Of the time we have left

Modifié le : 2019/08/04

Com­plet­ed the read­ing of Ill­ness, from Havi Carel. I had heard this woman in a news report on a rare orphan dis­ease. As a young phi­los­o­phy teacher, she believed she was in per­fect health, mas­ter of her means, was ath­let­ic, and ate well. And then, sud­den­ly, she ran out of breath. From the first race, she often found her­self in the back, suf­fo­cat­ed by effort. The diag­no­sis was not long in com­ing : Lym­phan­gi­oléiomy­omatose (or LAM), which is char­ac­ter­ized by a grad­ual chok­ing of the lungs by mys­te­ri­ous cysts. Known treat­ment : none. Chance of sur­vival : three, five, ten years…

Her book starts at the begin­ning, almost word for word what she said in the report as if she had recount­ed or reliv­ed ad nau­se­am this episode of her life, her reac­tions of fear, anguish, and amaze­ment at the obser­va­tion. In a short time, she was equipped with an oxy­gen bot­tle. From a “liv­ing” per­son, she has become a “being on probation.”

The orig­i­nal­i­ty, if I may say so, of this book is that it is writ­ten by a philoso­pher used to “dis­cours­es” about exis­tence. Why do we live, why do we die, what is the right way to live ? These ques­tions, which revolve around the quest for mean­ing, were quick­ly con­front­ed by Carel’s bru­tal real­i­ty of a degen­er­a­tive dis­ease. This is fol­lowed, over the pages, by a phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal descrip­tion of the dis­ease, a reflec­tion on our atti­tude towards our body. The author talks about Mer­leau-Pon­ty, Descartes, Hei­deg­ger, Hegel, Niet­zsche, and, final­ly, Epicure.

Many will rec­og­nize them­selves in this first part of the book, those who have quick­ly been deprived of their phys­i­cal abil­i­ties (through dis­abil­i­ty or ill­ness) and those who are slow­ly aging. Our body is our ship. Through it, our exis­tence moves in a uni­verse of pos­si­bil­i­ties, in real­i­ty, pro­ject­ing itself into an ever promis­ing future. When every­thing is going well, our minds leap, anguish like a teenag­er, twists with pain for dif­fi­cul­ties that he can nev­er­the­less over­come. But when the body is no longer there, walls quick­ly cloud the hori­zon, and it is the shock. The real prob­lem remains death…

Havi Carel, like thou­sands of peo­ple suf­fer­ing from an incur­able dis­ease, had to mourn her death quick­ly. Her clear and intel­li­gent mind did the rest. It accom­pa­nied her in a refac­tor­iza­tion of her exis­tence. This is what she tries to describe in the sec­ond part of the book. That sec­ond part could appear a less orig­i­nal read­ing. What is a dis­ease ? What does it involve ? Why the med­ical pro­fes­sion is so unpre­pared to treat the sick per­son oth­er than by repeat­ed diag­no­sis, the atti­tude of so-called nor­mal (func­tion­al) peo­ple towards dis­eases, the need for the affect­ed per­son to change his or her exis­ten­tial hori­zon and even­tu­al­ly find a new way of liv­ing happily.

This leads us to the third part, which focus­es on pur­pose, death. What is hap­pi­ness in life, what is death ? How can we over­come the fear of death ? How does this fear come about ? This is when read­ing becomes very zen. The author’s con­clu­sions quick­ly echo what Epi­cure said (which she quotes exten­sive­ly): death does not belong to us. When we are dead, we are not. When we are alive, we are not dead. The past is only a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion, the future that fab­u­la­tion, the present, para­dox­i­cal­ly evanes­cent, is our only cer­tain­ty and our sole hold on real­i­ty. Bud­dha and this is the same thing.

The qual­i­ty of hap­pi­ness can­not be mea­sured in quan­ti­ty either. When you are young, you think that hap­pi­ness will come, since the land­scape of the future is so broad. All those who have reached more than two-thirds of their life know that these val­leys, long very wide, have been carved out. The water flows, old-fash­ioned, at the bot­tom of nar­row­er ravines. There seems to be only one mean­der­ing, some­times silent pas­sage left. When you are struck by a diag­no­sis like LAM, you see the regions of oppor­tu­ni­ty trans­form­ing at first sight. A per­son who dies sud­den­ly sees noth­ing, does not expe­ri­ence the tragedy of aban­don­ing existence.

In con­clu­sion, this book is beau­ti­ful, sim­ple. The author may repeat her­self a lit­tle too often, because, in the end, she may not have much to say. Every­thing would have been report­ed, would­n’t it, about that. It must be not­ed that, despite this under­stand­ing, no one is lis­ten­ing. The mer­it of this book, there­fore, is to bring the sub­ject of life and death back to the table, so we could con­front it with our moder­ni­ty. A book that invites us to revis­it what the wise and sober Epi­cure had to teach so long ago.

Have we not learned any­thing since then ?