Monday, 7 March 2011

Camus' Plague - A Cruel Mirror

Unlike Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, (one of my favourite books -showing , perhaps, an unhealthy interest in the darker side of human experience) Camus is not trying to build a socio-realist vision of a visitation of the Bubonic Plague. That is not to say that there is not much that is compellingly realistic in this book.

Rather he is using the plague both as an allegory for the Nazi reign in France and as a cruel mirror in which we may see how philosophies for living hold up in the most testing of circumstances. Like pressing mercury on tin to make a mirror, Camus presses the plague bacillus onto thin veneers of meaning and looks at our reflections there.

We have scientific, religious, romantic and variations therof, embodied in diferent characters who all find their beliefs sorely tested. We even have a Harry Lime type who revels in The Plague as it gives him respite from the law and many opportunities to make a killing.

In the end Camus treats all the characters with great sympathy and is not dogmatic but appears to give the upper hand to the will to simply go on trying to be a human without the definite framework of any belief. Definite beliefs and labels are dangerous.

The last paragraph is worth quoting in full.

"And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperilled. He knew what those jubiliant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it roused up its rats again and sent them forth to die in a happy city."

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