The Plague and the Love 24-07-2011

The Plague by Albert Camus is a revelation. I feel confident in saying this having read only some 90 pages to this point. I've been reading for about a week and am moving at an admittedly slow pace compared to my normal reading speed. I think that it could be due to the extreme relevance that echoes from Camus' thoughts and exhibitions. At its core, The Plague seems to be a tale of essential humanity: a plague ravishes the port town of Oran and We the Readers are given a look into the trials of the town's population as they slowly succumb to and realize the presence of life's absurdity. We witness how unique individuals and a singular populace respond to the sudden, jarring separation from loved ones, to the loneliness and solitude of crisis, to the steady discovery of life's harshness, to the slow grind of true isolation (be it individual or collective) and ultimately to the "vast indifference of the sky." For the reader whom rejects the idea of objective meaning and purpose, it is a beautiful treatise that perfectly exemplifies that difficult-to-describe, deep-down sensation, at once sinking and liberating, which gives rise to so many feelings. Whether it is despair or elation, abandonment or welcoming, the emotions that accompany the cognizance of the irrationality of human condition and of consciousness are on full display to be found and experienced in Camus' brilliant work.

But, I would like to focus, if I may, on how The Plague approaches and reflects perhaps the most controversial and indescribable of all human feelings: love. Two particular passages from the book have followed me in recent memory, tracing my neural pathways in a fit of examination. The first is found on page 68 of the 1952 printing (which I lovingly purchased for some three dollars from a local used book store, without a dust jacket, and which now sits on my shelf in all of its bold, black glory, showing only a simple imprint of the skeleton of Death personified, giving chase across the cover to some unseen figure) and reads as such:

To come at last, and more specifically, to the case of parted lovers, who present the greatest interest and of whom the narrator is, perhaps, better qualified to speak -- their minds were the prey of different emotions, notably remorse. For their present position enabled them to take stock of their feelings with a sort of feverish objectivity. And, in these conditions, it was rare for them not to detect their own shortcomings. What first brought these home to them was the trouble they experienced in summoning up any clear picture of what the absent one was doing. They came to deplore their ignorance of the way in which that person used to spend his or her days, and reproached themselves for having troubled too little about this in the past, and for having affected to think that, for a lover, the occupations of the loved one when they are not together could be a matter of indifference and not a source of joy. Once this had been brought home to them, they could retrace the course of their love and see where it had fallen short. 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.

The residents of Oran were not immediate in their recognition of the true direness of their situation: described by the narrator at the beginning of the novel as wholly consumed by their pursuit of money and business, the people and the vast majority of their intrigue were consumed in their trade and left unaffected by the unfolding of the plague, insofar as it did not affect the daily grind. More precisely explained, from page four: "The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits. Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, 'doing business'". Once the plague inevitably lead to the shutdown of the town as a business center and to the closing of the gates, the cars began to "drive in circles", the people began to wander the streets with an aimlessness reserved for those awaiting their imminent demise and the shops began to board up. Desolation. Only once the natural progression of daily life was irrevocably altered did people take notice that this was, in fact, a terrible configuration of circumstances.

Over time, everyone of course became despondent, and in turn worn down. People ceased to estimate how much longer the gates would be closed, how much longer life would be forced to continue in such a monotonous fashion. They had come to "accept frustration as a natural state" and had been sapped "to the point of futility".

But I believe that the closing off of the town in and of itself was not the root of this despair. Though the change of daily routine and hustle had brought their collective and individual visions directly to the sobering existence of the Plague (which is to say, the Plague as pestilence personified, superseding the plague as tangible medical crisis), it had been merely inconvenient for most. No, the problem was that lovers were now separated. People who had become co-dependent, who had pseudo-willingly tangled their lives together into a cobbled mass of humanity, were now, in many cases, on opposite sides of the locked gate. The closure had come suddenly and without warning, stranding many inside or outside of town. Though the authority of the town had given the order to close the gates and had deemed no exceptions to the quarantine, it was rationalized by most that the matter was out of their hands and that the Plague was the cause. Finally, the Plague was an actual menace.

For the separated lovers, it exposed perceived flaws, both in self and in their complex attachments. For many of those lovers trapped on the inside, their was a sudden realization of innate selfishness: though life was without any shadow of a doubt happier and more pleasant and free on the outside, they wanted desperately to hold their companion once more, and further they needed it. They would never, ever dream of asking a random stranger to enter into the town: it was self-evidently ludicrous to wish such a fate upon some one whom you did not know, much less care for. Why burden them? But, ironically enough, those individuals that quite literally meant the world to them, those who were so dearly longed for, should be given that same burden to soothe the aching heart. Sure, some such as Dr. Rieux might have on the surface been glad for their respective lovers for having avoided this calamity. But in the deepest and truest since imaginable, they would happily put their dearest love in danger if it meant restoring normalcy through intimacy.

Furthermore, the menace had displayed the hardship involved with relying so heavily upon the presence of another individual in one's life. Ultimately, everyone is out of everyone else's control. The lover can change at a moment's notice, she can become wholly different or start a new course in life that cannot be followed. Most people seem to build a rigid archetype of their lover: a constant, perhaps idealized image of who s/he is which, once violated, breeds hostility and despair and confusion. Flux is scary, especially with someone who has such immense sway over one's emotions. Slight changes can build up into huge emotional devastation. That is part of why it is a most vulnerable state to feel in love. But another, perhaps equal factor in this vulnerability is that to love some one is to give them the key to your most personal self and hope that they use it only for Good. Hope that they unlock the heart, move on in and stay. Hope that they don't drill holes in the wall, don't cause too much noise, don't wreck the place. But there's no way of knowing.

The Plague showed this to the people of Oran through force. Once the lover was away, with no sense of time of return, one was left only with memories of the dear lover. In the solitude and isolation (both the physical isolation of quarantine and the emotional isolation of thought) that had been wrought, one was left to contemplate every facet of the lover and of the relationship. Everything seemingly minor and trivial came to the front, both good and bad. Self-doubt and hyper-analyzation over every moment spent in embrace, frustration with all words left unsaid that may not be said again for quite some time if ever, idealization of every positive quality to the point of deification. And as Camus wrote, "memory is less disposed to compromise". Memories and feelings would reverberate and echo for every moment in time until the gates re-opened. A return of the lover would be a return to the security and normalcy of how things used to be, to when things were of lower stake because they had the rest of their lives ahead of them. But while the gates remained closed, everything was on hold and open for examination.

Love had made individuals trapped in the town of Oran fully aware of the true wrath of the Plague: separation and estrangement. If not for such strong feelings and attachments, the Plague would remain the plague; there would simply be inconvenience, irritability and waiting. But waiting takes on a completely different meaning when you are longing for Someone and not for some thing.

And yet, strangely enough, these same feelings of love provided the only true solace to be found for many. This brings us to our second passage, from page 70:

Nevertheless -- and this point is most important -- however bitter their distress and however heavy their hearts, for all their emptiness, it can be truly said of these exiles that in the early period of the plague they could account themselves privileged. For at the precise moment when the residents of the town began to panic, their thoughts were wholly fixed on the person whom they longed to meet again. The egoism of love made them immune to the general distress and, if they thought of the plague, it was only in so far as it might threaten to make their separation eternal. Thus in the very heart of the epidemic they maintained a saving indifference, which one was tempted to take for composure. Their despair saved them from panic, thus their misfortune had a good side. For instance, if it happened that one of them was carried off by the disease, it was almost always without his having had time to realize it. Snatched suddenly from his long, silent communion with a wraith of memory, he was plunged straightway into the densest silence of all. He'd had no time for anything.

Though the separation from their lovers had left many residents of Oran scarred by the perpetual re-examination of their intimate relationships, hurt by the consistently just-out-of-reach image of someone needed so badly, the lover on the outside also provided a beacon of light. Many residents of the town, particularly those who were elderly or who had already lost a loved one to the plague or who had never felt intimate with some one, became the walking dead. There was little reason to hope: for them, the re-opening of the gates and eventual eradication of the plague would have little true effect on their most personal lives. Sure things would become more convenient; they could go back to their favorite cafes, go back to making smalltalk that is not laced with tension, go back to the harbor to bathe in the waves of the Sea. But for many, such as perhaps Cottard who is completely and utterly alone in life and even attempts suicide, this provides little to no solace. Life was lonely before. Life is lonely now. Life will be lonely after. Why bother?

Juxtapose Cottard against Rambert, the traveling journalist whom was trapped in Oran by unfortunate timing and sheer randomness. He approaches Dr. Rieux hoping earnestly that the Doctor might be able to assist him in leaving the town. Rambert's only ambition in leaving is to return to his lover. He remarks, "It's so damn silly, doctor, isn't it? The truth is I wasn't brought into the world to write newspaper articles. But it's quite likely I was brought into the world to live with a woman. That's reasonable enough, isn't it?" In that quote, Rambert simultaneously terms his reliance on this woman as silly and reasonable without batting an eye. Though this desperation he feels has him on edge, it is also the one thing keeping him motivated and lively. He recognizes the absurdity of it all but feels no reluctance to embrace his deepest feeling.

In many ways, Rambert is an Existentialist hero: he has defined his own meaning in life and is pursuing it with great enthusiasm and effort. He has determined that it is entirely arbitrary for him to be in Oran and will do everything in his power to depart because his subjectively-driven purpose is outside of the walls. So that is where he shall go.

This, for many, is the value of Love: it provides a great and wondrous essence that exists outside of self. The internal system is opened up and one is allowed to exist more freely, to flow into and throughout that special person. From this perspective, the solitude inherent in the human condition is analogous to the closed gates of Oran; like the residents artificially restrained by the closed gates, an individual is limited by human nature and experience, which is fully subjective to the individual. And as love provided Rambert and others with some meaning for existing in such harsh, brutal conditions, it also provides many people in "the real world" with reasoning behind the toil of daily existence. For some, it could be love of knowledge. For others, the love of a social cause. But still for others, it is that love of another person, someone going through the same absurdity and feeling the same isolation of a largely uncaring reality. In each other, they can find meaning that does exist outside of their selves and they can connect. Loneliness subsides, on some level, and the isolation of Man crumbles.

Of course it is vulnerable. Tricky. Challenging. Scary. Painful. But it is also beautiful. Honest. Exquisite. Meaningful. Profound. Human. It provides an avenue through which both immeasureable joy and incredible hardship can be experienced. One can choose to close it off, and such a blockade would be a reasonable, rational choice. Or one can choose to take the chance and dive in. Perhaps it could melt the ice that wraps the frigid human heart and bring a magical sensation to otherwise plain humanity. Perhaps it could provide golden moments of euphoric connection.

Through the first 90 pages at least, this contradiction inherent in Love is on full display in The Plague. Disease befalls an arbitrary town, for no reason, and separates individuals whom had based much of their existence around each other. The Plague deprives them of the Love. In this sudden, unexpected and uncertain separation, there is great hurt and despair. Despair caused by the vulnerability found in loving intimacy. But there is also hope for that wonderful moment when the gates open and the walls of indifference come crashing down. Hope caused by the splendor and blissfully warm embrace of this same Love.

Ultimately, what Camus shows us is that there is a great deal of the human condition which is out of any individual human's control. The plague certainly could not be controlled. And feelings of love are difficult, if not impossible, to objectively control. But there is one key difference between the two:

The Plague is irrational and meaningless. The Love is merely irrational.