Podcast: Albert Camus – The Plague
Hi, and welcome back to the Radio of Resistance. It’s been a long time and it’s always good to be here, back home, where the resistance is on. Thank you so much for bearing with my irresponsibility and the unfrequent upload schedule. You are what make this resistance what it is today, and for you, the resistance will always be here.
This week’s theme might be a little too true and thus, a little too much to bear. Please kindly proceed with caution. Yeah, I know, as if depression and suicide in the last episode are still not enough. Please do forgive me: for I love dancing around on the edge of life and death. Though I am no angel, or demon, or anything in between, I still hope against all hopes that somewhere out there, you are listening to the rhythm of the heartbeats.
So, Albert Camus’s “The Plague.” From the very beginning of the book, I had to put it down a few times and told myself to leave it there for good. There’s no torture like reading a book that speaks of the current events and yet, you have to push yourself through because you find within the pains a glimmer of hope.
“The Plague” – the name itself is the summary of the whole book and somewhere within it, our current daily life. There’s the fear and the fear-mongering. There’s the vanishing act of hope. There’s the desolation and destitution of the answer-less search for meaning and for a cure.
And there’s human, as always, standing against something much larger, stronger than them, without knowing if we even have one percent chance of winning.
Men and women either consume each other rapidly in what is called the act of love, or else enter into a long-lasting, shared routine. Often there is no middle between these two extremes. That, too, is original. In Oran, as elsewhere, for want of time and thought, people have to love one another without knowing it.
. Albert Camus, The Plague .
For want of time and thought. The single sentence that foreshadows the gruesome development of the story later on, when the want of time and thought grows beyond the simple statement of “Love thy neighbor,” and the gods we treasure and worship cannot do anything more than lifting his fingers to count the blessing.
But what can blessing do in the time of the plague? It clearly cannot blur the pains and yearning of separation. It also cannot do much more than being words spoken in the hope of calming the feverish mind and the hundreds of corpses being buried each day. And as with love, though it is true that a blessing can cure a broken soul, you will have a better bargain not believing in it.
For want of time and thought. Because what else do we, as human, want from one another? We want to live, of course, but sometimes, and almost always, living is an extension of loving. You can’t severe an arm or a leg without feeling hurt and you can’t go on living without needing love.
And the plague comes in at just the right time to destroy it all.
And war is certainly too stupid, but that doesn’t prevent it from lasting. Stupidity always carries doggedly on, as people would notice if they were not always thinking about themselves. In this respect, the citizens of Oran were like the rest of the world, they thought about themselves; in other words, they were humanists: they did not believe in pestilence. A pestilence does not have human dimensions, so people tell themselves that it is unreal, that it is a bad dream which will end. But it does not always end and, from one bad dream to the next, it is people who end, humanists first of all because they have not prepared themselves.
. Albert Camus, The Plague .
Now I know that the quote above is unusually long, but with “The Plague” as well as all of Camus’s works, I find it hard to separate sentences from sentences.
Back to the quote. There is so much to unpack here: above the line, below the line, and between the line. I can’t help but think about the start of the pandemic. I guess we are all humanists in a way. I remember the people who rejected wearing a mask, the people who hosted stupid parties that ended up in death and breathless corpses, the people who sneezed into a baby’s face because his parent told them to wear a mask in public.
Those people, do they believe that human is actually stronger than a pandemic and thus, than death itself? And as they lie on the hospital bed, losing what they refer to as “the gift of G-d,” I wonder what they think. Will it be regret? Will it be the stubborn surrender? Will it be the memories of a life that is now losing right before their eyes?
Bad dreams don’t end. In this context, the town of Oran is submerged in a spiral of bad dreams. They started with a death rat and they spiraling down the staircase of death. As Camust points out, they believe they are above it all. Above the situation that is harvesting human in bulks. Above the lymp node and the pains before their last breath. Above the dying children and the separation without end. Above life. Above death.
That is what a humanist is about. It’s not that they are selfish, no, far from it. It’s the strong belief that somehow, the invisible G-d had built them to last. And through many decades of wars and plagues, they are the chosen one. The top of the food chain and thus, they don’t end.
And yes, though their belief is strong, though they can fight one bad dream to the next, bad dreams don’t end. Even if they are no longer here, that they had reached their own conclusion, their own ending, the bad dreams will continue on. They will outlive us, be it humanist and whatnot.
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I wonder if we are really that strong. The strength we muster to kill each other in wars and the strength we muster to carry on, day after day, at our wit’s end, watching each other died in the plague. Just like Dr. Rieux, death takes a toll on us, be it the living or the dying. And slowly but surely, we start to see death as something insignificant. A black number on white papers. A nameless grave in a nameless cemetary. A blow of the fuse. A statistics.
And it’s hard to find compassion if all you see is just a statistics. Numbers are colder than corpses because they never carry the warmth of a life within them and thus, as humanists, we think we stand above them.
But no one can stand above death. What we are trying to do is just closing our eyes in the hope that this time, G-d will make the bad dreams end.
I guess in this particular case, as in all other cases, we are not much of a person. We stand above nothing and we are below a lot of other things. We cling onto our belief so that we can be stronger, so that we can wake up every morning and be thankful that we are still alive. As in all other cases, life had been downgraded so much that only in the plague – in the pandemic as we are – life can be something on our mind: a tiny prayer and an amazing grace at the dining table.
But what are a hundred million deaths? When one has fought a war, one hardly knows any more what a dead person is. And if a dead man has no significance unless one has seen him dead, a hundred million bodies spread through history are just a mist drifting through the imagination.
. Albert Camus, The Plague .
I learned about various wars within the near decades when I was still an undergraduate student. It was just a whim when I take my first history course. The motivation at that time was but a simple one: from whence we come and to where we will be. The first course I took was the history of the Holocaust. Then later on, the Cold War and of course, the Vietnam War. I often think how strange it is: though we have the historian, the archeologist, and the chronicle writers to write down the bloody lessons from the wars we have been through and the wars we have not yet, we always come down to another attrition war somewhere along the road.
Perhaps it is true when Camus raises his voice here: if a dead man has no significance unless one has seen him dead, a hundred million bodies spread through history are just a mist drifting through the imagination. What we see, what we learn, what we gleam from the various lessons and with them, death, are just numbers on paper. A statistic. And that take us back from the point before: statistics speak no truth. They seem pretty on paper, sure, and if one tries harder, they could have some meaning to the materialistic world.
But will they, the statistics, the numbers, the math, mean anything more than just cold, hard fact to us? And if they do, why are we burdened with the beauty of a sunset or the sadness of a hundred sunsets? Why are we burdened with the suffering of one death and the multitude of destitute of a hundred deaths? You see, there are so many why at the core of it – the core of being human. And there’s no other time to see it as clear as it is right now, amidst the pandemic. And it is just as true in what my favorite Vietnamese song composer said, When the pain is at its highest, the love grows immense.
“And when it comes down to it, you realize that no one is really capable of thinking of anyone else, even in the worst misfortune. Because thinking about someone really means thinking about that person minute by minute, not being distracted by anything – not housework, not a fly passing, not meals, not an urge to scratch oneself. But there are always flies and itches. This is why life is hard to live. And these people know that very well.”
. Albert Camus, The Plague .
Is it true that no one is really capable of thinking of anyone else? Let’s not taking it in the metaphorical way, the “I miss you” texts kind of way, or the phony “You are always on my mind” sort of songs. Let’s dig deep into the most literal way, the constant suffering way, the desperation way.
The way we are now. Thinking of someone, somewhere out there, maybe sitting by a windows, looking at empty chairs and empty table, on a constant basis without a minute of rest, of breathing, of thinking about us.
If you try that just now, even if for a brief moment, you will find it to be the hardest thing on Earth. And you will notice also that no matter hard it is, thinking about our loved ones will always be at the core of our existence, thus, our life is always in a constant search for the little lights of happiness in the dark night of sufferings. Each of the step you take, you stray further away from the person you once were and one little light faded away.
The child has grown, the dream is gone.
All you have got left to do is keep striving forward. And I hope one of these days, when you find your little lights, when you see the dream again, when living comes to you not as a choice but an obvious action, you will come back here, refute me, and smile. After all, you don’t know how strong you are, just by waking up every morning and live throughout the rest of the day.
Well, don’t worry, I am always here to remind you of it. This is Thanh Dinh, and you are listening to the Radio of Resistance.