“Indeed, to some, Dr. Rieux among them, this precisely was the most disheartening thing: that the habit of despair is worse than despair itself”.
The Plague is the second novel of Albert Camus I read right after The Stranger which happens to be his second too. To be honest this was also my second attempt reading it since I could not initially take the reign of terror and the relentless onslaught in the plague-stricken city of Oran. This time though I felt ready to delve into the abstractions of the plague. This is the very idea was first inscribed on my mind. It originally appeared as blame cast to the main protagonist Dr. Rieux by his acquaintance, journalist Rambert, for the doctor’s unwillingness to contribute to that man’s escape from the quarantined city of Oran. He particularly said:
“You can’t understand. You’re using the language of reason, not of the heart; you live in a world of abstractions”.
That is astonishingly true for a plethora of reasons, some of those I will not name lest I spoil the surprise ending. Abstraction is the mechanism that the doctor has employed against the Absurd, vis-à-vis against the horrors of the plague. He wasn’t remiss, he didn’t abandon ship. His attitude epitomizes Camus philosophy, the fact that nihilism should not prevail, however nothing is fixed as religion avows. One though can’t be too emotionally invested at the same because they will simply not survive the ordeals. Nevertheless, it’s not indifference, the universe possesses the benign indifference, not the characters. The characters are mandated by the own accord. They don’t believe that there is an inherent meaning, yet they still act. Does this should absurd? Well, that’s why the school of thought is called Absurdism. This vaguely reminds me of the Stoics, who proclaim to accept the turn of events no matter the personal affliction.
The other element that struck me is the exile or isolation. Plenty of analogies can now be drawn with regard the real word. Let’s play the game of hypothetical questions. What if we all have a shade of plague? What if Earth is like Oran, in exile, isolated from anything else? Do the specifics such as the size of the city or the symptoms of an illness really matter? I think they do not. It is a different perspective in the novel, just a condensed and more dramatic one. I love how at the begging the narrator describes the flavor of townsfolk’s ordinary life. They follow their humdrum habits, their everyday routines completely oblivious of the pestilence lurking in the shadows. And even when it does emerge many choose to refuse the reality. Slowly, after the grim pass of time they do realize the inevitability of the plague. Darkness and pessimism were instilled in people’s hearts. They didn’t have any expectations, they couldn’t love or make friendship because these values imply looking ahead in the future. As it is wonderfully put about this dismay:
“The silent city was no more than an assemblage of huge, inert cubes, between which only the mute effigies of great men, carapaced in bronze, with their blank stone or metal faces, conjured up a sorry semblance of what the man had been. In lifeless squares and avenues these tawdry idols lorded it under the lowering sky; stolid monsters that might have personified the rule of immobility imposed on us, or, anyhow, its final aspect, that of a defunct city in which plague, stone, and darkness had effectively silenced every voice”.
It is intriguing at this point to observe how specifically the bleak climate shaped one individual, Tarrou friend of Dr Rieux. Near the latest part of the book he makes moving monologue comparing the plague with the death penalty. Camus was vastly sensitive on issue. He was against suicide as well as state issued capital punishment. Reflections on the Guillotine is an essay Camus wrote analyzing his uncompromising views. The ultimate massage maintains that taking a person’s life is merely contributing to the Absurd. I recollect in my school years when we were studying this debate, whether should it be abolished or not. Different times, different countries have held various positions. Here is something that Tarrou confesses and deeply resonates with me:
“I have realized that we all have plague, and I have lost my peace. 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”.
One final note, those rats do the damage once again as in 1984. They initiated the calamity and they are capable of repeating it as the closing sentence sternly warns us:
“The plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city”.
PS: Terminal Spirit Disease is a term of course I have borrowed from At the Gates ’94 album should you ever find yourself in a mood of listening.