by DM de G Reinet

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April 3, 2020 in Uncategorized

In 1947, the Algerian-born French writer Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) published his book La Peste, subsequently translated into English as The Plague.  At first blush, it is a chronicle of events that occurred in the port city of Oran, in the north-west of Algeria, in the 1940s.  An outbreak of a virulent strain of bubonic plague, and fears that it would spread further afield, prompted the authorities to close the city gates and so place the city’s entire population in quarantine.  This period of sequestration endured for ten months.  In the chronicle, the narrator (whose identity is only revealed at the very end) describes the medical, social and psychological impact of the disease on the city’s inhabitants.

However, all is not quite as it seems.    As a matter of fact, there was no plague epidemic at Oran in the 1940s.  The city, which is believed to date back to about 900 AD, had experienced severe visitations of plague in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Cholera also wiped out a substantial proportion of the city’s population in the mid-1800s.  Since then, plague has periodically returned to the city (most recently in mid-2003: see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2851531/).  On these occasions, however, it was diagnosed early and, with the benefit of modern prophylactics, the authorities were able to contain it to relatively minor proportions.  There was no significant incidence of plague at Oran in the mid-twentieth century.  So we know that the events related by the mysterious narrator of The Plague are fictitious.

Indeed, Camus himself alerted the reader to the fact that the chronicle set out in The Plague was not an account of events that had actually occurred at Oran, or anywhere else for that matter.  In an epigraph on the title page, Camus prominently quoted from the preface to Daniel Defoe’s epistolary novel Robinson Crusoe (1719): “It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not!”  Thus we know that The Plague was not concerned with an actual episode of plague, or with events that had actually taken place at Oran.  And as the reader becomes absorbed in the pages of the book she discovers that it is a multi-layered allegory of more profound maladies afflicting human existence.

So, at a primary level The Plague is concerned with the palpably deleterious effects of the contagious disease, and of the resultant quarantine imposed on Oran, on the city’s citizens.  We read about the municipal and medical authorities’ initial denialism in the face of growing evidence that their community was being confronted by a potentially calamitous outbreak of fatal disease.  We read about the authorities’ dilly-dallying in adopting half-measures to address the growing crisis.  (“Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic.  And the remedial measures they think up are hardly adequate for a common cold.”)  We read about the selfless activities of Dr Bernard Rieux and his squad of civilian volunteers who “roll up their sleeves” in a seemingly hopeless campaign to deal with the medical aspects of the spreading disease.  We read about the apprehension, and then the panic, that spreads among the city’s inhabitants as the disease begins to claim an ever-increasing number of lives.  We read about the impact all of this has on the daily lives, and on the minds, of the city’s population as they finally have to face the uncertainty of being locked inside a disease-ridden city for an indefinite period and without hope of medical security.

In the early chapters of The Plague we read about rats dying in the streets of Oran in unprecedented numbers.  It was only when the townsfolk began to show “signs of uneasiness” that the municipality (which “had not contemplated doing anything at all”) convened a meeting to discuss the situation.  Initially, not everyone was alarmed.  Some had “other things to think about.”  Others thought it was somebody else’s “headache” to deal with.  After a brief period of “bewildering portents”, the situation changed to one in which “the perplexity of the early days gradually gave place to panic.”  Soon, panic gave way to fear.  Even when medical evidence pointed irrefutably towards plague, there was a reluctance to acknowledge that, or even to use the word for fear of causing “unnecessary” alarm.  Gradually, medical personnel began to recognise that “energetic measures were needed.”  It was understood by some of them that the deceased rats had emitted on Oran “tens of thousands of fleas which will spread the infection in geometrical progression unless it is checked in time.”  But even then the authorities hesitated to take decisive action.  Meanwhile, deaths began to mount but doctors were still waiting for consignments of anti-plague serum to arrive from Paris. 

About that time, the narrator tells us, the weather appeared set fair: “There was a serene blue sky flooded with golden light each morning … all seemed well with the world.  And yet within four days the fever had made four startling strides: sixteen deaths, twenty-four, twenty-eight, and thirty-two.  On the fourth day the opening of the auxiliary hospital in the premises of an infant school was officially announced.  The local population, who so far had made a point of masking their anxiety by facetious comments, now seemed tongue-tied and went their way with gloomy faces.”  Only then did the authorities begin “tightening up the new regulations.”  The next day serum was flown in.  There was enough for immediate purposes, but health bodies had insufficient quantities of serum to cope with a spread of the disease.  A request was made for additional supplies, to which the response was that “the emergency reserve stock was exhausted, but that a new supply was in preparation.”

But for the rats and the fleas, the parallels between the situation in Oran during the early days of the eponymous plague and the situation today confronting the world – on an infinitely larger scale – are manifestly obvious.  As such, it is not surprising that attention has recently been drawn to the scary similarities between Camus’s The Plague and the world’s present predicament (see e.g. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books/article-the-hope-at-the-heart-of-albert-camuss-plague-novel-la-peste/ and https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/mar/28/albert-camus-novel-the-plague-la-peste-pestilence-fiction-coronavirus-lockdown).

But the perceptive reader of The Plague soon grasps that the book is not really – or not primarily – concerned with actual plague or, indeed, with any sort of public health emergency.  The plague described in the book, it transpires, is a symbol for something else equally, if not more, menacing.   What is more, and perhaps more frightening, is that one of Dr Rieux’s staunch associates in the campaign against the disease, the enigmatic Jean Tarrou, eventually says: “I have realized that we all have plague … each of us have the plague within him; no one, no one on earth , is free from it.”  And so the reader is compelled to wonder about the true nature of the pervasive “plague”.

We know today, thanks to many literary analyses of The Plague, that the disease described in the novel is probably, among other things, a metaphorical reference to the scourge of Nazism that had infected Europe in the 1930s and that ultimately led to World War II.  The quarantine imposed on the city of Oran is probably an allusion to the Nazi occupation of large parts of Europe during WWII.  And the “sanitary squads” organised by Dr Rieux and his volunteer assistants to fight the plague probably allude to the partisan resistance movements that struck back at the seemingly overwhelming force of Nazism.  Camus (who was to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957) himself participated in the French Resistance, and became editor of the clandestine newspaper Combat, whose contributors included Jean-Paul Sartre and André Malraux.

As now we wait for the coronavirus to unleash its full devastation, and as we enter the period of “lockdown”, we could do worse than re-read The Plague, which, at a superficial level, is an eerie account of the C-19 crisis avant la lettre.  In an amazingly imaginative and prescient manner, Camus holds up a mirror in which we recognise many elements of our own present predicament.  Or perhaps Camus was not quite clairvoyant because – and this is one point The Plague sets out to make – every outbreak of plague (or of “plague”) is essentially the same and, so, a predictable continuation of its predecessors.  Moreover the plague (or “plague”) bacillus “never dies or disappears for good; … it can lie dormant for years and years.” 

So what is the “plague” that, according to Tarrou (or Camus) afflicts us all, even if we don’t show outward symptoms of illness?  Who are the “rats”?  And who the “fleas”?  Reading and reflecting on The Plague, especially at this juncture in the history of the world, should give us pause.

To be continued

 [Quotations from The Plague are taken from the Penguin translation by Stuart Gilbert]

REFLECTIONS ON “THE PLAGUE”: CAMUS IN THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS

July 12, 2020 in Uncategorized

by D. M. de G. Reinet

I

In 1947, the Algerian-born French writer Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) published his book La Peste.  It was subsequently translated into English as The Plague.  At first blush it is a chronicle of events that occurred in the port city of Oran, in the north-west of Algeria, in the 1940s.  An outbreak of a virulent strain of bubonic plague, and fears that it would spread further afield, prompted the authorities to close the city gates and so place the city’s entire population in quarantine.  This period of sequestration endured for some ten months.  In the chronicle, the narrator (whose identity is only revealed at the very end) describes the medical, social and psychological impact of the disease on the city’s inhabitants.

However, all is not quite as it seems.  As a matter of fact, there was no plague epidemic at Oran in the 1940s.  The city, which is believed to date back to about 900 AD, had experienced severe visitations of plague in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Cholera also wiped out a substantial proportion of the city’s population in the mid-1800s.  Since then, plague has periodically returned to the city (most recently in mid-2003: see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2851531/).  On these occasions, however, it was diagnosed early and, with the benefit of modern prophylactics, the authorities were able to contain it to relatively minor proportions.  There was no significant incidence of plague at Oran in the mid-twentieth century.  So we know that the events related by the mysterious narrator of The Plague are fictitious.

Indeed, Camus himself alerted the reader to the fact that the chronicle recorded in The Plague was not an account of events that had actually occurred at Oran, or anywhere else for that matter.  In an epigraph on the title page, Camus prominently quoted from the preface to Daniel Defoe’s epistolary novel Robinson Crusoe (1719): “It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not!”  Thus we know that The Plague was not concerned with an actual episode of plague or some other health crisis, or with events that had actually taken place at Oran.  And as the reader becomes absorbed in the pages of the book she discovers that it is a multi-layered allegory of more profound maladies afflicting human existence.

Yes, at a primary level The Plague is concerned with the palpably deleterious effects of the contagious disease – and of the resultant quarantine imposed on Oran – on the city’s citizens.  We read about the municipal and medical authorities’ initial denialism in the face of growing evidence that their community was being confronted by a potentially calamitous outbreak of fatal disease.  We read about the authorities’ dilly-dallying in taking half-hearted measures to address the growing crisis.  (“Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic.  And the remedial measures they think up are hardly adequate for a common cold.”)  We read about the selfless activities of Dr Bernard Rieux and his squad of civilian volunteers who “roll up their sleeves” and “put shoulder to the wheel” in a seemingly hopeless campaign to deal with the medical aspects of the spreading disease.  We read about the apprehension, and then the panic, that spreads among the city’s inhabitants as the disease begins to claim an ever-increasing number of lives.  We read about the impact that all of this has on the daily lives, and on the minds, of the city’s population as they finally have to face the uncertainty of being locked inside a disease-ridden city for an indefinite period and without hope of medical security.

In the early chapters of The Plague we read about the prelude to the epidemic – rats dying in the streets of Oran in unprecedented numbers.  These were “premonitory signs of the grave events” that were to ensue.  It was only when the townsfolk began to show “signs of uneasiness” that the municipality (which “had not contemplated doing anything at all”) convened a meeting to discuss the situation.  Initially, not everyone was alarmed.  Some had “other things to think about.”  Others thought it was somebody else’s “headache” to deal with.  After a brief period of “bewildering portents”, the situation changed to one in which “the perplexity of the early days gradually gave place to panic.”  Soon, panic gave way to fear.  Even when medical evidence pointed almost irrefutably towards plague, there was a reluctance to acknowledge that the disease might be plague, or even to use the word for fear of causing “unnecessary” alarm.  Gradually, some medical personnel began to recognise that “energetic measures were needed.”  It was understood by some of them that the deceased rats had emitted on Oran “tens of thousands of fleas which will spread the infection in geometrical progression unless it is checked in time.”  But even then the authorities hesitated to take decisive action.  Meanwhile, deaths began to mount. 

About that time, the narrator tells us, the weather appeared set fair: “There was a serene blue sky flooded with golden light each morning … all seemed well with the world.  And yet within four days the fever had made four startling strides: sixteen deaths, twenty-four, twenty-eight, and thirty-two.  On the fourth day the opening of the auxiliary hospital in the premises of an infant school was officially announced.  The local population, who so far had made a point of masking their anxiety by facetious comments, now seemed tongue-tied and went their way with gloomy faces.”  Only then did the authorities begin “tightening up the new regulations.”  The next day serum was flown in.  There was enough for immediate purposes, but insufficient quantities to cope with a spread of the disease.  A request was made for additional supplies, to which the response was that “the emergency reserve stock was exhausted, but that a new supply was in preparation.”

But for the rats and the fleas, the parallels between the situation in Oran during the early days of the eponymous plague and the situation confronting the world – on an infinitely larger scale – today are manifestly obvious.  As such, it is not surprising that, in recent days, some attention has been drawn to the scary similarities between Camus’s The Plague and the world’s present predicament (see e.g. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books/article-the-hope-at-the-heart-of-albert-camuss-plague-novel-la-peste/ and https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/mar/28/albert-camus-novel-the-plague-la-peste-pestilence-fiction-coronavirus-lockdown).

But even the half-attentive reader of The Plague soon comes to understand that the book is not really – or not primarily – concerned with actual plague or, indeed, with any sort of public health emergency.  The plague described in the book, it transpires, is a symbol for something else equally, if not more, menacing.   What is more (and perhaps more frightening), is that one of Dr Rieux’s staunch associates in the campaign against the disease, the enigmatic Jean Tarrou, eventually says: “I have realized that we all have plague … each of us have the plague within him; no one, no one on earth, is free from it.”  And so the reader is compelled to wonder about the true nature of the pervasive “plague”.

We know today, thanks to many literary analyses of The Plague, that the disease described in the novel is probably, among other things, a metaphorical reference to the scourge of Nazism that had infected Europe in the 1930s and that ultimately led to World War II.  The quarantine imposed on the city of Oran is probably an allusion to the Nazi occupation of large parts of Europe during WWII.  And the “sanitary squads” organised by Dr Rieux and his volunteer assistants to fight the plague probably allude to the partisan resistance movements that struck back at the seemingly overwhelming force of Nazism.  Camus (who was to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957) himself participated in the French Resistance, and became editor of the clandestine newspaper Combat, whose contributors included Jean-Paul Sartre and André Malraux.

As now we wait for the coronavirus to unleash its full devastation, and as we enter the period of “lockdown”, we could do worse than re-read The Plague, which, at a superficial level, is an eerie account of the COVID-19 crisis avant la lettre.  In an amazingly imaginative and prescient manner, Camus holds up a mirror in which we recognise many elements of our own present predicament.  Or perhaps Camus was not quite clairvoyant because – and this is one point The Plague sets out to make – every outbreak of plague (or of “plague”) is essentially the same and, so, a predictable continuation of its predecessors.  Moreover the plague (or “plague”) bacillus “never dies or disappears for good; … it can lie dormant for years and years.” 

So what is the “plague” that, according to Tarrou (or Camus) afflicts us all, even if we don’t show outward symptoms of illness?  Who are the “rats”?  And who the “fleas”?  Reading and reflecting on The Plague, especially at this juncture in the history of the world, should give us pause. 

(3 April 2020)

II

Yesterday (or perhaps the day before) was the 16th of April – the day on which the chronicle narrated in The Plague commences.  It was the day on which Dr Rieux, as he emerged from his surgery, stepped on “something soft”: a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing.  But that is all coincidence.

After C-19 had wreaked its initial havoc in China, and had begun to reveal its destructive force in Italy, Spain and France, other countries belatedly and reluctantly began to impose lockdown arrangements of various hues towards the end of March.  At the time, most of us assumed that the lockdown would endure only for the initial stipulated period and that, after that, we would return to our “normal” lives.  Of course, we have now been disabused of that misapprehension.  Not only will the lockdown (such as it is) endure for longer than initially anticipated; even once the extended period has elapsed, the post-lockdown period will be different from our previous “normal” lives in many ways. 

Not only is it likely that we will have to endure further periods of lockdown of one or another degree of severity; even outside lockdown periods, life will (and arguably should) be altered in substantial ways.  Indeed, one wonders how “normal” pre-lockdown life actually was.  The probability, however, is that most people will happily, and without much ado or thought, return to that pre-pestilential “normality”.  And that will only go to demonstrate the irrefutable truth of Tarrou’s view that “we all have plague.”  The contagion will not have been cured by the expedient of a brief lockdown.  And, as we will inevitably see (if we were to open our eyes), the rats and their fleas will not have been exterminated.  Quite the contrary: like vultures they are already salivating at the prospect of scavenging among the debris for remnants that they might be able to turn to good account.  And I am not talking only about the despicable hoodlums who have opportunistically exploited the crisis to vandalise, poach, pillage and rape.

Early in Camus’ parable, set in the coastal town of Oran in the French colonial province of Algeria, Dr Rieux is visited at his surgery by Raymond Rambert, a journalist from a leading Parisian daily newspaper.  But Rambert is not seeking medical treatment.  He is not ill (or if he is ill – or “ill” – he is blissfully unaware of it).  Rambert is looking for information.  He has been commissioned to write a report on the living conditions of the Arab population, and especially on sanitary conditions prevailing in the Arab quarters of Oran.  (It is one of the curiosities of The Plague that, beyond this, little is said about the indigenous population of Oran.  Does this betray a hopelessly Eurocentric perspective on the part of Camus, who, although born in Algeria and raised in Algiers, was the son of a third-generation pied-noir French father and a mother of Spanish descent?) 

Dr Rieux, stating that these conditions were not good, asked whether Rambert’s editors would allow him to tell the truth and publish an unqualified condemnation of the prevailing state of affairs.  Rambert said that he would not be allowed to go quite as far as that.  To this Rieux replied by saying that, in that event, he would decline to provide Rambert with information because he had no use for statements that do not divulge the whole truth: he had resolved to have no truck with compromises with the truth.  In parting, Rieux suggested to Rambert that he might want to write something about the extraordinary number of dead rats found in Oran.

Indeed, by 18 April the proliferation of dead rats had caused the inhabitants of Oran to begin to show “signs of uneasiness”.  This prompted the municipal authorities to convene a meeting to discuss the situation.  However, they took little action beyond directing the sanitary service to collect the dead rats at dawn every morning and to have them incinerated.  But the situation continued to worsen, with increasing numbers of dead vermin being found in the streets on subsequent mornings.  On 25 April, the information bureau announced that in excess of 6,000 rats had been collected and burnt the previous day.  This statistic unsettled public nerves; people who had hitherto merely grumbled “now realized that this strange phenomenon, whose scope could not be measured and whose origins escaped detection, had something vaguely menacing about it.” 

When the number of deceased rodents increased to 8,000 on 28 April, “a wave of something like panic swept the town.”  Now the authorities were accused of slackness, and people who owned out-of-town holiday homes considered decamping there.  Soon a few patients afflicted by a strange disease, not readily diagnosed by medical practitioners, fell ill.  On 30 April a beautiful spring day, with blue skies and a warm, gentle breeze, gave rise to a new sense of optimism among the townsfolk.  But that same day the mysterious illness claimed its first fatality.

Now, we read, the bewildering portents and the general perplexity of earlier days were superseded by panic.  “Reviewing that first phase in the light of subsequent events, our townsfolk realized that they had never dreamt it possible that our little town should be chosen out for the scene of such grotesque happenings as the wholesale death of rats in broad daylight or the decease of door-porters through exotic maladies.  In this respect they were wrong, and their views obviously called for revision.” 

Even when it had become clear to some medical specialists that the mysterious disease had all the hallmarks of plague, the government continue to shilly-shally, reluctant to give the disease a name because of a desire “not to alarm the public”.  One of the specialists cautioned against acting “as if there were no likelihood that half the population wouldn’t be wiped out; for then it would be.”  Nevertheless, the initial measures taken by the authorities gave little indication that they were “facing the situation squarely”.  The city’s residents were “advised to practise extreme cleanliness.”

Of course, we were quite naïve in thinking, three or four weeks ago, that we would be healed from the physical symptoms of the C-19 disease merely by adopting a regime of enhanced cleanliness and by a relatively short period of lockdown.  In this respect we were wrong, and our views soon required revision. 

Over the last few weeks we have read frequently that the C-19 pandemic will result in a paradigm shift and that we will never revert to the pre-lockdown state of “normality”.  Much has been written about how we will never return to our old way of life or to the perceptions that informed that way of life.  But alas: already it is quite clear that if we had misconceptions that a brief lockdown, like a fleeting visit to a spa or a sanatorium to “take the waters”, would begin to cure us of the figurative disease afflicting us, we were mistaken.    

(17 April 2020)

III

Initially (Camus tells us in La Peste), Oran’s municipal authorities ascribed little significance to the profusion of rodent corpses strewn in the city streets.  Soon patients began to present with unusual ailments.  Some died of a mysterious illness.  But in those early days very few people connected the dots and appreciated the potential implications of these seemingly unconnected circumstances.  Indeed, very few people even discerned the existence of dots.  Soon, though, it became apparent to those who were prepared to open their eyes that the city was being confronted by a potential emergency of substantial proportions.  Even then, though, few understood the nature and extent of the potential crisis.  Medical doctors waited cautiously for the results of post-mortem examinations before they were prepared to start speculating – let alone draw conclusions – about the “strange malady” that had made its appearance.      In these circumstances, an elderly medical practitioner, Dr Castel, was surprisingly outspoken: “I don’t need any post-mortems.  I was in China for a good part of my career,” he said, “and I saw some cases in Paris twenty years ago.  Only no one dared to call them by their name on that occasion.  The usual taboo, of course; the public mustn’t be alarmed, that wouldn’t do at all.  And then, as one of my colleagues said, ‘It’s unthinkable.  Everyone knows it’s ceased to appear in Western Europe.’  Yes, everyone knew that – except the dead men.”  Then, turning to Dr Rieux, he said: “Come now, Rieux, you know as well as I do what it is.”  (One need hardly draw attention parenthetically to Camus’ references to China and Paris.)

Looking out of the window of his surgery, Dr Rieux pondered the imponderable.  Though blue, the sky had a dull sheen.  “Yes, Castel,” he replied.  “It’s hardly credible.  But everything points to its being plague.”

The next day, Dr Castel pointed out to Dr Rieux that there was not a gramme of anti-plague serum in the entire district of Oran, and that it would have to be flown in from Paris.  Several days later, they were still waiting for the serum to arrive.  When health practitioners made enquiries with the authorities about the delays in the delivery of serum, they were told: “It’ll come this week.” 

Now, when we know that the serum will not be arriving this week, or even next week or the week after, it has been tragi-comic to observe the stunts of some pseudo-leaders in advocating the use of anti-malarial drugs as a supposed defence against, or cure for, C-19.  One might be forgiven for wondering whether they have bought vast tranches of shares in the pharmaceutical companies dispensing these drugs.

Ironies abound. 

Populations stricken by coronafatigue accuse governments of over-reacting by maintaining severe restrictions on civil liberties.  Entrepreneurs and shareholders suddenly discover an altruistic solicitude (long concealed in the philanthropic depths of their munificent hearts) for working people (long underpaid) now deprived of their livelihoods.  They clamour for the lifting of lockdown restrictions.  Many people take the law (and their lives) into their own hands, disregarding the restrictions imposed for their benefit.  But when it is announced that schools will gradually begin to reopen on a limited scale, many people indignantly proclaim their objections – ostensibly out of concern for the well-being of the children (who, scientific opinion seems to concur, are not materially at risk).  Some teachers and their trade unions, protest against the reopening of schools, despite the fact that initially only two out of thirteen grades will be returning to class.  Cui bono?

The lockdown gradually disintegrates organically.  Government is powerless, or politically unwilling, to enforce it properly.  Even in circumstances when no civilians should be out and about, and a curfew is supposedly in place, the thousands of policemen and soldiers supposedly mandated to enforce the law cannot prevent the looting and vandalisation of schools.

Many of those who favour the lifting of the lockdown point out that infection rates and mortality figures have not reached the levels initially feared.  Isn’t that precisely (or at least partly) because there has been a lockdown?  But perhaps these advocates of a removal of lockdown restrictions can be forgiven their lack of appreciation of the severity of the situation.  Their freely-offered expert opinions are obviously informed (or misinformed) by the paucity of reliable and up-to-date statistics.  Does anybody seriously believe that some provinces have recorded very few infections and hardly any deaths? 

Following a prolonged reticence by government to take citizens into their confidence by releasing meaningful information, government has finally produced some information that is actually informative.  See https://www.news24.com/Analysis/analysis-inside-sas-frightening-covid-19-projections-and-why-transparency-is-important-20200520.  These sobering projections indicate that – despite the relative success of the lockdown – we may well see 40,000 fatalities by the end of the year.  That would be enough people to fill a large sports stadium.  (It is not many more, though, than the number of people who succumbed to Ebola in West Africa in 2014-’16 – but, inexplicably, that passed largely unnoticed.)  So, even if there is no immediate likelihood that half the population will be wiped out, there is certainly no scope for complacency.

Unsurprisingly, recent times have seen a resurgence of interest in The Plague.  See, for example, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2020/05/15/graciliano-ramos-and-the-plague/.  Unfortunately, there has been little analysis of the underlying message sought to be conveyed by Camus, or of what it means for us in C-19 times.  One article that points in the right direction is Steve Coll’s commentary published in The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/camus-and-the-political-tests-of-a-pandemic.  Particularly powerful is his statement that “Camus was less interested in the evolving science of epidemic response than in our capacity as individuals to face the truth, endure, and contribute to success under extreme conditions.”  But even that doesn’t quite capture the crux of The Plague.  And we are still left to explore the true meaning of Tarrou’s statement that “we all have plague … each of us have the plague within him; no one, no one on earth, is free from it.” 

Understandably, there has been a deluge of C-19 media coverage in recent months.  Indeed, it almost seems as though there is no other news.  Among the many worrying and depressing reports there have been a few heartening and uplifting stories – for example, of people who have done their duty in difficult conditions, and of people who have courageously and imaginatively gone above and beyond the call of duty.  There have also been a few stories about the impact of the lockdown on the natural world.  For example, there has been a dramatic reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions.  In some cities, people have seen blue skies for the first time in years.  Sadly, though, these reduced emissions will be only temporary and will have no noticeable impact on global warming: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/19/lockdowns-trigger-dramatic-fall-global-carbon-emissions.

We have also seen reports (not all apocryphal) of animals observed in areas where they have not been seen for decades: goats roaming freely in village streets, deer grazing on the lawns of housing estates, and lions relaxing on desolate golf club greens.  Typically, these reports have come beautifully illustrated with colourful photographs: https://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2020/apr/22/animals-roaming-streets-coronavirus-lockdown-photos and https://www.newscientist.com/article/2244359-which-animals-are-benefitting-from-coronavirus-lockdowns/.

By contrast, there has been very little publicity about the mass culling of animals that had been destined to be slaughtered for human consumption.  One recent article drew attention to that fact that tens of millions of farm animals are being killed by the most horrific methods.  Although the euphemism “euthanised” is used to describe these killings, the reality is that unimaginable numbers of animals are being killed in sickeningly cruel ways: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/19/millions-of-us-farm-animals-to-be-culled-by-suffocation-drowning-and-shooting-coronavirus.  But no photographs are provided to illustrate any of this.  One would have expected that, in a world that regards itself as vaguely “civilised”, there would be an explosion of popular outrage about this brutal treatment of animals.  Sadly, this has largely been swept under the carpet and, no doubt, will soon be forgotten.

When we begin, even only slightly, to conceptualise the extent of the callous cruelty that is inflicted on the animal kingdom, we cannot avoid asking questions about the extent to which we have allowed ourselves to become desensitised and dehumanised.  The nauseating irony is particularly striking when we consider that the first reading for the Easter Vigil (long since lost in the mists of C-19 history) included the following: “And God said, Behold, I have given you every seed-bearing plant upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, with its seed-bearing fruit; to you it shall be for meat” (Genesis 1: 29).  It seems most of us are incurably infected by an acute lack of basic compassion.  Perhaps if we reflect on this for a moment we will begin to glimpse what Tarrou meant when he said that we all have the plague within us.

(24 May 2020)

IV

The journalist Rambert was dispatched to Oran by his Paris newspaper to investigate and report on the living conditions of the Arab population in Oran and on sanitary conditions in the city’s Arab quarters.  To his chagrin, Rambert ended up trapped in Oran by the quarantine (or, in demotic parlance, the “hard lockdown”) imposed on the city when the government belatedly endeavoured to confine the propagation of the disease.

Some three weeks after the cordon sanitaire had been flung around Oran, Rambert returned to Dr Rieux.  Now, he was no longer seeking assistance with his investigation.  Instead, he was hoping the doctor would give him a clean bill of health in support of his efforts to persuade the authorities to allow him to leave Oran and return to Paris.  Rieux was on his way from the hospital to a dispensary, and invited Rambert to walk with him.  As they strolled through “the narrow streets of the Negro district”, Rambert explained his yearning to go home: he had left his wife in Paris.  He immediately clarified: strictly speaking, she wasn’t his wife.  “The truth is that she and I have been together only a short time, and we suit each other perfectly.”

When Oran had been put into quarantine, Rambert had tried to send a letter to his beloved.  But the postal officials had vetoed this; it was feared that letters sent by post might transmit the plague from Oran to the outside world.  So Rambert had had to stand in a queue for hours just to be able to send her a telegram: “All goes well.  Hope to see you soon.”  (It was the kind of empty abbreviated missive that would, decades later, be reincarnated as an SMS or WhatsApp message.)  Indeed, at the time Rambert’s impression had been that “this state of affairs was quite temporary” and that he would be back in his sweetheart’s arms before long.  However, he had soon realised that “there was no knowing how long this business was going to last.”  As a result, he had decided to leave Oran as soon as possible, and was now in the process of lobbying municipal officials for the equivalent of an exit visa – hence his request for Dr Rieux to certify that he was not infected.

Coming to the Place d’Armes, the two men stopped beside the statue of the Republic.  (The obelisk and the feminine incarnation of liberty remain there to this day, but the statue of Marianne – the symbol of the French Republic – which previously adorned the plinth has long since been removed.)  Rieux explained that he could not give Rambert the requested medical certificate: “I don’t know whether you have the disease or not, and, even if I did, how could I certify that between the moment of leaving my consulting-room and your arrival at the Prefect’s office you wouldn’t be infected?”  Besides, there were many people in the same quandary as Rambert and there couldn’t be any question of allowing them to leave.

Rambert, his hat pushed back slightly and “his shirt-collar gaping under a loosely knotted tie, his cheeks ill-shaven”, had “the sulky, stubborn look of a young man who feels himself deeply injured.”  Upon hearing Rieux’s refusal and explanation, he exclaimed indignantly, “But I don’t belong here!”  Rieux retorted: “Unfortunately from now on you’ll belong here, like everybody else.”

As it transpired, and as Rieux had predicted, the city functionaries had no intention whatsoever of permitting Rambert (or, for that matter, anyone else) to leave Oran.  In his desperation, Rambert eventually had recourse to an underground syndicate that was paying bribes to guards to smuggle people out of the city under cover of night.  Making the necessary arrangements for Rambert’s flight proved to be an arduous, time-consuming and frustrating process.  Every time it seemed as though the scheme was about to come to fruition, some problem arose and it all came to naught, and the whole process had to start from scratch again.

And so, weeks later, Rambert was still in Oran.  In a conversation with Rieux and Tarrou in his hotel room, he explained that these disappointments had made it dawn upon him that this was exactly what the plague meant: the same thing over and over again.  He played a record (“St James Infirmary”, a blues song made famous by Louis Armstrong in the late 1920s) on the gramophone.  “Rather a boring record,” he observed, “and this must be the tenth time I’ve put it on today.”  Asked whether he was very fond of the song, he said, “No, but it’s the only one I have … the same thing over and over again.”

Rambert enquired about the progress of the civilian sanitary squads organised by Tarrou and Rieux in combating the plague.  He mentioned that he had fought on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and that he no longer believed in heroism: “I know it’s easy and I’ve learnt it can be murderous.  What interests me is living and dying for what one loves.”  To which he added: “We – mankind – have lost the capacity for love.”  Nevertheless, he agreed to assist Rieux and Tarrou until he could find some way of escaping from Oran. 

Not long afterwards, Rieux, reflecting on the impact of the plague on the townspeople, realised that it had “gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship.”  Or, he thought, perhaps “our love persisted, but in practice it served nothing; it was an inert mass within us, sterile as crime or a life sentence.”

By the end of September (about five months after the plague had claimed its first life in Oran), Rambert’s furtive departure from the city was, finally, imminent.  It had taken a great deal of trouble and expense (and, of course, risk) to make the arrangements.  But at the eleventh hour, Rambert decided to abandon the scheme.  Announcing his change of heart to Tarrou and Rieux, he explained: “Until now I always felt a stranger in this town, and that I’d no concern with you people.  But now that I’ve seen what I’ve seen, I know that I belong here whether I want it or not.  This business is everybody’s business.”

Decades hence, when next generations look back on the C-19 era, they will almost inevitably associate it with George Floyd (requiescat in pace), #BLM and the fall of Edward Colston and others of his ilk.  George Floyd will probably, and deservedly, be remembered in decades to come.  But of course (and this is by no means intended to detract from the disgraceful tragedy that occurred in Minneapolis at the height of the C-19 pandemic) his death was simply the latest (and, sadly, not the last) recurrence of many such incidents, not only in the USA but also in many other locations around the world.  Consequently, George Floyd will probably come to symbolise many similar incidents caused by white supremacism and state brutality.  The question is, how did humanity sink to such depths?  It would have been tragic enough if the murder of George Floyd had been the only occurrence of its nature.  Instead, it has been “the same thing over and over again.”

Derek Chauvin will not stand in the dock by himself.  Of course, his co-accused will be alongside him.  But, in reality, all of humankind stands indicted.  For we have all stood by idly while this sort of atrocious apathy towards human life and dignity evolved and became “normal”.  (Of course, some – including people in high office – have actively encouraged the mind-set that allows this sort of syndrome to develop, and that desensitises people so that they stand by idly.)  A world that countenanced slavery for as long as it did, and one that has allowed society to undermine the human dignity of so many people for so long, one that has connived at poverty and hunger for so long, is a world that has lost the capacity for love.  It is one that has suppressed in us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship.  Or, if vestiges of love for fellow human beings survive, they have been rendered an inert and sterile abstraction. 

Today, food shortages exacerbated by the C-19 pandemic threaten to kill many more people than will be killed by the disease itself.  Today, millions of people around the world – also in the richest countries of the world – are hungry and homeless.  Homelessness is a pandemic that strips millions of people of their dignity and most basic rights.  In addition to homeless hordes, millions of people take refuge in structures not fit for human habitation.  And yet, today, in hundreds of cities around the world, office blocks stand empty, vacated by businesses whose staff are blessed to be able to work from home.  Many of those buildings will never be occupied by their tenants again, or not remotely to the same extent as before we had heard of Wuhan.  Will we convert those buildings into homes for the homeless?  Will we do this and not turn it into a novel money-making scheme?  Time will tell whether the soul of humanity is too badly infected to do what is right.

Global crises are inflection points.  They accelerate political and socio-economic change.  They afford opportunities to discard old (and frequently inefficient) ways of doing things.  The First World War expedited the demise of autocratic monarchies, gave birth to the League of Nations, and furthered the development of a system of international and humanitarian law.  The Second World War spawned the Bretton Woods Conference, which rearranged the international economy.  “But what good came of it at last?”  One might well ask.  Perhaps the present global crisis presents an opportunity for a qualitatively different Bretton Woods.  Do we have the empathy to fashion a global economy that answers the needs of the hungry and the homeless?  Who has the heart to take the helm?  Time will tell.

Hopefully we will not have to listen to “St James Infirmary” yet again.  Hopefully it will not be the same thing over and over again for the soul of humanity.  “Now if thou would’st, when all have given him over / From Death to Life, thou might’st him yet recover.”  Time will tell.

(12 July 2020)

To be continued

 [Quotations from The Plague are taken from the Penguin translation by Stuart Gilbert]

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April 3, 2020 in Uncategorized

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