Category Archives: Classic Books

Religion in the time of Plague (or Pandemic)

Some last thoughts on The Plague by Albert Camus. In that novel Camus  challenges the religious approach to suffering. Suffering is of course a fundamental problem for anyone who believes in an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God. How can there be such a God if there is suffering?

In the novel a Catholic priest Father Paneloux tries to approach the problem. He did that in response to a horrendously painful death of a young child from the plague. He set himself a difficult task. He said that there was a fact that we should under all circumstances take into consideration. We should always bear in mind that “Appearances notwithstanding, all trials, however cruel, worked together for good to the Christian. And, indeed, what a Christian should always seek in his hour of trial was to discern that good, in what it consisted, and how best to turn it to account.” We should not try to explain the plague; we should try to learn what it can teach us.

Paneloux acknowledged that “nothing is more important on earth than a child’s suffering.” He also refused to take ‘the easy way’ out of the dilemma. In his second sermon to the people,

“He, Father Paneloux refused to have recourse to simple devices enabling him to scale that wall. Thus he might easily have assured them that the child’s sufferings would be compensated for by an eternity of bliss awaiting him. But how could he give that assurance when to tell the truth, he knew nothing about it? For who could dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment’s human suffering? He who asserted that, would not be a true Christian, a follower of the Master who knew all the pangs of suffering in his body and his soul. No, he, Father Paneloux would keep faith with that great symbol of all suffering, the tortured body on the Cross: he would stand fast, his back to the wall, and face honestly the terrible problem of a child’s agony. And he would say to those who listened to his words to-day: ‘My brothers, a time of testing has come for us all. We must believe everything or deny everything. And who, I ask amongst you would dare to deny everything?”

The priest considered this “the All or Nothing”, “the greatest of all virtues.” Father Paneloux did not want to dodge the question. He wanted to face it head on. He did not want to sleep-walk through this question. Again a real (though fictional child) in the novel faced that terrible suffering. Could he not do the same?

While on the one hand religious thinkers for millennia have seen suffering as a way towards spiritual enlightenment, others have seen suffering as the greatest spiritual challenge. Perhaps there is no inconsistency there. Perhaps that is the point. Father Paneloux is certainly not trying to get around the problem. He wants to go through it. Paneloux knew, “religion in a time of plague could not be the religion of every day.” Paneloux also concluded, “The suffering of children were our bread of affliction, but without this bread our souls would die of spiritual hunger.”

This meant that Father Paneloux had to have  “a total acceptance” of that child’s suffering. This entailed that “since it was God’s will, we too should will it.” As Collin Wilson in Problematic Rebel said, we have to say yes to it all. So Paneloux says “believe everything so, as not to be forced into denying everything.” What a terrible choice, but he took it. “The Christian should yield himself fully to the divine will, even though it passed his understanding.” Paneloux would not allow a half-measure from the Christian. It was not good enough to say, ‘This I understand but that I cannot accept.” That was just a sorry attempt to weasel out of the piercing dilemma.

Paneloux’s position is certainly a courageous one. He said “we should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at whiles, and try to do what good lay in our power.” Once again like Tarrou and like Camus himself, we must be satisfied with the small good. We need not concern ourselves with the grand design. That is above our pay grade. Do what good we can. That’s all. We need not be or even try to be saints.

Yet this is a very tough position.

“There is no island of escape in time of plague. No, there was no middle course. We could accept the dilemma; and chose either to hate God or to love God. And who would dare to hate Him?…’the love of God is a hard love. It demands total self-surrender, disdain of our human personality. And yet it alone can reconcile us to suffering and the deaths of children, it alone can justify them since we cannot understand them, and we can only make God’s will ours.”

But of course this was not Camus’s position, or at least Rieux, the narrator. Like Dostoevsky in that other classic, Brothers Karamazov, he could not accept a world that required a child to suffer, He was not prepared to “justify” the suffering of a child. He would even dare to hate God if necessary. How bold is that? Who could be that brave?

The Plague: My Mother-in-law and Wiley Coyote were Existentialists

 

I am not quite finished with Albert Camus’ The Plague. Existentialism is a philosophy that grew out of Europe before and after World War 11. No one has been able to define it. Many philosophers, like Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre have renounced their membership in that group, not always fairly in my view. Albert Camus in my opinion exemplifies what existentialism was all about.

The novel emphasizes that it is the story of real (though fictional) living people. That is not a contradiction. That is what concerned Camus—real living people. It is the basis, in my view, of the philosophy that came to be known as existentialism.

The best explanation I have ever heard for what existentialism is all about was given at a public lecture by University of Winnipeg Professor Carl Ridd when I was a young student. I think it was 1975. I was a student of philosophy at the time at the University of Manitoba, so I was not inclined to think that Ridd (from the wrong university) could advance something very worthwhile. But he did.

Ridd told us that existentialism was demonstrated by what Wiley Coyote did when he chased the Roadrunner over a cliff. The Roadrunner could fly or duck, but Wiley chased him right over the cliff and kept running without sinking—until he looked down. The moment he looked down he was sunk—literally sunk, as he dropped to the ground. These chases always ended up with Wiley Coyote not being wily enough and suffering as a result. That moment of looking down is what Professor Ridd said existentialism was all about.

The Plague demonstrates that well. The people of Oran, suffering from plague, like other countries suffering from totalitarianism, had to avoid looking at the past or the future. In the midst of COVID-19 epidemic we are in the same position. They had to concentrate on the here and now—the eternal present. As Camus said in the book, “Therefore they forced themselves never to think about the about the problematic day of escape, but to cease looking to the future, and always to keep, so to speak, their eyes fixed on the ground at their feet.”

The narrator in the novel, whose identity is not revealed until the end, compares the people of Oran to people in prison:

“…there was always something missing in their lives. Hostile to the past, impatient of the present, and cheated of the future, we were like those whom men’s justice, or hatred, forces to live behind prison bars. Thus the only way of escaping from that intolerable leisure was to set the trains running again in one’s imagination and in filling the silence with fancied tinkle of a door-bell, in practice obstinately mute.”

This view of concentrating on the here and now, was one of the central themes of his philosophical book, The Rebel. He used this idea to create separation between his position and Marxists who, he believed were willing to impose certain suffering today in order to achieve a highly dubious future nirvana. It was a powerful argument in that book, and is in this book as well, but from a different perspective. As his narrator said, in Camus’ beautiful prose: “Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.” Camus is one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century.

Later Dr. Rieux who everyday had to minister to the sick and dying, knows what is important: “I have no idea what’s awaiting for me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing. Later on perhaps they’ll think things over: and so shall I. But what’s wanted now is to make them well. I defend them as best I can, that’s all.” That sums up what I call his existentialism. Ideology is not important. People are sick and they need help. That is all that matters.”

I have recently been criticized for not doing what Dr. Rieux did. Put ideology aside. Analyze later. Just do it now. I must admit there is justification for this criticism of me personally. I stand chastened. It is difficult for an old man like me, confined to my room, to help. But I must be scrupulous—more scrupulous than I have been—to make sure I do not stand in the way of others who are helping. I am chastened.

Again echoing the words of the Rebel, the narrator enunciates Camus’ position:

“Without memories, without hope, they lived for the moment only. Indeed the Here and Now had come to mean everything to them. For there is no denying that the plague had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship. Naturally enough, since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left us but a series of present moments.”

In an essay “Reflections on the Guillotine” he told the true story of his father. I will quote in full the opening paragraph:

“Shortly before the war of 1914, an assassin whose crime was particularly repulsive (he had slaughtered a family of farmers, including the children) was condemned to death in Algiers. He was a farm worker who had killed in a sort of bloodthirsty frenzy but had aggravated his case by robbing his victims. The affair created a great stir. It was generally thought that decapitation was too mild a punishment for such a monster. This was the opinion, I have been told, of my father, who was especially aroused by the murder of the children. One of the few things known about him, in any case, is that he wanted to witness the execution, for the first time in his life. He got up in dark to go to the place of execution at the other end of town amid a great crowd of people. What he saw that morning he never told anyone. My mother relates merely that he came rushing home, his face distorted, refused to talk, lay down for a moment on the bed and suddenly began to vomit. He had just discovered the reality hidden under the noble phrases with which it was masked. Instead of thinking of the slaughtered children, he could think of nothing but that quivering body that had just been dropped onto a board to have its head cut off.”

That is what existentialism is all about the existence and death of real people beyond the abstractions of ideology. That is what is important. Beside the reality of the living person the ideology fades into insignificance.

In The Plague there is a similar story told by Tarrou to his friend Dr. Rieux about Tarrou’s father. His father was a Public Prosecutor, a very respected position, who took his son to watch him prosecute an offender. According to Tarrou there was no doubt that the criminal was guilty. Tarrou described the man as “a little man of about thirty, with sparse, sandy hair,” who “seemed eager to confess everything, so genuinely horrified at what he had done and was going to be done to him, that after a few minutes I had eyes for nothing and nobody else. He looked like a yellow owl scared blind by too much light. His tie was slightly awry, he kept biting his nails, those of one hand only his right…I needn’t go on, need I? You’ve understood—he was a living human being.”

Those little details, a balding head, disheveled tie, and biting his nails nervously make it clear that this was not someone to fear. His eyes were obviously bugging out. He was like an owl with yellow eyes blinded by the light. When Tarrou’s father saw the pathetic criminal he could no longer see him as that abstract “criminal.” He was “a living human being.”

Tarrou learned a valuable lesson that day. Behind the bland officially approved words of crime and punishment is a stark reality—the state murdering a poor hapless young man, who deserved punishment but not what he was getting. As Camus described it:

‘As for me, it came on me suddenly, in a flash of understanding; until then I’d thought of him only under his commonplace official designation, as “the defendant.” And though I can’t say I quite forgot about my father, something seemed to grip my vitals at that moment and riveted all my attention on the little man in the dock. I hardly heard what was being said, I only knew that they were set on killing that living man and an uprush of some elemental instinct, like a wave, had swept me to his side.’

As soon as Tarrou’s father saw the real man, he had fellow feeling for him, and the ideology he held, or thought he held, evaporated. He also asked Dr. Rieux if he had ever witnessed a man shot by firing squad? Tarrou explained the reality of the shooting:

“…the spectators are hand-picked, and it’s like a private party, you need an invitation. The result is that you’ve gleaned your ideas about it from books and pictures. A post, a blindfolded man, some soldiers in the offing. But the real thing isn’t a bit like that. Do you know that the firing-squad stands only a yard and half from the condemned man? Do you know that if the victim took two steps forward his chest would touch the rifles? Do you know that, at this short range, the soldiers concentrate their fire on the region of heart and their bullets make a hole into which you could thrust your fist? No you didn’t know all that; those are things that are never spoken of. For the plague-stricken their peace of mind is more important than a human life. Decent folks must be allowed to sleep easy o’nights mustn’t they?”

The existential philosophy wants to know the truth. It does not want to let us sleep soundly. Those who don’t want to know the truth are plague-stricken. They are the sleep-walkers. They don’t want to know the truth. An existentialist wants to wake them up. Like, Wiley Coyote must be made to look down after he has crossed the cliff edge and seems to be running on air. Once he knows, he is done. That is the existential moment. For Camus’s father it was when he saw a real decapitation. For Tarrou’s father it was when he heard his father clamoring for the death of the pathetic defendant. Once we see the real shivering human person in his actual existence our theories can fail us; our ideology can be shredded.

I now want to offer a much more mundane example from my own life. This was the case of own my mother-in-law. She was the sweetest, kindest, person I have ever known. I am not exaggerating. This is gospel truth. She was a staunch Catholic and had firm Catholic principles by which she lived without doubt or question. Her Catholic faith was her bedrock foundation for life. She was also French and proud of it. When she found out her daughter wanted to go out on a date with an English non-Catholic (me) who she had never met, she was appalled. How could this happen? This would not do. But when she met and found out what a great guy I was, she cast aside her ideology and we got along wonderfully. I loved her and she loved me. She wished I was a French Catholic boy, but I would do. When she was confronted with reality she was able to set aside her ideology.

My mother-in-law was exactly the same with her next son-in-law, Norm, even though he was not as nice as me. He did not marry another daughter, but he lived with her. In sin! To her that was what they were doing—living-in-sin. But she didn’t care. She loved him too. She saw through her own ideology and set it aside. She actually did that with many people who according to her ideology ought to have been rejected. That was not her style. She accepted people for whom they were, unless they were actually bad people. Like Wiley Coyote, my mother-in-law was an existentialist! Camus would have approved.

The Plague: A Little Hero

 

 

The first book I have selected as a classic to be re-read is one I read a lifetime ago. Perhaps 45 years ago. I noticed the price tag on the back. I paid 85 cents for this book and have kept it for about 50 years. Not bad. It is high time to return to it.

The Plague, written by Albert Camus, is of course a highly appropriate choice as I and so many others are at this time basically in quarantine facing a plague of COVID-19 that is spreading around the world filling people with dread.

In the novel Camus tells the story of Oran, a city in Algeria, and its people, as they suffer through an epidemic—a plague. Like us they were quarantined in their town amid fear and trembling. Now that many of us have been sequestered in various ways already, for many of us, for more than a month with no end in sight. So we know how the people of Oran felt. We feel like that now.

On one level the novel is a book about that plague and how the people of the town are afflicted by it, resist it, and help each other through it. That really is enough, but there is more to it than this. Much more. It is a novel of ideas. Many ideas. Too many to cover in a short review. I will confine myself to just a couple in this review.

Some critics have suggested that the plague of the novel is a symbol of Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War and the French resistance to it. I have no doubt it is that, but that is not all. It is a symbol of all totalitarian regimes and those who revolt against them around the world. In fact it is a symbol of all oppression and the people who fight it.

Camus was famous for saying he believed in limits. Oppression had to be resisted with limits. He was opposed to politics without limits such a totalitarian dreams which he firmly believed led to the gallows or the guillotine. As a result, he said the hero of the resistance was not the great revolutionary.

Camus basic belief is it was best to be modest and humble. He was deeply suspicious after the rise of totalitarianism in Europe after World War I. He thought it was grand designs that led to totalitarianism or murder. Like Bob Dylan said, “You don’t count the dead with God on your side.” If you are about to bring about heaven on earth, as Marxists believed, any actions, no matter how horrendous were justified in the name of that magisterial distant goal.

Camus rejected all that in favour of humility or modesty. He is satisfied if he can accomplish small good. That is good enough. He doesn’t expect to be a Saint. 

In the book Tarrou used to have grand schemes to be saint, but he gave those up.  He has no grand design any more.  He just wants to help without doing anything to assist someone else in being killed.

Tarrou earlier said he was working towards being a saint. That was his goal. He never achieved it. As a result this is what Tarrou said about the plague to his friend Dr. Rieux:

“That, too is why this epidemic has taught me nothing new, except that I must fight it at your side…each of us has the plague within him: no one, no one on earth, is free from it.”

Later Tarrou says,

“I’ve learnt modesty: All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with pestilences. That may sound simple to the point of childishness; I can’t judge if it’s simple, but I know it’s true. You see, I’d heard such quantities of arguments, which very nearly turned my head, and turned other people’s heads enough to make them approve of murder; and I’d come to realize that all our troubles spring from our failure to use plain, clean-cut language…there are pestilences and there are victims; no more than that…That’s why I decided to take, in every predicament, the victim’s side…”

Rieux asked Tarrou if he knew the path to peace? Tarrou replied “the path of sympathy.” Again no grand designs, no plan to save the world, just follow the path of sympathy and use plain clear language to get there.”

The path of sympathy or fellow feeling seems simple. Camus tries to make it so. But he knows it is not always simple. For example, throughout the book Rambert, a newly wed, was trying to get back together with his wife who was stuck on the other side of the wall surrounding the town. He tries a few times and fails. Then near the end, it is arranged. He can escape. But Rambert changes his mind and stays back to help Rieux to help the victims. Did he do the right thing?

Rambert says no, “For nothing in the world is it worth turning back on what one loves yet that is what I’m doing—though why I don’t know.” To this Rieux responds, ‘a man can’t cure and know at the same. So let’s cure as quickly as we can. That’s the more urgent job.”

Dr. Rieux and Paneloux, the Catholic Priest have a discussion on similar lines:

Paneloux say to Rieux, “Perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.” It is the typical religious response but Rieux does not buy it. He replies, “No Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day, I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” Paneloux then thinks Rieux wants grace. Rieux does not accept this either. He wants a simpler more clear answer. “We’re working side by side for something that unites us—beyond blasphemy and prayers. And it’s the only thing that matters.” Paneloux jumps on this and claims, “Yes, Yes, you too are working for man’s salvation.” Dr. Rieux won’t have that either. He says,

“Salvation’s much to big a word for me. I don’t aim so high. I’m concerned with man’s health and for me his health comes first.”

Later Rieux adds this: “I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is—being a man.”

Rieux did not want to be a saint. He believed,

“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.”

Camus always fears the logical murderer that he found in his book The Rebel. That is the person who comes up with a big plan and then kills to bring it about. That is what the totalitarians did  in Russia and Germany.  Rieux looked for no grand designs for they could lead to such colossal murders as in the camps of the totalitarians. He wanted more modest goals. He believed the hero was the man with humility.

The man the narrator in the novel looked to as an example or ideal was called Grand. But he was not grand. He was modest. He was “a little hero.” And to Camus that was always the best kind. The Saint with grandiose goals often led to mass slaughter.

Grand was the true embodiment of the quiet courage that inspired the sanitary groups. He had said ‘Yes” without a moments hesitation and with the large-heartedness that was a second nature with him. All he asked was to be allotted light duties…When Rieux thanked him with some warmth for his contribution Grand seemed surprised. ‘Why, that’s not difficult. Plague is here, and we’ve got make a stand, that’s obvious. Ah, I only wish everything were as simple!’

In Camus’ world as in Rieux’s world, the humble man of virtue is the hero not the one who creates the grand designs to save the world. As the narrator said of Grand, “a hero…this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth it’s due.” We don’t need heroes or saints when we have people like Grand.

Classic Books

For a long time I have wanted to re-read some of the classic books. After all why have I kept all these books for so many years? I hope I did not keep them just to show off. God no one is fooled.

Vladimir Nabokov once said ‘you have not read a book until you have re-read it.” I agree. I am not sure how exactly this will go, but it will go something like this. I intend to read at least one classic of literature or philosophy or maybe even a long poem. I promise myself I will read at least one each year.

This is hard, because I always seem to have a long stack of books to read. Then kind people offer to lend me one of their books too. Together it all seems impossible.

I am doing this not just because I’m going broke. Although that is a pretty good reason. Why buy a book if I have a classic well worth reading again right here at home? Always a good question but I am confident these great books will be worth it.

The key is that I am confident these books will offer something worth while again. That’s why they are classics!

So I will intersperse my “normal” reading with a classic from time to time. There will be no straight line between these books. I won’t start with the oldest or the best. But they will all be good. I will meander through those books.

I hope to post my first one soon.

I think this will be fun.