Victories Never Last
Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague
Victories Never Last
Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague
In any time of disruption or grief, many of us seek guidance in the work of great writers who endured similar circumstances. During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, historian and biographer Robert Zaretsky did the same while also working as a volunteer in a nursing home in south Texas. In Victories Never Last Zaretsky weaves his reflections on the pandemic siege of his nursing home with the testimony of six writers on their own times of plague: Thucydides, Marcus Aurelius, Michel de Montaigne, Daniel Defoe, Mary Shelley, and Albert Camus, whose novel The Plague provides the title of this book.
Zaretsky delves into these writers to uncover lessons that can provide deeper insight into our pandemic era. At the same time, he goes beyond the literature to invoke his own experience of the tragedy that enveloped his Texas nursing home, one which first took the form of chronic loneliness and then, inevitably, the deaths of many residents whom we come to know through Zaretsky’s stories. In doing so, Zaretsky shows the power of great literature to connect directly to one’s own life in a different moment and time.
For all of us still struggling to comprehend this pandemic and its toll, Zaretsky serves as a thoughtful and down-to-earth guide to the many ways we can come to know and make peace with human suffering.
"In Victories Never Last, Zaretsky writes that the task of literature is not to offer truth claims of one sort or another, but rather to offer stories,particularly those stories that “affirm the density of our lives."
Jewish Herald Voice
"Each page of Victories never last churns the readers’ heart making them think of the absurdities and the existential crises that COVID-19 has brought into our lives. The authors and philosophers Zaretsky associated and identified himself with described the same absurdity and existential struggles during their times. Because he acknowledged and celebrated their impact on his life during the pandemic, this book finds Zaretsky a place next to those authors. Victories never last is a tribute to the plague literature, an elegy for the lives lost to COVID-19 and an ode to joy for those who survived SARS-CoV-2."
"Literary-minded readers will find much to consider."
“It’s magical how much Zaretsky covers while zigzagging swiftly and deftly through the literature, history, and philosophy of plagues. Interludes about his volunteer work in a nursing home add a real-life, charming, absurdist atmosphere to the big ideas of thinkers like Marcus Aurelius or Albert Camus. For those of us who’ve been trying to face and process what we’ve just gone through, Victories Never Last serves to kick our thinking up a notch. His writing is a model of scholarship at its finest: lucid, learned, down-to-earth, and honest.”
Scott Samuelson, author of Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering
“This is a unique survey of the Western canon – one that covers a vast amount of area so to speak, but with a special aim in mind: to show how different groups of people in different ages responded to the horrors of widespread and deadly contagion. The author’s ability to speak with equal eloquence on texts of the Classical period up to the 20th century, across geographies and cultures, attests to the breadth and depth of his knowledge. Victories Never Last is timely, nuanced, and performs the all-too-rare service of highlighting the humanities’ relevance in times of great political and social urgency.”
Christy Wampole, author of The Other Serious: Essays for the New American Generation
"Robert Zaretsky is a marvelous writer, with an extraordinary gift for making the past speak to us in a language that we can understand. In our time of plague, he has returned to the plagues of the past, helping us to grasp what Thucydides, Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, Camus, and others came to understand about the terrifying way disease can upend our certainties and our hopes. Zaretsky’s measured, ironic and calm voice is especially welcome in our trying times."
Michael Ignatieff, author of On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times
Table of Contents
One Thucydides and the Great Plague of Athens
Two Marcus Aurelius and the Antonine Plague
Three Michel de Montaigne and the Bubonic Plague
Four Daniel Defoe and the Great Plague of London
Five Albert Camus and la peste brune
Epilogue: From The Last Man to The First Man
In early March 2020, when the novel coronavirus exploded into our lives, I thus turned to the more familiar kind of novel in order to put the pieces back to my own life. Too predictably, perhaps, they were novels—as well as essays and histories—that all deal, in one way or another, with the reality of plagues and our individual and communal, political and philosophical responses to them. I did so with neither a plan nor a project in mind, simply turning at first to writers whose voices were familiar and whose writings have long kept me company: Thucydides and Marcus Aurelius, Michel de Montaigne and Albert Camus. I have written a good deal on Camus over the years and in a variety of courses have taught Thucydides, Marcus Aurelius, and Montaigne...
This time, though, their voices sounded different. This was unsurprising: quite suddenly, my life and world had also become different. My long life has been a fortunate one, free of the kinds of existential crises to which I have nevertheless devoted much of my writing and reading. It was a life, in short, free of most pestilences. For the first time, I was reading these works in a time of plague. Voices that were once familiar and comforting now struck me as edgy and tinged with urgency. It was as if the bright red chyrons unspooling along the bottom of flat screens had breached the books I was reading.
Those chyrons threaded their way across the pages of other books I now began to read for the first time. While writing The Plague, Camus had turned for guidance not only to Thucydides and Montaigne, but also to Daniel Defoe. The epigram that begins the novel happens to come from Robinson Crusoe. But it was the French translation of another Defoe novel, A Journal of the Plague Year, that Camus mined for insights while living under and resisting la peste brune, or the “brown plague” of the Nazi occupation. While the worldviews of the narrators in the two novels differ greatly, the logic of the narratives not just resemble one another, but also suggest ways in which to make sense of our current plague...
When my university shuttered the campus and shifted online halfway through the semester, I became a teacher without a classroom and sought, with questionable success, to find my footing in Zoomscape. Soon after, I found myself in yet another unfamiliar world. At the suggestion of a dear and distressed friend, I began volunteer work at her nearby nursing home. The residence, which had entered lockdown, was understaffed and overwhelmed by the unprecedented situation. Keen to help in whatever way I could, I was tested and cleared to work as a hospitality aide. Every day between 3:30 and 6:30 p.m., my job was to deliver dinner trays to the nearly 100 residents who, with the dining room now darkened, took their meals in their rooms. As a third or so, of the residents, most of whom were suffering from dementia, were unable to feed themselves, my task was also to help them eat their meals.
My days as a hospitality aide grew into weeks, and my weeks into months. My circumstances at the residence were not by any stretch of any imagination like those confronting first responders in our emergency rooms. Even less did my experiences resemble the unspeakable tragedies unfolding in those nursing homes long subject to neglect. During the nearly three months I worked at the residence, thanks largely to its determined staff, there was not a single case of Covid-19—a relatively remarkable feat in Texas.
But this success came at great human cost. Isolation from their families and fellow residents chipped away at the minds of most residents. Though the tireless activities director worked hard at maintaining the morale of the residents—blaring Frank Sinatra over boom boxes and emceeing bingo games with the residents playing from their rooms—loneliness and confusion nevertheless became the default conditions of residential life. Three residents on hospice at whose bedsides I spent long afternoons died from causes other than Covid-19. Their deaths were not a surprise, but they were nevertheless shocking: in effect, they died alone. The deterioration of others on hospice before the lockdown seemed to quicken, as if I was watching a time lapse film whose speed slowly accelerated. The neuroscientist John Cacioppo’s estimate that chronic loneliness increases the odds of an early death by 20 percent suddenly seemed too conservative...
The tragic consequences of isolation and loneliness were compounded in October—a few months after I had to stop my regular hours at the nursing home, but still helped there from time to time—when the state’s governor, Greg Abbott, ordered that nursing homes again allow visitations. Though the order was welcomed by the residents’ families, it was dreaded by the staff. Already scrambling to do the bare minimum, they had neither the means nor the manpower to oversee the visits. With a kind of awful inevitability, the virus breached the walls of the residence and, by year’s end, took the lives of more than a dozen residents, many of whom I had joked with and offered spoonful of tapioca just a few months earlier. We were not unique—by the end of 2020, 40 percent of Covid-related deaths in the United States occurred at nursing homes—but that did not lessen the shock or shame. As the physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis recently observed, nursing homes became the inadvertent twenty-first-century equivalent of the “pesthouses” that sheltered long-ago plague sufferers.
What to do about this uninvited and uncanny guest in our world? How should we respond to it? Jean Tarrou, a character in The Plague, makes the case for attention. “We must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the microbe on him,” he insists. “What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest—health, integrity, purity (if you like)—is a product of human will, a vigilance that must never falter.” Without such attention, Tarrou believed, nothing good and lasting can be achieved. In their various ways, all of these writers practiced attention.
With the exception of Marcus Aurelius, who wrote reminders and remonstrations to himself concerning his thoughts and acts, these writers turned to narrative in order to exercise their attention. Instead of offering arguments, they offer stories; rather than affirming truth-claims of one sort or another, they affirm what Iris Murdoch famously called the “density of our lives.” If literature can be said to have a task, she concluded, “that surely is its task.” I believe the stories told by these earlier writers help us touch the density of this pandemic and its impact on the world and ourselves. For this same reason, while I turn to these texts to help direct my attention toward the context of my life and the contexts of other lives, I have also written stories of my own experiences at the nursing home. Though no Tarrou, I have tried to be as vigilant as possible about others and myself; though no Murdoch, I have tried my hand at philosophy and literature in order to make sense of life’s density. The resulting chapters are, to echo Montaigne, “the matter of this book.” These writers have helped me better see the world, perhaps even myself. They might encourage other readers to turn to them in the expectation that they will do the same.