Existential Waters

Posted in Book reviews, Figuratively Speaking, On writing at 7:24 am by Marion



Today, for the first time in several weeks, I’m not sweating blood to meet a deadline, or tearing through piles of receipts for taxes. Heck, I may even have finished the article I’ve been working on for several months!

And so I’m sitting at my desk, getting ready to take out the garbage and recycling, and about to start work on a Web writing assignment. And maybe take a long run later today. And that’s it.

In a big-picture way, I’m feeling pretty “free.”

… but not in the existential sense.

Why not, then, take a look at what we mean by free … and why we never really are.

In college, I was a devoted French major, with a minor in Political Science. I also have a master’s degree in French literature and language. I know, it sounds so, well, frou-frou. But when I was offered a choice in school at age 14 and someone said “French” I knew it was all over.

My French I class was heaven … and I dreamed of the castles and art museums, all the beautiful ladies who lived there, the incredible literature like Eugene Ionesco (The Bald Soprano) and Albert Camus (The Plague, The Stranger, The Fall).

French took me far from the tobacco fields where I grew up, and out of the small town, split by railroad tracks, where I lived. Before it was over, I was living in France. For two years, including a year in Paris.

I was a big fan of Albert Camus. Most of us know him as an “existential” writer, along with Jean Paul Sartre. But the two could not have been more different.

My soft spot for Mr. Camus comes from his masterful novel, The Plague, and the tender way he writes about humankind. On the surface, “The Plague” tells of a deadly disease that strikes a village in Algeria. The main characters are doctors working there.

This novel is often considered the epitome of existential writing, but let me say it’s quite simply a very very excellent book.

What makes it a keystone novel for philosophy is that the characters don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out why the pestilence persists. Nor do they wail about their lot. They accept it, working humbly and without fireworks, saving people, one day at the time.

I’ll never forget the scene in which the doctor goes into the ocean for a swim one night. Exhilarated by the freedom of body and movement in the cool water, he feels a temporary, but profound, sense of joy and release.

That night he is free. The next day, he is back at the bedside of his dying, suffering, patients, working against the overwhelming tide of plague that threatens to overwhelm them.

So today, I take my swim. I will breathe and write without constraints of time or cruel editors. I will take big deep breaths of fresh spring air and not think about anything beyond what’s in eyesight. I will be free.

1 Comment

  1. Gene-o said,

    April 10, 2009 at 8:03 am

    This is such a perfect column for today, and breath of fresh, free air. Maybe something’s going on with the full moon, but yesterday was chock-a-block for me: not only the usual eight hours of work but also two handymen in the house all day, which meant frequent interruptions to answer questions or check in on them or keep the dog out of their way. Then, after work, vacuuming and cleaning up the detritus from the many projects the handymen had completed, then driving out into the country to pick up a desk that had been refinished, then coming back to tend the yard and walk the dog again. I could’ve used another three or four hours to tackle a research paper for class, but time and energy ran out. So, thanks for the timely reminder: After a stretch like this, we need to give ourselves the freedom to just be free!