March 2020 What would Camus say?

In this now surreal and dystopian 2020, this magical realism blogger turns, not to a magical writer, or a realist writer, but to a writer who was arguably an absurdist or an existentialist. Or maybe both and neither. Yup. Albert Camus.

I guess alot of us are thinking about Albert Camus because of his famous novel THE PLAGUE (LA PESTE). But, I for one, am always thinking about him. Albert Camus has been my constant literary companion since I was 13 and struggled through the French of THE STRANGER (L’ETRANGER). “I don’t understand the ending,” I told my mother, when we’d finally labored through the whole thing. “Me neither,” she said — which shocked me. She worked at Random House and read all the time. She was brilliant and knew everything. If she didn’t understand Camus, then there had to be something truly impenetrable about him. And yet, when you look at his writing, he’s really a very simple stylist. He’s not complicated. His French is nothing like that of Flaubert or Balzac. He writes a little bit — don’t laugh — like Hemingway. THE PLAGUE has a understatedly ironical, at times even humorous feeling to it.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin quoted this passage last Friday in her sermon on Camus and I’m going to borrow it from her:

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 head from a blue sky.  There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.


That’s pretty clear. Perhaps this is because the novel is inspired, at least in part, by Daniel Defoe’s JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR. The mysterious narrator calls the telling “a chronicle” and modestly takes us through reportages and evidences, as though the novel were a kind of documentary.

Today, my friend Deborah asked us to freewrite about what will come after our own particular plague year ends.

I wrote about a French doctor who is helping doctors on the front lines deal with stress and depression and something he called negative anticipation. Negative anticipation will ruin you.

What would Camus say?

He’d say don’t anticipate. Keep your sense of humor. (remember Camus wasn’t a sophisticate [although he WAS handsome {and knew it}]; he was a poor boy from a poor place, a colonial subject, despite the fact that he was white). He got that humor helps.

He’d say stay connected. Keep helping.

He’d also say — and I suspect he’d make a big deal about it — that we’re going to need new words and new meanings for everything, because the autocrats have ruined language just like the Nazis did.

What things mean — it will all have to be reinvented.

We will need to reinvent and re-imagine and we’ll need to re-say what happened and what’s happening and make a new dictionary and throw away the dictionary of lies. We’ll need to get rid of all those glossaries, he’d say, featuring words like “infestation,” and “tremendous.”

We’ll need to write it all in a new way that’s true. And paint it. And film it, and compose it, and sculpt it. And videogame it, and tiktok it. And make performances out of it. Lots and lots of theater. Because that’s the art form that Albert Camus liked best. Because a politics without imagery, is nothing.

It’s a massive undertaking, but it always is.

Maybe that’s why THE PLAGUE, unlike THE STRANGER and THE FALL, is such a long book.

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