It was the biggest psychic whiplash since the last world war. After weeks of social isolation, confined in a limited space and forced to contingent relationships and without knowing when these limits will be removed, it is as if a large elastic band pulled to its maximum had come back from an infinite distance, removing the references. If in recent decades economic and technological law had pushed us beyond the confines of the here and now, in the parallel timelines of social networks, into narcissistic dreams of an artificially extended life and where globalization touched every aspect, shrinking the planet, Covid -19 suddenly closed this idea of limitlessness outside the door. We are forced to deal with finiteness, with a fragile body, within the small family network, to discover, every day more, that only the attention of others for us and ours for them can save us. And that what really matters is what we do with our time.
It seems like a step back, a retreat of autonomy, but there is an essay, This Life (Pantheon), published a few months ago by one of the most important contemporary philosophers, the Swedish Martin Hägglund – he is a professor at Yale and a member of Harvard’s “Society of Fellows” -, who proves the opposite, and which has sparked a critical debate and praises that have not been read in years. Independence, the dignity of our existence derive precisely from the finiteness of life and its necessary uncertainty, writes Hägglund; it is the fragility of oneself and of those we love that gives the motive and urgency to make life “ours”. Criticizing excesses of capitalist society and all religious faith in eternity, mixing the thoughts of Proust, Aristotle, Marx, Martin Luther King and Karl Ove Knausgard (the author of the monumental autobiography My battle), Hägglund wrote four hundred pages to reassure us, as well as convince us, of a fact: the limits of existence are a fundamental condition and premise of freedom, and a life deprived of the perception of danger has no sense of being lived. To imagine the profound changes left by Covid-19, the philosopher’s voice is as useful as that welcome red circle that, in the maps at the entrance to an immense or unknown garden, indicates you are here.
How can we live with the loss of limitlessness?
In This Life I try to show how our sense of finitude is the engine of interest in the other. Being finished means above all two things: depending on the other and living in relationship with death, and is intrinsically linked to the fact that what we do makes sense. We must take care of others because we can die and we must fight for what we believe in because only through our constant effort can it survive. And worry about what will be left to the next generations because the future is uncertain.
What could be the effect of having experienced one pandemic?
The pandemic makes finiteness even more palpable, but it must also remind us that interdependence and vulnerability are the basic conditions of existence. And it can do another thing, to remind us of something that under normal conditions we forget, namely that fragility and interconnection need new principles of social justice and material well-being. Suddenly the fundamental questions about the reorganization of society – how to live and work together – become urgent.
Opening: a shot by David Sims taken from Vogue Italia, November 2019.