Ah, we have’t heard from Alain de Botton for a while, and I haven’t missed him (see all my posts on him here). He was always a faitheist, an atheist-butter, and an arduous advocate for atheist churches, which I don’t particularly object to but also don’t feel we need. de Botton is also patronizing: the kind of guy who thinks he sees some great truths about the universe that others have missed—and lets us know that (see here). Now, after a six-year hiatus from the man, he’s back on my site, not because his new New York Times op-ed has anything particularly interesting to say, but because, when writing about Camus’s great Novel The Plague, seems to get the infectious microbe wrong.
La Peste is in vogue again these days because of the coronavirus pandemic, as people read it trying to discern if there any lessons for the present peril.
And so de Botton tries to give us some lessons. His point appears to be that the “absurdity of life” on view in the novel is not that our lives are intrinsically absurd, but that we are susceptible to the vagaries of fate, which supposedly makes our lives meaningless. Here, I think, is de Botton’s gist:
For Camus, when it comes to dying, there is no progress in history, there is no escape from our frailty. Being alive always was and will always remain an emergency; it is truly an inescapable “underlying condition.” Plague or no plague, there is always, as it were, the plague, if what we mean by that is a susceptibility to sudden death, an event that can render our lives instantaneously meaningless.
This is what Camus meant when he talked about the “absurdity” of life. Recognizing this absurdity should lead us not to despair but to a tragicomic redemption, a softening of the heart, a turning away from judgment and moralizing to joy and gratitude.
“The Plague” isn’t trying to panic us, because panic suggests a response to a dangerous but short-term condition from which we can eventually find safety. But there can never be safety — and that is why, for Camus, we need to love our fellow damned humans and work without hope or despair for the amelioration of suffering. Life is a hospice, never a hospital.
At the height of the contagion, when 500 people a week are dying, a Catholic priest called Paneloux gives a sermon that explains the plague as God’s punishment for depravity. But Dr. Rieux has watched a child die and knows better: Suffering is randomly distributed, it makes no sense, it is simply absurd, and that is the kindest thing one can say of it.
Well, I am not a Camus expert, though I have read the novel, but I can’t speak to whether Camus’s view of life’s absurdity is simply that we all die and can never know when. Whether that makes our lives “instantaneously meaningless” is debatable, because, in the long view, life can be seen as meaningless regardless of whether it ends instantly or in a drawn-out process. Yes, Camus is right that there’s no sign of God in the depredations of infectious disease, but that’s Camus’s point, not de Botton’s.
In fact, after reading de Botton’s piece twice, I still can’t see why he felt it worth writing, or why the NYT found it worth publishing. I suppose that if you’re out of bogroll in these parlous times, you could use his essay.
What interested me, though, was de Botton’s first paragraph (my emphasis):
In January 1941, Albert Camus began work on a story about a virus that spreads uncontrollably from animals to humans and ends up destroying half the population of “an ordinary town” called Oran, on the Algerian coast. “The Plague,” published in 1947, is frequently described as the greatest European novel of the postwar period.
VIRUS???? If you remember the story, the vector is carried by rats, and although I don’t know if the disease is named as bubonic plague, it’s very clear that Camus was writing about bubonic plague. And bubonic plague is carried not by a virus, but by a bacterium, Yersina pestis. Indeed, in the quote below, Camus explicitly refers to the cause as a bacillus (bacterium).
Some judicious fact-checking by both the author and the NYT would have been useful here. But that’s not the Times‘s forte these days, what with their claim that the American Revolution was fought to defend slavery.
In the meantime, here’s the great ending of Camus’s novel (originally written in French, of course):
And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled.
He knew what those jubilant crowds did no know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.
I don’t know who the translator was, but he rendered Camus’s words into wonderful English: I love the alliteration of “rouse up its rats” and “bide”, “bedrooms”, “bookshelves” and “bane”, and the bittersweet last sentence. This is great writing and great translating. de Botton is not great writing.