13. On the resistance to nihilism, abstraction, and ideology in The Plague

Or, how Albert Camus’ novel implicates us all

Djemila, Algeria. ‘Everything I am offered seeks to deliver man from the weight of his own life. But as I watch the great birds flying heavily through the sky at Djemila, it is precisely a certain weight of life that I ask for and obtain.’ ~ Albert Camus, “The Wind at Djemila”, 1939

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1.

While working on the initial ideas for the second version of The Plague, during the period 1942-1945, Camus wanted to develop what he referred to as the ‘social criticism’ aspect of the manuscript. He outlined the co-ordinates of this in his notebooks: ‘The encounter between the administration, which is an abstract entity, and the plague, which is the most concrete of all forces, can only produce comic and scandalous results.’ Neither of these – this entity, this force – neither the administration nor the plague itself – contains any inherent meaning, however. As Camus also noted: ‘Moral of the plague: it was of no use to anything or anyone.’ This is a judgement which the narrator in the novel shares: ‘But nothing is less spectacular than a scourge, and, by their very duration, great misfortunes are monotonous.’ And yet, a value is created, not from the conflict between this point and counterpoint, but from the various individual responses to this conflict, their rebellions against and within their shared situation: the value that emerges from the saving of bodies, and restoring the limits of the natural world.

In The Plague, the suppression of nature – as depicted by the setting and aspect of Oran – and the later re-acquaintance with the sensuousness of the natural world – when, for example, Tarrou and Rieux go swimming together – reflects this broader point and counterpoint, between the abstract and the concrete, that structures the whole narrative, but within which variations of this relationship are played out. This point and counterpoint is enacted in the first part of the novel, for example, in the hesitations, prevarications, and rationalisations, of the administration of Oran, before it finally faces reality and shuts the gates to the town, enforcing a full quarantine.

But it is in the second part of the novel where this theme of ‘abstraction’ is overtly articulated for the first time, by the figure of Rambert, the journalist, who was only a visitor in Oran, now exiled there and separated from his girlfriend on the outside. At one point, he approaches Rieux, in order to seek his assistance in allowing him to leave the town, to circumvent the quarantine. Rambert knew that Rieux played no small role is establishing the orders that imposed the quarantine in the first place, and Rambert wanted an exemption for himself, so that he could be reunited with his girlfriend, to resume his normal life. But when Rieux wouldn’t budge, Rambert, in frustration, accused him of being abstract: “You’re speaking the language of reason, you’re speaking in abstractions.” The narrator then reflected on this charge:

But had he [Rambert] been right to blame him [Rieux]? “You’re living in abstraction.” Were they really an abstraction, these days spent at his hospital while the plague was making great strides, raising the average number of dead to five hundred victims a week? Yes, there was a bit of abstraction and unreality in all this unhappiness. But when the abstraction is trying to kill you, you have to pay attention to it.

The narrator then considers the actual concrete and particular activities which Rieux, for example, had repeated many times each day, but which the general public – including Rambert – remained largely ignorant of; except in the fateful instance that they were the ones who happened to live in a particular house which Rieux had been called to in order to decide if its inhabitants had plague, only for him to then call for the police and ambulance, to remove the patient to the hospital, and the other occupants to the isolation camps. ‘Then the battles would start, the tears, the persuasion, in short, the abstraction.’ the narrator states, bitterly, ironically.

Every night mothers screamed like this, with an abstracted air, before these torsos offering up all their fatal signs, every night arms grasped Rieux, useless words, promises, and tears rushed out, every night the sirens of the ambulances unleashed dramas as vain as any sorrow. And at the end of this long series of nights that were all the same, Rieux could expect nothing but a long series of similar scenes, repeated indefinitely. Yes, the plague, like abstraction, was monotonous. Only one thing could change, and that was Rieux himself…. To fight against abstraction, you had to resemble it a little. But how could Rambert understand that? For Rambert, abstraction was everything that stood in the way of his happiness. And truthfully, in some ways, Rieux knew the journalist was right. But he also knew that sometimes abstraction turns out to be stronger than happiness, so that then, and only then, must it be taken into account…. In this way, he could follow, to a new level, this type of gloomy battle between the happiness of each person and the abstractions of the plague, which made up the whole life of our city during this long period.

All of this was, of course, prior to Tarrou coming to Rieux with a plan for the unofficial (although officially sanctioned) public health squads, which would operate independently of the administration. Later, when Tarrou explained to Rieux why he had gotten involved in the fight against the plague – because he was opposed to anything that condemned a person to death – that is, when he told Rieux the story of the day he saw his father, a prosecutor, in court, convict somebody, imposing upon them the death penalty – Tarrou said that prior to this moment his thoughts on court proceedings and the death penalty were abstract. “I had an extremely abstract idea of it that didn’t trouble me,” Tarrou states. And it was during this conversation that the word ‘plague’ is first used, in the context of the novel, in a metaphoric sense – but prepared by Rieux’s earlier ‘plague, like abstraction’ – when Tarrou claims to have always had, and has always fought within himself, since that day he saw his father in court, the ‘plague’ – by which he means ‘abstraction’.

The word ‘plague’ is used only one other time, in the context of the novel, in a metaphoric sense, and that is in the final pages of the book, when Rieux visits his old asthma patient, which the reader was introduced to in the first pages of the novel. Significantly, it was on being told about the death of Tarrou, from (actual) plague, that the old man says, talking about the people then celebrating the end of the epidemic:

“The others say: ‘It’s the plague, we had the plague.’ They might as well be asking for a medal. But what does it mean, the plague? It’s life, that’s all.”

This metaphoric use of ‘plague’ as ‘life, that’s all’ is not incompatible with Tarrou’s earlier metaphor of ‘abstraction’, even though they do conflict; for it is the conflict itself between the point and counterpoint, of abstraction and concrete life, which structures the narrative, and that the plague metaphor is expanded here to contain; all three layers finally informing the title of the novel – as natural force, as abstraction, as life itself – as The Plague.

The absurdity contained in this situation only becomes clear to the individuals involved when these abstractions are experienced in conflict with reality. It is not a coincidence, then, that it is the old asthma patient which draws attention to this absurd experience at the heart of the novel, which the others had by then rebelled against. This is, after all, a character who spends his days sitting at his kitchen table, transferring a pot of dried chick peas, one at a time, to another pot, only to swap pots and begin anew the next day, in mock imitation of Sisyphus pushing his boulder to the top of the mountain each day, only to watch it roll back down the base, awaiting his return the following morning.

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2.  

This metaphoric use of the ‘plague’ is also deployed by Camus in his 1951 book, The Rebel, which transposes, and broadens, the arguments from The Myth of Sisyphus, into the political realm. In The Rebel, Camus argues that there comes a point when an individual, previously experiencing the absurd alone, realises that the ‘strangeness of things’ which overwhelms the singular human mind is potentially being experienced by everybody else. ‘The malady experienced by a single man,’ Camus writes there, ‘becomes a mass plague.’    

In 1948, between the publication of The Plague and that of The Rebel, Camus deployed the plague metaphor in one other work: his much maligned play, State of Siege. It is Camus’ most anti-realist work, in which Plague appears personified on the stage, with his secretary, Death, as they lay siege to a Spanish port town. The symbolic meaning of the plague here is given an overtly political inflection, unambiguously that of totalitarianism, of both the political right and left, the action of the play incorporating traces of each. The play is completely independent of the novel, however, but the repurposing of the central image, albeit with a different metaphoric entailment, created much confusion at the time of its opening – and since.

This is instructive, however, in clarifying what is at stake in The Plague. In 1946, while Camus was still working on the final draft of his novel, his political thinking was also preoccupied with the role of abstraction. In his lecture, “The Human Crisis”, he referred to ‘the reign of abstractions’. Elsewhere in this lecture, the subordination of individuals to such abstractions was described as a ‘cult’. Later that same year, in his article series, “Neither Victims Nor Executioners”, Camus likewise described the current international political landscape as ‘a world of abstractions’. By the time Camus published The Rebel in 1951 he was concerned with understanding, and resisting, totalitarianism. In this, totalitarianism was the instrumental application of ideology; itself predicated upon political nihilism, with the process of abstraction being the link between both nihilism and ideology.

But in The Plague, Camus was simply tracing the contours of such abstract thinking, and its temptations toward nihilism and ideology. In his notebooks, in 1945, for example, he drew this initial connection between abstraction and ideology: ‘Demonstration. That abstraction is evil. It causes wars, torture, violence, etc. Problem: How does the abstract view continue in the face of physical evil, ideology in the face of the torture inflicted in the name of that ideology?’ This theme is foregrounded in the novel when the narrator introduces Father Paneloux’s first sermon. ‘But there, where some saw abstraction, others saw the truth.’ In many respects, this sermon continues the abstraction of the administration, but in a different register, one which asserts certainty and judgement, the better to deny the broader reality of the situation, and their own place in it.

The counterpoint to this in the novel is provided by the presence of the human body – and the saving of bodies – and the restoration of the limits of the natural world. The body in nature provide the limits within which all life is contained and sustained. Rebellion is born of the discovery of these limits, enacted by a defence of these limits against those that seek to breach them, in thought or deed. And just as rebellion finds its only means of doing so from within this circumscribed space, it finds also its only ends in the preservation of these limits. For doing so means, at the same time, the preservation of the human body and the natural world. 

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus rejected physical suicide, which he saw as a retreat from, and denial of, these physical limits; a literal retreat from life itself. He also rejected philosophical, or intellectual, suicide, in which, likewise, the mind retreats from, and denies, the body and nature. Camus referred to this move, this form of metaphoric suicide, as a ‘leap’, an act of eluding. Choosing not to make this ‘leap’ involves resisting the subordination of the self to a philosophical system, a religious doctrine, or a political ideology. ‘It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived,’ Camus wrote in Sisyphus: ‘It now becomes clear, on the contrary, that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning.’

In The Rebel, Camus focused more on political ideologies, albeit while understanding that such ideologies find their justification in philosophical systems, inherited from, and competing with, various religious doctrines. Here he refers to ideology as a form of intellectual servitude, a ‘suicide of the mind’. But while in Sisyphus he was concerned with an individual subordinating oneself to an ideology, in The Rebel, his concern was with the broader context of this: the processes within which the individual becomes subordinated, and the consequences of this, in which such an individual would then seek to subordinate other individuals to an ideology, even to the extent of justifying violence and murder, in support of such a process.

In his notebooks, while drafting an early outline of The Rebel, Camus consciously mirrored the beginning of the first part of Sisyphus, while shifting his attention from the question of suicide to that of murder:

Revolt. Beginning; “The only serious moral problem is murder. The rest comes after. But to find out whether or not I can kill this person in my presence, or agree to his being killed, to find that I know nothing before finding out whether or not I can cause death, that is what must be learned.”

Following the war, influenced by his experience of the purge, Camus began to adopt a principled position against the death penalty, which, after the massacre in Sétif, Algeria in 1945, he reconfigured into a general principle – against the legitimacy of political violence – by placing the body as a bulwark against the nihilism of political abstractions. ‘My conviction is that it is no longer reasonable to hope that we can save everything,’ he wrote in “Neither Victims Nor Executioners”, ‘but we can at least hope to save the bodies in order to keep open the possibility of a future.’ Against the ideologues who avoid responsibility for the consequences of their thinking, Camus argued it is precisely the consequences of one’s own thoughts and actions that one must choose to accept in advance. ‘And while there are many people nowadays who condemn violence and murder in their heart of hearts,’ he argued, ‘there aren’t many willing to recognise that this obliges them to reconsider the way they think and act.’

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3.

Under what conditions, then, should one therefore think and act? This marks one of the most consistent threads that runs through Camus’ work: the necessity of thinking and acting without the prop or support of abstract systems, doctrines, or ideologies, on the grounds that each operates through the false promise of alleviating from the individual the responsibility for their life, and their responsibility to others. This underpins his criticism of the philosophical suicides in The Myth of Sisyphus, and the political nihilists (philosophical murderers) in The Rebel; but it is an idea which he first articulated in 1939. ‘Everything I am offered seeks to deliver man from the weight of his own life,’ Camus states, in his lyrical essay, “The Wind at Djemila”: ‘But as I watch the great birds flying heavily through the sky at Djemila, it is precisely a certain weight of life that I ask for and obtain.’ In 1942, in Sisyphus, he states: ‘I understand then why the doctrines that explain everything to me also debilitate me at the same time. They relieve me of the weight of my own life, and yet I must carry it alone.’ Then, in a 1943 review-essay on the language studies of Brice Parain, Camus writes: ‘What we can learn from the experience Parain sets forth is to turn our back upon attitudes and oratory in order to bear scrupulously the weight of our own daily lives.’ Finally, in 1951, he opens The Rebel, with an attack on the type of person who ‘through lack of character, takes refuge in a doctrine.’

This also provides the ethical motivation for the main figures in The Plague, who, each in their own way, rebels against abstraction, in all its variegated forms, as well as against the death sentence which the epidemic had imposed upon the town, and who finds the sole resources for doing so within the weight of their own bodies and restoring the limits of the natural world. And it is to join this rebellion – to accept this weight and these limits – that Rieux invites the readers of his chronicle to consider; and Camus challenges the readers of his novel.

But this is also why it is a grave error to reduce the novel to being simply an allegory of the German occupation and the French resistance to it, which framed the initial reception of the novel in France after 1947; and again, after 1948 when the novel was first translated into English, with the analogy of liberal states opposing totalitarian states, in the nascent period of the cold war, being grafted upon this initial allegory – both of which still dominate conventional readings of the novel to this very day. For such a narrow reading is predicated upon ignoring the influence of the post-liberation purge (including the colonial violence in Algeria) upon the final drafts of the novel, incorporating and reconfiguring all the previous experiences and ideas which went into the earlier versions of the novel (which, yes, includes, in part, the German occupation and the French resistance to it, but only among many other experiences and ideas that were also transfigured by the imagination into the final novel, and which we have been examining at length over previous instalments of this newsletter).

The difference between this narrow and broad reading of the novel is, in many respects, the difference between reading the novel through the lens of Father Paneloux’s first sermon versus doing so through the lens of his second sermon, when he shifted from the accusatory ‘you’ to the more inclusive ‘we’. But it is an inclusion that is at the same time an implication, and it is the avoidance or denial of this implication – through an interpretative ‘leap’ – that this narrow reading promotes, but which this broad reading does not shy away from. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus wrote: ‘In Italian museums are sometimes found little painted screens that the priest used to hold in front of the face of condemned men to hide the scaffold from them. The leap in all its forms, rushing into the divine or the eternal, surrendering to the illusions of the everyday or of the idea-all these screens hide the absurd.’ In an earlier instalment we argued that, for Camus, The Plague was not to be used as such a screen. What we can argue for here is that The Plague is rather to be used as a mirror.      

It is an implication that Camus himself does not avoid, and which he took responsibility for in everything he wrote and thought thereafter; particularly from The Plague onwards. It is important to note, but easily overlooked, that in most of the more germane political statements that Camus made in public in the period from 1945-1947, when the final version of the novel was written and published, and until The Rebel in 1951, Camus’ criticisms were at the same time self-criticisms, but broadly construed.

Camus did not, for example, sign the petition to pardon Robert Brasillach in 1945 because Camus thought that either himself or Brasillach were innocent; but because by previously supporting the purge, Camus had become implicated in the same process of nihilism, abstraction, and ideology – resulting in supporting the death penalty – that Brasillach had succumbed to, and which led to the occupation in the first place, and which, in the purge, in colonialism, Camus saw as a process that was continuing to gain ground. By signing the petition, and henceforth arguing and acting against the death penalty, in all its forms, Camus was taking responsibility for this, and for his own role in it, while at the same time seeking a way out, for himself and others; knowing, that is, that his only way out was through finding a way out for everybody else.    

In a section of his lecture, “The Human Crises” – which we already cited in the previous instalment – the emphasis that should be now noted is precisely on the use of the implicatory ‘we’:

It is too easy, on this point, simply to accuse Hitler, and to say that the snake having been crushed, the poison is gone. For we know perfectly well that the poison is not gone, that we all bear it in our very hearts, as can be seen from the residue of anger present in the way nations, parties and individuals continue to regard one another. I have always believed that a nation is answerable for its traitors as well as for its heroes. But so is a civilization, and the civilization of the white man in particular is surely as answerable for its perversions as for its glories. From this point of view we are all responsible for Hitlerism, and we ought to search out the more general causes of this hideous disease which has so eaten away the face of Europe. (emphasis added)          

It is for this reason, as we have already seen, but perhaps only now can realise, why Camus said, in that exchange in 1948, that he too had been a murderer.

‘You’re a Marxist now?’ Camus said.

‘Yes.’

‘Then you’ll be a murderer.’

‘I’ve already been one.’

I too. But I don’t want to be any more.’ (emphasis added)

And why in The Rebel he draws an explicit comparison between the Nazis’ actions in Lidice in 1942 against the Czechs and the French actions in Sétif, Algeria, against the Arabs in 1945, as being born of the ‘same irrational prejudice of racial superiority.’ And also why, in 1946, Camus published an article in the journal, Franchise, with the title: “We too are murderers” (emphasis added).

But nor is this, at the same time, a form of self-indulgent guilt, or using the rhetoric such guilt to avoid further responsibility, to place oneself outside the limits of concern, which is yet another way to avoid being implicated. In January 1948, Camus wrote to Grenier, offering this reading of his own novel to his mentor. ‘Man is not innocent and he is not guilty. How do we get out of that? What Rieux (I) means is that we must cure everything we can cure – while waiting to know, or see. It’s a waiting situation and Rieux says, “I don’t know.” I came a long way to reach this admission of ignorance.’

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Next week we will begin an examination of the role of language in Camus’ thinking generally, in preparation for how these ideas came to inform The Plague.