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Year of the Plague – 3 – Reflections on Albert Camus’ “The Plague” and “the New Normal”.

March 19, 2020

Summer, 1973 (I think). David Fey constructing a chicken coop on Stucker Mesa in Paonia Colorado. I’m there, appearing to be help, but mostly amazed with the proficiency with which David, then all of twelve year’s age, could build such a solid, well constructed structure.

Again, what follows are simply musings., food for thought.

The story of The Plague is simple enough – a plague, seemingly bubonic plague breaks out in a non-descript seemingly North African City. No one knows 1. from whence it developed 2. how to fight it although without understanding it, the medical community tries to anyway 3. why it finally disappeared and what it is that humanity did or didn’t do to neutralize it. How to survive emotionally – to say nothing of physically in such an environment.

Yesterday it was warm and balmy, nearly 70 if I recall correctly here on the Front Range of the Rockies Today the snow is falling in Denver, lightly, but without stop for several hours now, big wet snowflakes for the moment mixed with rain. The forecast is for it to continue for through sometime tomorrow (Friday, March 20). One has to adjust to these extreme changes in temperature, rather common place here in Colorado and to Nature itself. So no walks in the neighborhood today. Besides, I chain-sawed too much wood yesterday morning in the back yard and woke up with my lower back “reminding me” once again that I am not 45 anymore but 75… Oh well. Outside – the pandemic grows everywhere and with it anxiety and fear, uncertainty of what might happen has become pervasive among the folks with whom we are acquainted.

And we’re only four, five days into this mess. but already it seems that each day there is yet another shift in what my recently deceased friend, Joe Grindon, keep referring to as “the new normal.” Joe was brought down by emphysema, the last two years of which were not pretty to watch. He reached a point where he couldn’t drive, then he couldn’t walk around the block, shortly after it took all of his effort to get out in front of his house and in the last month could only with the greatest of efforts make it from the couch to the bathroom. The “new normal” keep shifting, his world shrinking but he tried to adjust and pretty well did, till the end.

Yesterday, visiting Nancy’s brother, David Fey, at his home – maintaining the recommended six foot separation – our discussions vacillated far and wide – personal concerns, the state of the Trump Administration’s delayed response, future dangers (food supply chains, possible break down of the country’s social fabric – the same things being discussed – minus those idiots sunbathing on the Florida beaches with their governor’s approval – the world over).

Mostly the three of us were trying to figure out how to deal with “the new normal” that the Coronavirus demands seemingly each day. It will take some technical – ie, medical skills, but also emotional and although I rarely use the words – spiritual – skills as well. Some of us have more of one kind than the other – so we all have to chip in, in a collective effort, and offer our particular strength to “the common good.”

At one point – out of somewhere deep in my fading memory bank – I remembered Albert Camus’ novel, “The Plague” which had deeply impressed me as a young depressed existentialist having read too much Camus and Sartre. If I am not mistaken, I first read “The Plague” as a part of a St. Lawrence University freshman English class taught by one of the heroes of my youth – Mr. Hashem,(1) who flunked me in that subject for having written his required 1000 word – once a week essays. He responded more than once with a long commentary – how interesting my essay! – with an “F” grade. Why the “F”? Simple – three misspelled words (once I spelled only one word wrong three times but he showed no mercy) and/or a sentence fragment.

This is the Modern Library edition that I read and kept for years…before selling it on Amazon for $2.50, which of course today I regret.

Camus’s The Plague

Over the decades there have been a number of writers who have “struck home” with me. I’ll name but a few: Karl Marx, Primo Levi, Henning Mankell, Immanuel Wallerstein, Robert Merle, Victor Hugo, Anatoli Rybakov, Fernand Braudel, among American novelists Philip Roth (especially an early work “Letting Go”), modern historian Gabriel Kolko, Edwardo Galeano and most recently Vasily Grossman, the Soviet Jewish writer – half celebrator of Soviet Communism (Stalingrad), half dissident (Life and Fate). Their writings have endured for me, I keep coming back to them and their works which continue to give me both food for thought and great pleasure.

There are others worth mentioning. I put these particular names out in hopes that blog readers, in this age of fewer folk actually reading books, consider their works, who are precious to me and whose stories, lives and values mingle with my own, non of them “worshiped” – all of them deeply respected if not loved, all of whom in one way or another were present in my half century of teaching and in my political work in no particular order or sense of relative importance.

But in my teens and twenties, frankly there were only two writers who could penetrate my troubled spirit, who seemed to reflect something of what I gleaned was going on in the world. Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. And over the years I have debated with myself – with no answer to the question – which one I preferred – the far more humanistic Camus, but the much more politically astute (and anti-colonial -with the usual exception of his Zionism) Sartre. These days – minus his Zionism – I am more Sartre than Camus, not that it matters.

But always, always – regardless of where Camus and Sartre were located on my personal irrelevant scoreboard – there was the one work by Camus, “The Plague” – which stood out, which was a cut above the rest and that reflected my own confusion and sense about the broader picture of what was transpiring in the world. Keep in mind that I was reading these two in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s – a turbulent but still hopeful period of world history.

The story of The Plague is simple enough – a plague, seemingly bubonic plague breaks out in a non-descript seemingly North African City. No one knows 1. from whence it developed 2. how to fight it although without understanding it, the medical community tries to anyway 3. why it finally disappeared and what it is that humanity did or didn’t do to neutralize it. How to survive emotionally – to say nothing of physically in such an environment.

The ultimate question, I suspect, is, in the midst of a pandemic or like global crisis how does one maintain hope for the future? How was it done in places like Sand Creek? Auschwitz? My Lai (and the hundreds of other My Lais?), Leningrad during the blockade, on the slave ships bringing millions in chains to the American shores? And how do we do that today in the face of climate change and now the Coronavirus pandemic? How do we maintain hope and get used to the fact that like Joe Grindon, each day we’re faced with “a new normal” even before we got used to the old one.

Difficult to do, but the situation demands it, no?

The story still fascinates me in the sense that in case of most of the world’s recent political and/or natural storms, that humanity for the most part, doesn’t have a clue from whence it came (and doesn’t want to find out), doesn’t have a plan for fighting what it doesn’t understand, and if in fact it overcomes the troubles, really doesn’t know way it happened either. (thus “God’s will”? or such other downright nonsense).

In a fine editorial commentary today, George F. Will – whom under most circumstances I find so distasteful (and reactionary at heart – except when he’s writing about baseball) that I don’t bother reading, posted an op ed piece in yesterday’s Washington Post, “An enlightening lesson from nature” in which he refers to The Plague and uses it as a spring board for his defense of modern medical technology and vaccination programs in particular. Will notes, as others have before him, that the plague was an allegory on World War II, on the rise and fall of Nazism written only two years after the Soviet military stormed Berlin in late April, 1945, bringing the Hitlerian social pandemic to an abrupt end.

Having mentioned “The Plague” and Camus yesterday in discussions with Nancy and David, I was genuinely pleased to see mention of appearing in the national press today. Will goes off in another direction than I do – although let me say – to those friends who have become so suspicious of mandatory vaccinations that they seem to oppose them in all circumstances – that on this point, I’m with George Will.

That said, needless to say The Plague obviously, strikes a certain chord concerning the current Coronavirus pandemic. Still, I have some fundamental differences with Camus on how he portrays pandemics. For starters, it is patently false that German fascism, on which Camus’ allegory is based, “came out of nowhere. We knew from whence it sprang – from the crisis of early 20th century global capitalism for hegemony in the world system. Braudel and Wallerstein (and many others) make that clear. By obscuring the actual causes of World War II, Camus let’s the system, the capitalist system in crisis off the hook. No mystery there.

On this point, time will tell from whence came the Coronavirus, but let me clarify one point: the mainstream narrative, that the Coronavirus emerged from a Chinese market in Wuhan that was selling the internal organs of bats., is  to my mind completely unsatisfactory and is, in fact nothing more than”batshit.”

On this point, time will tell from whence came the Coronavirus, but let me clarify one point: the mainstream narrative, that the Coronavirus emerged from a Chinese market in Wuhan that was selling the internal organs of bats., is  to my mind completely unsatisfactory and is, in fact nothing more than”batshit.”

It is too early to tell whether it emerged from a Chinese biological and chemical weapons laboratory in Wuhan, or as I suspect, perhaps, from Fort Detrick, until recently the U.S. center for biological and chemical warfare in Maryland, or from the French, Japanese, or Israeli versions of the same.

As with the nuclear arms race – that has produced not just Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima and here in Colorado we should add Rocky Flats, as night follows day it was almost inevitable that either chemical or biological weapons would be used on purpose or by accident. Where it concerns the causes of the pandemic, we (we = the world) will get to the bottom of it and I am confident soon enough; for the moment, let’s simply say that the mainstream narrative of the causes of this virus are so shabby as not to be credible.

It is in the fight against the virus that Camus “The Plague” most resembles the fight against the Coronavirus. While Camus’ protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux, marshaled his energies and medical resources to fight the pandemic, he admits all along that the medical profession didn’t have clue as to how to fight it effectively because they didn’t know its causes. Again, the experience of WW2 made it eminently clear that the only way to defeat Nazism was by the sword, to unconditionally defeat it militarily, utterly and completely end it. And this was done, and as I have written elsewhere recently, far more by the Soviets who bore the brunt of the fighting and the casualties than by the Allies, the U.S. and U.K. (On this score you could do worse than reading Grossman, despite the mammoth size of his two great works, Stalingrad and Life and Fate).

When it comes to fighting the Coronavirus, we are not at a complete loss, not quite in Dr. Rieux’s fog, but with a long way to go. What do we have going for us?

  • The commitment, promise that sometime along the way there might be a vaccine – rumors that the Germans and the Israelis are working on one and that those pesky Cubans, in spite 70 years of U.S. blockade actually have a vaccine which the Chinese have deemed effective. 
  • That national political leadership based on science rather than responding to the Stock Market, is key to fighting the virus – it takes a herculean effort with all the power of the state, combined with civic initiative to bring down the infection and death rate for this one.
  • The examples of how China, Singapore, South Korea (note – all East Asian countries) have (seemingly) effectively began to counter the spread of the epidemic
  • That hard as it is for most Americans get over the “individuality” bullshit we’ve been fed all of our lives – an excuse for just selfishness, that more and more of us are looking for cooperative ways to get through this pandemic, and that a growing number of us are not so dumb and blind as the thousands that remain on the beaches of Florida, that the Governor of Colorado has actually risen to the occasion and shown surprising signs of genuine leadership, while the Governor of Florida, Rick DeSantis, refused to ban attendance on the state’s public beaches until public pressure finally forced him to.

Am thinking of the other piece by Camus that has endured, well, endured in my mind anyway, the essay The Myth of Sisyphus,. It sums up life for many people. The myth for those unfamiliar with it: Sisyphus is condemned by the gods (Greek gods) to roll a boulder up a mountain. It is big and heavy and difficult to role uphill, but Sisyphus, still manages. He can only get so far though. Just before reaching the top, he slips, loses his footing and control of the boulder, which comes crashing down – first on him and then all the way down the mountain, where Sisyphus, broken bones and all, must trudge back down to the bottom to start the process all over again.

Poor Sisyphus will never make it to the top and always lose control of the boulder regardless of how hard he tries. Camus’ lesson: That’s life folks!

Rob Prince’s response: But is it? 

 

__________________________

  1. As I recall – it is now 55 years since – Mr. Hashem did not return to teaching my sophomore year (1963-4) as he was fired. He had written a little essay – a kind of fairy tale that appeared in a college publication. It was the story about a mouse guarding a cesspool. As the stench in the cesspool got worse, the mouse, for lack of a plan to address the problem, responded to the crisis by running round and round the cesspool in circles and in the end doing nothing. The mouse neither knew the cause of the stinking odor nor what to do about it. It turned out that the president of the college at that time – I forget his name – had a long thin “mouse-like” nose. He took Hashem’s piece as a metaphor for what was happening at the college and as personal insult – and fired him. I always wondered what the cess pool was about.

 

10 Comments leave one →
  1. William Conklin permalink
    March 19, 2020 3:00 pm

    Well the good news is Rob that the snowy day gave you the opportunity to write this excellent piece. It reminded me of my childhood. My father collected books but never had time to read them. I discovered his collection about the ninth grade and started reading. I read “the plague” by Camus in high school and I was forever impressed with it. Regarding college, I got so sick of the bullshit grading system, I almost dropped out, but the Vietnam war kept me in. I remember getting fed up with English Composition because of the same issues you raised. This plague is fishy. It doesn’t seem to be reasonable to be so scared of it, like a lion running off a cliff because a Wildebeest said “Boo”. Maybe the Donald will come up with a miraculous cure and get a new term and make 500 billion. Or maybe he will have to crawl down to Cuba and beg them to forgive us for the 600 attempts on Fidel’s life and give us the cure. Or maybe the whole thing will just go away. However the terror of the Bat Virus is likely to be with us a long time. How will late stage Capitalism survive a shut-down of the eighteen months it takes to make an inoculation, which won’t work in a percentage of the cases anyway.

    • March 19, 2020 3:06 pm

      Yes it is fishy… and despite the fact so many of us are worried-to-scared-shitless about about, we know little about it in actual fact (which is why – the article you just sent me me “A fasco in the making? As the coronvirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data” by John P.A. Ioannidis is so timely.. So let’s “unfish” it over the next few days together. What’s going on?

      Why does some jackass Southern Senator from Texas, John Cornyn, get off saying “China was “to blame” for the spread of the coronavirus because of a “culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.” Racist shithead.

  2. William Conklin permalink
    March 19, 2020 3:34 pm

    Totally agree!

  3. Not for publication permalink
    March 19, 2020 3:47 pm

    Camus wrote that Sisyphus was happy. Because he had acted, decided, chose, defied. As opposed to so many who consent, who follow, who don’t think (as Hannah Arendt would say). Sisyphus was happy because, even knowing the consequences he chose to act otherwise, he defied authority. (His wife had died, he asked permission to go see her in the underworld and the gods said yes but he must come back after a certain time. He loved his wife and chose to stay longer, he defied the gods.) His punishment was eternally and forever pushing the boulder and watching it fall down. But we must imagine that he was happy.

    • March 19, 2020 3:48 pm

      can I publish anonymously? Great insight…

    • William Conklin permalink
      March 19, 2020 4:02 pm

      Well, fortunately the gods are a myth, but Sisyphus, who may have been a myth to start, is woven into the consciousness of Mankind forevermore.

  4. Sarge Cheever permalink
    March 19, 2020 5:12 pm

    Don’t forget to read Grossman’s ‘Everything Flows.’   Sarge

    • March 19, 2020 5:15 pm

      The most moving of all to my mind, from an ethical viewpoint perhaps, his best. Sections on Ukraine famine and Treblinka death camp seared into my mind…

  5. March 20, 2020 9:10 am

    An anonymous friend posts the following – to which I’ll respond – as I think it both accurate and thought provoking – Thanks friend!

    Camus wrote that Sisyphus was happy. Because he had acted, decided, chose, defied. As opposed to so many who consent, who follow, who don’t think (as Hannah Arendt would say). Sisyphus was happy because, even knowing the consequences he chose to act otherwise, he defied authority. (His wife had died, he asked permission to go see her in the underworld and the gods said yes but he must come back after a certain time. He loved his wife and chose to stay longer, he defied the gods.) His punishment was eternally and forever pushing the boulder and watching it fall down. But we must imagine that he was happy.

    • March 20, 2020 9:35 am

      I had a kind of flash after reading this – of course – that’s Camus!

      We should all be `happy’ in the situation in which we find ourselves, even though we’ll never be able to roll the boulder to the top of the mountain. It is Camus’ conservatism par excellence. “Getting to the top of the mountain” is his metaphor for Revolution, which despite his humanitarian politics – it is genuine – he deeply distrusts as do many good people I know. It is a fear of the unknown mixed with the worst case scenarios of the Soviet experience. Look – they made a revolution and it turned sour (well actually that is quite simplistic – while true, it is far more nuanced and there is the whole Soviet defeat of Nazism that needs to be understood and explained)… So THIS IS IT; Like Margaret Thatcher said – there is no alternative, or as Voltaire put it (Candide)…this is the best of all possible worlds – so be happy unsuccessfully rolling your boulder uphill because 1. you’ll never get to the top …and 2. you wouldn’t want to anyway.

      Well – what is missing here? a number of things – fear of change, the fact that as Mao (who I really never have had either much use or respect for) put it – “revolution is not a dinner party” which it is not. The real ones are driven by deep anger – don’t give me this “love” bullshit. Of course it is controlled and targeted rage, rage with both tactical and strategic goals, that is important. What drove the Russian revolution was a deep anger at injustice. What drove the Vietnamese who lost 3-4 million people be sacrificed to defeat the U.S. in a long war was rage at injustice – at napalm and phosphorus bombings – tiger cages, etc. Same for the Algerians goes for the Algerians seeking justice from French colonialism. The examples go on and on. It is the anger of the public – “the masses” – which triggers fear in the ruling class and forces positive change – be it reform or revolution.

      There is also the fact that revolutions are processes in which often there is very little roadmap – only a few overarching programs, ideas – it is a leap into the unknown and that scares a lot of people and one that will require – and here there is NO WAY to get around it – great, almost intolerable sacrifice. And so it is a gamble, and one that Camus was not willing to take. I would argue neither was Sartre for all is more genuine radicalism.

      My sense is that Camus never resolved the tension between his fear of revolution with his understanding that society needed it. In his case the burning issue – he was after all a French-Algerian pied noire – caught between the horror of French repressive colonial methods and racism on the one hand the fury of the Algerian masses on the other. He wanted reform in Algeria, not revolution – ie, he was “a French colonial moderate” at a time when the political center on this issue had collapsed. And so he drove himself in his sports car into a tree in S. France at 80 miles an hour and so resolved the tension.

      This time, the boulder had fallen back on him and killed him…

      Cheers.

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