May 21, 2010

The CCLaP 100: "The Plague," by Albert Camus

(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

The Plague, by Albert Camus

The Plague (1948)
By Albert Camus
Book #42 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell / The argument for it being a classic*:

(*I found the storyline of this book and the arguments for reading it to be complexly linked in this case, which is why I'm combining the two sections in today's essay.)

At first glance, Albert Camus' 1948 The Plague may not seem like much of a political novel, but instead more like a simple post-apocalyptic thriller: its ostensible storyline, after all, is about a case of the bubonic plague hitting the Algerian city of Oran in the 1940s (when it was still under French control), and how it wipes out a significant proportion of the population no matter what people do to try to stop it. Ah, but realize that Camus meant for this to be his metaphorical memoir of his time in the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation of Paris a few years previously, and suddenly you have a very different book indeed; substitute the word "fascism" for "plague" every time you see it, and you suddenly have one of the most political novels ever written. When you take this attitude form page one, then, you can see all the ways the similes neatly match up throughout all the major events of the plot:

--How at first the populace refuses to even believe it's the bubonic plague, which they had been assured could never again affect such a modern city as theirs with such a modern sewage system (or in other words, "How dare those cartoonish German fascists invade The Most Sophisticated City In Human History!");

--How the first sign of the plague turns out to be the dying rats (French Jews) who secretly scurry about the edges of the city, promptly ignored by the general populace until they literally start dying by the thousands right in the middle of the street;

--How it eventually spreads to the human population (French Christians), and quickly becomes so overwhelming that entire sports stadiums have to be converted into walled-off quarantine zones (think concentration camps), where thousands of the sickly emaciated sit around in morose silence waiting to die;

--How the collective mood of the town becomes worse and worse as the plague continues from spring into summer and then fall, with eventually even holiday celebrations becoming joyless shams, and virtually all attempts at romance among its citizens coming to a halt;

--How the endless random death gradually erodes many people's very belief in even the basic rule of law, with petty crimes and minor riots rising exponentially the longer the plague continues, which the police generally ignore because of having their hands full with the tens of thousands of dead bodies;

--How the only way to handle the endless pile of dead and dying is to eventually create a vast bureaucracy to keep track of it all, which ironically makes the situation better because of people finally having something to concentrate on besides all the death going on around them, something understandable like government forms that make sense in relation to how the world usually works;

--How the only character of our cast with a previous criminal record is actually overjoyed by the plague, because of it turning the rest of the population into amoral sociopathic hoarders "just like him;"

--How eventually a group of citizens decide to band together to try to fight the plague, serving a variety of functions from ad-hoc security to serum development to temporary medics (so the French Resistance, in other words, of which Camus was a major leader in real life, serving as editor-in-chief of the movement's largest news organization);

--And how one day, the plague simply starts disappearing as quickly and as randomly as it had appeared, leading a shocked but grateful populace to start holding grandiose "victory" parades in the streets, and start immediately putting up plaques and memorials to the "fallen heroes."

But at the same time, though, this novel is also a book of philosophy, examining a school of thought commonly called "Absurdism," although with Camus himself having continual problems with this term throughout his career; it essentially argues that life is full of bizarre random events that have no causes and make no sense (the so-called "absurdity of life itself"), and that instead of driving ourselves crazy thing to come up with an explanation for these absurd events that doesn't actually exist, we should simply accept that they're there and get on with trying to live our own lives in as good a way as possible. Because that's the thing about this dialogue-heavy, action-light novel, is that much of it is devoted simply to looking at the various ways the characters try to find "meaning" in this random plague that has hit them, and how in nearly every case it leads to the situation getting even worse than before -- how some see it as a punishment from God for being so wicked, while some see it as a challenge from God to become more righteous, while others see it as a sign that we still have a lot to learn about science and medicine, and that we should devote ourselves to rationality even more than we have been, while yet others see it as proof that the universe is in fact a giant bottomless black pit, and that there's no point in even trying to act like a decent human being within such a meaningless void, because what's the freaking point?

By the way, this last attitude is known in philosophical circles as "Nihilism," which Camus once remarked that he had devoted his entire adult life to fighting against; he instead argued that the process of acting like a decent human being was simple justification unto itself, that just because bad things happen in the universe doesn't give us an excuse to be bad ourselves, that there is profound value inherent in the mere act of existing, which is why his work so often gets lumped in with the philosophy known as "Existentialism," although he himself hated being called such a thing. That's the ultimate lesson that Camus wants you to walk away with in this book, that the inherent absurdity of life doesn't give you the right to stop trying to be the best person you can be, that sometimes there simply is no explanation for why millions of otherwise decent humans decide one day to become inhumanly cruel fascists (or at least to silently support the inhuman cruelty going on around them), but that politeness and civility are still worth yearning for even in such an environment; and it's no coincidence at all, I think, that Camus' work was so eagerly eaten up by a mainstream general audience in the emotionally numb years following World War Two, a shellshocked audience who had just become aware of the horrific details behind the Holocaust a mere three years before this book first came out.

The argument against:
Ironically, the biggest complaints about The Plague come from those who never quite catch on that it's a metaphorical tale -- because yes, if you do a straight reading of it, as a genre thriller it leaves a lot to be desired, with there sometimes being these entire action-free sections that plotwise consist of not much more than, "And then they all sat around talking for another week and watching yet more people die." And along those lines, there are some who complain about the characters being not much more than cardboard cutouts of various societal archetypes, not quite realizing that in a metaphorical story, that's the entire point, to make the characters essentially personifications of the various schools of thought that exist about that particular subject. And as far as that's concerned, there also seems to be quite a lot of people who never really come to understand that absurdism is ultimately a positive and optimistic philosophy, that the whole point is to be constantly seeking the good in a world of crap; based on their angry rants online, these people seem to get overwhelmed quickly with the pure bleakness on display in The Plague, and tend to give up on it altogether before getting to the remarkable monologue near the end by the autobiographical Camus stand-in character Jean Tarrou, who basically lays out the entire concept of absurdism during a confessional drunken rant one night during the absolute worst of the plague.

Then there are the people who, even when recognizing the metaphorical nature of the book, see the entire thing as a self-serving glorification of Camus' role in the French Resistance, with his "Sanitation Squad" being a thinly-veiled attempt to overstate his importance during the war, when in fact all he really did was sit around a dark room writing snotty little essays, leaving the actual fighting and dying to others. (But then again, Camus actually kind of answers this charge in the book itself -- look at how he specifically says that the sanitation volunteers should in fact not be seen as heroes, but simply as fellow bored citizens who almost randomly choose to fill their time in positive rather than negative ways; and also look at the scorn the characters have at the end for those who wish to run around erecting statues to the "glory" of the lucky citizens who randomly managed to outlive the plague.) And then finally, there are those who simply disagree with the validity of Camus' entire philosophy; they instead argue that the only choice available to humans is to be either a pessimistic nihilist or to believe in God and be a decent human being, that there is no such thing as the "spiritual atheist" at the heart of existentialism. (And in fact this is something else that Camus directly addresses in the autobiographical climax of the book -- look at how Tarrou since a child had always wanted to grow up to be a saint, not for pious reasons but because he admires saints' ability to remain calm and wise in a crisis, but how the older he gets, the more he questions whether it's even possible to "act saintly" if you don't ultimately believe in God. If that's not existentialism boiled down to its most basic essence, I don't know what is.)

My verdict:
So as you can imagine with an essay series about literary classics, with a few exceptions I generally have not been too terribly surprised by any of the books so far in the CCLaP 100, with my reactions to them being in general not far from how I was expecting them to be before starting; and so that's what makes my overwhelming enjoyment of The Plague an even more unexpected delight than normal, in that I had been fully expecting the kind of obtuse, tiring, highly symbolic literary experiment that you see in the work of, say, Camus' Modernist peer Franz Kafka, or his other peer TS Eliot in his epic poem The Wasteland. Instead, I found a plain-spoken and legitimately thrilling genre exercise, which like I said you can actually see in some ways as a precursor to the post-apocalyptic actioners that would only become truly popular for the first time with the general public ten years later, a symbolic story to be sure but one that is clear and emotionally moving, not the intellectual parlor game that so much Mid-Century Modernist philosophical fiction is (I'm looking at you, Ayn Freaking Rand...and you too, BF Freaking Skinner). As mentioned, I think it no surprise that a story like this was so eagerly devoured by a general public after World War Two, because in many ways this is about the only philosophy concerning a horror like the Holocaust that a sane person can embrace -- that there ultimately is no explanation for it, either religious or rational in nature, that the only thing one can do in the face of life's absurdities is just go on trying to at least be a decent human being yourself.

In this, then, you can see a direct correlation between The Plague and Cormac McCarthy's The Road, only with the latter addressing the Bush atrocities of the early 2000s; and in fact there are many of us Americans right now who are in the exact same position as most Europeans in the years following World War Two, in that we watched with our own eyes the unspeakable cruelty that so many of our fellow Americans gleefully committed in the name of ideological purity, the torturing and the raping and the puppy-killing and the secret prisons and everything else, and now we're asking ourselves how we'll ever be able to go back to how things were before, how we'll ever be able to look at our neighbors with anything other than horrified disgust. Camus' answer in The Plague is that you simply go on trying to be a decent person yourself, that you don't assign blame to your neighbor's capacity for evil but simply acknowledge it as a constant temptation in all our souls, something else he directly addresses in this book's autobiographical climax -- how Tarrou (like Camus) used to be an avid Communist until (like Camus) he attends his first actual execution of an "enemy of the state," at which point he realizes (like Camus) that his beliefs too are capable of being exploited towards cruel and violent ends, at which point he (like Camus) quits the Communist Party. I suspect that all of this is going to make the ideas behind existentialism a suddenly hot topic again here in the US in the coming years, even if it ends up being called by a different name; you should do yourself a big favor and read what the master had to say about it all over half a century ago, and see for yourself what a remarkable book this actually is. Today I find The Plague not only an undeniable classic, but also give it one of the strongest recommendations of any book in this series I've so far read.

Is it a classic? Yes

The next four books scheduled to be read:
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray
All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque

Read even more about The Plague: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:32 PM, May 21, 2010. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles | Reviews |