[4 minute read]
Albert Camus (1913-1960), often called the “Philosopher of the Absurd” — a sobriquet he disliked — published The Plague (La Peste) in 1947 and it has relevance for us today as we consider how (to borrow from Gabriel Garcia Márquez) to “love in a time of cholera,” or to live in a time of Covid.
Although Camus never called himself a Christian, he wouldn’t say that there was no god, just that there was insufficient data. For Camus, life was full of paradoxes and contrasts. We exist in a universe that is vast, but in which we are alone and alienated. Into this bleak existence, the irrational and tragic break in unexpectedly. Who knew on New Year’s Day what we’d be experiencing only 90 days later? Crazy! We humans live, and yet we are condemned to die; we cling to the hope of an afterlife, but without a shred of empirical evidence to support that hope.
The only rule operative in the universe is the law of death. People kill themselves because they decide that life is not worth living. Camus also watched people who die for an idea that gave them a reason to live, and noted that “What is often called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying.”
So Camus sees humans in search of meaning and authenticity in this absurdity — in a world devoid of meaning. In a way, like the citizens of plague-stricken Oran, or like we who are hunkered in bleak bunkers of social distancing, isolation and self-quarantine, we live our lives as exiles on our own planet, in our own universe — a universe where there’s no justice and where nothing comes close to approximating a principle of love.
Not that Camus was completely pessimistic about our prospects. He said, “I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning. But I know something in it has meaning and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one.”
I am going to get to Oran and The Plague in a moment, but first more background on Camus.
You could even say that Camus occasionally burst into refrains of modified optimism. He thought that humans were capable of acting in such a way as to give life significance. Humans are in a unique way the raw material of history. We alone are responsible for ourselves. We must act as though our lives have meaning. Decisions must be made, assumptions must be acted upon, meaning must be attached to the actions we take.
In The Plague, Dr. Bernard Rieux tells the bureaucratic officials in Oran that whatever name they may wish to give to the epidemic ravaging their city, they had better begin to act as if it were the plague. Call the plague what they want, respond as they will, regardless, the nature of the plague remains unaltered and one must do something that makes sense. This compulsion, this driving force, to make sense of one’s action in the midst of the absurd can, in fact, counteract the absurd.
Which is why those who are revolting against COVID by offering meaningful resistance — social distancing, self-quarantine, diligence and persistence with personal hygienic practices and adapting with available technological tools — are the ones who are faring best during this epidemic.
My sense is that we are still in shock about this whole COVID thing. It’s totally absurd, came out of nowhere. It has completely disrupted life and will no doubt alter habits and practices even after the worst is over.
However, the people who are doing the best during this crisis, as I said, are not those protesting in the streets, but those who are engaged in meaningful action. These are the ones who are truly revolting against the disease, not those who are up in arms against various and prudence restrictions.
And in this resistance, they’re bringing some understanding and meaning into an otherwise irrational and incomprehensible global event.
And it is to Camus’ concept of revolt in The Plague that I will return in my next post in a few days. Stay tuned.