A Few Words from Albert Camus

From The Plague (thanks to L. for sharing):

In fact, like our fellow citizens. Rieux [the main character, a doctor] was caught off guard. and we should understand his hesitations in the light of this fact; and similarly understand how he was torn between conflicting fears and confidence. When a war breaks out, people say, “It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.” But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.

In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. 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. Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague. which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free as long as there are pestilences.


Humanists do take precautions, however. It’s knuckleheads who don’t.

The Plague by Albert Camus

I read The Myth of Sisyphus in college and didn’t understand it at all. I read The Stranger a few years ago and didn’t really enjoy it. So it was good to start reading The Plague and find it both understandable and enjoyable (or as enjoyable as the subject matter would allow).

The plague in question is the bubonic plague. It strikes a city in Algeria in modern times, killing thousands of people. For months, nobody is allowed to enter or leave the city. The novel has relatively few descriptions of the physical effects of the disease. There is more said about its psychological effects. We follow the activities of Dr. Rieux, who does whatever he can to help his patients, and a small number of his acquaintances, some of whom become his friends as the months go by.

The Plague is sometimes described as an “existentialist” novel, although Camus apparently disliked that term. It certainly does concern human existence, and human existence under great stress. I haven’t checked to see whether the plague is supposed to symbolize something. What I took away from the novel is that most people will rise to the occasion, as we see whenever a disaster occurs. It also occurred to me that all of us are quarantined on this planet, with no possibility of escape, and that we are all going to succumb to something sooner or later. The difference is that some of the characters in the novel get out alive.

The Stranger by Albert Camus, translated by Matthew Ward

This is the third or fourth time I started reading The Stranger and the first time I finished it. I’m glad I made it through Part 1 because Part 2 is actually interesting.

In his introduction, the translator says Camus adopted an “American” style in Part 1: “the short, precise sentences; the depiction of a character ostensibly without consciousness; and, in places, the ‘tough guy’ tone”. In Part 2, however, “Camus gives freer rein to a lyricism which is his alone”. 

I found most of Part 1 to be oppressive. Meursault, the “stranger”, narrates the story as if he’s an alien or a robot. He hardly reacts to anything except the heat and the sunshine. In Part 2, he expresses some emotions in addition to annoyance and becomes almost sympathetic, even though I was never convinced by his repeated claims that life is absurd and nothing matters.

There are absurdities in life, but death doesn’t make life absurd. It only makes it finite. And some things do matter if only because they matter to us.

The Fall by Albert Camus, translated by Justin O’Brien

Two men meet in a bar in Amsterdam. One of them, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, talks for the rest of the book. The other man is never named. He occasionally speaks but his words never appear. The Fall is a monologue, in which Clamence talks to his new acquaintance about the hypocrisy, foolishness and self-deception of the human race. 

Clamence eventually identifies himself as a “judge-penitent”. He used to be a lawyer in Paris. Now he occupies himself by striking up conversations with strangers who come into the bar. He then confesses his various misdeeds, including his failure to intervene in a woman’s suicide back in Paris. This is the penitent part of his new occupation. Having made his own confession, he thinks that he has the right to judge the rest of humanity. And judging the rest of humanity allows other people to share the guilt. Hence, his role as judge-penitent.

I often didn’t understand what Clamence was saying. But reading The Fall did have an effect. Near the end of the book, Clamence remarks that “we are odd, wretched creatures, and if we merely look back over our lives, there’s no lack of occasions to amaze and horrify ourselves”. He suggests to his new acquaintance: “Admit that you feel less pleased with yourself than you felt five days ago” (when their conversation began). 

I feel a little less pleased with myself after reading The Fall. Not because I am newly aware of any of my serious misdeeds (no news there). Rather because Clamence explains at one point how good it used to make him feel to do nice things for other people, like helping to push a stalled car. Such actions seem less significant when we consider how much we enjoy performing them. I might be less pleased with myself the next time I give someone directions or push a stalled car.  (2/21/12)