Thursday, January 31, 2008

NL: The Plague by Albert Camus

Nonbelieving LiteratiSo. The Plague (La Peste). I'd never read it before - in fact I've never read anything by Camus. I know, go figure. How'd that happen? To be honest, I'm not sure.

The Plague is a hard book to characterize. It's not exciting, but it's not deadly dull, either. In fact, by halfway through I was fascinated. But ... well, let me say it like this. I got it for Christmas (one of my sisters gave it to me), and I didn't start it then. Well, I was at my father's house, and on vacation, and the time I had for reading was much reduced. Also, I was in the middle of reading one of Anthony Trollope's longer books, plus there were a couple of things he (er, my father, not Anthony Trollope) had there I wanted to read and couldn't take back here with me.

So I waited till I got back here - but I looked at The Plague and said to myself, it's only 275 pages. I can knock this off in a week - a little longer if I only read during the commute, not at night or on a weekend. Instead, it took almost three, and that's with reading the last 80 pages in one gulp this afternoon. I kept being distracted by other things, thinking how short it was, and well ... it took a while to get into it. This book, to use a cliché, has its picture in the dictionThe Plague by Camusary next to"starts slowly". In fact, it was plain boring for nearly a third of its length. (Or, to be fair, I was bored by it ... ymmv. I have a friend who's read it twice. In French. Maybe that makes the difference.)

Having said that, I'll add that the last half of it moves along - in fact, one could say that The Plague is like the plague it chronicles: starting very slowly, then picking up steam, rising to a fever pitch (heh, sorry) and then dying off rapidly. It takes fifty pages just to admit the plague is there, almost a hundred more to reach the high-point, another hundred to run its course, and then it wraps up in thirty-some.

Yes, yes. But what it's about? It's about a moderate-sized city (200,000) in Algeria - the port of Oran - which is stricken by bubonic plague in "194-" (the book was written in 1947, so it was a contemporary portrait). A low-keyed narrator presents a common-man's-eye view of the plague as it spreads; it forces the town to be quarantined and kills over a 1000 week at its height. It lasts from April till January, and then ends, and so does the book. The main characters are a disparate lot: a low-paid civil servant, a wandering ex-revolutionary, a small-time criminal, a journalist, a Jesuit priest, and a doctor... Some live, some don't. Life goes on. Man's search for meaning goes on. The universe doesn't care.

Ah. Okay... Well. What do you have to say about it?
Not so easy to answer. I did make a few notes about things as I encountered them, and I'll let you see those first.

Camus's use of the term 'humanist' in part one is a little odd. He writes:
[Dr Rieux's] reaction was the same as that of the great majority of our townsfolk. Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise. In fact, like our fellow citizens, Rieux was caught off his guard, and we should understand his hesitations in light of that fact... In this respect, our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words, they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn't a thing made to man's measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn't always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they have taken no precautions. Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. [Part I, pp34-35]
I don't know if Camus used the term differently, if he used it at all (my French-speaking friend doesn't remember and doesn't still have the book), or if the term has changed in the past half-century. At any rate, to me, a "humanist" is not someone who believes pestilences are impossible.

In describing the setting of Father Paneloux's sermon, he says of the citizens of Oran:
There were large attendances at the services of the Week of Prayer. It must not, however, be assumed that in normal times the townsfolk of Oran are particularly devout. ... With regard to religion—as to many other problems—plague had induced in them a curious frame of mind, as remote from indifference as from fervor; the best name to give it, perhaps, might be "objectivity." Most of those who took part in the Week of Prayer would have echoed a remark by one of the churchgoers in Dr. Rieux's hearing: "Anyhow, it can't do any harm." Even Tarrou, after recording in his notebook that in such cases the Chinese fall to playing tambourines before the Genius of Plague, observed that there was no means of telling whether, in practice, tambourines proved more efficacious than prophylactic measures. He merely added that, to decide the point, we should need first to ascertain if a Genius of Plague actually existed, and our ignorance on this point nullified any opinions we might form. [Part II, pp85-86]
Tarrou is the ex-revolutionary, whose opinions are described as "odd" but "important". Of the three major philosophical views presented in the novel, his is one. More later.

Father Paneloux's sermon is a horror:
"Calamity has come upon you, my brethren, and, my brethren, you deserved it. ... [P]lague is the flail of God and the world His threshing-floor, and implacably He will thresh out His harvest until the wheat is separated from the chaff. There will be more chaff than wheat, few chosen of the the many called. Yet this calamity was not willed by God. For too long this world of ours has connived at evil, too long has it counted on the divine mercy, on God's forgiveness. ... For a long while God gazed down on this town with eyes of compassion; but He grew weary of waiting. His eternal hope was too long deferred, and now He has turned his face from us. ... You fondly imagined it was enough to visit him on Sundays, and thus you could make free of your weekdays. ... But God is not mocked. Those brief encounters could not sate the fierce hunger of His love. He wished to see you longer and more often; that is His manner of loving and, indeed, it is the only manner of lovely. And this is why, wearied of waiting for you to come to Him, He loosed on you this visitation; as He has visited all the cities that offended against Him since the dawn of history. Now you are learning your lesson ... And thus, my brothers, at last it is revealed to you, the divine compassion which has ordained good and evil in everything; wrath and pity; the plague and your salvation. ... [I]t gives us a glimpse of that radiant, eternal light which glows, a small still flame, in the dark core of human suffering. And this light, too, illuminates the shadowed paths that lead toward deliverance. It reveals the will of God in action, unfailingly transforming evil into good. And once again today it is leading us through the dark valley of fears and groans toward the holy silence, the well-spring of all life. This, my friends, is the vast consolation I would hold out to you..."[Part II, pp86-91]
The lover who kills you if you don't respond the way he wants you too: is he ever the good guy?

Tarrou describes an impossible combination:
... a new paper has been launched: the Plague Chronicle, which sets out to 'inform our townspeople, with scrupulous veracity, of the daily progress or recession of the disease; ... to keep up the morale of the populace...[Part II, p109]
Hey, make up your mind: tell them the truth, or keep up their morale. Can't do both, not with plague loose in the town.

When Tarrou and Dr. Rieux discuss whether they believe in God (Rieux does not, Tarrou isn't sure), Rieux says a couple of interesting things:
(re Paneloux's sermon) "I've seen too much of hospitals to relish any idea of collective punishment. But, as you know, Christians sometimes say that sort of thing without really thinking it. They're better than it seems."[Part II, p115]
and then
"Only, I've never managed to get used to seeing people die. That's all I know. Yet after all—since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn't it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the Heavens where He sits in silence?"[Part II, p117]
And in answer Tarrou says,
"But your victories will never be lasting, that's all."

Rieux's face darkened. "Yes, I know that. But it's no reason for giving up the struggle."[Part II, p117]
After seeing a child die in agony, Rieux loses his temper at Paneloux, telling him "that child, anyhow, was innocent!" Paneloux chases him and asks,
"Why was there that anger in your voice just now? What we'd been seeing was as unbearable to me as it was to you."

Rieux turned toward Paneloux. "I know. I'm sorry. But weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt."

"I understand," said Paneloux in a low voice. "That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand."

Rieux straightened up slowly. He gazed at Paneloux, summoning to his gaze all the strength and fervor he could muster against his weariness. Then he shook his head. "No, Father. I've a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture." [Part II, pp196-197]
After the death of the child, Father Paneloux preached another sermon. In this one he faced the unpalatable truth - with what I can only call a worse horror than his first (my emphasis):
[O]ne thing was not to be gainsaid; a fact that always, under all circumstances, we should bear in mind. Appearances notwithstanding, all trials, however cruel, worked together for good to the Christian. And, indeed, what a Christian should always seek in his hour of trial was to discern that good, in what it consisted and how best he could turn it to account. ... The difficulty began when he looked into the nature of evil, and among things evil he included human suffering. Thus we had apparently needful pain, and apparently needless pain; we had Don Juan cast into hell, and a child's death. For while it is right that a libertine should be struck down, we see no reason for a child's suffering. And truth to tell, nothing was more important on earth than a child's suffering, the horror it inspires in us, and the reasons we must find to account for it. In other manifestations of life God made things easy for us and, thus far, our religion had no merit. But in this respect He put us, so to speak, with our backs to the wall. ... [H]e would stand fast, his back to the wall, and face honestly the terrible problem of a child's agony. ... since it was God's will, we, too, should will it.... [T]he love of God is a hard love. It demands total self-surrender, disdain of our human personality. And yet it alone can reconcile us to suffering and the deaths of children, it alone can justify them, since we cannot understand them, and we can only make God's will ours.[Part IV, p200-203]
In a quiet moment, Tarrou tells the doctor about his troubled past, and why he is always "on the side of the victims." Asked it he has learned "the path to follow for attaining peace" he answers: "Yes: the path of sympathy". He adds,
"What interests me is learning how to become a saint."

... [T]he doctor answered, "But your know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity doesn't appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man."

"Yes, we're both after the same thing, but I'm less ambitious."

Rieux supposed Tarrou was jesting and turned to him with a smile. But, faintly lit by the dim radiance falling from the sky, the face he saw was sad and earnest.[Part IV, pp230-231]
So, I think you can see what's at play here. We get three real world-views in this book: Paneloux's (meaning comes from God, and there is no way to understand it; simply accept it, submerge yourself in it—in fact destroy yourself for it—and seek God only); Tarrou's (whatever you do, you are bound to help create victims, and what you should do is as little as possible that's not in direct aid of victims—your own or others'—aspiring to do as little harm as possible); and Rieux's (the universe has no meaning, but we try to impose our own, and that meaning is to heal). Some of the other characters have motives, but not real philosophies. Rambert, the journalist, wants his own happiness above all else, but the plague makes him ashamed of this: his original plan is to escape from Oran and return to his wife, but "this business is everybody's business," he says—he is, in short, converted to Rieux's viewpoint, though unwillingly. Grand, the civil servant, only wants to write; he spends his days obsessing over the opening sentence of a novel. And Cottard, the criminal, enjoys the plague, since it puts off the day of his arrest, and puts him, quite happily, in the same boat as everyone else (Tarrou says of him to Rieux: "His only real crime is that of having in his heart approved of something that killed off men, women, and children. I can understand the rest, but for that I am obliged to pardon him." (emphasis Camus's))

It is Tarrou's philosophy, to some extent, but mostly Rieux's, that Camus approves of. Man finds meaning only inside himself; no meaning exists elsewhere. Not in the universe—that notion is absurd. In fact, the Absurd in Camus's philosophy is precisely this realization, that there is no meaning in the universe, that life is defined by death and is fleeting, and that the meaning of life is what we bring to it: a fight for happiness in the face of death. Tarrou acknowledges the Absurd, but fights it only when he must; Rieux, on the other hand, battles the Absurd on a daily basis and refuses to yield, though his "victories will never be lasting".

The Plague is a low-keyed book. The most emotion we get is Rambert's desire to flee the city, and the sorrow - or horror - that attends some of the deaths (Camus is pretty matter-of-factly graphic about that ultimate reality). That and the few pages of Paneloux's sermons, and we aren't expected to sympathize with them; although they do in fact answer the problem of Evil, the answer they give is perhaps worse than the problem. Instead, Tarrou and most of all Rieux go quietly, determinedly, without heroics or flamboyance, about their job—to comfort, to heal, to be human in the face of uncaring universe.

Low-keyed, but not, in the end, boring.

No. Not gripping, exactly, but not boring either. And the 'message'—it's hard to think of it as a 'message' when there's no stridency anywhere, no urging, just straight-forward story-telling—the philosophy it espouses makes a lot of sense. If you haven't read Camus either, this is a good one to start with. (At least, it makes me feel like seeking out another.)

The Spanish Inquisitor has posted a carnival of plagues, a roundup of all the posts so far. As he says,
I also trust that if you are interested in participating in the next or future discussions, just let The Exterminator know, or for that matter, simply read the next book, (Christopher Brookmyre’s Not the End Of The World, ($4.79 at Amazon, (which seems to have gone down in price (from $5.04) since I ordered it this afternoon))) and post an essay on or after March 15. If you don’t have a blog of your own, contact any one of the previous participants, and, I’m sure, any one of them would be happy to guest host your essay.
(I certainly would.)

I've been asked to pick the next book. I'm cheating a little by picking one I've read, but I really enjoyed it and want to read it again, so since I'm heading into a massive class next week and it's going to keep me busy, I feel justified. Plus, I think everyone will enjoy it. It's by a brilliant Scot named Christopher Brookmyre (watch out you don't end up hunting down everything he's written). We should be ready to post on it March 15th. Okay?

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7 Comments:

At 7:33 AM, February 01, 2008 Blogger The Exterminator had this to say...

Nice post. I had exactly the same attitude: it's only 275 pages. I can knock this off in a week.

Nope.

Which just goes to show: You can't judge a book by its thickness.

 
At 9:48 AM, February 01, 2008 Blogger C. L. Hanson had this to say...

The word "humanist" is used in exactly the same way in the French version. I agree it's a little weird, and I'm not sure what he means by it...

 
At 1:54 PM, February 01, 2008 Blogger the chaplain had this to say...

CL - Thanks for the clarification re: the French translation of humanist. Given that it's not a translation error, it seems to be an odd usage. Does anyone in the blogosphere have any idea how the term may have been used in the 30s and 40s? Would European and American usages been identical?

Ridger - Very nice analysis of the three philosophies that Camus explored throughout the book.

 
At 2:56 PM, February 01, 2008 Blogger Lifeguard had this to say...

It's interesting how almost everyone has commented on how the book is, as you put it, low-key, but there seems like varied opinions on whether it was boring or not.

Nice post.

I also liked what you wrote about Reiux and Tarrou's philosophy. You make a suggestion that there philosophies differ a bit too though, and I hadn't really thought too much about how they differ and why Camus wanted to draw that distinction.

 
At 2:57 PM, February 01, 2008 Blogger ordinary girl had this to say...

Ridger, I also had trouble starting the book and it was probably 100 pages in that I began to feel comfortable. But I think it was probably 20 pages to the end that I started to like it.

 
At 1:19 AM, February 02, 2008 Blogger John Evo had this to say...

Ridger - I recall that the use of "humanist" there threw me a bit. In retrospect, I would guess it's just a different definition of the word than we are used to.

You wrote, like this: (Tarrou says of him to Rieux: "His only real crime is that of having in his heart approved of something that killed off men, women, and children. I can understand the rest, but for that I am obliged to pardon him." (emphasis Camus's))

Please. Don't get (((Billy))) started!

You wrote: I'm cheating a little by picking one I've read

Actually, you are not. This is acceptable and, in fact, the originator of NBL picked "Julian", a book he had read, as our very first read. Not having read nearly as much as you or Ex, I would never do this. Every book, for me, needs to be one I haven't read.

Really well articulated post. Yours is the last one (so far) that I have read and perhaps the best. Let's put it this way, it would probably be the one I would recommend to someone who had never read the book if I could just pick one post.

I look forward to reading your next choice for us!

 
At 9:03 AM, February 02, 2008 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

I've nested more parentheses than that in my day! mwahahahahahaha

Thanks. I've really enjoyed all the different takes. The better the book, I guess, the more diverse the reactions.

 

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