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ARCANE AND GERMANE BOOK REVIEWS #14

After reading a new book, never allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
“All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”
(C.S. Lewis)


We are Not in Control

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books … All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those like myself, who seem most opposed to it.[1]

We are caught up in history’s ineluctable flow and will ourselves be subject to the judgment of future generations.

C.S. Lewis’ typically sharp yet humble observation that every age including our own makes its own characteristic mistakes, offers a refreshing alternative to arguably the chief heresy of our age: that at this very moment in time we can be, ‘on the right side of history.’ The truth, of course, is that we are caught up in history’s ineluctable flow and will ourselves be subject to the judgment of future generations. Most significantly, we are subject to the judgment of our Maker, the everlasting God for whom alone ‘a thousand years… are like a day that has just gone by.’ (Psalm 90:2, 4). In our present moment it is an elusive virus that challenges us to relearn this lesson: ‘we are not in control.’

The Plague

The Plague

A Completely Modern City

It took a global pandemic for me to finally get to a classic of existentialist literature: The Plague, by Albert Camus.[2] Originally written in French, ‘La Peste’ is what we would now call a ‘disaster story’, and chronicles one chief event: A modern variant of the bubonic plague visits the 1940s town of Oran; a French port city on the author’s native Algerian coast. The initial response is one with which we are all now familiar; denial and disbelief. Disasters of this kind aren’t meant to happen nowadays; at least not in our part of the world. The plague disrupts the status-quo of what Camus describes as an ‘average modern city;’ characterised by comfort and complacency.

Life is lived with a feverish yet casual air … the truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits. Our citizens work hard, but solely with the project of getting rich … The passions of the young are violent and short-lived; the vices of older men seldom range beyond an addiction to games of bowls, to banquets and ‘socials’, or clubs where large sums change hands on the fall of a card.

There still exist towns and countries where people have now and then an inkling of something different. In general it doesn’t change their lives. Still, they have had an intimation, and that’s so much to the good. Oran, however, seems to be a town without intimations; in other words, completely modern. (6)

In Oran, questions about the end of life can be deferred until ‘later’.

In Oran, ‘living your life’ is about ‘taking care of business.’ The reasonable expectation is that this is the way things are and will always continue (c.f. James 4:13-17). Questions about the end of life can be deferred until ‘later’; or cordoned off in hospitals and care facilities.

Can this Really be Happening?

The plague soon becomes an inescapable reality, and not only because of the gruesome presence of huge numbers of dead and dying rats in the streets. No one part of the community is left untouched. The plague spreads quickly, randomly and mercilessly. As a result the whole city is quarantined; cut off from the rest of the world. The description of the suffering that men, women and children endure—both those who contract the disease, as well as those who look on helplessly —is gruesome and detailed.

While some attempt a desperate escape, others seek escape in ‘eating, drinking and being merry.’

Camus illustrates from the lives of his characters how extreme situations inevitably reveal the real priorities and loves of people. While some attempt a desperate escape from Oran despite the constant patrolling of the borders, others seek escape in ‘eating, drinking and being merry.’ Others get busy, working tirelessly in the often futile effort to alleviate pain and suffering wherever they find it. Heroic men and women, well aware of the risk of contracting the disease themselves, keep up the fight to preserve human life. For one character, Cottard—a fugitive on the run from another precinct—the quarantined town provides the perfect cover, and the opportunity to run a black market catering to the needs of desperate citizens.

The Limits of Humanism

As it becomes increasingly difficult for the townsfolk to ignore fundamental questions concerning the purpose of human life, Camus exposes the fault-lines of the closed universe systems of humanism and modernity. Monash lecturer in 20th century French literature Christopher Watkin, points out that the same could be said of our current crisis:

COVID 19 shows how modernity fits its whole horizon within the status-quo … to the extent of dismissing the thought that things could be radically different to how they currently are … preferring instead to try to fit new realities into existing expectations… [the problems start] as reality breaks and over flows those expectations.[3]

As was the case during the Great Depression and the World Wars, the experience of living through a large scale crisis with no clear end in sight can ‘mess with our experience of time.’ As statements like, ‘when this is all over we’ll get back to normal,’ start to sound a bit hollow—as weeks become months and months becomes years—seasonal markers become blurred, revealing ‘how crucial our understanding of the times are for our experience of the world.’

‘Just Life, No More than That’

Finally, like the end of a nightmare, the plague runs its course. There are great celebrations in the streets as the town of Oran is opened up. Those who have survived are reunited with loved ones. One of the survivors is Dr. Rieux, the book’s narrator. Rieux had worked tirelessly, risking his own life to attend to the sick and the dying. As a doctor on the front line, he never escaped the daily reminder of the fragility and futility of life in the face of death. At the end of the story we overhear his sober reflections:

All those folk are saying, ‘it was the plague. We’ve had the plague here.’ You’d almost think they expected to be given medals for it. But what does that mean— ‘plague’? Just life, no more than that … (250)

As he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it roused up its rats again and sent them forth to die in a happy city. (252)

Albert Camus fought bravely for the Resistance during the German occupation of France in World War II. Written shortly after the end of the war (1947), The Plague can be read as a parable for that time—with the the atheist Rieux representing Camus’ own conviction that it is right to resist evil. But as the above quote shows, it is just as important for Camus to face the inevitability of human evil. As Dr. Rieux puts it, plagues are both ‘the bane and the enlightening of men.’

Tarrou holds on to faith in God, finally succumbing to the plague in its final moments as the town is being delivered.

While Camus confronts ‘the problem of evil,’ his book also celebrates the goodness and nobility of human beings, that is often most clearly evident in times of great crisis. Watkin points out, that despite the assertion of many critics, The Plague is not merely a challenge to embrace the absurdity of life in the face of ultimate meaninglessness.[4] In its pages we find a genuine celebration of communal life—including the gift of deep and abiding friendships. Rieux’s own friendship with Tarrou (a town official who had worked alongside him) is a chief example. Tarrou holds on to faith in God, finally succumbing to the plague in its final moments as the town is being delivered. Rieux cares for his friend, and stays by his side right up until the moment he takes his last breath. Even the character of the Jesuit Priest, Father Paneloux, who is at first pilloried for a sermon which channels Job’s comforters, is finally honored for his compassion and care for the sick and the dying which in the end costs him his life.

He had elected for the place amongst his fellow workers that he judged incumbent on him- in the forefront of the fight. And constantly since then he had rubbed shoulders with death. Though theoretically immunized by periodical inoculations, he was well aware that at any moment death might claim him too. (180)

Hope Beyond Cure

In the 1950s Camus began to think again about the Christian faith he had been baptized into as an infant. The minister Howard Mumma whom he had heard preach, and with whom he had had a number of discussions, recalled how Camus deeply admired Jesus Christ, and respected the integrity of the life and intellect of a number of believers he had known. However, he struggled to accept the truth at the end of the gospel—the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. At the same time Camus was losing faith in Atheism. On one occasion Camus remarked:

Something is dreadfully wrong. I am a disillusioned and exhausted man. I have lost faith, lost hope, ever since the rise of Hitler. Is it any wonder that at my age I am looking for something to believe in? To lose one’s life is only a little thing. But, to lose the meaning of life, to see our reasoning disappear, is unbearable. It is impossible to live life without meaning.[5]

Nobody really knows whether Camus died in the faith of Christ. But the life and the death of every human being is significant to God.

In January 1960 at the age of 47, Albert Camus would lose his life in a tragic road accident. Nobody really knows whether Camus died in the faith of Christ. What we can be sure of is that the life and the death of every human being is significant to God. The wisdom which enables us to navigate life now, is the fruit of hope in the face of certain death and judgment (Colossians 1:5; Hebrews 9:27-28).

God is the giver of all life. Jesus Himself tells us that to ‘know the only true God; and Jesus Christ whom He sent,’ is what it means to have ‘ eternal life.’ (John 17:3). This personal knowledge; this living hope that grants us meaning and purpose, will sustain us through the inevitable trials we all sooner or later will encounter (Romans 8:37; 1Peter 1:3-9). Through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us we receive and live out God’s love (Romans 5:1-5). This includes the trials we experience, and the love we share through a pandemic.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world,
From everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.
Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble.
May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children.
May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us –
yes, establish the work of our hands.
(Psalm 90:1-4, 12, 15-17).

 

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
(1Corinthians 15:19-20)


[1] C.S. Lewis, ‘Introduction’, Athanasius. On the Incarnation. (London& Oxford: Mowbray, 1944 (1982)), 4, 5.

[2] Albert Camus. The Plague. (London: Penguin; 1947 (1983)). All quotations from the book are taken from this edition.

[3] Lecturer and Author In Contemporary European Thought: Atheism And Religion, TGC contributor Dr. Chris Watkin (Monash University), has been an accessible and learned ‘conversation partner’ whose blog posts have helped to crystallize much of my thinking on Camus in relation to our current experience of the pandemic. https://christopherwatkin.com/posts/The quotes from this section are taken from his introductory video, also available in written form. https://www.thinkingthroughthebible.com/albert-camus-literature-and-the-plague/.

[4] In this respect it’s possible to chart a development in the philosophy of Camus between his first book The Myth of Sisyphus (1940) and The Plague (1947), in which the quest for meaning in a godless world takes in a more communal aspect.

[5] Quoted in Howard Mumma, Albert Camus and the Minister. (2000), 14.

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