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APOCALYPTIC SOLIDARITY

There’s an allusion to L’Etranger in The Plague, or an ironic cameo, at a tobacconist’s, there’s an animated conversation about an arrest of a young commercial employee who killed an Arab on the beach. But whereas Camus was concerned with individual alienation and suffering in The Stranger, Camus’ second novel, The Plague concerns communal suffering and collective responsibility. He moved from solitude to solidarity.

On opening Camus’ Plague we encounter an ordinary town, Oran, described by its absences, devoid of “pigeons, trees and gardens”, a “banal”, an “ugly” a “glamourless, soulless” place with its back to the sea. Though in French North Africa, Oran could be any town. Confining themselves to convention the populace is lulled by the reductive rhythms of habit. This may be why Camus describes the routine of Oran as “doing business”, earning money, and as much of it as possible, then after work, bowling, gossip, cards — then sleep. They are, that is “killing time”. But this is the beginning, which Camus calls the time of “bewildering portents”.
When a single, then a trickle, of rats begin to die, then truckloads are burnt in town incinerators, Oran is rattled but the connection between the mounting danger and plague is denied by the local Medical Association. Their myopia eerily predicts world reaction to and the eventual battle against Aids, which is still proving a “Siphyphean task”. Or just as France’s corrupt Third Republic engaged in a “phony war” before – Occupied France’s eventual nickname for the Nazis – la peste brune, “the brown pest” — rolled over the supposedly impregnable Maginot line.
As in any disaster, there is always the dangerous retrospective question: what made Oran, or prewar France, or pre-Stalinist Russia, or later, Rwanda, or Serbia, a suitable host? The priest in town, Paneloux blames it on the citizens for not attending church. The plague was “the scourge of God” punishing them for their “criminal indifference”. The priest observes, with reservations, that Abyssinian Christians wrapped themselves in the sheets of plague victims, so they too might experience God’s wrath. It rains while the parishioners and concerned townsfolk kneel …
Paneloux is the first among the plague-profiteers.
But before we further describe the plot of The Plague this exposes a recurring problem in interpreting it as an allegory, since a disease is inhuman while the Nazi occupation of France, totalitarianism, fascism or genocide, reflect human choice. I asked my French brother-in-law the summer following 9/11 how the catastrophe felt in Europe. He replied it was like a natural disaster: an earthquake, a hurricane. And I remember saying no, it was intentional. It was not an accident, but murder. The Plague, being an allegory, and Camus wrote it as an allegory, and the postwar French audience hungrily read it as a depiction of the Occupation, might well be accused of confusing the accidental and intentional, the inhuman and human.
While pondering this lecture and reviewing the literary criticism I concluded that the best way to understand it is by citing two philosophers who deeply influenced Camus. And I think I discovered the key. Camus wrote a visionary polemic against introducing the inhuman into human consciousness.
The first is Nietzsche. I just mentioned the priest Paneloux, who used the plague to blame his parishioners but, considering Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment, we encounter other characters who profit from the plague.
Nietzsche maintained that the essence of human being is the will to power. We are the will to power. He meant by this not political ascendancy, brute strength, fame or money, but a “plenum of energy” of radiance really. He maintained that we can read each other’s unconscious will to power (our intentionality) with “lynx’s eyes”, through the dark. I ask my students to imagine that they fancy a potential boy or girlfriend whom they carefully have chatted up and finally have an opportunity at a party to bond with them, and it’s working, when a more handsome or beautiful rival walks by, and the charming wouldbe lover slips away with this rival, and they’re hoped-for love is gone. One feels envy, jealousy or – resentment. How much more would one feel if the example is not merely cosmetic but of the power co-extensive with life itself! And if this power means spontaneity, talent, creativity, those deficient in power will project guilt to strap down, to punish those who have it — this energy, this life.
Now let us return to the plot. Our self-effacing main character Dr. Rieux treats, for example, an asthmatic Spanish patient habitually transferring peas from one pan to another (killing time) who delights at the swelling heaps of dying rats, “They’re coming! They’re coming!” And later, with the plague beginning to rage, “It’s cholera! Isn’t it?”, with malignant glee. Or consider smugglers who profit from helping people escape Oran despite the risk of infecting the world. Or the failed suicide Cottard who grows cheerful and friendly for the first time when thousands around him are dying.
They negate the human for the inhuman, they smolder with ressentiment and they welcome, collaborate, they are the accomplices of Apocalypse.
The second philosopher is Martin Heidegger. who describes how nothing determines who we our and that we are thrown into existence without an essence and so we feel anxiety, or angst, every one of us. We feel as if the bottom of our existence has dropped out and encounter a void. But this nothingness discloses our radical freedom. We feel alone, exiled, since no one can trade places with us and yet this is our freedom. But to avoid the anxiety we try to escape into what Hiedegger calls the everyday “they-self”, what they say and what “they” do, but this “they” is not a who. It’s an abstraction. Like the oxymoron, “celebrity culture”! Without a transcendent code of values we escape anxiety only to gossip about a they-self and have an abstract “relation” to this “they”. We can also escape into abstract ideologies and nihilistic religions which seem to lift from us the burden, and the exhilaration of freedom. And so we welcome the abstraction. We collaborate with the inhuman.
This preps the host. The plague can happen wherever authentic human relations are avoided. The infection in the body-politic can rise exponentially into an epidemic. The psychic contagion of resentment becomes history. To quote Camus quoting Andre Breton in The Rebel: “The laws of history are conditioned by the cowardice of individuals”.
As the self-effacing, stoical Dr. Rieux observes: “A divorce from reality enters into such calamities. Still, when abstraction sets to killing you you’ve got to get busy with it.”
So let’s now consider those who fight, who resist the plague.
After the gates are closed, all mail stopped, telephone calls are limited, ships turned away, shops shut, the economy implodes, and the cars start traveling in circles, and even the birds avoid the town, Rieux notes dryly: “All of us ate the same sour bread of exile”. And for those stuck within the town who lose loved ones, they are confronted by what Rieux, the hidden chronicler calls, “the densest silence of all”. Rieux is separated from his wife, as Rambert, the visiting journalist, from his lover in Paris, as was Camus, recuperating from tuberculosis in a sanitarium in France’s Massif Central — separated from his wife in Oran during the Allied Invasion of North Africa). Now, the parted lovers begin to appreciate the smallest details they used to take for granted. They “… regret each wrinkle in the absent face that memory cast upon a screen.” 71 There is a particularly poignant moment 3/4’s of the way through the book when Camus writes:
“Sometimes at midnight … the doctor turned on his radio … well-meaning speakers tried to voice their fellow-feeling, and indeed did so, but at the same time this proved the utter incapacity of every man truly to share in suffering that he cannot see. “Oran! Oran!” In vain the call rang over oceans … “Oran, we’re with you!” they called emotionally. ‘But not’, the doctor told himself, ‘to love or to die together – and that’s the only way. They’re too remote.”
Or consider a moment from the second (cut-away) narrator’s diary, Tarrou who Dr. Rieux comments had “the habit of observing events and people through the wrong end of the telescope”. Tarrou notes dryly: “The woman in a lonely street … abruptly opened a shuttered window just above {my} head and gave two loud shrieks before closing the shutters.”
Those who do not live in ressentiment nor try to escape from anxiety or freedom, invent solidarity when resisting plague, though the efforts be in vain. And it is here when Camus inverts what it is to be a hero. The hidden narrator, Dr. Rieux, maintains that if his chronicle must have a hero he offers the diminutive and ordinary fifty-year old temporary assistant municipal clerk Joseph Grand, who Dr. Rieux treats, since Grand’s wife left him, for a constriction of the aorta (of the heart). Camus’ gentle self-mockery of Grand’s constant, maniacal revision of a single first sentence of a proposed novel, certainly echoes Camus’ own six year struggle in composing The Plague, begun with the outset of World War II and published just after the end, in 1947.* It is this clumsy and unconfident “Grand” who serves relentlessly in the sanitary squads, who lends a hand without need of recognition nor reward. And he resists not from an abstraction but from what Rieux calls “common decency”
Without a divine map, then, to guide us, if life is absurd, why risk our one time on earth to help others? Why does Dr. Rieux go to work when none of his efforts stem the gruesome progress of the disease? Why join sanitary squads and handle contagious corpses? Why join the French resistance? Why risk one’s life to protest a totalitarian or fascist regime? Why did New York fireman rush into the twin towers just prior to collapse? For an abstraction? Real humanity does not question why when encountering disaster. Camus argues that solidarity is not an abstraction and it is offered as a gift without self-conscious posturing about being a “hero”.
Again, that does one do confronted by catastrophe if life is absurd? It’s impossible to predict but that’s precisely the point of the absurd. Moral reflections do not cause us to sacrifice our only life. It will not be a logical nor a premeditated, Platonic “Eternal Good” but the gratuitous, free acts by which we invent humanity, by which we conjure out of nothing, a secular nobility.
There is then a strange benefit to apocalypse, it both isolates, internally exiles, atomizes citizens from each other then creates new alliances, a new solidarity.
Rieux remarks in the midst of the dreadful summer peak in plague victims: “What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves. All the same when you see the misery it brings … you’d need be a madman, or a coward, … to give in …

So Rieux, and his sanitary volunteers, relentlessly battle the injustice of death. To resist is to rebel. They accept we all eventually lose. Like the metaphysical rebel Ivan Karamazov who turns in his ticket to heaven in protest of a single child’s suffering in a universe dominated by an omniscient and omnipotent God, Rieux declares, “ … since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence.” In Camus’s novel there is a peripeitia or reversal as Rieux and several characters follow a child minute by minute death for a full night. The child begins to scream, and the whole ward joins in with a heart-rending eerie protest against suffering and death itself. It undermines the priest Paneloux and soon drives him into heresy, and then to mimic the symptoms of the plague, but he eventually by dies, “a doubtful case”
The quiet stoics, on the other hand, will work in behalf of a this-worldly redemption which recognizes the limits of what it can and cannot know, and do
In The Plague’s small universe of characters we encounter ordinary people facing extraordinary inhumanity, which presents the central enigma of existence: why do we enjoy a consciousness resplendent with what Camus calls, in The Myth of Sisyphus, “the shimmering mirrors of phenomena” only to have it end, for our minds to be turned off at death? Why are we so vulnerable to suffering and our moments of happiness so fleeting? “Fastened”, as the poet Yeats put it, “to a dying animal … “? The book does not presume to prescribe an answer except to show how we can modestly pursue what is right and, care for each other, again from what Rieux calls, albeit an absurd, “common decency”.
But why do we need a disaster to feel solidarity with others?
If one were to photograph this very auditorium and we are listening reflectively to the speakers, we would not notice the variety nor intensity of the colors, but they would appear in the photo. Suppose one died and knew it and woke up and had one hour to live again. We would notice indeed each wrinkle. We would experience awe in the most ordinary transaction, like taking change in a deli. Our noticing would be so radically amplified each moment would seem an evanescent eternity. Like Sisyphus, after Hades granted him temporary life to punish his wife for infidelity, when Sisyphus experiences life, again he forgets his misogynistic scheme and goes, more or less, “Wow! I’m alive again!” We cannot constantly “get” that we are mortal. When we do, we feel immediately our awe before life and our solidarity with each other. But how soon we forget, atomized by self-interest, we begin again to “kill time”.
Just as Oedipus, to end plague in Thebes, solved the riddle of the Sphinx with the simple reply “man”, so, guided by Camus, we might decipher random suffering as the enigma of our mortal existence. We are responsible for how we respond, just as Oedipus behaves as if he is responsible, and he is, to a fate which is mysteriously unfair, since we must forfeit all we hold dear to death. In a situation wherein this universally blind injustice is sped up so that we are not able to privately hide its results nor assign it to old age behind walls, we are thrown together into an apocalyptic solidarity which renders every, even the most painful, moment of our lives — a gift. A miracle. It is a shame that the citizens who survive Oran’s plague will probably lose their solidarity as the immediacy of the catastrophe evaporates. It is a shame we rarely live in awe of our fellow consciousnesses as we rarely do our own in glimpses of mortal eternity which Camus called lucidity. But we can try, if we can shed our ressentiment, inauthenticity, the illusions of self-consciousness (that gratuitous intervention), that all-to-human veil of Maya between us, for the reality, of friendship.

”, since authentic solidarity directly intuits affinity between consciousnesses

tamely to the plague

Heidegger maintained, we are thrown into our ownmost possibilities rounded by an horizon of death and nothing determines who we are.

There is no transcendental eternal values to guide, reward or judge us, no invisible blueprinted destiny, no determining essence preceding our short existence, if, that is, as

We do not know how we will act when faced by apocalypse.

Why sacrifice our lives if life is all we have – all we are?
There is nothing fair about developing a mind just to have it extinguished.

Solitude is chosen gratitude towards one’s own consciousness, time and death.

“Doubtless today many of our fellow citizens are apt to yield to the temptation of exaggerating the services they rendered” Considering the French Resistance

Rieux, on those who refuse to die, “Have you ever heard a woman scream “Never!” with her last gasp?” Rieux, despite spending decades as a doctor, has never managed to grow accustomed to watching people die.
“The blind endurance which that ousted love from all hearts”
We take life for granted.

Rambert is commissioned by a leading Paris daily to report on the sanitary conditions of the Arabs. Rieux suggests he write on the rats

Death is so … democratic
Rieux as the atheist ethical hero, as the postnihilistic The photo would show what we miss in our perceptual field absorbed by a reflective fog.

What Camus calls “the densest silence of all”.

chronicled in the Randy Schultz’s 1987 And The Band Played On, with several chapters beginning with a Camus epigraph.

They have ignored, “A glimpse of that radiant eternal light, which glows a small, still flame in the dark core of human suffering”

They are guilty not because they refused to be free but because they were too free.
But what is this but what the Germans call “Schadenfreude”? Delight in other people’s misery”?

“Since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left us but a series of present moments” Why then risk love?
Rambert the journalist, give me a certificate that certifies I haven’t the disease and Rieux must refuse
Exile:
182, “without memories and without hope, they lived for the moment only

In The Plague’s small universe of characters we encounter ordinary people facing an extraordinary disaster which has no reason behind it, which presents the central enigma of existence, why do we enjoy a seemingly infinite consciousness aware, resplendent with what Camus calls in The Myth of Sisyphus, “the shimmering mirrors of phenomena” only to have it end, to be turned off at death? What is the point? Why? Why are we so vunerable to suffering and our moments of happiness so fleeting? “Strapped”, as Yeats once put it, “to a dying animal.”

Its form may be a matter of history, but its history mimics — matter — and its cause is – man – so
The resentful choose not man, but the inhuman.
The plague itself — links the two, then, as an allegory and a polemic which accounts for the plight of human existence itself.

“He (Rieux) knew that abstraction sometimes proves itself stronger than happiness.” 91 It’s a test of one’s integrity not to multiply moments of abstraction

The Plague is about ethics following the death of God.

Ideological contagion
(emotional–linguistic isolation)

Stuck in their co-isolation

“They came to deplore their ignorance of the way in which that person used to spend his or her days, and reproached themselves for having troubled too little about this in the past, and for having affected to think that, for a lover, the occupation of the loved one when they are not together could be a matter of indifference and not a source of joy”. The burden was so great they felt it unbearable to hear each other’s problems. They are exiled from each other.

They follow the Roman’s (an older occupier’s) distinction between negotium and otium, as we do, perhaps, in America: it’s either business or pleasure, and that’s all.

prankishness and how complicated one can give it away rather than save it, like in a psychical bank account, but to give it away without seeking reward in contrast to those without it we can imagine the life situation of ressentiment.

which is a construct, an abstraction. Since every time we engage in a meaningful discussion the comet-tail of that meaning recalls our solitary responsibility to invent our meaning of our one time on earth, (and so our anxiety and freedom), we engage in idle talk, gossip about celebrity, we escape into a mass culture which but an abstract entity.

When enough human beings choose to believe in an abstraction which negates freedom, the inhuman attacks human rights and we have – a plague.

They became sleep-walkers, running their fingers over their psychological wounds.
Their shared exile:
Plague “ One fine morning the month of May a elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome Sorel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne”

The plague is the contagion of those who exile the human in favor of an abstract idea or transcendental belief. This is nihilism, which needs replace concrete experience with a belief, an illusion.

Lance buboes, the pus of lymphatic excrudescence

Rieux responds he keeps working from common decency ….

going just beyond the claim in Epicticus’s Enchirion that wisdom is simply knowing what is and is not in our power to to help.

given the mediation of memory, in time


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