Books, Essays

Camus’ ‘The Plague’ in the age of the Viral Virus


…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.

Albert Camus


A plague before the 24 hour news cycle was a different animal to the uber-virus after it. The uber-virus is viral in ways the plagues were not; and the plagues more mortal and demanding. But there are some similarities too, and some of them quite visceral ones. The suggestion by the American Conservative Blog to read this book is a good one:

https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/reading-camus-the-plague/

Great literature always invites new contexts upon itself, and encloses them in unexpected ways. Just as the politics of Camus’ time collects around the politics of ours in equally unexpected ways … certainly in ways Camus (the artist) would have had trouble comprehending, as opposed to the art he produced.

Yes, Nazism influenced the writing of this story, Camus was living through it and resisting it, in his way; but it is not about it. This novel, published after ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ and written during the sometimes hostile response to the book, begins what became to be known as Camus’ Cycle of Revolt (along with ‘The Rebel’ and the plays ‘L’état de siege’ and ‘Les justes’).  

It is of interest to note that one of the regular complaints regarding ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ by both Camus’ contemporaries and thinkers today is that it is ‘…too abstract’ to be taken as a serious philosophical tract. Putting aside the fact that Camus never referred to it as a book of philosophy, but as a series of essays, the journalist in ‘The Plague’, Rambert, echoes these critics when he says to Rieux: ‘You’re using the language of reason, not of the heart; you live in a world of abstractions. To which Rieux later muses to himself:

Yes, an element of abstraction, of a divorce from reality, entered into such calamities. Still, when abstraction sets to killing you, you’ve got to get busy with it.

Albert Camus

In this story, a city in North Africa, Oran, where Camus had lived for short amounts of time, becomes quarantined due to an outbreak of bubonic and, later, pneumonic, plague. Lots of people are dying and everybody has to deal with it, in their way. We follow the responses most closely of a Doctor (Rieux), a journalist (Rambert), a writer (Grand), an intellectual [for want of a better word] (Tarrou), a priest (Paneloux) and a criminal (Cottard).

Also of note is the asthma patient that Rieux treats at key points in the narrative (in particular, right at the starts of the plague and right at the end. Why? Because his lung condition is mirroring Camus own (tuberculosis) ‘he required frequent treatments from Doctors, like Rieux’ and its important to note that Camus often considered himself on the verge of death due to his condition, mirroring the psychology of those living with the plague: to live with the knowledge of the threat of imminent and unavoidable death.

‘They’re coming out, they’re coming out…’ …the asthma patient says gleefully. And later, at the end, he poses an important rhetorical question that has been foreshadowed throughout the story: ‘But what does that mean, plague? Just life, no more than that.

And Tarrou, much later: ‘I had plague already, long before I came to this town.’

No, not Nazis, but life; but more specifically, life being brought into sharp focus, creating an awareness of it through an understanding that it ends. Being forced into exile by the plague, or not, the absurd conditions of life remain unaltered. It’s the awareness of the conditions that shifts through plague-caused exile: to be separated from the rest of the world, from love, from culture, etc; for it to be a part of your consciousness, and the consciousness of all the exiles around you; this is the plague. What does this do the people? It drives out Hope. It makes them live only in the past (through memories) and the present (through knowledge). The future no longer exists. Your illusions regarding your existence have flown. You have no peace.

This is the Plague; the awareness of the Absurd. And then, the only active option is revolt; even in the face of the unchangeable. And through this it’s possible, maybe not to be a saint, but to be a man.

It was only right that those whose desires are limited to man, and his humble yet formidable love, should enter, if only now and again, into their reward.

Albert Camus

How these characters come to terms with the plague and, thus, the Plague, forms the bulk of the story; and how they all, in different ways, follow Rieux’s lead and accept revolt, forms the work’s chief intellectual interest. Without wanting to give away serious plot points, think about this when one of them contracts both varieties of plague—bubonic and pneumonic—the first person ever to do so.

Don’t get me wrong: this is also an aesthetic achievement of the highest order, even in translation: the scene with the dying boy reaches the aching terrible narrative beauty of one of Camus greatest literary heroes, Dostoevsky.  But, indulge me in discussing some of these characters and how they played out in a kind of general sense, if you will…

Tarrou and Rieux have the most special relationship: the moment of respite they share swimming alone at night in the forbidden sea is memorable to both of them, and to the reader. Just before hand, in conversation with Rieux, Tarrou comes to his main point about his life:

‘It comes to this, Tarrou said almost casually, what interests me is learning how to become a saint.’

‘But you don’t believe in God.’

‘Exactly. Can one be a Saint without God?’

A little later on, Rieux finally responds:

‘But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than the saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man’.

‘Yes, we’re both after the same thing, but I’m less ambitious.’

Seeking sainthood is its own variety of retreat from the plague, not revolt. It’s full acknowledgement that the plague is greater-than. While Tarrou obsesses over existential issues, and broad morality, in his efforts to not transmit the plague to others, he can’t help but do so anyway.

Paneloux (the priest) and Rieux clash on the other side of the plague. When Paneloux is introduced into the story, it is early days in the plague: people are seeking the solace of the Church, and he delivers his First Sermon, which is your typical this is Gods vengeance upon his misbehaving creation kind of fare. Rieux is unimpressed. However, he asks Paneloux to become involved in the Santization Groups  and he accepts, throwing himself into the actions of the revolt against the plague. After the death of the boy scene, there is a shift in his beliefs, and his Second Sermon follows that event. For those who have read The Brothers Karamazov…

(if you have not, what are you doing reading this? Stop it and go out and read this book instead… No, wait, there’s time, as long as you don’t have plague: finish my review first)

…this sermon could be read as how Aloysha should have responded to Ivan Karamazov when the death of innocents was put toward him as a reason to revolt against God (Book V, Ch. IV). Rieux summarises Ivan’s position nicely:And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.Instead of Aloysha’s quiet wishy-washy acceptance (coupled with his refusing to face the outcome of this acceptance)  a little like modern Western Christianity generally, Paneloux responds:Believe everything so as not to be forced to deny everything.They must acquire and practice the greatest of all virtues: that of the All or Nothing.He’s not saying that you’re either for God or against Him, but that you’re either with God or without Him. It’s no good being with Him when without plague, and without when you are. Because then you are without him anyway.

Rambert is the lover who wants to run from the plague. But comes to his own absurd realization; Cottard finds the plague-stricken world better than the normal world; Grand, the writer, revolts with the rest of them, but his life remains disturbingly unaffected. He obsesses over his opening sentence, which hes been working on for years, mirroring Camus obsession with his book, which took him longer to write than any other. When Rieux gets a look at the full manuscript Grand is working on he notices that the bulk of the writing consisted of the same sentence written again and again with small variants.

In the end, even during the victory celebrations, the plagues there, laying dormant, never really gone, waiting, even on the bookshelves Read this book. Get the plague.

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Books

Beauty: A Very Short Introduction

by Roger Scruton

The Necessity of Beauty: a book review


Beauty, I argue, is a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature, and the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the human world.

Roger Scruton

While the book is short, it is quite broad. Scruton has spent much more time on the notion of beauty than any other contemporary philosopher I know of. Beauty is not so admired, at least in the Academy. The study of aesthetics, beauty’s ugly sister, holds a little more attention, but not so much as it relates to beauty … more so as something to negate beauty, and to judge it an unnecessary extravagance of the privileged. And whereas it might be a privilege to be here, the state of being privileged is not a privilege to be anywhere; and part of the atonement probably has something to do with embracing ugliness.

Why is beauty so important to Scruton, in an age of opposition to it?

Partly because of the opposition, of course. But there’s certainly more to it than that. The burden of beauty is something essentially human, so to turn our back on it is to turn our back on humanity, what makes us human; and he doesn’t want this battle to be considered as simply a matter of taste, but he wants to fight this on the field of rational enquiry.

Nevertheless, you want the table, the room or the web-site to look right, and looking right matters in the way that beauty generally matters—not by pleasing the eye only, but by conveying meanings and values which have weight for you and which you are consciously putting on display.

Roger Scruton

Getting something right, making something fit in—the fitting-ness of something—this is a cornerstone of Beauty for Scruton, as he drills down to some kind of objective essence, and also manages to highlight something from everyday lived experience, as opposed to the experience of what we might call High Art, for example.

When you pause to study the perfect form of a wildflower or the blended feathers of a bird, you experience an enhanced sense of belonging. A world that makes room for such things makes room for you.

Roger Scruton

Belonging-ness is a cornerstone of Scrutonian conservatism; wanting to position the things to conserve as the things that conserve us; and what conserves us has much to do with a sense of belonging. When articles of endeavour and observation become noticeable enough for our consideration to hold them up as singular and worthy of being held up, then we have a model for beauty.

…the look of something, when it becomes the object of intrinsic interest, accumulates meaning.

Roger Scruton

Naturally, Scruton’s two key concerns of architecture and music come into play, but he also covers such things as the silent experience of the novel. He moves through some historical models of how beauty has been appreciated, from the Platonic on, and he often returns to Kant’s lesser known works. Through this he contrasts natural beauty with presented beauty. There is beauty that appears to be un-learned, such as admiring a landscape, but this admiration still comes from a conscious human place. Just as there are degrees in beauty, there are degrees in our capacity to appreciate beauty in its varied forms.

Nevertheless, if stories and novels were simply reducible to the information contained in them, it would be inexplicable that we should be constantly returning to the words, reading over favourite passages, allowing the sentences to percolate through our thoughts, long after we have assimilated the plot.

Roger Scruton

Beauty, when we encounter it, draws upon connections within us, and without us, with the others around us. That’s not to mean that everyone has the same taste, or that everyone maybe is capable of experiencing a particular article of beauty. Scruton uses the example of classical music and talks about the importance of aesthetic education in order to develop our senses in order to progress from the fitting-ness of a well-laid table setting to, maybe … eventually, someone like Bach. To be human is to be social, but, likewise, part of our becoming human is a socialisation process, a learning to be social, from birth.

But dissonance and conflict may also be fitting

Roger Scruton

Scruton wants to develop a fundamental difference between ugliness and beauty in terms of how beauty might be championed. As he points out, ugly is the new ‘beauty’—particularly in art, post-Duchamp. The problem for a Bohemian conservative, the tension, is that we want open expression and a lively avant-garde in the arts to live alongside the importance of examining and creatively preserving the canon of beauty in the field that has gone before: the après-garde.

Rules and precepts are there to be transcended, and because originality and the challenging of orthodoxies are fundamental to the aesthetic enterprise, an element of freedom is built into the pursuit of beauty, whether the minimal beauty of everyday arrangements, or the higher beauties of art.

Roger Scruton

So a place must be made for challenging without repudiating. Dissonance and conflict can drive beauty, but it cannot overcome it. To overcome it is to become ugly; to under-come it is to fall into kitsch. And while 98% of the avant-garde might fall into these categories, we need it to happen so that the 2% that doesn’t can happen, which maybe wouldn’t otherwise. That is not to say that the 98% should be lauded … as they currently generally are.

Beauty reaches to the underlying truth of a human experience, by showing it under the aspect of necessity.

Roger Scruton

Our need for beauty is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people.

Roger Scruton

Finally, beauty is not just an add-on for Scruton, something for rich educated people to understand and experience. It’s communal. Which is part of the reason Scruton was so concerned with architecture, I imagine. I mean, I can avoid seeing the 98% by not going to modern art galleries, but I can’t avoid seeing the concrete and faded-green office block (and I mean ‘block’) on Komödienstraße after walking out mesmerised by the cathedral in Cologne.

Beauty gives us something to cling to among the general entropy of living. It does not have to be of the transcendental kind, but can equally be of the incidental kind. This is a rational and practical means by which to drive being inclusive (and actually using the word as a means of inclusion, as opposed to its more common antithetical meaning discursively). There is common ground in the truly beautiful. There is a ‘we’ in aesthetic delight.

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