Thursday, October 02, 2008

Abstraction and Ethical Choice in Camus' The Plague

In an early chapter of Albert Camus' The Plague, itinerant journalist, Raymond Rambert asks the town doctor, Bernard Rieux for a certificate stating that he is plague-free, in order that he might leave the quarantined city of Oran and be reunited in Paris with his girlfriend. When his request is refused, Rambert angrily accuses Rieux of being incapable of understanding his situation:

You're using the language of reason, not of the heart; you live in a world of abstractions.

After Rambert's departure, Rieux muses on his accusation:

Yes, the journalist was right in refusing to be balked of happiness. But was he right in reproaching him, Rieux, with living in a world of abstractions? Could that term “abstraction” really apply to these days he spent in his hospital while the plague was battening on the town ...? Yes, an element of abstraction, of a divorce from reality, entered into such calamities. Still when abstraction sets to killing you, you've got to get busy with it. And so much Rieux knew: that this wasn't the easiest course.

The answer to both of Rieux's reflexive questions is no. Rieux, in fact, isn't dealing with abstractions, or ideas at all when he refuses Rambert's request—he is reacting rationally to unforeseen events that have befallen Oran. In addition to working long clinical hours, diagnosing and treating contagious patients, he helps convince city health officials to institute measures for inoculating the city's populace at the earliest possible time, in an effort to stem spreading of the disease. Rieux does what he has to do in the face of calamity, out of a sense of responsibility to himself, as a citizen of Oran and the community, as a doctor who has pledged to treat and heal the sick, even if his own well being is threatened in turn.

Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethics, says,

[V]irtues arise in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature, but nature gives us the capacity to acquire them, and completion comes through habituation.

In other words, virtue is not something we are born with; but life experience gives us the potential to be virtuous, to learn by doing, which doesn't necessarily involve navigating the “the easiest course.” Furthermore,

[A]ctions done in accordance with virtues are done in a just or temperate way … with knowledge … from rational choice … and … from a firm and unshakable character.

Rieux's actions—instituting a quarantine, treating patients as if they were afflicted by the plague before an official declaration of outbreak has been made, at the risk of infecting himself—arise from rational choice, and from “a firm and unshakable character.” He chooses to do good, based on objective evidence, operating under directive from his own moral compass, and sticks to his guns. “You're stating the problem wrongly,” Rieux remarks to his compatriot, Dr. Richard, discussing implementation of prophylactic measures. “It's not a question of the term I use; it's a question of time.”

Later, once the plague taken firm hold of the city, Rieux is talking with a newcomer to Oran, Jean Tarrou. Tarrou unexpectedly offers the besieged doctor assistance by organizing voluntary groups of helpers, an offer which Rieux gladly accepts. The discussion then turns to Father Paneloux's recent fire-and-brimstone sermon; pressed for an answer as to his particular beliefs, Rieux admits that he is an atheist. Tarrou asks him how he can work so devotedly when he doesn't believe in God? Rieux replies,

I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this; there are sick people and they need curing.

Rieux is concerned not with the nebulous prospect of an afterlife, but with the here-and-now. “Virtues are rational choices,” Aristotle says in Nichomachean Ethics, and Rieux's decision to try to cure his patients arises from the knowledge that he, as a physician, has the requisite knowledge, is the best prepared to effect such a remedy if possible. He continues,

When I entered this profession, I did it 'abstractedly,' so to speak; because I had a desire for it, because it meant a career like another, one that young men often aspire to. Perhaps, too, because it was particularly difficult for a workman's son, like myself. And then I had to see people die. Do you know that there are some who refuse to die? Have you ever heard a woman scream 'Never!' with her last gasp? Well, I have … I've never managed to get used to seeing people die.

Rieux confesses his earlier attraction to medicine may have been for 'abstract' reasons—aptitude, social pressure, prestige, hierarchical class distinctions—but the reality of being a doctor, of dealing with life and death on a one-to-one basis, quickly altered his conception. Virtue “comes through habituation,” is a learning process; therefore, through applying himself as a doctor—saving, as well as losing patients; becoming familiar with, yet not inured to death—Rieux has come to be virtuous.

Later in The Plague, when contagion is at its zenith, Magistrate Orthon's young son is afflicted by the epidemic and brought to the auxiliary hospital for treatment. Camus spares little in describing the boy's febrile convulsions and “torture.” Drs. Rieux and Castel, Tarrou, Paneloux, Rambert, and Joseph Grand, Rieux's former patient and a municipal clerk, bear witness to the child, Jacques' symptoms, after being administered Castel's last-ditch anti-plague serum:

[T]he pain inflicted on these innocent victims had always seemed … to be what in fact it was: an abominable thing. But hitherto they had felt its abomination in, so to speak, an abstract way; they had never had to witness over so long a period the death-throes of an innocent child.

Medicine, religion, so-called journalistic facts, even the daily business of living in the midst of plague—no belief system, science or philosophy—can approximate the reality of pain, suffering, and death, especially that which affects “an innocent child.” Disgust at such senseless and widespread suffering ceases to be conceptual or intellectual when one willingly undergoes exposure to it. No one is untouched by Jacques' death, least of all Rieux, who says, in reaction to Father Paneloux's platitudinous statement, “But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand”:

“No, Father. I've a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.”

Rieux will never “manage[] to get used to seeing people die”—it is beyond his character, the opposite of what is good, the antithesis of action. His character will not allow it.

Once the plague has officially abated, Oran is scheduled to reopen to the public. Though he is still overworked, considering a return to normalcy brightens Rieux's perspective—he's hopeful, with an optimistic general outlook for himself, as well as others. He ponders further change:

Yes, he'd make a fresh start, once the period of “abstractions” was over, and with any luck—

Rieux's thoughts are interrupted when his mother arrives to tell him Tarrou is not feeling well; within days he has died of the plague. The “period of 'abstractions'” Rieux had in mind—the idea of a plague-free Oran, as opposed to the reality of reopening the city, its citizens acclimated once again to the rhythms of reality, the all-encompassing pestilence banished—is summarily over. Prior to succumbing, Tarrou asks his friend to be honest with him regarding his prognosis:

“Rieux,” he said at last, “you must tell me the whole truth. I count on that.”
“I promise it.”

Telling the truth, no matter how ugly, unpleasant, or frightening, is a noble choice. Hard as it may be for him to do so personally, Rieux is honest with Tarrou about his prospects, and that final declaration obliterates the temptation to cloak meaning or hope in abstraction. Tarrou's death brings “tears of impotence” to Rieux's eyes, but it is his inability to thwart the plague through medical treatment—science, medicine—that brings on the tears. Sometimes the plague kills; death is not an abstraction, and Rieux's intentions and actions are profoundly moral.

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