Pandemic and the Plague: I Read Camus

In the midst of the quarantined life in the pretty garden created by the gardener and in the house with our six sweet cats, I’ve been reading The Plague by the existentialist Albert Camus since March 20 and just finished yesterday. I don’t know why it took me so long except that I am too exhausted to read at night and can only read 20 minutes a day, tops. It feels as if I have always been reading this book. It was first published as La Peste in France in 1947 and then in English in 1948.

I don’t think the novel is scaring me, although I am plagued (sorry) with dreams and nightmares that poke the surface of my consciousness every morning.

As I’ve read, I’ve highlighted passages (percentages are where quotes can be found in my Kindle version) that resonated with me from today’s pandemic. The translation I selected was by Stuart Gilbert. Here are some of the quotes with my “annotations” or questions:

“Thus the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile . . . . that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.” 23%

  • Does that sound familiar? A weird void that just won’t fill in, no matter how much chocolate or wine you feed it. A desperate longing to get this over with once and for all?! Wash our hands of it, so to speak.

“And though the narrator experienced only the common form of exile, he cannot forget the case of those who, like Rambert the journalist and a good many others, had to endure an aggravated deprivation, since, being travelers caught by the plague and forced to stay where they were, they were cut off both from the person with whom they wanted to be and from their homes as well.” 24%

  • Do you ever have strong feelings of sympathy for people who didn’t get to quarantine where they are most comfortable? Or with the person they most want to be with? Awful. I am cut off from my kids, like so many, but at least I am here with the gardener and our cats.

“Looking at them, you had an impression that for the first time in their lives they were becoming, as some would say, weather-conscious. A burst of sunshine was enough to make them seem delighted with the world, while rainy days gave a dark cast to their faces and their mood.” 24%

  • As soon as I felt locked in, I started desperately searching for sunshine so I could get some of it on my bare skin. I hadn’t had this feeling since I was a kid in Michigan, desperate to feel the warm sun on my skin that had been buried under dry epidermis layers and woolens. The gardener intensified his radar searches for weather forecasts.

“But the gaunt, idle cranes on the wharves, tip-carts lying on their sides, neglected heaps of sacks and barrels–all testified that commerce, too, had died of plague. ” 25%

  • Yup, most businesses are tipped over, lying on their sides, and beginning to rot.

“Their first reaction, for instance, was to abuse the authorities.” 25%

  • Haha, we all do it. And mainly for good reason. I blame every politician and government employee/appointee involved over the last hundred years since the government has been responsible for protecting us from a pandemic at least since the last pandemic. But they didn’t. Not one of them. They washed their hands.

“Nevertheless, many continued hoping that the epidemic would soon die out and they and their families be spared. Thus they felt under no obligation to make any change in their habits as yet. Plague was for them an unwelcome visitant, bound to take its leave one day as unexpectedly as it had come.” 30%

  • Most of us are probably still in this phase. But those of us who have lost someone or watched someone suffer with the disease have gone beyond that one.

“At first the fact of being cut off from the outside world was accepted with a more or less good grace, much as people would have put up with any other temporary inconvenience that interfered with only a few of their habits. But, now they had abruptly become aware that they were undergoing a sort of incarceration under that blue dome of sky, already beginning to sizzle in the fires of summer, they had a vague sensation that their whole lives were threatened by the present turn of events . . . .” 32%

  • As it gets warmer and we get closer to the beginning of summer, more and more people are going to start “chompin’ at the bit.” And will feel more desperate. Let’s hope it doesn’t go that far.

“[T]he way in which, in the very midst of catastrophe, offices could go on functioning serenely and take initiatives of no immediate relevance, and often unknown to the highest authority, purely and simply because they had been created originally for this purpose.” 35%

  • Oh man, when I run up against the dumbest bureaucracy still operating at molasses-speed, it makes me angry.

“Now and again a gunshot was heard; the special detailed to destroy cats and dogs, as possible carriers of infection, was at work.” 36%

  • In the United States this “disposal” generally takes the form of dumping animals outside and at shelters. Stories are that it has been more like in the book in certain areas of China.

“‘However, you think . . . that the plague has its good side; it opens men’s eyes and forces them to take thought?'” 41%

  • Do you hear people talk about the positive aspects of the pandemic? Do you feel weird about thinking about the “good side” of something catastrophic?

“‘We’re short of equipment. In all the armies of the world a shortage of equipment is usually compensated for by manpower. But we’re short of man-power, too.'” 49%

  • We’ve heard a lot about this!

“The plague victim died away from his family and the customary vigil beside the dead body was forbidden, with the result that a person dying in the evening spent the night alone, and those who died in the daytime were promptly buried.” 56%

  • And this: people are dying alone, without their families or friends, and then their bodies are zipped into plastic bags. Wash hands.

“It is true that the actual number of deaths showed no increase. But it seemed that plague had settled in for good at its most virulent, and it took its daily toll of deaths with the punctual zeal of a good civil servant. Theoretically, and in the view of the authorities, this was a hopeful sign. The fact that the graph after its long rising curve had flattened out seemed to many . . . resassuring . . . . the old doctor reminded him that the future remained uncertain; history proved that epidemics have a way of recrudescing when least expected.” 75%

  • This analysis could be a conversation about our current pandemic.
” . . . and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
  •  For an existentialist and for the writer of one of my favorite (and very dark) novels, The Stranger, this is quite an upbeat ending.

I have asked myself if it’s been helpful to me to read The Plague. When I am reading it I feel it is because I can contextualize that all the reactions to Covid 19 are typical of a pandemic, especially in a modern era. Camus’ story was based on, I believe, a 19th century case of plague, but he set the story in a vague period in the 20th century. Why is this understanding of the “typicality” of our reactions good for me? How does it help me? Maybe that is only part of it. Maybe by reading a story of the bubonic plague in France in the mid-20th century I can displace some of my emotions about our plight and our future onto this fictional world created by Camus. The book takes on some of my emotional burden, in a way.

###

Did watching Outbreak do that, too? Hah, maybe. I watched that movie on my iPad because the gardener didn’t want to see it.

As we wait and wait for I am not entirely sure what (because the experts really do not know–they just hope) I am grateful that we are not sick and that our cats are also ok for now.  I wish I were taking advantage of National Poetry Month, but I have been too busy and too exhausted. I have written one more poem. I will try again this week! Please stay safe, everyone.

How do you handle the burden of your emotions over the Covid-19 pandemic?

 

 

56 Comments

Filed under #writerlife, Arizona, Reading

56 responses to “Pandemic and the Plague: I Read Camus

  1. His writing is right on target. Our area is getting hit hard which makes it scary. We are expected to peak this week although what does that really mean? People will continue to die on the downsize of the graph too. So far my family hasn’t been touched by the disease itself but you never know. I have friends in Colorado and in lockdown. I have noticed that they are much more casual about it. More as an annoyance than a big problem. They have postponed one vacation to July and are waiting to see if they can leave the country for another vacation early June. I wish I was as optimistic. Even if we are definitely on the downside by then, I will be very cautious for a long time.

    • I’m so sorry that your area is so scary right now, Kate! I’m not sure if that vacation planning is a symptom of location or of personality. I see people even back east still talking that way and others out here where we have relatively few cases are very cautious. Even in our house: we had a trip planned in June. The gardener still has hopes. I, however, do not. A plane in June? I think not for me. Just keep being cautious, please!!!!

  2. Amy

    It’s amazing how prescient and insightful Camus was about human nature and our responses to a plague like this. What do the percentages mean after the quotations?

    I am not sure reading something like this would be helpful to me. I read primarily to escape these days—I can’t even read a newspaper unless it’s an article about something innocuous like a book review or a human interest story. I did read one Holocaust novel during this period and wondered why I was even doing that to myself.

    So—to each his/her own! We all cope in different ways.

    • I am astonished at how he knew the details of both group reactions and individual reactions. It really is an amazing book, although certainly not a comfy read. I need a mystery cozy now!!!!! You know how you wrote about how you weren’t taking advantage of any of the free online opportunities during the pandemic? I am the same way. To stay that focused mentally is beyond me right now. I am better at doing what I need to do physically than mentally at this point, which is unique for me. BTW, many people say Camus wrote The Plague as an allegory about the Nazis.

      • Amy

        I remember reading that it was an allegory for totalitarianism—I have never read it though. I know I should, but not now.

        I’ve actually signed up for an online music class about string quartets, of all things. I can’t say I’ve gotten very far, but I do enjoy the music part of it. The lecture part sort of floats in and out of my stressed brain.

  3. I agree with Amy. Years ago, I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy and found myself becoming depressed the further I got into the book. Although I stay informed on the current situation, I try not to worry so much about things that are out of my control. Reading is my escape and as you know, I need my happy ending…even if it is fiction. Stay well, Luanne! xo

    • I really could use a new book by you right now, Jill! I want an anti-plague now after putting myself through that! You stay well, too, Jill. I hope your parents are doing ok. Are you able to see them?

  4. Thank you for all your thoughts. I will share with my grand daughter who is a French teacher.

    • I actually tried to read this book in French years ago in grad school. I have the copy somewhere. But the class discussion was in French by popular vote, and it was beyond me. I had to drop the class!

  5. The quotes you offer do seem to show how predictably people behave in this type of situation. I suppose I am in avoidance of the topic of all the horrible impacts. I worry for all our small businesses here. I know only one person who has had Covid (and recovered). It seems to have been beat back here, but that doesn’t mean we can just go back to normal life, because then people will travel widely and bring infections back here. Daunting thought.

    • I hope they will use an incremental return to normal, putting long distance travel as one of the final steps. I don’t spend much time thinking about it, though, as I know that nobody is going to be asking my opinion haha!

  6. Isn’t it amazing how universal this phenomena is, that Camus captured it way back when. I studied Camus in university and had forgotten about this piece (so unattached at the time) – reading this brought it all back. I guess it is reassuring that what we are experiencing has been normalized in literature. Good post, Luanne.

    • I know what you mean. So much of what we read didn’t touch us personally at the time. But now look at us. hah. Well put! “normalized in literature”! Yes, that is it exactly. Things will go on and become a new normal after this because what we are experiencing isn’t so abnormal after all! Thanks for your comment!

  7. Like you, I am trying to read. Mainly in the evenings when my work is done. But wow that is normally a pursuit that I truly enjoy, I find it less and less of an escape. I am slogging through a couple of books. I am thinking it’s because the chatter in my mind is running in a constant narrative in the background. I think I’m going to try meditation again.

    • I feel as if it’s that monkey mind that just keeps bouncing all over the place. So hard to really get “into” a book because of that. I want to read something very light now, like a cozy mystery, but am afraid that it won’t hold my attention. Meditation is a great idea, if you can manage it. I think the monkeys in my head can’t be tamed yet!

  8. Renee.rivers.writes

    Luanne,

    i heard The Plague discussed on NPR. I would love to borrow it…. Hope you n yours are staying well.

    Renee

    >

  9. Renee.rivers.writes

    Thank you for digging in to this read… this was me for 14 days sick in Germany and then for 14 in AZ before returning to family:

    “…since, being travelers caught by the plague and forced to stay where they were, they were cut off both from the person with whom they wanted to be and from their homes as well.”

    Renee

    >

    • You are one of the people I was thinking about! Loved reading your FB updates. What an experience. When we met last for brunch, who could see ahead to this, huh?! I am glad you are back home. Is daughter #2 home with you? How is everyone?
      I read this book on Kindle. Is there a way to share from Kindle?

  10. Interesting responses Luanne. I love disaster movies – zombies being some of my favourites – so over the years I’ve seen many responses to apocalyptic scenarios. At the moment I feel as though I’m in a kind of limbo – neither really pleasant nor unpleasant – but we’re only about 3 weeks into lockdown so it will be interesting to see how things pan out.

    • I have always adored disaster movies but not the zombie type. I love the scienceortechnology-gone-crazy and natural disasters. Ever since the first Poseidon Adventure :). So I feel a little forewarned in that those movies make you go through ahead of time how you will react like a rational person and not a lunatic. Yes, it should all be “interesting”!!!

  11. I remember nothing about the plague so I appreciated the quotes. Right before the coronavirus hit, I read a modern mystery set in plague-ridden city. It was truly eerie as the virus became visible to experience deja vu with the book. I admire your willingness to read this book now!

  12. I cope by continuing to write. I am concerned about the effects of COVID-19 and suspect there will be some long term changes in the way people socialize. Stay well and strong.

    • There might be some long term changes, but I am thinking also changes in who goes back to work and what happens economically and socially because of that. I have not noticed any change in the local grocery store being busy, let me tell you. I have not been, but twice in the last week had to drive past to go to the bank and the postal store we use and the supermarket parking lot is always full!!! You stay well and strong, too, John! And the rest of your family.

  13. I cope easily as I live in a country where our leader takes advice, listens and acts decisively. she currently has a 90% approval rating which says something – though I do wonder who the numpties are who think they could do better 🙂 Our borders are closed and as Jacinda stressed in her daily briefing yesterday will stay closed for a long time. It is too easy for this virus to attach and spread. I don’t listen to the ‘news’ I watch the PM’s daily briefing to stay informed and for the rest I am spending time sketching and doodling which is another form of meditation for me and keeping in touch with friends and family via various platforms – which is making me social than I have ever been. The days seem to pass quickly.
    I look for the upsides to this thing and am hearing about nature showing signs of recovery from our thoughtless rampaging over her, beneath her and above her. Dolphins have been seen frolicking in our inner harbour for the first time in forever. The air above polluted cities is clearing, coral reefs are blooming again, animals are coming closer to cities to forage ….. all interesting signs that given a bit of a break nature will regenerate quickly and not regret our passing.

    • You are so blessed to have everything be so wonderful there! Truly Arizona is not bad at all (unless you are one of the smaller number of people sick or losing a loved one) in comparison with the east coast or the midwest. But we have a large, very diverse country–and I mean diverse in so many different ways–and so it is pretty chaotic here. We all have different situations within the same country!

  14. It’s been so long since I read The Plague. I read it around the time that HIV/AIDS was scorching the earth, and that comparison … how people were treated … was chilling. Sadly, I don’t think I’m coping as well as I’d like. Working for a department of health is not really helpful for me, it’s too close. I don’t have cabin fever since for me being at home all the time is still a novelty, one that I’ll be sorry to give up once we’re ultimately ordered back to our offices. You know what’s weird: so many people are writing about what they’re doing with their “extra” hours and it depresses me because I don’t have any extra hours. Well, one hour since I don’t have to commute. So, while it’s nice (and preferable) to work from home, I’m still working, stlll not keep up with my online friends or my friends in other states … blah, blah, blah. At least we can still go for walks. Yesterday we went to my office on an errand and while there, a young hawk flew into a tree that was outside my window. I had never seen a hawk do that before and we got a good look at him before he flew off. My husband said it was probably because so few people are in the office building these days, the hawk feels comfortable flying around our building. That was a high point of my day 🙂

    • I remember how afraid people were of AIDS. Did you ever read Borrowed Time by Paul Monette? it’s a memoir/love story that involves the AIDS epidemic. So touching. I know what you mean about extra hours. I can’t IMAGINE. So busy!!! Working a lot and then still trying to fit in my little extras. No time for anything extra and my closet is still not organized! I love the hawk story, Marie! How lovely that this is at least good for some animals!

  15. A worthy endeavor and post at this time, Luanne! I have been avoiding the movies like “Outbreak,” but perhaps I shouldn’t! Instead, I have been binge-watching TV series that we like (Bosch, Poirot, the new series, Picard). Dreading our next outing for necessities!

    • I know about the dread. And I have discovered that the gardener is very passive about letting other people get into his space and without masks. This is so distressing to me. He is like that at restaurants (in the old days) his behalf. This morning I cussed in front of the Fedex man at the gardener. He let this young Fedex driver walk quickly right up to within a foot of him and hand him a package!!! NO MASKS. I got so angry. In part, I yelled on purpose in front of the driver because I wanted him to realize he couldn’t do that (after all, he was more in the wrong than the gardener). But it’s up to my dear husband to protect himself. It’s so strange that he is like that since he is not a retiring person!!! I don’t want to be the police in our house haha.

      • I understand that one, since I seem to also be the one who monitors our proximity to others more diligently! It can be tiring, but I don’t care! It’s important right now. Talked to a friend who was approached by a symptomatic homeless person, and she felt so trapped! She gave the person her scarf and some instructions about how to get to a place that might help her, but she said the whole time the woman kept standing very close to her. Very stressful to go out and about.

        • That is a big part of the problem–you have no control over what others do, so the more people you go around the more precarious it feels. Oh, I really feel for your friend who went through that! And for the homeless woman who might be sick!

  16. How brave and wise you were to read Camus’ book during all this, and to take it in small doses, as you were able. Thank you for sharing these quotes and questions/reflections. I know it distresses you to not be producing poems, but reading and blogging and journaling are also part of the work of creating poetry. It’s so important for us to put aside the idea that this is down time, like we’re all on vacation or sabbatical or something planned and prepared for like that. We’ve all been dropped into an alternate reality, and the fact that any of us can produce anything at all, however infrequently, is nothing short of a miracle. Spend as much time as you want with the kitties and the flowers and the sunshine. The writing will take care of itself, because you are a writer. Stay safe, my friend. ❤

    • Jennifer, do you get Diane Lockward’s newsletter and follow her on any social media? She is such a “generalized” mentor to all poets, I think. She says that poets everywhere are saying that they can’t write right now. The lack of focus is such a creative saboteur. Yes, the sunshine feels marveous. I feel so bad that my mother has such a lot of snow now to deal with, locked up all by herself. You and yours stay safe, too. xoxo

      • I do get Diane Lockward’s newsletter – I’ve written a number of poems this month using prompts or exercises from past issues. 🙂
        Sunshine and flowers here today; hoping the same for you there. ❤

  17. Great post, Luanne, so timely! And your points show up the similarities so perfectly. I’ve never read the book; does it say how/when the damn thing ends???

  18. I love this post, Luanne and all the comments are so interesting, too. I don’t think I could read Camus at this time; in fact I can’t concentrate enough to read anything longer than a poem or an essay or article. The quotes you have highlighted from your reading of the book are so apposite.
    I have been going out buying supplies once a week with my husband. He has a list of the things we want and I do my mother’s shopping. We then deliver them at Mum’s house and I get to look at her for a few minutes and see that she is alright. However, I got a letter yesterday telling me that I am a high-risk person and that I shouldn’t be leaving the house and am locked-down for the next twelve weeks. That gets rid of my ‘going out shopping’ anxiety but I will now worry about my husband doing all the shopping and driving and collecting medication for all of us on his own. I also won’t get to see my mother for three months; at least three months – maybe longer – who knows? Oh, the unreality of this situation and the worrying about all the people in danger of losing their jobs and/or their homes.

  19. This pandemic seeped into my consciousness pretty slowly. The mitigation efforts, thankfully, didn’t come all at once, or we’d have seen full-scale panic. Frog in the boiling water type thing. Perhaps Camus heard his parents speak of the Spanish Flu epidemic. I enjoyed your take on what he wrote.

  20. I’ve actually thought a lot about this book in the last month and marvel that you’ve chosen to read it. Now I kinda wanna read it again. In English. My previous reading of it was in French, La Peste. Still, I’ve come to think now everyone feels closer to how I used to feel, so I feel like Cottard. Guilty of thinking this, but it’s a real emotion, so there!
    As I experienced a presumptive case early on, it’s benefited me in that I am not afraid of it now. The science doesn’t show I can’t get it again, but based on the last pandemic flu in America, I’m good to go as is my family, as are my colleagues. So that’s a good bit. Another good bit would be that half my kids are with me. Also, as an introvert, this isn’t hard on me at all. I am perfectly content to work and come home and go nowhere else. The bad bits are revealed in your excerpts. For instance, I have never, in all my life, craved sunshine so much. I can’t get over how downright mad I am when it rains. I love rain. Or I loved it. I love sun right now.
    The girls watched Outbreak Friday night. We did not.

  21. Your portrayal of Camus Rebel is very erudite and you have sown the path of existentialism in it. I am also fond of Camus Anand Bose from Kerala

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