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In the beginning, everyone was reading The Plague by Albert Camus. The arrival of a new age of extremes has been good for mid-20th-century writers. Camus joined Hannah Arendt and George Orwell back in the bestseller lists to remind us that, when freedoms are locked down and mass death is on the horizon, what we really need is the moral clarity of good writing.
Moral clarity is Camus’s genius. The plague in his 1947 novel, set in Oran, Algeria, is a metaphor with legs – or spikes. The plague is, variously, fascism, the Holocaust, occupation, fate, and a vicious reminder of the meaninglessness of human endeavour when confronted with nature. Above all, the plague is our complicity with all these things, which is where the moral clarity comes in. ‘I thought I was struggling against the plague,’ confesses Tarrou, Camus’s mouthpiece in the novel, but he comes to realise that he has both directly and indirectly participated in the deaths of others by his silent approval of the values and principles that mean that some lives matter more than others.
We are ethically responsible whether we like it or not; this is one half of the novel’s message. It follows, for Camus, that we must do our utmost to do the least harm. The second half of his message is about learning our limits when it comes to the work of fighting viruses – or, by allegorical implication, fascism, injustice and manmade cruelty. Tarrou concludes:
Other men will make history … All I can say is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims – and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence.
This is the quiet ‘simple decency’ that the British-American historian Tony Judt argued two decades ago was Camus’s true legacy for the 21st century. In a world permeated with everyday evil, where silence is complicity, ‘individual moral responsibility’ is all we have.
Even before the murder of George Floyd, the return to The Plague didn’t feel quite right. It has always been a book of ghosts, of missing Black and brown persons and silent women. As the British literary critic Jacqueline Rose recently noted in the London Review of Books: ‘The women in The Plague … have been in lockdown for a long time when the story begins.’ This spring, the absence of the Arabs of Oran in the novel all too accurately mirrors the contemporary whitewashing of Black bodies, deaths and health workers. In her bookTestimony (1992), co-authored with Dori Laub, the American literary critic Shoshana Felman once brilliantly described the novel as ‘bearing literary witness’ to the plague; specifically, her reference was the Holocaust. But I found myself wondering what happens when the distance you need for decent moral witnessing is not available? What does it mean to live in the plague – every day and interminably, across generations and without an exit strategy?
About the time we moved into lockdown, two friends independently urged me to read the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel Malina (1971), reissued by Penguin last year. Poet, philosopher, librettist, Bachmann was one of the most significant voices in postwar literary Europe. She was Henry Kissinger’s one-time and Paul Celan’s long-time on-off lover. He wrote her a love poem, which she thought his most beautiful, ‘Corona’.
Malina is the only novel Bachmann completed before her untimely and hideous death in 1973 at the age of 47 (badly burned, she’d been smoking in bed – and died in hospital weeks later). It was intended as part of a sequence of novels to be called ‘Ways of Death’ (Todesarten) – each describing the different ways in which modern women get to die. Malina tells the story of a woman writer living between two men: Ivan, whom she craves with a febrile and consuming passion, and the eponymous Malina with whom she lives.
The love triangle, however, is background to the real drama of the novel – the struggle between language and death – which is the key reason the novel speaks to us so strongly just now. But it also resonates so powerfully because Bachmann describes modern history from the perspective not of those who make, participate in or simply witness atrocity, but of those who suffer it.
Like other members of the Gruppe 47 of postwar German writers, Bachmann wanted to rid language of fascist history, which for her was also the history of patriarchal and colonial tyranny – the three mutations of a virus that doesn’t cause lockdowns, headlines and emergency measures but is no less, indeed more, lethal for all that.
Bachmann’s prose is the very opposite of Camus’s gentle lucidity; it is dense, breathless, one moment luminous, the next incomprehensible. Late into one of many sleepless April nights, I read this passage:
Against the decay and order, against life and against death, against accident, constant threats from the radio, the newspaper headlines all spreading the plague, against perfidy seeping down from upstairs or up from downstairs, against a slow devouring inside and being swallowed up by the outside … I hold my position, keep my early evening watch and wait and smoke.
The ‘I’ of language doesn’t exist in history, she once said, ‘history exists in the I’. Writing, for her, as for Camus, is an existential and historical struggle. But when you are being devoured from both inside and outside, it is difficult to take sides. You really can hold only your position.
In the end, Bachmann’s narrator cannot hold her position. She is defeated by the sheer weight of the twin histories of fascism and patriarchy, their languages and their virus-like ability to eat you up from the inside. She stops trying to write her book, and begins to fade from her own narrative:
No day will come, people will never, poetry will never and they will never … the plague will come, this plague which everyone is carrying, this plague which has infected all, this plague will snatch them up and carry them away, soon. It will be the end.
In the final pages of the novel, she quite literally disappears into the wall.
For Bachmann, it’s difficult to moralise about the plague from any distance because it’s always there, threatening to overwhelm, destroy and colonise. ‘The whites are coming. The whites are landing,’ she wrote in the unfinished novel The Book of Franza (1999) (also destined for the ‘Ways of Death’ series): ‘They will resurrect themselves in a brown or black brain, which will become white once again. They will take over the world through such indirect means.’
This is not a vision of the world that can be countered with moral decency. Judt loved The Plague, as I do, because of its message about ‘placing individual moral responsibility at the heart of all public choices’. The lesson of the past few months is that individual moral responsibility is needed more than ever, but also that it isn’t nearly enough – not least because a place from which to be quietly decent is a privilege that so few have. Others, meanwhile, are being devoured.
Bachmann was a scholar of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. She understood that words acquire meaning by how they are used in social and political contexts; and that this is exactly why the use of words can be corrosive, pervasive, life-threatening, deadly. She wrote her thesis against the philosopher Martin Heidegger because she was critical of how Heidegger’s commitment to the unsayable mysteries of language could be resuscitated into nostalgic forms of mystic fascism. For Bachmann, poetry was the weapon against the plagues of our time – specifically against the historical hatreds of white men – because it could jam the codes that allow those hatreds to reproduce, could expose the language of plague for what it is: not a tragedy of nature to be borne with stoic humanism, but a manmade crime to be condemned. ‘No new world without a new language’ is one of Bachmann’s most frequently quoted sayings (‘Keine neue Welt ohne neue Sprache’).
‘I’ve often wondered,’ Bachmann wrote in the 1960s, ‘just where the virus of crime escaped to – it cannot have simply disappeared from our world 20 years ago just because murder is no longer praised, desired, decorated with medals …’ Exactly like Camus, she saw that European fascism had released an insidious kind of evil into the world. Around the same time, Arendt (who admired Bachmann) used the expression ‘the banality of evil’ to similarly describe an endemic criminality that hides itself in tacit principles, values, procedures, in everyday language and everyday tyranny. The problem for that generation was how to respond.
In the end, The Plague’s moral clarity belonged to the witnesses, not to the invisible victims. ‘What it is that one learns in the midst of such tribulations,’ concludes Dr Rieux, is that ‘there is more in men to admire than to despise.’ Maybe. But compare the final words of Malina: ‘It was murder.’ ‘I maintain,’ wrote Bachmann, ‘that still today many people do not die but are murdered.’
Camus used the fictional metaphor of the plague to expose the political and historical scourges of his time. By contrast, our plague is real: our historical and political metaphors are out of control. There is ‘a pandemic of’ we say – and what we also mean is that there is violence we can’t stop, and which seems to infect not only lives and minds, but the very words we use. And that it is killing us. On this point, Bachmann is our closer contemporary.
Lyndsey Stonebridge is professor of humanities and human rights at the University of Birmingham. Her book Writing and Righting: Literature in the Age of Human Rights was published in November 2020, and she is currently writing a new book on Hannah Arendt for Jonathan Cape.
First published in Psyche. Included in Vox Populi with permission.