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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome
Image credit: The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome by Jules-Elie Delaunay. Distributed under CC BY 4.0.

A Story of Confinement: Before, During and After

By Éva Abouahi

Éva Abouahi is a philosophy professor based in Reims. She is working on a dissertation on the idea of salvation in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre under the direction of Marc Crépon and Jean-François Louette.

Copyright © 2020 Éva Abouahi. Published under a Creative Commons (CC BY NC ND 4.0) license.

Today’s date is June 4th, 2020. The return to Reims is in the rain following my  first outing of more  than one hundred kilometers from the city. For a birthday party, everyone had what was needed. We quickly became aware of the uneasiness of this reunion, of the difficulty to stay at a distance while talking to one another. The habits that protect us are not yet ingrained. Habits are hard to beat, but they need a certain longue durée to become “second nature.” It will take time to get used to living in society otherwise if the various  phases of the “Covid-19” era are more than mere  moments of a parenthesis that will soon close. 

It is early June 2020, and I am returning to my hometown, Sarreguemines. It will be  an opportunity to think back on the past several weeks. weeks that have been demarcated from one another by words and dates. Confinement, March 16 – May 11, de-confinement, May 11 to  June 2, 2020. June 2 in the  evening, everyone shares their opinion, and it feels good. We heard in the media that some opinions did not deserve to be heard: too privileged, not intellectual enough, etc. Old divides came back up to the surface, so clear,  like a reassuring road map when our  bearings are lost. Who is the intellectual? Who can claim a monopoly on speech? What does “being at war with the Coronavirus” mean? The crisis is health related, political, economic… It is, in a more general sense, human. At the heart of these various  fields of action, production, and power, the crisis  is, of course, of the order of language. Platforms are plural. Whether speech is strangled by the worn mask, or chopped up by the saturation of various apps, it spreads out and deserves to be listened to, no matter where it comes from— from anyone, and whatever its location.

In Sarreguemines, invited guests speak without restraint. So-and-so was afraid of becoming an alcoholic. Another one did not understand post-confinement melancholia. So-and-so read a lot, did not listen to the radio much, did not really like online happy hours. Another one claims to be “disgusted” by the lynching of a French woman by Germans in the town of Saarbrücken. These are stories among others, and it is important to hear them. They allow me to put my own experience into perspective and to realize that I could very well relate it here, with the others. Not because my speech is more legitimate than theirs, but because it helps to share one’s lived experience, in tune with others and singular only relative to others. 

Thursday March 12th, 2020 in the evening: televised allocution by Emmanuel Macron. I am coming from a long day of classes and oral examinations. I teach in CPGE in two Reims high schools: Lycée Jean-Jaurès and Lycée Georges-Clemenceau. I’m finished with my first years in EC where students study for their business schools entrance exams. For a week now we have been asking ourselves when “stage 3” will start. I start to see students wearing masks. I remember to wash my hands more often, to not speak too close to my interlocutors. I’m struck: I didn’t  use to think about it like that. I still meet my friends outside of  school. In Paris, as in Reims, worries about our new lives are unsettling. But our uncertainties are such that we cannot quite  believe it. In a show on France Culture, a young Chinese man from Wuhan recounts similar conversations, implicitly describing how these statements were linked to official discourses. 

It is true that on March 12,at  8:30pm, our  relationships to our lives, to others, and to the world were significantly changed. We know the weight of the words of a speech, at least theoretically. The words of “the Appeal of June 18” and of André Malraux’s funeral oration for Jean Moulin still echo, even though they come  from another century. We might also recall Daladier’s radio speeches from September 1939. Are we in the same situation? The words of the current president, “we are at war,” caused a stir. In their midst, questions: are we really at war? Are we still at war as we enter “progressive de-confinement”? 

My life changed on March 12, 2020, and even more on March 14, 2020. My work on my dissertation, at school and at the library, assumes new forms. I “telecommute.” Students draw on their remarkable resources so as not to lose track of their exams. I teach “remotely,” and I work on my dissertation by reading “better” what I already had at home. I read Sartre’s War Diaries with fresh eyes. I think my daily life is upended, but it remains very bourgeois: I am lucky to live through the situation comfortably, even if my living environment also limits my perception and puts it into question. 

I live through confinement well enough to ask: is Covid-19 a kind of “third world war,” of “World War III”? I would not be asking this question if I suffered from unbearable solitude or feared not being able to provide for my family. I work in the public sector. I don’t have to  worry about meeting basic household needs. And I must confess: I don’t  feel like I’m living  in wartime. However, I can see a little more clearly how everything hangs on what is playing out outside my home. I am not at any point afraid for my life,but I make myself stay in my apartment and don’t risk contaminating it with someone else. “Nous sommes comme des pestiférés, » wrote soldier Sartre in 1939. I remember these words, but I realize that they don’t concern me. I don’t know if I’m  an “asymptomatic carrier” of the “disease”; everyone can be, which means that the distinction between military personnel and civilians, friends and enemies, doesn’t apply. The lexical field changes. The military language is heard and read less often, even if we let ourselves get caught up in the daily updates of Covid-19’s macabre statistics…. 

… “du Covid” or “de la Covid » ? The word’s gender changes during confinement. We feminize the virus without too much difficulty, more easily than other terms. We apparently neutralize the problem through habit. It’s a matter of language; it’s not done without words: neither the pandemic nor its anchoring in language and in stories should be quashed into docile silence. 

Not that one should reject silence. I was silent, including when I was afraid for those around me who had come down with Covid. This is the first time I am writing it down and trying to transcribe my experience. 

It is also the first time, during this time of “remote” work, that I am teaching most of my classes in the silence of the written word. My relationship to my job has changed. It is easier to ignore the line separating my work hours from my  non-work hours. On this point, the “Corona” and the times of confinement will endure. This point, in connection with others, will haunt  us for a long time, perhaps  with less anxiety, but surely not with no anxiety. Today I am no longer afraid for my loved ones, but I am sensitive to the anxiety I feel around me and on the inside. I believe it has to do with two phrases that have been following me, along with Marx and Sartre, for the last several years: “changing the world”, “changing life.” Both use the same pivotal verb, which functions like an injunction and opens so many perspectives amid all the confusion of the possible and the impossible.  

I always struggled to equate anxiety with a “fundamental affliction” that reveals our “being-toward-death.” And yet, it was a matter of death, between March and May 2020…. But, for me, it was the death of others: not mine. Anxiety speaks to me in its resonance with freedom, freedom of individual and collective responsibility. It asks the question, so personal and so political, of the conditions of change. 

How to re-vitalize our era? Or else: how to give birth to a new era? Whatever the case, it  will not be done without finding a different way to listen to spoken and written language. Sensitively listening to “who” speaks, to the object of discourse, the frame that surrounds it, the similarities with other discourses. A “politics of prose” that does not fall into nihilism, but addresses the urgent demand to “think and rethink” the political, without separating it from its entanglement with language. In this way, maybe we could be more attentive to the mechanisms of ignorance that separate us from what we produce: the pandemics and the death of a time our knowledge of which is so little. In this way, we could perceive tomorrows that,though they do not sing, can at least “talk.” Not only letting people “chat,” but listening to the legitimate speech of every one, such that “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow” can truly speak to all. 

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