Narrative Medicine Book Club: April 7, 2020

In today’s pages we see the toll that the work is starting to have on Rieux. The “abstraction” (for those reading the French, I’m curious if this is the correct translation?) of the disease, and of the personal suffering that follows it, is taken up, the “monotony” of the plague and life under its tyranny. And we see Rieux’s capacity narrowing, in perhaps the most heartbreaking few sentences in the book so far: “[He] found his only consolation for these exhausting days in this feeling of a heart slowly closing around itself. He knew that it would make his task easier. That is why he welcomed it.” I wonder how many of us — healthcare providers or not — recognize ourselves in this statement?  “To struggle against abstraction, one must come to resemble it a little.” This is a statement that makes so much sense, and yet it seems clear this numbness, this “abstraction,” is exactly what we must continue to resist. 

FOR TOMORROW: read next 7 pages, to the section break, paragraph beginning with “But the sounds of running feet returned.” 

4 thoughts on “Narrative Medicine Book Club: April 7, 2020

  1. I wondered the same when I got the “abstract” in the English translation (by Stuart Gilbert, considered by many to be the best of them all). In the original it is “l’abstraction”, but I think that the French meaning might be closer to “the abstract” in English.
    And yes, I agree that while we grow a carapace to hide from the horror and the pain, we must retain humanity in spite of it.


  2. Patricia D.

    In French the word has several definitions. (1) the mind separates or isolates certain aspects of things; (2) preoccupation, dreamy, preventing a person from thinking about what is being discussed or is within sight; (3) too metaphysical, does not rely on the facts (I think it is this pejorative sense that the journalist is referring to). He contrasts the ‘language of reason’ with being ‘dans l’abstraction.’ French intellectuals are known for being theory-driven and pride themselves in their depth of thinking. Camus is one of them. The journalist uses the word with bitterness when speaking with Dr. R to mean (2). This accusation evokes reflection in Dr. R – he thinks, yes, when confronted with the horrors, part abstaction part unrealness – here I think (1) is being used. He tells himself that when abstraction is killing you its necessary to deal with it – but he knew this is not easy. He is self-aware, not out of touch, as the journalist thinks. Later, Dr. R uses the word when thinking about separating sick people from their families – then abstraction kicks in (1) as a defense (my interpretation) and this has a depersonalizing and exhausting impact on him (2 characteristics of burnout). Later the word is used in line with (2) once the neighbors shut their windows rather than watch as patients are taken away, struggles, tears, persuasion – ‘abstraction’ in summary. In the battle between the happiness of each man and ‘les abstractions de la peste’: “Faire abstraction de” means not to realize something. Dr. R later thinks about the journalist for whom abstraction is the opposite of happiness. For the Dr. abstraction can be stronger than happiness and therefore one needs to keep this in mind. A theme is being revealed here…
    In French there are so many nuances. I am not a translator, so this is the best I can offer.


    • Anne C.

      Thank you so much for this explanation – and isn’t it exactly what Camus would have wanted us to consider? How do we survive such times…what is humanity? We are both frail and strong – struggling to preserve what makes us human but not allowing it to consume us in either numb surrender and inaction.


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