Helen is a teacher of English as a Foreign Language in Spain and a writer. Her first published book will be out in 2021.
From the Arab Spring to the corona virus lockdown in Spain
What to read and what not to read in a crisis
Whenever there’s a crisis, I always seem to be reading the wrong book. Living in Cairo in 2011, when the Arab Spring suddenly erupted, I was engrossed in Kafka’s Trial. As the city descended into a tense battleground between protesters and government forces, tear gas filling the air, vigilantes outside guarding their properties armed with knives, the sound of distant gunfire, tanks popping up on street corners and snipers on the roofs of government buildings and the nearby US embassy, it wasn’t just among the pages of the novel that I felt trapped by a desperate sense of claustrophobia. Even when I put my book down, I found myself in a constant state of empathy for the protagonist Josef K’s utter bewilderment, longing for answers to questions I couldn’t even begin to formulate.
It seems apt, then, that when the coronavirus lockdown began in Spain, I was reading yet another novel famous for capturing the dark side of humanity. This time it was Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. In that first week of the crisis, tempers ran high, masked neighbours walked round in abject fear, everybody suspicious of one another out of a fear of who might be silently carrying the deadly virus. The stories in the press were horrific even beyond those initial tales of germs lying for up to seven hours on every surface we could touch. Half of Spain’s workers were suddenly laid off; we heard of mass deaths occurring in residential homes; stories popped up of women murdered in their homes through acts of domestic violence.
And there was I, reading a novel about the descent of a man who exchanges his soul for perpetual youth and the great evil he commits in the process. I was determined to finish the book but kept telling myself – praying perhaps – that what was happening now would be the reverse of the eponymous Gray’s painting. That mankind would, instead, through the self-awareness brought on by this crisis, revert from the hideous portrait to being the good, youthful Dorian from the start of the story. It was an optimistic assessment of the situation and a way for me to cope early on.
To be honest, I don’t actually find novels that easy to read in a crisis. In fact, in both of those troubled periods of my life, once I’d got to the end of those novels I turned instead to non-fiction classics of philosophy and psychology. I find these easier in terms of helping me think at such moments. I don’t recall having read any of the classic works of philosophy prior to the Arab Spring; that event changed my life in many ways, forcing me to confront strong emotions of fear and anger and shame, as well as making me acutely aware of life’s susceptibility to suddenly being turned on its head.
I believe that books provide one of the greatest means of finding answers to our own personal journeys through a crisis. The following works of non-fiction are some of my favourites in terms of the help they gave me while reflecting on the revolution in Egypt, and the lessons they have taught me are proving useful in my current situation in Spain too:
- Discourses – Epictetus (2nd century AD) From the moment I began this book, I was profoundly moved by how a man who had been born a slave under the Romans went onto become a teacher of Stoic philosophy, showing how, no matter how bad your outside circumstances are, you always have the ability within you to remain free and in control of yourself.
- The Consolation of Philosophy – Boethius (6th century AD) As with Epictetus’s Discourses, this book reminds us of the importance not just of talking about philosophy as a means to be – or appear to be – clever, but the way our learning from the great philosophers should guide us at every point in our lives to act well towards ourselves, others, and the world in general.
- On Photography – Susan Sonntag (1977) This book was so useful to me following the events I’d experienced in Egypt. It helped me reflect on just how distorting images of events can be, as well as the role the media play in creating their own concept of truth that people too often accept because the visuals seem like such strong supporting evidence. Right now, with the coronavirus lockdown, I am acutely aware of how stories in the media can distort the truth of a situation, even when the imagery appears to back up the claims.
- The Fear of Freedom – Eric Fromm (1942)
My neighbourhood in Egypt was very pro-Mubarak and therefore against the protesters. This book helped me understand these reactions when the media were implying everyone in Egypt had turned against the regime. Fromm argues that the problem of mankind’s desire for authoritarian rule stems from the fact that it enables us to avoid facing up both to our freedom and to our responsibility to live life to the fullest before it inevitably ends. Luckily for me, Fromm’s follow-ups Man for Himself and The Sane Society are on my shelf here in Spain and have been enormously helpful in recent weeks as I have been horrified by just how quickly people came to believe the extreme restrictions on our liberty were a good reaction to the threat the virus posed.
There are many other non-fiction books beyond these few examples that have also helped me to better understand myself and the world around me. But now that my immediate environment is showing signs of regaining some semblance of normality, it is likely that I’ll soon be back to re- reading some of my favourite novels. Strangely, so many of these are works of dystopian fiction, and I think this reflects my own personal concerns about mankind’s potential for the acceptance of authoritarianism if people’s fears are not overcome.
Yet even in the gloomiest of the dystopian novels on my shelf, almost none is without a sense of hope that dystopias do end, and that there will always be rebels in society prepared to stand against totalitarian regimes. Most people are familiar with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, but one novel I discovered last year that remains little known within this genre is L.P. Hartley’s Facial Justice. It’s a funny book and you have to persevere past the very surreal early chapters to truly get it. However, it is a novel with a profoundly interesting suggestion for how humanity might escape an authoritarian mindset. Just two things are needed, suggests Hartley: an intelligent woman and a sense of humour.
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