The Plague again

A yellowed paperback has been on my bookshelf for a while. This 1948 translation of the 1947 “La Peste”, “The Plague” by Albert Camus done by Stuart Gilbert is dated not just physically but also linguistically. Nonetheless, if there was ever a time to re-read a forgotten story, this was it. Themes, characters, and actions were eerily familiar. The plague has returned and as I write this remains around us. We have already experienced silent heroes and villains; leaders and flounders. We learn each day what is truly important. The following excerpts from a novel more than seventy years ago resonate with insight and may help in dealing with today.

Since the original posting, I’ve found two recent NY Times articles relevant to Camus’ The Plague.

“When a war breaks out, people say: “It’s too stupid; it cant last long.” But though a war may well be “too stupid”, that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.” p.34

“Ten thousand dead made about five times the audience in a bigish cinema. Yes, that was how it should be done. You should collect the people at the exits of five picture-houses, you should lead them to a city square and make them die in heaps if you wanted to get a clear notion of what it means.” p.36

“Still, that [plague] could stop, or be stopped. It was only a matter of lucidly recognizing what had to be recognized; of dispelling extraneous shadows and of doing what needed to be done. Then the plague would come to an end, because it was unthinkable, or rather, because one thought of it on misleading lines. If, as was most likely, it died out, all would be well. It not, one would know it anyhow for what it was and what steps should be taken for coping with and finally overcoming it.” p.38

“Judging by the rapidity with which the disease is spreading, it may well be, unless we can stop it, kill off half the town before two months are out. That being so, it has small importance whether you call it plague or some rare kind of fever. The important thing is to prevent its killing off half the population of this town.” p.46

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Rieux said, “how you phrase it. My point is that we should not act as if there were no likelihood that half the population would be wiped out; for then it would be.” p.47

“The measures enjoined were far from Draconian and one had the feeling that many concessions had been made to a desire not to alarm the public.” p. 48

“In any case,” Rieux said, “I wonder if it [serum] will be much use. The bacillus is such a queer one.” “There,” Castel said, “I don’t agree with you. These little brutes always have an air of originality. But, at bottom, its always the same thing.”
“That’s your theory, anyhow. Actually, of course, we know next to nothing on the subject.” pp.52-53

“The only hope was that the outbreak would die a natural death; it certainly wouldn’t be arrested by the measures the authorities had so far devised.” p.56

“Compulsory declaration of all cases of fever and their isolation were to be strictly enforced. The residences of sick people were to be shut up and disinfected; persons living in the same house were to go into quarantine; burials were to be supervised by the local authorities…. p.58

“…each would have to adapt himself to the new conditions of life. Thus, for example, a feeling normally as individual as the ache of separation from those one loves suddenly became a feeling in which all shared alike and – together with fear – the greatest affliction of the long period of exile that lay ahead…. Mothers and children, lovers, husbands and wives, who had a few days previously taken it for granted that their parting would be a short one,…. Indeed it needed several days for us to realize that we were completely cornered; that words like “special arrangements, “favor,” and “priority” had lost all effective meaning.” pp.61-62

“Thus the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile.” p.65

“It [plague] also incited us to create our own suffering and this to accept frustration as a natural state. This was one of the tricks the pestilence had of diverting attention and confounding issues. Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.” p.68

“Most people were chiefly aware of what ruffled the normal tenor of their lives or affected their interests. They were worried and irritated – but these are not feelings with which to confront plague. Their first reaction, for instance, was to abuse the authorities.” p.71

“The public lacked, in short, standards of comparison. It was only as time passed and the steady rise of the death-rate could not be ignored that public opinion became alive to the truth.” p.72

“Thus traffic thinned out progressively until hardly any private cares were on the roads; luxury shops closed overnight, and others began to put up “Sold Out” notices, while crowds of buyers stood waiting at their doors.” p.72

“Owing largely to fatigue, he gradually lost grip of himself, had less and less to say, and failed to keep alive the feeling in his wife that she was loved. An overworked husband, poverty, the gradual loss of hope in a better future, silent evenings at home – what chance had any passion of surviving such conditions?” p.75

“And while a good many people adapted themselves to confinement and carried on their humdrum lives as before, there were others who rebelled and whose one idea now was to break loose from the prison-house.” p.92

“For the most part they were men with well-defined and sound ideas on everything concerning exports, banking, the fruit or wine trade; men of proved ability in handling problems relating to insurance, the interpretation of ill-drawn contracts, and the like; of high qualifications and evident good intentions. That, in fact, was what struck one most – the excellence of their intentions. But as regards plague their competence was practically nil.” p.97-98.

“One thing, anyhow, was certain; discontent was on the increase and, fearing worse to come, the local officials debated lengthily on the measures to be taken if the populace, goaded to frenzy by the epidemic, go completely out of hand.” p.103

“The town was open to the sea and its young folk made free of the beaches. But this summer, for all its nearness, the sea was out of bounds; young limbs had no longer the run of its delights.” p.104

“Ah, if only it had been an earthquake! A good bad shock, and there you are! Your count the dead and living, and that’s the end of it. But this damned disease – even them who haven’t got it can’t think of anything else.” p.105

“Moreover, he was sure that for a long while to come travelers would give the town a wide berth. This epidemic spelt the ruin of the tourist trade, in fact.” p.106

“So does every ill that flesh is heir to. What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you’d need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague.” p.115

“I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this; there are sick people and they need curing. Later on, perhaps they’ll think things over; and so shall I. But what’s wanted now it is to make them well.” p.117

“The essential thing was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying and being doomed to unending separation. And to do this there wsa only one resource: to fight the plague. There was nothing admirable about this attitude; it was merely logical.” p.122

“Patiently every evening he brought his totals up to date, illustrated them with graphs, and racked his brains to present his data in the most exact, clearest form.” p.126

“And form the ends of the earth, across thousands of miles of land and sea, kindly, well-meaning speakers tried to voice their fellow-feeling, and indeed did so, but at the same time proved the utter incapacity of every man truly to share in suffering that he cannot see.” p.127

“It seemed that, for obvious reasons, the plague launched its most virulent attacks on those who lived, by choice or necessity, in groups: soldiers, prisoners, monks and nuns. For though some prisoners are kept solitary, a prison forms a sort of community, as is proved by the fact that in our town jail the guards died of plague in the proportion as prisoners.” p.153

“…the recruiting of men for the “rough work” became much easier. From now on, indeed, poverty showed itself a stronger stimulus than fear, especially as, owing to its risks, such work was highly paid.” p.160

“The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence, and by reason of their great duration great misfortunes are monotonous. In the memories of those who lived through them, the grim days of plague do not stand out like vivid flames, ravenous and inextinguishable, becoming a troubled sky, bur rather like the slow, deliberate progress of some monstrous thing crushing out all upon its path.” p.163

“Its high time it stopped. … when making such remarks we felt none of the passionate yearning or fierce resentment of the early phase; we merely voiced one of the few clear ideas that lingered in the twilight of our minds. The furious revolt of the first weeks had give place to a vast despondency, not to be take for resignation, though it was none the less a sort of passive and provisional acquiescence.” p.164

“Without memories, without hope they lived for the moment only. Indeed, the here and now had come to mean everything to them. For there is no denying that the plague had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship. Naturally enough, since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left us but a series of present moments.” p.165

“There was nothing to do but to ‘mark time,’ and some hundreds of thousands of men and women went on doing this, through weeks that seemed interminable.” p.169

“They developed a tendency to shirk every movement that didn’t seem absolutely necessary or called for efforts that seemed too great to be worth while. Thus these men were led to break, oftener and oftener, the rules of hygiene they themselves had instituted…” p.173

“There was no question of not taking precautions or failing to comply with the orders wisely promulgated for the public weal in the disorders of a pestilence. Nor should we listen to certain moralists who told us to sink on our knees and give up the struggle. No, we should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at times, and try to do what good lay in our power.” p.205

“It is true that the actual number of deaths showed no increase…. Theoretically, and in the view of the authorities, this was a hopeful sign. The fact that the graph after its long rising curve had flattened out seemed to many … reassuring.” p.212

“Meanwhile the authorities had another cause for anxiety in the difficulty of maintaining the food-supply. Profiteers were taking a hand and purveying at enormous prices essential foodstuffs not available in the shops. The result was that poor families were in great straits, while the rich went short of practically nothing. Thus, whereas the plague by in impartial ministrations should have promoted equality among our town folk, it now had the opposite effect and, … exacerbated the sense of injustice rankling in men’s hearts.” pp. 213-214

“As time went on I merely learned that even those who were better than the rest could not keep themselves nowadays from killing or letting others kill, because such is the logic by which they live; and that we can’t stir a finger in this world without the risk of bringing death to somebody. Yes, I’ve been ashamed ever since; I have realized that we all have plague, and I have lost my peace. And today I am still trying to find it; still trying to understand all those others and not trying to be the mortal enemy of anyone.” p.228

“And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in someone’s face and fasten the infection on him. What natural is the microbe. All the rest – health, integrity,purity (if you like) – is a product of the human will, of a vigilance the must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.” p.229

“All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences. That may sound simple to the point of childishness; I can’t judge if it’s simple, but I know it’s true.” p.229

“The authorities had optimistically reckoned on the coming of winter to halt its progress, but it lasted through the first cold spells without the least remission. So the only thing for us to do was to go on waiting, and since after a too long waiting one gives up waiting, the whole town lived as if it had no future.” pp.233-234

“…that a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.” p.237

“They knew that if there is one thing one can alway yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love. But for others who aspired beyond and above the human individual toward something they could not even imagine, there had been no answer. … Rieux was thinking it was only right that those whose desires are limited to man and his humble yet formidable love should enter, if only now and then, into their reward.” p.271

“… and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise. None the less, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.” p.278

“He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years …, and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” p.278

About mielniczuk

Community, systems, design, collaboration, change, evidence, Intelligent Accountability(c)
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