By Stuart Mitchner
Is one, on the contrary, going to take up the heart-rending and marvelous wager of the absurd?
—Albert Camus (1913-1960)
Albert Camus presents this curious challenge in the “Absurd Freedom” section of The Myth of Sisyphus (1955). What interests me is the way he seems to be moving closer to the reader here, or maybe to himself, in contrast to the prosy, contradictory first half of the full proposition he offers (“Is one going to die, escape by the leap, rebuild a mansion of ideas and forms to one’s own scale?”). The key word for me is “heart-rending” (déchirant in French).
The word shows up again, a form of it, in The Plague (1948) in reference to “the long, heart-rendingly monotonous struggle put up by some obstinate people” during “the period when the plague was gathering all its forces to fling them at the town and lay it waste.” The setting is Oran, Algeria, on the Mediterranean coast, where restrictions had been put in place preventing anyone from leaving.
A Spirit of Lawlessness
Reading The Plague in the wild and whirling weeks before the election isn’t the same experience it would have been back in March. Then the references to “a spirit of lawlessness,” with “fighting at the gates” wouldn’t have had the same impact. If I’d read the book in the spring, before the number of American deaths passed 200,000, I wouldn’t have been marking passages noting how as the death toll rose to five hundred a week “an element of abstraction, of a divorce from reality, entered into such calamities.” For the central figure in the narrative, Doctor Rieux, who sees death on a daily basis in Oran, one “grows out of pity when it’s useless”; the “feeling that his heart had slowly closed in on itself” is “his only solace for the almost unendurable burden of his days.” He wants to think that evils like the plague help men “to rise above themselves.” That’s a wager you can make, assuming that some form of empathy or urgency is being communicated by the powers that be. Otherwise “when you see the misery it brings, you’d need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague.”
The last time I wrote about Camus was in January 2017, a week before the Inauguration (“As D-Day Looms: Einstein, Kafka and Camus Sail to Sea In a Beautiful Pea-Green Boat”). I was doing my best to be upbeat, bringing in Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” one of the happiest poems ever written. But I couldn’t ignore the other Lear, Shakespeare’s mad king, who brings the world down on his head because he only hears what he wants to hear no matter how evil the source and when he hears something he doesn’t want to hear, even when it’s spoken by an angel, he banishes the angel, opens the door of his kingdom to evil, and is lost. more