Existentialism and The Plague
Existentialism and The Plague
Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “Man is condemned to be free; because once he is thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. ” Sartre speaks in accordance with the values of Existentialism, which is defined as a philosophical theory that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will. Existentialists like Sartre rejected the existence of a higher power and the over arching influence of an unnatural conformist society, citing instead the importance of individuality and acts of one’s own free will.
According to the doctrine of Existentialism, life is not satisfying yet has meaning. The singular purpose of life is to drive forward into the infinite macrocosm of the universe, searching for one’s own particular meaning of life. Additionally, Existentialists propose that there is no god; there is no big man in the sky creating destinies for the humble earthly beings below. Thus, random instances of elation, violence, and tragedy do not hold a greater significance with a supposed higher power or with the universe itself. Life is an experience specific to man alone.
Albert Camus, in relation to this philosophy, delivered to the literary world his existentialist work, The Plague, a novel based on the central theme of the inanity of human suffering and the deep individuality of the human experience. In the pages of this novel and through his characters and themes, Camus paints a picture of a mundane community thrust into an almost illogical, if tragic, state of disease and disaster. His unremarkable town of Oran, that in no way deserved such a virulent visitation of plague, sets a perfect stage for the exemplification of existential teachings.
“The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194- at Oran. Everyone agreed that considering their somewhat extraordinary character, they were out of place there. For its ordinariness is what strikes one first about the town of Oran…” (Camus, 3). So begins Albert Camus’ gripping achievement, The Plague. From its very origin, the novel admits itself to be set in a small, dull town, unremarkable in every way. And yet, in the randomness of life, the placid town of Oran is inexplicably bombarded with an attack of plague so malignant it is compared to the plague outbreaks of centuries before, which wiped out entire European villages.
The typically overlooked literary element of setting, in this instance that of an ordinary North African coastal village, lies a sense of some of Albert Camus’ greatest genius. In a way that seems almost too subtle, Camus relates one of the basic tenets of Existentialism, that which emphasizes the absence of a higher powers’ influence on human life, to the unfathomable curse on an undeserving town. “Treeless, glamorous, soulless, the town of Oran ends by seeming restful and, after a while, you go complacently to sleep there. ” (Camus, 6).
Thus, the town of Oran is classified as a sleepy, typical village, one unaccustomed to the despair and pestilence that is rained upon it during the months of the forthcoming plague. One would assume that in a world ordered by a God, a town that had committed no crime wouldn’t have received such an exemplary form of capital punishment. In such a world, one could argue that the town of Oran should have escaped into happy obscurity. One could also argue the fairness of the fabled destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, towns famously steeped in sin.
“Not so! ” would cry the existentialists, as one of the basics ideals of existentialism is the randomness of life. Good and evil in the context of life are simply subjective statements; there is no ultimate reward for those who live as saints, just as there is no ultimate retribution for those who live in sin. In this way, the terror visited on Oran perfectly perpetuates this existential idea. A town so typical and seemingly so ineligible of a tragedy such as the plague is, instead of protected from it, decimated by it.
Perhaps Camus’ random devastation of his little town is a result of his involvement in the European anti-Nazi resistance. During this time of unexplained evils: the systematic decimation of the Jews and other undesirables and the horrors inflicted upon occupied France, among other instances of randomized human terrorism, Camus is said to have developed his existentialist perspective. In a world overseen by a benevolent, just maker, where is there room for the murders of innocent millions, or for that matter, the infestation of plague in a sleepy little town?
One of the reoccurring themes of Existentialism is the importance of the individual finding meaning in a life that’s ultimate result is death. Another facet of Camus’ The Plague that supports this particular aspect of Existentialism is his host of cast and characters. The townsfolk at large can initially be described as hardworking but self absorbed, if not entirely self centered. Theirs is a community of particular habits and personal needs. Seemingly, the only unifying factor of these citizens seems to be in commerce, or as Camus puts it, “Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich.
”(Camus, 4). The masses of Oran find meaning in their businesses, card playing, and cafe going. Though the act of death is described as “difficult and discomforting” (Camus, 5), the people of Oran seem to accept it in its natural courses. The citizens are entirely resigned to their tedious way of life; in fact hardly a soul stirs at the curious sight of rats dying in masses in the streets. Incredibly, beyond the initial panic of the plague, the citizens seem to resign themselves to that as well. “There was the same resignation, the same long-sufferance, inexhaustible and without illusions.
” (Camus, 184). A great many of the prisoners of Oran had embraced Nihilism, a philosophy in which nothing has any value or any meaning, and pursuit of finding either is futile. Interestingly, the attitude of those in Oran and Nihilism itself run conversely to Camus’ actual beliefs. Influenced by the early death of his father and his childhood poverty, as well as a terrible bout of Tuberculosis, Camus’ actual theories involved a complicated correlation between the lack of hope and despair in a life that exists without any intrinsic meaning.
Camus’ philosophy can best be described as a daring experiment in optimism without hope; a life that resists the illusion of a predetermined good outcome without succumbing to despair. In accordance to his personal beliefs, an existential hero designed by Camus resists the despair of a life hurtling toward death and instead rises above death to do good works in the manner of a painfully cautious optimist. One such hero is Dr. Bernard Rieux, narrator and chronicler of the plague.
Rieux shows his existential spots early on in his narrative, frequently questioning the conformist ways of Oran society and continually distancing himself from the hypocrisy of their half-formed lives. His choice of profession is a prime example of choosing to rise above death to do good, instead of worshipping “the god of business” like his peers, he is instead a physician. By their very nature physicians fight an existential battle of healing the sick against an all too present possibility of death.
Though separated from his wife, Rieux fights on through the plague, administering serums, seeing to the afflicted, and organizing sanitary squads with the help of other active citizens. Rieux is ever mindful of his responsibilities to others, remarking that “the essential thing was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying and being doomed to unending separation. And to do this there was only one resource: to fight the plague. There was nothing admirable about this attitude; it was merely logical.
” (Camus, 133). In this passage, Rieux clearly exhibits Camus’ own deeply felt obligations towards society, choosing to fight an inevitable evil rather than resign himself to it. Over the course of his life, Camus’ spoke out against many social injustices, including: the genocides of the Second World War, trade union discrepancies, the death penalty, and injustices within the communist party, which he had formerly been associated with and which cost him many friendships, among them Jean-Paul Sartre.
In a case of art imitating life, Rieux’s consistency with himself and with his beliefs caused him much personal hardship and endangered his life. However, his commitment to others made him less despondent and more aware of himself than the rest of the town, giving him a strength that not many shared and allowed him to find his “true-self”, which is the ultimate goal of Existentialism. In his admirable struggle, Rieux clearly demonstrates the most idealistic goals of Existentialism and in turn represents Camus’ interpretation of the philosophy.
Speaking on the attitude of futility that is sometimes associated with Existentialism, Albert Camus said, “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer. ” In the very heart of his philosophy, Albert Camus accepted that life is merely a vehicle for death, that there is no higher power pulling the strings, and that the meaning of life is attributed to the individual. However, at his core, Camus believed that life was an opportunity to rise above death to accomplish more and do better. The greatest sin was a resignation to death and despair, an indifference to the opportunities afforded to you by free will.
In the randomness of life, “things happen”. Small coastal towns suffer a swift, arbitrary attack of bubonic plague, and Algerian authors die in car crashes when they should have been taking the train. The ultimate question of Existentialism is, “does life have any meaning? ” Ultimately, the key question of Existentialism is answered by that philosophy’s’ very tenets. Life is afforded meaning by the individual, a meaningful life is lived through one’s specific actions to the “things that happen” in the randomness of one’s existence.
Subject: Albert Camus,
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 7 November 2016
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