Sartre, Solitude and Life under quarantine
In this period of imposed isolation that we are all going through amidst the lockdowns, we must all question why we feel lonesome in our own good company
In the Paris of 1920s, a famous newspaper named L'Intransigeant used to run a popular column wherein the editors would put up a philosophical question and ask the French celebrities and intellectuals to send in their responses.
Once in 1922, the column published an astonishing hypothesis made by an American scientist that the human race would soon be extinct. The editors then asked Parisian writers, philosophers, intellectuals and celebrities to respond. The column pieced together a bunch of interesting responses. Perhaps the most piquant response was by the acclaimed French writer, Henri Bordeaux. He suggested that half of humanity would instantly run to the nearest church and the other half, to the nearest brothel.
After almost a century, I happened to be reminded of Bordeaux's response because today, as we face a pandemic, a lot of scientists are predicting cataclysmic events. Of course, the extinction of the human race would be too far-fetched a prediction, yet we are faced with an unprecedented situation. If L'Intransigeant would have been running today, the question that its editors would pose before our philosophers would be: 'In the face of this cataclysmic event, and imminent deaths, how would people's perspective towards life change?'
Lonesome could often be cathartic. It can reveal to us our hidden fears, angst, unfulfilled desires, jealousies, inadequacies, regrets about things done or deferred, and even the concealed existential meaninglessness of our lives. The solitude of our quarantine rooms can jolt us with an encounter with perhaps the most intimidating figure of our life — our innermost self. 'How should people face their lonesome?'
Taking a cue from Henry Bordeaux's response, philosophers may point out that human psyche has imbued us with an escapist tendency. We instinctively find means to escape when faced with trying situations. When faced with the fearful prospect of the extinction of the human race, we find an escape route through the church or a brothel, as Bordeaux had pointed out. Now, when we are faced with our innermost selves in the cathartic lonesome of our quarantine-rooms, we find escape routes through social media, Netflix, WhatsApp, movies, television, and, though rarely, through books. So harshly we are reminded of what the existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre once said, "If you are lonely when alone, you are in a bad company."
How would Sartre have responded to isolation under the Corona crisis? Sartre would perhaps turn his philosophical gaze towards a single question: why are we predisposed to resort to escapism? Why can't we bear with the idyllic landscape sitting by our windows?
At its root is our existential condition. That there is no inherent purpose or meaning to our lives, or rather, our lives are too free to be contained within the bounds of any predetermined purpose or meaning. The events of our lives are like stray instances strewn carelessly over the canvass of time. We knit these stray instances together into a meaningful story or stories which we call our 'life'.
Alongside these stories that we construct, we also construct the character of the protagonist. We being the protagonist of the stories of our lives, we construct the idea of our own 'selves' as it fits our stories. We construct our being in terms of the stories we build around the events of our lives and in doing so we realise that we are nothing more than free and imaginative storytelling beings.
These stories we tell ourselves are our attempt to conceal the inherent meaninglessness of our lives under the veneer of our self-constructed meaning to make life more bearable to us.
The editors of L'Intransigeant will be inclined to ask what happens to us and our stories when we are in the isolation of our quarantined rooms? Why can't we bear with the company of our selves as Sartre had hinted at and find escape routes from our innermost selves?
The philosophers will perhaps respond to L'Intransigeant by saying that often in the deepest moments spent in the stillness of our quarantined room, we may realise that the stories we tell ourselves are very fragile. They may fall apart, or worst still, we may be jolted into seeing through the fiction that we have woven around ourselves. Perhaps the character of the protagonist and the rest of the characters in the story of our lives could have been differently constructed. The idea of our self may begin to falter.
We look back at the choices we have made and we realise that every instance of our lives posed before us a dilemma and we manoeuvred through each dilemma by making a choice. In the solitude of our rooms, we seek a retrospective vision of the 'past' that never happened, of all the 'roads not taken'.
It may often lead us into a feeling of regret — about all that we could have done but did not do, all that could have happened but their possibilities were foreclosed by the trajectory that the story of our lives took. Our regrets are an inevitable part of our lives because life is about making choices and every choice we make forecloses a multitude of possibilities which could have directed the story of our life into a different trajectory. Hardly ever in our life are our regrets so finely perceived as in the lonesome of our quarantined rooms.
As we rehearse all the choices we have made while revisiting the story of our lives and relooking at all the regrets we have accrued through the course of our lives, we drive into poignant bouts of nostalgia. We think of all the people in our lives. They appear to us as characters of a long novel.
Once the chapter is over, we encounter them as estranged foreign objects whom we cannot relate to. This estrangement and alienation make our nostalgia poignant. We have stirred into the poignant realisation that the fondest chapters of our lives are over and the characters who were dear and close to us are no longer meaningful to us and the stories of our lives.
An encounter with our innermost selves in the isolation of our quarantined rooms is, amongst other things, an encounter without hidden regrets, alienation, fear, intimidations, angst and the inherent meaninglessness of our lives. Therefore, we feel impelled to escape from our selves.
In 1922, when Henry Bordeaux predicted that in the face of imminent death, half the people would instantly run to the nearest church and the rest to the nearest brothel, he added another line to say what he would do. He said that he would chuck both the church and the brothel and would rather go up the mountains to admire the serenity of the Alpine landscapes.
Probably, he is too well acquainted with himself to be poignantly stunned by the concealed angst of his innermost self. In the words of Sartre, he is a rare individual who may not feel lonely when left alone in the sole company of his self.
The writer is an Indian Revenue Service officer