October 14, 2020

Living with the Absurd, from “The Plague” to “Dig a Pony”

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.

I headed the piece with a quote from Einstein (“If at first an idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it”), looking for something positive, a semblance of hope, just a little, in spite of knowing it was unlikely that even a mind as large as Einstein’s could have room for human folly “comparable to what’s coming on January 20.”

At a Distance

It’s obvious now that I won’t finish The Plague in time to do it justice. One of the most striking aspects of the reading experience is the way Camus carefully keeps you at a distance from any extended, close-up vision of the suffering. For the greater part of the narrative you’re given the long view, numbers, abstractions, speculations, two extraordinary sermons. The most moving moments are quiet passages like the one where Dr. Rieux “turns on his radio before going to bed for the few hours’ sleep he allowed himself. And from the ends of the earth, across thousands of miles of land and sea, kindly, well-meaning speakers tried to voice their fellow feeling, and indeed did so, but at the same time proved the utter incapacity of every man truly to share in suffering he cannot see. ‘Oran! Oran!’ In vain the call rang over oceans, in vain Rieux listened hopefully; always the tide of eloquence began to flow…. ‘Oran, we’re with you!’ they called emotionally. But not, the doctor told himself, to love or to die together — ‘and that’s the only way. They’re too remote.’ “

As I mentioned, the most harrowing scene of suffering in The Plague comes much later, less than a hundred pages from the end. It describes the failed trial use of an anti-plague serum on a dying child. 

Absurdity Abounds

I began reading The Plague on Friday, October 9, John Lennon’s 80th birthday, planning to look for elements of the absurd in his lyrics for “Come Together” and “Dig a Pony,” two of his last songs with the Beatles. As usual, the “best laid plans” were sidetracked by such things as the previous day’s wedding anniversary and before that, the death of Eddie Van Halen, not to mention the ongoing distraction of the president’s bout with the virus. Put it all together in the context of Camus, the man who put the A-word on the map, and I have to go back to a letter from my future wife, sent to New Delhi from Los Angeles. Toward the end of the message, just before signing her name, she informed me that Ronald Reagan was running for governor of California, adding in large bold letters — “Absurdity abounds.” Those two words still say it all. Assuming it’s in the public domain, let’s put Absurdity Abounds on a digital billboard on Times Square, with a flashing yellow exclamation point added with each new year.

And so it abounds and abounds unbelievably on, from Governor Reagan to President Reagan, who took the oath of office on January 20, 1981, a little over a month after the killing of John Lennon. Meanwhile it was during Reagan’s presidency that my son grew up listening to Eddie Van Halen (1955-2020), a rock hero he says he misses more than anyone since David Bowie. Thus the two of us are sharing his favorite Van Halen songs on the anniversary afternoon of October 8, my copy of The Plague set aside as we listen to “Love Walks In,” — “And then you sense a change / Nothing feels the same /All your dreams are strange.” 

Further Aboundings

The New York Times’ insistence on the style point of the formal “Mr.,” which first caught my eye when a reviewer referred to Meat Loaf as “Mr. Loaf,” surfaced, again with absurd effect, in Van Halen’s obituary. The use of “Mr. Van Halen” for a pyrotechnical player billed as “the Shredder Supreme” takes on comical traction in the context of his relationship with his superegomaniacal bandmate David Lee Roth. If you’ve recently revisited videos of Mr. Van Halen and Mr. Roth in full unfettered hair-metal glory, there’s much to savor in the quaint formality of Mr. Van Halen’s “smoldering personal and creative conflicts with Mr. Roth” that led the “colorful” singer to quit the band, and eventually thwarted a “proposed reunion with Mr Roth,” which “fell apart over the usual arguments. ‘I don’t think the guy was ever real,’ Mr. Van Halen said of Mr. Roth to Rolling Stone.”

“Dig a Pony”

Now I’m listening to Lennon again, his hymn to the undaunted, unhaunted imagination, the marvelous gamble, where you can dig a pony, penetrate any place you go, radiate everything you are, imitate everyone you know, indicate everything you see, because — 

“Everything has got to be just like you want it to.”

Is it any wonder I relate to “the heart-rending and marvelous wager of the absurd” that I borrowed from Camus? It could be at the top of every column.