Friday, April 24, 2020

The Plague, Human Love, and Our Common Fate

When I travel, I like to read a book that is set in my destination. For instance, I read Death in Venice while in Venice. One could get more up to date information from tour guides, of course, but there is something about reading fiction about a place, while in a place, that for me lends an atmosphere and insight to the experience of travel that non-fiction simply cannot. Reading about Gustav von Aschenbach commuting by gondola, then going out for a ride in a gondola made me feel like I was part of not only a place but an era in a way that mere visiting could not. Gustav described it as "the most comfortable seat on earth" and, for me, that day, it was. When I wound up in bed for two days with food poisoning, I felt as if I was actually living the experience of dying in Venice. It's less romantic than it sounds, but it's a memory I'll always cherish.

Sadly, we've all had to place our wanderlust on hold for the time being, but when the computer screen grows tedious, fiction never does. So, in the spirit of reading fiction about an experience while having a similar experience, I decided to re-read Albert Camus' novel The Plague. It's been decades since I first read it. My memory was of a heavy handed, somewhat tedious use of plague as a metaphor for existential angst. I recall skimming long sections of the book. I mean, how much is there to say about the plague: it's bad alright, and dull, and frightening, but couldn't the characters do something besides talk and think and live the plague? But reading it from the perspective of now, I found myself clinging to every word, to every nuance of the characters' thoughts and feelings, and identifying with every twist and turn of the endless dialog about their common fate to be quarantined together, an entire city of several hundred thousand, on the northern coast of Algeria, with the Black Death.

The narrator Rieux writes: "There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise." And yes, we've always known a pandemic was possible, and while we have reason to have expected our elected representatives to be less surprised than they apparently were, the fact that this has taken us collectively by surprise is in the nature of the plague. It's also in the nature of the plague that no one really knows what to do about it. I mean, of course, we've known for centuries that some version of quarantine or social distancing is the only way to slow these things down, but still, none of us, not even the experts, know what lies ahead of us.

As I read, I found myself taking comfort in knowing that what we are experiencing right now is not unique. Humans have lived through plague before and, as horrible as it is, it is one of the few things that can fully and completely unify us. Indeed, unity is the only way through it. Even as we argue, and even as there are those who still wish to somehow shirk their responsibility, we have no choice but to recognize that " . . . once the town gates were shut, every one of us realized that all . . . were in the same boat, and each would have to adapt himself to the new conditions of life. Thus, for example, a feeling normally as individual as the ache of separation from those one loves suddenly became a feeling in which we all shared alike."

"(T)his business is everybody's business," says Rambert a journalist from another town who had believed he was trapped in the city unfairly, but who came to recognize that he shared the common fate, giving up his plans of escape, volunteered for a position on the "front lines" caring for the sick. We're not today trapped in a single city with this particular pandemic, but we are nevertheless all in this together. The entire world is today struggling toward this realization.

It's through unity that we fight plague. We have no other choice, which is why those who are refusing, who are still impotently hammering at the gates to be let out, are so infuriating. This is not about an out of control government trampling our freedoms, it's the virus that's doing that. The only escape is through one another. Humans can do this, of course, because cooperation, even of the involuntary variety, is our greatest evolutionary strength, but there will always be those who are brought to it kicking and screaming.

"However, there's one thing I must tell you: there's no question of heroism in all this. It's a matter of common decency. That's an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is common decency." As I stand in well-spaced queues of my fellow citizens wearing their masks and keeping their well-washed hands to themselves, each still reeling from the surprise, each mourning what they have lost, each not knowing what will happen next, I see that common decency is indeed more common than I might have guessed before all this.

"They knew now that if there is one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love." Plague strips us of our security, our status, our routines, and to an extent, our individuality, leaving us as both more and less human. And while I am not anticipating that our current pandemic will drive humanity to the grim ends of which Camus writes, I can see better now what I've long suspected, that it is human love, and that only, that can stand against plague.


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