Nonetheless, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts…. And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, he knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; and that perhaps it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.
The End, The Plague, Albert Camus, 1947
The city of Oran. All real cities are mythical and vice versa. In a moment they can cease to exist, even while it takes decades to build them and inject them with dreams and insomnia. It can just take a war or an epidemic to eliminate the city, except in memory.
The city of Oran, a port city in the northwest Algeria on which Camus based this epical short novel on the cholera epidemic that killed most of Oran’s population in 1849 following French colonization. The novel is located in the time and space of the 1940s, with fascism looming large as a sinister but inevitable shadow over Europe.
Have you seen Warsaw’s memory in its own self-consciousness? The entire city ravaged to the ground by the fascists, 50,000 valiant Polish soldiers and civilians martyred, yet again a great betrayal by Stalin with the Red Army just across the border on the war map. And the entire Jewish quarter of 500,000 citizens, ghettoized, isolated and quarantined, then eventually transported to the death camps and gas chambers of Adolf Hitler’s Holocaust.
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Warsaw, mutiliated and brutalised, like a distorted and abstract sculpture in a black and white picture turning sepia – almost like Aleppo in modern Syria, its fate worse than that of Warsaw.
Have we learnt anything from history, really? Has human civilization, with its missiles, nuclear bombs and weapons of mass destruction, its great scientific achievements, if not savvy hi-tech super power monopolies, picked up threads and clues from the crossword puzzles of its battered history?
Two world wars, one Holocaust, new maps and mappings drawn with blood across vast terrains of unnumbered human graveyards of utter silence, as in Bosnia-Herzegovina and around its borders; thousands of massacres, including state-sponsored genocides, destruction of entire civilizations, geographies, cultures and human settlements, libraries, museums, universities, schools and art galleries in the Middle-east led by the neo-con American war machine propelled by Samuel Huntington’s dubious thesis of the ‘clash of civilizations’.
That is, the American arms and culture industry constantly looking for a new enemy, from James Bond to George Bush and Dick Cheney, even Barack Obama. This has become an art form and a con game, including in pulp fiction Hollywood, constantly looking for ‘blood for oil’ and new macabre theatres to enact its grotesque and cold-blooded orchestra through its war machine.
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Prophets and mushy bestseller ‘thinkers’, masters of kitsch and master-minds of eternal conformism, are already predicting a rosy picture, willfully choosing to ignore the bitter realism of contemporary global society in its multipolar methods of madness. Some of them will soon find themselves glorified as the 20 most powerful ‘thinkers’ on glossy covers of sanitized magazines, adorning the coffee tables of the insulated rich and famous. One of them, among others, are predicting the usual kitsch: that now the world will become more reflective and introspective, people will read good books, listen to classical music, rethink their positions on urbanity, modernity, global warming and ecology, become less selfish, more humane, less individualistic, more collective, that they will demand peace, not war, equality not the vast disparity which is entrenched now, justice not injustice, knowledge not mediocrity. That the pandemic would teach the global civilization to be more heteregenous, less one-dimensional, dogmatic and shallow, less ultra-nationalistic and more do with humility, softer and sensuous sensibilities sans borders.
That, basically, we will all become better human beings.
I presume these prophets should just pick up a seminal book, and written not by a Marxist, prescribed in every social science course in all sensible universities: The Theory of the Leisure Class, first published in 1899. If you reinterpret its theory it will be as simple as this: So why do rich people spend such exorbitant sums of money eating food in luxury hotels? Because: it is not simply food, it is the ambience of the fancy interiors, the manifest prosperity of a shared class position, the insatiability of desire whereby one desire can only replace another, the assertion of the status quo.
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So what would a bunch of poor, homeless, hungry people and kids, looking through the glass of this luxurious piece of grand architecture, think about it all: they will reproduce their own emaciated identities, their marginalized helplessness, their abysmal human condition, their own abject absence of humanity, and, above all, their own class position, in this “feudal-barbaric” contradiction of brazen human inequality.
It is one ambience versus another ambience, one history versus another, one country versus another country – with the glass wall as the line of actual control. Check out the contrast between those who live in high-rise buildings and those who are walking down below, migrant workers, often barefoot, with sacks on their heads, as if in a funeral procession driven by death wish.
Writes Jorge Luis Borges (Selected Non-Fictions), “In this book from 1899, Veblen discovers and defines the leisure class, whose strange obligations is the ostentatious spending of money. Thus they live in a certain neighbourhood because that neighbourhood is famous for being the most expensive. Liebermann or Picasso charge huge sums, not because they are greedy, but rather so as not to disappoint the buyers, whose intention is to demonstrate that they are able to pay for a canvas that bears the painter’s signature. According to to Veblen, the success of golf is due to the circumstances that it requires a great deal of land…”
So, will human civilization become better post-pandemic? There is no reason to believe in this hyper-optimism.
In contrast, due to the depression/recession, the supply and demand chain will become more perverse and anarchic, the economic slump will lead to a rapid onslaught of the greed and profit machine, States will become more repressive and clampdowns might follow, surveillance will become the new normal, the arms industry will come back with a bang looking for new terrains to create many more Warsaws and Aleppos, the pharma and drugs industry will tighten and expand its jaws with new regulations, trafficking would increase, including sex trafficking and slave trafficking, refugees and boat people will cross unmanned boundaries on turbulent oceans and the sea, and the ‘reconstruction industry’ so parasitic and intrinsic to the war industry, will once again flourish in the conflict zones.
In two sentences, the world will become starkly more short, nasty and brutish, more and more Hobbesian, and it will simply come back to do what it has been doing all this while. The pandemic will be just another flash in the pan, reinforcing old, clichéd and inevitable stereotypes, in more vicious and diabolical forms.
However, the virus will remain. Inside the political and social unconscious of human society, in the expressways of forced migrations and lockdowns, in the soul of our pathetic civilizations, inside the skin of the eyes and nails, between the fingers and eyelids, buried inside ironed clothes in cupboards and trunks, and inside the pages of history. Like the last page of The Plague by Albert Camus.