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Albert Camus: The Plague And The Fall

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"Ð'...Camus is one of the most representative men of our time. What troubled him has troubled and continues to trouble us."[1] Many critics concur with the foregoing statement and consider that Albert Camus has importance as a spokesman for the conscience of our era, as well as for his artistic creations. Camus was one of the foremost members of the generation of French writers which includes such men as Sartre and Malraux. These writers consider themselves "engagÐ"©s" or committed to the issues of their time as well as to their art, and cannot envision one separated from the other.

Camus' philosophic, political and social ideas are thus an integral part of each of his literary works and are reflected also in his long journalistic career. His commitment does not, however, lead him to neglect in any way his absorption with his art, and it is always with a high degree of technical skill and uniqueness of style that his ideas find embodiment in literary form. He was constantly experimenting with different genres. His legacy to us appears as essay, drama, short story, novelette and what he terms a "rÐ"©cit" as in The Plague.

It may be argued that all philosophers are artists to a certain degree, but not as regards accessibility to the general reader. It is always interesting to study the fusion of philosophic though with successful artistic expression such as one finds in Camus. The evolution of this thought can be traced through his works. The basic tenet of The Myth of Sisyphus, that of the absurd sensitivity, remains unchanged. What evolved was Camus' concept of a morality for our times.

Before turning to The Plague and The Fall, it is perhaps worthwhile to summarize the ideas which Camus presents in The Myth of Sisyphus, since they are the background of both works. Camus does not pretend to present a metaphysical system in this essay. His intellectual modesty limits him to "deal with an absurd sensitivity that can be found widespread in the age . . . There will be found here merely the description, in the pure state, of an intellectual malady.[2] The recognition that the world is absurd, that true knowledge is impossible and that man is a stranger suffering anxiety in the face of nothingness, is an awareness that Camus shares with many other thinkers. What he stresses, however, is that the absurd is primarily "the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart."[3] How can this call be answered? For Camus, only by acceptance of the absurd and the decision to live without hope, without appeal either to religion or ideology. He proposes a total rejection of all the abstractions that man has been asked to serve in the attempt to escape the ultimate absurdity of man in his world. Instead, man is left with his only certainty, himself, and by extension, other men, in the present. He must take up the challenge of the absurd to his humanity: "At last man will again find there the wine of the absurd and the bread of indifference on which he feeds his greatness. . ."[4]

Philosophically, then, man can only adopt the position which Camus terms revolt: "a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity."[5] From this, Camus derives the only morality possible in this scheme of things, and ethic of quantity, not of quality. This is a highly individualistic morality which Camus continually redefines throughout his later works so that this originally hedonistic approach becomes a deeply humanistic one which seeks true justice for all men in their day-to-day existence. Man's potential nobility is indicated in Camus' description of Sisyphus, "the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing."[6] Camus' attempts to give literary life to the absurd hero via his fictional characters. Some aspects of this hero appear in Meursault of The Stranger, but a more direct descendant of Sisyphus is found in Dr. Rieux, the main character in The Plague. This latter book also provides, in concrete terms, an example of the morality accessible to the absurd man.

The Plague

The form of the myth, with its symbolic nature, appealed greatly to Camus and the art forms of antiquity had a strong influence on his thought and aesthetic. The Plague is a myth of modern times; the dreadful disease itself is symbolic on two levels. "When the book first appeared in 1947, most French critics greeted it as an allegorical presentation . . .of the particular experience of the German Occupation."[7] There is much in Camus' life and in the book itself to support the narrow symbolism, but, as with all great artistic creations, it rises above its immediate associations and offers a timeless portrait of humanity in the face of life's disasters, whether man-made or external in nature. The identity of the plague itself is secondary, beyond the fact that it exists; it is man's reaction that is at issue.

The setting of the book is in Oran, a city of Camus' beloved North Africa. The atmosphere plays an important role in the imagery of the narration. This is a treeless, barren city, set against the rocks and the sea. The sun, the heat, the wind, and the changing seasons reflect the various stages of the plague. The people of Oran are much like people everywhere, with their narrow visions and their bourgeois values. Camus stresses "the banal aspect of the city and its life."[8]

The dying rats which indicate the coming of the plague are ignored by these people of little imagination. Even the full onslaught of the disease finds a reluctant acceptance on the part of the citizens and their municipal representatives. It is weeks before effective resistance is organized. The progress of the disease itself is described mainly in subjective terms rather than in objective medical descriptions. It is here that the general symbolism of the plague must be understood. The major effects of this allegorical plague which has isolated the city from the outside world are the feelings of separation, exile and futility among the victims. In the face of this general

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