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  • In January 1941, the twenty-eight year old French writer Albert Camus began work on a

  • novel about a virus that spreads uncontrollably from animals to humans and ends up destroying

  • half the population of a representative modern town. It was called La Peste/The Plague, eventually

  • published in 1947 and frequently described as the greatest European novel of the postwar

  • period.

  • The book - written in sparse, haunting prose - takes us through a catastrophic outbreak

  • of a contagious disease in the lightly fictionalised town of Oran on the Algerian coast, as seen

  • through the eyes of the novel's hero, a Doctor Rieux, a version of Camus himself.

  • As the novel opens, an air of eerie normality reigns. 'Oran is an ordinary town,' writes

  • Camus, 'nothing more than a French Prefecture on the coast of Algeria.' The inhabitants

  • lead busy money-centered and denatured lives; they barely notice that they are alive. Then,

  • with the pacing of a thriller, the horror begins. Dr Rieux comes across a dead rat.

  • Then another and another. Soon the town is overrun with the mysterious deaths of thousands

  • of rats, who stumble out of their hiding places in a daze, let out a drop of blood from their

  • noses and expire.

  • The inhabitants accuse the authorities of not acting fast enough. The rats are removed

  • - and the town heaves a sigh of relief but Dr Rieux suspects that this is not the end.

  • He has read enough about the structure of plagues and transmissions from animals to

  • humans to know that something is afoot.

  • Soon an epidemic seizes Oran, the disease transmitting itself from citizen to citizen,

  • spreading panic and horror in every street. In order to write the book, Camus immersed

  • himself in the history of plagues. He read books on the Black Death that killed 50 million

  • people in Europe in the 14th century; the Italian plague of 1629 that killed 280,000

  • people across the plains of Lombardy and the Veneto, the great plague of London of 1665

  • as well as plagues that ravaged cities on China's eastern seaboard during the 18th

  • and 19th centuries. In March 1942, Camus told the writer André Malraux that he wanted to

  • understand what plague meant for humanity: 'Said like that it might sound strange,'

  • he added, 'but this subject seems so natural to me.'

  • Camus was not writing about one plague in particular, nor was this narrowly, as has

  • sometimes been suggested, a metaphoric tale about the recent Nazi occupation of France.

  • Camus was drawn to his theme because, in his philosophy, we are all - unbeknownst to us

  • - already living through a plague: that is a widespread, silent, invisible disease that

  • may kill any of us at any time and destroy the lives we assumed were solid. The actual

  • historical incidents we call plagues are merely concentrations of a universal precondition,

  • they are dramatic instances of a perpetual rule: that we are vulnerable to being randomly

  • exterminated, by a bacillus, an accident or the actions of our fellow humans. Our exposure

  • to plague is at the heart of Camus's view that our lives are fundamentally on the edge

  • of what he termed 'the absurd'.

  • Proper recognition of this absurdity should not lead us to despair pure and simple. It

  • should - rightly understood - be the start of a redemptive tragi-comic perspective. Like

  • the people of Oran before the plague, we assume that we have been granted immortality and

  • with this naivety come behaviours that Camus abhorred: a hardness of heart, an obsession

  • with status, a refusal of joy and gratitude, a tendency to moralise and judge.

  • The people of Oran associate plague with something backward that belongs to another age. They

  • are modern people with phones, trams, aeroplanes and newspapers. They are surely not going

  • to die like the wretches of 17th century London or 18th century Canton.

  • 'It's impossible it should be the plague, everyone knows it has vanished from the West,'

  • says one character. 'Yes, everyone knew that,' Camus adds sardonically, 'except

  • the dead.'

  • 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, as one might

  • put it, truly an inescapable 'underlying condition'. Plague or no plague, there is

  • always - as it were - the plague, if what we mean by this is a susceptibility to sudden

  • death, an event that can render our lives instantaneously meaningless. And yet still

  • the citizens deny their fate. Even when a quarter of the city is dying, they keep imagining

  • reasons why the problem won't happen to them.

  • The book isn't attempting 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.

  • Camus writes: 'Pestilence is so common, there have been as many plagues in the world

  • as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared. When

  • war breaks out people say: 'It won't last, it's too stupid.' And war is certainly

  • too stupid, but that doesn't prevent it from lasting. The citizens of Oran were like

  • the rest of the world, they were humanists: they did not believe in pestilence. A pestilence

  • does not have human dimensions, so people tell themselves that it is unreal, that it

  • is a bad dream which will end. The people of our town were no more guilty than anyone

  • else, they merely forgot to be modest and thought that everything was still possible

  • for them, which implied that pestilence was impossible. They continued with business,

  • with making arrangements for travel and holding opinions. Why should they have thought about

  • the plague, which negates the future, negates journeys and debate? They considered themselves

  • free and no one will ever be free as long as there is plague, pestilence and famine.'

  • At the height of the plague, when five hundred people a week are dying, one of Camus's

  • particular enemies in the novel steps into a view, a Catholic priest called Paneloux.

  • He gives a sermon to the city in the cathedral of the main square - and seeks to explain

  • the plague as god's punishment for depravity.

  • But Camus's hero Dr Rieux loathes this approach. The plague is not a punishment for anything

  • deserved. That would be to imagine that the universe was moral or had some sort of design

  • to it. But Dr Rieux watches a young innocent child die in his hospital and knows better:

  • suffering is entirely randomly distributed, it makes no sense, it is no ethical force,

  • it is simply absurd and that is the kindest thing one can say of it.

  • The doctor works tirelessly against death, he tries to lessen the suffering of those

  • around him. But he is no saint. In one of the most central lines of the book, Camus

  • writes: 'This whole thing is not about heroism. It's about decency. It may seem a ridiculous

  • idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.' A character asks Rieux

  • what decency is. Doctor Rieux's response is as clipped as it is eloquent: 'In general,

  • I can't say, but in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.'

  • Despite the horror, Camus (who in an earlier essay had compared humanity to the wretched

  • character of Sisyphus but then asked us to imagine Sisyphus 'happy') maintains a

  • characteristically keen sense of what makes life worth enduring. His Doctor Rieux appreciates

  • dancing, love and nature; he is hugely sensitive to the smell of flowers, to the colours at

  • sunset and - like Camus - adores swimming in the sea, slipping out after an evening

  • on the wards to surrender himself to the reassuring immensity of the waves.

  • Eventually, after more than a year, the plague ebbs away. The townspeople celebrate, it is

  • apparently the end of suffering. Normality can return. But this is not how Camus sees

  • it. Doctor Rieux may have helped to defeat this particular outbreak of the plague but

  • he knows there will always be others:

  • 'Rieux knew that this chronicle could not be a story of definitive victory. It could

  • only be the record of what had to be done and what, no doubt, would have to be done

  • again, against this terrorAs he listened to the cries of joy that rose above the town,

  • Rieux recalled that this joy was always under threat. He knew that this happy crowd was

  • unaware of something that one reads in books, which is that the plague bacillus never dies

  • or vanishes entirely, that it remains dormant for dozens of years, that it waits patiently

  • in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and that the day will come

  • when...the plague will once again rouse its rats and send them to die in some new well-contented

  • city.'

  • Camus speaks to us in our own times not because he was a magical seer who could intimate what

  • the best scientists could not, but because he correctly sized up human nature and knew

  • about a fundamental and absurd vulnerability in us that we cannot usually bear to remember.

  • In the words of one of his characters, Camus knew, as we do not, that 'everyone has inside

  • it himself this plague, because no one in the world, no one, can ever be immune.'

In January 1941, the twenty-eight year old French writer Albert Camus began work on a

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アルベール・カミュ - 疫病 (Albert Camus - The Plague)

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    林宜悉 に公開 2021 年 01 月 14 日
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