By Stuart Mitchner
I could get to where the massacre happened in 15 minutes on the bus when I was a kid.
—Director Mike Leigh, discussing Peterloo
I spent last Wednesday morning finishing The Plague and rereading The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. With Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s birthday a week away, it made sense to go from Albert Camus and his apparent conclusion that the plague “opens men’s eyes and forces them to take thought” to Coleridge’s concluding reference to the Mariner’s captive audience, the Wedding Guest, as a “sadder and wiser man.” Both narratives appear to end on a positive note. For Camus, it’s “to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” For Coleridge, it’s “He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small.”
Except that The Plague’s Doctor Rieux realizes at the close of the novel, as he listens to “the cries of joy rising from the town, that such joy is always imperiled … that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years … that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves, and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”
And despite the freedom the bright-eyed Mariner feels after unloading the burden of his “ghastly tale” on the terrified Wedding Guest, he knows the “woeful agony” will return, when his heart within him “burns” and he must pass, “like night, from land to land,” with “strange power of speech” until he finds the man who must hear him (“To him my tale I teach”). more