I thought it wise to give the context of the Camus quotation from the previous post, “Man is not an idea.” It comes from his famous work, La Peste, which is about the black plague ravaging a seaside Algerian town. It follows a few healers-in-vain led by Doctor Rieux. Of course, The Plague is less about the deaths themselves and more about the characters’ responses to it. Go and read it.
Shortly after the plague is confirmed, the entire town is quarantined under threat of death by the guards along city’s edge. Due to this, a recurring sound in the novel is shots ringing in the street, either from suicides or someone trying to make a run for it.
This sudden exile separated many lovers. One lover would be on the outside; inside the city, the other would be raving almost in madness. In attempt to get back to his wife, Raymond Rambert hatches several plans to escape using any means necessary. He tries everything from bureaucrats to smugglers to shady characters. Finally, after several false starts, he hatches a foolproof plan.
Rambert meets with Dr. Rieux and his fellow healer-in-vain, Tarrou, the night before he plans to leave the city. The emphasis is mine, of course. Rambert begins:
“You know, Doctor, I’ve given a lot of thought to your campaign. And if I’m not with you, I have my reasons. No, I don’t think it’s that I’m afraid to risk my skin again. I took part in the Spanish Civil War.”
“On which side?” Tarrou asked.
“The losing side. But since then I’ve done a bit of thinking.”
“Courage. I know now that man is capable of great deeds. But if he isn’t capable of a great emotion, well, he leaves me cold.”
“One has the idea that he is capable of everything,” Tarrou remarked.
“I can’t agree; he’s incapable of suffering for a long time, or being happy for a long time. Which means that he’s incapable of anything really worth while.” He looked at the two men in turn, then asked: “Tell me, Tarrou, are you capable of dying for love?”
“I couldn’t say, but I hardly think so–as I am now.”
“You see. But you’re capable of dying for an idea; one can see that right away. Well, personally, I’ve seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don’t believe in heroism; I know it’s easy and I’ve learned it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves.”
Rieux had been watching [Rambert] attentively. With his eyes still on him he said quietly:
“Man isn’t an idea, Rambert.”
Rambert sprang off the bed, his face ablaze with passion.
“Man is an idea, and a precious small idea, once he turns his back on love. And that’s my point; we–mankind–have lost the capacity for love. We must face that fact, Doctor. Let’s wait to acquire that capacity or, if really it’s beyond us, wait for the deliverance that will come to each of us anyway, without his playing the hero. Personally, I look no farther.”
Rieux rose. He suddenly appeared very tired.
“You’re right, Rambert, quite right, and for nothing in the world would I try to dissuade you from what you’re going to do; it seems to me absolutely right and proper. However, there’s one thing I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is–common decency.”
“What do you mean by ‘common decency’?” Rambert’s tone was grave.
“I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case, I know that it consists in doing my job.”*
I’ll unpack it and the context to our phony culture wars tomorrow.
(Continue on to Part IV)
*: Camus, Albert. The Plague. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage International, 1991. 162-163.