Truth is stranger than fiction. And some truths are frightening and Kafkaesque. One of such alarming truths is the emergence of the novel coronavirus which has surfaced more than a year and half ago. I would like to refer to the outbreak of coronavirus or covid-19 as Kafkaesque because it is both normal and bizarre at the same time. It is normal in the sense that pandemics do recur from time to time as other plagues did in the past. It is also bizarre since its mysterious spread threw humanity all of a sudden into a turbulent whirlpool of unprecedented events, threatening man’s very existence. With casualties and infections numbering in millions so far, the current scenario looks as if human freedom, hope, choices, ambitions and life’s meaning have been trapped in labyrinthine complexities.
As the virus doesn’t yet appear to wane without stopping to mutate into new variants now and then, the existing circumstances have become all the more uncertain and enigmatic. Though the scientists are hopeful that the present situation is likely to improve further towards normalcy once winter has passed and covid will eventually turn into endemic and seasonal, the socio-economic condition of the world seems to take a longer time to get better. Consequently, the pandemic existential woes glaringly point out some unsettling truths a la Kafkaesque narrative. For example, this zoonotic calamity has already pushed many into poverty and bankruptcy which, like Kafka’s insect-turned-Samsa, are left more or less to fend for themselves – almost isolated and unconcerned by the society they belong.
Reminiscent of Kafka’s country doctor, many health care professionals wanted to help out the covid stricken patients honestly but the overwhelming contaminations panned out to be beyond their control not only to treat the ill deftly but also to protect the unfortunate like Kafka’s Rosa, who fall prey unwittingly to criminal minds. A handful of innocent people similar to Josef K. continue to face unwarranted harassment in the viral pandemonium of apathy and callousness only to meet their tragic destiny at the whims of some insensitive policemen. Few like the protagonist K. of ‘The Castle’ struggle amidst the overly restrictive covid protocols against the indifferent attitudes of certain sloppy-minded bureaucrats and fail miserably, suffering in pain and anger.
With such unanticipated incidents unfolding more often in our presence, we are forced to ponder as to how best we would be able to advance the aspirations and purposes of our lives in the ensuing milieu. Much of the covid scene on the world stage is still replete with mounting instances of joblessness, household breakdowns, mental health issues and most prominently, despair. Another inconvenient reality is that the pandemic, or at least its aftereffects, don’t show the signs of disappearing shortly. Therefore, it is nearly undeniable that we can’t but coexist with coronavirus and see that matters pertaining to the fundamentals of life are not compromised.
Considering the real-time picture about how things are going, it is imperative to explore psychological and philosophical dimensions of existence for reflection, introspection and resilience because a stable frame of mind is the precursor of the will to live well. It is in this context that I prefer to dwell on the exceptional conceptions of three Nobel prize-winning novelists – Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Jose Saramago – and I am sure that their ideas will help us understand the pandemic better from an existentialist angle and get over the crisis in a finer way, confidently and meaningfully.
Sartre’s assertion that ‘existence precedes essence’ has been universally impactful. While ensuring that existence is secure, avoiding irrational fears and actions related to coronavirus, and managing rational anxieties. Following pandemic guidelines and appropriate covid behaviour, one has to simultaneously make his road to essence (what he wants to become in life) clear and feasible for finding purposes and meaning. Sartre’s idea is that one should chase essence by making use of his freedom, which he is condemned to. Sartre exhorts that there should be no fear in what the individual would strive for, albeit without causing inconvenience to fellow man. Sartre also strongly encourages humanity to make choices freely, but the range of choices depends upon the options that one has to choose from.
Self-imposed unnecessary restrictions, unscientific belief systems and illogical superstitions, as Sartre implies, need to be eschewed, especially during the trying pandemic, so that options are not downsized for making choices. It is only during critical situations like covid rage that one is acutely aware of the extent and value of freedom, and he should use it judiciously. Such conscious initiatives facilitate and widen the scope to engage freely in the chosen endeavours. Sartre reminds us time and again that there are infinite choices with no restrictions, and one has to act to become what he wants to be. Refusing to acknowledge or search for alternate options amounts to what Sartre calls “living in bad faith”. And it means that none is responsible for obstructing one’s freedom but himself, irrespective of whether there is a pandemic or not.
On the other hand, Camus’ philosophy throws light through a different perspective in order to enable one to get on with unfree and uncomfortable world. Camus posits, ‘the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion. There was man-made unfreedom even before the coronavirus appeared. The only difference is that the intensity of unfreedom has increased during the pandemic on a global scale.
In Camusian perception, disastrous and unimagined occurrences such as wars or the covid waves are not uncommon. Like a pessimist who invented a safety valve or parachute, Camus discovers divergent methods to derive solutions. His reasoning propels us to appreciate that man can find meaning even in such a calamitous juncture as the present covid spell through what he famously stated as ‘rebellion’. This rebellion is not about politics or economy but fighting against odds, one confronts while tracking his own freedom in an absurd life and universe. Following Camusian postulation, one may – like Sisyphus who was sentenced to roll a rock uphill for eternity, accept life’s absurdities including the temporary pandemic and should overcome it through revolt and freedom for pursuing passions.
Though covid rendered most societies unpredictable and chaotic, more so at the time of its peak, throwing hospitals and health systems in disarray, there is still abundant optimism we can exude if we go by how Saramago dissects and examines the nature of disorder. He treats chaos as order which is yet to be deciphered. Thus going by his cues, we can understand the pandemic merely as a disorderly phase, waiting to be set in order. The proposition that ‘confusion precedes composure’ realistically brings the fate of covid to its logical end.
When the World Health Organisation declared coronavirus outbreak a pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, there was a panicky atmosphere all over with perplexity among the scientists and doctors about how to disable the high-risk virus. It was a period of utter chaos and horrendous confusion. Since a year passed, the world has been able to achieve many successes including vaccines and drugs and is now in a more assured position to deal with the viral uncertainty efficiently, as has already been being evident. There are more chances, as the scientists confirmed, that the virus gets feebler with its successive mutations if any or not as the vaccination is speeding up, immunity levels rising and curative procedures improving. While the restoration of total order is on the cards very soon, it will be quite easier that one can handle the Kafkaesque existence and absurd essence successfully in a desired fashion.
About the Author
B. Maria Kumar is a retired police officer from India. A freelance author, he frequently writes critiques and commentaries on socioeconomic and philosophical matters.