Thursday, January 31, 2008

Humans vs. Death: La Peste (The Plague) by Camus

Remember back when I joked that a realistic Mormon novel made me glad I'd left the church? Well, that book has nothing on The Plague. The Plague represents a whole different order of magnitude in terms of every page making me hope this never happens to me.

The Plague is not an entertaining book. I know I struggled with whether to call Persepolis entertaining (since it deals with serious subjects), but now I see clearly that Persepolis is quite entertaining (both the book and the film). It's a cartoon after all. Naturally, The Plague leads me to start questioning my assumptions about literature. Does a novel need to be entertaining? My gut-level reaction is that of course it does -- otherwise who the hell is going to read it when they could be reading, say, the Internet? I mean, besides the nonbelieving literati and millions of French children who have to read it for school?

Even if I can't call The Plague entertaining, though, I will call it fascinating. It's a remarkable study in human nature as we see what happens to a population trapped by quarantine in a city ravaged by the bubonic plague. I don't think I could guess how people would react in such circumstances, yet chapter after chapter, I was struck by the author's insight on the subject.

Additionally, I think this may be the best portrait of Humanism I've ever read. The doctor, who is an atheist, works to combat the plague every single day because that's what needs to be done. The idealist/philosopher sees how human society rests thoughtlessly on the suffering and death of unseen individuals. As he organizes volunteers to fight the plague, he wages a futile fight against his own feelings of guilt. The preacher starts by attributing the disaster to God's (well-earned) wrath. Then, when he joins the volunteers in the human struggle against the plague, he sees a child die horribly despite his fervent prayers. He is permanently shaken by this, and -- while it doesn't cause him to lose his faith -- his faith is transformed. Other characters attempt to flee from the plague, profit from it, or simply deal with how it disrupts their lives.

I think The Plague succeeds at delivering its message: We're all in this together. In the struggle against death, death always wins in the end. But we can't (and shouldn't) give up the struggle. Because we're human.

26 comments:

The Exterminator said...

In the struggle against death, death always wins in the end.

Thanks a lot for revealing the ending. You didn't even put in a spoiler alert.

C. L. Hanson said...

Oops!!! ;^)

Lifeguard said...

See, I think in the struggle against life, LIFE always wins.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I agree; I love the message: your victories will never be lasting, but that's no reason to give up the struggle.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Lifeguard!!!

I'm not sure what you mean by that. I'm just saying that everyone dies eventually. (And not just in this book...)

Hey Ridger!!!

Exactly!!!

erlybird said...

I read The Plague and The Decameron while I was a doing a master's thesis and living in Florence. My research had to do with the effects the plague had upon everyday life in that city where it is estimated that the population went from around 100,000 to around 30,000 during the course of one summer. What had seemed important in May was trivial in September.

BTW, I am sure glad the Exterminator scolded you for being a spoiler! When I do my blog post on War and Peace I will be sure not to reveal the ending. LOL.

Remember when the Lord of the Rings was in the theaters? I was talking to someone about how Gandalf crossed back over from death and came back to Middle Earth to help fight Sauron and an eavesdropper yelled at me for giving away the ending of the movie!

Spanish Inquisitor said...


Remember when the Lord of the Rings was in the theaters? I was talking to someone about how Gandalf crossed back over from death and came back to Middle Earth to help fight Sauron and an eavesdropper yelled at me for giving away the ending of the movie!


Damn you, erlybird! Again? ;)

Lifeguard said...

Hey, CL!!!

I only meant it to compliment the point that everyone dies. In life, we don't lock horns with death, we lock horns with life, that, among other harsh realities, ends in death. I guess I'm just saying we struggle against life, and in death it is life that ultimately wins. Or maybe it's just Friday, and my brain is toasted. I enjoyed your post though!

the chaplain said...

Are you sure that death wins? Maybe someone tore the last page out of your copy. As far as I could tell, the plague only affected the menfolks.

ordinary girl said...

Your last paragraph was great. I really liked Rieux's outlook on fighting the plague, even when others were giving up.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Don't forget the children, Chappy! And they had a pit full of women's bodies ... it's just that we never got told about them.

John Evo said...

Ex chastises CL Hanson (I have to toss in "Hanson" because there is some other CL running around the Atheosphere who isn't nearly as bright): Thanks a lot for revealing the ending. You didn't even put in a spoiler alert.

In that case, he should be all over me for:

The plague won and then disappeared.

I don't think what either of us did was nearly as bad as EX telling everyone that Grand cheated the Grim Reaper! That's the WHOLE STORY (at least according to Ex).

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks for the comments and chastizements, everyone!!! ;^)

By the way, of course this post was my contribution to the Nonbelieving Literati discussion. To read the other reviews, look here.

Lynet said...

I'm with you on that, lifeguard. This book is as much about the struggle with life as it is about the struggle against death. Gives your nom de blog a whole host of possible new meanings when you look at it like that, hey?

John Evo said...

I'm pretty sure what Camus was saying was - "It's another day it paradise".

Cynthia E. Bagley said...

Hi CL,

We studied Camus "The Plague" (spoiler alert)... The plague is a metaphor of the German occupation. :-)

It was a hard read for me because it has an unreliable narrator. Evenso, I am glad I had an opportunity to read the book and study it.

Cyn

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Cynthia!!!

Yeah, so I heard... ;^)

Rebecca said...

I haven't read it, and I guess this is kind of off-topic, but I wanted to say something about your ideas on "entertaining."

I greatly dislike it when people confuse "good" or "worthwhile" with "entertainment" or "personal enjoyment" - when people claim a movie sucked because they didn't enjoy it (FYI - I don't think you're doing that. I just don't like it when people do). I recently saw "There Will Be Blood," and a friend asked me how it was. I replied that it's AMAZING and a completely great movie - but not something I'd really call enjoyable. The friend derisively replied that there's no point in watching something that's not enjoyable. I competely disagree - sure I might not have any desire to see it again, but I'm glad I saw it. I got to see some truly great acting, the cinematography is incredible, and the score is bone-chilling - and when I walked out of the theatre I knew that I'd been changed, if only a little. So yes - I think it's absolutely valuable to read books and watch movies that we don't find entertaining. I also think people read non-entertaining books all the time, just because we want to KNOW. It doesn't have to be a barrel of laughs, or a fun thriller - it just has to be well done. If you build it, they will come (COULD...NOT...RESIST...) And that is my take on it.

On the other hand, I find absolutely nothing wrong with watching something HORRID simply because it's entertaining. I do, after all, watch America's Next Top Model RELIGIOUSLY.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Rebecca!!!

True, not everthing worthwhile is entertaining and certainly not everything entertaining is worthwhile. I guess I'm kind of thinking more from an author's perspective: even if there's some real substance there, you're more likely to build an audience if you can make them want to read it, like Persepolis... :D

Rebecca said...

Yes, but to make someone WANT to read it doesn't necessarily mean you have to make it entertaining. I guess if you're specifically aiming for a super-blockbuster, sure - but LOTS of things have HUGE audiences without really being what I see as entertaining - Michael Moore's documentaries, political non-fiction (a lot of non-fiction in general), even movies like "There Will Be Blood," although I will concede that many people probably DID find that entertaining. Well, no, I don't concede that. I bet most people just found it GREAT, without much actual entertainment.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Rebecca!!!

You're probably right. I'm starting to think I didn't think my opinion through very carefully... ;^)

Rebecca said...

Well, at least you're not conflating entertainment and quality. =)

Mathew Wilder said...

Just happened upon this blog. How happy I was to see someone else has been moved by La Peste! It has influenced me more than any other work of literature. If I were to nominate a book to be the "atheist bible" (which, of course, we don't need), it would be this book. There is more to it, morally speaking, than most people have ever imagined.

The most powerful scene, which I practically "re-live" daily since having first read it five years ago (I just finished re-reading it two weeks ago), is the one where Rieux and Paneloux watch the the young child die from the plague and Paneloux suggests loving God for doing what we do not understand, and Rieux replies with the simplest, yet most powerfully elegant statement: "I've a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture."

I could go on and on about Camus and his luminous work for hours, but you get the idea.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mathew!!!

I agree, that's a powerful scene.

ratna said...

A novel very realistic, situations occurring like happening in front of us.

C. L. Hanson said...

Are you in a plague-striken area? Wow. I hope you're okay...