16 Aug A Catastrophe in Retrospect
In 1947, Albert Camus wrote- La Pest/The Plague, a novel that is frequently described as greatest European novel of the post-war period. It is a narrative writing from the viewpoint of a character – Doctor Rieux (a version of Camus himself). In the novel, Camus writes about a virus that spreads uncontrollably from animals to humans and ends up destroying half the population of a representative modern town called Oran.
The novel begins with a subtle description and a view into the lives of the inhabitants of Oran. Camus writes that “the inhabitants lead busy money-centred and denatured lives; they barely notice that they are alive.” Then, as the story unfolds, the horror begins. There are reported incidents of rats dying, one… then few… then thousands. Soon the epidemic grips Oran, the disease transmits itself from citizen to citizen- spreading panic and horror throughout the town.
Scène de la peste de 1720 à la Tourette (Marseille) by Catalan-born French painter Michel Serre
Sounds familiar…? Yes, but the idea is not to reiterate what has been floating day in and out in the media for months now. My motive is to bring to notice something we all have been ignorant about.
In Camus’ philosophy we are already at all times living through the plague. A silent disease that is hiding in some animal or insect, in the dark corners of our houses, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers – but which has the potential to end the lives that we so assuredly assumed solid. It brings to light the many frailties of human life we suppress within ourselves. The actual incidents we call epidemic or pandemics – like the Covid-19, The Italian plague of 1962, the great plague of London or the Spanish flu are mere conversions of this underlying precondition – that we are vulnerable to being randomly exterminated, by a virus or by some action of fellow humans or even ourselves. This is the core idea behind what Camus in the novel says – our lives are fundamentally on the edge of what can be termed ‘the absurd’.
This when understood well, must not bring melancholy. Reading this one must not resign to despair and sadness- rather accept this as a reality that needs proper attention. It must thus free us the constant anxiety of ‘what lies ahead’. Treading through life we often forget that we have not been granted immortality. We often acquire behaviours that Camus damns worthy of hatred- a tendency to hoard (goods and money), an obsession with status, a refusal of joy and gratitude, a tendency to moralise and judge and most hateful of all- a tendency to assume superiority over other species with which we coexist.
If we do understand in true sense the ‘here and now’ of life- we would be more focussed in making the present happier for us and those around us. Life to be enjoyed in the present, so to speak, demands us to develop a deep sense of appreciation of all that’s around us- that shiny crimson ladybug, that seed which germinated into a sapling in your sight, the warmth of the sunlight, the freshness of the rain drops. Sharpening your senses to take a note of these does not guarantee material benefits- but it surely enhances the quality of your experience of this short voyage called life.
Eventually, after more than a year, the plague ebbs away in the novel- so shall Covid-19. The townspeople celebrated the end of suffering… so shall we. We might defeat a certain pandemic or outbreak but there could always be others. Even when we win let us not sink in victory and glorify this to bloat our egos- and remember that we are but a small species coexisting with many others- not superior not inferior. And we are a guest in this colossal existence for days assigned to us.