Saturday, July 18, 2020

Overcoming Our Adolescent Furies: Camus, Plague, and Meaning in Life

Albert Camus is hot right now--in the midst of our own pandemic, many people are reading or re-reading The Plague. This is good, because I think that Rieux, the doctor in and (spoiler alert!) narrator of this book, can teach us something about how to live during the uncertainty and other difficulties of the coronavirus pandemic.

What we see embodied in Rieux's brave and open-eyed commitment to treating his fellow citizens in Oran, in his doing "what had to be done" without any illusions (about the graveness of the situation) or delusions of grandeur (he does not see himself as a hero), is a fuller manifestation of living a meaningful life in a "meaningless" and absurd world than Camus offers in his earlier works.

In Camus' absurd trilogy of The Myth of Sisyphus (essay), The Stranger (novel), and Caligula (play), we are confronted with the hopeless feeling that life is absurd, and the temptation to think that if there is no God or purpose, it simply doesn't matter what we do. In The Stranger, Meursalt fails to mourn for his mother's death, murders a nameless Arab, and shows other signs of total indifference to the world and the people around him. None of it matters. None of it makes any difference. In Caligula, the eponymous anti-hero, tormented by the grief of his sister's death, embraces his "absurd freedom" by becoming a brutal and murderous tyrant. Even as conspirators seize him (presumably to kill him) in the final scene, he screams out that he is "still alive!" As if that proves anything if life is as meaningless as he believes it to be.

Meursault and Caligula both embody the problem: what can or should we do if we are suddenly struck by the feeling that life is absurd? In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus points out that this problem can beset us in various ways: perhaps a confrontation with death fills us with a feeling of dread and the worry that all will be lost when we die. Perhaps we step back from certain tiresome and repetitive patterns in our lives and we wonder, with a certain dizziness, what the point of it all is. Or perhaps we become a detached observer of life and watch other people move through their busy days; suddenly, all of this human activity seems to have as little consequence as the scuttling of ants in an anthill. Such moments can drive us to despair, and to a kind of "fuck it" attitude toward life. Meursault and Caligula--in their nihilistic apathy and terrorism--represent what Camus would later describe as "adolescent" ways of responding to the feeling of absurdity in his book The Rebel.

Rieux has absurd problems, too. The outbreak of bubonic plague in Oran has separated him from his wife, who had traveled abroad prior to the quarantine and total lockdown of the city. Officials at first are resistant to believe the data--that the plague is real. A local priest gives horrifying sermons characterizing the plague as a divine punishment. None of this helps fight the plague. But Rieux persists. He does what he can to get the officials to take the plague seriously, he risks his own health to treat patients who are likely to die nonetheless. He remains committed to his work of healing, and he does this, in large part, by keeping focused on the concrete problems at hand and on what he can control, and by refusing to think of the plague or the people in Oran in merely abstract and statistical terms. (Statistics are important in assessing the severity and eventual decline of plague, but people are not statistics.) He refuses to think of himself as a hero for the risks he takes; he is simply doing what had to be done, given his medical training and the situation at hand.

Even when the plague has subsided, Rieux knows that there will be other plagues and problems. There is no final victory over disease, death, or injustice. In this way, Rieux understands life in the Sisyphean terms Camus describes at in the final pages of The Myth of Sisyphus: there will always be another boulder to roll, another sickness, another challenge to the lives we have set up for ourselves.

But unlike Meursault, Rieux does not throw up his hands in the face of the repetitions of life and declare that nothing at all matters. Unlike Caligula, he does not use the absurdity of the world to try to justify becoming a monster. The absurdity of the world doesn't justify anything. So, yes, that means we are free to follow our passions as we please. We can, within the limits of nature, do whatever we want. But we have no "right" to any of this. An absurd world doesn't care, for example, about the freedom that some anti-maskers are claiming for themselves in the current coronavirus pandemic. The coronavirus is completely indifferent to the rebellion of youth who throw "corona parties." Of course, the people who adopt these attitudes and actions perhaps think that in an absurd world, their freedom means that the whole game of being able to justify one's actions is over, futile. So, fuck it, let's have a corona party and get it all over with.

This kind of abstract free-for-all nihilism--this version of "absurd freedom"--was never the end game for Camus. These rebellious responses to the absurdity of life--or of lockdown, etc.--are only a first step, even a phase to be overcome. For Camus, what is absolutely necessary is to stop thinking about the meaning of life in abstract metaphysical terms. To "revolt" against the absurd, as he counsels us, is to revolt against prizing abstract thought over concrete realities. If you want to find things that are meaningful in life, you have to pay attention to specific things, specific people, and specific opportunities that exist in your very concrete and immediate world. If you are convinced (or afraid) that life is objectively meaningless (because there's no God, or because God doesn't really care, etc.), then you have to recognize that the objective meaningless of life also doesn't matter. As Thomas Nagel once put it, if life doesn't matter, then that fact doesn't matter either.

What does matter then? This is the very question which, in an absurd world, has no predetermined answer. Instead, you have to look and see. You have to consider the everyday effects of your actions on others. You have to consider what opportunities the world affords you that stir your own interests and passions, and which you can undertake with both joy and honesty. Honesty--because in an absurd world, you don't get to make any excuses. You don't get to claim any grand justification for what you do. You have to be able to live with others, or accept the price of being a jerk without whining about your "rights" or whatever. Sure, you're free to live like a Caligula or a Meursault, but if you do, then you should expect life to go about as well for you as it did for them.

Rieux shows us, in a much more realistic way than Sisyphus rolling his boulders in the underworld, what it can mean to live with courage, integrity, and compassion, even in an absurd and highly uncertain situation. His words and actions do make a difference. A few patients recover. A journalist named Raymond Rambert, who spends half of the novel attempting to escape Oran to return to his girlfriend, gives up his escape attempts when he learns--what Rieux has long hidden from him--that Rieux is separated from his own wife and so perhaps suffering in much the same way as he is. It is one of the most touching moments in the whole book because it shows what solidarity in spite of suffering looks like in the flesh. Friendship, love, and care for others do not require a cosmic justification. They just require us to look down from the heavens and into each other's eyes.

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