Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Plague

Over a couple of recent posts I touched on the topic of the holocaust and declared that I had sympathy for those who found themselves depressed or angered in that situation. This week I've been reading a book which deals with another kind of concentration camp, but this time, instead of being manned by psychopathic Nazis, Albert Camus' 'The Plague' is a story of a town held siege by a particularly destructive form of bubonic plague. This is the second novel by Camus that I've read and again I was very impressed. It is a compelling tale of a normal cosmopolitan town on the Algerian coast, which is slowly overcome by a pestilence of biblical proportions. At first the occupants of the town are merely morbidly curious about the large numbers of dead rats, which pile in the streets, oozing blood. But when people begin to die and the town is quarantined from the rest of existence, all of the people of Oran find themselves at the mercy of a disease that kills without discrimination.

And I was struck at the contrast between Camus' hypothetical battle between man and bacterium, and the real life horrors of the holocaust. If the numbers of humans who had been killed due to war, stood opposite those who had been killed due to disease, surely the sick would outnumber the war-dead by many factors? And so, though we may not find ourselves in a concentration camp run by Nazis, we all (as one of the characters himself declares) carry the plague. But the plague is also not just an example of man's seemingly endless fight against disease (great as that fight is), but also a metaphor for life itself. In the midst of life, we are in death. The coming of the plague removed the blindfold from the eyes of the townspeople and revealed the stark reality of existence: that death is a certainty and existence is absurd!

The plague itself is ever present in the novel, although the reader rarely has to deal with it directly. Much of the book describes the behaviour of a few different men: a journalist trapped in the unfamiliar town, desperate to return to his wife outside the walls. The atheist doctor, who tries to help people and deal with the here and now. There are also some absurd characters, like a man who attempts suicide, whose mood improves greatly when everyone else is struck down by despair. And there is a whimsical author, who desperately attempts to forge a perfect paragraph (chopping and changing it often, and usually with very little difference) only to throw the whole thing on the fire when he is finally struck down with the plague.

One of the most interesting characters is a clergyman, who gives a rousing speech when the pestilence first begins to take victims, arguing that the townspeople had brought it on themselves. After witnessing the horrible suffering and death of a small child, the same clergyman was roused to even greater heights of religious fervour. An extract:

The preacher paused, and Rieux heard more clearly the whistling of the wind outside; judging by the sounds that came in below the closed doors, it had risen to storm-pitch. Then he heard Father Paneloux's voice again. He was saying that the total acceptance of which he had been speaking was not to be taken in the limited sense usually given to the words; he was not thinking of mere resignation or even of that harder virtue, humility. It involved humiliation, but a humiliation to which the person humiliated gave full assent. True, the agony of a child was humiliating to the heart and to the mind. But that was why we had to come to terms with it. And that, too, was why - and here Paneloux assured those present that it was not easy to say what he was about to say - since it was God's will, we, too, should will it. Thus and thus only the Christian could face the problem squarely and, scorning subterfuge, pierce the heart of the supreme issue, the essential choice. And his choice would be to believe everything, so as not to be forced into denying everything. Like those worthy women who, after learning that buboes were the natural tissue through which the body cast out infection, went to church and prayed, 'Please, God, give him buboes,' thus the Christian should yield himself wholly to the divine will, even though it passed his understanding.
How impotent religion is, in the face of natural selection! I thoroughly enjoyed 'The Plague' (if enjoyed is quite the right word) and it helped me to imagine how I would feel, imprisoned within a town, where everyone was slowly dying. If my loved ones too, were struck down with the fatal disease and taken away to die alone, what else could I do, but shake my fist in the air and berate existence? As the book notes on closing, plagues come, but never really go; they merely lay dormant waiting for another opportunity to exact more destruction in the future...

I'll end with one of Camus' amusing examples of the odd things that people do to fill their time between Point A (birth) to Point B (death):
From Tarrou's notes we gather that the old man, a draper by occupation, decided at the age of fifty that he'd done enough work for a lifetime. He took to his bed and never left it again - but not because of his asthma, which would not have prevented his getting about. A small fixed income had seen him through to his present age, seventy-five, and the years had not damped his cheerfulness. He couldn't bear the sight of a watch, and indeed there wasn't one in the whole house. 'Watches,' he said 'are silly gadgets, and dear at that.' He worked out the time - that is to say, the time for meals - with his two saucepans, one of which was always full of peas when he woke in the morning. He filled the other, pea by pea, at a constant, carefully regulated speed. Thus time for him was reckoned by these pans and he could take his bearings in it at any moment of the day. 'Every fifteen pans,' he said, 'it's feeding-time. What could be simpler?'
What indeed?