In 1947, Albert Camus published La Peste, a novel recounting a plague that settles into Oran in French Algeria. After a few citizens contract it, the weekly death toll climbs, prompting plague regulations that seal off the town and quarantine victims in a futile attempt to stave off the plague’s spread. The story follows Dr. Bernard Rieux, the physician who first identifies the plague and urges plague protocols.
The plague’s indiscriminate killing illustrates Camus’s view of life and death as absurd. Unsated, death hovers over every life to smite all who once drew breath. Death is an equalizer balancing all scales. Whether just or unjust, all are indiscriminately his prey. Death renders anything man does as temporary and thus meaningless, as absurd.
Camus presents Rieux as one plausible remedy for the absurd. Rieux accepts death’s absurdity and fights against it without any final hope: “since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?” Oran’s citizens represent another remedy. They do not search for ultimate meaning, but opt instead for pleasures in this life, even forgetting the victims when the plague ends. Camus describes their attitude:
“all stream out into the open, drug themselves with talking, start arguing or love-making, and in the last glow of sunset the town, freighted with lovers two by two and loud with voices, drifts like a helmless ship into the throbbing darkness. In vain a zealous evangelist…threads his way through the crowd, crying…: ‘God is great and good. Come unto Him.’ On the contrary, they all make haste toward some trivial objective that seems of more immediate interest than God.”
For Camus, one ought not to seek meaning out of life and death, but instead accept the darkness and avoid the delusions of self-created meaning. Yet if one looks carefully, Rieux and Oran’s citizens do embrace some self-created meaning: the blind pursuit of life’s pleasures or the losing struggle against death. These are merely self-created phantoms of meaning, which, like water receiving its shape from something else, returns to nothingness when the shapes are dissipated.
We escape self-created phantoms, however, not in other delusions, but by gazing at the uncreated light. Camus, however, forbids turning to the light, as if despair were some kind of good.
Almost two weeks ago, we celebrated the Lord’s Resurrection. Now, as the Easter lilies wither, today’s Mass readings direct our gaze toward life’s futility apart from Christ’s divine work: the futility of the apostles’ preaching and their inability to feed thousands without divine aid. During Easter we should think especially about life’s futility apart from the light of Christ’s Resurrection. “If the dead are not raised, let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). The citizens of Oran take this approach. But we know that the Resurrection has conquered death’s temporality: “O death, where is your victory” (Cor. 15:55).
At the creation in Genesis, the earth “was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). During the Easter Vigil, the celebrant blesses the baptismal waters by plunging the solid bottom of the lighted Easter candle into the water. As the light of Christ hovers over the waters in the liturgy, one can almost hear, faintly, an echo of those words breathed upon the waters at the creation of the world: Fiat lux! Let there be light!
Photo: Yersinia Pestis Bacteria