Tomasz Stawiszyński is a Polish philosopher and a columnist on philosophy.
EWA KALETA: You are a pessimist, at least that is how you describe yourself. You don’t have the illusion of an optimistic mask of the world and you concentrate in your writing on the dark side of reality. Were you surprised by the pandemic?
TOMASZ STAWISZYŃSKI: I’m a realist. I guess realism is easily confused with pessimism nowadays. And indeed, for years now I explored the subject of how we banish death from the culture and how our frailty, helplessness and susceptibility to illness does not fit a world oriented on success, performance and profit.
I have the impression that until recently these [problems] were mostly experienced by those who had been touched by a crisis or a lack of luck, those people from an unfavoured background or those expelled from the system, [or] the old the sick, the poor. Somehow, the fact that on the surface of social life all appeared to be quite well, resulted in the truth about the human condition becoming knowledge that was held by [only] a few.
And different narratives supported this. For example, those who state that one makes one’s own fortune, that diet and lifestyle give us eternal life, that the power of positive thinking will solve all problems. It’s a paradox, isn’t it?
The most obvious part of the human condition, such as death, weakness, helplessness, became a sort of esoteric knowledge accessed by a few.
But now everyone is suddenly experiencing enlightenment and some are shocked indeed.
I myself experienced calmness. Quite paradoxically, despite some fear at the beginning, there were moments when I felt like it’s been quiet for a while.
I guess that many people with neurotic tendencies felt like this. They had lived with a sense of contradiction, because the world was running as normal. People appeared to be functioning quite well and neurotics were haunted by fear and a lack of certainty. A thought that it might all collapse crawled under their skin and when it happened, they were indeed allowed to exhale freely.
Sadly, this kind of relief or calmness is to be short-lived. We are afraid mostly of the unknown. And not only the future after the pandemic is uncertain, but also, the longer the restrictions are in place the less clear the future is.
Don’t you have an impression that two weeks have passed and we’re past all the questions about the virus and all the possible scenarios were processed? We do yoga, we learn how to bake bread. We know what was predicted for the future, so we know what to expect. We have self-improved; we have got the lesson and we are ready to get back with life. But we can’t – and that is where the void waits for us.
Absolutely. But I think that the heart of the problem is that we lack any language to describe what we are experiencing - the anxiety, helplessness, mortality, diseases – other than in a therapeutic approach. By this, I mean a way that addresses the crisis as part of tackling it.
And what we actually need is a perspective allowing us to talk about a situation that won’t be overcame or at least it won’t happen in any foreseeable future.
We are stuck under quarantine. We have no idea how long it will last. We cannot answer that feeling of endangerment and there is no way of ‘getting a grip’ and coming back to everyday life, because it is everyday life itself that got disorganised.
Western culture considers pain and crisis as something that precedes a triumph. It might be a story about how one’s suffering makes one nobler, a tale of a post-mortem award or a pop-psychological narrative about incredible chances offered to us after a short period of suffering.
The crisis is a short-lived, temporary state followed by a revival. But quite often it isn’t - and that’s a big problem. That’s when we find ourselves short of words and it aggravates the crisis.
Isn’t it the language of mourning or loss?
These were banished from our culture. Philippe Ariès, a terrific French historian, wrote about it in the previous century. Loss and grief have been privatised, transformed from a communal experience into something that one must deal with individually. Pain is something that raises anxiety and is distanced in a community, because these narratives I mentioned earlier are concealing that there is such a thing as death, and all other difficult, dramatic aspects of human life for that matter.
However, even if we had any developed symbolic forms allowing us to express grief – and I think that they are going to be developed soon – it is too early for that.
For the moment, we are in a phase of denial. We hold on to an assumption that it is all temporary, it is all an interruption and soon we will be back on track. We cover the anxiety with enthusiasm, even with euphoria.
One of many examples – a famous psychologist stated that the coronavirus was ‘a huge ally’ of hers, because she could learn from it. I won’t even start on how indecent it is to say such a thing when this ‘ally’ of hers causes numerous deaths and brings excruciating pain to families. The thing is that this kind of myth may be explored by those who are privileged, because they have financial and symbolic means allowing them not to worry about the future.
For many it is a period of darkness, full of anxiety, fear and of confrontation with what we believed to be long expelled to the underworld. France reports that domestic violence has risen. We’re still in denial, the time for mourning is still ahead of us.
Once the pandemic passes, once it’s allowed to leave the house again. In my opinion, it is going to be the very moment of the deepest depression and breakdown. Many will lose their loved ones; some will experience difficulties due to isolation. And we will all face significant economic consequences.
We are frozen now, but still semi-mobilised by visions of overcoming the virus and succeeding against the pandemic. All that ‘once it’s over, I’ll do this or that’. What I am concerned about is that this is going to be the moment exactly when all that has happened will hit us hard.
People already start to experience longing. Some miss their moms, others long for fresh air. It’s the first time many people have experienced really longing for something and not being able to address it.
If I were to forget about my standing and point to advantages of the current situation, I’d say it is a sort of a memento. It disclosed a genuine hierarchy of values, separated things that are really important from those which are not.
It revealed how absurd our reality was, the world built on pursuit of profit, busy with accumulating all wealth in the hands of a select few and massively exploiting the others. It’s also shown through our belief that life is something solid and given once and for all.
Did you long for something really palpably?
I think it is the spontaneity of everyday life. After all, every day had a certain spectrum of choices which are limited now. I long for contact with my loved ones, of course. Not on-line or by phone, however the situation has revealed how great these are, but the simplest, physical, real contact.
I wonder how the world will change. I think that once the epidemic is over, we might witness a renaissance of the values associated with conservatism, of family. Or maybe it’s going to be quite the opposite?
I think this pandemic will dissolve very different beliefs, even these which appear to be contradictory. Family bonds might prove to be valuable, but also to have a dark side. Some people have to confront what they refused to acknowledge. For example, that family, considered to be saintly, untouchable, the cornerstone of everything, might be a mess of toxic emotions, abuse and fear. On the other hand, it might be that many progressives who refused to engage in family life may find that they actually need it.
What is certain is that we are confronted with a myth of awesomeness and equity of the world we have been living in until now. Will it bring any change? It might, but I’m concerned with a significant risk that the pathologies which are revealed now will entrench themselves even further.
What I see entrenched is hate. We’ve moved online and we are in search of a scapegoat.
I’m reading Jean Delumeau’s “Fear in the Western Culture”, a fantastic book with quite a lot about how different outbreaks were answered. We might extract its essence here: once the structure of social norms breaks, different impulses and forces which were kept at bay before are suddenly released and start to wreak havoc. The reality resembles its own reverse, a dark carnival, a nightmare. In such a landscape every fear is multiplied, and fear of death even more so.
And we know well, that there is no better way of answering anxiety than finding someone who is to be blamed, named, made responsible and finally punished. That brings relief and the feeling of regaining control.
And the internet, where we immerse ourselves now, has always been a space of violence and hatred. There is no reason to believe that it will chance. Quite the contrary, I’d expect that all the dark features of the virtual reality are to be exacerbated. We have seen the first examples. I think about professor Wojciech Rokita’s suicide after he was literally lynched on-line after testing positive for coronavirus.
Now teachers involved with public broadcaster’s lessons are being targeted. I was horrified when I saw on Facebook how many of my friends joined the lynch mob.
My impression is that the internet in Poland – and it involves the social sphere of large-city intelligentsia as well – is characterised by two emotions, or rather two emotional standings: indignation and sneering.
Both are highly contagious, and both involve a snow-ball effect. A phenomenon of collective indignation or sneering, released because someone did or said something not in line with the social group’s norm of what is allowed and what is not, is as common among right-wingers as on the liberal left. It’s simple: disdain for discussion, lack of understanding of different points of view and an emphatic moralism across every border in our society.
I encourage everyone to be vigilant about it and to never join these rituals of collective self-reassurance in intellectual and moral superiority. It doesn’t matter who is right. It should be avoided because we can never tell how it’s going to end for someone who is in the eye of such a storm.
How do you contain your own dark side, especially now, when it’s all so difficult?
I try not to forget that it is there, as far as possible. That I am – as is everyone, not only those who are my political adversaries – capable of violence and might be wrong, that I hold no monopoly on truth. That I could be illusioned by my self-confidence and that the history of humanity is far from decent.
Many groups have been recently launched on-line. Some allow their members to discuss the virus, others focus only on creative and supportive initiatives or on the mishandling of the crisis by the authorities. But nearly every single one states that there is a side to the epidemic that should not be discussed.
We react to difficulties in different ways. One form of addressing trouble is to create an orthodoxy and to hold to it tightly. This phenomenon was present – how does it sound! – in the pre-pandemic era, when here and there it was forbidden to communicate things that were not constructive, optimistic and goal-oriented. Or to avoid evil, pessimism and defeatism at all cost.
What you have mentioned appears to be a simple transfer of this magical thinking structure into a new reality. Somewhere at its base lies an archaic precognition that words carry a causative power and when something is not mentioned, a danger disappears.
At first glance it seems to be a harmless superstition but there is a totalitarian side to it. A prohibition on speech, on the usage of certain words, on the focus on some areas of reality, is a feature of totalitarian regimes. One does not need to look far – recently in Turkmenistan the word ‘coronavirus’ has been banished. An orientation on criticising the ruling party only, the refusal to accept that political adversaries might do something right, is exactly the same thing.
What are you confronted with during this period?
With mortality, mostly. My own and of my loved ones. The fact, that life is temporary and it is going to end. That the future is unknown, and my plans may turn out to be impossible.
Have you discovered any new needs during the pandemic?
They are not new but have become somewhat clearer, except for obvious things, such as a need of to be close and to spend more time with loved ones. This odd period has somehow activated my metaphysical interests. I do not believe in a personalised god, but I do experience what might be called a radical oddness of existence. It’s not about how the world is, what makes it mystical, but that it exists, as Wittgenstein once said and I could not agree more.
In Wittgenstein’s philosophy it means something like ‘escaping the boundaries of what can be said.’ That is how I would describe that feeling – as something beyond words, something at the foundations of what we are capable of naming and understanding. Immersed in everyday life, we push these thoughts far aside, but now, in this limbo, it reveals itself. Sadly, it has not much in common with an image of a beardy all-father, who has been looking after us from the heavens.
What was the moment of awakening?
Images from Italy. But still some of European countries did not treat it seriously enough at first. I think it reflects this kind of collective denial and carelessness, precognition that everything that we have is given to us once and for all, obvious and non-discussible, which Christopher Lasch wrote about in the 1970s. It was excellently portrayed in one of the scenes in the ingenious Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, when content members of the middle class are visited by personified death and they have no idea what’s happening.
It's sad, but a high peak of the epidemic, which could have been prevented if we had reacted earlier and more decisively, is the price we have to pay for being reminded of the very basic truths of existence.
It’s difficult not to treat it as time given for learning or change, as we have to hold on to something. Do you think that there is any chance for any improvement post-pandemic?
Hardly, but not none at all. Maybe we’ll appreciate that the world we lived in and the values guiding it were heartless and inhumane, that a community might be built on a cornerstone of helplessness and frailty that is common to every human being, instead of on greed and exploitation. But humanity has dreamt of something like that since forever, at least since different utopias were invented. And none of these came into fruition. That brings us back to the beginning – realism today is no different from pessimism.
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