Sunday, 11 October 2020

Life in the Plague Times, Part II

by Simon Smith

On the off chance that anyone hasn’t already guessed, I recently turned, for the first time in many years and only partly because of the present circumstances, to Camus. The Plague is top of my reading list, naturally.[1] Before that turning, however, I re-turned to The Myth of Sisyphus, unread since undergraduate days, sometime in the late fourteen-hundreds. As then so now: ruminating on reality and the absurdity of existence might profit the soul without being particularly amusing. There are very, very few jokes in Camus.
Having glossed Sisyphus and, I hope, drawn out the pricking point of application, the question arises: where, then, does all this leave us? At a moment of awakening, perhaps. Sisyphus’ eternity of punishment is, we know, absurd, meaningless in every possible sense. It achieves nothing; it is no use, even as a punishment, this eternal stone rolling, since one cannot learn from it and no change will come about because of it. Like Hell, its only conceivable purpose is revenge. But one must then ask, what’s the point of that? It is, in fact, all rather too much, too late.
And where does that leave us? Well, let’s not labour the point. Recent months have brought us all closer, much closer, to mortality, our own and that of those all around us. Yet here we are, so very far from the end, being driven back to ‘normality’ and striving with all our might to get there. Sadly, however, ‘normal’ is no longer there; and while the striving itself is, apparently, normal, it may not be healthy; that is to say, potentially fatal and not quite sane. Worse still, this ‘normality’ we yearn for, it is absurd, clearly and unequivocally. It is not worth grieving for, this ‘normality’. Not now that we have learned the truth of Doctor Rieux’s words: that ‘goodbye’ is no longer a mere formality. (Those of us with loved ones who work in hospitals and Health Care are still learning it, we learn it anew each day.)
It does not, of course, matter one jot or tittle whether we agree on this, whether we believe or not; as the good Doctor says, the plague makes opinion redundant. Even faith can’t save us.
So where does this leave us? Simple. Like Hector, atop the shining towers of ancient Ilium; below, the city walls, impregnable, yet girt by fate and bloody battlefields.
The point is not preach inertia, but to ask, can we, like Hector, knowing what we know, go on and meet what is to come. Or Camus’ question: can we live on this precipice without giving up? Can we live cheerfully and without appeal, since there is no one and nothing to appeal to? Or shall we choose negation and sedation; follow Kierkegaard over the edge; or shall we, as Lovecraft wondered, surrender and go mad from the revelation, fleeing into the peace and safety of a new dark age?
We shall see, we shall see

[1] If any readers are able to access it, BBC Radio 4 has broadcast Neil Bartlett’s stage version, recorded during the 2020 lockdown while the actors were isolating in their homes. It’s quite harrowing, but still a remarkable play: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000l7kf. Any references to The Plague herein are to this version.


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