Axel Källenius ’23 isn’t afraid. 

At his family’s home in Stockholm, Sweden, Källenius is pondering Proust, disagreeing with Kierkegaard and admiring Nietzsche. He is enjoying the time to reconnect with his family, the living-at-home phase that is no longer a relic of childhood and simply “appreciating things” he hadn’t before, he said.

Still, Källenius finds himself locked out of his home in New Haven. Like all Yale students, he said, he is unsure of when the key will return.

In this unprecedented era of new normals, Källenius stands at a transient in-between. He’s not quite ready to move on from where he has been this past year or fully imagine what things will look like for the next. Yet he maintains a contemplative commitment to walking, thinking and reflecting. In his words, he’s “really trying to cherish this moment and make use of it.”

While speaking with Källenius, I could hear birds chirping in the background. He stood amongst green trees and undergrowth, answering my questions with militant introspection. Though conscious of the pandemic and critical of his own productivity, he conveyed a sense of calm that seemed so contrary to the paranoia that has infected the United States.

While the Swedish COVID-19 strategy is perhaps more laissez-faire than that of the United States, Källenius attested to a collective Swedish internalized responsibility to protect the immunocompromised and elderly from the novel coronavirus.

“We don’t have any fines for going outside and breaking the quarantine,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that is a negative thing because people take their responsibility nonetheless. I would say that it is a sign of a poor national spirit if you have to impose a fine on breaking quarantine laws.”

While still observant of social distancing, the notion reminds Källenius of the “Duck and Cover” campaigns of the 1950s. The instruction is “not going to help if a nuclear bomb comes, but gives people some sense of agency,” he said. “Social distancing is a little bit like that.”

Yet Källenius finds himself at home mostly, traversing real and remote life, sleeping and waking, Swedish and English, to continue his education.

“It is hard to metabolize the things you encounter without sharing them with someone else,” he said. The inability to speak with friends between classes or to continue discussion on Swann’s Way on the walk to Cross Campus has reminded Källenius of why college ought to be a social experience.

Now, Källenius experiences a profound déjà-vu. He is “back in the same circles,” he said, “reliving the high school experience, talking about the same things with the same friends.”

“Leaving Yale meant distancing myself from a lot of the progress I have made,” Källenius said. “It’s pretty strange that you can associate part of your identity and personality with a place. This [kind of education] is not just reading, it’s about getting to know yourself and that’s what Yale did.”

This kind of mediation is emblematic of Källenius’ quarantine. Though he too falls down rabbit holes of YouTube videos from time to time, consumed by the escapism of “junk media” as he calls it, much of Källenius’ day consists of discussing seminal texts that have never been more relevant. He’s seeing time through a kaleidoscope of Proust and the Buddha as he continues his Directed Studies and Medieval Chinese Philosophy and Religion classes via Zoom. 

These past few months have made Källenius think about what he wants out of life and why. The recent ability to “read for reading’s sake” as opposed to “other motivation” like grades, has given him the space to think about literature as an art. As he considers how someone like Proust could build an entire world from 18 years of social isolation, aesthetic and beauty have emerged at the forefront of this first year’s interests. 

“Attraction to beauty is connected to what I want to do in life,” he said. “What I am trying to do now is figure out what that means … I don’t want to get the point of things. I want the things to be the point themselves.” 

Källenius agrees that this way of thinking “has perhaps been emphasized and accentuated” now that he is back home reflecting on his college experience. 

“[The virus] pushes everyone to take a next step in their reflection, to be a little bit more spiritual, to be a little bit more philosophical,” he said.

Having watched family members contract the virus in Sweden, Källenius treats COVID-19 with equal parts concern and perspective. What he doesn’t seem to bother with is fear. Rather, Källenius maintains a steadfast commitment to contemplation of identity. He’s using this time to read big books and think big thoughts, finding solace in the potential for answers, but satisfaction in the unavoidable in-between. 

As the interview crept into afternoon for me and evening for him, I asked Källenius about time. He maintained a sense of optimism in his parting words. 

“A year ago, I was sitting at home and could not have foreseen what my experience would be like,” Källenius said. “Time passes quickly, but so do your experiences.”

Ella Attell | ella.attell@yale.edu

This story is part of a larger series profiling Yale and New Haven community members during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more, click here.