A Book in Dark Times: Albert Camus, “The Plague”

I recognize that hearkening back to Albert Camus in our own post-existentialist moment is controversial. Heck, calling him controversial may even itself be controversial. He’s long struck many as a soft-left deviant in the Sartre circle, nether rigorous nor theoretical enough to pass muster in the long run.

I do love a motorcycle-riding Gauloise puffer, but I’m no dyed-in-the-wool acolyte. Still, I always admired Camus’ evident belief (reminiscent of Kierkegaard) that the best thing writing can do is hint at the complex, ambivalent, ultimately irreproducible ways the actuality of events shapes how individuals experience the world.

His fiction gets at what it means for people to adjust themselves, slowly to adjust themselves, to a new reality. Like, say, a plague that forces everyone slowly to acknowledge they are not going anywhere. Under those circumstances, Camus, hypothesizes, the imprisoned population becomes a collection of invalids: unable to act, unable to escape and barely able to do the only thing they can, which is to bear their present misery until it subsides.

Doris Lessing has a brief and to me quite amazing novel that asks what it means to sit tight, inactive, waiting for the general end: Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982–Philip Glass turned it into an opera). Albert Camus, though has an even greater one: The Plague  (1947).

Camus grew up in Algeria, and he and his wife briefly returned there in the early 1940’s. The city (in Camus’s account a drab provincial port, a sort of Coetzee-ish Everytown…)  was actually devastated by a plague  in 1849, but Camus sets his novel in the Oran of his own era. Food for thought: while Camus never lived in a plague-ridden town, he did endure civilian life in Nazi France durin ghte 1940’s.

The opening few chapters are filled with grim forebodings—rats dying in the streets, the killing of dogs and cats to prevent the spread of disease. By page 63, 1/3 of the way through the novel, the authorities have sealed the town. Pestilential lockdown.

I was especially struck by three passages  (taken here from  the standard 1948 Stuart Gilbert translation) in which the nondescript Dr. Rieux–in a cool third-person voice that emphasizes the impersonality of the situation–chronicles the town’s unfolding consciousness of pandemic conditions.

The first captures the moment when the psychic parameters of this universe are slowly sinking in. Camus’ word for the estrangement it produces from ordinary life is chilling: he calls it “exile.”

Thus the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile. And the narrator is convinced that he can set down here, as holding good for all, the feeling he personally had and to which many of his friends confessed. It was undoubtedly the feeling of exile—that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire. Sometimes we toyed with our imagination, composing ourselves to wait for a ring at the bell announcing somebody’s return, or for the sound of a familiar footstep on the stairs; but, though we might deliberately stay at home at the hour when a traveler coming by the evening train would normally have arrived…We had nothing left us  but the past, and even if some were tempted to live in the future, they had speedily to abandon  the idea—anyhow, as soon as could be—once they felt the wounds the imagination inflicts on those who yield themselves to it. …

Thus, too, they came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live in company with a memory that serves no purpose. Even the past, of which they thought incessantly, had a savor only of regret. …And thus tehre was always something missing in their lives. Hostile to the past, impatient of the present, and cheated of the future, we were much like those whom men’s justice, or hatred, forces to live behind prison bars. This the only way of escaping from that intolerable leisure was to set the trains running again in one’s imagination and in filling the silence with the fancied tinkle of a doorbell, in practice obstinately mute.  (71-3)

A second passage–which hit me with a shock of recognition even though we are only a month into full plague mode here in Boston–concerns the way that everything beyond the immediate experience is attenuated, harder to grasp and make present.

The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence, and by reason of their very duration great misfortunes are monotonous…..

It cannot be denied that even this distress [at separation] was coming to lose something of its poignancy.

Was it that our fellow citizens, even those who had felt the parting from their loved ones the most keenly, were getting used to do without them ? To assume this would fall somewhat short of the truth.  It would be more correct to say that they were wasting away emotionally as well as physically. At the beginning of the plague they had a vivid recollection of the absent ones and bitterly felt their loss. …[now] memory played its part, but their imagination failed them. Not that they had forgotten the face itself, but—what came to the same thing—it had lost its fleshly substance and they no longer saw it in memory’s mirror.

Thus, while during the first weeks they were liable to complain that only shadows remained to them of what their love had been and meant, they now came to learn that even shadows can waste away, losing the faint hues of life that memory can give. And by the end of their long sundering they had also lost the power of imagining the intimacy that once was theirs or understanding what it can be ot live with someone whose life is wrapped up in yours.

In this respect they had adapted themselves to the very condition of the plague, all the more potent for its mediocrity. None of us was capable any longer of an exalted emotion; all had trite, monotonous feelings. …The furious revolt of the first weeks had given place to a vast despondency, not to be taken for resignation, though it was nonetheless a sort of passive and provisional acquiescence.

Our fellow citizens had fallen into line, had adapted themselves, as people say, to the situation, because there was no way of doing otherwise. Naturally they retained the attitudes of sadness and suffering, but they had ceased to feel their sting. Indeed, to some, Dr. Rieux among them, this precisely was the most disheartening thing: that the habit of despair is worse than despair itself.  (179-81)

Finally, Camus (writing two years after the end of WWII, which was his own period of miserable “internal exile”) evokes a state we can presently only dream of: the lifting of the plague’s siege on mankind. Here he seems to me to be at his–soft leftist, untheoretical, humanist–best. When we finally emerge into daylight, we may not grasp what that egress means: but we will be able to recognize something momentous going on all around us, for all of us.

At the end of the plague, with its misery and provisions, these men and women had come to where the aspect of the part they have been playing for so long, the part of immigrants whose faces first and now their clothes, told of long banishment from a distant homeland. Once plague had shut the gates of the town, they had settled down to a life of separation debarred from the living warmth that gives forgetfulness of all.…Always a great voice had been ringing in the ears of these forlorn, panicked people, a voice calling them back to them land of their desire, a homeland…..

As to what that exile and longing for reunion meant, Rieux had no idea. But as he walked ahead, jostled on all sides, accosted now and then, and gradually made his way into less crowded streets, he was thinking it has no importance whether such things have or have not a meaning; all we need to consider is the answer given to men’s hope. (298-300)

Author: plotznik

I teach English (mainly the novel and Victorian literature) at Brandeis University, and live in Brookline.

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