The year 2020 has been defined almost entirely by isolation, quarantine, and lockdown. I’m sure there are many people who are understandably sick to death of those three words. However, I have recently read two books which, to my mind, offer some interesting insights into this unusual situation. The first being “La Peste” (The Plague) by Albert Camus, and the second “Blindness” by Jose Saramago. Both narratives revolve around a pandemic of some sort. In the case of The Plague, an outbreak of the eponymous disease. And in Blindness, a mysterious contagion. One that causes strange “white-blindness”.
For the inhabitants of Oran (the town in which Camus’ novel is set), the atmosphere in the days following the outbreak is more one of dejection than of terror or anger. There is of course panic at the onset, but people are surprisingly quick to come to terms with circumstances that are beyond their control. There is a profound sense of humanism running through the whole book, a belief that there is something fundamentally good in people. As Dr. Rieux concludes, “There are more things to admire in men than to despise”.
Camus goes even further than this. By repeatedly suggesting that the plague, and in fact all hardships represent not only misery but an opportunity. Consider another of Dr. Rieux’s musings, “What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves”.
This is by no means a denial of the acute suffering wrought upon the men and women of Oran. It is, in fact, an indication of the optimism at the heart of Albert Camus’ philosophical outlook. When we encounter the tragic and the absurd, we must accept them, certainly, but also rebel against them. What better way to conquer them than to become stronger, to emerge from their shadow, standing a little taller?
Both Raymond Rambert, and Jean Tarrou illustrate this point beautifully. The first, a journalist visiting Oran, trapped when the town is first cut off from the rest of the country. At first, he is desperate to escape and to return to his girlfriend in Paris. However, when the time comes for him to smuggle himself out of the town, he finds that he can no longer do so. His experiences there have led him to feel ashamed of his pursuit of “private happiness”, and so he devotes himself to fighting the outbreak alongside Dr. Rieux.
Tarrou’s case is different. Disgusted by his father’s actions as an attorney who argued aggressively in favour of the death penalty. Later in life, he would reject capital punishment entirely and dedicate himself to a life of activism against it. Both these men take control of their respective trauma and become better because of it
This is, however, only the outside perspective. There is of course a burden that we all must bear, but in situations like the one we currently find ourselves in, there is inevitably a dualism at play. In Blindness, Saramago delves deeper into the experiences of those who actually contract the disease. The wonderfully banal setting in which patient zero first realises he is blind (waiting at a traffic light), is a jarring reminder that at any moment, your life could change forever. From this point onwards, Saramago leads us down a dark path. Herded into an old asylum, the newly blind are left to fend almost entirely for themselves. Within weeks, the conditions have become unbearable.
The key theme of Blindness is fragility. Of morality, of society, and of human life. The first man to go blind immediately has his car stolen, and mere days after the first men and women arrive at the asylum, a number of them are dead or dying. From there, things only get worse as more and more internees arrive. There comes a moment early on, when one of the characters pleads with her fellow inmates, “If we cannot live entirely like human beings, at least let us do everything in our power not to live entirely like animals”. Something we often take for granted, our sight, is apparently, all that stands between civilization and chaos.
A little later in the novel, an armed gang of thugs seizes control of the food supply inside the asylum. There is not even a hint of the compassion and solidarity demonstrated by the characters in The Plague. Where Rambert is able to deny his own selfish instincts, these other men succumb to them entirely. They are unable to see beyond themselves, (the irony of which I’m certain was not lost on Saramago).
These two authors may seem opposed on almost every point. Camus believing that we can overcome, and become better, Saramago highlighting our fragility. Personally, I feel they have simply identified two sides of the same coin. Plague or Blindness, both are an opportunity, for growth or for decline.
I think that now, more than ever, it’s important to remember that we all have the capacity for the former. Human beings have a tremendous strength within them, which they can use to push back against fear and chaos. Panic and fear can come to rule us all to easily, and we must resist them. In doing so we may even come to find that we come to see people and the world around us in a better light.
Depending on how your mind works, books of this nature may at present make for uncomfortable reading. There is, however, a lot that they can teach us. Camus and Saramago in particular I feel, do a wonderful job of highlighting the paradoxical strength and fragility of the human spirit. Anguish and despair are never far away, and yet we will always have the ability to overcome them.