‘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.’
Like so many towns today. Here’s Albert Camus writing in 1947 and ringing more relevant than ever. His novel The Plague is about more than the plague sweeping the town of Oran. The slow viral pages we turn today are about so much more than Covid-19. They are about us.
An inkling of something different, an intimation. The original French word is soupçon, a suspicion. Do we suspect anything happening, moving, beating under the skin of our daily routine? Probably not, just like we don’t suspect to have lungs until our parents and schoolteachers start telling us about them and we see them diagrammed in illustrated science books.
The Covid-19 crisis is forcing us to rediscover our existential lungs, those we don’t always know we have, and to draw near to unsuspected sources of joy. To grope in the dark of this late hour for the lamp under the bed and to put it back on the table.
Make no mistake, Camus’s Plague is a mirrored image of our present mess. He’s seen and written it all, from A to Z, the passage from surprise to panic, the incredulity, the illusion that we’d be spared, the provocative carelessness, the confinement, isolation and separation, the bad dream and the reality of the nightmare, the insufficiency of protective measures, the overwhelmed hospitals, the quarantine centres, the self-exile, the funerals without ceremony, the thickness of time face-to-face with the outside enemy.
And yet, we are to put our ear to the ground and listen to the faint whisper of something different.
You’ve conceptually disturbed the dust here, pleasantly prompting our minds to trace the origins of our actions and their causes: “Do we suspect anything happening, moving, beating under the skin of our daily routine? Probably not…” I’ve never read “The Plague,” but I have read Camus’ L’Étranger (The Stranger) and as I read the introductory lines from Defoe and the introductory paragraphs that open the “Plague,” it seems that some feelings/tone ring through as similar in the “Stranger.” Defoe’s quote: “It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not” introduces the difficulty of escaping the existential feeling of ennui in this city. But this is not just an isolated/temporary experience; it colors the whole city. It is in fact, its characteristic trait – “ordinariness is what strikes one first about the town of Oran…” prompting the narrator to interject that “you need time to discover what it is that makes it different,” especially since how they work, love and die are all done “on much the same lines, with the same feverish yet casual air,” dedicated to a boredom evidenced by their “cultivating” of “habits.”
Confined to an eternal “habit,” there seems to be no indication of its beginning or end, no sense of an ontological source. So that the people don’t even act upon “intimation.” Rather, “men and women consume one another rapidly in what is called “the act of love,” or else settle down to a mild habit of conjugality.” THIS is the problem. They move existentially, it seems, by a kind of automated chain reaction in response to the environment – “Think what it must be for a dying man, trapped behind hundreds of walls all sizzling with heat…It will then be obvious what discomfort attends death, even modern death, when it waylays you under such conditions in a dry place.”
This is similar to the “Stranger,” in which Meursault has no known, strong convictions about any aspect of life, but his responses (not thought of as moods/emotions) seem always contingent upon the weather or the responses and actions of others. That is, they never convey an inner ontological reality because Mersault’s emotions are psychologically inaccessible to the reader. The result of his actions are never revealed as the consequence of conceptual thinking or normative reasoning, but rather as the outcome of chain reactions related to a series of sensuous/sensual stimuli. He loves washing his hands in the men’s room at work, except when the towel gets too damp. The dampness makes him uneasy, but he never stops to think why that is so, which is why in the end, it’s the gradual intensity of the heat and the feeling of being cornered that brings him to a kind of apogee of discomfort, driving him to shoot the Arab and to keep shooting even after he was dead.
Hence, in plague or peace, the “imprisonment” is not really on the outside, but exists internally. Your post points to a return to analysis, and time enough, during our confinement, to reassess our lives, our actions and their ontologies in the midst of that confinement. We surely have no time for ennui.
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