In the module entitled “Narrating Illness Across Cultures” we are encouraged to look beyond the obvious reading of our texts. Therefore we are not to read The Plague as merely an allegory of hollocaust or foreign occupation. In some ways this is proper, we should not equate a man made horror with the innevitable sequelae of a bacterial infection, thereby absolving ourselves from social and political responsibility. The leap to interpreting it as promoting the worthiness of an existentialist struggle for its own sake is currently beyond my intellectual ability, particularly as I’m still only at the point of trying to pin down what people really mean by existentialism. What follows is my attempt to engage with the text on this level.
In the Myth of Sisyphus we are encouraged to believe that the repetitive uphill struggle under the weight of our rock is not futile, but is worthy and imbued with meaning (“We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”) There are a number of Sisyphean struggles portrayed by Camus through the characters of Grand, Rambert, Cottard, the Spanish patient with Asthma and even Dr Riyeux himself. The only one to achieve any sort of peace of mind from a futile task is the old Spanish man who has consigned himself to retirement and never leaves his bed, instead passing the time by counting dried peas from one pan to another and back again. Having left behind the struggle of a working life, he finds this self imposed domestic exile liberating and uses his peas not only to pass time but to mark it.
Cottard struggles against the guilt of an unnamed crime, at first choosing to count the struggle as unworthy and opt out through suicide. The plague itself is his liberation, freeing him from guilt and the fear of repercussions. His struggle is then with the idea of the end of the plague and his old life coming back to haunt him.
Rambert is obsessed with escape, ennobled with his idea of love. He struggles first against bureaucracy and then against the fortune of circumstance in his attempts to organise a “getaway”.
Grand struggles with words, in fact a single sentence. Every night he works on perfecting it and occasionally believes he has accomplished his task, until he comes back to it and finds yet another word that is not quite right enough. His fever becomes literal and is unbroken until every permutation of this sentence is consumed in flame. Yet we find he returns to his obsessive labour, his laborious obsession. The happiness he achieves is not in finding the right words for this sentence but for the right words to write to his estranged wife.
Riyeux’ struggle against the plague is construed as the least absurd yet is in reality the most fruitless. His efforts do not dictate the end of the suffering: what had not worked for so long suddenly begins to meet with success without apparent reason. Father Paneloux’ Christian philosophy of accepting without question and Camus’ brand of existentialism of the meaningful never ending struggle, regardless of success or failure converge in the futility of medical efforts to stem the tide of death. No doubt civic measures of isolation and disinfection can be credited with a smaller death toll, but once infected it was beyond any human power to separate the survivors from the victims. The disease would run its course, regardless of the struggle.
The traditional allegory of plague as punishment, argued so severely in Paneloux’ first sermon, is effectively negated through the death of little Philippe Othon. A pivotal moment in the novel, we are confronted with the suffering of an innocent child in order to expose the absurdity of the allegorical nature of the plague punishment. In Sontag’s exploration of Illness as Metaphor, in asserting the perjorative nature of the cancer metaphor as a disease of lifestyle and personality she neglects the absurdity of this position in the relation to a child whose lifestyle in not his own and personality not yet fully formed. The suffering of Philippe emphasises the futility of the medical battle against suffering in the way that an adult’s death could not. An adult is presumed to be culpable, complicit in their fate but what could a child have done to deserve the lashes of the angel of pestilence? The futility of the battle is expressed in the suffering of the child, prolonged and without redemption and yet supposedly worthy anyway.
I find these classes a struggle. I want to engage thoughfully but it is instead a place for the bubbling up of a haunting. I suspect, as is often the case with those who refuse to let their ghosts push them back into the world of the living, that this may be tiresome to my fellow classmates. Every week, I will haul my haunting to the peak of our topics, and every week my classmates will struggle with this tiresomness a little bit more. I hope these struggles are worthy.