I can say I know the world inside out, as you may see–that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth, is free from it…What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest–health, integrity, purity (if you like)–is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter…it’s a wearying business, being plague-stricken. But it’s still more wearying to refuse to be it. ~Tarrou, Part IV.VI
Albert Camus’ The Plague is an indictment, a curse against the natural world and its overwhelming, incomprehensible malice. The setting is a “happy town,” an Algerian port city, that unexpectedly befalls the ancient plague, bringing hundreds daily into its black embrace. Their ferryman, and the protagonist, is Dr. Rieux, the guardian of futile remedies and uncertain prognoses. Indeed, no one is able to come to grips with what is going on, certainly there is “plague” but no one can find cure or treatment or explanation of how it began or when it will end. The people are, quite naturally, helpless.
While Rieux is our hero, a fascinating and critical character is the man Tarrou, an observer of life who keeps a diary of his impressions, first of the town and then of the plague. Early on, Tarrou volunteers to organize civilian teams and aid Rieux and the medical professionals in fighting the plague. His most interesting moments, however, come later in the book as he and Rieux take a short respite from their endless strivings. Tarrou begins to explain some of what he has observed, both in the town and in his entire life, especially a diagnosis that all people are always already sick with plague. Tarrou here sees through the physical veneer of “health” and into something spiritual; he sees the world as a history of killing and states that “once I’d definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end. I leave it to others to ‘make history.’” Tarrou recounts his witnessing a firing squad, explaining that:
you’ve gleaned your ideas about [firing squads] from books and pictures. A post, a blindfolded man, some soldiers in the offing. But the real thing isn’t a bit like that. Do you know that the firing-squad stands only a yard and a half from the condemned man? … Do you know that, at this short range, the soldiers concentrate their fire on the region of the heart and their big bullets make a hole into which you could thrust your fist? … I’ve never been able to sleep well since then.
Capital punishment, for Tarrou as well as for Camus, is a moment of truth, a window into the true soul of the world. Tarrou, with his sensitive heart, refuses to take part in that world, exiling himself and yet, nevertheless, being unable to shake his own guilt about his complicity in the murderous world. “For many years I’ve been ashamed, mortally ashamed, of having been, even with the best intentions, even at many removes, a murderer in my turn,” Tarrou confesses. He is, rather, convicted by what he calls “the path of sympathy” and declares that “what interests me is learning how to become a saint.”
“But you don’t believe in God,” Rieux retorts.
“Exactly!” Tarrou replies. “Can one be a saint without God?”
After reading these pages for the first time, I had to pause. The finale to that chapter is a beautiful one, as Rieux and Tarrou go down to the water and, for the first time since the plague began, go for a swim. Tarrou’s self-reflection, however, remains haunting to me. I, similarly, am often struck by the brutal nature of history, sure, but also of current power, of history in the making. Dominant forms exercise violence by necessity for self-preservation, dissenting forms of organization often resort to the same measures with the opposite intentions. However, it is not just power that is at stake. Ways of life are themselves violent: food systems are violent against ecosystems, animals, and human workers; transportation systems are similar. Corporations are all too often exploitative of their resources, especially human ones, and even corporate advertising is deeply manipulative. In the end, though, is there any escaping? We humans are rather inevitably tied together by infrastructure and it is a rare (if even existent) community small and ethical enough to avoid tethering to violent structures. I often find small hope in my anxiety about this tethering, i.e. at least if I am complicit I recognize my guilt. Like Tarrou, I find my political ambition sated; “I leave it to others to ‘make history.’” But what is left for me?
Tarrou’s primary response seems to be journaling, taking account of what he sees with a disinterested gaze. As Rieux later remarks:
Tarrou [in his death] had ‘lost the match,’ as he put it. But what had he, Rieux, won? No more than the experience of having known plague and remembering it…So all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories. But Tarrou, perhaps, would have called that winning the match.
Rieux thus wonders whether knowledge was, for Tarrou, a kind of victory. But, in the face of so much death, what good does knowledge do? And knowledge of what, even? Rieux’s knowledge is limited to an acute understanding of the phases involved in death by plague, as he often recounts morning may bring a respite but by noon the true condition of the patient will show forth. Rieux, thus, is knowledgeable about death more than about life. Certainly, then, his victory is still contained by the event of plague. Plague, not man, is supreme.
It is for this reason, I believe, that Rieux decides to write his “memoir,” disclosing himself at the book’s end as it’s constant narrator. His anonymity, he claims, is that of a witness in a court, called to be as impartial as possible as he relates the conditions of the crime he observed. Plague, to Rieux, is that crime, a crime of nature against human beings. His book, thus, is an indictment.
In the face of such absurd (i.e. unknowable, unthinkable, incomprehensible) violence, Rieux’s response is to “revolt,” to act as if human beings have the upper hand and to try, by willpower alone, to make that belief a reality. His revolt is honorable even if it accomplishes little, other than putting him at the center of the storm–the better to give a true account of its history. And what good does such a history do? This question, it seems to me, is one often asked of audience to artist, but never the other way around. Tarrou, Rieux, and Camus–writers three–give account by necessity, regardless of their intentions. It strikes me that, often, this is the truth of art’s origin, necessity over intention. Our situation is such that we must give account of it, we must try to understand even if knowledge is a weak reward. We simply must.
Is it possible, though, that there is a grander reward, a surer purpose to guarantee our actions? Here, we poke into a religious dimension, one that Camus at least has little sympathy for. In The Plague, he paints the portrait of Father Paneloux, the local priest who preaches two sermons. In the first, Paneloux announces God’s judgment, imagining the plague as a condemnation on man’s evil like the plagues of Egypt. It is then that his silence begins, and in it the priest, to put it lightly, memorizes the last rites. It is one death in particular, the death of a child told by Camus in graphic detail, that burns itself into Paneloux’s imagination. It is here that, as Camus might say, Paneloux is confronted by the full weight of the Absurd. It is here that the child dies in protest to Paneloux desperate prayer “My God, spare this child…!” The Absurd, the plague, has set itself up as a rival deity and the one acting in the human sphere. Paneloux is shaken, yet announces his second sermon, where he tries with all his might to theologize this event, to reveal the deeper meaning. As far as Camus is concerned, his last attempt fails, and it is no surprise that Paneloux quickly falls ill and dies, but not of plague. In fact, his symptoms are so confused that Rieux cannot pronounce a diagnosis. Paneloux dies a victim of the absurd.
Camus, like Heidegger, accounts for a realm of existence far beyond the mortal plane, a Source more powerful and thus transcendent of our own. Neither attempts a definition, even though Camus gives it such a memorable face. In Heidegger, this transcendent sense always feels positive and hence gelassenheit is an appropriate and life-giving response. In Camus, however, this transcendence feels malevolent, all that is left to humans is to revolt, to surrender (i.e. gelassenheit) is to let nature get away with its vicious crucifixions.
Reading The Plague, as well as reading true stories of similar topics, it is hard to imagine that Heidegger, and with him most religious impulses, are right and Camus is wrong. Unlike Lars von Trier and other masters of dark tales, I find Camus to be rather crushing of any ultimate hope, any real belief that good outweighs evil anywhere but in the human heart. For Camus believes in hope as well, his sense of revolt is ultimately a hope, but I do not find in Camus a belief that this hope is efficacious or that it is met by any transcendence that could realize it. Revolt, for Camus, is a desperate, necessary hope that is nevertheless a vain one. Indeed, while revolt may help ease suffering, it is just as likely that human action will increase suffering and, in the end, suffering remains the ultimate state of things.
Yet it has always been my strong belief that hope exists, even though I would not dare to pretend that the weight of evidence is wholly on my side. Camus’ pragamatic pessimism is, in a way, the most realistic, yet I continue to doggedly believe that hope is the ultimate reality, that there is a transcendent Hope by which we humans are justified in our little hopes. In this way, I do believe in saints but, to answer Tarrou, I do not think that saints can be without God. Certainly we can declare saints, as an existentialist might put it, but this to me will never be the same as the believe that a saint is, rather than merely was. A saint, recognized after death, continues to be a real source of hope, not merely a human attempt to light a candle in the darkness. But Tarrou’s question remains one of the most pertinent questions of our time and I want to continue to ponder it, to be haunted by it, even if I have voiced my “opinion.” Because, in the end, we do not decide how things are, we merely hope for them, even if what we hope for makes all the difference.
But one more thing: The Plague was published in 1947.