The Plague

camus_the-plagueIn Albert Camus’s celebrated novel of a plague outbreak, he tells us that at a certain point, the citizens of the afflicted North African town of Oran turn to reading. Specifically, they show a “remarkable interest” in “prophecies of all descriptions. [. . .] The local printing firms were quick to realize the profit to be made by pandering to this new craze and printed large numbers of the prophecies that had been going round in manuscript.” But there is not enough material to satisfy demand, and so after searching “in the municipal archives for all the mental pabulum of the kind available in old chronicles,” they turn to “journalists to write up forecasts” that are devoured eagerly to find literary clues to their personal fates.

Some predictions were based on far-fetched arithmetical calculations [. . .] Others made comparisons with the great pestilences of former times [. . .] and claimed to deduce conclusions bearing on the present calamity. But our most popular prophets were undoubtedly those who in an apocalyptic jargon had announced sequences of events, any one of which might be construed as applicable to the present state of affairs and was abstruse enough to admit of almost any interpretation. (221-222)

Much the same could perhaps be said of The Plague itself, which surely admits of many possible interpretations and is often enough read as an allegory of the German Occupation of France. Plague does, after all, make for a fine metaphor. Even in Camus’s own text, we see how pestilence is made to signify by those affected by it, not least in the fiery sermon delivered by a Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux, as the fever begins to take hold. “Plague,” the priest tells his congregation, “is the flail of God and the world His threshing-floor” (95). Yet as the disease progresses, Paneloux somewhat backs down from his certainty as to what it all means. A second sermon, we are told, “display[s] more uneasiness than power” (229). Perhaps sometimes a plague is simply a plague, and brings with it no great moral lessons or truths.

Indeed, by the end of the novel the narrator’s main worry is how fleeting any such lessons may be, as he observes a population, finally liberated from the epidemic, now prepared to

den[y], in the teeth of the evidence, that we had ever known a crazy world in which men were killed off like flies [. . .]. In short, they denied that we had ever been that hag-ridden populace a part of which was daily fed into a furnace and went up in oily fumes, while the rest, in shackled impotence, waited their turn. (297-298)

The real problem, in other words, is that the trauma is all too easily forgotten, that it is a text that frays or is soon invisible. Hence the narrator’s impulse to write everything down, to draw on his experience as well as the documents left him by others, “so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise” (308). Yet it is not clear whether people’s propensity to amnesia, to forgetting what they have been through, is one of these admirable qualities (a sign of resilience?) or a fault that the text has therefore to rectify.

A similar ambivalence shrouds then the main characteristic imputed to the citizens of Oran, and perhaps to humans more generally: the fact that they are creatures of habit. For it is part and parcel of the way in which the town is described from the outset as unremarkable, ordinary, and frankly mediocre in every way (“a thoroughly negative place” [3]), that in it “everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits” (4). Such routines both hide and are a symptom of “the banality of the town’s appearance and of life in it. But you can get through the days there without trouble, once you have formed habits” (5). People don’t think, perhaps they do not even really fully live, dedicated as they are to “fritter[ing] away at card-tables, in cafés and in small talk what time is left for living” (4). So a plague, whose first consequence is to disrupt those habits, might even be welcomed (in theory at least) as an opportunity for reflection, for awakening and seeing what life could be about when faced with the possibility of its extinction. Indeed, for Camus (but surely not only Camus) the question raised by pestilence is precisely the question of existence, of what it means to be human in the here and now when the promise, or threat, of transcendence wavers in the face of calamity.

Yet ultimately, in a book that struggles to shake off the religious vocabulary that it purports to reject, if there is salvation it is to be found in the repetition that constitutes habit. No wonder, as Camus famously argues elsewhere, we should imagine Sisyphus happy, for what is a man endlessly rolling a boulder up a hill but an image of a creature defined by his habits? Likewise, here, the doctor who attends to the plague victims and the others that help him with the task do so not out of any great ideological conviction or faith, least of all out of any illusion that they are making much of an impact against the implacable foe that is the disease. In the end, after all, the plague disappears because it is imagined to have ended of its own accord, “leaving as unaccountably as it had come. [. . .] It had, so to speak, achieved its purpose” (271). Nor, we are told repeatedly, can we regard those who choose to fight it as heroes: “there’s no question of heroism in all this” the doctor says at one point. “It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is–common decency” (163). As for “those who enrolled in the ‘sanitary squads,’ as they were called, [they] had, indeed, no great merit in doing as they did, since they knew it was the only thing to do” (132). The plague itself, rather than being any great spectacle or event, is also a habit–if it means anything, it is simply “the same thing over and over and over again” (161)–and yet it can and should be confronted by a sort of counter-routine, a sense of obligation that is almost unwilled and unconscious. Hence if there is any “saintliness” (and the novel rather doubts that there is), it can only be “an aggregate of habits” (118).

We are now, of course, in 2020 learning new habits. And let us hope that one day we will have forgotten many of them. One I personally rather like is the custom of applause, of making a noise of some sort, every evening (here in Vancouver) at 7pm, in tribute to the health workers and other key workers, often underpaid and long overlooked, who are going about their jobs in the midst of the pandemic. It is rightly pointed out that that, indeed, is what they are doing: simply what they have to do. And that the applause is ritual without much meaning. But if we learn anything from Camus’s depiction of the plague, it is that such habits may be part of what is quietly admirable, and should not be so readily despised.

Pre-Prison Writings I

Cross-posted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction.

Antonio Gramsci’s reputation on the Left, the academic Left at least, is surprisingly solid and enduring, especially when compared to other figures within Western Marxism (Lukács? Adorno? Althusser?) who may once have been much cited but who are now marginal tastes at best. Other names that have similarly withstood the vagaries of time and the fickleness of fashion are perhaps Walter Benjamin and Raymond Williams, and what Gramsci shares with them (Benjamin in particular) is the fact that his writing is quite varied and even fragmentary, permitting a wide range of interpretations and re-readings in different circumstances and for diverse purposes. Indeed, famously this is particularly the case for Gramsci: his most important and influential work by far is the Prison Notebooks, an unfinished textual labyrinth of historical investigation and political creativity produced under the extreme conditions of incarceration and fascist censorship, that was not published until after his death and has still not been fully translated into English. From this cauldron of often ambiguous and sometimes obscure enquiry, many Gramscis or Gramscianisms have subsequently been reconstructed, informing bodies of thought and activism as diverse as the Eurocommunism of the 1970s, Anglo-American Cultural Studies in the 1980s and 1990s, and more recently a “neo-Communism” that pledges, at times more convincingly than others, to employ philological tools to be more faithful to the supposedly systematic character of Gramsci’s original thought. But it is in the nature of the form in which that thought has come down to us that there is much room for dispute and divergence.

gramsci_pre-prison-writingsSome claim, especially in reaction to the version of Gramsci popular in Cultural Studies (for which a term such as “hegemony” can come to mean both everything and nothing), or to his “post-Marxist” appropriation by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, that turning to his pre-prison writings reveals the truer, more pragmatic and political, essence of an unadulterated Gramscianism. And no doubt Gramsci was at vastly more liberty to speak and write his mind before he was arrested and imprisoned by Mussolini’s police and judicial apparatus. Moreover, for the most part these comprise texts that were published, often in venues over which Gramsci had some measure of editorial control, and that as such appeared in something like finished form. It is here that we can read Gramsci the organizer and agitator, the Leninist Gramsci who threw his support behind both the Russian Revolution and the Turin Factory Council movement that sprung up in its wake.

Yet these early texts hardly resolve the Gramscian enigma. For one thing, it is evident that Gramsci’s restless mind was continually developing, experimenting, and trying out new ideas even (perhaps especially) once it was locked up in a prison cell. We have no reason to assume that he thought the same way about things in 1929 as he did in 1919. For another, this corpus is no less fragmentary than the Prison Notebooks, consisting as it does on the whole of short pieces written to a deadline on topical debates for the socialist press. If anything, prison gave Gramsci the freedom to work more consistently and coherently on the key concepts and underlying concerns that mattered to him. Finally, it is not as though censorship and, perhaps above all, self-censorship did not shape and constrain these articles that he knew would see the light of day, by contrast to the long labour of the notebooks that had no immediate audience. After all, throughout this period from 1914 to 1926, Gramsci was quite self-consciously (and unabashedly) engaged in a project of what he himself would call propaganda.

Take for instance Gramsci’s paean to the Bolshevik state, published as “The Price of History” in June 1919. Here he tells us that “The Russian communists are a first-class ruling elite. [. . .] Lenin has revealed himself as the greatest statesman of contemporary Europe [. . .] a man whose vast brain can dominate all those social energies, throughout the world, which can be turned to the benefit of the revolution” (92). Hence “the State formed by the Soviets has become the State of the entire Russian people” thanks to “the assiduous and never-ending work of propaganda, elucidation and education carried out by the exceptional men of the Russian Communist movement, directed by the lucid and unstoppable will of the master of them, Nikolai Lenin” (93-94). In short, “Russia is where history is; Russia is where life is” (95). Yet for all that this article manifests Gramsci’s undoubtedly heartfelt belief in the priority of state-building (“A revolution is a genuine revolution [. . .] only when it is embodied in some kind of State” [92]), one does not have to be an egregiously suspicious reader to wonder whether the hyperbole understandably directed to praise of the leaders of the first successful workers’ revolution might not extend also to the subsequent affirmation that “Society can only exist in the form of a State” (93). What, after all, has happened here to the Gramsci who is famously the champion of organizations of “civil” society, relatively autonomous from or even hostile to the state apparatus?

That other Gramsci, of what we might in shorthand call “society against the state” is indeed visible in these writings. Perhaps most interestingly, he can be found for example in a piece entitled “Socialism and Italy” in which he condemns “liberals, conservatives, clerics, radicals, republicans, nationalists, reformists” (27) as being, precisely, creatures of the state but not of society, or at least not of the Italian nation. Indeed, he offers here a hint of a counter-history of Italian nation formation, not as a process driven by Cavour and the Piedmontese bourgeoisie (who established a relationship to the Italian South that still remained, Gramsci repeats several times, “colonial”), but as the product of Italian socialism: over the course of what he calls a “plebeian Renaissance,” “Italy has become a political unity, because a part of its populace has united around an idea, a single programme. And socialism, socialism alone, was able to provide this idea and this programme” (28, 29). In other words, there is society despite the state, and in the face of the state’s resolute provincialism and particularism. This is “the history of the Italian people [that] has yet to be written–its secret, its spiritual history” (28). And maybe this is the history of the Russian people (and the Russian revolution) that also has yet to be written, even by Gramsci himself.

Again, none of this is to deny the strong statist tendency within Gramsci’s thought. There is no doubt at all that he saw the political objective of the working class movement in terms of the construction of (to borrow the title of the journal he co-founded in 1919) a “new order” premised on a new state guided by the Communist Party that he would also end up co-founding. As he put it even when he was, previously, a member of the Socialist Party of Italy, “The Party is a State in potentia, which is gradually maturing: a rival to the bourgeois State, which is seeking, through its daily struggle with this enemy, and through the development of its own internal dialectic, to create the organs it needs to overcome and absorb its opponent” (4). This is what will later be cast as the struggle for hegemony.

And yet there is also a tension here evident even in the thought of this early, manifestly Leninist, Gramsci. It is a tension perhaps best characterized in terms of two concepts that he continually employs that are both perhaps dissonant to our contemporary ears: “spirit” and “discipline.” As a party man, Gramsci is a great believer in discipline, which is a function of political leadership and education. Italians above all, he tells us in the few pieces that are dedicated to what we would now recognize as “culture” (articles on sport, for instance, and drugs), are a disorderly lot. Their preference for card games, for example, full of “shouting, fists slamming on the table and often in the faces of opponents,” reveals a country that is “backward economically, politically and spiritually” (73, 74). And yet it is precisely this spiritedness that indicates an alternative (and maybe posthegemonic) history, far from the rigidity and farcicalness of the state form. For sure, in Gramsci’s view, these “disorderly and chaotic energies must be given a permanent form and discipline” (97). But without them, without spirit, Italy is nothing.

A Journal of the Plague Year

Business led me out sometimes to the other end of the town, even when the sickness was chiefly there; and as the thing was new to me, as well as to everybody else, it was a most surprising thing to see those streets which were usually so thronged now grown desolate, and so few people to be seen in them, that if I had been a stranger and at a loss for my way, I might sometimes have gone the length of a whole street (I mean of the by-streets), and seen nobody to direct me except watchmen set at the doors of such houses as were shut up. (13)

Terrified by those frightful objects, I would retire home sometimes and resolve to go out no more; and perhaps I would keep those resolutions for three or four days, which time I spent in the most serious thankfulness for my preservation and the preservation of my family [. . .]. Such intervals as I had I employed in reading books and in writing down my memorandums of what occurred to me every day [. . .]. (58)

I cannot be the only person who, in these strange times of pandemic and confinement, is turning to narratives of plagues and pestilences past. Indeed, in early March it was reported that Penguin was rushing out a reprint of Camus’s La peste, while sales of novels such as Stephen King’s The Stand were similarly booming. And if these texts were once read as a species of horror, perhaps now we are turning to them for their (more or less) happy endings. At least, after all, they do finally end: their plots arc to some kind of resolution. And so, extrapolating to our current circumstances, we can be assured that this, too, shall pass.

defoe_plague-yearUnlike Camus and King, Daniel Defoe does not present his A Journal of the Plague Year as a work of the imagination (though the same could be said of Robinson Crusoe), and in fact it is said to depict quite accurately the Great Plague of London of 1665 to 1666. Indeed, though it was written over half a century after the period it describes (Defoe himself was only five years old in 1665), there is some debate as to whether the text should be regarded as fiction or not.

Still, Defoe’s book does not exactly follow the template of what we now know as the novel (a genre that he himself of course helped to pioneer), even as it cannot easily be described as a “journal,” either. There is much digression and repetition, and a strange mix of conjecture and certainty, while the narrative frequently pauses to draw essayistic and even quasi-scientific conclusions, for instance about the means by which the infection spread or the role (or otherwise) of divine providence and predestination. It reads, in short, as a patchwork of styles and discursive forms. There is a surprising amount of statistics and reportage, chronicling the numbers of burials in various London parishes as the plague spread, even as Defoe tells us that the numbers can hardly be trusted: “It drove us out of all measures. Men did no more die by tale and by number. They might put out a weekly bill and call them seven of eight thousand, or what they pleased; ‘tis certain they died by heaps, and were buried by heaps, that is to say, without account” (178). There are reflections on public policy, not least about the wisdom (or not) of confining the sick and the well together in boarded-up houses.

There are also anecdotes and stories, presented either as the narrator’s experience or as what he has heard and is uncertain or doubtful as to how much credit he should give them: “It was apparent, at least to my judgement, that there was more of tale than of truth in those things” (64). One long section follows a biscuit-maker, a sailmaker, and a joiner (John, Thomas, and Richard) in their attempt to flee the city and traverse the villages of Essex in search of safety. This extended narrative might almost stand on its own account, but it opens hesitantly, after many false starts, and somewhat tails off at the end: “They got colds in their limbs, and distempers, but never had the infection; and then about December they came home to the city again” (113). Perhaps this is because, overall, the plague does not follow any particular logic: it arrives, sweeps through the city, until at last it just seems to exhaust itself. The book comes to an end, but not to any great resolution.

Indeed, and I am unsure if we should regard this as great comfort or not, Defoe’s conclusion is that ultimately not much changes once the crisis has come and gone. There is no “new normal.” However much, during the plague itself, common practices and prejudices were briefly overturned, such that (for instance) religious divides no longer weighed so heavily, by the end “It was not the least of our misfortunes that with our infection, when it ceased, there did not cease the spirit of strife and contention, slander and reproach, which was really the great troubler of the nation’s peace before” (176). Old habits all too quickly resumed, old enmities were re-established: “The quarrel remained: the Church and the Presbyterians were incompatible. As soon as the plague was removed, the Dissenting ousted ministers who had supplied the pulpits which were deserted by the incumbents retired” (177). It is as though nobody has learnt anything.

It is almost as though the plague had not happened at all. On the book’s final page, Defoe (or his narrator) quotes a man who, once the infection has passed, exclaims “’Tis all wonderful; ‘tis all a dream” (186). But the over-riding impression is that, for all the brutal reality of the pits turned into common graves into which countless bodies were dumped, it is the plague itself that is experienced as a “dream.” And this perhaps is the rationale for Defoe’s book, which repeatedly presents itself as a pedagogic text (“the history will be a very good pattern for any poor man to follow, in case the like public desolation should happen here” [45]): even fifty years after the event, it still had something to teach its readers. Indeed, the plague had yet to be constituted as an “event” at all.

It may be that the same question faces us now, in our present pandemic: whether Covid-19 is to be cast as an event, and if so of what kind?