War and Pestilence: reading Camus during a pandemic (1)

Like many others, this ongoing pandemic (yes, it’ll still happening for those who don’t check the news) has motivated me to read the writings of the French philosopher, Albert Camus. (For reasons probably related to my last name, I enjoy the French philosophers, including those despised by others, such as Foucault and Derrida…though I’m not so arrogant as to claim that I always understand them!) Currently, with one hand, I’m reading The Plague (Le Peste in French but no, my French reading skills are not where they’d need to be for me to enjoyably read Camus in his mother-tongue), and with the other, The Myth of Sisyphus (Le Myth de Sisyphe). But it is The Plague that drove me to Camus being that I want to engage something philosophical that reflects our current crisis.

I was asked how Camus holds up the twenty-first century. My quick summary is this (which I’ll unpack over a series of posts): Camus’ observations regarding human nature could be commentary on how people have reacted to the Covid-19 pandemic but advancements in human technology create a stark difference between Camus’ fictional plague and our present and real one.

Today, I pause to reflect on some of his comments about war and pestilence. These are fitting as we’re technically ending the American war in Afghanistan which has been going since I was in college. I share some quotes from Stuart Gilbert’s translation.

In Part One, Camus’ narrator, whose identity is hidden until later in the book, comments:

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plague as wars in history yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

The Plague, pp. 36-37

When news came out of Wuhan that something strange was happening there, someone I know who was from there was telling me about it, but it seemed a world-away. I don’t think I felt worried until suddenly many were dying in Italy. So, I can’t claim to be an exception to Camus’ observation. I didn’t foresee this. Others did. The Obama Administration did. Bill Gates did. I guess they’re the exceptions to the rule.

Likewise, I don’t plan for war, even as many fret that America will one day trip into our second civil war as our growing partisanship grows violent. If this happens, I know I’ll awaken one day saying I had heard this was possible but couldn’t imagine it actually happening much like we knew something like what happened on January 6th was possible but we didn’t expect that!

Camus’ narrator comments further:

When a war breaks out, people say: “It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.” But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.

The Plague, p. 37

Remember when President G.W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished”? We want wars to end sooner than wars end. Likewise, as vaccination rates increased, we began to grow comfortable. I even went placed, indoors, without a mask…for a few weeks. But like Iraq, “Mission Accomplished” has proven premature, and the Delta variant has proven human arrogance mixed with ignorance can prolong any misfortune.

But this shouldn’t be surprising. Camus captures this in explaining his fictional townspeople:

In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away, and, from one had dream to another, it is men who pass away, and humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken the precautions. Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed pestilences were impossible.

The Plague, p. 37

How this depicts everything from what we’ve heard of and heard from our last president in early 2020 to the people dying of this virus even now who express deep regret for failing to get a vaccine that was free and available at your local CVS or Walgreens! And as infuriating as these people may be, they are different from the more cautious of us only in degree. Any one of us who lives as if we’re captains of our own ship—as if the sea has no say in our fate—entertains a similar folly. The person speeding and weaving through busy traffic to get home a few second or minutes faster than they would had they sat in their lane in traffic exhibits the same hubris as the person who presumes that this virus won’t get them. It’s easy to fail to be modest thereby denying the reality of reality—until you get sick or wreck your vehicle. (And this isn’t to mention those who take precautions, or who drive defensively, who still get sick or in a wreck!)

Finally, Camus’ narrator comments, and I end with this:

They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.

The Plague, p. 37

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