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?