After The Plague
On bleachphilosophy we deal in the night of the soul with the conceptual tools of the owl and sometimes the reverse, use a lens of the soul to bound a theoretical conception. Through Bernard Rieux, among other things, the book asserts the value of healing over that of teaching and supports that assertion in a number of ways which include an existentialist justification. I point to the genealogy of this theoretical conception in an attempt to bound its range to a psychological contingency.
At the end of The Plague Camus hints at Rieux’s failing love relationship. Bernard Rieux and his wife are said to have „blindly groped for that pact, so slow and hard to come by, that in the long run binds together ill-assorted lovers”. The lesson of healing over teaching is one I have taken. But lest it engulfs too much of man, I try to bound that lesson to its genealogy. If the bounding succeeds, then I shall keep Rieux’s practical philosophy as a way of coping with historical ends, a sense of an absence of history or the expectation thereof, but not as my universal personal ethics.
The opposition between paternalistic teaching and the existentialist philosophy of healing lay down different assumptions about the future. One justification for healing – call this the existentialist justification – views the future as closed, ultimately equates future with death, and draws the conclusion that teaching is a waste of time. One should acquire a taste of the present as present if one does not yet have it. When do teachers fail? Teachers assume responsibility for trading off another person’s present for that person’s future. Since the future cannot be tasted as present, their only recourse is faith or a taste of the future as future. But if there is no future, the teachers’ is the losing bet. When could healers fail, if ever? When futures are possible but healers repress their capacity to build them.
The dispute is thus being referred to a conception of the future. A distinction between time and history may help shape that conception. Personal time is continuous from birth to death. Histories, of which there can be many in succession during one lifetime, are narratives one builds for oneself, personal narratives that structure personal past, present and expected meanings. The death of history is the death of meaning. The birth of a new history is the rebirth of meaning. Alain de Botton’s metaphor for past love relationships is the folded accordion. We can borrow that metaphor here. Multiple histories are tied in the line of personal time like accordions. At the end of one of the histories during one’s lifetime, but before a new accordion starts playing, one is deafened by the ending note of the past accordion. The din is sometimes reeling. One literally lives the death of history with an intensity that leaves no room for experiencing anything else. But as another accordion forms and extends, the old one will fold.
According to the one-time-multiple-histories view the closing notes of past accordions plague future life with their death. The existentialist is right about that. However, once the new accordion plays, he would be forced to admit that personal time proves supportive of a new history. If new personal histories are possible, then there is also room for hope.
The distinction between time and history brings together healing and teaching, by putting their complementarity in perspective: a healer insulates from wounds of past history. A teachers shows the way to a yet unwounded one. Together they make the fertile transgression to a new history.
The distinction also makes justice at the same time to the validity of the Epicurean argument for the irrelevance of death (I cannot experience the end of my personal time, because by hypothesis I won’t be there anymore to experience it) and to some people’s cognitive immunity to that validity (because fearing the experience of the death of history is indeed reasonable).
The single-time-multiple-histories view has an anti-sisyphic implication. (Remember Grand’s book within the book, an existentialist metaphor of human projects: cyclical, fragile, meaningless.) If a personal project survives the death of all personal histories, to be only ended by death proper, the death of personal time, that project will have been with me for all the relevant eternity, which is personal eternity. If the unavoidable death is irrelevant and the relevant deaths are avoidable then nothing inevitably closes my personal future. My future is open.
The one-time-multiple-histories view shows a possible alternative to the existentialist notion of happiness, the notion of being continuously tuned to the ghastly din of the past and future historical deaths: the hope in a future happiness whose expectation brings present nourishment. Surely this is no refutation of existentialism, only an alternative way of seeing things. Genealogical relativization of the existentialist philosophy behind healing to a personal historical death is a metaphilosophical argument, which means it is philosophicaly non-compelling.
But that doesn’t make genealogical relativization illegitimate for purposes other than strictly conceptual. A genealogy of Rieux’s healing-philosophy-as-backed-by-existentialism may tie its range and domain to contingent psychological origins for humanistic purposes. This is a philosophy of post-destructiveness and the problem with post-destructive movements is that they still incorporate too much destructiveness. Sometimes to the point at which healing itself becomes sisyphic. Bounding that destructiveness is not a philosophical purpose but it is a legitimate purpose.
Would Camus of The Plague support the approach of genealogical bounding of existentialism-behind-healing? At least the mentioning of Bernard Rieux failing relationship and that saving piece called Rambert are indication that he would. With Rambert’s help, both Camus and Rieux seem to tie the practical philosophy of looking failure in the eyes to their personal unlucky histories. When Rieux says to Rambert, „Courage!, it is up to you now to prove you’re right.”, they are both handing on the torch to the love relationship, hope, and luck that rest with that character.
I tried to bound the philosophy of healing as backed by the existentialist justification to contingent historical stages and contingent personal histories and found that it is a way of coping with the absence of history. That is its strength but also its weakness because to look failure in the eyes means not to raise anchors from a past dead history. If future histories are possible, and personal future is open, then this is not a universal ethics. If we accept the distinction between time and histories, salvation could come from death itself. The plague imperils everything, but the plague itself is imperiled by its own ending.
I read The Plague with a legitimate fear of death, the fear that by the time I finish it, my present history ends. I was right. By that time the vines of my love relationship had been cut off: intimacy, passion, commitment. I read the second half in brief evening episodes after exhausting days, each time reprising an experience whelmed in tears of loneliness and abandonment. Yet some were tears of realization and fulfillment. It is now Rambert’s turn.