Life as Plague: Thoughts on Camus and Ebola

the plagueAbout six weeks ago, I was looking around for some books to take with me on a long flight to Boston, and chose as one of them The Plague by Albert Camus. Though Camus has long been one of my favorite authors, undoubtedly the Ebola crisis had more than a little to do with my choice. (Later I learned that NPR book critic Michael Schwab had previously recommended the book  as “this week’s must read,” describing it as a way to find “meaning in the midst of Ebola.”)

The novel was written in 1947, and tells the story of how the city of Oran, Algeria, was overtaken by a severe outbreak of Bubonic Plague, with thousands of people dying miserably, much like what is happening today in West Africa. Admittedly, it is a difficult read, especially since you find yourself rereading the author’s brilliantly crafted sentences, pregnant with multiple meanings. The city of Oran was actually devastated by the plague during the 16th and 17th centuries, and later by an outbreak of cholera in 1849, which wiped out much of the population. The book can also be viewed as an allegory of the French Resistance to Nazi occupation, since Camus was very much a part of that resistance. Relentlessly, the plague rages on, month by month, as a team of doctors and medical volunteers fight to stop the spread of the deadly disease. All seems hopeless, but rather than despair, the medical team plugs on valiantly. I was touched by how Camus lovingly illuminates the inner life and humanity of each character, investing each one with an essential dignity. I think this is what I found most moving about the novel. In the words of the narrator and main character, Dr. Bernard Rieux: “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”

Camus reminds us that life itself can be seen as a kind of plague. No matter how well we plan or predict, there is always an irrational side to the universe—be it an epidemic, war, or killer asteroid—that may strike without warning, bringing us suffering and exile from homes and loved ones. Like death, such upsets will eventually find each one of us, no matter how secure we think we are in our gated communities, bomb shelters, and fenced-in countries. Our task as human beings is to carry on and help each other survive, and not give in to fear and despair.

As we watch and listen to the endless news reports of the Ebola scourge, we must resist both the numbness of media overdose and our all too human tendency toward irrational fear. Lately I find myself becoming increasingly disgusted by the calls of some of my fellow humans calling for drastic and counterproductive measures such as cancelling all airline flights to and from West Africa or closing our borders even further. In such times, rather than dwelling on the negative qualities of our species, I try to focus instead on the many brave men and women who this very moment are working to stop this horrible disease, and to commiserate with the many unfortunate victims of my human family. And I remember a line from the last page of The Plague: “…to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

The Myth of Sassafras

Long before science, humans sat around the campfire and spun colorful tales about how various plants and animals came into being. While our evidence-based knowledge has largely supplanted these stories, that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy them.

Take sassafras, for example. According to scientists, it’s a deciduous tree in the laurel family native to eastern North America and central China. It can be easily identified by the fact that some of its leaves are lobed, like mittens or fingers. Now I’m sure there’s some perfectly logical scientific explanation for why its leaves are shaped that way.  But first, sit back and let me tell you a tale.

Sassafras loved his rock. It was the joy of his life—his thing—the fulfillment of his very existence. There was nothing he would rather do than sit atop its mossy throne and sip his morning coffee.

But one morning, the gods decided to play a trick on him, as gods so often do. They plucked his beloved rock from the edge of the ferny woods and, just like that, set it on top of Mount Futilius. Then they peered over the edge of their cloud and watched.

When Sassafras arrived at the woods that morning, his rock was gone! There was only the deep impression where it had rested. Frantically, he searched every corner of the woods and fields, and each street in the village. Where could it have gone? So far as knew, his rock had never moved anywhere, even during the Ice Ages. Then he happened to look up at the summit of Mount Futilius and saw a small bump on top that he had never noticed before. It had the same shape as his rock. Curious and confused, he set off for the foot of the mountain. As he did so, he heard a giggle from somewhere up above.

Mount Futilius soared many thousands of feet above the valley. So it was hours before Sassafras reached the summit. And there was his rock, perched on the edge of a precipice. Relieved, though puzzled, to see it there, he flopped down on its thick mossy carpet and was just about to take a nap when he noticed how cold it was. This won’t do at all, he thought. His rock needed to be back at the edge of the woods where it belonged. There was only one thing to do. If only he could get it to move. The rock was awfully big, but Sassafras had the strength of an ox. He pushed and he pushed, with all his might. After what seemed like an eternity, the rock began to budge, until finally it tipped over the edge and rolled down the mountainside. Descending as fast as he could, Sassafras prayed his rock was all right.

Upon reaching the valley, he noticed a wide swath of crushed shrubs and grass. Anxiously he followed the path, until at last he found his rock. He couldn’t believe his eyes. For there was not a scratch on it, and all its mossy carpet was intact as if nothing had happened. It was in the exact same spot where it had always been, nestled against the ferny woods.  He plopped down upon its great granite bosom and fell instantly asleep, lulled by the gentle rustle of wind through the trees. The sun was already low in the sky when he awoke.  He trudged on home, secure in the knowledge his rock was back where it should be.

Next morning, humming softly while sipping his coffee, he came to the woods and was just about to sit down when he noticed something. Again his rock was gone. And from up above he heard that same giggle, though this time it was louder. No way, he muttered. Things like this don’t happen in a normal universe. Then he gazed at the summit, and knew in the pit of his stomach what he would find there. Shaking his head, he set off for the foot of the mountain.

When he arrived at the summit, sure enough, there was his rock, perched in the exact same place it had been before. Again he pushed and pushed, until it rolled down the mountainside. This time, he descended more slowly, for he knew exactly where his rock would be.

Annoyed yet tired, Sassafras plopped down on his rock and fell asleep. The sun was just setting when at last he awoke. He was about to go home when a dark thought popped into his head. What if it happens again? No way, he muttered. It was midsummer and a warm gentle breeze blew through the woods. And he was still drowsy and tired from all his mountain climbing. So he curled up and went back to sleep, with his rock safely beneath him.

Next morning, Sassafras rolled awake and found himself lying on the wet ground where his rock once sat. Not again! he yelled, to no one in particular. And from up above he heard a peal of raucous laughter. Sighing, he gathered his wits and set off for the foot of the mountain.  

When Sassafras reached the summit, there was his rock, as he knew it would be. Troubled as he was, there was still a comforting certainty to this and what he needed to do. Dutifully, he turned his face toward the huge rock and strained mightily against its stony inertia, until finally it rolled down the mountainside. As he sauntered back to the valley, deep in thought, he reflected on his condition. How strange it seemed that life could change so fast, but stranger still is how fast he could adjust to a new reality.

Hunched on his rock, he sat thinking all afternoon about what he should do. Suddenly he had an idea. He rushed to the local hardware store, and came back with two lengths of heavy iron chain, four long iron stakes, and a sledge hammer. Then he staked his rock firmly to the ground. It was not a pretty sight, he admitted, but at least his rock would be safe. Then grasping the two chains, he curled up and fell fast asleep.

Next morning, he awoke on the damp ground and let out such a shriek as to wake the dead. For his rock was gone, and so were the chains and stakes, which had cost him a lot. He shook his fist at the heavens. Why?!? he cried. But all he could hear from above were snorts, guffaws, and horselaughs. Then he heard a stern, sarcastic voice. Because! And you’ll do it as long as we say you will!

Sassafras couldn’t imagine what he had done to deserve this. How have I displeased you?” he asked.  But there was only deafening silence.

Sassafras could not bear the thought of being apart from his rock. So, bowing to the gods’ will, he set off for the foot of the mountain and began his perpetual journey, repeating the same motions day after day, year by year, until time itself had no meaning.

Then, one day, Sassafras awoke on the damp ground and slowly rose to his feet. His joints ached, and he shivered in the winter cold. Raising his fist, he shouted defiantly to the sky. I am too told for this! You gods can all go to Hades!

At that very moment his rock suddenly appeared next to him. Before he could even smile, Sassafras turned into a large handsome tree, whose great roots extended outward in a final embrace of its beloved rock. And in one last stroke of divine retribution, the gods shaped some of the tree’s leaves into lobes, to remind it of the fingers it once possessed.                              ©Gene Twaronite 2013

Originally published in 5enses Magazine, September 2013