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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories discusses...

Albert Camus and The Plague

by Don Webb

Thank you, Nick, for your personal and informative review of Albert Camus’ The Plague. The novel has become popular again especially in France and Italy in the early months of 2020.

The bibliographical insert in your review cites the original French edition on account of its date: 1947. Choices of edition are plentiful. In an English-language version, Stuart Gilbert does a solid, workmanlike job of translation.

Parenthetically, a sad note: the same cannot be said of Gilbert’s translation of Camus’ best-known work, L’Étranger (The Stranger, more accurately: “The Foreigner”); he simply did not understand what Camus was doing. I advise readers to seek out any other translation, if they can find one.

Some things elude translation. For example, the name “Rieux” is a derivative of rire, ‘to laugh’. And the name “Paneloux” is faintly ridiculous. It recalls Voltaire’s Candide, where the comical character Pangloss continually chirps his slogan that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. In effect, Pangloss and Paneloux say the same thing in opposite terms. Camus, then, finds himself in the position of Candide: if this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like?

The Plague shows what other worlds are like. In an article in the Resistance newspaper Combat (1948), Camus notes that the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries brought great progress in mathematics, science and biology. And then the door slams shut: “Our 20th century is the century of fear.”

He had good reason to say that. In his time, France was surrounded by Franco’s Spain, Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. And farther afield lay the empires of Stalin and Japan. When Roland Barthes said, in 1955, that it would be a mistake to read The Plague in the context of WW2, Camus published a stern rebuke: the novel is obviously about European resistance to Nazism. Proof: a long excerpt was published in Combat under the Occupation, and it hardly needed to name names. But, Camus added, La Peste is not only that; there is more to it.

Paneloux — like Pangloss and any authoritarian mind — issues false papers of citizenship for a world in which human beings are actually étrangers, foreigners. But in what sense? The material world of nature is our home, but it is foreign to us because it functions independently as a mechanism that cares not whether we live or die.

The same can be said for any authoritarian repression, be it random brutality or tribal warfare or concentration camps; it’s as natural as a plague. Therefore, when Paneloux says that infirmity and death are divine punishments, he is preaching pure paganism and a doctrine for which Camus had no patience.

Camus’ literary work, taken altogether, does honor to the Nobel Prize for Literature that he was awarded in 1957. But it is rather uneven. Personally, I think his relatively little-known lyrical essays in Noces (Nuptials), bring a clarity of thought and emotion that illuminates the rest of his writing.

Was Camus an existentialist? An existential philosopher, assuredly, but he and Jean-Paul Sartre once agreed semi-humorously that they might take out a joint newspaper advert disclaiming responsibility for each other’s debts. If, as Sartre wrote, existentialism is a humanism, then humanism is the ground on which he and Camus met.

Camus’ worldview is very easy to understand. The “absurd” is the feeling of being visitors in our own home; we are here for a while but know not the why and wherefore. It’s as old as human self-awareness. And — he might find this ironic — it echoes the Judeo-Christian origin myth: morality comes at the price of mortality. If we know good and evil, we know life is good and death is bad. And we know death is inevitable. The moral conclusion: resist the plague, do not embrace it and thereby become it.

Copyright © June 1, 2020 by Don Webb

Responses welcome!

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