Thoughts on La Peste in the time of Covid-19

Mentioning The Plague last week inspired me (like everyone else on the planet apparently) to re-read my old copy of Albert Camus’ classic novel.

[Some spoilers ahead – if you haven’t read The Plague already I’d highly recommend it.]

I first read La Peste when I was at university, more than 30 years ago. Although chronologically the mid-1980s are slightly closer to the present day than to the late 40s, when the book was first published, culturally my student days firmly belonged to that period after the Second World War when the conflict was still a living memory. It was thus natural that I read the work as allegorical, specifically relating to the German occupation of France, which Camus had lived through, and which he played a central part in resisting. This was certainly how it was received when it came out, though the novel’s nuanced depiction of what had become a French national myth was not universally popular, and Camus was criticised by contemporaries, including Satre and de Beauvoir, for representing the conscious evil of Nazism as an apolitical pestilence.

The last month or so has, unsurprisingly, seen a flurry of articles attempting to relate The Plague to our current circumstances. Interestingly, the authors of most of these pieces seem to have taken the novel more or less at face value, as a story of men struggling to persevere in the face of an overwhelming epidemic, and have dismissed or overlooked the connection with the Occupation. I guess that is understandable, given our present concerns, though I think that it does reflect an underlying current evident in modern-day discourse; a tendency towards ahistorical analysis that is so focused on what we are personally experiencing right now that it cannot appreciate that the past isn’t always best understood when viewed through the prism of our latest preoccupations.

Having revisited the beleaguered town of Oran, so vividly depicted in The Plague, I can see how the book can be appreciated as a straightforward narrative, as, at that level, it is a gripping story. Camus masterfully builds a sense of dread as the unseen enemy relentlessly advances. The main characters may inhabit allegorical roles, but this does not obscure their individual humanity. Key scenes, such as the death of M. Othon’s son, or Grand’s grief outside the toy shop, are powerfully moving. The resolution is somewhat downbeat, but satisfying in its ambiguity. (I would like to have seen Dr Rieux reunited with his wife; this perhaps betrays my over-sentimental nature). There are some shortcomings; the complete lack of non-white characters in a story set in North Africa for example, or the way that the female characters are mostly ciphers who exist only to illuminate the male characters’ internal motivations. Overall though, after reading the novel one can appreciate why Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.

Despite the seeming relevance to our present difficulties, I would still say that The Plague is essentially about France’s reckoning with the legacy of the Occupation, though Camus clearly broadens that out to encompass a theme familiar from his other work; the necessity of struggling against the absurdity of existence. The pestilence is life itself, with all its arbitrary cruelties, and the protagonists grapple with the question of how to live and act ethically, when everything is ultimately meaningless. Some, like Paneloux, look to God to guide them, though they are forced to acknowledge that His intentions are incomprehensible. (Secular orthodoxies, as Tarrou points out, are little more helpful). Tarrou and Rieux find purpose in doing what needs to be done to relieve suffering; the former is somewhat demoralised by the scale of the challenge, while the latter is sustained by focusing on the immediate tasks, and by his belief that humans are mostly decent (as exemplified by Grand, who, despite his own problems, makes his contribution uncomplainingly). Rambert (the character with whom I can most identify) is initially angry to find himself cast into the situation by misfortune, and makes plans to escape, but cannot bring himself to abandon his fellow citizens, and joins in the fight. (Rambert, unlike Rieux, is at least rewarded by seeing his wife again). Even Cottard, who accommodates to the new situation, and profits from it, is portrayed sympathetically, as motivated by fear and weakness rather than malice.

I’m not sure that the current crisis, significant though it is, has quite reached the level of seriousness of a world war, where individuals are forced to confront such pressing existential dilemmas. Certainly I have not felt moved to closely examine my ethical outlook, though perhaps that is because my response to events has been largely dictated by my professional circumstances, and I have not, as yet, been obliged to make any choices that are more difficult than usual. I hope that, if it comes to it, I will act as admirably as Dr Rieux, though I suspect than I will lean more heavily on ideology than Camus would have approved of.

In Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins, Henri, the character based on Camus, recalls the intensity of wartime, when he “was busy writing his editorials, a revolver in his desk drawer.” I don’t know if I want to go through that much excitement (and it would obviously be better for all concerned if the situation was resolved without too much more social disruption), but perhaps this dislocation will do me some good in the long run, even if it is only to force me to make my own peace with the Absurd.

Get well Boris

We wrote some pretty mean things about Boris Johnson during the course of the Brexit crisis (remember when that was the biggest thing we had to worry about?), but that doesn’t lessen our dismay at the news tonight that he has been admitted to intensive care, due to complications resulting from Covid-19.

The general sympathy and concern being expressed across the political spectrum is a reminder that we are fortunate enough to live in a country where ideological disputes rarely escalate to the level of wishing for the physical liquidation of one’s opponents (though such excesses are, sadly, not entirely unknown).

Even if one were unconcerned by Johnson’s personal fate, one would have to recognise that the national morale would be severely dented if the Prime Minister – a middle-aged man, in reasonable health, presumably receiving the best care the NHS can offer – were to succumb to the plague stalking the land.

The data, such as it is, suggests that the survival rate of coronavirus patients who end up in ICU is around 50%, which are not good odds, but the figures are almost certainly skewed by higher death rates in the older sections of the population, so Johnson can probably be expected to make a recovery, though he might be out of action for a while longer. How much difference this will make to the government’s response to the epidemic we will have to wait and see. In the meantime we will add our best wishes to those already sent to Johnson, and everyone else who has been laid low during these difficult times.

Isolated musings

One might think that our current circumstances, while clearly troubling, would at least provide some encouragement to bloggers, especially those inclined towards philosophical speculation, as the enforced idleness allows plenty of time for writing, and the situation naturally inspires commentary on all sorts of deep topics, like the nature of society, the limits of scientific knowledge, or the ultimate meaning (or meaninglessness) of life.

And, who knows, perhaps some bloggers are seizing this opportunity to compose memorable posts, but, as readers may have noticed, I am not among that number. I’m actually a good bit busier than usual, as the health service gears up to meet the challenge of the anticipated wave of infection. I’ve been redeployed into the sort of forward position that I haven’t occupied for a couple of decades, so I’ve spent the last week or so furiously refreshing my basic skills, which has at least kept my mind engaged. I’m glad to have the routine of work, which gives me an excuse to get out of the house, keeping me anchored to some sort of normality, though it also allows me access to information indicating that we are not quite as prepared for the coming storm as the the government would like the population to believe, which makes me think the immediate future may get quite rough.

So, it might be difficult to find time to post much over the next few weeks, but I guess I should try to make the effort, because these are the kind of times that’ll I’ll look back on in the future, and be glad that I recorded my contemporaneous impressions. Perhaps, if I live through this, I may even produce my own version of La Peste.

There's a catch

I first read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 when I was about 14, and one of the many lines that have stuck with me over the years is Yossarian’s reply to being asked “But what if everyone thought that way?” when he reports his disinclination to be killed for his country; “Then I’d be a damn fool to think any different, wouldn’t I?” (or words to that effect, it’s been a while since I last read it). It could be interpreted as an approval of selfish individualism, but, in the context of the book, I think Heller intends it to serve as a reminder to be sceptical of those in power who urge sacrifice for some “greater good”, which often turns out to benefit only a select few.

Anyway, I was thinking of this earlier this week, as I stood in the supermarket looking at the empty shelves. I had heeded the official advice to refrain from panic-buying, partly from a sense of civic responsibility, but mainly due to laziness, and had held off heading to the store until my supplies had begun to run low, only to find that my fellow-citizens had not shown such forbearance. There was nothing but some random stuff left, so for the last few days I have been surviving on a diet of organic quinoa and tinned asparagus. Fortunately, I’m not responsible for anyone else’s welfare, so it’s no big deal, and my minor discomfort is nothing compared with that of those who are actually ill at the moment, but still, I feel a little aggrieved.

At least in political life there does seem to have been a turn towards more of a collective outlook. Erstwhile champions of the free market are now overseeing the virtual nationalisation of the whole economy; by next week they will probably be trying to convince us of the merits of war communism. It would be nice to think that this new paradigm will last beyond the end of the current crisis, but I expect the ruling class will revert to type once the existential threat to their system has passed, and it will be back to business as usual.

In other news, it looks like Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee for President, after successfully consolidating the centrist vote and seeing off the progressive challenge of Bernie Sanders. I think this is a big gamble for the Democrats; they are going for what is essentially a rematch of 2016, and it didn’t work out too well last time. Of course that’s assuming that the poll goes ahead in November; Trump may try to use the dislocation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to cancel the popular vote. As Hillary Clinton found out, Presidents are not elected by the people, but by the Electoral College, which in turn is appointed by the State Legislatures. In modern times the Legislatures have selected Electors based on the result of the popular vote, but there is nothing in the Constitution to say that they have to do that, leaving the way open for Republican-controlled states (of which there are enough to guarantee a majority in the College) to simply hand re-election to Trump. This would presumably precipitate some sort of civil war, so it might be a step too far even for Trump, who, as incumbent, has a better than even chance of prevailing in a fair contest, but, the way the world is going these days, it’s hard to say that anything is unimaginable.

A plague on all our houses

I was going to comment that recent events had made the light-hearted tone of my last post on this topic look rather inappropriate, but then it occurred to me that, as our Chinese readers might point out, the only aspect of the Coronavirus crisis that had really changed since I last wrote about it was that people in Europe had started dying too, so asking for my previous comments to be excused, on the grounds that I didn’t know how bad it was going to get (for us), would only compound my appalling insensitivity.

If there was any sort of cosmic justice I would now be struck down by a particularly unpleasant case of pneumonia or something, but the one part of my last post that was accurate was the observation that I, shielded as I am by several layers of privilege, am unlikely to experience any serious adversity as a result of the pandemic. I have had to cancel my spring vacation, and I’ll probably have a few days of mild discomfort when the virus catches up with me, but beyond that I’m unlikely to suffer much. There’s an outside chance that I’ll be drafted in to help treat victims of the outbreak, which would be penance of a sort, though if the health service collapsed to the extent that they needed me on the front line then we’d be only a couple of steps above a Mad Max style apocalypse, so hopefully things won’t get to that stage.

I like to think that I’m not too parochial in my outlook, but events like these remind me that I have more progress to make in that regard than it’s comfortable to admit. However this situation works out, if it encourages people to start thinking a little more globally, then perhaps we’ll be in a better state to deal with the next pandemic that comes around.

Super Tuesday 2020

As predicted, the Democratic primary race is resolving into a fight between Bernie Sanders and A. Moderate, though the identity of the centrist champion is still unclear. The withdrawal of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar should, theoretically at least, benefit Joe Biden, after a good showing in South Carolina seemed to substantiate his claim that he can win support across a broad demographic. Michael Bloomberg is on the ballot for the first time tomorrow though, counting on the billion dollars or so that he has dropped on political advertising being enough to buy him victory. Progressives will be hoping that the result will be a split in the moderate vote, allowing Bernie to cruise to a commanding lead in the delegate count, now that Elizabeth Warren’s momentum looks to be fading.

So, an exciting day in prospect tomorrow. I don’t have a vote, obviously, but I do know a few US citizens, who are all behind Bernie, so I’ll make sure they turn out for the Democrats Abroad primary. I’m sticking to my position that a left-focused campaign is the best way to defeat Trump; we’ll soon find out if the good people of American Samoa, Vermont, and points in between agree with me.

Viral concerns

Despite the occasionally gloomy tone of this blog, I am by nature a basically optimistic person, aided, no doubt, by the fact that, as a older, white, male, I can be reasonably confident that society is arranged to minimise the chances of anything really bad happening to me.

I am thus unsure that I am treating the looming Coronavirus pandemic with the requisite degree of seriousness. I live in an advanced, industrialised country, with a freely-available, high-quality health service; everyone I know who works in public heath is pretty sharp, and well able to handle this sort of situation. The city where I dwell, while not completely off the beaten track, isn’t particularly cosmopolitan, and is geographically situated in such a way that it would be fairly easy to control people coming in and out. Personally, I’m in good shape physically, and not in the age range that seems to be most at risk of serious complications. All things considered, I probably shouldn’t be panicking, despite all the alarming stories on the news, with scenes of hazmat-suited personnel quarantining entire neighbourhoods, and the ever-lengthening list of countries where cases are cropping up.

And indeed I am not too worried; my biggest concern at the moment is whether my spring holiday travel plans will be disrupted. I guess that this complacency may come back to bite me, but one can’t live life fretting about things that one can’t control. If people start dropping dead in the street then I might consider wearing a face mask and using hand sanitiser, but until then I’ll keep calm and carry on.

Trump Rex

I went to see Parasite this week, and, fair play to the Academy, it is a better film than Little Women. I still think Saoirse Ronan should have won Best Actress though.

In other class-struggle-related news, it looks like Donald Trump is determined to live up to accusations that he is a fascist, by openly comparing himself to a king, and loudly proclaiming his belief that he has the right to use the supposedly independent Justice Department to persecute his political enemies. This latter boast has prompted much hand-wringing among liberals, who seem to have forgotten that selective prosecution on ideological grounds has a long history in the US – just ask the Black Panthers.

Now that Trump has upped the stakes by going after people who would consider themselves part of the establishment, it’s likely that there will be some sort of institutional response that he will be able to characterise as a deep-state backlash, of the kind existing in the fevered imaginations of Q-Anon enthusiasts, thus furthering his narrative that he is on the side of the ordinary man in the battle with unaccountable elites, and boosting his chances of re-election.

Tempting though it is in these circumstances to cheer on whatever elements of the government machine Trump is taking aim at, that would be a bad mistake – the FBI are not our friends. Getting involved in the internal squabbles of the ruling class can only be a distraction; we need to remember that all of them are our enemies, and concentrate on building a movement that can sweep aside the whole rotten system, liberating us from the leech of capitalism once and for all.

New Hampshire 2020

The last time we had a post title referencing the Granite State was back in 2012, when we surveyed the Republican primary field, and mocked the inadequacy of the candidates they were putting up to challenge an impregnable incumbent. How times change.

Anyway, the results from New Hampshire this time around confirm that the Democratic primary race is shaping up as a contest between leftists and centrists, though who will emerge as the champion of each faction is still uncertain. Bernie Sanders is making the running on the progressive wing, but Elizabeth Warren can’t be written off, despite her poor performance so far. Joe Biden is at risk of being eclipsed by Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, but may bounce back in more diverse states. Throw in the wildcard of Michael Bloomberg’s candidacy, and it’s clear there are more twists to come before this is settled.

On the bigger question of whether consolidating the base by going left is a better plan than trying to appeal to swing voters in the centre, progressives can cite the example of Hillary Clinton, who failed badly with the latter strategy last time around. However moderates might point out that Clinton actually won the popular vote, and that racking up big majorities in Democratic strongholds doesn’t always help when it comes to the all-important Electoral College. Both sides might be looking at the result of the UK election, where, at first glance, it seems like turning left was a disastrous choice for Labour, but it’s not certain that the lessons of that race are directly applicable to the very different political terrain of the US.

Of course the biggest unknown in the whole process, like it was in 2016, is Donald Trump. He is in office, which is usually a massive advantage for any candidate, so if he just avoids any major scandal between now and November he should be home and dry. The final result may turn on whether he has the insight to recognise this, and the self-discipline to stay on-message, both of which are very questionable propositions.

So, the primaries, and the general election, look sure to be even more of an unpredictable roller-coaster than they were four years ago. That said, I do feel obliged to follow our tradition of making an early forecast of the eventual outcome, so here it is: President Sanders.

Oscar predictions revisited

So, how accurate was my forecast?

For the films and actors I thought should win, I scored 3/10, and for those I reckoned would win I got a slightly better 5/10. I evidently liked Little Women a lot more than the Academy did (though it did get the award for Costume Design), and they had a better opinion of Parasite than I, which I guess might be because I haven’t actually seen it yet. We did agree on the brilliance of Laura Dern at least.

I’m not sure if my interest in this is a sign that I’m getting back into tune with popular culture, or if I’m just paying more attention to the review section of the newspaper, in a probably doomed attempt to maintain the illusion that I’m still in touch. Either way, I’m going to try to keep up my weekly trips to the matinee show, at least until the weather gets a bit better.