Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Camus: The Plague

Can we have meaningful lives if we believe we will die tomorrow? Faced with the shadow of death, should we distract ourselves to avoid thinking about our mortality - or should we confront it?  In The Plague, Albert Camus presents these questions in dramatic fashion when death is a constant companion.  This novel describes the consequences of a plague in the French-Algerian city of Oran, circa 1940's.  The government quarantines the entire city allowing no one in or out and people must endure the daily deaths without outside assistance. Many people wonder if they will ever see the outside world again, and their loved ones beyond the city walls.   

Much of the novel focuses on how medical workers and common people adapt to this plague: the changes in society, the loss of freedom and the constant reminder of our mortality.  The ability of these people to accept or ignore death can help them survive.  It also sums up Camus's own philosophy of why we keep living when our own survival is finite.  The difference here is that your death is not 40-60 years down the road, but right in front of you. 


Dr. Bernard Rieux, the main character and narrator, is the first to recognize the plague in Oran. His wife left before the plague arrived and is therefore separated from him following the quarantine.  Rieux spends the novel providing assistance to the sick and dying.

Father Paneloux tells the citizens that the plague is an act of God punishing them for their sinful nature. Many citizens flock to the churches. "But where some saw abstraction others saw the truth."   However, as the plague worsens, Paneloux becomes disillusioned about why his god would allow such more suffering.  Eventually Paneloux dies as well. 

Cottard tries to commit suicide during the opening of the novel.  Later, as the plague arrives, Cottard becomes a wealthy smuggler adapting well to his circumstances.  However, when when the plague receedes, Cottard is unable to re-adjust to living in normal society.

Jean Tarrou is vacationing in Oran when the plague strikes, trapping him in the city.  He is a stoic man and become a friend and helper for Dr. Rieux.

Rambert is a young journalist visiting Oran who is also trapped in the city following the quarantine.  He seeks to escape so he can be reunited with his wife in Paris. However he begins to feel guilty about leaving Rieux and others in the city and changes his mind. 

Confronting Mortality

One mechanism people use to cope with their imminent death is to give themselves distractions to keep them from confronting reality.  Some of this is involves activity while in other cases it is letting their minds wander. 

"The habit of despair is worse than despair itself...those who had jobs went about them at the exact tempo of the plague, with dreary perseverance."

The journalist Rambert was visiting Oran for his Paris-based paper and is now trapped by the plague.  He tries to work with the bureaucracy at the Prefect's office to make an exception and let him leave, which they will not do.  What is amazing about this scene is that despite the death and despair all around, the bureaucrats continued doing their jobs with mechanical efficiency, as if busying themselves with this almost meaningless work helps them avoid confronting the reality around them - that they could likely die any day.

Some people, in contrast, shifted aimlessly from hope to despair. "They drifted through life rather than living it, the prey of aimless days and sterile memories, like wandering shadows..."

In Tarrou's diary, he contemplates about how we can become more conscious of our time even while it is slipping away from us:  "Querry: How to contrive not to waste one's time?  Answer: by being fully aware of it all the while"  This can be done by spending time in a dentist's chair, listening to lectures in an unknown language, lining up at the box-office of theaters and then not buying a seat, etc.

Trapped in Oran, the citizens could still be "free" by imagining themselves with loved ones or in better situations, or by re-interpreting their situation. Even with many of their freedoms lost, people still had ways to be free. 
"Hostile to the past, impatient of the present, and cheated of the future". It was like living in a prison where one's imagination was only thing to help you tick away the hours of your remaining life.
"...the bitter sense of freedom that comes of total deprivation". These are only memories, but you are completely free to imagine whatever you want.

Struggling against the inevitable

The doctor Rieux doesn't believe in god.  "...if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to leave that to Him"  No one ever throws himself completely on divine providence.  Rieux is actually "fighting against creation as he found it". 

The order of the world is shaped by death and the plague only makes that more clear.  For a doctor, life is "a never ending defeat".  The victories never last.   It is like Sisyphus pushing his rock up the mountain only to watch it tumble back down again.   

Tarrou says in a sense we are all plague stricken with the desperate weariness of life.  The key is to try and not infect others and keep ourselves busy with life's little distractions.

1 comment:

  1. Cheers for a most decent consideration of 'the Plague'. Read this one about a year ago and your post recalled a lot of those thoughts I had (thought I had) stored away. Keep up the un-reading.