The Plague in our houses.

The Plague, by Albert Camus, is hardly easy summer reading.  I've been working on this magnificent and amazingly depressing book since mid March, and as summer reports of the rising madness of national dysfunction and the more hopeful results of the Arab Spring keep coming in, The Plague has had on every page something to say, something to hear, about the affairs that grow from the human condition. 

I just finished it. I read (or perhaps skimmed it -after all it was college) years ago, but reading it again slowly and with at least some help from a few more years on the planet, I am astounded by its power.

Camus is not easy for Christians, some see him a blight on the bread that feeds our spirits. He is, at the last, unwilling to consider the path of suffering of the innocent as anything but an obscenity. 

I have to admit that along with reading The Plague I have also been reading the Communist Manifesto, a document that both was a plague (Marx called it a spectre) on unbridled capitalism and, when misused by tyrants, a carrier of plague.) The Penguin Classics addition has an introduction by Marshall Berman that is brilliant. About the Communist Manifesto and Berman's essay, I will have more to say later.)

Camus' The Plague is deeply disturbing and gives no release from the depressing certainty that the plague (both the microbic and the social) is among us and waits only for its moment to arise. At the close of the book Camus puts these words into the chronicler, Dr. Rieux:

"Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men then to despise.

Nonetheless, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be  done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers."

I believe we in the US are witnessing a plague in our house, one that exhibits itself in its early stages as anxiety, an exhibition fueled by those who want us to be fearful and want us to see this or that faction as the engine of salvation. The core  propaganda of the plague merchants is that the plague is coming and they have the only known cure. The problem is that this propaganda is precisely the plague.

One symptom of this plague lurks in the arguments about he national debt. The matter of the national debt seems so complex that it tempting to believe it is better left to others - real or imagined experts or leaders - who will lead us out of the darkness and into the light, etc. Of course the problem is most of these leaders are not half so cleaver as they advertise themselves to be. But they are clever enough to claim they are the experts we have been looking for.

I tend to buy the argument that we need to enlarge our national debt limits and deal with the cuts and taxes on an ongoing basis. But I am distressed that in all the yelling back and forth about what is to be done, and the apparent dysfunctional system in which our governmental and legislative leaders work, little is said about the principles that lie behind their solutions.

Here, for example, is a principle: "From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs." Don't we have every business asking in our society that people both have the opportunity to work in ways that use their talents and abilities and at the same time that every person should have the security of having their basic needs met? Yes, yes, I know, we would need to continue incentives for people to do things that required lots of training or onerous conditions (Doctors and garbage collectors come to mind).  Maybe we could pay garbage collectors a living wage and underwrite medical education. But the poles: work that calls out our best and the rights of basic human comforts - these might be indicators for the sorts of government and legislation we need. 

What would it look like for the politicians doing all the shouting and taking all the high ground to talk in perhaps more measured tones about the common good, in the light of which people can both strive for happiness, be free and live?

But instead of healers, we have a plague of the self-righteous and the flim-flam men, the hucksters and the demigods. At best our government will put off for another day the ideological arguments and for the moment enlarge the debt and pay the bills.  At worse, if we are not careful we will find the saviors ready to walk on-stage and command the cameras, ready to make the news and walk away with the dream, leaving us with bad credit and no care for the basic needs of people.

The plague is in the house, and the time will come when we will have to do again "what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers."


  1. Oh Mark. This is superb --and your parsing of Camus is breathtaking. Thank you.

    It all resonates with a quote I found at kirkepiscatoid's blog: William Shakespeare, from A Winters Tale:

    "It is a heretic that makes the fire, Not she which burns in it."

    We have a bunch of fire makers on the stage indeed.

  2. I think it speaks to today's Gospel.

  3. The first book that I read in the wake of the September 11th attacks, which I witnessed from the roof of my building and whose smoke and dust I breathed for days afterward was not the Bible, but Camus' The Plague. At the time, I was deeply angry at the whole business of religion in the wake of the attacks, and the very last thing I wanted to read was the Bible ("religion is the problem, not the answer" was the grafitti I saw all over town in the weeks after). So, I spent an afternoon reading The Plague. I read it, not to explain the catastrophe, it was committed by people who wanted to destroy meaning, but to understand what to do.
    After seeing firsthand how people responded in New York in the wake of its worst ever calamity, I agree with Camus. Ordinary people are much better than the experts and their rulers give them credit. Just like in Camus' novel, everyone did their part, great or small, and it all added up to the revival of the city's life in the face of those who would destroy it. In this city famous for its social Darwinism, that normally shoots its wounded and eats its young, all kinds of people came together to help each other out. Not just diverse groups of people, but disparate groups. East Village punk bands performed to raise money for the bereaved families of dead fire fighters. Peace activists, stock-brokers, plumbers, construction workers, musicians, house wives, busboys, janitors, doctors, and cab drivers all volunteered and pitched in together. I'll never forget it.

  4. Chris Brennan Lee17/7/11 11:58 AM

    While I have not read "The Plague" you, nevertheless, as usual, give voice to my thoughts only 'way better and much more profoundly. The legislative/economic landscape is depressing indeed and yet not at all new. I saw a PBS documentary on Will Rogers - we're repeating ourselves yet again. His comments about the 1930s could have been written in today's editorials.

    Our instant gratification/24 hour "news" society cannot look past 10 second sound bites and seems to thrive on who is yelling the loudest even if ineptly and nonsensically. At least Rupert Murdoch, the Madoff of "journalism", has finally hit a bump in his road, perhaps there are remedies for some microbials after all. At least temporarily.

    Please continue to keep us all on track, or at least remind us that some of us are on the same page!

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