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.