Still, I thought, it was curious that my friend was able to throw off the compulsion of her solitary state so quickly, connecting herself so fast to the crisis at hand. And very soon I saw the phenomenon replicate itself in others like her—loners who sped into public service faster than altruism could explain. These were people who trusted no one, joined nothing, signed nothing; yet here they were making masks, checking on neighbors, bagging groceries. What, exactly, was motivating them now to assume an attitude of solidarity?
In puzzling over this question, I’ve found myself thinking of the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg more than once. Ginzburg came from a dysfunctional family and very young she learned that self-protection required the cultivation of an inner distance from others. Eventually it took a heavy toll. In adolescence, she developed a “stony-faced” (her word) hauteur that made her feel unreal to herself, and soon enough it made everyone around her seem unreal as well. In time she became sealed into an emotional anomie that hardened with the years.
In 1938, at the age of 21, Natalia married Leone Ginzburg, an anti-fascist, and, in 1941, when he was declared persona non grata by the government, accompanied him into what was then called “internal exile”—removal to some rural area far from the urban centers. In 1943, after the fall of Mussolini, the family (by then they had three children) decided it was safe to move back to Rome—a miscalculation for which they would pay dearly. Leone went first, and five months later Natalia and the children followed. Within 20 days of the family’s arrival in the city, Leone was arrested by German police and taken off to prison, where he was tortured and killed.
Ginzburg’s armor—her haughty anomie—had been in place all this time. But now, with war on the ground—the loss of her young husband, death raining from the sky, countless children abandoned in the rubble—life shocked her into an experience she could never have imagined. Suddenly, she felt stifled inside the separateness from others she had valued all these years. No longer a protection, this deep withdrawal of hers now seemed dangerous: a threat to her own survival. Somehow, she realized, she must begin to feel connected, or at least to act as though she felt connected. She must teach herself—now!—to mimic the look and feel of unthinking, everyday comradeship.
Ah, she has it: “We learn,” she writes with something like wonder in her voice, “to ask for help from the first passer-by.” And then, “we learn to give help to the first passer-by.” And then, at last, she finds herself—and that’s exactly it: finds herself—feeling not only saved but curiously alive through the simple act of taking part in the fellowship of suffering.
From the June 2020 issue: Thomas Lynch on death without ceremony