Acts Without Words I and II by Samuel Beckett

Act Without Words I

Act Without Words I (a mime for one player) is a short mime piece written by Samuel Beckett. It was originally performed after Beckett’s major play, Endgame, during the latter’s first run in London. It was Beckett’s first attempt at the genre and dates from a period when he had just experimented with his first play, Waiting For Godot, and his first radio play, All That Fall. You can view a modern production of it on YouTube.

The scene is a desert on to which a man is abruptly ‘flung backwards’. Mysterious whistles draw his attention in various directions. A number of more or less desirable objects, notably a carafe of water, are dangled before him. He tries to reach up to the water but it is out of reach.

A number of cuboid boxes, obviously designed to make it easier for him to reach the water, descend from the flies, each one’s arrival signalled by a blast on the whistle. But however ingeniously he piles them on top of one another, the water is always moved to be just out of reach.

After ten or so minutes of painfully frustrated efforts, in the end the protagonist sinks into complete immobility. The whistle sounds – but he no longer pays attention. The water is dangled right in front of his face, but he doesn’t move. Even the palm tree in the shade of which he has been sitting is whisked off into the flies. He remains immobile, looking at his hands.

The meaning(s)

With its figure abandoned in a desert and subject to endless frustration, Act Without Words I feels like a variation on the theme of Godot except with one protagonist instead of the four we meet in the play.

Tragic

If you take a bleak and nihilistic view of Beckett, then the mime depicts a man flung on to the stage of life, at first obeying the call of a number of impulses, drawn to the pursuit of illusory objectives by whistles blown from the wings, but finding peace only when he has learned the pointlessness of even trying to attain any of these objective, and finally refusing any of the physical satisfactions dangled before him. He can find peace only through ‘the recognition of the nothingness which is the only reality’.

Actually a number of Beckett critics including Ruby Cohn and Ihab Hassan have dismissed it as too obvious and too pat. ‘Oh dear, life is meaningless, what shall I do?’ When stated that bluntly, it is a cliché.

Comic

That said, the putting of a man through a number of humiliating tasks which he can never achieve, in a wordless mime, is strikingly similar to the early, black-and-white, comedy films which Beckett loved. Take the 1916 short film One am written, directed and starring Charlie Chaplin. In its 34-minute duration a posh man in a top hat who is very drunk is dropped off outside his house by a taxi and then spends the next 30 minutes trying to find his key, get into the house and then taking an awesome amount of time getting up the stairs.

Or take the Laurel and Hardy comedy short, The Music Box, in which the hapless duo are deliverymen tasked with delivering a big, heavy piano up the longest flight of stairs in California.

The point is that both these movies are about protagonists facing a series of frustrations and setbacks exactly as the protagonist of Act Without Words I does. Viewed through this lens, and if you watch the Beckett on Film version, it feels like the protagonist is reduced not to philosophically noble, nihilistic despair, but to childish, sulky refusal to take part in this stupid game. Much more like the comic protagonist of a silent movie.

Portentous

In The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett, C.J. Ackerley and S.E. Gontarski suggest that the protagonist’s final refusal to play, to be tempted by the water dangling in front of him, is not a childish sulk, but represents his rejection of purely physical needs and his rebellion against his fate as a human. In refusing and rising above purely physical needs, he is enacting the psychological process described by Albert Camus in his lengthy and popular sociological work, The Rebel (1951).

From a deluge of words to wordlessness

What strikes me most about this piece is the fact that a mime, in effect, consists entirely of stage directions.

In this respect Beckett’s work presents an interesting trajectory, from the vast solid cliffs of prose in The Beckett Trilogy via the light and fast-moving dialogue of his main plays (Waiting For Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape) to the abandonment of the written or spoken word altogether and the reduction of the dramatic event to action, pure and simple, of wordless mime consisting solely of stage directions. In this it anticipates a number of Beckett’s later works which will be wordless mimes.

Beckett’s stage directions

It also reminds the viewer of the extreme precision and pedantry of Beckett’s stage directions. Beckett was always obsessive about the physical behaviour of his characters, regarding humans as closer to automata than people, as evidence in the numerous obsessively detailed descriptions of physical options and behaviours in the novel Watt.

He carried this obsessive attention to the minutiae of physical action over into his plays and became notorious among directors and actors for the extreme precision of his stage directors and his inflexible insistence that they must be followed to the letter, precisely as he had written them.

As you read through the plays, as you come across more mimes and musical movements and so on, you realise that the composition of the stage directions was every bit as precise and detailed and calculated for effect as the actual prose and dialogue and speeches.

And of course no member of the audience is aware of this but the reader of the piece sees that it ends with the four-times repeated stage direction He does not move, reminding us of the famous stage direction at the bitter end of Godot – They do not move.

Suicide

Speaking of Waiting For Godot at one point in Act Without Words the protagonist takes the length of rope he’s been given and obviously plans to hang himself from the palm tree which is more or less the only feature in the desert landscape.

This reminds us of Estragon’s throwaway suggestion in Waiting For Godot that the two tramps hang themselves and, of course, both suggestions turning out to be fruitless. You don’t get out of it that easy, this thing called life.

Act Without Words II

Act Without Words II is another short mime, written a few years after the first one. It, also, was composed in French before being translated into English by the author although, being a mime, there was no dialogue to translate, just the stage directions. The London premiere was directed by Michael Horovitz and performed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on 25 January 1960.

Even more than the first one, number II is another work which depends entirely on the precision of the choreography. Two men are in sacks. A long stick enters from stage right and pokes one of the sacks. Character A struggles out of his sack and elaborately gets dressed before picking up the second sack and placing it further from the stick, before undressing and getting back into his sack. The same procedure is then applied to the other sack containing Character B, who is poked, struggles out of his sack, does callisthenics, cleans his teeth, gets dressed and so on. His job is to move the other sack, containing Character A further along the stage, before he, too, undresses and gets back into his sack. And so on, Forever.

Anyone who’s read Watt or Molloy will recognise the helpless, Aspergers syndrome-like obsessiveness of the repeated behaviour, of numerous apparently pointless repetitions carried out with minute variations and exasperating precision. This, the work says, is how utterly pointless our lives are with all the gettings-up and breakfasts and showers and dressing and going to work. All variations on the same bloody pointless and endlessly similar actions. Is this it? Is this all?

To emphasise the precision he wants and the clinical emptiness of the actions, Beckett includes a diagram of the changing positions of the sacks relative to each other.

The Goad

At the height of the Swinging Sixties, in 1966, photographer Paul Joyce (the great-grand-nephew of James Joyce) saw Act Without Words II as part of a Sunday evening performance at the Aldwich theatre and thought it would make a fun short experimental film. Joyce approached the cast, Freddie Jones and Geoffrey Hinscliff, and they said okay, so, after a little thought, Joyce transposed the production from the theatre to a rubbish dump in Rainham, Essex.

The way there are two characters who fuss about their clothes, and wear silly outfits, and both wear bowler hats, reminds us of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting For Godot – just as Character A eating a carrot reminds us of Vladimir offering Estragon a carrot, who proceeds to make such a palaver about eating it, in act one of Godot.

Having started to think about silent comedy classics, it’s hard not to miss the suggestion that Character A’s ill-fitting suit and round hat is at least in part a reference to Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character, while Character B’s skinny physique, bony face and pork pie hat is strongly reminiscent of Buster Keaton.

It is an absurdist reductio ad absurdum, but it is telling us something less about Life, than about literature and film – namely that the comic and the bleakly nihilistic are very closely allied. If you slip on a banana skin and band your nose it’s a tragedy; if someone else does, it’s a comedy.

Both these mimes strike me as having next to nothing to say about ‘Life’ – what a ridiculous idea! – but do make you reflect a bit about the thin line which separates tragedy from comedy, the humdrum from the absurd, the serious and po-faced from the farcically hilarious.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Mercier and Camier by Samuel Beckett (1946)

‘What are you musing on, Mercier?’
‘On the horror of existence, confusedly,’ said Mercier.
‘What about a drink?’ said Camier.

After writing a series of experimental texts in English during the 1930s, Mercier et Camier was Beckett’s first attempt at an extended prose piece in French. He wrote it in 1946, while he was living in France after the end of the Second World War. It comes between Watt, which Beckett wrote in the last few years of the war, and directly before the three huge experimental ‘novels’ or texts which became known as The Beckett TrilogyMolloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951) and The Unnamable (1953).

Watt was long, experimental and – ultimately, for its author – unsatisfactory; who knows how to describe what it is for its readers.

Mercier and Camier is a lot shorter but Beckett found it even more unsatisfactory, which is why he refused to publish it in its original French until 1970. It only appeared in English in 1974, in Beckett’s own translation, in which he took the opportunity to make substantial alterations to the original text and to ‘reshape’ it from French to English. That’s the translation I read.

Structure

The Calder and Boyar edition I read is just 123 pages long. It is divided into eight chapters and every pair of chapters is followed by a ‘summary of two preceding chapters’ as in a school textbook.

The prose is lucid but highly mannered. A lot of it is similar to Murphy and Watt, not in style but in that it is writing about writing, writing whose main energy comes from taking the mickey out of traditional writing, that plays with the style of official reports, mixes in everyday phrases or clichés, and so on. It is not very interested in describing the world ‘out there’ but has made a nice safe warm space inside the head, playing with phrases. The general idea is that Mercier and Camier are a pair of vagabonds who intend to leave the city on a journey and Beckett introduces it thus:

Physically it was fairly easy going, without seas or frontiers to be crossed, through regions untormented on the whole, if desolate in parts. Mercier and Camier did not remove from home, they had that great good fortune. They did not have to face, with greater or less success, outlandish ways, tongues, laws, skies, foods, in surroundings little resembling those to which first childhood, then boyhood, then manhood had inured them. The weather, though often inclement (but they knew no better), never exceeded the limits of the temperate, that is to say of what could still be borne, without danger if not without discomfort, by the average native fittingly clad and shod. With regard to money, if it did not run to first class transport or the palatial hotel, still there was enough to keep them going, to and fro, without recourse to alms. It may be said therefore that in this respect too they were fortunate, up to a point. They had to struggle, but less than many must, less perhaps than most of those who venture forth, driven by a need now clear and now obscure.

‘Physically it was fairly easy going… The weather never exceeded the limits of the temperate… With regard to money…’ These sound like phrases from an official report, as does ‘It may be aid that…’

The style goes on to change and pull in other registers and mannerisms, playing with various learned tropes and techniques, but it is more often than not more interested in writing, in the possibilities of types and styles of writing, than in depicting any kind of ‘reality’.

Similarly, the dialogue is more often than not about the dialogue – characters speak about the act of speaking ‘did you say that?’ ‘did i say what?’ ‘did you say what you just said?’ ‘i don’t know, did i just say something?’ – played for laughs, played as a solemn game indicating the difficulties of even the most basic communication, rather than the kind of dialogue you find in most ‘normal’ novels.

More than anything else, unlike the monolithic solid blocks of prose found in The Beckett Trilogy, the pages look like a normal novel, divided up into short, sensible paragraphs which flag up new bits of dialogue or action or description in the traditional manner.

The shortness of the text, the use of short chapters, the breathing space provided by the end of chapter summaries, and the layout of the individual pages, all make Mercier and Camier feel like the most readable novel-style book Beckett ever wrote.

Repetition, absurdity and comedy

We are in an unnamed city. Mercier and Camier meet at their rendezvous point, though not before some misunderstanding. Mercier is first to arrive but gets bored waiting so goes for a stroll. Camier arrives ten minutes later so he goes for a stroll a few minutes before Camier gets back. Camier gets bored waiting then goes for a stroll just a few minutes before Mercier returns to the rendezvous point, hangs about a bit then goes for a stroll, and a few minutes later Camier returns to the rendezvous point, and tuts about where his friend can be, before going off for a stroll.. Repetition is at the core of Beckett’s technique, repetitions with slight variations which quickly build up into monstrous tables of permutations, as we have just seen in the numerous examples given in Watt. Beckett invests sufficient energy in this obsessive schedule of mistimed arrivals that he bothers to give us a table describing it.

In the introduction to Watt, Beckett scholar Chris Ackerley says Beckett is satirising the philosopher René Descartes’ notion that a comprehensive enumeration of what philosophers called the ‘accidents’ of a thing will eventually give you ‘understanding’ of the thing, whereas Beckett’s satirical deployment of this technique is designed to prove that the more you enumerate something, the further you in fact become from understanding it, you just become more bewildered.

In this format, this kind of mathematical precision which can be converted into a timetable is obviously a kind of satire on the timetabled way most of us live our lives, with mobile phones and meeting-reminding programs converting the endless flux of reality into bite-sized five-minute chunks.

But there is also something very powerful and uncanny about repetition. Repeat a word numerous times and it quickly starts to lose meaning and become absurd. Repeat a precise action numerous times and the same. It is as if repetition takes us out of the everyday. Transcendental meditators are instructed to repeat their mantra thousands of times to take them into an other-worldly state. Closer to Beckett’s Ireland, Roman Catholics have series of prayers to repeat as penances or on numerous other formalised occasions.

Repetition of drills with weapons make soldiers proficient, repetitive exercise improves athletes’ performance, makes difficult moves automatic, practice makes perfect. All this is true of the physical world. But in the world of language, repetition doesn’t make perfect or battle ready or match fit. Something different happens.

In Beckett’s hands, repetition can become obsessively patterned – as in the timetable of Mercier and Camier missing each other described above – in which case it reduces humans to automata, like buses meeting or missing a schedule, or the figures which come out of cuckoo clocks on the hour.

Or it can be funny, like two gentlemen bowing and taking their hats off to each other in an indefinite cycle of politeness.

Or it can open the door into Absurdity – highlighting the pointlessness of doing the same things or saying the same things over and over and nothing ever changing.

It is in this respect that Mercier and Camier anticipates Waiting For Godot, in that it is a text interested in repetition and a kind of formal patterning of actions and dialogue, but – crucially – enacted by two protagonists.

In the most intense moments (I say moments, in fact reading them takes hours) of The Beckett Trilogy what you have is one voice giving a running, stream-of-consciousness account of its bewilderment and misery and sense of utter crushing futility – which is what makes reading them, especially The Unnameable such a gruelling experience.

But when you have two characters, even if they’re predisposed to be miserable and depressed, for a man of Beckett’s sly humour, the temptation is to poke fun at his own seriousness, the temptation is to have one character deliver a long speech about the meaninglessness of existence… and then have the other character point out he’s sitting on his hat. Or his shoelaces have come undone, he might trip and do himself a mischief etc. Thus:

‘What are you musing on, Mercier?’
‘On the horror of existence, confusedly,’ said Mercier.
‘What about a drink?’ said Camier.

In other words, just the decision to have two characters opens up the possibility of counterpointing the misery of The Unnameable with a world of slapstick, pratfalls and bathos. And it’s in this respect that Mercier and Camier feels like a dry run for Waiting For Godot.

Aspects of style

Having finally met up, Mercier and Camier embrace just as the heavens open and it starts to tip down. They run into a shelter, still embracing.

Obscenity

Still embracing? Two dogs run into the shelter and start copulating furiously, making Mercier and Camier realise they they also are still embracing. Are they gay? Or straight friends caught in an embarrassingly inappropriate moment? Is Beckett pulling the reader’s leg or tweaking the censor’s nose?

The pair continue to regard the copulating dogs, Camier wonders why they’re still plugged together and Mercier gives a wearied / cynical explanation:

What would you? said Mercier. The ecstasy is past, they yearn to part, to go and piss against a post or eat a morsel of shit, but cannot. So they turn their backs on each other. You’d do as much, if you were they.

A moment later Camier asks if they can sit down as he feels ‘all sucked off’. That is not a usual expression for ‘tired’, it is easier to interpret as a sexual expression. Later the ranger tells the dogs to bugger off. Mercier remarks that the ranger was a hero in the mud of flanders during the Great War while he and Camier were ‘high and dry, masturbating full pelt without fear of interruption…’ In chapter two Mercier says ‘fuck thee’. In chapter 4 Camier mildly remarks: ‘Cunts we may be…’ In chapter 6 Mercier remembers his wife, not very fondly, Toffana, making love to whom was ‘like fucking a quag’.

So why is Beckett dwelling on piss, shit and blowjobs, masturbation, buggery fucks and cunts?

Is it another way of ridiculing the high-mindedness of the Rationalist tradition in Western philosophy (as the satires on Descartes’ method are in Watt?) Or a poke in the eye for anyone who thinks human existence is noble and spiritual? Or was it in the spirit of many other mid-century literary rebels who thought writing ‘shit’ and ‘piss’ was a blow against the Establishment / capitalist system / patriarchy?

Beckett prefers ideas and categories to description

The sounds of the city intrude:

On all hands already the workers were at it again, the air waxed loud with cries of pleasure and pain and with the urbaner notes of those for whom life had exhausted its surprises, as well on the minus side as on the plus. Things too were getting ponderously under way. It was in vain the rain poured down, the whole business was starting again with apparently no less ardour than if the sky had been a cloudless blue.

Dickens or Balzac or maybe E.M. Foster or Virginia Woolf would have given us a world of detail, listing occupations and activities of the city coming to life. In his compendious Modernist classic, Berlin Alexanderplatz, the German novelist, Alfred Döblin, used a blitz of collages and quotes from newspapers, adverts and billboards to convey the over-abundant sensual stimulation of the modern city.

But Beckett’s description is a good example of the way he isn’t at all interested in that notion of urban life and colour – his imagination always generalises, moves to the philosophical categories and ideas underlying any situation, and then plays with these and the language they’re cast in. Ignores the sensuous specific for the ideas and possibilities latent in the language of ideas. It’s this which makes so much of his writing seem grey and abstract – because it is.

Dialogue as experiments with the idea of dialogue

Similarly, the dialogue barely refers to events or things, or only the bare minimum required to make sense. Most of the dialogue is about the nature of dialogue, it is playing with the notion of dialogue and what is concealed or implied in it.

No big ideas, no Freudian sub-texts or subtle implications, it isn’t that purposive. Beckett is just tinkering with fragments of dialogue, arranging and re-arranging them at angles to each other, to see what happens, to see what effects are created. It is like cubism. Picasso and Braque in their cubist paintings depicted really banal everyday objects – tables with newspapers, a bottle of wine and some apples on it. The revolution wasn’t in the subject matter which was as banal as can be. It was in the radical experiment of seeing the same thing from different angles.

So just as cubism takes everyday subject matter and subjects it to multiple perspectives and styles, so Beckett’s dialogue takes mundane chatter and subjects it to multiple perspectives and styles. That, I think, is the spirit to approach lots of the dialogue in Beckett. It is, at best, tangential or inconsequential, random, but it also plays with registers or tones. Characters speak to each other in the style of official reports or philosophical textbooks, the exact opposite of the casual slang or jokey tone most people use in conversations:

We shall never know, said Camier, at what hour we arranged to meet today, so let us drop the subject.
In all this confusion one thing alone is sure, said Mercier, and that is that we met at ten to ten, at the same time as the hands, or rather a moment later.
There is that to be thankful for, said Camier.
The rain had not yet begun, said Mercier.
The morning fervour was intact, said Camier.
Don’t lose our agenda, said Mercier.

So it is a kind of verbal satirical cubism. And once you adapt to its arch stylisation, it can become very funny.

Who owns them dogs? said the ranger.
I don’t see how we can stay, said Camier.
Can it I wonder be the fillip we needed, to get us moving? said Mercier.

And one reason this novel feels so pacey, so unlike the concrete blocks of the Trilogy is because so much of it consists of this slightly surreal, slightly deranged, stylised and often very funny dialogue.

What is more, said Mercier, we have still thought to take, before it is too late.
Thought to take? said Camier.
Those were my words, said Mercier.
I thought all thought was taken, said Camier, and all in order.
All is not, said Mercier.

Tramps discussing Descartes, with half an eye on Laurel and Hardy:

Is thought now taken, said Camier, and all in order?
No, said Mercier.
Will all ever be? said Camier.
I believe so, said Mercier, yes, I believe, not firmly, no, but I believe, yes, the day is coming when all will be in order, at last.
That will be delightful, said Camier.
Let us hope so, said Mercier

The plot

Chapter 1

They are in the Place Satin-Ruth which is dominated by an ancient copper beech, on which a French Field Marshall several centuries earlier had once pinned a label. They are sheltering from the rain in a shelter. A ‘ranger’ sticks his head in and asks if this is their bicycle. They discuss, in their oblique pseudo-philosophical way, the journey ahead. Rather magically night begins to fall. They must have spent the entire day there. They enumerate their belongings (the sack, the umbrella, the raincoat), exit the shelter, pick up the bicycle and push it away, under the watchful eyes of the ranger, who curses them on their way.

Chapter 2

The pair push their bicycle through the busy urban throng.

I’m cold, said Camier.
It was indeed cold.
It is indeed cold, said Mercier

They repair to a pub. Landlord says no bikes so they chain theirs to the railings. Drink for some time and discuss their situation. Decide to press on, go outside, pick up the bike, resume their walk. At a crossroads don’t know which way to go so let the umbrella decide by letting it fall. It points to the left. They see a man in a frock coat walking ahead of them.They both hear the sound of a mixed choir. Then it dawns on them to actually use the umbrella against the pouring rain, but neither of them can get it open, Mercier smashes it to the ground and says ‘fuck thee’ to Camier.

They arrive at Helen’s and notice the grand carpet and the white cockatoo. Helen suddenly appears in the text, with no introduction or explanation, offering them the couch or the bed. Mercier says he will sleep with none. Then:

A nice little suck-off, said Camier, not too prolonged, by all means, but nothing more.
Terminated, said Helen, the nice little suck-offs but nothing more.

Does this mean Helen is a sex worker, and Camier is agreeing to a nice blowjob. By ‘terminated’ does Helen mean she is agreeing to the deal i.e. payment for two blowjobs ‘but nothing more’ i.e. no penetration.

One paragraph later they are ‘back in the street’, the entire night having, apparently, passed. They’re a little way down the road from Helen’s when the pouring rain makes them take shelter in an archway. They realise they’ve mislaid the sack. They enumerate what was in it. Enumerating things is one of Beckett’s most basic techniques.

Camier realises he is hungry and steps out from the archway to go to a shop. Mercier is stricken with anxiety and begs him to come back. Camier relents for a moment but then steps boldly out in the rain to find sustenance.

In his absence Mercier looks up to see a little boy and a little girl standing in the rain, who call him Papa! He shouts ‘fuck off out of here!’ at them and chases them away.

Camier returns and places a cream horn in Mercier’s hand. Mercier squeezes it uncomprehendingly till the cream spills out, and then doubles over in misery, weeping, says he’ll start crawling (as so many Beckett characters end up doing, sooner or later).

Mercier’s mood of misery and futility is interrupted by the sound of a screech of brakes and a crash. They run out into the street and see a fat woman who’s been run over, is lying amid the wreckage of her skirts, with blood flowing. Soon a crowd blocks their view (as crowds are always attracted to car accidents, as described in J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash).

Pepped up by this sight, Mercier feels like a new man, and they resume their journey.

The text is then punctuated by one of the summaries of the content so far. I’ll give the summary of chapter 1.

Summary of two preceding chapters
I
Outset.
Meeting of Mercier and Camier.
Saint Ruth Square.
The beech.
The rain.
The shelter.
The dogs.
Distress of Camier.
The ranger.
The bicycle.
Words with the ranger.
Mercier and Camier confer.
Results of this conference.
Bright too late.
The bell.
Mercier and Camier set out.

Chapter 3

Opens with a macabre first-person account by a narrator who says his parents died in a train crash when he was soon after he was 13 and he was placed with farmers who made him work hard at all sorts of manual tasks, but he turned out – gruesomely – to excel, from the age of 15, at ‘the slaughter of little lambs, calves, kids and porklings and the emasculation of little bullocks, rams, billy goats and piglets’, and smothering geese. At the age of 19 or 20, having got a milkmaid pregnant, he ran away, after setting fire to the barns, granaries and stables. That was 50 years ago (i.e. like so many Beckett narrators, he is now ancient and decrepit).

Only then, at the end of this monologue do we realise that the absence of speech marks Beckett’s deploys throughout the book has, in this instance, fooled us. This isn’t first-person narration, it is the monologue of an old codger in the compartment of the train Mercier and Camier are on. It is a sly, humorous sleight of hand.

The train stops but Mercier and Camier are too slow to get off and relieve themselves of the old man’s company and so, as the train starts up again, so does his monologue, this time a feverish garble which seems to be about whoring and womanising. The train stops at another stop and he gets off, now identified as Mr Madden, ‘He wore gaiters, a yellow block-hat and a rusty frock-coat reaching down to his knees.’ The comic dialogue between our hapless duo resumes. Mercier complains that Camier has booked them onto the stopping train, the slow train south of our Dublin (which was known in those days as the slow and easy):

I knew it, said Mercier. I’ve been shamefully abused. I’d throw myself out of the window if I wasn’t afraid I might sprain my ankle.

Camier says they’ll get down at the next stop and next thing they are in the little settlement surrounding the next station without any description of the train having stopped or them having alighted. The text is full of continual sly jokes like that, or casual underminings of the conventions of fiction. Elsewhere he undermines his own sentences even as he writes them:

It’s … snug, said the man, there is no other word. Patrick! he cried. But there was another word, for he added, in a tone of tentative complicity, whatever that sounds like, It’s … gemütlich.

The narrator uses a description and immediately wonders what the description can mean. The man speaking is an inn-keeper, greeting our travellers, while yelling over his shoulder for Patrick, presumably a servant. Mercier says that he has seen this man in his dreams. A page later we learn he is named Mr Gall, which reminds us of the Mr Gall the piano tuner who prompted a crisis of epistemology in Watt in the eponymous novel.

It is fair day. The farmers have brought their goods and animals to market. The beasts are stuffed in their pens. The narrator describes the farmers as grasping their ‘pricks through the stuff of their pockets’. Mercier summons the manager, they ask for several items off the menu which are all sold out. Camier says his friend Mercier is ‘out on his feet’, is it alright if they take a room for a rest, the manager agrees and our couple go upstairs.

One of the farmers comes over, is greeted by the manager as Mr Graves (which reminds us of Mr Graves the gardener in Watt) and comments the departed pair are ‘a nice pair’ and asks Mr Gall where he got used to such. Is the implication (once again) they Mercier and Camier are gay, and the farmer and manager think they’ve gone upstairs for sex?

Mr Gall appears to change his name and becomes Mr Gast, as the farmers depart and he is suddenly looking out onto a little medieval square, as if in a science fiction or horror story. The barman comes up and describes our pair as: ‘the long hank with the beard [and] the little fat one…’

Mr Gast pops out to find out what’s become of the absent Patrick, and is back a moment later, telling the barman he (Patrick) has died. His penultimate words were for a pint. Mr Gast calls for Teresa who is, fortunately, still alive and she comes out of the loo, a buxom wench carrying a big tray.

A rough tough man enters the bar in his hobnail boots, it is Mr Conaire, explains he’s escaped what he calls ‘the core of the metropolitan gas-chamber’, glimpses buxom Teresa, glances at the barkeeper, who is now named George. Mr Conaire asks the way to the ‘convenience’ and manages to brush against Teresa’s buxomness. Mr Gast has another vision, the present disappears as he sees a distant vista, a desolate moor with a single winding track and a solitary figure…

Mr Conaire reappears from the convenience having had a difficult time of it. Maybe he has constipation. He flirts more with Teresa then says he has an appointment to meet F.X. Camier, private investigator, and gives a description of Camier – ‘Small and fat… red face, scant hair, four chins, protruding paunch, bandy legs, beady pig eyes’ – which George complements with a description of Mercier – ‘A big bony hank with a beard… hardly able to stand, wicked expression’.

George goes up to their room to get them, but discovers Mercier and Camier asleep  and snoring, hand in hand on the floor of the hotel room.

Chapter 4

Our heroes are in the open countryside, not a house in sight, on a bank overlooking a wide field, inhabited only by a goat. But it isn’t a Shakespeare paradise, it is a wintry, cold and gloomy, damp Irish field, the sun is ‘a raw pale blotch’ in the cloudy sky. Camier complains he can feel the cold creeping up his crack. Mercier shares his method of keeping happy, which is to focus on parts of the body which do not hurt.

What shall they do? Camier suggests they need to go back into the town to find the sack, the sack they seem to have misplaced after they left Helen’s place. But maybe the sack itself isn’t the cause or the reason for their sense of want. The sack itself will not supply the truth. Maybe it is some aspect of the sack, as of the bicycle or the umbrella. Camier is disquisiting further on the nature of when Mercier interrupts him to tell him about the dream he had last night, in which his grandmother was carrying her own breasts by their nipples.

Camier loses his temper. Have they not made a solemn vow, ‘No dreams or quotes at any price.’ Camier is dispatched to get provisions from the town, swaggering there on his stumpy legs, while Mercier is left to decide in which direction to collapse.

The text cuts with no explanation to Camier being at the bar in the pub ordering a round of five sandwiches off George and introducing himself to Conaire. Mr Conaire shares a very Beckettian vision of entropy:

Yesterday cakes, today sandwiches, tomorrow crusts and Thursday stones.

We discover he spent the entire previous evening waiting for Camier to appear and fell asleep on a couch. When he woke up in the morning our couple had moved on. Camier is sublimely indifferent and leaves with his sandwiches. Mr Conaire goes for a crap. Mr Gast is absent, picking snowdrops for Patrick’s sheaf. Teresa also is absent.

Back with Mercier, Camier feeds him a sandwich but Mercier throws up. They stagger to their feet and realise they have to press on. Somewhere. For some reason. There’s a page or two of debate about whether to leave the tattered old raincoat where it is, which they do, then lament that they have. They totter back towards the railway station.

Summary of chapters 3 and 4

Chapter 5

They arrive back at the town on Sunday night. Knowing no better, they make their way to Helen’s who lets them stay and presents them with the umbrella, restored to full function. They appear to spend the evening making love, or entwining their naked bodies. So they are gay. Next afternoon they set off for their destination (we are not told what that is), and stop into a pub to wait for dark. And discuss at length and come to Great Conclusions:

1. The lack of money is an evil. But it can turn to a good.
2. What is lost is lost.
3. The bicycle is a great good. But it can turn nasty, if ill employed.
4. There is food for thought in being down and out.
5. There are two needs: the need you have and the need to have it.
6. Intuition leads to many a folly.
7. That which the soul spews forth is never lost.
8. Pockets daily emptier of their last resources are enough to break the stoutest resolution.
9. The male trouser has got stuck in a rut, particularly the fly which should be transferred to the crotch and designed to open trapwise, permitting the testes, regardless of the whole sordid business of micturition, to take the air unobserved. The drawers should of course be transfigured in consequence.
10. Contrary to a prevalent opinion, there are places in nature from which God would appear to be absent.
11. What would one do without women? Explore other channels.
12. Soul: another four-letter word.
13. What can be said of life not already said? Many things. That its arse is a rotten shot, for example.

Beckett loves a list. Our heroes decide to postpone decisive action till the following day and return to Helen’s place to kip. Next morning they set out bravely, not forgetting the umbrella. In fact it’s more like a parasol. Mercier tells Camier he bought it at Khan’s, which appears to be a pawnshop. Camier says it appears to have been manufactured in 1900, the year of the siege of Ladysmith during the Boer War. Camier gives such a vivid description of the siege, that they might have been there as young men.

Now both try and fail to open the wretched thing. Camier disappears back up the stairs (presumably of Helen’s place). Mercier takes advantage of his absence to walk on and enters a Joycean stream of consciousness phantasmagoria of thoughts and impressions about time and passersby. His path crosses an old man, he sees a man guiding a donkey, and urchins playing at marbles in the street, he rattles chains with his big stick, as he staggers senilely on.

Chapter 6

Evening of the same day. Camier is in a pub. Another pub. It is packed with dockers and sailors, a fug or smoke and beer fumes. He closes his eyes and spends two pages imagining Mercier arriving. When he opens them, Mercier has arrived, causing a momentary lull in the male fug of conversation.

They enter an obscure and highly stylised conversation. Where is the umbrella? When Camier was helping Helen, his hand slipped – he explains, as if that explains anything. Is it a sexual reference. Meanwhile the bicycle they left chained to the railings has, with Beckettian entropy, disintegrated, having lost wheels, saddle, bell and carrier, though not, intriguingly, its pump.

They set off into the dark night, supporting each other, though neither knows whither or why. They struggle to speak, Camier wants to ask questions but Mercier explains he has used up all his answers. What happened to the sack? They go into a narrow alleyway. Neither of them can remember how to describe walking. It becomes more than ever like Godot.

Where are we going? said Camier.
Shall I never shake you off? said Mercier.
Do you not know where we are going? said Camier.
What does it matter, said Mercier, where we are going? We are going, that’s enough.
No need to shout, said Camier.

Even the fresh line for each bit of dialogue looks like a play. They end up walking back and forth along this dark alleyway wondering where they’re going, and why, and why in each other’s company. They smell kips which appears to mean the perfume from a brothel. They ask a policeman if there’s a brothel and when he says they should be ashamed at their age, says it’s all they’ve got left. That and masturbation. So are they solidly heterosexual?

The officer arrests them and turns up Camier’s arm and smacks him. He’s about to blow his whistle when Mercier kicks him in the balls and the officer releases Camier, falling to the ground. This gets extremely unpleasant, for Camier seizes the officer’s truncheon and starts beating him round the head, they pull his cape over his head and beat some more, the impression of the head being of a boiled egg without it shell. Seems they’ve murdered him. They run along the alley into a square, across it and into a narrow street, and decide it is best to go back to Helen’s place.

Summary of chapters 5 and 6

Chapter 7

Descriptive passage of open moorland, heather, mountains looming, lights of city in distance, lights of harbour reflected in the sea. Presumably the countryside surrounding Beckett’s family home in Foxrock. Lucky bugger.

Mercier and Camier are making their way across this wild landscape. They have cut themselves cudgels to clear the undergrowth. They spy a wooden cross of a nationalist’s grave and head towards it but lose their thread. Start wondering if there are worms in turf. Feel something spectral is surrounding them.

Night is coming. It gets dark. They do not think they can walk any further (‘if you can call it walking’). They cannot see each other. They totter. They fall in the dark, in the bog, and help each other get up. Eventually. They finally make it to some ruins they’d spied, and collapse. And ‘their hands were freed to go about their old business’. Is that masturbation? And the text mentions their ‘customary cleavings’. Gay sex?

The narrator says the text could end here, frankly. But there is no end. There are never endings.

Here would be the place to make an end. After all it is the end. But there is still day, day after day, afterlife all life long, the dust of all that is dead and buried rising, eddying, settling, burying again. So let him wake, Mercier, Camier…

This is the utterly exhausted, bleak voice of the Beckett Trilogy. They waken separately, stumble out the ruins, each thinking the other has abandoned him, barely able to see in the dark, indistinguishable footfalls, they are heading back to town, of course, because that is what they do as soon as they have left town, their endless itinerary. They come to a fork in the road, Camier takes one road but when Mercier comes up to the fork, he cannot see his compadre and so takes the other. The text has ceased to be light and funny. It is weighed down with the full concrete futility of the books to come.

Such roughly must have been the course of events. The earth dragged on into the light, the brief interminable light.

Chapter 8

‘That’s it’, the text sinks into Beckett despair at the exhausting business of getting up, washing, dressing and all the rest of it, God, the endless waiting for death, dragging on, the dead and unburied with the dying, and the pathetic illusion of life (and so on and so on).

Camier leaves a house. He is an old frail man now, unable to walk without a stick, head on his chest. He is in some street when a heavy hand falls on his shoulder. A big man says he knows him, watched his mother change his diapers, introduces himself as Watt, and says he wishes to introduce him to a Mr Mercier, standing just along the pavement. Watt, says Camier. I knew a fellow named Murphy, died in mysterious circumstances.

Watt takes the two men imperiously by the arms and half drags them along the pavement, they are walking into the sunset (!) – until a police officer blocks their way. Watt defies the police officer, grabs the pair round the waist and hauls them further along the pavement. They collapse into a bar (as men so often do in these stories).

Watt orders whiskey all round. In an obscure roundabout way Mercier and Camier warm up and begin to regard each other in the old friendly way. Suddenly Watt bangs the table loudly and shouts, ‘Bugger life!’ The landlord comes over and angrily tells them to leave. Mercier and Camier go into a perfectly co-ordinated and comic turn, claiming that poor Watt has just lost his darling baby, his wife is at home in paroxysms of grief, they have brought Watt out to console him, could they just have another round and everything will be alright, honest your honour!

They call Watt daddy (despite being decrepitly old themselves). This last section contains a number of mocking anti-religious references, for example, the narrator tells us most of the pub’s clientele are butchers who have been made mild by the blood of the lambs. Ha ha. This undergraduate wit is common in Joyce and, alas, lives on in Beckett, lowering the tone or, more precisely, thinning the texture. Like the fondness for including swearwords in the story. Alright, but… it lets the reader off the hook. It stops being demanding. Swearwords are as easy-to-read, as assimilable as the sentimental clichés he so mocks. They’re just another type of cliché.

The landlord backs down and serves them their second round of drinks. Mercier goes to the window and looks out. The colours of heaven were not quite spent. He resumes his seat and Camier has begun to reminisce about what he remembers of their travels (the goat in the field, Mr Madden who gave the intense soliloquy about being a beast-slaughterer at the start of chapter 3) when Watt starts from his apparent sleep, seizes Camier’s stick and brings it crashing down on the table next to them, at which sits a man with side whiskers quietly reading his paper and sipping his pint. The stick breaks, the table top shatters, the man falls backwards in his chair (still holding his newspaper). Watt flings the shattered stick behind the bar where it brings down a number of glasses and bottles, then bawls:

‘Fuck life!’

Mercier and Camier bolt for the door. From just outside they listen to the uproar within. They both hear someone in the pub shout ‘Up Quin!’ Only those of us who have read the notes for Beckett’s novel, Watt, know that in its early drafts the protagonist was called Quin. Sol that’s quite an obscure reference there, Sam.

Mercier invites Camier for a last pint at another pub. Camier says no but ends up walking with him part of the way home. They reminisce in a fragmentary way about their adventures. Mercier starts crying. The houses grow more sparse. Suddenly space gapes and the earth vanishes but… all it means is they’ve climbed a small, picturesque bridge over the canal. It is gently raining.

High above the horizon the clouds were fraying out in long black strands, fine as weepers’ tresses. Nature at her most thoughtful.

It’s one of those rare moments when Beckett displays an old-fashioned notion of poetic sensibility. They sit on a bench, two old men. Mercier tells Camier to look north, beyond the stars. He seems to be pointing out… stars… flowers…? Camier refers to them as the Blessed Isles? This is obscure. Then, with characteristic bathos, he points out the grim pile of the hospital for skin diseases.

Camier goes to the edge of the canal. I think it is implied he is having a pee. Then returns to the bench. Mercier reminds Camier of the parrot at Helen’s. He has a feeling the parrot is dead. Camier says it’s time to go. Says, Goodbye Mercier. Alone, Mercier watches ‘the sky go out’ and hears all the little sounds which have been hidden from him by the long day.

… human murmurs for example, and the rain on the water.

So this final passage is unexpectedly poignant. 1. This thread of (possibly sentimental) feeling, along with 2. the shortness of the book 3. its conventional division into chapters and into paragraphs of clearly signposted action and snappy dialogue, and 4. the humour of much of the exchanges – yes, Mercier and Camier is definitely Beckett’s most accessible novel.


Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper, began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility. (The Plague, page 63)

The plot

We’re in Oran, coastal port and second city of the French colony of Algeria, in Camus’s day (1940-something, according to the first sentence), a city which at the time had a population of around 200,000.

Rats start dying and then people, too. After some weeks of denial the authorities acknowledge that there is a major outbreak of plague and close the city so that no one can get in or out. The narrative focuses on Dr Bernard Rieux as he tries to treat the first few victims and slowly comes into contact with a cross-section of characters from the city.

The plague doesn’t relent but keeps getting gets worse and worse, and Rieux plays a key role in reporting every step of its development and helping the authorities to cope – setting up isolation wards, establishing quarantine for all diagnosed patients, organising Volunteer Squads to go out checking each district of the city and so on.

The book can be analysed out into three strands:

  • The narrator’s factual, third-person overview of the progress of the plague and its impact on the population’s morale.
  • The narrator’s interpretation of the events in terms of its impact on individual psychologies and community morale – an interpretation which invokes contemporary 1940s ideas derived variously from Catholic Christianity, revolutionary communism, and liberal humanism.
  • And the character development of the half dozen or so major characters who we follow all the way through the plague, and who represent different types of humanity with different coping strategies. All of these characters come into contact with Dr Rieux at one stage or another, as acquaintances who he treats or as friends who he listens to pouring out their souls, their stories, their hopes and fears. Like planets round the sun.

I found the first hundred and fifty pages of The Plague a struggle to read because of the lack of detail about the disease, the lack of much incident and the lack of scope among the characters; but the final hundred pages significantly altered my opinion, as the characters reveal more and more about themselves, as the mental strain of their medical work or of being locked up in the quarantined city give them more depth, and as we begin to witness actual deaths among those close to Dr Rieux.

The turning point (for me, anyway) is the pain-filled death of Jacques, the young son of the city magistrate, Monsieur Othon. Jacques dies in agony, wailing with childish pain, witnessed by almost all the main characters. From that point onwards the debates about God and judgement and sinfulness and exile and abandonment and so on – which had seemed abstract and flimsy in the first half – acquired a real depth. Not only was the boy’s death terrifying in itself – towards the end he begins screaming and doesn’t stop till he expires – but the impact it has on the main characters is genuinely unsettling. Grown men are shaken into rethinking their whole lives, forced to face up to the fundamental questions of existence – and Camus’s depiction of the child’s death makes this completely believable.

Although it has its faults of style and long-windedness, the second half in particular of The Plague very powerfully brings to life a whole raft of issues which concerned mid-twentieth century minds, and convinces you that this is indeed a masterpiece.

The characters

The Plague is narrated by a man who calls himself The Narrator, who explains how – after the plague had finally expired – he has assembled eye-witness accounts and various documents and so is able to give third-person descriptions of events and people.

Dr. Rieux is the central character of The Narrator’s account. Aged 35 i.e. around Camus’s age when he wrote the novel, it is Rieux who first stumbles on a dying rat in the hall of his apartment block, comes across the earliest plague patients, phones around other doctors for their opinion, begins to lobby the authorities, helps put in place the quarantine and isolation wards, and liaises with his older colleague, Dr Castel, about the latter’s home-made attempts to devise a serum. He is a prime mover of the medical strand of the narrative.

But Rieux is also the copper-bottomed humanist who, we can imagine, most closely resembles Camus’s own humanist position. It is Rieux who has several in-depth discussions with the novel’s priest about God and divine Justice; who discusses the meaning of exile (i.e. being stuck in the city and separated from the woman he loves) with the journalist Rambert; who becomes good friends with big, strong Tarrou, who represents the political strand of the book.

Rieux is, in other words, a sort of still point around which the other characters rotate, confiding their life stories, sharing their views, debating the ‘meaning’ of the plague, and of their ‘exile’, of ‘justice’, of ‘love’.

Father Paneloux is a Jesuit priest, the representative of Catholic Christianity in the novel. He gives two lengthy sermons in the city’s cathedral. The first, in the early stages of the plague, castigates the city’s population in traditional Christian terms, saying the plague is a scourge sent by God against sinners for turning their backs on Him. It introduces the metaphor of God’s ‘flail’ or ‘scourge’ swishing over the stricken city, an image which comes to haunt several of the other characters.

Then, at the turning point of the story, Father Paneloux is present at the bedside of little Jacques Othon during the latter’s painful death. The priest offers prayers etc but, of course, nothing works or remits the little boy’s agony.

There then follow inevitable dialogues between Father Paneloux and the atheist characters, the latter asking how a caring God could torture children. Paneloux roughs out his explanation in a conversation with Rieux, and then goes on to give a powerful exposition of it in his Second Sermon.

This Second Sermon is, in its way, even fiercer and more unrepentantly Christian than the first, but in a more personal way. For a start, Father Paneloux stops saying ‘you’ to the congregation and starts saying ‘we’. He is down among them, he is one of ‘us’.

Father Paneloux’s argument is that you either believe in God or you don’t. If you do, then you must not only accept but embrace the suffering of the world, because it must be part of his plan. It passes our human understanding, but you must want it and will it. If you say you believe in God but reject this or that aspect of his plan, you are rejecting Him. It is all or nothing.

There is a Nietzschean force to this Second Sermon which I admired and responded to for its totality, for its vehemence, as, presumably, we are intended to.

After the death of little Jacques, Father Paneloux becomes much more interesting and psychologically resonant as a character. He throws himself into the voluntary work being done among the sick. When he himself falls ill and is nursed by Rieux’s mother at their apartment, his decline has depth and meaning, and so when he dies it is genuinely moving.

Jean Tarrou is a big, strong good-natured guy. He keeps a diary which The Narrator incorporates into the text and which gives us independent assessments of many of the other characters such as Monsieur Othon, Dr Castel, Cottard and so on. On the practical level of the narrative, it is Tarrou who comes up with the idea of organising teams of volunteers to fight the plague i.e. going round checking wards, identifying new patients, and arranging their conveyance to the isolation wards.

On the level of character type, Tarrou early on lets slip that he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the losing, Republican, side. This explains why he was hanging out in the Spanish quarter of Oran when the plague began. He is the political character in the novel, the image of the ‘committed’ man who resonates throughout existentialist thinking. The man who validates his life by giving it to a cause.

After the little boy’s death, Tarrou’s character moves to an entirely new level, when he confides in Rieux the key incident from his childhood. Tarrou’s father was a kindly family man with an entertaining hobby of memorising railway timetables. Tarrou knew he was a lawyer but didn’t really understand what this meant until, aged 17, he accompanied his father to court one day and was horrified to see him transformed into a begowned representative of a vengeful Justice, shouting for the death penalty to be imposed on a feeble yellow-looking fellow – the defendant – cowering in the witness box.

The scales dropped from Tarrou’s eyes and he ran away from home. He joined a worldwide organisation devoted to overthrowing the ‘injustice’ of ‘bourgeois society’, which stood up for the workers and for the humiliated everywhere. But then Tarrou found himself, in turn, acquiescing in the executions which the leaders of his movement (presumably the communists in Spain) claimed were necessary to overthrow the unjust regime.

Tarrou gives a particularly unpleasant description of an execution by firing squad which he attends in Hungary, in graphic and brutal detail. The size of the hole shot in the executed man’s chest haunts his dreams.

Tarrou is telling Rieux all this as the pair of them sit on a terrace overlooking the sea. The mood, the background susurrations of the ocean, and the seriousness of what he’s saying, all chime perfectly. It is a great scene. Having rejected the orthodox, bourgeois, legalistic world of his father, Tarrou has also walked away from what is not named but is pretty obviously the Communist Party. Now all he wants to do is avoid murder, and prevent death. And then – using the characteristically religious register which domaintes the novel – he tells Rieux that he wants to be a saint. But a saint without a God.

This conversation, and Tarrou’s agonised journey from bourgeois rebel, through communist activist and fighter in Spain, to would-be saint is – for me – the best part of the book. For the first time in reading any of Camus’s books, I felt I was getting to grip with the issues of his day dramatised in an accessible way.

It is all the more heart-breaking then when, just as the plague is beginning to finally let up, the death rate drop and the city begin to hope again – that tough noble Tarrou himself contracts it and dies. Characteristically, he demands that Rieux tell him the truth about the deterioration in his condition right till the end.

Raymond Rambert is the third major character who rotates around Rieux. He was a journalist visiting Oran to write about conditions in the Arab Quarter, when the plague struck. When the city is closed, Rambert finds himself trapped and spends most of the novel trying to escape, first legally by petitioning the authorities, then illegally by paying people smugglers.

This latter strand is long and boring, involving being handed from one dodgy geezer to another. He is told to be ready to be smuggled out of one of the city’s gates by ‘friendly’ guards, only for the attempt to be permanently delayed due to all kinds of hitches.

Presumably Camus is deliberately trying for a realistic, unromantic and unexciting narrative effect – the opposite of a Hollywood adventure movie. Somewhere The Narrator describes the plague as grimly unromantic, as drab and mundane and boring, and that accurately describes this thread of Rambert’s frustrated escape attempts.

Apart from this rather dull thread on the level of the plot, Rambert as a type is the main focus for discussions of ‘love’. He wants to escape so desperately in order to get back to the wife he loves and left in Paris. His energy and devotion, his loyalty, his quixotic quest, are contrasted with the apathy on the one hand, or the frenzied debauchery on the other, of most of the other trapped townsfolk.

Again, like all the characters, Rambert is transfigured by Jacques’ death. It follows just after the latest disappointment in his many escape plans and after it, Rambert confides to Rieux, he has stopped trying to escape. After nearly a year in plague-stricken Oran, Rambert has realised that the plague is now his plague; he has more in common with the stricken townsfolk than with outsiders. He will stay until the work here is done.

These are the three major characters (beside Rieux) and you can see how they are simultaneously real people and also function as narrative types who trigger periodic discussions of the political and social issues of Camus’s time, great big issues of justice and commitment, loyalty and love.

Minor characters

Joseph Grand is a fifty-something, somewhat withered city clerk and a kind of comic stereotype of the would-be author. In numerous scenes we witness him reading aloud to Rieux and sometimes some of the other serious characters, the opening of his Great Novel which, in fact, has never got beyond the opening sentence which he tinkers with endlessly. This is pretty broad satire on the self-involved irrelevance of many litterateurs. On the other hand, once the plague kicks off, Grand uses his real skills to compile the tables and statistics which the city authorities need and finds himself praised by The Narrator as demonstrating precisely the kind of quiet, obscure but dogged commitment to work and efficiency which The Narrator considers the true nature of bravery, of heroism.

Cottard lives in the same building as Grand and we meet both of them as a result of an incident, when Grand telephones the doctor to tell him that he’s just found Cottard as he was attempting to hang himself. The doctor rushes round and he and Grand save and revive Cottard. Cotard recovers but, from that point onwards, is shifty and consistently evades the police and the authorities, since attempted suicide is a crime. Once the plague kicks in Cottard becomes much more peaceable, maybe because everyone else is now living in the state of nervous tension which he permanently inhabits. He becomes a black marketeer and pops up throughout the story. When the plague winds down he goes a bit mad and suddenly starts shooting out his window at random passers-by, a scene Rieux and Tarrou stumble across on one of their walks together. He is not massacred as he would be in a Hollywood movie, but successfully arrested and taken off by the police.

Dr. Castel is a much older medical colleague of Rieux’s. He realises the disease is bubonic plague far more quickly than anyone else and then devotes his time to creating a plague serum, using the inadequate facilities to hand. His efforts tire him out and, although his serum is finally mass produced and administered, it’s not clear whether it has any impact on the plague or whether the plague declines because it had worked its way through the population anyway.

Monsieur Othon the city’s pompous well-dressed magistrate, is often to be seen parading his well-dressed wife and harshly-disciplined children around Oran. Until his son Jacques dies – at which point he becomes greatly softened. As the relative of a plague victim, Othon is sent to one of the isolation camps for a quarantine period, but surprises everyone when, upon leaving, he decides he wants to go back and help.

Comments on the characters

Summarising the characters like this makes it clearer than when you actually read the novel, just how schematic they are, how they represent particular views or roles which combine to give a kind of overview of how society reacts to calamity.

Having just read three of Camus’s plays (Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Just) I now have a strong sense that this is how Camus conceives of characters, as ideological or issue-driven types. Additional comments:

1. Note how none of them are women. It is the 1940s and still very much a man’s world. Experience only counts if it is male. In any actual plague there would be thousands of mothers concerned and caring for their children and probably many women would volunteer as nurses. The only women named are the remote ‘love objects’ which motivate the men – Rieux’s wife, who is lucky enough to be packed off to a sanatorium at the start of the novel for a non-plague-related illness, and Rambert’s wife, back in Paris. In the main body of the narrative no women appear or speak, apart from Rieux’s ageing mother who comes and stays with him. The mother is a holy figure in Camus’s fiction (compare and contrast the centrality of the (dead) mother in L’Etranger.)

2. You will also note that there isn’t a single Arab or Algerian among these characters. Seven years after The Plague was published the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Algerians began fighting for the freedom to write their own narratives of their own country in their own language.

In this respect, in the perspective of history, The Plague is a kind of European fantasy, set in a European fantasy of a country which soon afterwards ceased to exist. (Algeria achieved its independence from France after a horrific war, 15 years after this novel was published, in 1962.)

The medicine and science

There is some medical detail about the plague, some description of the hard buboes which swell at the body’s lymph nodes, how they can be incised to release the pus, some descriptions of the fever and pain and the last-minute falling away of symptoms before the sudden death. Enough to give the narrative some veracity, but no more.

But Camus is more interested in personifying and psychologising the plague than in describing it scientifically. It is described as a character with agency and intent.

Thus over a relatively brief period the disease lost practically all the gains piled up over many months. Its setbacks with seemingly predestined victims, like Grand and Rieux’s girl patient, its bursts of activity for two or three days in some districts synchronizing with its total disappearance from others, its new practice of multiplying its victims on, say, a Monday, and on Wednesday letting almost all escape, in short, its accesses of violence followed by spells of complete inactivity, all these gave an impression that its energy was flagging, out of exhaustion and exasperation, and it was losing, with its self-command, the ruthless, almost mathematical efficiency that had been its trump card hitherto. Rieux was confronted by an aspect of the plague that baffled him. Yet again it was doing all it could to confound the tactics used against it; it launched attacks in unexpected places and retreated from those where it seemed definitely lodged. Once more it was out to darken counsel. (p.232)

In the first hundred pages or so I was hoping for more science, more medical descriptions, and was disappointed. Maybe Camus’s novel reflects the medical science of his day. Or maybe he only did as much research as was necessary to create the scaffold for his philosophical lucubrations.

Either way the book’s science and medical content is underwhelming. Early on Dr Rieux advises a plague victim to be put on a light diet and given plenty to drink. Is that it? Paris sends a serum but it doesn’t seem to work very well and there’s never enough. Rieux tries in some cases to cut open the knotted lymph glands and let them bleed out blood and pus – but besides being messy and crude, this doesn’t seem to work either. The only real strategy the authorities have is to cart the infected off to isolation wards where they wait to die before their corpses are taken to massive plague pits and thrown into lime.

In this respect, the science and medical side of the narrative is closer to the medicine of Charles Dickens than to our computer-based, genome-cracking, antibiotic-designing era. It seemed pathetic and antique how the novel describes the isolated old Dr Castel plodding along trying to develop a serum locally, by himself, working with the inadequate means he has,

since the local bacillus differed slightly from the normal plague bacillus as defined in textbooks of tropical diseases. (p.112)

and that the narrator considers this feeble old man’s home-made efforts as truly ‘heroic’.

If it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a ‘hero’, the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth its due, to the addition of two and two its sum of four, and to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.

(Incidentally, this is a good example of the obscurity typical of so much of Camus’s prose — ‘This will render to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.’ As usual I find myself having to read Camus sentences at least twice to decipher the meaning, and then wondering whether I have in fact learned anything. Does heroism have a secondary place just after, but never before, the noble claim of happiness? It sounds so precise, so logical, so confident. But it’s meaningless and instantly forgotten.)

Camus’s worldview

As Jean-Paul Sartre usefully, and a little cruelly, pointed out back at the time, Camus was not a philosopher. Although he studied philosophy at university, it wasn’t to anywhere near the same level as Sartre, who went on to become a philosophy professor. Sartre also denied that Camus was even an ‘existentialist’ – by which maybe he simply meant that Camus wasn’t one of Sartre’s coterie. But then, Camus himself was ambivalent about using the term.

Instead, Camus can maybe be described as a kind of philosophical impressionist. Without much conceptual or logical rigour, he is interested in depicting the psychological impact, the feel, the climate, produced by a handful of interlocking ‘ideas’.

Chief among these is the Absurd, the result of the mismatch between the human wish for order and meaning and the obvious indifference of a godless universe.

Exile is the name he gives to that sense humans have of being removed from their true domain, the place of consolation, meaning and belonging.

He uses the word hope to denote the delusions humans create to hide from themselves their complete abandonment in a godless universe.

Thus the brave and heroic Absurd Man faces down a ‘godless universe’ and lives without hope i.e. without resorting to fond illusions.

And finally, Revolt – the Absurd Man revolts against his condition. The notion of revolt arose from his discussion of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus (do not kill yourself; face the absurdity; overcome it; revolt against your fate) and was to be developed at length in his later ‘philosophical’ work, The Rebel.

Why is this relevant to The Plague? Because the advent of a plague, spreading unstoppably and leading to the closing of the city, throws up a wide variety of dramatic situations in which his cast of seven or eight main characters can act out and think through and express, various aspects of Camus’s worldview.

Very little happens in the ‘plot’ and the medical aspect, as I’ve pointed out, is medieval.

No, we read the book to find in it a steady stream of dramatisations of Camus’s worldview. His other two novels – The Outsider and The Fall are much shorter, at around 100 pages each. The Plague is by far the longest fictional depiction of Camus’s theory of the Absurd. Reading it at such length led me to isolate three distinct themes:

  1. The centrality of Roman Catholic Christianity to Camus’s worldview
  2. The realisation that the Law – with its ideas of justice, judgement, crime and punishment – is much more important to Camus than the ideas around ‘the Absurd’
  3. Camus’s horribly long-winded style which makes stretches of The Plague almost impossible to read (and which I deal with in a separate blog post)

1. The role of Christianity in Camus’s philosophy

It was talking Camus over with my 18-year-old son (who has just completed an A-Level in Philosophy) which made me realise the centrality of French Roman Catholicism to both Camus and Sartre.

Both Frenchmen go on and on and on about the ‘anguish’ and the ‘absurdity’ of living in what they never cease to tell us is a ‘godless universe’.

But it is only so distressing to wake up to this godlessness if you ever thought it was godful. I was brought up by atheist parents in the mostly atheist country of England, where, by the 1970s, most people thought of ‘the Church’ as a retirement home for nice vicars. The Anglican worldview is one of moderation and common sense and tea and biscuits. There haven’t really been many great Anglican thinkers because thinking hasn’t been its main activity. Running missions in Africa or the East End or organising village fetes in the Cotswolds have traditionally been Anglican activities. The Anglican church has been a central topic of gentle English humour, from Trollope via P.G.Wodehouse to The Vicar of Dibley.

French Roman Catholic culture couldn’t be more different. It is both politically and philosophically deep and demanding and, historically, has played a vindictively reactionary role in French politics.

The Catholic worldview is far more intense, making the world a battlefield between the forces of God and the Devil, with a weekly confession in which you must confront your own innermost failings. Its educational élite are the mercilessly intelligent Jesuits. Its theological tradition includes Pascal with his terrifying vision of a vast universe, indifferent to us unless filled by the love of God.

Politically, the French Catholic Church led the attack on the Jewish army officer Dreyfus in the prolonged cultural civil war over his false accusation for treason – the Dreyfus Affair (dramatised by Robert Harris in his novel An Officer and a Spy) – which divided France from 1894 to 1906.

Since the French Revolution, very broadly French culture has been divided into conservatives who line up behind the reactionary Catholic Church, and liberals and socialists, who oppose it.

Think how repressive, how reactionary, how dominating their boyhood Catholic educations must have been in the 1910s and 1920s for young Jean-Paul and Albert. Think how much of a mental and psychological effort it must have been for them to struggle free of their Catholic education. It meant rejecting the beliefs which their parents, their wider family and the entire society around them, deeply cherished. It meant standing alone. It meant being an outsider.

Thus my suggestion is that the extremely negative value which Sartre and Camus attribute to the idea of realising that there is no God and that you are free – indeed that you are condemned to be free – to make your own set of values and decisions, derives from their powerful emotional feeling that this knowledge involves a loss, the loss of their once life-supporting Catholic faith.

So it seems reasonable to speculate that a lot of the emotional intensity of their ideas and fictions derive from the intensity of the struggle to break free from the Catholic Church. Sartre calls this state of lucid acknowledgement of your freedom in the world ‘anguish’. They both describe the state as a state of abandonment. Camus in particular again and again uses the analogy of it being a state of exile.

All of this terminology is powerfully negative. It suggests that there once was something vital and life supporting – and that now it is lost.

In Sartre and Camus’s works they refer to the lost thing as the ‘illusions’ or ‘habits’ of bourgeois life, but my suggestion is simply that Sartre and Camus don’t themselves realise how fundamental their lost Christian faith is to their entire worldview.

Godless. Over and over again they refer to the horror and terror of living in a ‘godless’ universe. Well, if you weren’t brought up to expect a godful universe you won’t be particularly surprised or disappointed, let alone thrown into mortal anguish, when someone tells you that it is godless.

It was my son who pointed out to me with calm rationality that there is no logical need to be upset or anguished or ‘exiled’ by living in a ‘godless universe’. You can quite logically accept that there is a ridiculous mismatch between our wish for meaning and comfort and security in the world and the absurdity of people being run over by cars or blown up by terrorists – without giving it an emotional value – without making it the source of catastrophic emotional collapse.

Just as you can acknowledge the reality of gravity or the speed of light or that humans are mammals, without feeling the need to burst into tears. It is just one more fact among thousands of other facts about the world we live in, pleasant or less pleasant, which most people process, accept and forget in order to get on with their lives.

Camus, like Sartre, thinks of these ‘ordinary’ people – people who, alas, aren’t writers or philosophers – as sheep, cattle, as ‘cowards’ or ‘scum’ (which is what Sartre – rather surprisingly – calls them in Existentialism is a Humanism) because they are hiding from or rejecting or denying the Truth. I think, on the contrary, that most people are perfectly capable of grasping the truth about the world they live in, they just don’t make the same song and dance about it as two French lapsed Catholics.

This line of thought was prompted by slowly realising that the supposedly ‘existential’ or ‘atheist’ worldview depicted in The Plague is completely reliant on the ideology and terminology of Christianity. Thus it is no surprise that the Jesuit Father Paneloux is one of the central characters, nor that the book contains two chapters devoted to sermons delivered by him, nor that one of the central moments in the book is the confrontation between the humanist Dr Rieux and the Jesuit Paneloux following the death of little Jacques. Christianity is key.

When the priest insists that God’s Plan ‘passes our human understanding’, the doctor replies:

‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’ (p.178)

Likewise, God also features in several of the conversations between Dr Rieux and the thoughtful Tarrou:

‘Do you believe in God, doctor?…’ His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he’d already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God…
‘After all,’ the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, ‘it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, 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.’
Tarrou nodded.
‘Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.’
Rieux’s face darkened.
‘Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.’
‘No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.’
‘Yes. A never ending defeat.’ (p.108)

This is Camus’s attitude. Revolt against fate. Rebel against the godless universe. Resist. Fight, even if it’s without hope.

But – and this is my point – note how the secular, Absurdist, existentialist, call it what you will, attitude can only emerge by piggybacking, as it were, on the back of Christian theology.

This plucky godlessness only really has meaning by reference to the lucky godfulness which precedes it. Camus and his characters can’t discuss the meaning of life cold, from a standing start – there always has to be a preliminary clearing of the throat, some philosophical foreplay, involving God this or God that, do you believe in God, No, do you believe in God etc? It’s a kind of warming up and stretching exercise before the characters finally feel able to get round to saying what they do believe in – justice, freedom, human dignity, and so on.

The entire discourse of the Absurd absolutely requires there to be a Christianity to reject and replace before it can express itself.

2. The importance of the law, judgement and punishment

Reading his other two novels has slowly made me realise that pretty old-fashioned ideas of crime and punishment are central to Camus.

The Outsider (1942) is about a man who commits a crime (murdering an Arab) and is punished for it. The entire ‘drama’ of the story is in the mismatch between his inner psychological state of almost psychotic detachment from his life and actions. But where this absurd mismatch is brought to life, where his detachment from social norms is misinterpreted and distorted to make him appear a monstrous psychopath, is in a court of law.

The Outsider becomes a study of the process of the law and a questioning of the idea of human ‘justice’. The entire second part of the book mostly consists of the protagonist’s questioning by magistrates, then the long courtroom scenes featuring the prosecution and defence lawyers doing their thing, followed by the judge’s summing up. It is a courtroom drama.

The Fall (1956) is even more Law-drenched, since it consists of an uninterrupted monologue told by a lawyer about his own ‘fall from grace’. It is a text saturated with the imagery of crime and sin, punishment and redemption, judgement and forgiveness. There are a few passages about ‘the Absurd’ but really it is ideas about crime and punishment which dominate.

But also, look at the title. The Fall. A reference to the central event in all Christian theology, the fall of Man. The Law is absolutely central to these two novels, and it is a notion of the law inextricably interlinked with Christian theology and imagery.

Religion and Law in The Plague

So I was not surprised when I began to discern in The Plague at least as much discourse about religion (about sin and punishment) and about the Law (about justice and judgement) as I did about the ideas Camus is famous for i.e. the Absurd and so on.

In particular, it comes as no surprise when Tarrou, one of the most intelligent characters, reveals that the key to his character, to his entire career as a political activist, was revulsion at the vengefulness of his father’s bourgeois form of justice, and a resultant search for some kind of better, universal, political justice.

And I have already noted the centrality of Father Paneloux, and the debates about God which he triggers wherever he goes.

Many commentators then and ever since have thought that The Plague is a clever allegory about the occupation of France by the Nazis, and the stealthy way a sense of futility and despair crept over the French population, numbing some, spurring others into ‘revolt’ and resistance.

Every time I read about this interpretation I wonder why Camus, who apparently was ‘active’ in the Resistance, didn’t at some stage write a novel of what it was actually like to live under German occupation and to be a member of the Resistance. That would have been of huge historic importance and also directly tied his ideas to their historical context, making them more powerful and meaningful.

Maybe it’s petty-minded of me – but it is striking how none of Camus’ three novels (published in 1942, 1947 and 1956) mention the Second World War, the defeat of France, the German occupation, Nazi ideology, France’s contribution to the Holocaust, any aspect of the work of the Resistance, or how he and his compatriots experienced the Liberation.

On one level, it feels like a vast hole at the centre of his work and a huge opportunity lost.

Anyway, this historical context is completely absent from The Plague. What there is instead are these dominating issues of law and justice, sin and forgiveness, and the all-pervading language of Law and Religion.

Over The Plague hang the shades of Dostoyevsky’s characters interminably discussing whether or not there is a God and how his love and/or justice are shown in the world – and also of Kafka’s novels with their obsessive repetition of the idea of a man arrested or turned into an insect for no reason, no reason at all. Kafka was another author obsessed by the idea of law and justice.

(Camus includes a jokey reference to Kafka on page 51 where the dodgy character Cottard says he’s reading a ‘detective story’ about a man who was arrested one fine day without having done anything – a transparent reference to The Trial.)


Key terms in The Plague

Because the entire translated text is available online, it’s easy to do a word search for key terms. The following results tend, I think, to support my argument – that the novel is far more about ideas derived from Christian religion or the Law and jurisprudence, than the ideas of Camus’s brand of existentialism.

References to Camusian concepts

  • absurd – 7 times, and never in a philosophical sense
  • revolt – 6 – ‘Weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.’ (p.178)
  • abandoned – 4
  • futile – 4
  • suicide – 3
  • godless – 0

There are, then, surprisingly few direct references to the main concepts which made him famous.

References to Christian concepts

Now compare and contrast with the frequency of religious terms. These are far more common, far more fully expressed and explored.

  • God – 46 instances
  • saint – 15
  • religion – 12
  • heaven – 8
  • hell – 7
  • salvation – 6
  • purgatory – 2

References to the law

And finally, legal terminology:

  • law – 14
  • justice – 10 – ‘When a man has had only four hours’ sleep, he isn’t sentimental. He sees things as they are; that is to say, he sees them in the garish light of justice, hideous, witless justice.’ (p.156)
  • judge – 6
  • crime – 6
  • punishment – 4
  • judgement – 2

Again, there is more reference to basic ideas of justice and injustice than to the concepts clustered around his Absurdism.

Exile

The one Camusian idea which is very present is that of ‘exile’, which is mentioned 27 times – ‘the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile’.

This is, if you like, a kind of metaphorical embodiment of the central idea of Camus’s version of existentialism – the literal sense of loss, separation, exile from home and loved ones standing for the metaphorical sense of exile from the (Christian) belief systems which give our lives purpose.

But it is typical of Camus that this key term is not a philosophical idea – it is a metaphor for a distressed state of mind, for the deprivation of the comforts of home which, deep down – as I suggest above – is in fact caused by the loss of religious faith.

Interestingly, the most commonly used abstract word in the book is ‘love’, occurring 96 times. This suggests the, dare I say it, sentimental basis of Camus’s humanism.


Credit

La Peste by Albert Camus was published in France in 1947. This translation of The Plague by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948, and as a Penguin paperback in 1960. references are to the 1972 reprint of the Penguin paperback edition (which cost 35p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus (1942)

It sums itself up as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert. (p.7)

This volume consists of the long (100-page) essay about suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus, which argues against despair and in favour of life – accompanied by five much shorter essays each exemplifying Camus’s healthy lust for living.

It’s worth remembering how young Camus was when he wrote these texts. Born in November 1913, he was just 23 when he wrote Summer in Algiers, 26 when France fell to the Germans in June 1940, the year he wrote The Stop in Oran, and so on. A young man just beginning a career in writing and still very much entranced by the pleasures of the flesh, sunbathing, swimming, eyeing up beautiful women (a constant theme in his works).

The Myth of Sisyphus

Camus’s preface sums it up. Written in 1940, in the ruins of the defeat of France, the text affirms that even in a Godless universe and a world awash with nihilism, there remain the means to defy and surmount that nihilism. If life is meaningless, the teenager is tempted ask, what on earth is the point of going on living? Why not commit suicide? That is the subject of the essay: it is an essay about suicide – about confronting suicide as the apparently ‘logical’ consequence of realising that we live in an Absurd world.

Camus’s answer is, that we shouldn’t commit suicide because it is more human and more noble and more in tune with a tragic universe – to rebel, to revolt against this fate. To face down the obvious absurdity of human existence and to enjoy the wild beauty of the world while we can.

Revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. (p.54)

Essayist not philosopher

Camus takes quite a long time to finally getting round to saying this. In reading Camus I am influenced by the comment of Jean-Paul Sartre in a 1945 interview where he pointed out that Camus is not an existentialist, and not a philosopher – he is much more a descendant of France’s 17th century moralists. He is a moralist, an essayist (as the essays later in this volume testify) and, unlike the philosopher, the essayist isn’t under any compulsion to produce a coherent sequence of argument. He can be quite content with an entertaining flow of ideas.

Camus certainly plays with philosophical ideas and references a bunch of big philosophical names – early on there’s half a paragraph each about Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Heidegger and Husserl – but this very brevity shows that he picks and chooses quotes to suit him, rather like Hazlitt or any of the impressionist Victorian essayists yanking in flowery quotes here or there to support their flow – and in order to create a rather meandering flow rather than a logical sequence of argument.

Camus himself explains that he is not ‘examining’ the philosophy of a Heidegger or Jaspers – he is ‘borrowing a theme’ (p.40), he is making ‘a sketchy reconnaissance in the origins of the absurd’ (p.20). He is not addressing their philosophical arguments – he is bringing out their common ‘climate’.

Thus Camus is much more about impressionistic psychology than repeatable arguments, a point he makes repeatedly himself:

The method defined here acknowledges the feeling that all true knowledge is impossible. Solely appearances can be enumerated and the climate make itself felt…

If it would be presumptuous to try to deal with their philosophies, it is possible and sufficient in any case to bring out the climate that is common to them…

Certain men, starting from a critique of rationalism, have admitted the absurd climate…

Never, perhaps, have minds been so different. And yet we recognize as identical the spiritual landscapes in which they get under way. Likewise, despite such dissimilar zones of knowledge, the cry that terminates their itinerary rings out in the same way. It is evident that the thinkers we have just recalled have a common climate. To say that that climate is deadly scarcely amounts to playing on words. Living under that stifling sky forces one to get away or to stay…

Climate. Zone. Landscape. Stifling sky. This is not an argument – it is impressionistic prose poetry.

This hell of the present is his [the Absurd Man’s] Kingdom at last. All problems recover their sharp edge. Abstract evidence retreats before the poetry of forms and colors. Spiritual conflicts become embodied and return to the abject and magnificent shelter of man’ s heart. (p.52)

This poetic meandering results in the sometimes obscure nature of the text. Camus has a reputation for being clear and lucid, but this book is often surprisingly turgid and difficult to understand.

If thought discovered in the shimmering mirrors of phenomena eternal relations capable of summing them up and summing themselves up in a single principle, then would be seen an intellectual joy of which the myth of the blessed would be but a ridiculous imitation. (p.23)

I understand what he’s saying: if any of us could discover a really unified theory underlying the world of phenomena how happy we, and mankind, would be. But you can see how this is not anything like philosophy: it is more a description of what philosophy feels like.

When Karl Jaspers, revealing the impossibility of constituting the world as a unity, exclaims: “This limitation leads me to myself, where I can no longer withdraw behind an objective point of view that I am merely representing, where neither I myself nor the existence of others can any longer become an object for me,” he is evoking after many others those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines. After many others, yes indeed, but how eager they were to get out of them! At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt. The real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions. Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue. The mind can then analyze the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance before illustrating them and reliving them itself. (p.16)

Most of the book is like this. It is not a continuous philosophical argument, it is a series of psychological insights. He uses the Jaspers quote to create a poetic scenario using (aptly for the man of Africa) the image of a desert, and going on to describe how we ‘must’ stay out there, in the waterless desert of absurd knowledge, in order to study its peculiar features. (Camus uses the metaphor of the desert of human thought seven times in the book – but I don’t find human thought a desert; I find it a bounteous and infinite garden.)

When he says the thinking mind is ‘an inhuman show’ in which a dialogue takes place, you realise this is philosophy envisioned as theatre and from this point I became alert to the other metaphors of theatre and actors scattered through the text. Camus was, after all, himself a successful playwright and a section of the essay is titled Drama.

The irrational, the human nostalgia, and the absurd that is born of their encounter – these are the three characters in the drama that must necessarily end with all the logic of which an existence is capable. (p.32)

By thus sweeping over centuries and minds, by miming man as he can be and as he is, the actor has much in common with that other absurd individual, the traveler. (p.75)

It is a vision obscured, rather than clarified, by the author’s habit of imposing histrionic metaphors wherever they’ll fit. Absurdity, hope and death in the final sentence have specific meanings: absurdity is the lucid knowledge of the pointlessness of existence i.e the absence of any God or external values; hope is the word he gives to the thousand and one ways people turn away from and deny the reality of life, hoping for a God or a political party or a cause or something to transform the absurdity of the world; and death is the resort some people take from absurd knowledge, either getting themselves killed for a cause or doing away with themselves.

This tripartite categorisation does make a sort of sense. What makes a lot less sense is to talk about how ‘tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show’ or ‘the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance’.

There is generally a discernible flow to the argument, but Camus’s writerly fondness for metaphors, similes, paradox, abrupt reversals and the counter-intuitive too often obscures rather than clarifies his meaning. This is what I mean when I say that he is not a lucid writer. He uses the word ‘lucid’ no fewer than 43 times in the text, and the continual chiming of this word may begin to unconsciously make you think he is lucid. But he isn’t. Sometimes his style descends into almost pure poetry, emotive, descriptive, incantatory.

‘Prayer,’ says Alain, ‘is when night descends over thought. ‘But the mind must meet the night,’ reply the mystics and the existentials. Yes, indeed, but not that night that is born under closed eyelids and through the mere will of man – dark, impenetrable night that the mind calls up in order to plunge into it. If it must encounter a night, let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucid -polar night, vigil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence. (p.62)

Here is no argument, just rhetoric, poetry, a particular type of melodramatic and harrowing poetry. Some of it teeters on gibberish.

Perhaps we shall be able to overtake that elusive feeling of absurdity in the different but closely related worlds of intelligence, of the art of living, or of art itself. The climate of absurdity is in the
beginning. The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it. (p.18)

The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it.

Every time I reread this sentence, it moves further away from me. Even when I think I understand it, it doesn’t really contribute to any logical argument – it is designed to create a similar climate or attitude in the mind of the reader. It is, thus, a form of attitudinising i.e. creating a mood through poetic means – for example, the way the ‘implacable visage’ is a melodramatic way of describing the Absurd, which is itself a melodramatic concept.

The text is designed to convert you to its histrionic (and theatrical) worldview. It is a pose. Every page is made up of this often hard-to-follow attitudinising.

It is barely possible to speak of the experience of others’ deaths. It is a substitute, an illusion, and it never quite convinces us. That melancholy convention cannot be persuasive. The horror comes in reality from the mathematical aspect of the event. If time frightens us, this is because it works out the problem and the solution comes afterward. All the pretty speeches about the soul will have their contrary convincingly proved, at least for a time. From this inert body on which a slap makes no mark the soul has disappeared. This elementary and definitive aspect of the adventure constitutes the absurd feeling. Under the fatal lighting of that destiny, its uselessness becomes evident. (p.21)

‘Under the fatal lighting of that destiny…’

The cumulative effect is to make you stop trying to elucidate what too often turn out to be spurious meanings.

Men who live on hope do not thrive in this universe where kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage. (p.68)

Even before I begin to make the effort to decode what he’s saying, I know in advance it will not be worth the effort. Trying to understand a book about quantum physics or about evolutionary cladistics or memorising the different Chinese dynasties – that’s the kind of thing that’s worth making an effort for, because the knowledge is real and will last. But trying to decide whether this is a universe where ‘kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage’ strikes me as being a waste of time.

In the rebel’s universe, death exalts injustice. It is the supreme abuse. (p.85)

What? Here he is describing music.

That game the mind plays with itself according to set and measured laws takes place in the sonorous compass that belongs to us and beyond which the vibrations nevertheless meet in an inhuman universe. (p.91)

An impressive display of rhetorical fireworks. But useful? Applicable? Enlightening? Memorable?

Quotable quotes

All this, the emphasis on rhetoric over logic, helps explain why it is much easier to quote Camus’s many catchy formulations in isolation than it is to remember any kind of reasoned argument.

An act like this [suicide] is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. (p.12)

Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. (p.12)

Looked at from one point of view, the text is a kind of impenetrably turgid grey sea from which emerge occasional shiny wave crests, glinting in the sunlight.

In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. (p.13)

It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end. (p.16)

At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman. (p.20)

A man is more a man through the things he keeps to himself than through those he says. (p.80)

Seen this way, Camus certainly does fit Sartre’s description of a traditional moralist, whose text is just the glue which joins together the periodic sententiae or moral statements about life, these jewels being meant to be taken away and meditated on.

To an absurd mind reason is useless and there is nothing beyond reason. (p.38)

Great t-shirt material.

The Absurd

A bit like Sartre circling round and round his central concept of ‘freedom’, Camus circles round and round his central concept of the Absurd. The word occurs 316 times in the text, again and again on every page.

Put simply, the absurd is the mismatch between man’s deep need for a meaning/purpose/rational order in the world, and the world’s all-too-obvious lack of any meaning/purpose or order – the world’s complete indifference to human wishes. Again and again Camus defines and redefines and approaches and reapproaches and formulates and poeticises the same fundamental idea.

  • At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face. (p.17)
  • That denseness and strangeness of the world is the absurd. (p.20)
  • The revolt of the flesh is the absurd. (p.20)
  • This discomfort in the face of man’ s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this ‘nausea’, as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd. Likewise the stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in a mirror, the familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photographs is also the absurd. (p.21)
  • What is absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. (p.27)
  • The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (p.32)
  • The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation. (p.33)
  • The absurd is not in man nor in the world, but in their presence together. (p.34)
  • The absurd is lucid reason noting its limits. (p.49)
  • [The absurd is] that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together. (p.50)
  • [The absurd is] my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle (p.51)

The basic idea is disarmingly simple. It is the way he repeats it with infinite variations, under the lights of numerous metaphors and similes, included in sentences which evoke emotional, intellectual and existential extremity, suffering, endurance, and so on, which make it more a poetics of living than philosophy.

The absurd mind cannot so much expect ethical rules at the end of its reasoning as, rather, illustrations and the breath of human lives. (p.65)

I’m not sure how you’d measure this but it seemed to me that, as the book progresses, the references to absurdity become steadily vaguer and more poetical and meaningless.

  • Being deprived of hope is not despairing. The flames of earth are surely worth celestial perfumes. (p.85)
  • All existence for a man turned away from the eternal is but a vast mime under the mask of the absurd. (p.87)
  • For the absurd man it is not a matter of explaining and solving, but of experiencing and describing. (p.87)
  • In the time of the absurd reasoning, creation follows indifference and discovery. (p.88)
  • The absurd work illustrates thought’s renouncing of its prestige and its resignation to being no more than the intelligence that works up appearances and covers with images what has no reason. (p.90)
  • The most destitute men often end up by accepting illusion. That approval prompted by the need for peace inwardly parallels the existential consent. There are thus gods of light and idols of mud. But it is essential to find the middle path leading to the faces of man. (p.94)

This impressionistic approach, this lack of a coherent logic, this mosaic of quotes from Great Thinkers or abstruse analyses of Great Writers, grandiose examinations of the Stage or the mentality of The Conqueror, interspersed with descriptions of everyday life – how, for example, a sense of the futility of life hits you as you look in the mirror to shave – this may account for Camus’s wider popularity than Sartre’s. His very patchiness, the way he’s less logical and consistent, more given to sudden flashes of insight which can be put on a t-shirt.

Thus even if a lot of Sisyphus is turgid and obscure, with much of it showing off or perverse paradox-making for its own sake, there are many other bits which suddenly leap out with great clarity and make you think ‘Yes’.

Sisyphus

It takes Camus a long time to get to the punchline which is that we must face the absurdity of the world and overcome it. We must be like Sisyphus who, in the Greek myth is being punished in hell by being made to roll a rock to the top of the mountain only for it to be dashed to the bottom again. Over and again.

That is how we must live. But we must do it with a smiling heart, happy in the knowledge that we do it because we will it. We want to live.

Teenage heroism

And it is not irrelevant to the book’s popularity, or the popularity of watered-down ‘existentialism’ that it helped promote, that throughout the book the person who holds this notion of the absurd, who doesn’t give in to false consolations or to the siren call of suicide, who faces the meaningless world without flinching – is considered a hero.

It is a heroic pose to be one man undaunted against an uncaring universe, walking a ‘difficult path’.

There is a profoundly adolescent appeal not only in the fascination with suicide but in the rather laughable descriptions of the bold, brave heroism required to outface the absurd, ‘fearlessly’ and stoically living with his bleak knowledge. Refusing consolation and false comfort, committing oneself to live under ‘this stifling sky’ in these ‘waterless deserts’, living a life of ‘virile silence’ and ‘solitary courage’. Sounds like a film noir hero, sounds like Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire. Down these mean streets the ‘absurd man’ must go because, after all –

  • Sisyphus is the absurd hero

The essay is divided into three parts, the second of which is titled The Absurd Man. It’s heroic posturing is quite funny if read through the eyes of Tony Hancock or Sid James.

  • Not to believe in the profound meaning of things belongs to the absurd man. (p.69)
  • There always comes a time when one must choose between contemplation and action. This is called becoming a man. (p.81)
  • There is thus a metaphysical honour in enduring the world’s absurdity. (p.86)

Around page 70, while taking a break on the internet, I stumbled over several comic strips devoted to taking the mickey out of Camus and Sartre. From that point onwards found it hard to keep a straight face while reading it. This is all so old, so 80-years-old, so much another time. It was passé in the 1960s, now it is ancient history. Old enough to have been satirised and parodied for generations.

Existential Comics – Camus

There is also something specifically comical in the way a writer decides, at the summary of his masterwork about the meaning of life in a godless universe and so on, that the highest possible calling for the Absurd Man is to be… a writer! The section titled Absurd Creation is not much about music or art, but mostly about other writers. It is rather bathetic that a writer decides,after much cogitation, that being a writer is the pinnacle of the kind of lucid courage required to face The Absurd!

Of all the schools of patience and lucidity, creation is the most effective. It is also the staggering evidence of man’s sole dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in an effort considered sterile. It calls for a daily effort, self-mastery, a precise estimate of the limits of truth, measure, and strength. (p.104)

So – as the Existentialist Comic puts it – these bookish guys sitting around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays all agree that the true Resistance to the Nazis and the true heroes of their time must, logically, according to their ‘lucid’ and ‘precise’ philosophy — be bookish guys sitting around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays.

Guys just like them, who can therefore congratulate each other on their ‘self-mastery’, their ‘revolt’, their  dignity and their strength. How to be a Hemingway hero without even stubbing out your Gauloise!

But perhaps the great work of art has less importance in itself than in the ordeal it demands of a man and the opportunity it provides him of overcoming his phantoms and approaching a little closer to his
naked reality. (p.104)

‘Ordeal’. ‘Overcoming his phantoms.’ Outfacing ‘naked reality’. Braving the deserts of ‘lucid thought’. Mingling ‘intelligence and passion’. Summoning ‘diligence, doggedness and lucidity’ (p.106). Facing up to this ‘difficult wisdom’ (p.106). ‘Unceasing struggle’.

Wow. Never before or since has sitting at a typewriter smoking a fag been so heroic!

Brief discussion

When I was an over-intellectual 17 year-old these thoughts and Camus’ attitude helped to reassure me and calm me down from my own nihilistic panic. My family didn’t understand me, my friendships were superficial, I had no job, no wife, no children and little experience of the real world of work and effort. Looking back I can see why I was subject to panic attacks.

But now I’m a fifty-year-old family man with deep commitments, children to care for, bills to be paid and meals to be cooked – I find it impossible to recapture the mood of teenage hysteria which permeates all Camus’s books.

I go to the gym and watch, on the bank of TV screens, pop videos showing half-naked young men and women partying in the city or frisking on beaches, under waterfalls, in tropical islands around the world. My kids jet off to exotic destinations I could only dream of back in the 1970s. They text, Instagram and Facebook with friends in America, Spain, the Middle East, even China. The world just no longer is the limited world of one-town boredom and dull routine that Camus describes. Rather than a crushed, defeated, broken, humiliated culture as was the Nazi world of 1940 or the post-war ruins of the 1940s – my kids live in a vibrant, shiny world alive with music, movies, clothes, festivals, travel round the world and futuristic technology: they think life is great.

Looking back, Camus’s writings are really a kind of prose poetry which repeats pretty much the same idea from a thousand angles, expressed in countless metaphors and images, laced with wit and paradox in the typical French tradition, but essentially static.

A stranger to myself and to the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assaults? To will is to stir up paradoxes. Everything is ordered in such a way as to bring into being that poisoned peace produced by thoughtlessness, lack of heart, or fatal renunciations. (p.25)

The ‘appetite for conquest’, the ‘poisoned peace’, ‘fatal renunciations’?

You either enjoy this kind of poetry or you don’t. I can feel my way into it as I feel my way into the harsh world of the Icelandic sagas or the sweet humour of Chaucer’s poetry or the gargoyle world of early Dickens or the bumptious jingoism of Kipling. Those writers, also, have their truths and their insights, create internally consistent imaginative universes, generate quotable quotes which I may or may not apply to myself or others or the world in general.

But whereas I carry Chaucer and Kipling out into the world, remembering their best lines and beauty to enrich and colour my life, when I closed The Myth of Sisyphus I could remember almost nothing of it. — Some people find life absurd and it drives a tiny minority to suicide but it’s best, on balance, to face up to the meaninglessness of a godless universe and to create your own values and purpose within it.

The absurd man catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.

Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum. (p.61)

The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man. (p.62)

OK. I get it. Most people nowadays do that anyway, and don’t need a laboriously over-written, obscure and attitudinising text to help them.

Why is absurdity negative?

My son’s just got an ‘A’ in his Philosophy A-level. He didn’t study Camus (who is, after all, not a philosopher) though he did spend a lot of time on Martin Heidegger, the grand-daddy of 20th century existentialists.

I explained Camus’s notion of the Absurd to him i.e. the mismatch between the human wish (it’s always translated as nostalgia; maybe it means ‘longing’ as well) for order and meaning in the world and the lack of any such order – and the way it is always presented by Camus as a challenge, a trial, an ordeal, a desert under a hostile sky that only the strongest can face up to and confront, and my son said – ‘Why?’

He understood the idea of the mismatch, he got the absurdity of looking for meaning in a ‘godless universe’. OK. But… why does it have to be negative? Why does this mismatch have to have a value? Why can’t it just be… a mismatch, and up to each of us to make of it what we will, to give it a value? Where does all the horror and anguish come from? The absurd can be funny. In fact all of us know that absurdity often is funny in everyday life. The horror and the anguish which Camus describes aren’t logically entailed in the concept of a mismatch. They are a value imposed on the situation.

My son suggests that the entire climate, to use Camus’s word, of Sartrean existentialism and Camusian Absurdity, the rhetoric of anguish and despair and futility (in Sartre) and being an alien, an outsider in arid deserts under a stricken sky (in Camus) reflects the grim situation of 1930s and 40s France – the political chaos of the 1930s, the crushing humiliation of defeat by the Nazis in 1940, and the even worse humiliation of liberation by the hated Anglo-Saxons in 1944.

Very few people at the time followed the ‘logic’ of the existentialists’ arguments (where a ‘logic’ could be discerned) but everyone grasped the way their negativity crystallised into words and ideas the vast, continent-wide, wartime destruction and the collapse of all established social values, the loss of so many friends and family, hecatombs of corpses, which really did spread an atmosphere of anguish and despair through an entire generation.

There was no existentialism in Britain because we never underwent this national humiliation and collapse of values.

The last few pages of the book describe the Greek myth of Sisyphus and the text gives way to an orgy of rhetoric and poetic prose. Sisyphus is condemned in Hades to roll his rock up a hill and then watch it be tumbled back to the bottom, and forced to go back down and start rolling it up again – for all eternity. And yet Camus sees him as a positive figure, the epitome of the Absurd Man who sees the futility of life but sets himself to live it, regardless. All this is expressed with rhetoric not reason.

All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. (p.110)

In its way, and taking into account its very different context, this stirring rhetoric is as full of moral uplift as a speech by Churchill.


Credit

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Justin O’Brien was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1955, and as a Penguin paperback in 1975. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 75p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Battle of France

Algerian war of independence

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