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Life Arts    H4'ed 3/30/20

Albert Camus' Novel, The Plague, Even More Relevant Today, A Pillar of Existentialism

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The Plague (Luis Puenzo-1992).avi .The Plague. (La Peste) Este fue mi debut cinematogra'fico, laburando de extra. Yo soy el chico que aparece atras de Lautaro Mura llevando al San Roque.
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I struggled to plod through Albert Camus' The Plague in French at Occidental College, as part of the paradigms within my relatively useless degree in Comparative Literature with a concentration in French, about 15 years before Obama went to Occidental for 2 years before transferring to Columbia.
In French, the title is La Peste, and it is considered one of the pillars of existential literature, not quite as famous as Camus' other novel, also set in Algeria, The Stranger, which you might also consider watching on YouTube. Camus began working on the novel two days less than 79 years ago, and it was completed 73 years ago, the year before I was born.

I bring this to your attention because the narratives seems terribly prescient and relevant to us now, since we have had no experience with anything like this in our lives; perhaps we will know personally someone who dies during this pandemic, rather than just read about them. WHO experts have posited that as many as 200,000 Americans may died from coronavirus.

What follows is entirely derived and quoted from Wikipedia, whose treatment of the book is nothing short of brilliant. Why try to reinvent the wheel or take time I don't have to reiterate the text, reduce it here and there, paraphrase it, etc.?

What is my contribution, then? Much more than a few quaint college literary memories more than fifty years ago! This text is highly relevant to what is going on now. I hope no one faults my use of Wikipedia, like they did in the Minneapolis paper when it was discovered that Bob Dylan in his Nobel Prize for Literature Lecture used sections of Spark Notes, the modern day Cliff Notes, to write about Moby Dick as one of his greatest inspirations. I thought it odd that he was faulted for doing that, (like how many Nobel Laureates in anything has Minnesota produced?); Dylan was somehow expected at age 76 to go back to that book and cite the precise sections to which he referred. He didn't have time to do that, and nor do I.

[Sartre, who died in April 1980, one of the true founders of Existentialism, was considered one of the giants of modern philosophy. In 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, an honor he rejected.]


So here it is, and I hope you find it as striking today as I did reading it in the last days of March 2020 or in reading the original in French in 1968:

The Plague (French: La Peste) is a novel by Albert Camus, published in 1947, that tells the story of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran. It asks a number of questions relating to the nature of destiny and the human condition. The characters in the book, ranging from doctors to vacationers to fugitives, all help to show the effects the plague has on a populace.

The novel is believed to be based on the cholera epidemic that killed a large percentage of Oran's population in 1849 following French colonization, but the novel is placed in the 1940s. Oran and its surroundings were struck by disease multiple times before Camus published this novel. According to a research report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oran was decimated by the plague in 1556 and 1678, but all later outbreaks, in 1921 (185 cases), 1931 (76 cases), and 1944 (95 cases), were very far from the scale of the epidemic described in the novel.

The Plague is considered an existentialist classic despite Camus' objection to the label. The narrative tone is similar to Kafka's, especially in The Trial whose individual sentences potentially have multiple meanings, the material often pointedly resonating as stark allegory of phenomenal consciousness and the human condition.

Camus included a dim-witted character misreading The Trial as a mystery novel as an oblique homage. The novel has been read as an allegorical treatment of the French resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II. Additionally, he further illustrates the human reaction towards the "absurd". The Plague represents how the world deals with the philosophical notion of the Absurd, a theory that Camus himself helped to define.

Major characters
Dr. Bernard Rieux: Dr. Rieux is described as a man about age 35, of moderate height, dark-skinned, with close-cropped black hair. At the beginning of the novel, Rieux's wife, who has been ill for a year, leaves for a sanatorium. It is Rieux who treats the first victim of plague and first uses the word plague to describe the disease. He urges the authorities to take action to stop the spread of the epidemic.

However, at first, along with everyone else, the danger the town faces seems unreal to him. He feels uneasy but does not realize the gravity of the situation. Within a short while, he grasps what is at stake and warns the authorities that unless steps are taken immediately, the epidemic could kill off half the town's population of two hundred thousand within a couple of months.

During the epidemic, Rieux heads an auxiliary hospital and works long hours treating the victims. He injects serum and lances the abscesses, but there is little more that he can do, and his duties weigh heavily upon him. He never gets home until late, and he has to distance himself from the natural pity that he feels for the victims; otherwise, he would not be able to go on. It is especially hard for him when he visits a victim in the person's home because he knows that he must immediately call for an ambulance and have the person removed from the house. Often, the relatives plead with him not to do so since they know they may never see the person again.

Rieux works to combat the plague simply because he is a doctor and his job is to relieve human suffering. He does not do it for any grand, religious purpose, like Paneloux (Rieux does not believe in God), or as part of a high-minded moral code, like Tarrou. He is a practical man, doing what needs to be done without any fuss, but he knows that the struggle against death is something that he can never win.

Jean Tarrou: Jean Tarrou arrived in Oran some weeks before the plague broke out for unknown reasons. He is not there on business since he appears to have private means. Tarrou is a good-natured man who smiles a lot. Before the plague came, he liked to associate with the Spanish dancers and musicians in the city. He also keeps a diary, full of his observations of life in Oran, which Rieux incorporates into the narrative.

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