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3:AM in Lockdown 10: Lee Rourke

Anxiety and the Writers I’ve Been Thinking of in a Time of Crisis…
By Lee Rourke.

Ever since the Coronavirus Lockdown I’ve been thinking a lot about this quotation from Blaise Pascal:

‘I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.’

Dodgy nouns and personal pronouns aside, there’s a lot of truth in this, when our essential freedoms are taken away all we are left with is ourselves, and our sense of our ‘self’ is a fragile thing. When we are faced with our ‘self’ we are faced with the anxiety of ‘nothingness’ apparent in our existence (Beckett called this the ‘tinnitus of existence’) — it nags away at us, becoming louder and louder and louder, and strange things begin to happen. Of course, Boredom always reveals itself in great waves. Yet, we are ill at ease with boredom. We can’t hack it. It fucks us up. So, we try to paper over these cracks with the company of others, the accumulation of things, and drugs, junk food, flash cars, and other forms escapism we can afford to consume. It’s no surprise to me — as mind-numbingly depressing as it is — that people are still out there on the streets in social groups, panic buying, flagrantly ignoring both social distancing and the gaping voids within them. How else can we explain the lemming-like actions of those morons queuing for hours for their final Big Mac Meal at McDonald’s before it shut down the other day? Oh, George A. Romero, so much to answer for.

The best way for me to describe our current situation is through Heidegger’s maxim: ‘We are suspended in dread’. And for most of us, with this dread comes crippling anxiety. Each morning I look at my hands: they are red raw with over-washing. The skin is dry and peeling, bursting with potential sores. My hands have become a focus of fascination for me: a Bataille-like base materiality of my mental state? Maybe. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I wash them each day. I must wash them in a strange miasma. It has become routine. The other night, quite out of the blue, the famous poem by Keats appeared in my head and I ran to my bookshelves to read it:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is—
I hold it towards you.

Oh, to be ‘conscience-calm’d’ right now in this strange state of suspension. I know I am suffering with chronic bouts of anxiety, I know I am ill with it, but I embrace it, and in a strange way it comforts me. These hands are mine.

It’s not all doom and gloom here, though: all my asthma medication has arrived, home-schooling the kids is ace, and I read this today, regarding Heidegger and anxiety and nothingness, from a Simon Critchley interview, which gives me strength:

‘Heidegger when he says, “Anxiety reveals the nothing.” And on one level I didn’t even know what that meant grammatically — what does that mean? But I knew intuitively what was at stake. Because I was suffering from profound anxiety, but it wasn’t linked to a fear of anything. So the first discovery I made, if you like, was making a distinction between fear and anxiety. Fear is always related to an object. So you can be scared of crocodiles or whatever, and if a crocodile is not there then you’re not scared. Anxiety has no relationship to a particular object. Anxiety’s a kind of general mood that one has in relationship to the world. And once you’ve got that, once you’ve made that discovery, then you’re no longer scared in the same way. Right? That’s good. So mostly we misdescribe anxiety as fear and we think that I feel the way I am because I’m scared of this or that or this person or that person. And then if you get rid of that, you realize that this is just what it means to kind of be alive. And to be happy with that, then you can lose your fear.’

So, let’s all stop being fearful of ourselves, and simply stay inside, let’s all calm down, as Gabriel Josipovici once said: ‘Everything passes. The good and the bad’. And it will pass. In the meantime, let’s all be alive and content in our rooms.

For now.

Lee Rourke

First posted: Saturday, March 28th, 2020.

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