Time, Memory, and Altruism in Camus’s ‘The Plague’

by Anitra Pavlico

As we wait for life in this era to regain a sense of normalcy and rationality, we take refuge in other eras. There is a severe shortage of contemporary human activities–art-making, conversation, building things. The past becomes closer and larger. The future has shrunk and become clouded, even dark. We have nowhere to go but back, but the past is likewise little comfort, partly because five months ago feels like five decades ago–quaint, old-fashioned, hopelessly out of touch.

The themes of time, memory, and collective humanity in Albert Camus’s The Plague have preoccupied me lately. The Algerian town of Oran is cut off from the rest of the world in an attempt to contain the pestilence that has taken hold there. 

But the plague forced inactivity on them, limiting their movements to the same dull round inside the town, and throwing them, day after that, on the illusive solace of their memories. . . . they drifted through life rather than lived, the prey of aimless days and sterile memories, like wandering shadows that could have acquired substance only by consenting to root themselves in the solid earth of their distress.

It is difficult to tell whether time for us has slowed to a near-stop or has sped up. We have less variety in our days, and yet there are times when the hours race by and we haven’t accomplished a fraction of what we set out to do that day. It is more likely that we have slowed down, dulled by inaction to insipidity, than that time has accelerated, but the result is the same: nothing results. As Camus writes: Those who had jobs went about them at the exact tempo of the plague, with dreary perseverance.

The Plague is an allegory for the Nazis’ occupation of France. It has been read more widely as a statement on fascism, evil, the human condition. Few would say it was meant to be a literal tale of a town battling pestilence. While the intended allegory was of a specific time and place, it applications are universal, apolitical. Thus it has utility for us in our current predicament. As the plague presses on through Oran, slowing normal existence to a crawl, making life a trudge through time and through swirling disease, the residents come to appreciate a sense of solidarity and community. There have arguably been similar bright spots in our collective experience of the coronavirus pandemic.

Before we form a narrative to explain what we are living through, we need to have a grasp on past, present, and future–essential elements of any narrative. It requires an extraordinary amount of creativity to envision the future at this time–a foreshortened future, a hallmark of clinical depression, being now a widespread affliction. And the present is subsumed by the past as we seek an escape from the anxiety-ridden moments. There is a double burden on humans now: individually, we are facing a blank, unknown future, and as societies, we are confronting governmental dysfunction and vast disparities among different social groups’ wherewithal to stay healthy. We are at the mercy not just of microbes, but of public officials who intersperse facts with propaganda.

[Tarrou noted that] a new phase of the epidemic was ushered in when the radio announced no longer weekly totals, but ninety-two, a hundred and seven, and a hundred and thirty deaths in a day. “The newspapers and the authorities are playing ball with the plague. They fancy they’re scoring off it because a hundred and thirty is a smaller figure than nine hundred and ten.”

***

The danger is that the longer the crisis lasts, the less inclined we are to take action to repair what is broken in the outer world, because the passage of time brings the phenomenon of desensitization:

In some houses groans could be heard. At first, when that happened, people often gathered outside and listened, prompted by curiosity and compassion. But under the prolonged strain it seemed that hearts had toughened; people lived beside those groans or walked past them as though they had become the normal speech of men.

After Rieux, the doctor leading the fight against the plague in Oran, the most compelling character is his friend Tarrou, who refuses to succumb to futility and instead offers to form and participate in private “sanitary squads,” at the risk of his own health, to prevent further spread of the plague. It is at this point that certain characters in the tale stop haunting the streets, either brooding on the past or desiring an impossible reunion with loved ones. This particular group of residents begins to shape the narrative, seizing the present, and in the process putting the past and future back in their respective places.

Similar to our own crisis of a failure of competent national leadership, Oran suffers from ineptitude at his top levels. As Tarrou suggests,

I’ve drawn up a plan for voluntary groups of helpers. Get me empowered to try out my plan, and then let’s sidetrack officialdom. In any case the authorities have their hands more than full already.

Camus echoes the Stoics when he says that man’s problem is not so much evil, as ignorance. The narrator of The Plague says that

On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill.

Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations that “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.” Whether from evil or ignorance, the result is much the same: a high death rate in the U.S., especially among minority populations, that might have been mitigated by informed, sane leadership.

***

In more optimistic moments, I think the health crisis–worldwide, of course, and not confined to one Algerian town–could set a new course for humanity, more altruistic, more focused on things that matter to our collective future. 

Now, at last, you know the hour has struck to bend your thoughts to first and last things. (Parish priest Paneloux’s sermon)

When this crisis ultimately subsides, what will we have gained? Will we repress the memories of stagnation, isolation, unemployment, anxiety, sickness, death? Will we forget that citizens thousands of miles away sent us masks that they sewed in their homes? Will we try to ignore what has become painfully obvious about disparities in access to health care among different social groups, essentially meaning the color of your skin makes you either less likely or more likely to die in a pandemic? Just as the future is now foreshortened, the past may be victim of the same myopia as we lurch away from this collective experience and hurtle toward the future as a refuge from the past. Will we keep our focus on “first and last things,” as Paneloux preached, or will we lose ourselves in the hedonism of the middle things that ultimately don’t matter very much?

In Camus’s The Plague and in the coronavirus pandemic, time bends, slows down, and speeds up in unpredictable ways. The past looms larger than usual but the images the memory brings up are distorted, hardly comforting. The present is painful, seemingly endless, and yet it slips through our fingers like sand. The future is so uncertain as to defy attempts at visualization. 

The effect this bending of time could have on our inclination to improve our situation is potentially counterproductive: lost in the past, desensitized to suffering, it’s hard to see a way out and, after all, we’re not like the “heroes” that we constantly hear about. Camus had a response to this, however, that speaks to us now. Rieux’s friend, the journalist Rambert, who wants to flee Oran illegally to be reunited with his lover, says he doesn’t want to “play the hero” but only wants to live for what he loves. It is in response to this that Rieux says the only means of combating plague is not heroism, but common decency. The hope is that a collective movement comprised of countless acts of common decency restores light and form to a murky future. The simultaneous hope is that the past is not distorted, but clear, as we need to learn from the experience and resist the natural urge to repress the memories.

 

 

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