Like Amiel, we find ourselves condemned to the frightening task of merely existing. We live with the vertiginous proximity of a sterile reclusion and a voracious death that every day devours more victims. We oscillate between being carefree and panicking, feeling guilty for being healthy and at home while around us the sick are succumbing as the reaper does his grim work. Each of our days is a colossal encyclopedia of nothingness, with the certainty that taking a shower, making a meal, getting some exercise, moving our armchair, or calling some friends to reassure them will constitute the only significant events. Intimations come to us that we might become heroes of extinction such as Oblomov, the famous character of Russian literature who deploys an enormous inertia in refusing to get up in the morning and just staying in bed. The larval life is a kind of asceticism, an answer to hysterical consumerism or romanticism. Sixty-seven million Frenchmen are being asked to make themselves into extremists of routine, for their own good. Our disarmed humanity is left at the mercy of some spittle.
I usually like Bruckner’s writing, but here he seems to have contracted a nasty case of performative French intellectualism. Earlier he reported that being confined with one’s spouse and/or children “can seem like a nightmare for many,” and that “we” have learned “love can survive wars, adultery, and conflict, but close confinement . . . not so much.” My man. Come on. Pull yourself together before I shoot you with a tranquilizer dart. Only boring people complain so vociferously about being bored by some downtime.
Thankfully, this pandemic appears to have reminded many people of a different Frenchman, one who makes much more cheerful company:
In each of these apothegms, we find evidence of what Keats would later call, in a letter to his brothers, “negative capability,” a notion that F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his essay “The Crack-Up,” summarized as the capacity to embrace two contradictory ideas at the same time and go on functioning. “Of Experience” is one of Montaigne’s gravest works—“We must learn to endure,” he writes, “what we cannot avoid”—but the writing is so vigorous, so uninterested in despair. In the end, we get the sense from the writing that the writing was Montaigne’s method of magnifying enjoyment. Reading him might be as good a way as any to suspend life’s flight.