. How Emerson could have imagined where tourism might go, it is very thought-provoking.
I think it would be good for there to be a drastic reduction of the number of flights for the sake of the environment. Over the European Continent or the USA, long distances can be travelled by high speed train for those who have to travel for reasons of work or culture. Just for going on holiday, some of us are content to stay nearer our homes and enjoy some self-reliance by camping, boating or whatever. I hate hotels, large campsites with “bottled” entertainment, noise, oof-ta oof-ta bang-bang and anything designed for the inevitable collectivist paradigm. If we were less collectivist, we would be healthier and would bring less diseases from parts of the world where exotic animals are eaten or where security in microbiological laboratories is lax. Who wants to go to China, any more than North Korea? There are places to keep well away from. We don’t have to go there to learn about comparative culture!
There will come a time when we become dependent on others, because we get old or sick. That will be a time for spiritual freedom like what we are going through now. Even those of us who have not caught the virus are part of a sick society. Society as a whole is in quarantine and being examined and tested by medical and scientific experts. We have no more freedom than a hospital patient waiting to be discharged. Again, this theme of collectivism comes through.
Each time I read Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, it is like beholding a diamond several times and seeing a different facet each time. I read this:
It is tragic how few people ever ‘possess their souls’ before they die. ‘Nothing is more rare in any man,’ says Emerson, ‘than an act of his own.’ It is quite true. Most people are other people. Their thoughts are some one else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. Christ was not merely the supreme individualist, but he was the first individualist in history. People have tried to make him out an ordinary philanthropist, or ranked him as an altruist with the scientific and sentimental. But he was really neither one nor the other. Pity he has, of course, for the poor, for those who are shut up in prisons, for the lowly, for the wretched; but he has far more pity for the rich, for the hard hedonists, for those who waste their freedom in becoming slaves to things, for those who wear soft raiment and live in kings’ houses. Riches and pleasure seemed to him to be really greater tragedies than poverty or sorrow. And as for altruism, who knew better than he that it is vocation not volition that determines us, and that one cannot gather grapes of thorns or figs from thistles?
Indeed what about altruism in a world where others do not care about us. We do good for others because love is better than hate. However, Wilde said:
But while Christ did not say to men, ‘Live for others,’ he pointed out that there was no difference at all between the lives of others and one’s own life. By this means he gave to man an extended, a Titan personality. Since his coming the history of each separate individual is, or can be made, the history of the world. Of course, culture has intensified the personality of man. Art has made us myriad-minded. Those who have the artistic temperament go into exile with Dante and learn how salt is the bread of others, and how steep their stairs; they catch for a moment the serenity and calm of Goethe, and yet know but too well that Baudelaire cried to God — “O Seigneur, donnez moi le force et le courage De contempler mon corps et mon cœur sans dégoût”.
Our unity with God and all of human nature is our essential unity or non-duality which we have to learn. More recent philosophy makes a clearer distinction between the person and the individual. We are not merely individual units of a same nature, but persons in communion and solidarity. We have to accept that one’s man’s treasure is another’s rubbish.
It is certainly by being our personalities that we can be ourselves without being selfish and sinful through refusing the other person his or her rights and dignity. Self-reliance, far from being sinful individualism, solipsism and selfishness, is not expecting from others what they cannot give. Some have more gifts than we have, and others have much less. Our strength as persons can only come from self-knowledge and spiritual health.
As I expressed in my little talk yesterday about Sectarian Religion and the Abdication of Reason, I would like to learn more about the concept of Non-Duality as expressed par excellence by the Hindu tradition, but also by our own western Christian mystics. We are dogged by our alienation and the sentiment of Jean-Paul Sartre when he came up with the astounding idea – L’enfer c’est les autres.
Sartre expresses the idea of shame as the original feeling of the other person’s existence. I see myself as the other sees me, as an object. It is similar to that exclamation of Baudelaire quoted by Wilde – Grant me the strength, O Lord, to contemplate my body and my heart without disgust. Our shame is our self-esteem in relation to others. Being examined and looked at by others makes me what I am not. There regard exposes me, makes me fragile and an object. They are my hell. We have to escape and become ourselves again. Sartre saw relationships in terms of conflict and alienation. The play Huis clos illustrates alienation by the other and who closes me into a given nature, which deprives me of freedom. French existentialism is hard to understand and follow, but how many times we have felt like that!
Self-reliance does not prevent us from being benevolent and making friends among specially compatible personalities. We may be able to experience close communion with some. Others will remain a mystery of otherness and alienation.
We still have another couple of weeks of lockdown, and then the “social distancing” has to continue through “barrier gestures” like keeping a certain distance and wearing masks – all to avoid transmitting or catching the feared virus. Perhaps this will help some to rely more on themselves than to depend on the unreliable characteristics of fickle human nature. Some of us will become cynical (modern meaning) and divide people up into hylics, psychics and pneumatics – denying that any might cross the boundaries. The problem is that many people fit into these categories. Do we as Christians say that we do not care? On the other hand, do we throw pearls to swine?
For the time being, we are at home, comfortable or bitter as the case may be. We will again face the world of trying to earn a living by work and dealing with our shame as we wear our masks and keep the proper distances from those we have to consider as potential sources of infection. In this way, other people become our hell. I have confidence that prayer and meditation will help us in our Way of the Heart, to acquire compassion and empathy. Perhaps a new society and humanity will come out of it all. I have my doubts but I also have faith…