Robert Zaretsky
Albert Camus

Commentators have long recognized Camus's debt to the ancient historian's description of the plague that swept through Athens shortly after the beginning of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC. The parallels are many and striking: the swings between hope and despair in Athens, the gradual collapse of traditions and institutions, the festering of superstition and resentment, even the author's claims of objectivity. In all these respects, Camus closely follows Thucydides.

It is telling that just months after France's defeat, Camus committed himself to a course of study: 'The Greeks. History—Literature—Art—Philosophy.' These various genres, while they differed in form, offered the same urgent wisdom. Camus made this clear when he created a fictional character, Stephan, in early sketches for The Plague Stephan is a classics teacher trapped in an unnamed, plague-ridden city. 'He realizes,' Camus observed, 'that he had not understood Thucydides and Lucretius until then.'

Until 1940, neither had Camus. Only now did he see that he and Thucydides had many things in common, beginning with the experiences of exile and defeat. Thucydides started to write his history after being expelled from his native city of Athens (his fellow citizens were unfairly angry over Thucydides' command of a failed naval battle). As for Camus, he undertook The Plague only after the authorities in Algiers closed his newspaper, forcing him to move to France for employment. In both cases, exile provided physical and emotional distance to reflect on events.

More intriguing is the common claim to objectivity of Thucydides and Camus. No doubt Camus was attracted to the traditional understanding of objectivity as an ideal. Shortly after the war, he told a friend: 'One thing seems to me greater than justice: if not truth itself, at least the effort toward truthfulness.' But Camus also used objectivity as a narrative technique-the rhetoric of antirhetoric. If objectivity is a strategy, not just a goal, Camus could find no better model than Thucydides. Through the simple juxtaposition of events, Thucydides forces us to consider what we otherwise might have overlooked. Early in his account, he re-creates Pericles' funeral oration, in which the Athenian leader praises the power of human reason to foresee all eventualities. An outbreak of plague immediately follows—an unforeseen disaster, Thucydides notes, that claimed Pericles as one of its victims. By combining the events, he makes clear what pages of emotive prose never could: the hubris of Pericles' claims on behalf of reason. The case against hubris also arises for Rieux's opponent, Dr. Richard. After long denying the plague's reality Richard finally and grudgingly acknowledges it. He nevertheless predicts its demise based on statistical trends. Hours before a meeting with city officials where he plans to deliver his optimistic assessment, however, he too is 'carried off by the plague.'

Equally important, both narratives remind us of the limits of narrative. Before he launches into his account of the plague, Thucydides hesitates: 'Words indeed fail when one tries to give a general picture of this disease.' Rieux is equally diffident like his Greek predecessor, he dislikes the sort of writing that sways emotions but distorts the truth. Instead, he will use 'conventional language' though it was 'incapable of describing' the experience of the plague. Yet neither Thucydides nor Camus was satisfied with this initial paradox: both of them double the knot. Confronting an angry city after the plague strikes, Pericles defends himself he had
'at least as much ability as anyone else to see what ought to be done and to explain what he sees. A man who has the knowledge but lacks the power clearly to express it is no better off than if he never had any ideas at all.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.