City Lit Blog

Space to Think

Story added 2nd Oct 2020

“There is a world elsewhere”                                                          

- Coriolanus

The body count had been going up for weeks before the pandemic really hit me. The moment came when I was at the checkout in the supermarket. There was a perspex divide between me and the young cashier. I stood watching him scan and pack my groceries. He pulled his mask a couple of inches away from his face and wiped the sweat away from his top lip. I felt a stab of emotion. Tears formed in my eyes, as I handed some cash through the hole at the bottom of the perspex.

By the middle of May, the sadness, dread and confusion were accumulating towards despair. My memories of life before Covid were becoming bleached. I couldn’t conjure a vivid sense of a future beyond social distancing. I’d step outside the house to try to walk the mood off. I passed closed shops and empty school playgrounds. Outdoors felt as claustrophobic to me as indoors. It was as though Lockdown was the only thing there was. 

I’d been teaching philosophy courses for nine years, which is to say that I’d always been the one in charge of the question. But now the pandemic was asking me the questions. I started to engage with philosophies, arguments and attitudes with fresh urgency.

Pessimism

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said we should think of the world as a prison, where everyone is being punished for no good  reason. That way we’ll be less frustrated because we won’t think of suffering as something out of the ordinary. We’ll learn not to expect too much from life and even become more patient and kinder to other people, who we’ll look upon as our fellow inmates in this existence.

If I was a pessimist then I’d be one of the quickest to adapt to the pandemic. I’d have never been expecting the good times to last after all. And whilst lockdown was nothing compared to real prison (unless there are prisons where Ocado deliver), watching the cashier through the perspex divide was an example of how punishing social distancing is.

But I can’t go all in with pessimism. It costs too much. If I were a pessimist, I’d worry I’d take pleasant surprises (e.g. the discovery of a vaccine) as a slight against my worldview, rather than an opportunity for happiness.

Affirmation

Where Schopenhauer wanted to guard us from being marked by life, Nietzsche implores us to step into the fire, embrace all of life - from love affairs to lockdowns. Affirm the pandemic as you would friendship or beauty. 

“I want to learn to see more and more as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful… I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse. I do not even want to accuse the accusers…  I wish only to be a Yes-sayer.” [Nietzsche, The Joyful Science]

If I lived by Nietzsche’s prose, I’d not be afraid of suffering. The pandemic would just be another opportunity to affirm life.

I find the idea of a life in which nothing is rejected extremely attractive. It is the closet thing I can imagine to invulnerability. But I’m still prone to sadness when I see the perspex dividers at the supermarket checkout.

Irony

The surrealist  writer and poet Andre Breton tells a story about a criminal led to the gallows, about to be hanged. The noose is tied around his neck. The executioner asks if he has any last words. The criminal turns to the executioner and says, “Are you sure this is safe?” 

In late May, as each news report was becoming more shocking, it was reassuring to read in Breton a way to find freedom even at the most gruesome times. Breton’s criminal manages to perform an escape even whilst a noose is around his neck. His irony is a message to the executioner that there would be a part of him that he wouldn’t be able to touch.

But being untouchable was the one of the most alienating things about lockdown. I wondered if irony was not another kind of lockdown.

Conclusion

Neither Schopenhauer, Nietzsche or Breton can provide a magic bullet to the mental struggle of living under Covid-19. But merely thinking about these philosophies provided some release from the claustrophobia. I went from feeling like lockdown was all encompassing, to experiencing the sensation of having an idea. There is space to be found in thought.

As restrictions continue, one of the things I’m most excited about is returning to teaching courses to adults at the City Lit. I know my students will have been going through their own struggles since the pandemic started. I hope I can help create for them the relief to be found merely in having a thought.

About the author

Andy West was very excited to join  City Lit in 2018. He’s currently writing a book for Picador about teaching philosophy in prisons, due to be released in February 2022. He has written for The Guardian, 3AM Magazine, Boundless and Bloomsbury Academic Publishing. Find him on twitter @AndyWPhilosophy

 

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