“The Plague” written by French existentialist Albert Camus, should be on everyone’s top ten bucket list to read before dying. Written in 1947, it takes place in an Algerian port city, similar to the one Camus grew up in Algeria. Oran to be specific. At the time Algeria was a French possession, and would not achieve independence until the early 1960s. The Plague deals with issues that were central to French philosophy during WWII years; namely existentialism, the absurd, and humanism. Although the story is ostensibly about infected rats emerging from the city’s sewers and dying in the streets, and then how the disease spreads to the human population who also start dying in large numbers; it is said to actually be an allegory about the horrors of WWII. The basic message of The Plague is that the world, and, indeed, the universe, is often senseless and indifferent to human suffering, which is unceasing and torturous. If you don’t believe so, think of a parent’s worst nightmare-which is the loss of a child. A nightmare they can never recover from. Nevertheless, Camus believed we should always fight the good fight against all this suffering, as the doctor fought unceasingly against the disease in The Plague. Although, in the end, that battle will inevitably be lost. Remember, this book was written shortly after WWII with all its horrors of concentration camps and death; so pessimism concerning the human condition abounded everywhere, especially in Europe. Camus did fight in the French underground and got to see the horrors of war up close.
In a godless, absurd, and uncaring universe, Camus made the case that compassionate humanism was the only rational course for human existence. I was thinking about “The Plague” recently, especially with its latest outbreak concerning the Ebola virus, with the death and destruction it has already caused, and it reminded me of my misspent youth immersed in French existentialism. I have written before about my dalliance with humanism and existentialism when I was in college in New York, and how I had three close friends with the same interests. About how the four of us would work after school during the tax season for an accountant named Herman Lord, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The four of us read virtually all the works of French existentialists such as Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone du Beauvoir, Andre Malraux, Andre Gide, and others. Like the French writers, we fancied ourselves to be atheistic existentialists in a cold and indifferent world and universe. Thus, the irony was not lost on us that we went to work for a man named Lord. When we came into his office, we would profusely bow with great flourish, and refer to him as The Lord. One day he finally lost his temper and yelled that if we didn’t cut that shit out, the four of us would be looking for a new job immediately. We still went on referring to him as The Lord, amongst ourselves, if not to his face. After all, it seemed like destiny that us 4 atheists would wind up working for The Lord.
As I’ve said, his office was in the Bed-Sty section of Brooklyn which was virtually all black at the time. It was the Brooklyn equivalent to Harlem. But this was the mid-1950s, when New York, and indeed, the rest of the country was still peaceful and the crime rate was low. Often I would be the only one in the office, (besides the client, of course), and not lock up until about 9:PM. Usually, my car would be the only one parked on the street. Yet I never had any fear for my safety, or for my car being ripped off. Even my mother, who was a professional worrier, never had a concern about my working nights in Bed-Sty. So how did it all turn so violent as we moved into the 1960s. Cities burning often repeatedly, crime surging, massive illegal drug dealing and usage, huge demonstrations and protests, relentless poverty, inner-city rat infested slums, unpopular and unnecessary war, and a host of other ills burst upon the American scene. It seemed that the relative tranquility we experienced during the 1950s was, indeed, an aberration.
And so it was, as the facade of a peaceful American society papered over huge social and political problems. Blacks were routinely segregated and treated as semi-slaves in the South. There were huge gaps in wealth between rich and poor, blacks and whites, and even between men and women. Minorities were fed-up with being relegated to inner-city slums, as well as dealing with Jim Crowism. The war in Viet-Nam, started because of our neurotic fear of communism, would go on to take close to 60,000 American lives as well as hundreds of thousands of Viet-Namese. And the plague of violence that spread across America after the 1950s, would, over decades, go on to infect the rest of the world, that is today caught up in Islamic-terrorism. We swallowed a healthy dose of that terrorism on 9/11 and in terrorist strikes on American soil since then. But large chunks of Northern Africa and Asia are currently subjected to the terrorist plague of almost daily beheadings and massive killings. And the beat goes on.
Albert Camus died in a car accident in Algeria in 1960. I would like to believe that he would have appreciated the absurdity of such a hugely important literary figure dying in such a mundane manner. My friends and I grieved over his death as if we had lost a parent. A major voice for reason and sanity and compassion in the human condition had abruptly been silenced. We were now truly alone in an indifferent and uncaring universe. How frightening is that.