“If, by some chance, one of us tried to unburden himself or to say something about his feelings, the reply he got, whatever it might be, usually wounded him. And then it dawned on him that he and the man with him weren’t talking about the same thing. For while he himself spoke from the depths of long days of brooding upon his personal distress, and the image he had tried to impart had been slowly shaped and proved in the fires of passion and regret, this meant nothing to the man to whom he was speaking, who pictured a conventional emotion, a grief that is traded on the market-place, mass-produced. Whether friendly or hostile, the reply always missed fire, and the attempt to communicate had to be given up.”
~Albert Camus, The Plague (1947, Modern Library, NY: p. 69 [emphases mine])
Several aspects of this quote reflect themes prominently found in Camus’ The Plague. The isolating aspect of pestilence is particularly insufferable and this, time and again, goes well beyond the expected ‘conventional emotions’. In connection, the lack of adequate sympathy is exacerbated for while each suffers from the same fears and many of the same restrictions imposed by plague – their experiences drive them farther apart. It is, in fact, this being driven apart that unites these members of the plague-stricken town. One would expect, then, that sympathy (feeling with the other) is natural in such circumstances.
But it seems that, if we are to agree with Camus’ narrative, sympathy in suffering is extremely difficult to communicate – most especially so by means of words. In the case of such isolation, these words take on a precision sharpened by one’s isolation. The depth of this isolation is felt more sharply when one finds that the meaning associated with these terms – the deep feeling behind them – is understood in the most general manner. The communicant is stunned to find that where the medium of language should allow for communication, the generalizing nature of language drives them farther from communication – from truly sharing the other’s feeling.
To step into the personal/practical, I often wonder how to communicate with the grieving. It seems ‘being there’ in principal means community members see to clear needs and each provides space should the grief-stricken approach. But in such moments, I find myself unable to bridge the gap – to truly understand being generalities what the other is experiencing. In a similar position I would perhaps describe such pains as being separated from some important aspect of myself…but such rational expression (again the idea of ‘ratio’ or measure) never manages to scale what is being experienced. Perhaps we never know our feelings until after we are finished experiencing them in full vigor. It ‘s rather like what C.S. Lewis had to say about toothache; while experiencing toothache one cannot think of anything but the pain — the concrete.
This is what I ‘ve most valued in The Plague; considering the place abstraction has in our concrete experiences of affliction. We communicate abstractions but we are concerned with the concrete. Is the isolation then abstract or concrete? It is experienced concretely, but acutely driven home by abstraction – by the fact that all rationalizations fail. The mind is unable to give full and lasting reprieve from what is being experienced. In a case where the suffering is isolation (from one’s loved ones, one’s expectations, and therefore a certain view of one’s relation to reality – the expectation of the future) – abstraction offers little reprieve in communication.
It acutely describes the failure of words – words only serve as a medium when they are understandable. This is only possible when we have managed to funnel meaning through them so that the concrete can be expressed. In order to do so, abstraction must occur and such a medium paints a raging sea with one chalk on a flat slate.