“Il y a plus dans les hommes des choses à admirer que des choses à mépriser »[i]
La Peste, Albert Camus [ii]
There are books that seem to be ageing in a dishonorable way—once deemed as essential reading, they nonetheless begin to show their little decadent details like a former belle that is cruelly being assaulted by the passing of time—and we nervously store them in the attic of our Subconscious mind, dismissing their tough messages. We know that they deal with resiliently pertinent issues, but we rather ignore them. La Peste, penned by the 1954 Nobel Laureate Albert Camus, is indeed one of them.
Written in 1947, right after the end of World War II, it was supposedly a tale of how a seemingly supernatural phenomenon out of the Dark Times can ravage the human communities and in its aftermath provoke little redeeming changes in Humankind; however, it had a much more profound and relevant message for the contemporaries of Camus. In a January 11, 1954 letter to Roland Barthès , the writer acknowledged the allegorical reference to the sudden Rise and Fall of Nazism, which had destroyed and traumatized the European communities. We must remember that intellectuals of the 20th century were flabbergasted that such a ghastly machine of mass extermination could have been spawned by Germany, one of the finest cultures of the Continent.
In Oran—then the second largest city of French Algeria—a physician called Rieux blew the whistle when he discovered many sick individuals in his ward consultations. The epidemic seemingly came out of nowhere and rapidly destroyed the social, economic and administrative fabric of the prosperous city port in just a few weeks. In the beginning the city inhabitants were reluctant to accept the Public Health threat as they could not face their own mortality and preferred to cling to their “normality.” Slowly but steadily all the warts of human nature begun to surface for all to see.
One sick patient paradoxically rejoiced in the sickness of others as a way to mitigate his own miserly solitude with a perverse schadenfreude [iii] that undervalued Life. A priest said in a sermon that the scourge was God’s penance for the parishioners’ sins. Many civil administration’s cadres abandoned their posts for the safety of isolation. Other individuals preferred to party before the inevitable demise would befall them. Dr. Rieux viewed the pest as “une interminable défaite” [iv] and was ready to give up.
Then there is the redeeming character of Rambert, who after trying to escape from the city in the beginning, decided to stay on to help the suffering. He reminded us of Katow, one of the central characters of La Condition Humaine [v] , who sacrificed his life for the sake of his companions. Ever since we read Malraux’s book in the Alliance Française, the train whistle—marking his cruel immolation in a cauldron by the Chinese Nationalists forces that had captured the political activist—has provoked an uncontrolled shiver from head to toe in our physique. But it also epitomized the great capacity of many people to surmount selfishness to help others.
One of the most terrifying constants in this book is the gradual yet unrelenting encroachment of the silence in places hitherto fully occupied by human activities. All the physicians still practicing in these terrible times are overcome with a sickening feeling in our stomachs when we traverse sections of hospitals that used to be bustling with patients and personnel—like children’s wards—and we only hear our steps’ echo. Moreover, when we learn that one of our colleagues has fallen due to the disease, we have mixed feelings of sadness for the loss but also pride for their sacrifices. Only in Italy, more than 100 physicians and 30 nurses have passed away recently.
Most of us have a relative, friend or neighbor that was infected while they were on duty as first responders in the police, fire stations, pharmacies, supermarkets, etc. Thanks to them, we are duly supplied with services and goods in our social isolation. Without the continued support of county, state and federal authorities, our country cannot weather this terrible calamity and recover a semblance of “normalcy” after.
In this so, so sad Easter, Pope Francis gave a mass, seated on an illuminated podium in the middle of a totally deserted Saint Peter’s square, to a TV audience on Friday. Instead of the elaborate Via Crucis [vi]—traditionally held in the Colosseum[vii] with the thirteen stations of the Cross—there was only a small procession of caregivers and jail personnel that offered a simple wooden cross to the Pope at the very end. The Pope, after all just another human being with all his frailties, stood up and accepted it with a resigned look but also a fierce resolve to keep on fighting. In his most sad homily, Pope Francis urged us not to keep wallowing in dark thoughts and dream about a better future for mankind. Will we be able to heed his recommendation? Coraggio.[viii]
The heroic example of thousands of humans should make us reconsider our lives.
Stay distant. Stay safe. Stay beautiful.
(This article is based on our upcoming new book Emotional Frustration – the hushed plague)
What do you think? Please tell us.
Don’t leave me alone.
[i] Can be translated as : “there are more things to be admired than disdained in men.”
[ii] Alber Camus, La Peste, Paris, 1947, Editions Gallimard.
[iii] Term in the German language that means “find joy in the disgrace of others.”
[iv] Term in the French language that means “the never-ending defeat.”
[v] André Malraux, La Condition Humaine, Paris, 1933, Editions Gallimard.
[vi] The Via Crucis or the Via Dolorosa is the path taken by Jesus Christ and his tormentors through the streets of Jerusalem to reach the Golgota, the infamous hill where he was crucified by the Romans.
[vii] The name of the massive arena where the Romans had their games, ceremonies and gladiators’ encounters, located in the center of Rome.
[viii] Term in the Italian language that means “courage.”