I just read Albert Camus’ The Plague – Camus being Camus, I was ready for a slow read , but after part I (the book is divided into five parts), I could hardly put the book down. Consequently, I am done – in the literal sense of the word. But perhaps, not really. Even after starting on my next book, I feel my thoughts returning to the life and choices of the characters of The Plague.
For the uninitiated, The Plague is an account of life in Oran, a city in Algeria that finds itself, rather unexpectedly, in the middle of a deadly epidemic. The book follows the reactions of various individuals as well as the collective, as they progress through the various stages of the plague. I am not sure I would call it an existential classic, but it definitely does a phenomenal job of examining the absurdity of life, its irrationality and human reactions to anything that they have no control over.
One of the emotions that Camus paints beautifully, especially in the early stages of the plague, is the feeling of exile. The town walls have been closed and almost all means of communication have been stopped. Telegrams have become the only means of sending and receiving messages of any sort.
“Creatures bound together by mutual sympathy, by flesh and heart, were reduced to finding the signs of this ancient communion in a ten-word dispatch, all written in capitals. And since, as it happens, the forms of words that can be used in a telegram are quickly exhausted, before long whole lives together or painful passions were reduced to a periodic exchange of stock phrases such as “Am well”, ‘Thinking of you’, ‘Affectionately yours”.
We don’t need to imagine a plague to appreciate the gravity of the message. Perhaps it has been exaggerated by the unusual circumstance, but it is hard to deny that this is increasingly relevant in our interconnected global world. Far from isolation we are, you might say. But then reducing exchanges to stock phrases must be all too familiar. Loved ones who knew every aspects of our lives are reduced to being recipients of abstract accounts of general happiness, on account of the distance that separates us. Friends are emailed that all is well and that the summer is bright. For, after all, how much distance and isolation can you conquer with a message, no matter how much it is filled with love?
Which brings me to abstraction. To not experience something is to, in a way, alleviate it to a level of general abstraction.
“He tried to put together in his head what he knew about the disease. Figures drifted through his head and he thought that the thirty or so plagues recorded in history had caused nearly a hundred million deaths. But what are a hundred million deaths? When one has fought a war, one hardly knows what a dead person is. And if a dead man has no significance unless one has seen him dead, a hundred million bodies spread through history are just a mist drifting through the imagination. The doctor recalled the plague of Constantinopole which, according to Procopius, claimed ten thousand victims in one day. Ten thousand dead equals five times the audience in a large cinema. That’s what you should do. You should get all the people coming out of five cinemas, take them into a square in the town and make them die in a heap; then you would grasp it better.”
Even after reading the book, the whole concept of the plague remains an abstraction to me, the removed reader. Just a means to understand the message, the object that is separate from the idea. And as long as I haven’t felt it, seen it, heard it, touched it, it will remain an abstraction. As will most things in life, some pleasant, some unpleasant. Such is the blessing of life, though perhaps one less acknowledged.
Tarrou, undeniably one of the more interesting characters in the book, notes in his diary:
“Question: how can one manage not to lose time? Answer: experience it at its full length. Means: spend days in the dentist’s waiting room in an uncomfortable chair; listen to lectures in a language that one does not understand, …”
If we want to save time, and if doing unpleasant things seem to stretch time, why don’t we do it? Sure, you can appeal to the conventional wisdom that the time you have is constant – 60 seconds is 60 seconds no matter what you do. But then, I could argue that fragmentation of time itself is artificial and really, just a convention. When you wish you had 48 hours in a day, you don’t wish for 48 equally fragmented segments of time, but that you could achieve double the amount of whatever it is that you wish to achieve in 24. The end goal is not to save time, but really to have the perception of saved time. Then why not do something that manages not to lose time, especially when it is so obvious and easy?
Paneloux, the priest, no less of an interesting character, first thinks of the plague as punishment from God. Towards the later part of the book, after coming in direct contact with the disease, he delivers a controversial sermon, where he claims in effect, that there is no middle way – either you love God, or you hate God. Either you accept or you reject. Or more eloquently,
“When innocence has its eyes gouged out, a Christian must lose his faith or accept the gouging out of eyes”.
In other words,
“If a priest consults a doctor, there is a contradiction”.
The book reaches its epitome of eloquence in Rieux’s thoughts, almost towards the end of the plague, when the town had begun rejoicing over the imminent freedom from pestilence:
“But what had he, Rieux, won? All he gained was to have known the plague and to remember it, to have known affection, and to have one day to remember it. All than a man could win in the game of plague and life was knowledge and memory. Perhaps that was what Tarrou called winning the game! But if that is what it meant to win the game, how hard it must be to live only with what one knows and what one remembers, deprived of what one hopes. ”
Perhaps the book was an allegory on France’s Nazi occupation. Perhaps it was a fictional account crafted as a medium for exposition on the absurdity of life. Perhaps it was meant to exposit and acknowledge the sterility of life without illusions. Perhaps what I had read from it was nothing which the writer intended.
Does it matter really?