May 19, 2008

The Plague

The Plague is a novel by Albert Camus. What Camus intended to do was to dramatise the problems of the French Resistance, what he intended to do was dramatise the reasons that men decided they would die in the Resistance. Instead of taking the subject on directly, Camus presented the problem of the resistance by analogy. He took the subject of a plague hitting the small Algerian (at that point French) town of Oran. The plague is indescribable. It afflicts all with equal indiscriminate ease and seems to strike at the most random moment. Furthermore because of the plague the town of Oran is isolated, cut off from the rest of France and left alone to suffer. Its townspeople for instance are reduced to watching over and over again the same films, because no new ones arrive and Camus documents their attempts at escape, the riots which threaten to sweep away the armed encircling guard, the psychosis of a citadel in the midst of an epidemic. Perhaps most terrifyingly he dwells on the experience of those whose families have been divided by the iron law of quarentine and lovers whose love is stuck in the world outside. Camus manages to capture in his prose some wonderful ideas about the ways that humans feel: he captures something that I think no novelist has ever quite got for me, which is the feeling after you have left someone you love, of their face fading before your eyes. At another fantastic moment, he captures the way that two men planning an escape attempt, suddenly begin to trust each other as they debate the position of a centre half on the football field.

The novel is almost a documentary at points and demonstrates how a community feels under that kind of awful pressure. But it is also a deep and intense psychological drama focussing on a doctor, Dr Rieux and his friends who form part of a group committed to aiding the plague sufferers in their final death pangs. Rieux and the others become hated, despised because they bring diagnosis and the reality of isolation. They labour without quite knowing why, they labour in order to labour. Camus brings out the way that in the silence of God, God becomes irrelevant to human morality. Rieux and the others are not motivated nor moved by theological speculation but by the need to struggle to do what is decent. What he also gets about morality is that there are no costless decisions, staying in the town of Oran to care for the sick is for Rieux a moral imperative and yet it leaves him with a final personal tragedy. He cannot say, no more than we can, that those who escape to find their loved ones are evil or bad: he can only say, to borrow Michael Frayn's line, that after the fact we see what matters. Each choice, including the most altruistic one, contains the possibility of tragedy and the possibility that it is futile and that the other choice would have been better. But equally for Rieux there are real moral choices- they are just not clear and codified in some divine scripture- but revealed on earth through the dispositions of conscience- to paraphrase Kipling it is when the heart and sinew give up, when everything is against you and the only thing that keeps you on the road is the realisation that an action is right, that you act in a true moral sense. Its a Kantian emotional reaction and Camus gets it.

Perhaps the great moment of this whole book comes when Camus describes the perfect individual, the embodiment for him of what it is to be moral. For him that individual is a man called Grand- a civil servant who has never risen that far- whose life seems from the outside a failure, having lost the love of his life, Jean, for being unable to speak to her. Grand spends his whole life fining and refining a sentence to start a novel about a woman that rides down a street filled with flowers. He does not serve on the frontline but rather organises the relief of the plague and he is weak, almost collapsing with the strain and yet he is the hero. For he represents the fact that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. During the whole novel we see the traditional repositaries of moral instruction- priests, magistrates- fail: often as they see their role as being to rebuke and instruct others rather than serve their communities. The priest for example as the plague begins delivers a terrifying sermon to the townspeople about it being their fault that the plague has come down upon them: how that does anything to save people from death or how it manages to do anything save for make the priest feel better in his moral superiority. Religion gets a bad press in this novel, partly because it encourages people to resign from their moral commitments in this life to attain a future one- it produces a false ascetism.

But the novel really is not about condemning any sequence of ideas, as much as in providing an explanation for the ways that humans come to behave morally. What Camus shows is the way that the drive of conscience works: it operates as a kind of neccessity- a blind neccessity forcing people to do things that they are scarcely conscious of. Interestingly it has little to do with religion or other justifications for morality- interestingly it also makes little discrimination. One of Camus's characters is Cottard, who likes the plague because it saves him from possible arrest, Cottard though is not condemned by the book as much as he is examined. And here emerges something that I savour about Camus- the book compares Naziism to a plague, and explicitly at one point links the plague to human immorality- to capital punishment but at no point does it seek the easy condemnation. It is a moral work, infused with morality, but condemns sin without looking at the sinner. And it condemns sin for the right reasons- not because of an offence to any tabboo- but because of the ways that sin hurts and destroys human lives. Camus is a humanist in the real sense of that word- someone who places their ultimate value on the relief of human suffering.

This is a great book, and I have scarcely probed its surface- but there is something magical here in his perception of morality that gets to the bottom of a thought that I find half articulated in protestant theologians of the 17th century and German philosophers of the 19th, that morality is an inward commitment, a sense, a conscience and that understanding that impulse of duty is the first step towards understanding what it is to be moral.


Lil Jimmy said...

I have scarcely probed its surface...

Tiberius, seems to me that it's now time to actually open the thing and start reading it. :)

Gracchi said...

Ha ha ha Of course I have read it- you fool :) its just that its one of those books that takes a long time to digest!