These lines, signed Yours, Rainer Maria Rilke, were primarily addressed to a young poet, Xaver Kappus, who had dared to ask the old master for guidance. It is striking how these few sentences, written almost a century ago, point to the heart of our present situation. Personally, I sheltered under this fragment while worrying about the delayed answer from a friend staying in pandemic-stricken Milan. We have all probably experienced these sudden strikes of fear that sooner or later this virus will take away someone we love. After all, it has already managed to take away many things we love: some of our liberties, many of our everyday joys, as well as most of our short-term plans and dreams. Therefore, Rilke’s words of 1929 are a heritage and a gift for all of us, to bring our worried minds consolation. At the same time, they are also a challenge. What are the dragons we most fear? What are the abysses we need to embrace? Could we, following the poet’s path, trust in the difficulties and turn them into opportunities?
The Great Unknown
These questions are even more challenging on the socio-political plane. Our world has turned upside down: the unthinkable has become normal, the normal – a dream. Various political, social and civilizational worries which yesterday seemed distant enough to be light-heartedly left for academic discussions have become a reason for sleepless nights. Many of us are already experiencing, in our own skin, the first economic consequences of the pandemic, while others know the taste of enhanced political and societal instability. The Polish government, for instance, is using the chaos of the pandemic and social lock-down to pass controversial laws, and push ahead with the presidential election on the 10th of May to the very last moment. The further rise of autocratic arrangements is a possible scenario, and only one of the many challenges that we will have to face in the fragile, post-pandemic world to come. Probably the most often repeated sentence during the last weeks is the fearful “Nothing will be the same after the pandemic”. However, just like the Jaspersian boundary situation, the current moment of transition into the Great Unknown, with all of its accompanying existential and civilizational fears, could open us to new interpretations and inspire new paths of societal development.
One of the ideas brought to the fore by the ongoing events is social solidarity. In communitarian thought solidarity is regarded as a necessary condition for a viable democracy as it has been recently reminded on this site. This is not surprising, as this concept usually re-emerges in the face of adversity, be it of natural or civil origin. Discussion of solidarity swelled in 2015 with the refugee crisis, and the present coronavirus pandemic has again renewed it. However, despite the long, rich traditions of solidarity, its intellectual content is still far from clear. In the public perception, solidarity remains a slogan concept, with a highly politicized meaning, located as freely on the radical left as on the right side of the political scene. (In Poland, the legacy of the Solidarity movement is the subject of incessant political struggle).
Contrary to what these ambiguities may suggest, solidarity seems to be deeply anchored in our human nature. Richard Rorty placed its roots in the compassion we experience at the sight of the suffering of the other, and our own vulnerability to pain, which we nevertheless share with animals. The cultural roots of solidarity go back to the biblical image of the merciful Samaritain – in his act of helping a wounded person, despite their antagonistic ethnic and religious backgrounds. The philosopher and participant of the Polish Solidarity movement, Zbigniew Stawrowski, suggestively complements this image. Let’s imagine – he says with experience-informed insight – that a Samaritan is helped by a Greek, who supports him in taking care of a wounded Jew. Their benevolent cross-cultural cooperation wound constitute a relationship of solidarity sensu stricto. Strikingly, a similar account of solidarity is proposed by Andrea SanGiovanni, a political philosopher from the European University Institute in Florence. Drawing upon the example of a charity for homeless people, he argues that solidarity in the proper sense is not the vertical relationship of charity tying the benefactor to the beneficent, but rather the bond of civic friendship constituted by the process of common action between the helpers themselves. This cooperative account, proposed independently by both thinkers, albeit from different intellectual backgrounds, goes back to the classic Durkheimian theory that Professor Steven Lukes reminded us of earlier on this site. In this classic sociological account, the proper, organic solidarity (based on a cross-professional difference of an axiological, ethnic, religious or whatever kind, and embracing individuality), solidarity was rooted in the division of labour and the subsequent exchange of its products.
Exercises in Solidarity
These images were briefly recalled because they are surprisingly pertinent to the current situation. In its cross-professional dimension, organic solidarity is developing in the midst of this pandemic. Beautiful examples of civic friendship are countless. The most moving are those from within the field of healthcare, where the heroism of many doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers and volunteers is both admirable and ethically obliging – their efforts set the bar of solidarity very high for us all. Scarcities of supplies in hospitals have inspired other professionals: manufacturers and local tailors sew masks, engineers create face shields, and other professionals have offered their specific skills and products. Both celebrities and ordinary citizens are sharing their resources to support their local healthcare entities financially. Many of us are also engaged in helping our local communities and neighbours. This civil wake-up call is a reason for hope. The successful solidary movements in recent history, such as Polish Solidarity or the anti-apartheid movement led by Nelson Mandela, started with the bottom-up, civic actions of mutual help in adversity, bringing about unexpected political change.
In its cross-border and cross-cultural dimensions solidarity is still, perhaps the biggest, challenge of this pandemic. Still, cross-national cooperation is an exception rather than a rule in our locked down and barricaded countries. This is one of those helpless cries for our love, as Rilke would put it. If the pandemic teaches us anything, it is a lesson about our deep, global interdependence. The virus, which from the perspective of our comfortable Voltairean gardens only yesterday seemed to be somewhere else, in the far, Far East, has suddenly landed under our roofs and changed them into confinement cells. Now, humanity, on a larger scale than ever before, has become one organism, and one that is in pain. Experiencing this global pain in our own skin should prompt us to take the challenges of organic solidarity seriously. We will have many occasions to do so: starting with the sharing of antiviral medical resources (and other fruits of our divided labour) with underdeveloped countries, through the reopening of our European corner of the world, to better treatment of strangers and newcomers in our private lives.
Adam Zagajewski, one of the greatest contemporary Polish poets, and a former member of the Polish anti-communist opposition, distinguished two kinds of solidarity. The first is that of doctors, pilots, and other men and women of action who risk their lives to save others. There is, however, a second solidarity – which we experience when we find comfort in another’s beauty, in others’ music, in the poetry of others. (As Zagajewski lucidly adds: we find comfort only in another beauty; Salvation lies with others, though solitude may taste like opium). This tacit, private solidarity also obliges us to reciprocate with a generosity and open-heartedness in our serving of the world according to our capacities and possibilities. As such, this second form of solidarity is no less important than the first. Past solidary movements have shown us that every individual act of solidary can bring about later, unexpected change. Who knows which new possibilities might be opened if we dare to follow the path indicated by Rilke? This is the path of poeisis, which in the original Greek sense of the word means our common power to create – a power not reserved only for artists but lying within our shared human capacities.
May 11, 2020.
Aleksandra Głos is Scientific Assistant at the Department of Research on Professional Ethics at Jagielonian University in Krakow. From March to July 2019 she was a Józef Tischner Junior Visiting Fellow at the IWM.