The current use of “no words” in its semaphoric online sense seems to date back to five or ten years ago. To you, there may seem to be a great difference between five and ten years ago. To me, two days ago brought me fourteen years into the past, and all of us towards another future. From this perspective, there are no words to describe it, yet.
In November, 2001, I had been admitted to the Hopital Georges Pompidou, the new hospital which had made our neighborhood a mess of construction work and traffic jams, for the life-threatening peritonitis that set in after my appendix burst. It took a while to figure out what had happened and I nearly did die; no one was responsible for the whole experience, though I blamed various aspects of it on individuals, and had others to thank for saving my life.
Two days ago, in November, 2015, fifty or sixty wounded victims were admitted through the same Georges Pompidou emergency room doors. No one is responsible for the whole experience, but there are both murderers and heroes who figure in each one of their stories. There are so many stories, and so little sense to make of it all.
In November 2001, I hadn’t yet realized that I was in the throes of a severe depression. I had been morally devastated by the import of the destruction unleashed in my homeland on September 11th, 2001. When I reached my Paris apartment with my baby and preschooler and allowed myself to finally turn on the television that day, I sank to my knees. My baby didn’t understand what she was seeing, but my preschooler, who only knew that his mother was overwhelmed and distressed, cried with me. I turned off the television then to better love the living, but it went on again, later, as did the radio, and the Internet connection, by modem still at the time, with endless comparisons of shock and people checking in with one another and the increasingly belated discoveries of who had died, who had been injured, by how many degrees of separation.
Recovering from surgery, from that first experience of mourning so close to the realization of my mortality, from the concern that the AZF chemical factory explosion later in September was yet another efficacious precursor to war against civilians, from anticipating our baby’s third operation for her congenital malformation, I finally broke down in front of the television that the women who shared my room insisted on keeping turned on. American Airlines 587 had crashed in New York, killing 265 people at once. It wasn’t a terrorist attack, but a tragedy nonetheless. The surgeon came to see me, then sent a hospital psychiatrist. I recovered from it all, except the underlying sensory processing sensitivity. I have lived and loved for many more years, have helped and mourned many more people, and done things I would never have imagined possible.
Is this a political, a personal, a philosophical essay? I don’t know. Like so many of my fellow citizens, I feel like I suddenly don’t know so much about all of my convictions at the moment, and even less about theirs. There are many differences between how devastated I was again, in January of this year, in the face of another attack on civilians in Paris, and how functional I can be, now. Depression having been part of it, but not all. I had commiserated only the day before with my Lebanese colleague here in Marseille, whose husband still in Beirut was saddened like all other residents, on how one must continue, go to school and work as usual, conscious of how tenuous the ties keeping our loved ones at hand can be.
It was in the southern working-class suburbs, she said. He never goes there. We then exchanged platitudes about how any of us in lab could have been driving home after a dinner with friends, after a rehearsal, after keeping watch over an experiment. in the same tunnel where the revenge shooting broke out here between rival gangs in a high-speed chase early last Tuesday morning.
All I know is that this commenter’s quotation of Albert Camus yesterday in Le Monde resonates loudly in my head. I couldn’t find an online English translation of the preamble to ACTUELLES III. Chroniques algériennes, 1939-1958, so any imprecisions are my fault alone.
S’il est vrai qu’en histoire, du moins, les valeurs, qu’elles soient celles de la nation ou de l’humanité, ne survivent pas sans qu’on ait combattu pour elles, le combat (ni la force) ne suffit pas à les justifier. Il faut encore que lui-même soit justifié, et éclairé, par ces valeurs. Se battre pour sa vérité et veiller à ne pas la tuer des armes mêmes dont on la défend, à ce double prix les mots reprennent leur sens vivant. Sachant cela, le rôle de l’intellectuel est de discerner, selon ses moyens, dans chaque camp, les limites respectives de la force et de la justice. Il est donc d’éclairer les définitions pour désintoxiquer les esprits et apaiser les fanatismes, même à contre-courant.
If it is true that throughout history, values, be they of the nation or of humanity overall, cannot survive without fighting for them, then the combat and the force expended are not enough to justify them. The combat itself must be justified and illuminated by those values. Words take on their true living value by the double price of fighting for one’s truth all while taking care not to kill it with the same weapons used to defend it. Aware of that, the intellectual’s role is to distinguish as best as she can, on each side, the respective limits of force and justice. That role furthermore is to clarify the definitions of these values, in order to bring sobriety to the intoxicated and to calm their impulses toward fanaticism, even if this goes against the grain.
- Albert Camus, 1958
Yes, it is a call to arms. But to arms truly compatible with the values of a civilization that can encourage biomedical research into rare disorders. To paraphrase Kamran Abbasi, let science be a weapon of peace. Let all our decisions be thoughtful. Let us not forget the past, recent or distant, while struggling to find the words that will describe the future we promise to ensure.