16. On the themes of language and communication in Albert Camus' The Plague

And the underlying influence of technology in the spread of nihilism and abstraction

Camus attending to his correspondence, 1957. ‘The city was no longer connected to the rest of the country by the usual means of communication,’ the narrator in The Plague states, ‘and on the other, a new decree forbade the exchanging of all correspondence, to prevent letters from becoming vectors of infection.’

1.

The theme of illness and disease in The Plague is so overt that it often overshadows what is arguably the equally important themes of language and communication in the novel. In particular, this is enacted in The Plague in terms of the act of writing and the condition of being a writer. Even before the first signs of the plague are introduced, the conditions of writing are brought to the forefront of the novel, the narrator drawing immediate attention to the work as a chronicle, as a written artefact. At the conclusion of the opening chapter, after describing the township of Oran, the narrator interjects with a few observations – what he calls ‘the commentary and precautions of language’ – on the nature of his chronicle, regarding objectivity, his sources of evidence, and his methodology for using materials at hand. Here the narrator draws upon, amongst his own experiences, the writing of others, who also experienced the plague, but from different perspectives. 

It is interesting to note therefore that almost all the main characters who are introduced in the novel are, in one way or another, writers. After finding the first dead rat in his hotel, Dr Rieux meets Raymond Rambert, a journalist from one of the major Paris daily newspapers. Soon after, the narrator introduces another character, Jean Tarrou. His notebooks are one of the main sources of information about how the plague affected the townspeople in diurnal detail. ‘His notebooks, in any case, offer another chronicle of this difficult period,’ the narrator states: ‘But it’s a very particular chronicle, one that seems biased toward insignificance. At first glance, you might think Tarrou had gone out of his way to examine things and people through the wide end of the binoculars.’ Another character to be introduced at this point is Joseph Grand, one of Rieux’s former patients, and a clerk at the Municipal Office. In due course, it is revealed that Grand is in fact a struggling novelist. Later, the Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux, is introduced. He, too, is a writer, who had ‘already distinguished himself with his frequent contributions to Oran’s Geographical Society Bulletin, where his reproductions of ancient inscriptions made him an authority. But he had gained a wider audience than most specialists by giving a series of lectures on modern individuality.’ Paneloux is also doing research for a book on St Augustine and the African Church.

But perhaps the most important character in the novel is Dr Rieux. The narration of events in the city, which lead to the onset of plague, begins with Rieux’s finding the first dead rat. He urges the administration to declare a state of emergency. And he runs the medical side of the operations throughout the epidemic. It does not come as surprise, then, to discover in the final chapter of the novel that Rieux is, in fact, the narrator, the author of the chronicle. But he is distinct from his associates in the chronicle in one respect: although each of these other figures encountered the plague already as writers, there is no indication that prior to plague Riuex was a writer, or was at all interested in writing. But for Rieux, a doctor, after the prolonged ordeal of struggling against the plague, surrounded in his own efforts by the efforts of these other various writers, he finally, through that experience, becomes a writer.

If read in parallel with the theme of illness, the theme of writing in The Plague throws some light on Camus himself. We’ve already seen, in describing an earlier period in Camus’ life, how the onset of his own tuberculosis precipitates his development as a writer. Now here, in The Plague, the chronicle of events is framed by the development of a character, Dr Rieux, who, in the process of struggling against illness and restoring health, also becomes a writer. In doing so, he draws on the written works of various other writers: a journalist, a novelist, a scholar (who also lectures for a non-specialist audience), and a writer of miscellaneous notebook entries and sundry observations about diurnal life. In other words, Camus has drawn on his own past and present experiences as a writer, in its various and multiple forms and stages of development. Like Rambert, Camus was also a journalist (in both Algeria and France), and – during the period of writing The Plague – the editor of the French newspaper, Combat. Like Grand, Camus was also a novelist, of an unpublished work, A Happy Death. Like Paneloux, Camus had also written an academic work of St Augustine, his diploma dissertation, Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism (1936), and he also writes for a non-specialist audience, with his two collections of lyrical essays and The Myth of Sisyphus. In Algeria in the late 1930s he also organised and participated in a public lecture series, a practice he continued after the war, as his fame grew – for example, his lecture at Columbia University in 1946. And like Tarrou, Camus (from the age of 22) also kept notebooks in which he also made observations ‘biased toward insignificance’ and ‘had gone out of his way to examine things and people through the wide end of the binoculars.’ Many of Tarrou’s observations, for example, are drawn almost verbatim from Camus’ own notebooks.

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2.

The themes of language and communication in The Plague are very much grounded in an exploration of the effects of communication technologies. This is itself grounded in a broader, underlying examination of technology generally. For Camus, the growth in technology during the early- and mid- 20th century formally created many of the conditions for abstraction and nihilism – which in turn increased the possibilities for ideology to take hold. This was, particularly during the period he was working on The Plague, a growing concern.  

He only touched on this notion briefly in The Myth of Sisyphus, in the soliloquy of the Conqueror in the middle part on “The Absurd Man”, which argued that, until then, ‘human beings were created to serve or be served.’ But the Conqueror hints at a change that may be occurring within the current ‘machine age’, which threatens this order. In his 1939 essay on Oran, in detailing the public works along the Algerian coast, Camus provides a more extended description of how technology was quickly outstripping the human and natural scales. ‘Vast landscapes, rocks climbing up to heaven, steep slopes teeming with workmen, animals, ladders, strange machines, cords, pulleys,’ he writes. ‘Man, moreover, is there only to give scale to the inhuman scope of the construction.’

In “The Human Crisis”, however, in 1946, Camus describes, in similar terms to the uses of industrial machinery, the administrative machinery of modern bureaucracy, which equally deploys technology to facilitate nihilism. ‘More and more does contemporary man interpose between himself and nature an abstract and complicated machine which thrusts him into solitude.’ Elsewhere in the same lecture, he describes the impact of this on modern society. ‘In short, we no longer die, love, or kill except by proxy,’ he states. ‘This is what goes by the name, if I am not mistaken, of “good organization”.’ This is an idea he repeats later in “Neither Victims Nor Executioners”, where he writes: ‘Just as we now love one another by telephone and work not on matter but on machines, we kill and are killed by proxy. What is gained in cleanliness is lost in understanding.’

Technology, in other words, underpins and facilitates the ‘age of abstractions’, enabling nihilism to proliferate. This understanding is carried through by Camus into his analysis of abstraction, ideology, and nihilism, in The Rebel. ‘The principal fact is that technology, like science, has reached such a degree of complication that it is not possible for a single man to understand the totality of its principles and applications.’ The human scale is lost; natural limits denied. ‘The political form of society is no longer in question at this level,’ Camus writes, ‘but the beliefs of a technical civilization on which capitalism and socialism are equally dependent.’ Here he references the work of James Burnham, whose notion of the managerial revolution sought to describe the co-ordination between such ideologies and advances in industrial and bureaucratic technologies. But Camus only does so critically, and as a way to introduce the work of Simone Weil, whose posthumous works Camus had been editing for Gallimard, and which had exerted no small influence on his own thinking. ‘It is only fair to point out that this era of technocracy announced by Burnham was described, about twenty years ago, by Simone Weil in a form that can be considered complete, without drawing Burnham’s unacceptable conclusions.’ Here Camus cites Weil directly:

“One can abolish the opposition between the buyer and the seller of work,” she wrote, “without abolishing the opposition between those who dispose of the machine and those of whom the machine disposes.”

Camus’ argument against technology in The Rebel was rehearsed in an earlier lyrical essay – “Prometheus in the Underworld” – published the same year as The Plague. ‘Prometheus was the hero who loved men enough to give them fire and liberty, technology and art,’ he wrote. ‘Today, mankind needs and cares only for technology.’

As in the rest of The Rebel, however, Camus’ response is not to reject technology outright, but rather to argue for the need to recognise and operate within its limits. ‘The very forces of matter, in their blind advance, impose their own limits,’ he wrote. ‘That is why it is useless to want to reverse the advance of technology. The age of the spinning-wheel is over and the dream of a civilization of artisans is vain. The machine is bad only in the way that it is now employed. Its benefits must be accepted even if its ravages are rejected.’ This is a point also made in his earlier essay on Prometheus: ‘We rebel through our machines, holding art and what art implies as an obstacle and a symbol of slavery. But what characterizes Prometheus is that he cannot separate machines from art.’

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3.

In 1939, when Camus first wrote his essay on Oran, which would soon decide the setting for his plague novel, he compared the vast public works along the North African coastline, with its ‘workmen, animals, ladders, strange machines, cords, pulleys,’ as resembling artistic depictions of ‘the building of the Tower of Babel’: a monument to miscommunication and misunderstanding. It is in this context that Camus’ general arguments regarding technology – as tools of abstraction and nihilism – appear in The Plague, in terms of the role of communications technology.

The telephone, for example, is introduced, prior to the onset of plague, as an instrument of business and commerce: ‘a whole population is on the telephone or in cafés, talking about bank drafts, bills of lading, or discounts.’ When the plague arrives, the telephone becomes one of the ways to virtually escape the town, to breach its walls. ‘Inter-city communication by telephone,’ the narrator states, ‘which was permitted at the start, put such a strain on public booths and on the phone lines that they were completely suspended for several days before being severely limited to what were called urgent cases, like deaths, births, and marriages.’ As the plague progressed, however, the telephone became a more ominous sign of potential death. When Rieux visited a house, to determine whether or not it contained plague victims, it was with a telephone call that he then set the whole administrative process in motion. Each call brought police and ambulance, to separate families, inter some in isolation camps, others to hospital.

It was a cablegram that officially announced the plague. ‘The cable read: “Declare a state of plague. Close the city.”’ After the telephone, cablegrams and telegrams become the dominant means of communication, but this only acted to diminish language further.

Beings who were linked through mind, heart, and flesh were reduced to searching for signs of this former communication in the capital letters of a ten-word telegram. And, since the wordings they could conceivably use in a telegram were quickly exhausted, shared lives and sorrowful passions were soon summed up in the occasional exchange of ready-made formulas like “All well. Thinking of you. Affectionately.”

For Rieux, for example, it was via telegram that he maintained contact with his wife, who was outside the town, in a sanatorium, where her tuberculosis was being treated. It was via telegram that she downplayed her worsening condition – and it was via telegram that he was notified of her death.

Some in the town continued to write letters, but this quickly became an absurd act, because mail was not allowed to officially enter or leave the town – the paper could carry the bacillus. There were unofficial means of attempting to get a letter out, but as no answer could ever be received, it was unclear which letters succeeded in getting through and which didn’t. But some kept at the habit of writing, even if it became separated from an act of communication.

For weeks, we were reduced to perpetually restarting the same letter, copying out the same news and the same appeals, so much so that after a while, the words that had once come bleeding out from the heart lost all their meaning. So we copied them mechanically, trying to give, through the medium of these dead sentences, some sign of our difficult lives. And to put an end to this sterile, pigheaded monologue, to this arid conversation with a wall, resorting to the conventional telegram began to seem preferable.

Finally, there was the radio. In the early days, the Ransdoc Agency, which operated on the local radio station, began its sessions by announcing the number of rats that had been collected and burned each day. But the radio, too, quickly became an instrument of absurdity. 

At midnight, sometimes, in the great silence of the deserted city, at the moment he reached his bed for a too-short sleep, the doctor turned the dial of his radio. And from the corners of the world, across thousands of kilometers, these unfamiliar and brotherly voices clumsily tried to express their solidarity by actually saying it, but, in the same breath, they revealed the terrible inability every person experiences in truly sharing a pain they cannot see: “Oran! Oran!” In vain, the cry crossed the sea, in vain Rieux held himself alert, soon the eloquence grew, even further accentuating the fundamental separation that estranged Grand from the orator. “Oran! Yes, Oran! But no,” thought the doctor, “to love together or to die together, there is no other recourse. They are too far away.”

In this way, Camus described in The Plague what he had referred to elsewhere as loving, dying, or being killed, by proxy. In other words, the use of communications technology as a form of living by proxy.

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4. 

From the beginning of the novel this point and counterpoint, of abstraction and the struggle against abstraction, can be read playing out through various mid-century communications technologies – telephone, telegram, and radio – and various forms of writing, embodied in the main figures which populate the novel. In relation to writing, the struggle against abstraction is the struggle to overcome the impediments to the restoration of communication between individuals. In relation to the plague itself, which, as Camus argued, makes one ‘lose one’s flesh’, the struggle against abstraction is the struggle to return thought to the body, to reacquaint individuals with the physical aspect of their being. Mediating between these two themes of illness and writing in the novel, the interplay of one with the other, is a concern with forging a style of writing, and, more importantly, an attitude toward communication, which will diminish its tendency toward abstraction, and secure its relationship to the body and the natural world. It is this concern which structures the narrator’s decision to attempt his plague chronicle.

But the tendencies for such communication technologies to promote abstraction and distance rather than to overcome either one is a situation that predated the plague, and it is one that threatened to return when the plague subsided and the gates reopened. It is perhaps with a bitter note that the narrator describes how the opening of the gates was accompanied by the resurgence of various communications and bureaucratic technologies, like the opening of Pandora’s box. ‘At dawn one fine February morning, the gates of the city finally opened,’ the narrator states, ‘hailed by the people, the newspapers, the radio, and the announcements from the prefecture.’


Next week we will examine a particular form of writing that came to influence The Plague – the role of journalism in Camus’ thinking, 1938-1946.


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