The ailment that is the human condition

Two great novels of the 20th Century, taken in conjunction, offer a sobering projection of the psychological and emotional fallout of an inexorable disease

The Coronavirus pandemic is often likened to the Great Influenza Pandemic or Spanish flu that occurred between 1918 to 1920 which killed an estimated 40 million people or 2.1% of the world population at the time. Many great people were killed by that pandemic including a favourite sociologist of mine, Max Weber, and the writer Franz Kafka was infected, but survived. It is believed that the severe loneliness that Kafka felt during his illness and the consideration that his family may no longer have any tender feelings for him were what he captured in his book Metamorphosis. Another great writer who lived through those times was Albert Camus, who wrote about the impact of another pandemic, the bubonic plague, that decimated the French Algerian city of Oran in 1556 and he experienced a smaller outbreak of it at around the time he wrote his novel titled The Plague. These writings, penned in circumstances similar to what we are experiencing today, present a reflective chord about the human condition.

The severe loneliness that Kafka felt during his illness and the consideration that his family may no longer have any tender feelings for him were what he captured in his book Metamorphosis.

Much like what happened just a few months ago, in Camus’ novel, as the first people succumb to the disease, the remainder of the townsfolk deny that plague exists and continue with business as usual. It is only when the bourgeoisie see their own falling ill that they are possessed by fear and reflection. The story of the epidemic is told through the lens of a doctor, Rieux. The other protagonist of the novel is a Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux, who is a foil to the atheistic Dr. Rieux, who is of the view that if he were to believe in an all-powerful God he should cease to cure the sick and leave that concern to Him. Fr. Paneloux justifies God’s sending the plague, holding that the citizens had brought the fate upon themselves by neglecting their faith and their prayers.

Fr. Paneloux is at pains to explain that the love of God is a difficult one, and requires one to abandon oneself to his will. He joins the sanitation workers in trying to contain the spread of the pandemic and falls ill. Eventually, he falls victim to the plague and refuses to allow a doctor to be called in and is too weak to protest when Dr. Rieux takes him to a hospital where he spends his final moments. The bubonic plague is so devastating and healing takes such a toll on Rieux’s spirit that he emotionally withdraws, beset by a sense of professional failure, and sinks into a state of hopelessness and defeat. What with the endless dying and the sheer uncertainty of the disease’s prognosis, Dr. Rieux begins to feel as though his job is simply to diagnose the patient and condemn them to death.

The atheist goes into a defeatist mode and the religious one embraces resignation, showing how two diverse life perspectives seem to converge under the extreme situation of isolation and its associated suffering.

Father Paneloux, on the other hand, preaches wholehearted acceptance of the suffering of innocent people as a part of God’s divine plan ― his stance is to encourage faith but it is difficult to uncouple that from a self-defeating sense of human resignation in acute times. The atheist goes into a defeatist mode and the religious one embraces resignation, showing how two diverse life perspectives seem to converge under the extreme situation of isolation and its associated suffering.

Another character in the book is Cottard, who welcomes the plague as an opportunity to exploit black market conditions and amass a small fortune. He seeks wealth for its own sake, much like the opportunistic behaviour of many employers, who rather than using the current pandemic as an opportunity to invest in long-term goodwill with their workers, inform them that the business was shutting down and they would be paid their dues only when work resumed. Cottard in the novel belongs to that class of humans who does not desire a return to normalcy as then their financial scheming would come to an end.

A striking part of the novel is that as the plague drags on, people forget about the loved ones from whom they are separated.

A striking part of the novel is that as the plague drags on, people forget about the loved ones from whom they are separated. Rather cold-heartedly with the passage of time they adapt to a new normal where their memories of love and community are eroded. As the count of the dead increases, even burials become impersonal and lack decorum as corpses are flung indiscriminately into death pits. An overarching pall of death, an increasing trauma and the accompanying incapacitation seems to be emotionally exhausting and erode society’s capacity for compassion. It’s possible that care-givers currently are experiencing a similar state of anodyne dullness, far from feeling achievement and hope. Fatigue can whittle away at hope and positivity, and its place may be taken by despair and withdrawal or the numbing of the exhilaration of fulfilling human relationships.

Our social lives have so far been informed about the benefits of a loneliness that is positive ― one that involves a voluntary withdrawal from the daily chores of life and an orientation towards higher goals such as reflection, meditation and spiritual development. By Indian tradition, that is supposed to be how we go about the latter phase of our lives, as we withdraw ourselves from Grihastha (householding), move into Vanaprastha (retirement), and on to the stage of Sannyasa (renunciation). The isolation induced by the pandemic is leading to a forced loss of relationships and companionship.

Our social lives have so far been informed about the benefits of a loneliness that is positive ― one that involves a voluntary withdrawal from the daily chores of life and an orientation towards higher goals such as reflection, meditation and spiritual development.

This may occasion feelings of a type of deprivation involving abandonment and the absence of intimacy. In such a situation, how do people interpret the loneliness and suffering they experience ― do they blame themselves or others for transmitting the infection and to what extent do they consider their situation as hopeless or changeable? This experience can play havoc with emotions and generate a myriad of feelings such as sadness, frustration and desperation that can hardly be effectively expressed through the social media, the sole surviving link we locked down humans have with one another.

Metamorphosing into strangers

Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman and his family’s sole breadwinner, works hard to pay off his bankrupt father’s debts. One morning, he wakes up to a grim reality in which he appears to have metamorphosed into a giant insect. The close-knit family, consisting of Gregor’s aged parents and his younger sister, is suddenly required to look after an uncouth ugly creature who is unable to communicate or move around freely.

With Gregor having become incapacitated, the family is forced to take in tenants to secure their livelihood. Initially, they make earnest efforts to cope with the new reality and the sister takes up the major responsibility of taking care of her metamorphosed brother. With time, however, the burden of taking care of the creature tires them out and they begin to find that their dear one does not any more evoke any tender feelings in them. Overhearing a conversation, Gregor understands he is no longer wanted, begins eating less and less food, and eventually dies from starvation. There is no mourning by the relieved family members, who instead start planning for a bright future, deciding to move out to a smaller apartment to save money, and the parents set about finding a husband for the sister of the deceased Gregor, a much-loved man who became a burden and, quickly thereafter, turned into a stranger.

How do people interpret the loneliness and suffering they experience ― do they blame themselves or others for transmitting the infection and to what extent do they consider their situation as hopeless or changeable?

The plight of Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis raises the interesting question as to whether it is even possible for us as humans to care for a stranger. What respect and tolerance do we owe to those whom we don’t know personally? This is a matter worthy of contemplation during a pandemic as we debate what fiscal measures are required to assist households struggling through the unemployment crisis. 

Throughout history, those we deem ‘others’ have been treated with disdain, disgust, and exclusion — barbarians, pagans, slaves, untouchables, etc.The exclusion being played out today is not based on the erstwhile biological and other visible markers but on economic grounds.

What respect and tolerance do we owe to those whom we don’t know personally? This is a matter worthy of contemplation during a pandemic as we debate what fiscal measures are required to assist households struggling through the unemployment crisis.

Kafka reminds us that in life we are all destined to become strangers. During the course of our lives we confront a different strand of our selves as strangers when we travel to unfamiliar places, when we grow old, when we are ill, or when we are dying. We also experience strangers in beggars, street children, toiling workers, etc., and rarely stop to ask how it is that we construct our reality in a way that they remain unfamiliar and not deserving of the humanity that permeates them as much as it does us.

Are we so incapable of handling the responsibility of caring for the needs of strangers that we isolate them and begin to shut down their presence in our lives? Is it not possible that being inclusive will in fact make our lives more rewarding and enriching and provide us an avenue for fulfilment and the attainment of happiness? The phenomena that were raised in two books written 70 to 100 years ago in response to pandemics are still relevant for us to ponder on.

This column was published by The Hindu online here