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[Easy Chair]

A Malevolent Holiday

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On the fifteenth of March in Paris, as the novel coronavirus outbreak—just deemed a global pandemic—ravaged Spain and Italy, I strapped my infant son into his stroller, grabbed a bottle of wine from my nascent stockpile, and walked unworriedly with my wife and daughter across the plaza to our friends’ home to share a meal. In front of a small Catholic church, an outdoor mass was taking place, with congregants standing several feet apart from one another, an odd sight that didn’t register until later. The previous evening, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe had announced the closure of restaurants, cafés, and other nonessential businesses across the country. It was technically against the wishes of the government for us to keep this lunch date. The point, of course, was not that everyone should strive to entertain at home, but that we should cut off social contact entirely.

At each step of the unfolding crisis, my wife and I, like most people we knew, professed our shock and then tried to calculate the amount of nuisance each new set of restrictions would impose, allowing ourselves to bitch and moan, but ultimately concluding that the threat of the disease lay elsewhere, beyond our purview, and that—and this was crucial—we would not be asked to sacrifice anything more than a few social engagements and shopping opportunities. It was with this sense of real but manageable inconvenience that we arrived at our friends’ front door that temperate, almost-spring afternoon. Yes, it had been announced three days earlier that the schools—from pre-K to university—would be shutting down, but my sister-in-law and some friends had designed an ambitious “confinement academy,” with lessons in civics, English, art, and film to stimulate the children. Although I had been forced to cancel a work trip to the United States that was scheduled for the next day, I was still confident we wouldn’t need to change our plans to visit friends in Germany over Easter weekend. Everything beyond that horizon still seemed solid. I told myself this was a fleeting ordeal.

But over the course of the lunch and the contents of that bottle, my confidence faltered. Our friends, a French-American couple with two small children slightly older than our own, were planning to leave that same afternoon for a family home in a village in western France, just south of Brittany. They suggested we hunker down together. “Why are you doing something so drastic?” I asked them. They’d heard from a friend working in government that very soon—in the next day or so—there would be another announcement: total home confinement. “Yeah, right,” I laughed. “How long could that really last?” It stopped seeming like a joke when they told me it could stretch until May. I texted another friend who had worked for President Emmanuel Macron when he was the economy minister and who was now running for local government. “You should go,” he wrote back immediately. I glanced at my wife and children, trying to imagine the four of us in our apartment without respite for the next forty-five days, and booked four one-way train tickets for the following morning.

We were not alone in our thinking—a lot of people must have had friends leaking them information. Amid a slew of cancellations, we’d just managed to secure seats on what would end up being one of the last trains out of Paris before the lockdown. We said goodbye to our friends—or really, see you tomorrow—and rushed back home to shut down our apartment and pack up six weeks’ worth of essentials. In the morning, a semi-apocalyptic scene unfolded at Gare Montparnasse, a distorted rendition of the innocent mayhem that animates Paris’s various points of departure during the vacation seasons—frenzied mobs of masked passengers struggling with overstuffed suitcases, jostling to board the trains and flee the city. On the platform, a couple about to separate wept as they embraced each other before parting. We were all vaguely aware of the dissonance of retracing the movements we had made so many times before on happier occasions. Soon we would be dispersed around the country and greeted with varying degrees of hostility and suspicion, no longer mere interlopers or tourists but potential agents of pestilence.

Inside our overbooked compartment, once the doors had closed and the wheels began to lurch, a young woman across the aisle began to cough, self-consciously at first and then uncontrollably, as the rest of us exchanged nervous glances. It reminded me of another train ride, after the wave of terror attacks in 2015. That day, a hard plastic suitcase had fallen from the overhead rack and made a sound like a small explosion. The collective sense of fear and helplessness was visceral. Now each coughing spasm inspired a similar reaction. I wrapped my scarf around my face, and somehow couldn’t help but think, with real regret, about the enormous fourteen-year-old ficus tree that filled a corner of our apartment, spreading a beautifully dappled light around it, and how it would surely die without us there to water it.

“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky,” writes Camus in his 1947 novel The Plague, as translated by Stuart Gilbert. He continues: “There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” A masterpiece of European postwar fiction, The Plague offers a uniquely clear, forceful, and meticulous account of the states and stages of inertia, ignorance, denial, learned helplessness, and—when we’re at our best—resistance that we pass through as we’re confronted with an evil as efficient as it is incomprehensible.

Set in Oran, a port city in French Algeria, The Plague recounts the story of a modern society besieged by a black death–like contagion, a society that, with few exceptions, is perilously slow to recognize the nature of the reality it now inhabits. At first, thousands of infected rats emerge from the sewers to expire gruesomely in the streets and in stairwells, an ominous warning the townspeople and their leaders neglect to heed. “It was as if the earth on which our houses stood were being purged of its secreted humours,” notes Camus’s narrator, “thrusting up to the surface the abscesses and pus-clots that had been forming in its entrails.” In spite of this strange phenomenon, the citizens of Oran continue as normal, squandering what little time they might have to take lifesaving precautions.

Even as the threat becomes clear, and the disease makes the leap from animals to humans, it is difficult for the pragmatically minded townspeople to muster the imagination to draw the necessary conclusions—namely, that there can be no short-term, practical concerns if the world collapses. “In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves,” the narrator observes.

A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away. Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others, they forgot to be modest—that was all—and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views.

The Plague traces the temporarily interconnected fates of a small band of men who struggle relentlessly—and in vain—against the epidemic, united by nothing more than their shared proximity to danger. As Oran’s leaders seal off the city from the world, a jittery simulacrum of normal life persists even as the disease wipes out half the population, seemingly at random, before receding as inexplicably as it descended. Camus is clear and careful throughout in his presentation of what it takes to combat the forces of annihilation: “There’s no question of heroism in all this,” he writes. “It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea that may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency.”

In the months since an unfamiliar virus ravaging an obscure Chinese city went global—after a six-week early-warning period, during which most of us failed to take it seriously—The Plague has returned to international bestseller lists. Throughout its seventy-three-year history, the book has been read—in a somewhat superficially clever manner—as a parable of Nazi occupation, a timely illustration of the compromises men will make and the futile heroics they will attempt in the face of inhumanity. A 1948 New York Times review argued that the immediate moral relevance of Camus’s book superseded any thought of how it might be received in the future. “It seems to me to be of so much urgency that we would be wrong to ask how much significance people may attach to it tomorrow,” the critic writes. “There are certain things which need to be said now, without care for the future, and these are said now, even with naïveté, in The Plague.

That review couldn’t have been more wrongheaded. “The Plague teaches no lessons,” Tony Judt writes in his introduction to Robin Buss’s 2001 translation. Rather, the book addresses universal dynamics inherent in the human condition—its sheer precariousness and blindness. “Camus was a moraliste but he was no moralizer,” Judt continues:

He claimed to have taken great care to try to avoid writing a “tract,” and to the extent that his novel offers little comfort to political polemicists of any school he can be said to have succeeded. But for that very reason it has not merely outlived its origins as an allegory of occupied France but has transcended its era.

Judt’s essay was amended and excerpted in The New York Review of Books two months after 9/11. “Today, The Plague takes on fresh significance and a moving immediacy,” he observed, anticipating the waves of feverish violence about to meet so many of the world’s captive populations. But what contemporary readers have noticed—perhaps for the first time—is that the novel doesn’t need the lens of metaphor to maintain its resonance. For Camus, the question of sickness, of life’s two irreducible teams—pestilences and victims—and of the Sisyphean struggle for meaning in a godless, absurdly indifferent universe, was always quite literal. He worked on the book for six eventful years: first in Oran, then in the French Alpine village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, where he went to treat his tuberculosis, and afterward in Paris, during the Resistance, distilling into fiction his painstaking research on the history of plagues in Europe and Asia. Taken at face value as a work of extraordinary and exhaustive insight into the fundamental conditions of living under biological pestilence—and in this way contrary to Judt—The Plague does in fact offer a considerable number of lessons.

A pandemic, if you are fortunate enough not to be hospitalized or killed by it, wears you down by other, more subtle measures. It administers, by a thousand cuts, a kind of spiritual and psychological incapacitation. It sends you away on a malevolent holiday, open-ended, enough to make you crave the rhythms and ardors of labor. By stripping you of the most basic knowledge that the world will remain predictable, stable in the morning, it makes you all too aware of just how good you once had it—and that no such assurance was ever promised to you in the first place. Indeed, one of the key insights of The Plague is its emphasis on the fundamental fragility of all human arrangements, and the concomitant inability of most people to acknowledge this tenuousness until it is far too late for meaningful collective action. (Beyond the particular menace of the coronavirus, this is ultimately what is so terrifying about the climate crisis.) It is our great strength as well as our terrible weakness to live most fully in the past and in the future. But pestilences rob us of the sanctuary of both of these states, forcing us into the totalizing uncertainty and silence of the present. A pandemic, then, is an opportunity, at last, to see ourselves and our condition more clearly. If there is one, this is the virus’s silver lining.

The evening we joined our friends near the coast, Macron addressed the nation for the second time in less than a week, now to order the population into home isolation, as we’d been warned (a circumstance not even the residents of Oran, locked within the walls of their city, were made to endure). The order was originally set to expire on March 31, but was extended through mid-April, and then again through mid-May. The government is managing our disappointment in installments. Unlike in the United States, though, in France there is neither that glib, flat-Earther-level ignorance or skepticism about the threat of the virus, nor that passionate, I-want-a-government-so-small-I-can-drown-it-in-a-bathtub resentment. The feeling most discernible is that of grown-up resignation. The public, after a short-lived period of incredulity that Macron himself participated in, urging us all not to cancel our tickets to the theater, has by and large accepted that these measures are necessary and to our collective long-term benefit. In this way, it seems the French people have heeded the lessons of The Plague.

My family and I have now been under the same—mercifully blue—patch of sky for weeks, with only the briefest of trips to the supermarket. All of us—even the children, who now burst into tears when left behind in accordance with a regulation limiting the number of family members allowed to leave the house together—have come to crave these sorties, which provide the fortifying illusion of unrestricted movement and the most tantalizing glimpses of the shoreline and the ocean expanding into infinity beyond it. The coronavirus, like Camus’s plague, has “forced inactivity” on us, though I must say that it has also instilled a certain edifying simplicity into our lives that amounts to a form of discipline. We wake up, exercise, feed ourselves, divide between us the sundry chores required to maintain a household, shop for groceries, prepare our lunches, wash up, read and play, prepare our dinners, and all the while continue to do our jobs, remotely, as best we can. Though we are certainly cognizant of our luck, this is the discipline of the exile, of the person who cannot quite take her home for granted. “Thus the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile,” Camus writes. As an internally uprooted person in a foreign country, an exile twice over, I have finally realized the scope and depth of his insight into the permanence of our predicament.


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June 2020