Monday, April 01, 2002

The Plague, by Albert Camus

In "The Plague," the citizenry of Oran make the transition from isolated individualism to “the recognition of a community.” The town of Oran, which Camus describes in some detail, appears to be an advanced capitalist society—socially as well as materially. At the opening of the narrative, the majority of Oran’s citizens have empty, pointless lives, mostly without even realizing it. They are consumed by their individualistic pursuits, and entertained through routine (i.e., mindless) social interaction, few of them aspiring to anything greater than this sort of lifestyle. The plague disrupts their routine however, just as the resulting quarantine serves to link inextricably the individual and communal well-being.

In many ways, the peoples’ initial skepticism towards the seriousness of the matter reflects their unwillingness to depart from the shallowness of their daily lives. As the narrator points out, “…people say: ‘It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.’ But…Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves (37).” We note that even those entrusted with protecting the general wellbeing (i.e., the government) does not at first act adequately to prevent the spread of the plague, largely out of fear of “alarming the public.” But illusions can only hold for so long, and eventually the citizens cannot carry on with their lives as usual. As Father Paneloux asserts, “…you have been beholding mankind and all creation with new eyes, since the gates of this city closed on you and on the pestilence. Now, at last, you know the hour has struck to bend your thoughts to first and last things (97).”

The disruption the plague brings is the cold, unconcerned reality of brutal nature, and it destroys innocents, separates lovers, and spares the wicked without explanation or assurance of order’s eventual victory. The citizens are as equally unprepared for such an attack as they would have been for the Second Coming; yet whereas the Messiah’s arrival would have at least meant the establishment of Truth in the world, the plague brings with it the opposite. The people are left naked, without the lifestyles that allowed them to avoid issues of substance, but also without any sort of spiritual bedrock that they can rely upon in such difficult times. Further, the nature of their exile becomes such that they are denied even the refuge that camaraderie or romance might normally provide. These dismal realizations bring about significant social chaos, and peoples’ reactions to the crisis often pose as great a threat to society as the plague itself. In such situations, the actions of an individual become both irrelevant and all-important. Just as a steadfastly wise and moral individual may be swept underfoot of a crazed mob, that individual’s actions may also provide an example that moves others to act similarly. Ultimately, all that the citizens of Oran find they can rely upon is common cause with one another, and this reality is one quite foreign to them.

It is rare that a crisis arises in a given society that is so threatening to such a broad spectrum of citizens that it captures the collective concern so wholly. The story would be quite different had the plague only attacked the poor who live in inadequate sanitary conditions, or the old whose immune systems are weak. Given such a plague, it would have been much easier for a sizable portion of Oran’s citizenry to continue on with their everyday existence. But instead, the plague of Oran brings about a real, overarching crisis, one that no one can afford to ignore. Each individual is thereby forced to become their brother/sister’s keeper. Through their collective efforts to defeat the plague we see Oran at its best. We observe selflessness exercised in the name of the common good, and Camus brings us to identify strongly with this trait, as it proves to be the turning point in the community’s efforts to defeat the plague. As Rieux declares, “What’s true of all evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves (125).”

What is interesting throughout the crisis is that it is the men who live exceptional (or at least thoughtful) lives in non-plague times who are most able to rise to the challenges presented by the plague. All of these men, rather than acquiescing to the banality of existence, struggle for something better, something higher. Rieux refers to this kind of a life as “fighting against creation as he found it (127).” The men are Camus’ archetypes for existential existence because their motivations are not based in a belief in the divine, but rather in a love for humanity as well as a recognition of its’ limitations. These men struggle against suffering and death as the great enemies of humanity, and by so doing achieve real (if not eternal) gains for human society. Camus makes the point, by contrasting these individuals with the general populace of Oran, that a disbeliever in God who acts upon a general concern for human well-being is actually a greater servant to humanity than the professed believer who secretly or unconsciously disbelieves and thereby allows them self to be distracted by the lesser objects of this world. Those who take on the responsibility for how their world looks, rather than surrendering that power to God or the Devil, are the true benefactors of humanity according to Camus’ example.

Through this narrative, I was able to appreciate Camus’ vision for how one should live given the realities of the modern age. I certainly appreciated Oran much more when its people were united in struggle against the plague than when they were divided by their individualism. My concern is that (as with Christianity and other value systems) people have not taken in the fullness of the message that Camus and other existentialists were trying to relate. A disbelief in God and any intrinsic human purpose can easily lead to a sense of apathy and disconnection remedied only (if at all) by plague-like circumstances. Since it is so infrequent in our own society that such circumstances exist, people are too rarely (if at all) made to realize that their own lot is bound up with that of others. Most people can find little true motivation beyond their own pleasures and well-being. They disown the sense of responsibility that Camus seems interested in imparting on his audience. While this unfortunate consequence does not undermine whatever truth might be contained in existential philosophy, in a world devoid of truth we are left with efficacy. Hence the existentialist philosophy can be discarded if it is found that “new age” spirituality, or even a return to traditional religious fundamentalism, can achieve the results that Camus seeks without the use of his philosophy. We are left ultimately with the vocation of truth-discernment, and living one’s life as tribulation--a vocation that Camus and even philosophers of radically different traditions can hardly refute, and one engaged in by the heroes of Christianity, existentialism, and any other movement that has captured the human imagination throughout time.

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