11. On how Albert Camus’ ecological imagination structures The Plague
The natural comedy, romance, and tragedy of the novel
When, on November 11, 1942, Albert Camus became exiled in France, he wrote in his notebooks a long passage that began ‘Caught like rats!’, and ended with a reference to his tuberculosis, which had exiled him there: ‘Keep quiet, lung!’ These two references were embedded in one of Camus’ frequent descriptions of the natural landscape, this one about the landscape within which he was then currently situated – in Le Panelier – and against which he attempted to put into perspective the historical events swirling around him, the war and his own tuberculosis. ‘It is a very ancient landscape returning to us in a single morning through millennia,’ he wrote; then: ‘Nothing less than all nature and this white peace that winter brings to overheated hearts – to calm this heart consumed by a bitter love. I watch as this swelling of light spreads across the sky negating the omens of death.’
He then went back to work on his novel, concerning bodies in a township which had otherwise turned its back on the landscape, and a natural force that then comes to the town, which, for some, reminded them of this neglect, and of their own human limitations.
In drafting The Plague, Camus drew upon his 1939 essay on Oran, “The Minotaur, or Stopping in Oran”, in which his judgement of the township was based on how it related to its natural setting:
The people of Oran, it would seem, are like that friend of Flaubert’s who, from his deathbed, cast a last look on this irreplaceable earth and cried out: “Close the window, it’s too beautiful.” They have closed the window, they have walled themselves in, they have exorcised the landscape.
In this essay, Camus describes the lengths the township was going to in order to complete this exorcism of the landscape. ‘They are the public works at present covering the coast for some ten kilometres,’ he writes. ‘Apparently it is a matter of transforming the most luminous of bays into a gigantic harbor.’ He describes how humans have turned the coast into a ‘vast construction field’, in order to make ‘a frontal attack on stone’, adding: ‘Of course, destroying stone is not possible. It is merely moved from one place to another.’ He then pits the human scale against the geological, in order to show the absurdity of their actions. ‘In a hundred years — tomorrow, in other words — they will have to begin again.’
He described Oran as being like a labyrinth, with the reward for escaping its puzzled streets being to achieve access to the natural world. ‘At the very gates of Oran, nature speaks more insistently.’ In doing so, this essay set the tone for the descriptions of this Algerian town in The Plague, which, in the opening pages of the novel, is described as being ‘without trees’ and cut off from nature:
It’s only fair to add that the city is grafted onto an exceptional landscape, in the middle of a naked plateau, surrounded by luminous hills, on a perfectly drawn harbor. It’s just regrettable that the city was built with its back turned to this bay, and as a result, it is impossible to glimpse the sea, and you always have to go looking for it.
It is against this point that later in the novel a counterpoint is presented: a moment of sensual pleasure when Tarrou and Rieux – following Ariadne’s thread out of the labyrinth of Oran – are afforded a brief respite: they go swimming in the ocean. The origin of this scene can be found in Camus’ notebooks: ‘Sea bathing is forbidden. That is an indication. It is forbidden to delight one’s body; to return to the truth of things. But the plague ends and there will be a truth of things.’ Or, as Tarrou says to Rieux in this scene: “In the end, it’s stupid to live under the plague alone. Of course, a man must fight for the victims. But if he stops loving anything else, then what use is his fight?” In another notebook entry, Camus plays with an earlier variation of this scene, which has Tarrou take a respite from the daily struggle by visiting Spanish dancers. ‘Plague: Tarrou makes regular visits to the Spanish dancers. Passion is his only love. Naturally a man should fight. “But if he loves only that, what’s the use of fighting.”’
This point and counterpoint are embedded within The Plague in a narrative structured almost entirely by the concerns of Camus’ ecological imagination. There are several ways this is enacted in the novel. Let’s consider here only a few of the main ones.
Due to the aspect of Oran, its elevation, and its walls which cut it off from the landscape and the bay, the dominant indicator of the natural world comes from the sky, experienced in terms of the weather. The progress of the plague is often marked by changes in the weather. In part one, for example, following the first plague death:
But while people talked, the weather deteriorated. The day after the concierge’s death, large clouds filled the sky. Brief deluges of rain battered the city; a stormy heat followed these brusque showers.
Soon after, in a conversation between Rieux and the commissioner:
He asked the doctor if this thing was serious, and Rieux replied that he had no idea.
“It’s the weather, that’s all,” the commissioner concluded.
It was the weather, no doubt about it.
Out of these descriptions of concrete, natural reality, metaphors and symbols emerge, consistent with that underlying reality, which are then threaded through the narrative. For example:
Rieux’s elderly patient, who overcame his asthma to revel in the weather.
“It’s heating up,” he said. “Good for the lungs.”
Something was, in fact, heating up: a fever, to be precise. The entire city had a fever.
In many respects, this is an inversion of John Ruskin’s criticism, first leveled against the Romantic poets in the 19th century, of individual feelings and inner states being projected metaphorically onto the natural world. Camus subverts this pathetic fallacy - with nature metaphorically imposing itself more upon the human world - and as the plague progresses such feelings and inner states are brought into greater alignment with the movements of the natural world, with each individual being taken out of themselves and placed more into a collective fate.
Once more, this is depicted in the novel in accordance with the weather:
And so each person had to agree to live day by day, facing the sky alone. This general abandon that over time would soak into personalities, began by making them futile. Some of our fellow citizens, for example, were subjected to another servitude that left them at the mercy of the rain and the sun. It seemed, from looking at them, that for the first time they were directly receiving an impression of what the weather was doing. Their faces rejoiced at the sight of a simple golden ray, while the days of rain would put a thick veil over their faces and their thoughts.
Again, following Father Paneloux’s first sermon, the narrator wonders if the change in mood that overtook the town thereafter derives from the human intervention of the sermon, or if it is because of a change in the weather, the people responding more to one than the other:
First of all, whether or not it was the result of a coincidence, that Sunday marked the beginning of a type of fear in our city that was widespread and deep enough that we suspected our fellow citizens were beginning to truly understand their situation. From this point of view, the atmosphere of our city was somewhat altered. But in truth, was it a change in the weather or in people’s hearts? That was the real question.
In the remainder of the novel, it is indicated that the more difficult answer to this question is that it is both.
Throughout the narrative, the plague itself is described in its concrete monotony as being nothing more than a force of nature that humans are invariably subject to. In the novel it is associated with the very air itself. ‘Outside, Rieux thought the night was full of groans. Somewhere in the black sky, above the streetlamps, a dull whistling reminded him of the invisible scourge that tirelessly stirred the hot air.’ Again: ‘It was hard to tell if the air was heavy with dangers or with dust and burning heat. You had to observe and reflect to find the plague. For it only betrayed its presence through signs of absence.’ And so on.
Likewise the movement of the plague is associated with the wind. ‘The inhabitants blamed the wind for carrying the infectious germs. “It stirs things up,” said the manager of the hotel.’ And again: ‘It was very difficult to fight these episodes whose frequency put whole neighborhoods in danger because of the violent wind.’ This association became further associated with plague deaths when the wind would carry the ashes from the crematorium over the town.
Finally, these literal descriptions are then used metaphorically throughout the novel in order to depict the effects of the plague upon the populace. Early on, for example, are the references to ‘furious winds of pestilence’, and later, when young Jacques Othon is dying, his convulsions are described as being caused by ‘the furious winds of the plague’.
Associated with the changes in the weather in the novel, and the movement of the wind, an arguably more dominant structuring device used in the narrative is the cycle of the seasons. In his notebooks, Camus outlined how the plague was to be depicted as something concrete and natural, as part of the seasons. ‘The plague follows the course of a year,’ he writes. ‘It has its springtime when it germinates and flowers, its summer and its autumn, etc...’ This structure is prefigured in the opening pages of the novel, which introduces Oran in terms of the seasons, but linked, as always, to the sky and the weather:
The changing seasons are only visible in the sky. Spring announces itself by the quality of the air or by the baskets of flowers the peddlers bring from the surrounding areas; this spring is hawked at market. In summer, the sun scorches the too-dry houses and covers the walls with gray ash; then you can only survive in the shade of closed shutters. In fall, it’s the opposite, a deluge of mud. The fine days come only in winter.
This structure is only fulfilled, however, in the remainder of the narrative, through marking the progress of the plague. At the same time, this structure draws upon and references that mythic structure that underpins literature, and marks the movement of the imagination as it emerges from, and reflects upon, the underlying natural world and its limits upon the human world. Traditionally – as Northrop Frye has shown – the literary conventions of comedy, romance, tragedy, and satire, are associated with the seasons: with spring, summer, autumn, and winter, respectively. Each of these, in turn, favouring particular types of story and plot conventions, which find their direct correspondence in the overall structure and movement of The Plague.
Spring is associated with comedy, the main structure of which is a movement from one order of society to another order of society, usually after some conflict between a protagonist and some representative of authority that otherwise blocks the necessary discovery or recognition that brings about this new order of society. This movement being from innocence to experience. Likewise, The Plague opens in the spring, with this discovery being that the town is caught in a growing epidemic. The conflict with authority being enacted by Rieux’s interactions with the town administration over accepting the reality of plague and the necessary reordering of the town that this discovery, at an administrative level, necessitates. An additional moment of recognition, at the level of the social world, occurs in the scene in the theatre, during a performance of Orfeo ed Euridice. That is when the town’s innocence ends.
Another variation of the conventional comic plot is that of a protagonist escaping from the confines of one social order and moving to another, rather than staying and effecting a change in the initial society. This is reflected in the figure of Rambert, and his attempts in the spring to flee from Oran and make his way back to Paris.
Summer is associated with romance, which is conventionally expressed in terms of a quest or adventure, with a conflict or struggle against some mythic foe, leading to another level of discovery or recognition. This mythic foe – traditionally some creature – is often metaphorically associated with nature itself, or some part of nature. Dragons are the sky, for example; Leviathan is the sea. The Minotaur is associated with the earth, which is an image that in 1939 Camus explicitly used ironically in his essay on Oran to denote the boredom that comes from turning one’s back upon the landscape. However, through reading Melville’s Moby Dick in 1941, and considering the symbolic possibilities of that novel – the white whale as Leviathan, for example – Camus reconfigured the Minotaur into something more retaliative, becoming plague itself.
It is no coincidence then that it is in the summer of the novel that the quest or adventure aspect of the narrative is first enacted, through Tarrou establishing the public health squads, which eventually even Rambert will join – indicating the progress from comedy to romance, a closer alignment between the human and the natural, and the height of the struggle with plague. This is also the time of Father Paneloux’s second sermon, and his change in tone – from ‘you’ to ‘we’ – and his soon after joining the sanitation squads.
Autumn is associated with tragedy, in which the indifference of nature toward humanity comes into the foreground: the hybris of the human world, its fatal flaw being exposed by its breaching the limits of the natural world, and the nemesis of nature restoring that balance. In tragedy, the transition from innocence to experience is not so much achieved through maintaining continuity, or through a positive moment of discovery, as in comedy, but rather through the very death of innocence itself – usually in the form of a child – and the weight of that experience falling upon those who bear witness. In The Plague this moment comes with the death M. Othon’s child, Jacques. Off-stage, the news is received that Rieux’s tubercular wife has also died; and with the severing of that union, the impossibility also of ever rearing a child of their own. Soon after, Father Paneloux also dies, although the cause is unknown.
As if to reinforce this progress from comedy and romance into tragedy, and the associated cycles of the seasons, from spring, summer, and autumn, the full itinerary of The Plague is repeated in précis in a series of scenes, within this final phase of the epidemic, relating to the figure of Tarrou. There are another two conventions associated with romance plots that come into play at this juncture. One is when a member of the social group – usually a wise man – will detach themselves from the group in order to tell a story; a moment of contemplation following the struggle that reflects back upon and unifies the struggle, with what came before it, and what will come after. This detachment and achievement of unity is often associated with a place of some height, with the figure situated in a location of physical elevation, such as a mountain or a tower, looking down over and surveying the world below. The second convention is that in romance there is a greater alignment between the human world and the natural, even if momentarily, in some form of union.
The first convention appears when Tarrou and Riuex ascend to the terraces above the city, where the whole of the town and its surrounds can be surveyed, even beyond the walls of the town.
They found the terrace empty, except for three chairs. On one side, as far as the eye could see, terraces stretched out, eventually abutting a dark, rocky mass where they could make out the first hill. On the other side, above a few streets and the invisible port, the eye plunged into a horizon where sea and sky mixed in a hazy fluttering. On top of what they knew must be the cliffs, a shine appeared regularly whose source they couldn’t see: since the spring, the lighthouse at the head of the channel had kept turning for ships that went away toward other ports. In the sky, swept and polished by the wind, pure stars shone and the faraway beam of the lighthouse from time to time added its transitory spark. The breeze brought scents of spices and stone. The silence was total.
From this vantage point, Tarrou – the would-be saint – tells the story of his life, chronologically referring back to a previous period – associated with a period of comedy – and the transition from the innocence of childhood to the experience of adulthood. ‘Tarrou got up to perch on the wall of the terrace, facing Rieux, who was still huddled in the crevice of his chair. All you could see of Tarrou was a massive form cut out of the sky.’ The initial moment of conflict in the opening parts of The Plague, between Rieux and the administration, is repeated here in the story Tarrou tells regarding his own conflict with an authority figure – his father, who is also a prosecuting attorney, and so a representative of the law, of social order itself – regarding the death penalty (a story we have already discussed here). And just as this initial conflict (literal, in the context of the novel) between Rieux and the administration leads to the discovery that the town has actual plague, the story of this conflict between Tarrou and his father leads Tarrou to recognise that he, too, has plague (metaphorically, in the context of the novel).
This is then followed in the novel by Tarrou and Riuex swimming together in the bay – the autumn waters still warm from the stored heat of summer – a moment of union between the men and the natural world, from the heights of the terraces above the city, to beneath the surface of the waters that carve out part of the landscape within which the township itself has been erected.
After a few strokes, he knew that the sea was lukewarm that evening, the lukewarm water of autumn seas that took from the earth the heat it had stored for long months. He swam steadily. The kicking of his feet left a swath of bubbling spray behind him, the water fleeing along his arms to tangle in his legs. A heavy splash told him that Tarrou had dived. Rieux lay on his back and kept still, facing the overturned sky, full of the moon and stars. He breathed deeply. Then he heard, more and more clearly, the sound of water being smacked, strangely clear in the silence and solitude of the night. Tarrou approached, and soon he could hear him breathing. Rieux turned over, came alongside his friend, and swam in the same rhythm. Tarrou swam more powerfully than he did, and he had to pick up his pace. For several minutes they moved forward with the same cadence and the same force, solitary, far from the world, freed at last from the city and the plague. Rieux stopped first and they came back slowly, except for a moment when they entered an icy current. Without saying anything, they hurried both of their movements, lashed by this surprise from the sea.
These scenes, embedded in the autumn sections of the novel – but referring back to the springtime of Tarrou’s life, and the summer heat still held in the waters – ultimately takes a tragic turn when, soon after, Tarrou himself contracts plague (literally, this time) and dies.
Although the chronicle (and the plague) ends in December, at the onset of winter, this season is never fully entered into, and its associated conventions – of satire and irony – are never activated in The Plague. The only hint we actually have of this season comes at the very beginning of the novel, in the opening pages, when we are told that the ‘fine days come only in winter’; and in the midst of summer, referring to the energy rations that kept the lights low at night, Rieux’s mother states: “Just as long as this doesn’t last until winter. It would be sad, then.”
Incidentally, a decade after the publication of The Plague, Camus does write a novel in which satire and irony are the structuring conventions; and, perhaps not coincidentally – if we have understood the argument until now – this novel, The Fall, set in Amsterdam, occurs during the winter.
Conventionally, tragedy differs from comedy in that the moment of transition from an old order of society to a new order doesn’t occur within the context of the story, or among the characters within the story – as it does in comedy – but rather in the audience of the tragedy, those who bear witness to the events of the tragedy. In the final pages of The Plague, the restoration of society is downplayed in the background: the gates opening, the crowds celebrating, the assumption being that some normality has been achieved. In the foreground we know this not to be true – ‘that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears’ – and we do so in the context of the final moment of discovery or recognition, when the narrator of the chronicle is revealed to be Rieux himself. And this puts the weight of the accumulated discoveries and recognitions, gleaned from reading this chronicle, squarely at our feet, and this tasks us, in the present moment – without satire or irony to distract our attention – with the restoration of our own society.
In mid-1944, soon after moving to Paris and taking up his post at Combat, while in the midst of working on drafts of The Plague, Camus made a note to himself, which touched upon the theme he would later take up in his idea of ‘Don Juan Faust’, but which was also relevant to his then current work-in-progress. ‘If the body feels nostalgia for the soul,’ he noted, ‘there is no reason why in eternity the soul should not suffer painfully from its separation from the body – and why it should not then long to return to the earth.’ Here Camus is coupling this Faustian theme with his long preoccupation with thinking about the relationship between the body and nature. In the context of The Plague, he argues that this longing ‘to return to the earth’ is not only the preserve of the already departed. Here Camus is drawing back from the source, to an idea he initially outlined in the mid-1930s, before he began writing his early lyrical essays, but during the period within which he was having the experiences – tuberculosis included – that he would later reflect upon and make a part of those essays, and what would become the ground for much else that he would come to write later – including The Plague.
One must not cut oneself off from the world. No one who lives in the sunlight makes a failure of his life. My whole effort, whatever the situation, misfortune or disillusion, must be to make contact again...
Contacts with truth, with nature first of all, and then with the art of those who have understood and with my own art if I am capable of it... (emphasis added)
This art, which he was only then beginning to attempt – his theatre, in particular, but also his essays and later narrative fiction – would never cease from locating its ground in this contact between the body and nature, whether it be as a connection lost or to be restored. It was within the limits created by this relationship that would come to circumscribe the rebellion enacted in The Plague.
In 1952, in an essay on Herman Melville, Camus reflected on what he found important in Melville’s fiction. This was perhaps also a reminder for Camus as to what initially drew him to Melville – and Moby Dick, in particular – as an initial model for The Plague, over a decade earlier. ‘Like the greatest artists, Melville constructed his symbols out of concrete things, not from the material of dreams,’ Camus writes; adding: ‘in Melville the symbol emerges from reality, the image is born of what is seen. This is why Melville never cuts himself off from flesh or nature...’ It was a timely reminder that although the vigilance required to keep one’s thinking and actions from being cut off from the body and the natural world requires a constant effort, it also includes the possibility of lapses in attention, a loss of concentration.
A few years earlier, soon after The Plague had been published, Camus confided in his notebooks: ‘I have read over all these notebooks – beginning with the first. This is obvious to me: landscapes gradually disappear. The modern cancer is gnawing me too.’
Next week we will begin to examine what for Camus are the mechanisms that lead to the negation of the human body and the natural world: abstraction, nihilism, and ideology.
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