What book has forced you to reassess how you live your life?
Of all my experiences from school, one that changed me forever was reading La Peste (The Plague) by Albert Camus. Since the pandemic it has become more relevant to me than ever. In this blog I will explain why this novel changed my life.
I was in the 6th form, and it was the first novel I read in French. It introduced me to the concept of existentialism. My mind was never the same again.
It's a dark novel about a plague that descends on the town of Oran in northern Algeria. At the time of writing in 1947, Algeria was still part of France and there were already debates around independence. France, itself, had also recently experienced the horrors of the Occupation from a foreign aggressor, which had led some to respond with the Resistance.
Oran is depicted as an insular town, even before the plague arrives, with no sea front, where the buildings look inwards, away from the sea and where, likewise, this is the template to how many people choose to live. The story examines how the ordinary people respond to this attack on their normal lives.
Epidemic is a disrupter breaking down previous routines
The plague is a disrupter to the town. It changes everything. People's routines are impacted and they realise the freedoms they had taken for granted previously are no longer there. Essentially an existential realisation descends that people are not in control of their lives. Previously they had hidden away from any painful self-awareness by not taking responsibility, and falling into a bland cycle of routine. Neither is religion able to help them make any sense of the situation and in fact the whole thing is Absurd. You can see some similarities with the current Covid-19 pandemic.
"The habit of despair is worse than despair itself."
The town is sealed off from the outside world to prevent spread of the disease. People are confined and forced to examine their meaningless destiny. Some live and some die, arbitrarily. What is interesting is how the novel examines the reactions of the characters to this inexplicable circumstance.
"What we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise."
Some, like Cottard, profit from the disease, selling contraband; some, like Tarrou, take action and publicly try to help their fellow neighbours; others, like Grand, help in more discreet administrative ways. Everybody is trying to find a meaning, not just from the plague but also from the inexplicable human condition that can make our existence so meaningless. At the same time, the community comes together to fight the common enemy.
With disruption comes opportunity
Eventually by the final chapter the plague is in retreat. Whilst lots of people are jubilant that the city gates will soon be open, others start to miss the life fulfilment they experienced during the epidemic. Some are more optimistic and seek to take more control of their personal lives whereas before they were caught up in the routine and shallow experiences that come with that. Joseph Grand, for example, who can never normally express himself properly in life, finally plucks up courage to take more control and to write to his estranged wife to seek a reconciliation.
In contrast, Cottard, although his character improves from an aloof, suicidal and suspicious loner to a more engaging and fulfilled personality, eventually cannot cope with the intensity of this life experience ending. By the end, unlike Grand, he fails to take advantage of this new perspective. He crumbles and goes on a shooting spree before being arrested.
After hubris comes action
The novel is structured into five chapters just like a Greek tragedy. And, like this classical formula, the final hubris is self-realisation that in the midst of our inability to take any meaning from our fate, we can at least seek to take some control of our destiny by taking action. Many did this at the start of the epidemic by volunteering for the NHS or local community initiatives.
Like the plague, the Covid-19 epidemic has given us an intensity that has disrupted the routine of our normal lives. It has forced us to face our existence head on. We are never sure where, when or to whom the disease might strike next, but we can seek out the positives and try to improve our lives.
This theme is something that I have examined in my art. For me, personally, I have tried to take more control of my life during this incredible time. I quit my job in April when the pandemic in the UK was at its peak. I've spent the last month or so building this website and I given my photo art a deeper investigation.
Sometimes in our life routines we might feel like we are facing a brick wall, and it is impossible to look beyond if we do not know what we are seeking. With crisis, however, comes personal realisation. We forced to live differently and respond to difficult circumstances whereby we discover new things about ourselves. Hopefully the pandemic will have allowed many people to self-assess and work that out.
The photographic art here that i devised is based around this existentialist thought. Entitled Seeking, it examines our imposed and meaningless destiny and tries to offer up a solution around this.
The fact that it is produced as a greeting card is deliberate. Communicating during the isolation of Coronavirus is one way of taking control. It is also a humanist solution to this meaningless hidden attacker.
By connecting with others we can help those who might feel more alone and isolated, whilst providing a comment on our own existential situation. Writing is also good for the soul. It allows you to chew over those hidden-away thoughts that you should probably address.
Share your Covid disruptions
Please let me know how you have managed during the pandemic. Have you been able to identify the differences in your life compared to before Lockdown? Have you tried to change aspects of your life that you previously took for granted? Do you feel happier for it? Have you discovered a new side to yourself that you never knew existed? Are there aspects of Lockdown that you now miss?
Let me know in the comments below!
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