June 1, 2007

"What's true of all the evils in the world is true of the plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves."

The Plague: Camus’s Fable in Our Time

Thanks to Andrew Kinney, patsyb, and Sutter for suggesting another “literary lessons for Iraq” show.

Read The Plague this weekend, and help us milk Camus’s metaphor for our own pestilential times!

We will be guided on air by James A.W. Heffernan, Professor of English, Emeritus, at Dartmouth, Jim Fitzmorris, plawright and theatre historian, and by the political scientist John Mearsheimer of Chicago, who remembers The Plague as a staple of his own West Point education.

But the reading assignment is for everybody.

I read The Plague last weekend and can’t stop searching for facets of its meaning today. In its time (1947) Camus’s plague meant World War II, Fascism and the fall of France. Today the plague is the war in Iraq, surely, but it’s also Katrina. And AIDS, everywhere. It’s malaria in Haiti and genocide in Darfur; it’s mass poverty in most of the world.

“There have been as many plagues as wars in history,” says Camus’s narrator, “yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” When the bleeding rats start dying by the thousands in Oran, the Algerian port town where Camus set his tale, people dismiss the portent as a bad dream. “But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.”

The moral fable, of course, is not about the disease. It’s about us… and about the range of responses to the dreaded blank at the end of human life. The tireless young Doctor Rieux observes: “What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of the plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”

For the journalist Rambert, the plague stands for the repetition compulsion in human affairs; it means “exactly that — the same thing over and over and over again.”

In the end, as Rieux says to Rambert, the plague is a dark and obscure challenge that can only be met with the equally multiple mystery called life. “It is a matter of common decency,” the faithful doctor decides. “That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting plague is — common decency.”

For the stern voice of Catholic orthodoxy in the novel, Father Paneloux, the plague is the flail of God, with the saving grace that “it opens men’s eyes and forces them to take thought.”

Let The Plague stretch your own vision this weekend, and help us all “take thought” Monday evening at 7.

Sharpening the questions: In your own head, what stands for “the plague” in our time? Is “the plague” an affliction of choice, a subjective judgement? What about the multiple plagues that compete for our active attention? If “terror” is a plague (and Camus’ conclusion suggests it is), and if war is a plague (which seems obvious), is a “war on terror” a contradiction in terms, or a double plague? If genocide is a modern plague, and the overreach of American military power is another, what can we, must we, should we do in the matter of Darfur. If death is the mother and model of all plagues, can we imagine addressing various instances of “the plague” with something other than triumphal eradication of the problem as a plausible and worthy goal of thought and action

Guest List
John Mearsheimer
R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago, and author, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.
James A.W. Heffernan
Professor of English, Emeritus, Dartmouth, contributor to The Huffington Post, and author of Cultivating Picturacy: Visual Art and Verbal Interventions, published by Tulane University Press
Jim Fitzmorris
Author and playwright, and professor of Theatre History at Tulane University.
Reading List
"Newport: national security scholars convene with military brass to weigh power and Iraq"
Peter Voskamp, The Block Island Times, June 24, 2006
Mearsheimer then spoke about his time at West Point in the late 1960s. An English professor had assigned his class to read French existentialist Albert Camus’ ‘The Plague.’ The instructor explained that he was using the book as an allegory for what was happening in Vietnam: the plague came and went of its own accord — and humans “operated under the illusion that they could affect the plague one way or another.” Mearsheimer said he saw a similar dynamic afoot in Iraq.
Michael (commenter), "We Like To Watch", November 21, 2006
"Camus’ The Plague is flawed as an allegory of Nazism and Resistance. Politics can’t be translated into biological terms without suggesting some kind of fatalistic overdetermination; the plague arrives out of nowhere: from 'above,' which political/historical events never do."
"Camus' Catch: How democracies can defeat Totalitarian Political Islam"
Alan Johnson, Democratiya, 2006
"The Left has not seen the terrorist threat plain. Like the dreamy citizens of Oran in Camus' novel 'The Plague,' it has embraced denial ('there are no rats') or worse - incoherent anti-Americanism ('the rats are to be defended') or self-loathing ('we are the rats')."
"Now Is The Time for Camus — as an Antidote to Despair."
James Heffernan, Huffington Post, July 26, 2006
"If the latest news from the Middle East makes you want to puke, I have a suggestion. As an antidote to nausea and despair, read Albert Camus' The Plague."
AeolusPress, Open Source, June 4, 2007
The plague in the novel may not symbolize anything! It seems to me that Camus saw, during WWII, how certain events can bring out the best and worst in people; I’d guess that he wrote The Plague as a way of universalizing his experiences in the war. I don’t at all think that Camus is saying plague = war, except for in the most general, existential sense (they are both types of disasters that are proving grounds for human action)."

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  • Pacze Moj

    I read Camus’ ‘The Plague’ recently, and there’s certainly a lot to digest. Camus has a way with words that makes his writing both simple and precise (as in, it’s easy to understand what he’s saying), but that raises so many issues (that come from beyond that easy-to-grasp meaning created by clear writing).

    Some of my thoughts, unorganized, scattered:

    a) How effective is ‘The Plague’ as allegory versus as a novel about plague in Oran? In other words: although the novel’s so often taken and extended to places and times beyond its immediate setting (Oran, 194-), I think it gathers so much of its power and poignancy from exactly its being grounded so firmly in a concrete place. I’m reminded of all the passages about Oran — its being tree-less, facing away from the sea, its closeness to the sea, etc. — that Camus comes back to, and that paint so vivid a picture. I don’t think ‘The Plague’ would be as effective if details like this were skimped on.

    b) As allegory, how much is ‘The Plague’ specifically “about” Camus’ experience of France during WWII? Does the allegory break down as we move away from that?

    c) Paneloux’s an interesting character, to be sure, and, although Camus, to be sure as well, is far from being religious, is there a sense of Catholicism in the book, regardless? The introduction to my edition mentioned this a little, and it was something that intrigued me. If I remember correctly, it mentioned that Camus sometimes adopts the tone and language of religiosity.

    d) More so in the direction you probably want to go: ‘The Plague’ is so firmly placed within the realm of the people affected by it, in quarantined Oran. Yet, many of the “plagues” in our times that you mention (Iraq, Katrina, malaria, AIDs, poverty) is away from “us”: people with Internet, with spare time, with computers. Camus doesn’t deal very much with “us”, then; his interest is with “them”. And, in some ways, attributing ourselves the roles of being victims of these “plagues” is to forget, or downplay, the actual victims. At best, we can be the ones from whom Camus’ “exiles” are exiled: loved ones cut off, in a family or human sense, from the tragedy.

    e) Also: the plague is not human-directed, while the war in Iraq is. When Camus talks about actions having or not having meanings (Paneloux tries to give the plague a meaning; Camus suggests it’s meaningless and we should leave it at that), can his ideas be transferred to Iraq? Obviously, the war has a meaning, has a purpose (even if it’s not the stated one). Should the people in Iraq, and perhaps people everywhere else, treat it as meaningless, and simply cherish friendship and take a swim in the sea? So much of French culture after WWII revolved around [the myth of] French resistance; does Camus say that real resistance is to strip things of their meanings, work, as Doctor Rieux says, to help one’s fellow man, rather than to help “the cause” — because “the cause” is just an invention? Would it, therefore, be better to stop creating meanings for the Iraq war (calling it “a war for ______”)?

    I know I’m rambling, but one quick, last thought:

    f) Is ‘Tha Plague’ somewhat Utopian (“no place”), despite its dealing with plague and death? And, can we apply this “place that doesn’t exist” to situations that do?

    Interesting site, looks like a great radio show. Glad to have discovered it.


    Pacze Moj

    PS: As an added coincidence, while I was reading ‘The Plague’, I was also reading Tony Judt’s ‘Postwar’ (still am reading that one); and just earlier today I came across a quotation from ‘The Plague’ in Dr. Judt’s book!

  • patsyb

    I’ve read The Plague many times — and it is Camus’ sense of humanity that always draws me back to it and his other works. Anchored in precise experiences and evolving relationships among characters, the novel progresses in step with evolving circumstances foisted on its characters who, in turn, move and change in repsonse. In all of Camus, humanity breathes through the emotional lives and struggles of the characters, through routine as well as unforeseen circumstances, through the embracing landscapes — and driven by hope. Sisyphus’ human dignity emerges from his determination to remain worthy of humanity. Sometimes that means resisting gravity, sometimes it means fighting a plague or HIV/AIDS, and sometimes it means resisting a war whose reality has visited far too many unawares. Always to me, Camus means committing to human dignity.

    Thanks for putting this show to gether. I look forward to listening.

  • Camus’ The Plague brings to mind Michel Serres difficult but brilliant book, The Parasite. The term parasite in English has a biological and social meaning, but in French it is also can be used to mean static or noise that is present in any channel of communication and that makes the exchange of messages possible if at the same time it distorts them or threatens to overwhelm them with dissonance.

    Serres emphasis that we need to see the parasite as both destroyer and enabler, at the site of all relationships. The parasite vibrates, perturbs or shocks the system, and from this comes possibility but also the risk of death. The system may collapse, as a biological parasite, like Yersinia pestis, may kill its host (and likely itself once all the hosts are dead), or it may strengthen the system, which learns to “accommodate” the added complexity.

    Serres points out in the La Fontaine parable that the city rat does not run from the table with the slightest noise, though the country rat flees as it is unaccustomed. Even though the plague passes in Oran, the microbe is only dormant and could return, Camus warns us. The “new” Oran contains this parasite. Democracy and the flourishing of human rights required and requires a lurking fascism.

    As allegory goes, the US military and private contractors in Iraq are the uninvited guests, which if they eat too much will destroy their host and themselves. At the same time Iraqi people, if out of fear of the plague don’t turn against each other but rather band together to withstand the pestilence, may find some new kind of accommodation, though many suffer greatly until the rats reappear.

    This great perturbance may also finally push the majority of the people of the US (who have seemed, like the city rat, oblivious to the noise as they they busy themselves with consumerism) to bend the country’s democratic institutions and will against the creeping fascism that spread further after 9/11.

  • patsyb

    Yes, sidewalker, brilliant to introduce Serres here. Thanks!~.

  • zeke

    This is an exciting topic for a show. I am uncomfortable with the fear that conversation may end up limited to surface political analogies. I think that happened with the Moby Dick show. Please try to probe the metaphysical allegories as well. They are what makes the book timeless.

  • I also wonder if we can look at this as an allegory at the micro-level: the self. How often do we ignore the signs of destructiveness in our lives, fending each one off as a disconnected event, only to have a personal apocalypse of some sort force us to face ourselves?

  • aeoluspress

    While the surface political analogies seem to be the driving force behind putting this show on, it does seem to be a reductive reading of The Plague. The plague in the novel may not symbolize anything! It seems to me that Camus saw, during WWII, how certain events can bring out the best and worst in people; I’d guess that he wrote The Plague as a way of universalizing his experiences in the war. I don’t at all think that Camus is saying plague = war, except for in the most general, existential sense (they are both types of disasters that are proving grounds for human action).

  • I’m re-reading this after about 25 years.

    My favorite quote thus far:

    “In normal times all of us know, whether consciously or not, that there is no love which can’t be bettered; nevertheless, we reconcile ourselves more or less easily to the fact that ours has never risen above the average. But memory is less disposed to compromise.”

  • nother

    It’s interesting Allison, my favorite quote is just a few lines down from yours. I’m almost done with the book now and looking back, I think the line foreshadows an overriding moral in the book.

    “Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the shy. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper, began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility.”

    It’s those words: “which might in time have given characters a finer temper,” that strike me most.

  • nother

    vast indifference of the sky

  • zeke

    Tarrou on page 229 of my old edition: “All I know is that there are pestilences and there are victims, and its up to us, so far as is possilbe, not to join forces with the pestilences.”

    Rieux concludes: “…the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could only be the record of what had to be done, and what surely would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.”

    I really don’t think this book has anything to do with the so-called War on Terror. The terror is of a completely different kind from the slogan adopted to describe enemies who attack a political state using untraditional (and despicable) techniques. As Tarrou says, “What’s natural is the microbe.” The terror in this allegory is existential not political.

    Oddly, as I have thought about tonight’s show, I found myself wondering what William James would say about these issues. I think he and Dr. Rieux have a lot in common.

  • zeke

    I want to modify slightly what I said above about there being no connection between this book and the War on Terror. To the extent that The Plague is a description about the various ways ordinary people respond to a pestilence that sneaks up on them, the analogy is not to the planes flying into the WTC, but to the evils being done to innocent human beings in the name of fighting it.

  • nother

    In Boston at least, the weather befits our discussion: gloomy yes, but it could be worse…

    I have yet to finish the novel, but as I read it this weekend, I found myself confounded by the multitude of morbid metaphors in “The Plague.” I’d manage to grasp one in my mind and bam…another would take it’s place. Which one of these metaphors was Camus after?

    Or is “The Plague” the ultimate metaphor…the final metaphor? As I flip each page, I peel away a layer from some thick veil over my eyes, only to find it getting darker with each passing layer. Death, it turns out, is all around us.

    I Google…150,000 people die a day…a plague a day!

    Last night an acquaintance was telling me how his family was renting a room during house renovations. “Things are fine Garrett, but what’s freaking me out is that we are right next to a funeral home, and I never realized how many people are dying.”

    I mention to a friend that I’m reading “The Plague” and they exclaim: “damn, that’s some heavy reading, why don’t ya focus on something more positive? The fact that people are dying all around us is obvious.”

    With those words from my friend in my head, I get home last night and read a suitable response from Camus:

    “True, one could always refuse to face this disagreeable fact, shut one’s eyes to it, or thrust it out of mind, but there is a terrible cogency in the self-evident; ultimately it breaks down all defenses.”

    But guess what! When those “defenses” break down and you see the darkness clearly, something divine happens to some of us…with nowhere else to look, we must look inward, and through the suffering we find ourselves…and thus others. That is why Rambert does not escape from Oran – he is finally home.

  • nother

    I wonder what the people of Rwanda or Sudan would think of this book. They might echo the words from “The Plague:”

    “And from the ends of the earth, across thousands of miles of land and sea, kindly, well-meaning speakers tried to voice their fellow-feeling, and indeed did so, but at the same time proved the utter incapacity of every man truly to share in suffering that he cannot see.”

  • .0025% or 25 1,000’s of a percent. With a population of 6 billion. Nother, was that the number of deaths globally?

    yes, nother, I was thinking of those lines, as well. The entire passage encompasses the challenge of human existence. Getting by day to day versus taking steps for the overall betterment of life. I face this every day in my business, in raising my daughter, in my friendships……

  • stlouis

    I don’t usually respond to threads. However, as I heard the ad for tonight’s show, I couldn’t wait to get home and read the blogs. I remember the first time I read

    The Plague. It was for a religion class. It was the first novel I read that I understood completely–all of the nuainces about war, human spirit, resistance including the religious implications and references to the Christian bible. I spent days running to the OED to lookup every word that could possibly have a double/triple meaning. I thumbed my Bible looking for every reference. I am sure that I drove my professor crazy. Thank you for reminding me of one of the happiest intellictual moments in my life. It is one of the reasons I now work to send adults to college because we all remember when the light bulb went on.

  • Potter

    Thank you so much for the impetus to read this book which has been waiting for months on my shelf. I am, between responsiblities, coming across the home stretch, into the last pages and will listen to the podcast. Many favorite lines….. I could not stop thinking about life in the concentration camps of Europe WW2 as told by Bruno Bettleheim and Victor Frankl. But also I thought of recent disasters, Katrina and the South East Asian tsunami/earthquake, the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York City and what followed, and during the worst period of suicide bombings in Israel, not to mention what Iraqi and Palestinians have been going through daily the last several years…..

  • All these comments have gotten me thinking some more:

    x) In Camus’ novel, much of what the plague does is disrupt means of communication, cuts off contact between plague-inflicted Oran and the rest of Algeria, France, the world. In Iraq, this isn’t exactly the case. I remember, for example, a popular blog that cropped up after the initial invasion. The increased media presence in Iraq also might increase communication (or it might be part of the surge of sensationalist journalism that Camus also mention!).

    y) The old man who spits at cats from his balcony: what to make of him? The plague ends his habit. Is his habit cruel? If so, then the plague can get rid of cruelty. More likely, though, is that the plague simply takes [meaningless] actions and changes, destroys them; even after it’s gone, life will not go back to normal. In Iraq, in New Orleans, in New York, too, things didn’t go back to they way they were.

    z) If there are so many “plagues” these days, is Camus’ idea inverted: does the plague, which in the novel is the rarity, become the norm, and the period of non-plague, before and after the plague, become the rarity? In other words: do we all live plague times hoping only for the coming of the non-plague?


    I think that’s way too pessimistic, and comes about from a general narcissism (always wanting our own situation to be the worst, the most important, etc.), but perhaps not!

  • Potter

    I forgot to say how much this book reminds me of Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain”. As well, I forgot Darfur.

  • I disagree that you can’t liken the 9/11 actions to the plague. The plague is a violent attacker of the body. And it spreads. The 9/11 actions were violent and they prodded us to even more violence and the violence is spreading. In allegory, inorganic things can represent organic, so it doesn’t have to be so literally matched.

    The next passage that jumped out at me:

    “On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.”

  • nother

    Nice passage Allison.

    In incidental Iraqi connection: I heard Navy surgeon Richard Jadick on “Fresh Air” talk about the worst wounds he had to deal with in Fallujah. He said they were wounds to the groin, as the groin was not protected.

    In “The Plague,” Camus writes about the worst symptoms being the grotesque inflammation of the groin.

  • nother

    ROS asks: “can we imagine addressing various instances of “the plague” with something other than triumphal eradication of the problem as a plausible and worthy goal of thought and action?

    I believe Camus answers that question through Rieux: “It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is – common decency.”

  • …and the worst groin wounds in The Plague are suffered by white French Algerians. There is also mention of Spanish citizens of Oran. However, the majority, the Arabs/Berbers are only glanced over, never given a chance to speak.

    Is this not somewhat like our interest in our own soldiers, counting Iraq/Afghanistan casualties in U.S./Canadian terms, and failing to mention, in proportion, the greater numbers of other casualties?

  • nother

    When Rambert asks Rieux what he means by “common decency,” Rieux responds “I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case I know it consists in doing my job.”

    I take it that Camus is telling us we will only find ourselves…when we give ourselves to the service of others.

  • nother

    Good point Pacze Moj…

  • Pacze Moj, I was thinking the same thing at one point. As I haven’t finished, I was waiting to see if this would change. I’m gathering it doesn’t.

    nother, Camus would not be the first to posit that you can only find yourself through service to others. I try to teach my daughter this and how challenging it is to balance meeting your own needs so that you can best serve others.

  • IN light of this mention of common decency, how do we each define what common decency we need to engage in to work against whatever pestilence we are faced with? (with so many pestilences in our midst, how do we choose where to place our service?)

  • Can’t a war feel like a plague to those that did not command it?

    I think that most of the citizens of the US, and likely, Iraq, feel like they are victims of something that has befallen on them out of nowhere.

  • thinkpeace2004

    The comment about the flu (plague of 1918) that started at a Kansas army base and proved so deadly put me in mind of a recent plague documented earlier this year in WIRED magazine: the super-resistant acenitobacter that’s immune to antibiotics and has killed soldiers at Walter Reed and elsewhere. I believe the WIRED article mentioned that it’s believed this bacterium was transported from hospitals in Europe to Iraq and thence all over the world.

  • bft

    Look at Pierre Sauvage’s film about Le Chambon. Camus was in that village where so many (and yet so few) Jews were sheltered and helped to escape from Vichy France. Sauvage quotes Camus, making the juxtaposition, but does not insist on what the plague “was” in those days. The film is called “Weapons of the Spirit”.

  • but couldn’t Bush’s pathological inability to understand that some things are bigger than us, be a need to show up his father, to whom he felt inferior? It could be argued that Bush 1 saw our limitations and Bush 2, loathes his father for showing limitation.

  • nother

    Allison and Potter, we should continue the conversation on this thread as finish our own readings.

    “Common decency,” which Chris mentioned as well in his lead-in above, is a fascinating concept. Personally, I hear it chime in the earnest “thank yous” exchanged between strangers on the street, after some random altruistic act.

    And I really appreciated Jim Fitzmorris making the connections between all the atrocities; it’s a perpetual pestilecnce we are fighting.

  • yes, nother, perpetual. though, we don’t always see it in our own midst, if we are not vigilant, we encourage it to rear it’s ugly head.

  • nother

    Could Global Warming be the ultimate plague? We see the same slow response from politicians and general apathy from the populace. Maybe Katrina was not a plague but a symptom.

    How many metaphorical rats will have to die before we enter a state of emergency?

  • you know, in “The Plague”, the authorities are always focused on keeping the people calm. And even when they do declare an emergency they seem impotent when it comes to mobilizing the people. Tarrou comes forward of his own volition and a recognition of the incompetence of the authorities. Does that always have to be the path? Will we never have, or meaningfully respond to, a truly visionary leader that inspires us to our best? There have been some, but the examples don’t stay with us. After WWI, we had WWII. After Korea, Vietnam. After Vietnam, Iraq. We are so willing to repeat these horrific acts; those of us in the ‘power’ position. Why don’t we see more leaders evoking the path of Gandhi, the suffragettes? Are we hard-wired to perpetuate the worst in us? To seek leaders that represent the most domineering aspects of ourselves? Leaders who ultimately seek to protect their position as leader rather than to truly serve mankind?

    Will it take global warming? Is that the plague that will unite us all, finally? Or will those in the climactic safe zones abandon those who are likely to perish? Will we simply see a new power structure where those more inland or closer to the Poles hunker down and self-protect?

  • Fascinating idea about ‘The Plague’ and global warming, nother. That one never even crossed my mind—which is exactly why I’m worried: I’m not reading the rats right!

    As for the show itself: I liked the point that was raised about the novel being funny. I agree that it is, and I think that aspect of Camus is often glossed over. Might it suggest that comedy is a worthwhile lens through which to view serious events?

    The Daily Show, The Colbert Report…

  • Potter

    Absolutely, regarding climate change (Pacze Moj and Nother)- that was one of the first things that popped into my mind while reading…the slowness to realize what was happening, the denial. As well- stocking up for a possible bird flu epidemic last year and thinking about holing up for three months, having to live maybe w/o electiricity until it passed knowing that we could not isolate ourselves easily, emotionally or physically from the rest of the world.

    We bought masks and disposable gloves………

    Now that I am done with the book- I’ll listen.

    The translation was not half bad (ie good) either by Stuart Gilbert for Modern Library college editions

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  • Potter

    I believe that Rieux was an angel…truly. Of all the characters, and Tarrou was very appealing, Rieux stood out ( for me.)

    The plague of Oran and the Iraq war both have stolen attention and focus… the plague though stole to a much greater degree because the people could not turn away as time wore on. We can turn away longer. But both imprison. For us, the imprisonment is indirect more remote, but the effects to come for years.

    I loved Grand’s obsession with words. This artisitic problem helped him though.


    “the habit of despair is worse than the despair itself”

  • Potter

    that is…artistic..creative problem. Keeping a diary, working at figures, doing something useful- even counting peas for goodness sake! These things help one get through.

  • I know it’s obvious, and it’s a novel written at a different time, but the lack of any substantial female characters is stunning. Was this purposeful? Is he describing a male approach to the world? He doesn’t suggest it anywhere, at all, but would he have said that things would play out differently with a balance of female power?

  • Yes, Potter, he is somewhat angelic. His being seems to inspire others, as well.

    On finding ways to help oneself get through: in the passage about the people quarantined in the stadium, it was mentioned that they do nothing all day. I found myself thinking, “Why doesn’t somebody start a choir? Or get them all to write a story together?” The answer, of course, is despair. And I’m in my comfy sofa reading a book with grand thoughts of what could be done. How can I know what I what would do were I in the same predicament? Then, I wondered, “How the did the Katrina evacuees occupy themselves when they were in the stadium?” Funny how different bits of the story bring my mind directly to details of different pestilences…..

  • nother

    My folk singer friend was in a melancholy mood tonight; he just came back from the wake of a former schoolmate who recently died in his sleep.

    I said, “Fitz, that’s the plague, man!”

    But isn’t it? For that (40something) gentleman and his family, he fell victim to the worst plague in history…his own.

    I said “Fitz, that’s what Camus was getting at, death is around every corner, so live your life accordingly.”

    We don’t need any dead rats to tell us we might close our eyes tonight for the last time.

    I think I’m gonna to hug someone today…

  • Speaking of women:

    There’s the important fact of Rieux’s wife dying during the plague, but while exiled from it; she’s dead, but it’s not the plague’s fault (or is it, because the plague separated her from Rieux?).

    And, speaking of women and Rieux:

    There’s the character of Rieux’s mother. She’s a fascinating one. I didn’t quite get my head around her, though.

  • Potter

    Yes, Rieux’s mother may be the only woman that stands out in the story. Her serenity, her sense of duty and ability to go on matched that of Dr. Rieux though we hear from he little. She held him up , was dependable… and that may be part Camus’ sense of woman, the other part being object of love and affection an.

    Rieux had to see his wife off to a sanatorium ( I guess she had TB); he felt helpless and perhaps some guilt for not looking after her better. The saying that Dr’s care for their own family last comes to mind. I think there would have been separation regardless of the plague. He had his rounds and responsibilities, and she would be away in the fresh air of the mountains. They would start again when she got back. There was a tenderness and love between them.

    Women do not play important roles in this story. When Rambert was reunited with his love I imagined some stunning film star for the movie version. The women are very thinly or sparsely characterized-perhaps to not leave them out altogether. But note they are essential to happiness.

    Good point.

  • Potter

    Sorry for the errors above. BTW- Camus had TB.

  • tbrucia

    I found it interesting that many (not all) postings — and much of the show itself — concentrated on ‘The Plague’ as metaphor, and kept trying to ‘relate’ it to our situation… What about simply letting it be itself? One can immerse oneself in it, and just wait… Nassim Taleb makes the point that we live in a mysterious world, and use narrative to make it less ‘scary’ and more comprehensible — and in doing so, lie to ourselves. I find The Plague simply the story of human beings trying ineffectually to make sense of and control a world that is both out of control and senseless. Isn’t part of the enchantment of The Plague simply that it depicts men in ‘free fall’, not knowing how they came to be, and with no idea of where they are going?

  • Takumi Ken

    Having just read The Plague after listing to the podcast of the show, I must admit I did not see it much as a metaphor to wars or any other event other then an outbreak.

    In fact I feel as though trying to move it beyond what the story is about, to try and focus it on the here and now, takes away from the message of what it was then and there.

    However the experience and reactions of the people in the book, from the priest to the doctor, I do see as base human reactions that we can look at in the modern world and just to judge off of in the speculative front.

    If a modern plague were to ravage a small town, would we act the same way if it was just as vicious or disruptive after not much time? If a brand new flu came about and Essex, Connecticut had to be cut off from the rest of the U.S.A. due to this deadly mutation of the bird flu that affected humans, would we see a Castel?

    A plague is a part of nature, it will act of it’s own violation.

    War will act in a similar fashion, but to our horror, we will see our actions change the war, as it will hardly be affected in the way we want or in the speed we wish.

  • I just listened to the show a few days ago. Thanks for the wonderful discussion. I agree that the plague is partly a metaphor for war. However, I think Camus looked at the internal state of humans as a war within the solitary individual. I have read both The Plague and The Stranger recently. The two present, I think different reactions to the war within. Rieux of The Plague responds to the war within by acting in the light of common decency to the world without. Meursault of The Stranger acts but without any such guiding light. Life’s absurdity blinds him as the glare of the sun blinds a man on the beach.

    I find the contrast of these two books very interesting.

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