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Postcard from the quagmire


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I don’t remember much of the past two or three weeks, except that it was a busy time, and I was under much stress trying to crunch out the grades for my classes in the college term that just ended. It is always a time shrouded in conjectures, missed connections, sweat, and desperate silences; one comes out of it like a patient from a coma would. Of course, many teachers will tell you that they love their job with the passion of a martyr but that the only thing excruciating about it is the grading period.

What can I say? It is a kind of hell no sane person will wish on anyone. The lack of sleep, the endless punching of the calculator keys, the attention to detail demanded, the will to withstand (with humor, if that can be conjured) the student papers that swim in muddled thinking, and even more muddled grammar. (That is, if one does not die seething from the obvious and clumsy borrowings from the Internet. The blatant display of intellectual dishonesty can shrivel the hardiest spirit. Copy-pasting 101, and all that.)

All I remember now of that recent time is feeling like a disembodied thing, a specter almost. I felt myself outside my own body, although I also felt, at the same time, the compounded pains of stress that afflict the physical–the aching back, the bloodshot eyes, the headachy brain, the acidic stomach from too much coffee ingested.

Which is why I still cannot understand how I was able to finish Albert Camus’ The Stranger in one go at the height of one stressful morning. I was already grinding away for close to twelve hours overnight, and outside I could see the daylight hours seeping into the quiet of my apartment. I was tired. The work was still unfinished.

And on my way to bed hoping to catch some shut-eye, I felt my hands going over my bookshelves and I felt myself taking out Camus’ book. I felt myself noting that it was a slim book. Something fell out of its pages. I found myself looking at an old boat ticket–transit from Tagbilaran to Dumaguete–from 1999. I found myself sleepily musing over the fact that the last time I tried reading this book was more than a decade ago.

Tired, narcoleptic, I climbed into bed with that volume in hand, and proceeded to read the strange story of a curiously detached man in French Algeria, who fails to feel anything for a newly dead mother, and finally fails to comprehend the justice meted him for what seems like a senseless act of a murder that he has committed. He goes through each day like one dispossessed of care would: detached from all sort of emotional wrangling except the logic of the action required of him at the present. This is supposed to be our hero–an existential one, of course, someone who finally rails against a world who misunderstands him.

Which was also a kind of uncanny serendipity because there were two other instances last week where the word “existential” suddenly just sprang up around me: first, during dinner with an older friend, who took to rationalizing facts in his personal life to his embrace of “existentialism”; and second, during accidental coffee time with a former student who started off with a philosophical rant about how existentialism and relativism as being virtually meaningless.

(Was it also serendipity that I would also be reading another book at the same time–The Fundamentals of Play, Caitlin Macy’s Generation X/ Whit Stillman-ish retread of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby–where the existential hero proclaims an affinity with Camus’ detached protagonist? Was it also serendipity that I would also be reading still another book at the same time, which is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, his first novel, where the young protagonist is an egoist much in the same vein as the hero of the two other books, only more dapper, a bright young thing from the gilded 1920s? Why am I reading several books at the same time that seem to inform each other in ways I did not foresee? What is the universe telling me? And the universe answered right back: “You are reading too many books when you should be asleep.”)

It was around noontime when I finally put Camus’ tome down, finished. I don’t know how I managed it, or why I even did it. I was quite dog-tired by then, and spent the rest of the day sleeping like the very spectacle of anesthesia. I didn’t dream. Not even of Algerian sands and sensational murders and French prisons and detached young men of strange persuasions. Perhaps, and only perhaps, I only managed to think of one man in my life of similar detachment as Camus’s protagonist. And how sad it all suddenly seemed, but also how heroic in ways only a few can understand.

But one could not care less anymore. One only cared for sleeping, for real, with what hours were left. And then one wakes up.

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