Plagued by the fact & the facts of life

Near the end of Camus’ The Plague, Dr. Bernard Rieux says “But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man.”
After reading this, my skin & bones, the rhythms of my organs, the coursing of my fluids, became acutely apparent to me— i realized absolutely that i am a person, an individual, part of a collective, a wider community that despite the cultural nuances & affinities that set us apart, is composed of what i am composed & capable as i am capable.
Regardless of the plainness & brevity of Rieux’s discovery, it is perhaps one of the profoundest moments in literature. It has accompanied me daily since i read it some 2 weeks hence. i actually gasped, letting out a howl of joy, after reading it. It brought me closer to something i have been incapable of formulating in words, overthinking it, i had failed to give it structure & realization, until now. It was so simple, right there in the plain reflection of the word man. By which i mean a shortening of mankind.
i couldn’t have met with it at a more critical time: i have never been more intrigued by my humanity; more thankful of the sheer unlikeliness of it.
Have you ever stopped for a moment & intuited your humanity, taken the deep measure of it & noted the absurdity of being what you are, how, where & why you are? Forgotten about the influential, ancillary by-products of our humanity: God, religion, spirituality, politics; nothing of so much dilemma or purpose; just the bare fact of your existence. What i mean by the bare fact of existence, is a co-operation of intrinsic potentials for understanding the fact of life & the facts of life, not as opposing principles of a [wo]man or Man’s characteristics, but essential ingredients in the remedying of problems.
i marvel at the fluke of it, the banal miracle of it. Maybe it takes a reader to arrive at this insight; for me literature, is the purest medium for substantiating thoughts of this caliber. Culture is after all, imminent in society & whether we know it or not, informs the method by which we can understand our place in it & our creation of it.
In The Plague Rieux & Tarrou, are stand out characters. It seems no coincidence to me that their names, though physically dissimilar, rhyme. & furthermore, rhyme with Camus. They are literary aspects of Camus: one, devoted, plain, honorable, utilitarian & the other, romantic, talkative, fanciful, mysterious. Both of them saintly in their respective aspects: one unaware of it, one all too aware & searching; both with their own methodologies.
Rieux, lives according to the fact of life, whereas Tarrou lives, in pursuit of the facts of life. One is stationary, comfortable, the other, a wanderer.
People can be categorized according to these distinctions. There are those content in the simplicity of devotion to an ideal, which can be family, career (duty or calling) or faith; & those who are unsettled, always alert to the duplicity of experience & the continuity of learning through a mixture of experience & study. Both have something of the calling about them, but they breed quite different characters.
However unalike they seem, Rieux & Tarrou have a common aim: plague.
The plague, whatever metaphorical, metaphysical or pathological form it takes requires the combination & co-operation of both the fact & facts of life. Our plague in question is not necessarily one dimensional, though it may be; it may take one, or combine numerously: it can remove us from the need of one another through suspicion or fear of infection; it can be the abuse of power, to profit from catastrophe, to cause catastrophe for personal gain; the application of punishment in unequal measure to wrongdoing or the punishment of God or nature; it can be minor or major misunderstandings; the inability to love or an overwhelming need to love at all costs; it can be ignorance of your & by extension, others’ humanity—in short, it can be any problem.
There is no use surmounting a problem, without something to live for on the other side. This usually works in tandem to fill a gap left open by the problem. We may survive a terrible illness due to the skill of virologists & doctors, but it is the support, love & friendship of those around us, that give the survival meaning. This is Cottard’s major problem: he has no purpose, he is desperately in need of the Absurd, or simple human contact, which he gets from plague & which he didn’t have before plague. In tackling plague, it is more formidable a problem if the fact or the facts of life, go it alone— they must unite, & advise each other as Rieux & Tarrou, do so succesfully.
Rieux & Tarrou as archetypes of Camus, puts me somewhat in mind of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, for me, a crowning moment in man’s insight about himself.
“1. Man has no body distinct from his Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five sense, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
2. Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3. Energy is Eternal Delight.”
To make the link to Camus, i’d say Rieux is the Body & Tarrou the Soul; Camus, the Energy & Reason. i suppose Northrop Frye would say this link is inevitable owing to the template of myth featuring & structuring all literature.
There similarity in character strikes me too: they were both consistent in their goals & pure in character: working & reasoning for the betterment of people. They were concerned with people & did their utmost to reform society, while simultaneously informing it.
The archetypes are not separate however, there distinction is made only when we anatomize the whole man, using a sort of mythopoeia to dissect in order to understand & formulate strategy, to counter ruination or plague. What i mean is, knowing the function & category of each part in the whole, enables us to better portion out tasks for each part, so as to deliver more effect blows to the ruination or plague.
Tarrou is not a doctor & Rieux is not aware of his saintliness, but only his duty. Together they form a formidable unit to cope with both the body & the soul of the populace.
So what am i getting at? Well, don’t be, solely a mindless body, or merely a mindful soul; fail beautifully to issue yourself the character of one who divests themselves in just the fact of life, or only the pursuit, of the facts of life. Realize your humanity in its corporeality & the extension of the uniqueness of that corporeality being a capacity to think. Thinking is an extension of humanity that is not permitted an animal. An animal reacts, it doesn’t have the means to perceptively alleviate its problems or enjoy its life with the strategies enabled by the density of a consciousness that can reason, enjoy, love, perceive & more.
It seems so daft & obvious to say all this. But i bet many people haven’t considered the uniqueness of humanity & taken that they possess a unique part of it, too much for granted. This is an error & the remedy allows us to enjoy ourselves & others with greater insight & intensity.

31 thoughts on “Plagued by the fact & the facts of life

  1. “William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, for me, a crowning moment in man’s insight about himself…”. Oh dear Lord…Blake. I simply cannot get past his Triumphalism. His surety always seems to me that of a man who ignores theodicy in order to live in a religiously stable world…

    1. You have to understand that for me it isn’t the application of Blake’s system to society that it is important it is the actual system as poetry & creative impulse, that he could think it. His poems are immensely complex & when you understand the whole mythopoeia, it makes a lot of sense. Couple this with the reforms he wanted which weren’t necessarily for religion. Like protecting children from harm. Emancipating slaves. The way he treated his wife with so much love, respect & fairness. You focus on his system as something impossible to apply, i agree, because it isn’t a philosophy but poetry. Blake’s religion is human, the Human form divine, it should be remembered. God is too aloof for Blake, it is man he is interested in.

      1. i think you do need to see past you biases & understand him from an angle other than religion. Religion is important in Blake, only to realize that he is trying to reform it through poetry.
        You should think about things like Blake’s use of the long line, way before Whitman was even born. Whitman hadn’t even put pen to paper when Blake died. Yet Blake wrote all his most challenging poems with a long, you may argue, unfettered line. He even gives a defense of this choice in his prolegomena to Jerusalem, explaining that the words are placed exactly as they should be. Think of Milton, which is a poem supposed to remedy the faults of Milton, his mistreatment of his daughters, to make him experience again his Ulro (vegetative or human state) by wandering through eternity to consider himself. This is a mythopoeia that seeks to have the past reassess itself. Northrop Frye (a Canadian) who wrote one of the best books about Blake ever, likened his system to Freud. He is wrong, it is Jung that Blake more resembles. Blake had no scientific terms, but he had symbols. He used those symbols, the names of the Zoas for example, to attempt an understanding of the motions of the human psyche. Did he get it spot on, that is utterly irrelevant, it was that he was part of an effort to break the limits of what was designated as orthodox & attempt an understanding of something that there was no terminology to understand.
        Blake goes way deeper than just religion my friend. Read his Didactic Works: Milton, The Four Zoas & Jerusalem, with Foster Damon’s Blake Dictionary as accompaniment & i am sure you will find the remedy of you biases.

      2. I just picked up Blake’s Letters and his Complete poetry. I will look for the Frye, too. I am always open to deep reading Blake, as I will now. But always remember, just because I may lose my biases does not mean I must or will like Blake. I absolutely agree his punctuation choices are art and not mistakes, and I will concede his poetry is very enjoyable, if not laden with mystical meaning:

        I heard a Devil curse
        over the heath & the furze
        Mercy could be no more
        If there were nobody poor

        I will sit down through the next few days and reread Blake one again. No guarantees, but certainly more education…

      3. i don’t need you or want you to just like him for no reason, everyone has something that just doesn’t grab them. But what i can’t accept is liking him for the wrong reasons without noting the originality that he possessed. Frye is the best i think. i read it a long time ago, would love to read it again at this more mature age. i was too young when i first read it. But he helped me see Blake better, i hope he can do the same for you.

      4. To quote Jerusalem (II, 43), everywhere there is “a pretense of Art to destroy Art… a pretense of Religion to destroy Religion.” I will try to get into Blake through this line, which feels to me the most available path.

        Here I go!

      5. In the same speech a little before this he says :”Why stand we here trembling around Calling on God for help, and not ourselves, in whom God dwells?”
        & the “selves” he is referring to are the archetypal Zoas who explain through their dramatic explorations the psyche of man.

  2. An excellent essay, but may I comment on something?

    “…for me literature, is the purest medium for substantiating thoughts of this caliber…” Firstly, forgive me for doing my usual trick of extracting a single phrase from a whole. I do know what you mean. As an explorer whose canoe is the written word, I am tempted to run that up the flagpole too. But also I realise that it is a cultural statement that encapsulates something about us in the North Western quadrant without our even being aware of it. I’m grateful to a friend who is currently studying postcolonial literature for reminding me about Phyllis Wheatley, a young African woman, a slave, whom a panel of well-meaning gentlemen-of-the-18c-enlightenment brought before them in order to examine her poetry and prove, by virtue of the fact that she was literate, that she was intelligent. Their motive was good – to show that the African races had the same intellect as the European. To the 18c enlightenment, intelligence was proven by literacy. It did not occur to them that Phyllis Wheatley would have been just as intelligent had she never learned to read or write. Because of this trait in us – to privilege the written word – we have ignored the prowess of, say, the West African griot who recites from memory whole family and tribal histories; we have been blind to the sophistication of ‘primitive’ cultures (you only have to look at how early 20c European modernist artists employed ‘African’ imagery into their work, for example). And we have thrust our values onto the world – we do so when we celebrate the likes of Amos Tutuola for their innovation with the written word, and we do so when we complain in an oh-so-liberal way that there are not enough non-white winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel Prize shows that our privileging of the written technique has colonised the world most effectively. All power to Camus’s elbow for encapsulating that high-caliber thought, but how do we know it’s not there in this:

    While I’m here, and while Camus is on our mind, Mark E. Smith died a few days ago. Mark was a rock survivor, a renegade from the punk era, Manchester’s worn-down-shoe answer to Captain Beefheart. His band – The Fall – whose line-up was never stable from one month to the next, took its name from the Camus novel ‘La Chute’ of course. He did a good line in groaning and screaming, and I thank God for him.

    1. Thanks.
      You are of course correct to point out oral traditions & that intelligence doesn’t necessarily arise from the skill of reading & writing. However “for me” as i say, literature is what i know, i had no oral tradition to draw from so it hasn’t been able to affect me. i wasn’t even taught simple memory skills at school. State schools in the 90s & early 00s for you.
      The West has had poets try to stress the importance of the oral tradition: Blake famously sang his lyrics, though i doubt he ever sang The Four Zoas, i wouldn’t put it past him however. The Beats made an admirable effort. But the reason it doesn’t stick is, a tradition where man is the codex, is more prone to becoming ephemeral, discontinuous. Socrates, without Plato would have maybe gained a passing mention somewhere. The Son of God would have had a little aside from Josephus, without the Gospels. The codex brings longevity to a man & his works, while the oral tradition relies on the fallibility of man in changing times & against pressures from the deterioration of himself. But ink & paper, that’ll in the right conditions, outlast the man multiple lifetimes. Not that the oral tradition can’t, it seems to me a much more difficult method to keep something going.

      1. Good points, of course. I would say, however, as I think evinced by the Aborigines (if only we had left the poor buggers alone!) that without the codex we would have had to live a lot closer to the wisdom. One Australian tribe has a saying: “The more you know, the less you need.” Jings, those blokes must know a lot, because they managed to live with very little! It all depends what you mean by ‘keep things going’. One thing that the written record has done for us, unfortunately, is reinforce Walter Benjamin’s observation that we are not in a historical progression, but a constant state of catastrophe, where wreckage piles upon wreckage.

      2. Oddly i was actually thinking yesterday, just before you sent me this, has history become discontinuous? i don’t have an answer, but i thought perhaps the sheer passivity of knowledge in general, the lust for the next thing, relegates so much that we aren’t creating a historical identity. i am not saying this so. i am entertaining the parameters & potentials.
        i need to read Benjamin, everytime someone brings him up, i find myself nodding in agreement.
        i agree on the living closer to wisdom thing by the way. It is too late for me though. Gotta push on with reading & writing.

      3. Something else occurred to me, and that is your reference to the Son of God. The very codex that bears witness to him also makes a great point – so often neglected by a huge mass of Christians who cannot see that they are bibliolators – and it is this: “… the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” 2 Cor. 3:6. I often ask my friends who insist that the Bible is ‘The Word of God’, despite the fact that it never describes itself as such, what they would base their faith on if they were shipwrecked on a desert island sans reading matter. A case for living close to the Αγία Σοφία if ever I saw one!

      4. An excellent point. Yes, i suppose the same could be said of any religious text. The fact that it is a text passed on through the generations, kept intact supposes it is a fitting technology to keep the religion going. Even some oral traditions eventually set the teachings into text. All the teachings of the Buddha, i think is thanks to Ananda, despite his exceptional memory, decided to pen the Buddha;s sermons. i think Ashoka was one of the first to put the Upanishad’s into text, though it is still an oral tradition for many in India. I think the word Upanishad means sitting close, or something like that. But it has gained a wide audience because of the book.
        Y’see, this is why i need you, to see what i miss & expand. i got think everything, i need everyone else to chip in.

  3. It’s great to read you so enthused & effusive. Certainly you are elsewhere, but there with a more critical or literary bent, & this is something else, pure life as you say, joy & befuddlement at simply existing. & wonderful too that you find this in a book about a plague! (a plague supposed also to be a metaphor for occupied Paris as well, which Camus lived through.) I wonder if you can write something like this about Will Self’s trilogy, it’d be nice to hear you go off on why you love it so much. But Camus is such a great guy, his notebooks are amazing too, there are few more “humane” authors I know of, that I think if you knew them you could trust yr life with. & what you say at the end was something of a lightbulb for me too, not just to avoid being only body or only soul, but also only religion or only culture, only politics or only history, it’s all wrapped in one, & that one is everyday life largely hero-less & saint-less, but still worth loving.

    1. Because of Camus aphoristic style, it is easy to anatomize him, to just, like a line from a poem, be split wide open by something he writes. This whole essay came out of the Rieux quote at the beginning. i could pick out several moments where a single line or short speech, just gives me so much pause. Self doesn’t write like that, it would be difficult to write something about Self, because of its density of style. i think Self’s work is something i’ll rather have crop up in multiple essays, as he does in my ‘Dogma of the Fast’ essay. But now you’ve planted the seed, something may be brewing in the posterior of the mind. i hope something comes up, i’d love to write something he hasn’t just talked about himself in one of his brilliant talks on the novels.
      It thrills me that it was “something of a light bulb” for you. This felt very inspired, like it wrote itself, because i finally had a way to describe what i’d found very hard to describe, because it was a sensation. i knew i’d nailed something, because i know when it feels right, & i really wanted that energy to transpose onto the reader, for people to just be hit by that presence of their simple humanity & just how friggin lucky that is. Regardless the pain it causes to some, many even, the sheer unlikeliness of us getting to this.
      i think, if i say so myself, the fact of life or the facts of life (to shorten it)) insight, is quite a nice one. That was the first strong insight after reading that speech by Rieux. It feels so right in regard to Rieux & Tarrou & by extension, their representation of man.

  4. Camus, the grim reaper of the existentialist’s soul, has an uncanny ability to bring us to a sense of joy.
    I first read him via his posthumous autobiography The First Man. A delightful tale of childhood in Algiers. It inspired a lot of my anecdotes of the little boy growing up in France, Paco.
    I’m pleased to see someone else get so much of a positive charge from his work. My daughter’s psychologist disapproved of my choice when I mentioned the autobiography. Camus is depressing, she said.

    1. i see nothing grim or depressing in Camus. i think you need to sack your daughter’s psychiatrist, she obviously has no clue as to Camus’ ability to enlighten.
      Reading him, has made me realize the importance of being human, the simple thrill of experience & life, humility & being a better person. i think your daughter should read everything Camus has ever written. i am making it my goal. i read the Myth of Sisyphus twice in just over a month, i literally finished it, turned to the first page & started reading it again & now consider myself the Absurd Man.
      i think i will be writing more & hope we can have many long discussions about Camus in the future.
      i’ll look out for you Paco anecdotes.

      1. I will add Camus to my reading list. I wondered at the psych’s view, especially while reading The First Man. His prose was uplifting. I immediately followed up with The Stranger and was swallowed up into the sunlit scenes. I figured she meant his (quote-unquote) existentialist works. Thanks!

      2. It baffles me why existential = bleak. What is so bleak about recognizing the actuality of existence, To give it pause for thought? Camus gives cause to celebrate life, he uses the example of suicide as a problem that needs remedying. The remedy is to know & accept there is no meaning, just living life, just experiencing it directly. That doesn’t mean do what you want, there is no need when you can appreciate the minute details of human contact, love, nature, friendship,, conversation, literature, sports. Life isn’t made complex by Camus, it is in the end, simplified. This what the Absurd Man does. he sees the chaos of the universe, shrugs & says, “what do you want me to do about it? Reason is all we have & that is useless.” (Not a quote of Camus, just my own thought.)

      3. I envision beatniks in black & white films from the 50s. Berets and striped shirts, smoking cigarettes and snapping their fingers in a Audrey Hepburn Paris nite club. Or worse, an artist waxing in misery over the humdrum banality of life.

        But, I can see where one can find exhilaration in the freedom of realizing “it’s all bullshit! Life is what it is. We exist simply to exist!” And I agree with that. Camus died way too soon.

  5. I approach the complexity of this conversation, and of life, via a simple mind. I won’t dare venture where i feel my words appear ill advised but i have to step in to the conversation to say one thing… is there such a thing as defeat? A question i have been trying to answer for some time.

    This is the starting point of your post, where a delineation between men and saints is defined. My point of contention is that even the lowest person can rise above the rancor of humanity. I proclaim we are men and saints of various degrees, or should acquire to be so. Men’s super power is his psychic inner connectivity. His ability to raise himself beyond the simple need to feel physically, i.e. the gurgle of hunger or the sting of tears, and revel in the soul’s ability to conjure our flesh as a cloak that is too heavy a burden. In this way, we reluctantly shed our deepest thoughts and rely in our inner pull to manifest peace inwardly and hence come to realize we are saints, after all. This is when outward clues about ourselves come to possess other’s intrigue and they wonder how we live and possess so little but loom large in the mind. Hence Buddha or God appear to overcome men once again.

    Is this why we shed God? Or Buddha? To begin with? To revel in our physical over other aspects of ourselves? Or even vice versa. When we uplift the spiritual above the physical, are we demeaning men? Are there men and saints or only people capable of becoming one or the other or both at once?

    1. That is sort of the point of the essay, Camus has two characters, Rieux & Tarrou who are different, as men are. If they tackle plague without one another they are perhaps, we may assume, doomed to fail. But as a pair, they succeed, or at the very least alleviate against the odds. As archetypes they dramatize, as Blake did with his Zoas, the separated aspects that function together to complete the Man.
      Yes, i would say there almost certainly is defeat, because of value judgements about ourselves, our anxieties & complexes, because too many of us don’t see that we are in some respects capable of sainthood, if only we reduce the demarcations of what sainthood really means. Tarrou is not a saint in the biblical or even spiritual sense, nor does he seem to want that, he is a saint in a very human sense, in that it is a purity of knowing that encourages good will & acts of self-less magnanimity. Rieux, he is a saint, though he does not realize it. He acts selflessly without any thought.
      It is demeaning to need to give a title to being a decent person. That is why i love Rieux’s speech. It isn’t necessary to be titled heroic, to be praised or regarded in anyway, you just have to do your duty & be correct morally, which is being selfless & doing the right thing. It is not a matter of saying you are anything, in Rieux’s mind, it just makes sense.

      1. Yes, as i read on in your post, i can see that. I guess my focus on the defeat, and the defined split between man and saint, i had to reflect and see a whole person with the capability of being spiritual and physical.

        So you would argue that a person who chooses to end their life, rather than face life and live, is defeated? Would they not argue they defeated life? Can we overcome defeat by giving in to death as much as overcoming perceived obstacles? Or even real chaos? What about the man who proclaims redemption while taking his last breath? Death, where is thy sting?

        Death is freedom to many, whether naturally or by will. And is death the only defeat? You choose to see defeat as labeling ourselves. Are labels purpose for life or doom to endless criticism by ourselves or others? I have never read any of what you mention. These are just thoughts from experiencing suicides in my family, having thoughts myself and reconciling helping others versus loving self.

        Love itself defeats defeat.

      2. i may be saying exactly what you are, except my words sounds different to me in my voice. i do disagree about defeat. i don’t believe there is such a thing as defeat. But i’m not completely convinced i’m right… only 85-95%! 😁

      3. I’d say there are always exceptions to the rule. Some suicides have said that as soon as they jumped they regretted it. A friend of mine cut his wrists, survived & said that as soon as the blood started flowing he wanted to take his decision back. Yet others feel embarrassed & try again in order to succeed. Some find life too painful. I sort of understand, but i also want (i suppose that is key here, for me) to think there is something in this world worth living for. I am very angry David Foster Wallace killed himself, he was so pure & brilliant. I forgive but i am angry. But then i guess I’m selfish. As i say exceptions to the rule, but the nature of exception means it is rare. I think general matters are more pressing. There is more ignorance than moments of genius. Genius is only rare because few try hard enough. Trying takes will. Anyone can try, but so few don’t, they accept. Is that defeat? That’s a tough one.
        I like labelling to a point. It was categorization that enabled us to understand & to contknue to understand our world & ourselves. Labels may seem rigid, but the amount of information behind them can seem inexhaustible. Botany for example. The naming of plants allows distinction. Distinction can be studied, grom study we learn properties & then we get medicine, food & environment. Yes without category they are useful, but it was only after we bega to catalogue the world that the pace of learning improved. Read Foucault ‘The Origin of Things’ to learn about this.

        By the way. I am never angry discussing things with people. I detedt arguements, i won’t take part. I don’t think you are being argumentative at all & value your ideas & i am not disagreeing. I don’t know what is the right knowledge exactly, but i do trust myself to distinguish good information, i still think great thinkers have important stuff to teach us. So whether you are 100% or not, include it in the discussion, it have value, if it is mitigated & not just silly, which nothing you say is.

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