Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Plague on All the Houses

“The truth must be told: the plague had taken away from all of them the power of love or even of friendship, for love demands some future, and for us there was only the here and now.”

The philosopher prince and enfant terrible, Albert Camus, did not much like the Algerian city of Oran, which is now and forever associated with his most famous novel, The Plague, a story part parable, part metaphor about the catastrophe of pestilence. One can read into its subtext the trials of the French Resistance, from which its ideas and arguments were drawn and of which Camus was a reluctant hero, though he would later disavow all accolades. Rather, he identified with his altar ego from the novel, Dr. Rieux, a physician making the rounds of the city's sick, risking infection on 20-hour shifts day in day out for months, never knowing when the plague might end, and worst of all, completely unable to heal the dying, stuck with the unenviable task of validating death sentences and arranging victims' families to be quarantined. That Dr. Rieux fulfills his role with good temper, in Camus' view, does not make him a hero, but a man.

The book begins when all the city's rats wander into the living rooms to die. Shortly thereafter the first men and women begin to convulse violently with high fever, swollen lymphs, and coughing blood, the Bubonic Plague redux. When the number of deaths begin to escalate no one wants to mention the unmentionable due the inevitable economic and social disruption: “Dr. Rieux was unprepared, as were the rest of the townspeople, and this is how one should understand his reluctance to believe. One should also understand that he was divided between anxiety and confidence. When war breaks out people say: 'It won't last, it's too stupid.' And war is certainly too stupid but that doesn't prevent it from lasting.” But the epidemic does not just last but thrives and Oran has to shut its gates to prevent the spread of contamination, isolating the city from the rest of the world. “Thus the first thing that the plague brought to our fellow-citizens was exile... we accepted our status as prisoners; we were reduced to our past alone and even if a few people were tempted to live in the future, they quickly gave up.”

In such a climate only those with something, or more importantly, someone to love for, were not overwhelmed by the collective despair: “The egotism of love protected them in the midst of the general distress and, if they did think about the plague, it was always and only to the extent that it risked making their separation eternal.” The visiting journalist, Rambert, exemplifies this condition of exile, scheming to escape but prevented from doing so for many months. When he finally has an opportunity to leave he instead chooses to stay and continue his work on the health teams. Why do so when he has no vested interest in the city of Oran and he can be reunited with his sweetheart? Because even if he were to succeed and achieve this vision of happiness, it would be a “happiness in solitude,” understanding that this was a crisis and that he had chosen to flee rather than aid his fellow men. Even though his friends, Dr. Rieux and Tarrou, encourage him to escape, he knows he wouldn't be able to live with himself had he abandoned the city in its time of desperate need.

The Plague is about how men and women respond to crises when their lives and livelihoods are threatened. And while some men will exploit a calamity for their own gain (such as the criminal Cottard profiteering off the black market) Camus, via Dr. Rieux, takes the optimistic view that most men are good, not because they have religious or spiritual motivations but on behalf of utterly humanistic impulses. Tarrou, a drifter who organizes health teams to combat the epidemic, asks Dr. Rieux, “Can one be a saint without God: that is the only concrete question that I know today.” In fact, the religious authorities are a complete failure in the face of the plague, the city's spiritual leader, Father Paneloux, even condoning the suffering and deaths of children as a test of the believers' faith, describing the choice as a zero-sum game: one either loves and accepts God (the horrors being part of his Plan) or one denies his existence. Delivered in such all-or-nothing stakes, the realists dealing with the plague firsthand mostly ignore this ridiculous proposition.

The Rebel

As Camus' narrator says, “The trouble is, there is nothing less spectacular than a pestilence and, if only because they last so long, great misfortunes are monotonous.” At times, so is the novel, especially such a conceptual one with philosophical points supplementing nearly every development. And though the circumstances of such a disease can be tedious-- time literally standing still for one to survive or perish in the epidemic's steady method of attrition-- the conclusions Camus reaches are instructive and for the most part true. We are each independent persons with unique and special pursuits and most of the time, hopefully for all of our lives, this is fine and good. But there comes a moment for some of us when such living is no longer morally tenable and hard choices need to be made. Importantly, doing the right thing does not necessarily promise heroism, but does guarantee membership in the human race.

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