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Saturday, 2 February 2008

Nonbelieving Literati: The Plague

For details of the Nonbelieving Literati, see here.

I have to write this post, because I don't want to read everyone else's until I've written mine, which currently means I'm avoiding some very interesting-looking posts on other people's blogs. It's not going to be easy. I read this book really early, and in the intervening six weeks or so, there have been lots of minor points that I might have liked to use The Plague as an illustration to. Instead, I am forced to write a big post that tries to get something across that relates to the whole book. Well, no matter. I shall make a start, and see how much of the important stuff I can end up fitting in.

Camus wrote this book in 1947, after the end of the second world war. He was writing in part from his own experience as part of the French Resistance, and also more fundamentally about crisis and how we deal with it. Thus we get this description quite early in the book:

[T]hey 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 bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. . . . Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others, they forgot to be modest -- that was all -- and thought that everything was still possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible.

Camus isn't using 'humanist' in the sense of, say, the Humanist Symposium. I suspect he is referring to something closer to Renaissance humanism, and more specifically to the notion that men and women are, or should be, free to control their own destinies. We think we're free, he says, and we go on making plans, but in fact we are not free; certainly not so long as there are pestilences or invading fascists. The use of a plague -- a natural phenomenon -- as an allegory for an occupation -- a human phenomenon -- is interesting here. Whatever he thinks of the moral issues surrounding the behaviour of the German government and army, they are not the focus of this book. This book is not arguing that we should create a world which does operate the way we want it to. This book takes it for granted that there are pestilences of all types, at looks at how we deal with them.

It's most definitely an atheist book. The sole proponent of religious solutions to crisis is Father Paneloux, who suggests that we deserve crisis. The plague is God's punishment, says Father Paneloux, and we must submit willingly to die if that be our destiny -- and indeed take joy from the notion that what is happening is God's will. To this, the good Doctor Bernard Rieux (one of three main atheist characters) remarks with deliberate forgiveness that "As you know, Christians sometimes say that sort of thing without really thinking it. They're better than they seem." Indeed, Paneloux is better than he seems, for he does join in with the volunteers who risk their lives caring for the sick rather than leaving the plague victims to their divine punishment. However, consistent with his views, he refuses treatment for himself, preferring to submit to God's will. One gets the impression that the sole saving grace of Paneloux's position is that he allows it to hurt only himself and any others who might be swayed to believe it.

The more interesting viewpoints are those of the atheists [or, at least, the viewpoints that discount or disbelieve in God - edit]. As an interesting pair, we have Doctor Rieux, whom I have already mentioned, and Jacques Tarrou, a traveler and philosopher. Rieux is the simpler of the two. He is a doctor, and the impulse to fight against the plague comes naturally to him. He cannot necessarily justify it, except insofar as he finds it impossible to do otherwise. Tarrou is both more complex and more confident in his viewpoint. It is Tarrou who goes to Rieux and suggests that teams of volunteers be set up to care for the sick, in full confidence that willing people will be found, despite the risk.

Rieux has a simple and uncertain theory of morality; Tarrou has one that he has given a lot of thought to. Both men, however, agree that the right thing to do is to care for the sick and attempt to minimise the hurt and damage as best they may, no matter that they must face the fact that there will be an awful run of tragedy before them that they are powerless to completely halt. By contrast, the journalist Raymond Rambert represents a different viewpoint. Rambert is not interested in the fate of those in the town -- "I don't belong here!" he protests, pointing out that he was only there to write a short article and now he is stuck, separated from his beloved wife because of the quarantine. One should not think of Rambert as an immoral character; he is portrayed sympathetically. Perhaps Rambert's strongest statement is this one:

"[P]ersonally, I've seen enough of people who can die for an idea. I don't believe in heroism; I know it's easy and I've learnt it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves."

Rieux's reaction is very interesting: he agrees with Rambert, and tells him that Rambert's impending attempt to escape the quarantine is right and proper; his only protest is that "there's no question of heroism in all this. It's a matter of common decency." Rieux has a wife of his own who is sick (though not of the plague) and who was sent out of the town before the plague began. He, too, is missing somebody he loves. And, more deeply perhaps, I think if you were someone who was sacrificing and taking risks in order to try to save the lives of others, you might not object to there being those who grasp happiness with both hands. Then, at least, you might know that even if you lose out, others will still have the chance to be happy because of what you did.

Both Tarrou and Rieux are in general forgiving of those who think differently. Indeed, these words of the narrator (who is unnamed until the end) might conceivably convey something of the views of both men:

[I]t is not the narrator's intention to ascribe to these sanitary groups [of volunteers to care for the sick] more importance than their due. . . . [T]he narrator is inclined to think that by attributing over-importance to praiseworthy actions one may, by implication, be paying indirect but potent homage to the worst side of human nature. For this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy are the general rule. The narrator does not share that view. The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance . . . on the whole men are more good than bad.

Bearing in mind the allegorical nature of the book, this is a modest (but entirely serious) utterance on the part of Camus. For, of course, the sanitary groups represent the Resistance, in which Camus played a significant role, and in this passage he may be seen to be disavowing to some extent the hero status that was given to members of the Resistance after the war. I find myself admiring him -- not just for modesty in this aspect of the book, but also for the way he has chosen to tackle a harder question when there was an easy one standing by. The evils of the Nazi regime would have been on everyone's lips, and the heroism of all those who stood up to it would have been being lauded at every turn. In such a situation, to refuse the simple heroic story in favour of a forgiving, nuanced view of human behaviour that faces up to some of the most difficult questions that human beings can ask is an achievement indeed.

As regards the broader theme of the book, the most important analogy between the Resistance and the sanitary groups is that they are those who inspire everyone else not to give up:

These groups enabled our townsfolk to come to grips with the disease, and convinced them that, now that plague was amongst us, it was up to them to do whatever could be done to fight it.

This is, I think, a central message of the book. Fight back at the universe. Do not submit. Yet it is a bittersweet message. At the end of the book we are with Rieux, and he is alone. The friends he made during the plague have died or gone back to their loved ones. His own wife has died of her separate illness. He has no-one. And he reflects that it is certain that, some time in the future, the plague will strike again. The victory is never complete.

I told Rieux not to kill himself. I knew he probably wouldn't. And he doesn't even seem to think of it. That, too, is heroism. Rieux is strong enough and hopeful enough to keep going, even when the plague is over and he has nothing to fight for any more.


The Exterminator said...

Very nice post, Lynet, as I knew it would be.

Speaking of this book as Camus' reaction to years of Nazi atrocities: Do you remember the description in Part III of the trains taking the victims of the plague to the crematoria outside the town? That was a very chilling moment in the book for me, more so because it was mentioned so casually.

Anonymous said...

Lynet, very well done. I hadn't thought about the relationship of this book's message to Camus' own war experiences. His humility and nuanced views are admirable.

Ex - I noticed the train passage and caught the parallel too. I think you're right that his casual, just made in passing comment was more chilling than a detailed analysis. It probably was something he observed repeatedly throughout the war. Regarding the train traffic as normal (hardly worth mentioning, really) may have been an avoidance strategy/coping mechanism for people who couldn't bear to come to grips with their obvious meaning.

John Evo said...

Lynet, like Chappy, I was unable to relate it to Camus personal war time experiences (I didn't even know who Camus was until I started looking for "great atheist fiction" - some atheist I AM, huh?) but I certainly caught the war/pestilence analogies that popped up repeatedly through the book (and, specifically, World War 2). I knew my post would be somehow war related by half-way through the book. I just wasn't sure where exactly I would take it until the end. Anyway, I really enjoyed your in-depth analysis. And expected it!

The Ridger, FCD said...

To be honest, even though I knew Camus had been in France during WWII, I didn't read this as a specific allegory to that war as his part in it - just a more general one. But now I'm slapping my forehead and saying "d'oh!"

And so I find myself in complete agreement with your assessment of Camus's downplaying of the Resistance/sanitary groups.

Thanks for the very thoughtful - and thought-provoking - post.

Unknown said...

Great post, Lynet! This was the explanation I was looking for as I was reading the book. I knew there had to be more to the book than just the plague.

Ex, I read that twice before I realized what you were saying. Of course, it makes a lot of sense. But at first I didn't associate the trains and camps with France, so it didn't get through.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

I alluded to this over at the Carnival, but I really feel like I've read the book, even though I haven't. Everyone's different take on it, combined, gives the ignorant non-reader (i.e. me) a very good sense of and feel for the book. In fact, the way I read books, I would never have gleaned from it what most of you did. So thank you all for that.

John Evo said...

Yeah right, SI. Listen, that self-effacing modesty crap is MY gig. Find your own signature move.

Anyway, I think you are looking at the combined wisdom of the atheoshpere and are impressed (as well you should be). But, it's not the wisdom of any one person. Unless your comment is mainly directed at Lynet, who did seem to extract a lot more from it than many of us.

We all know by now that this is a pretty intelligent group of bloggers. I'm not so self-effacing as to deny that.

If anything, I probably bring down the collective IQ. (Note to SI: Learn from the master).

The Exterminator said...

Well, I think we all found different ways to shine a light on The Plague. And I don't dispute Evo's assessment that the Nonbelieving Literati are an intelligent group of bloggers.

However, I do think some credit has to be give to the quality of the book, itself. Because it's packed with so many ideas, and elicits so many different responses, it was a perfect kind of novel for us. I think we should bear that in mind for the future.

Alejandro said...

Terrific post, Lynet. Very insightful. I'm especially interested in how you distinguished between Tarrou and Rieux moral visions, which I hadn't even attempted to untangle. I'll have to start stopping by here more often!

Anonymous said...

Cool - the second post on The Plague I've come across in as many days. It is my all-time favorite book, and the single-most influential factor in my becoming an atheist. His moving portrayal of the Problem of Evil, when the small child dies of the plague, virtually decided the matter for me.

Lynet said...

Hi Mathew,

You may want to check out the Spanish Inquisitor's roundup of posts on The Plague here. We've been reading it for the Exterminator's book club -- the "Nonbelieving Literati". You'd be welcome to join us for the next book, if you like. Not all the books we choose are so philosophical, mind, but it's good fun.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I had never followed the links to the Nonbelieving Literati, so I missed that part. :-)