Reading on in Camus’ The Plague, one has opportunity to reflect more and more upon the portrayal not only of the plague and its effects on Oran, but also upon the humans.
I spoke last time about the way in which Camus treats the quarantine as a form of exile. Exile in which we are at home. And that exile changes hue over time. We are, here, perhaps in the third week of quarantine? What will it feel like after two months, four, six? Longer? Camus writes of how the plague, ‘would seem to them like the very shape of their lives and when they would forget the existence that they had led in the days before’.
One of the other things Camus speaks about, is the way that the plague is an abstraction. It lacks concreteness. It cannot truly be ‘fought’, it doesn’t submit to reason. It doesn’t yield to love. It just is. Not that this causes, or should, call for a resignation. In the end, it is just another sickness. It robs us of futures, of hope, of life. But it is a madness or a cowardice to simply resign to it. This, perhaps, plays into to Camus’ heroic-anti-heroism, e.g. in the character of Dr. Rieux, who does nothing but his job, conceives of doing so as nothing but simple what one does, and yet understands that his ongoing fight is a series of temporary victories, in fact an ‘endless defeat’ (in conversation with Tarrou). Camus and I differ, of course, at a profound level on theological convictions. And yet, there is much I appreciate here. All the victories of hope and life in this world are temporary in the face of death. There is, for me, only one victor over death.
How does one fight plague? Here, perhaps, there is both a parallel and disjunction between Camus’ Oran, and our world. We are living in a global pandemic which exists in a globalised world that has more communication (in the sense of ‘traffic’) between place and persons than ever before. The level, breadth and speed, of international exchange is unparalleled in history. At the same time, we understand covid-19 far better than anybody understood most epidemics throughout history. We have a fairly clear grasp on how it’s transmitted. Even the plague of Camus’ Oran is functionally mysterious to most people. So our public health measures are logical. Abstract, but logical. Social distancing, globally, on this scale, has never been practiced before.
And yet, even as we’re socially distancing, the level of communication we are capable of, via electronic means, is also unprecedented. Camus writes convincingly of the way in which, at first, people forget the ones they miss and love. At first they are shadows, but ‘they realized later that these shadows could become still more fleshless, losing even the details of colour that memory kept there’. We lose both memory, and hope. For most of us, we are connected, via text, audio, video chat. It is possible to sustain those relationships.
I want to propose, though, that our experience is a different form of ‘cut-off’. And that is because we are still very much incarnate beings. We have and are bodies. And while mediated communication is a good, it is also a mediated good. We communicate through glass and wire. Our exile has become the ache of staring and talking through a pane, hands pressed against the glass, never touching. Perhaps this will make the ache greater, not less.
Pandemic is endlessly boring. It’s not heroic. And it’s not defeated by heroism. Perhaps you’ve seen the quip on social media, that treating front line health workers as ‘heroes’ lionises them as ‘self-sacrificial martyrs who are choosing to risk their lives for the rest of us’ while obviating the need to pay them decent salaries and provide them with decent conditions. How correct. Ask them, and they don’t identify as heroes. They’re just doing what any human would do in their shoes. Which is the only thing to be done. And the only thing to be done for the rest of us is… follow protocols, stay at home, do the mundane, go on living, and refuse to surrender to despair. This is how we minimise how many die. Without a resurrection hope, that is our endless temporary victory, our series of repeated defeats. For myself, there is a hope beyond death. For Camus, there is a hope despite death. An unheroic heroism.