Sunday, March 2, 2014

Albert Camus, The Plague (1947)

Another rereading of a great novel decades later.

Albert Camus' plague is a metaphor for everything that the human conscience is typically compelled to resist.  I say "typically" with deliberation, because human resistance to the unconscionable is not universal.  Camus would know this too well since his native Algeria, the country where the metaphorical events described in The Plague take place, was occupied by Nazi Germany's Vichy French collaborators during World War II as Camus was writing the novel. 

Whatever the origins of human morality may be (see November 21, 2012 post), and whether morality and conscience have a strictly biological basis or are co-determined by the interaction of biology and culture (see  December 11, 2013 and February 27, 2011 post),  there is a common human trait to resist things that threaten human social stasis, just like the body fights infections.  The Plague is a novel about resistance to an amoral threat to a society: a bacterial disease.  As depicted in The Plague, the emotional foundation of this resistance is a love that overcomes despair combined with a belief that there will be a future. It is a love that confronts the near certainty of death.  Without love, the social action that organizes the resistance would not be possible and we succumb to the plague.  Yet it is ironic where this love emerges from:  human separation, what Camus calls exile.  The novel's primary characters, Dr. Rieux, Rambert, and Tarrou, are separated from their wife and lover and think constantly about when they will be reunited with their loved ones.  To soften the ache of their separation, they  turn their love externally to humanity to aid the victims of the plague that will kill them all if they don't resist.

The opposite of resistance is submission and we meet Camus' representative of human submission in Father Paneloux.  Father Paneloux is a good man, but by faith and religion he is committed to the fatalist belief that the plague is a test imposed by something so powerful that humans cannot resist. This is a submission to what is commonly referred to as god's will.   There is no room for a Sisyphus who refuses to abandon resistance in god's kingdom.  "Calamity has come on you my brethren," Paneloux tells his flock, "and my brethren you deserved it."  And Paneloux launches into a recitation of every instance in religious storytelling where god purportedly inflicted floods, plagues, and calamity on those who deserved punishment for some reason or another.  "No earthly power, may, not even ---- mark me well --- the vaunted might of human science can avail you to avert that hand [of god] once it is stretched toward you.  And winnowing, you will be cast away with the chaff."  You can't resist the plague; submit; you were meant to be punished by this insidious disease.  Science cannot help you.

The previous post considers briefly justifications for murder including rebellion against absolute authority that leads to regicide or its modern equivalent, political assassination.  The justification acquires its gravitas if the lethal revolt is directed at someone evil, wicked or morally bad or wrong such as genocidal mass murderers like Pol Pot or Adolph Hitler.  There is no or little gravitas in justifying a homicide in the case of a leader who is at worst flawed.

The Plague examines a mass murderer that is indifferent, nature.  We often refer to these deadly diseases as acts of god, and we consider ourselves helpless in our capacity to respond to them.  The bubonic plague of the 14th Century known as the Black Death, memorialized in Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror killed an estimated 75-200 million people.  It is estimated that this plague reduced the human population on earth by 17-22% from an estimated 450 million down to 350–375 million in the 14th century, and reducing Europe's population by an estimated 30-60%.   More recently, a 20th century flu pandemic in 1918 killed an estimated 3% - 5% of the world's population. 

Albert Camus' fictional story of a plague that infected Oran, Algeria sometime in the 20th century is entirely metaphorical.  Camus began writing his novel sometime in 1941 after Germany invaded and occupied France and several other European countries in 1940, invaded North Africa and world war was breaking out across Asia with Japanese aggression.  Algeria was never occupied by the Germans or the Italians, but instead the Germans were nominally represented in Algeria by the Vichy French who submitted and collaborated with the German Nazis.  If we credit an October 1941 entry in his Notebook, his metaphorical plague and Nazi aggression against Jews are linked in Camus' view. 

Plague.  Bonsels, pp 144 and 222.
     1342.  The Black Death in Europe.  The Jews are murdered.
     1481.   The plague ravages the South of Spain.  The Inquisition says:  The Jews.  But the plague kills an inquisitor.

Genocidal humans are consigned to a historical dust heap under the category Evil.  Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" notwithstanding, humans are less inclined to ascribe indifference to genocide.  Humans typically ascribe a hateful purpose lurking behind something we call Evil.  Evil is synonymous with malevolence, the state of mind of having ill-will toward other persons or objects.  It is not perceived as synonymous with indifference. 

Camus was concerned with a very different kind of evil in the face of a mass murderer, one that juxtaposes with ignorance.  "The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding," he writes in The Plague.  "On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn't the real point.  But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill.  The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness." 

Father Paneloux is the standard bearer of good intentions that can do as much harm as malevolence, because he lacks understanding.  Paneloux: "The love of god is a hard love.  It demands total self-surrender, disdain of our human personality.  Yet love of god 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."  Camus' words from the mouth of Father Paneloux are the words that are so common among human religions; words of blind submission, fatalism, that commends us not to resist but to justify and accept the death of children and other innocents.  Shortly following this sermon, the plague infects Father Paneloux and he quickly dies.  Before he succumbs, the Father declines Dr. Rieux's offer to stay with him as he is fading, "Thanks.  But priests can have no friends.  They have given their all to god."  That is an evil that comes of ignorance.  Of course, not all priests are represented by Paneloux.  There are many priests over the course of history who resist oppression, disease, or calamity in the name of god.  But where religion and state are joined at the hip (see September 28, 2010, January 1, 2013 and  March 24, 2013 post), love and justice is not a commonplace outcome.

Oran, of course, is repaired by those who are not priests:  Rieux, Tarrou, Rambert, and Grand, those who do not disdain human personality. The plague has been out-lasted and there are survivors.  But Camus would be quick to admit that the plague has not been conquered.  Tarrou, speaking to Dr. Rieux toward the end of the novel confesses his abhorrence of the death penalty and the efforts he has made in the past to resist it.  "As time went on I merely learned that even those who were better than the rest could not keep themselves nowadays from killing or letting others kill, because such is the logic by which they live; and that we can't stir a finger in this world without the risk of bringing death to somebody. . . .And today I am still trying to find it; still trying to understand all those others and not to be the mortal enemy of anyone.  I only know that one must do what one can to cease being plague-stricken, and that's the only way in which we can hope for some peace or, failing that, a decent death.  This, and only this, can bring relief to men and, if not save them, at least do them the least harm possible and even, sometimes, a little good.  So that is why I resolved to have no truck with anything which, directly or indirectly, for good reasons or for bad, brings death to anyone or justifies others' putting him to death. *** That too, is why this epidemic has taught me nothing new, except that I must fight it at your side.  I know positively ***that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it.  And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody's face and fasten the infection on him.  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.  The good man, the man who hardly infects anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.  And it needs tremendous will-power, a never ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses.  Yes Rieux, it's wearying business being plague-stricken. But it's still more wearying to refuse to be it.  That's why everyone in the world today looks so tired; everyone is more or less sick of plague. *** Once I definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end." But where would Tarrou stand if the killer was not natural?  What if the murderer is not an "innocent murderer?"  Where would Tarrou stand against the nihilists?  Would his willingness to resist justify killing in the name of peace?  Tarrou does not answer because he is not asked.  We do not know if he would ever consider joining the armed French resistance.  The Plague is, of course, less of a novel about the evil of murder than the evil of indifference.

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