The Endless Watch
“They fancied themselves free, and no one can ever be free so long as there are pestilences,” (37), wrote Albert Camus in his 1947 novel The Plague. These words echoed in my mind as I woke on November 9th, 11/9, to a post-election world I didn’t recognize.
That morning, the sun streamed through the east-facing window behind my bed, and the brilliant November sunrise seemed in stark contrast to the election news I already knew I’d find on my phone. The morning after the election of Donald Trump reminded me of the stunning blue sky of September 11th, a sky which for all its brilliance heralded a day when the world changed yet again.
Camus’s extended metaphor of plague forms an apt narrative for the dangers, opportunities, and challenges of a world that finds itself in a new and terrible situation. In The Plague, the year is “194-”, and the coastal Algerian city of Oran is suddenly overrun with rats, long-time carriers of the deadly bubonic plague. The narrator, whom we presume to be the city’s Dr. Bernard Rieux, notes:
“It was as if the earth on which our houses stood were being purged of its secreted humors; thrusting up to the surface the abscesses and pus-clots that had been forming in its entrails. You must picture the consternation of our little town, hitherto so tranquil, and now, out of the blue, shaken to its core” (16).
This is how wide swaths of America look to me today: shaken to the core, awake to possibilities we didn’t know existed. Plague has crept out from the corners where it lay hidden and it has stunned us with its power.
Since the election, the halls of the college where I work have been filled with crying, hugging students, and with faculty and staff who strive to be there for their students while sorting through their own reactions. Today’s undergraduate students, for the most part, are too young to have truly felt the events of 9/11, now almost sixteen years ago. After 9/11, there were calls for hope, for activism, and for standing as one, as there have been in these weeks.
After 9/11, the regular order of life paused for days, weeks, and in some cases, months, as the nation and the world tried to figure out what came next and lurched toward war. At my graduate program in religious studies, faculty and staff made space for mourning, writing, reflecting, praying, organizing. I wrote, reflected, joined marches and protests, but the world kept turning, and gradually complacency crept back in.
Over the course of Camus’s novel, the city of Oran goes under quarantine, and its people awake, suddenly, from their everyday habits. “You can get through the days there [in Oran] without trouble, once you have formed habits,” Camus writes, but plague throws those habits into stark relief.
Although plague can be read as a metaphor for Camus’s existentialist view of the absurdity of life, it has a far more practical, and thus powerful, resonance as well: Oran under siege by plague recalls nothing other than France under the occupation of the Nazis in World War II, and it is here that the comparison to our post-election reality gains its chilling prescience.
Like those in Oran caught unaware by a sudden outbreak of plague, what concerns me is what happens next, as we ordinary people settle into the business of living in a strange new world. I wake up each morning, dress my children and get them ready for school, myself ready for work, and I know that as the days pass, I’ll smile more easily, greet my colleagues with a “how are you” that has less earnest trepidation, and slowly the world will continue. The sun, as Hemingway reminds us, also rises.
In Oran, Dr. Bernard Rieux is joined by Jean Tarrou, a vacationer caught in the town when the quarantine falls, in Rieux’s efforts to aid the sick and dying. Rieux asks Tarrou why he fights on their side–after all, Tarrou is not “one of them,” not a citizen of the city, so why should he care?
Tarrou’s answer is key for everyone affected by this election in one way or another, but particularly those of us who are privileged (for better or worse) to not feel frightened on subways late at night or apprehensive of the most casual encounters, much less the fate of our basic rights. He describes witnessing the trial of a man condemned to death, and in response he vows to fight against a world that could justify such killing. Tarrou tells Rieux:
“‘I know positively… that each of us has plague within him, and no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep an endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him’” (253).
How easily pestilence spreads, quiet as a breath. But just as threatening is the idea that we are all carriers of plague: we are all responsible for the world we live in. Camus would be the last to say that we share a burden of sin, so to put it in language Camus might better appreciate, one could say that we share responsibility for the world we live in, and that responsibility cuts across social, cultural, and environmental lines.
Tarrou continues in his stark, matter-of-fact narrative voice:
“The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention. And it needs tremendous will-power, a never ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses” (253).
This is why I fear my own complacency. It crept back before, after September 11th: slowly, my attention lapsed, as regular life took over again and the burst of vigilance receded.
We don’t yet know, for sure, what kind of a presidency and administration we will actually have, or what we’ll need to be vigilant against. The outlines have emerged, though, and they are not encouraging. The names Donald Trump has suggested for his cabinet and key members of his administration—Mike Pence, Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, Mike Pompeo—suggest that complacency, to put it mildly, will be hard to come by.
Despite this, the time to think about complacency is now. Suggestions for immediate action abound: call Congressional representatives, donate to treasured, threatened causes, boycott Trump’s brands. Some of us have marched, or wear safety pins, rainbow pins, Black Lives Matter pins. Looking to the long run, though, we each need to determine the habits of mind that will permit the fewest lapses in attention. We each need to answer a key question: what needs to happen in our daily lives so that we can live, as Camus put it in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” a life “devoid of blinders”?
The answers need not be the same for each of us. Those of us who are queer, transgender, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, disabled, or who simply look “different” to the uninformed, will surely have different answers from someone like me, a white, heterosexual cisgender woman with more than one humanities degree to her name. I write today not to suggest answers, but to remind us that the time to think about those answers is now, even as we feel that we cannot look away.
The Plague ends, predictably, on a tragic note: Tarrou dies in the final pages, as does Rieux’s wife, cut off from him and Oran by the quarantine. The people of Oran celebrate as the gates reopen, but Rieux fears that in their joy, they will forget, and their old habits will return. He leaves the reader with a call to action:
“Nonetheless, he knew the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers” (308).
I don’t know who our saints will be. I can’t be sure of how we will become healers, rooting out plague from within ourselves and from the divides that rend apart our nation, but I hope we can become such. Nor can I be sure that the steps we take will be enough, but the metaphor of plague is the best I can think of for how to carry forward. I certainly hope this time, unlike so many before it, we will remember, and refuse to bow down, to plague.
*Citations are from the Vintage International edition of Albert Camus’ The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert (New York, 1991).
Emily Ruth Mace is co-editor-in-chief at KtB. She's a freelance editor, writer and religious studies alt-academic with an interest in religious liberalism and life at the borders of traditional religion and spirituality. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. In addition to KtB, her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Mama, Religion Dispatches, the Chronicle Vitae, and others. A one-time bicoastal resident of California and New England, she currently lives outside Chicago, and can be found online at emilyrmace.com and Tweeting occasionally at @lemilym.