Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The Best We Can Do?

In his book, The Plague (1947), Albert Camus imagines how the people of the North African port city of Oran might have responded if unexpectedly stricken by that disease sometime in the 1940s. Before introducing the plague, and scrutinizing their response, Camus gives us some sense of ordinary life in this city of 200,000.

In our little town…everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits. Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, ‘doing business.’ Naturally they don’t eschew such simpler pleasures as love-making, sea-bathing, going to the pictures. But, very sensibly, they reserve these pastimes for Saturday afternoons and Sundays and employ the rest of the week in making money, as much as possible. In the evening, on leaving the office, they forgather, at an hour that never varies, in the cafes, stroll the same boulevard, or take the air on their balconies…

It will be said, no doubt, that these habits are not peculiar to our town; really all our contemporaries are much the same. Certainly nothing is commoner nowadays that to see people working from morn till night and then proceeding to fritter away at card-tables, in cafes and in small-talk what time is left for living. Nevertheless there still exists towns and countries where people have now and then an inkling of something different. In general it doesn’t change their lives. Still, they have had an intimation, and that’s so much to the good. Oran, [4] however, seems to be a town without intimations; in other words, completely modern (The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert, Vintage International, 1991, pp. 4-5).

Yankee philosopher Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them” (Walden, 1854). Here Camus suggests, rather, that our mediocre Olympian personalities actually prefer to settle themselves into convenient if dull routines. We seek to inhabit boring habits rather than dare the risks of freedom or any other song.

Our dull Olympian personality chooses to devote itself, without awareness, to Pluto: the conventional god of money. If we prove ourselves zealous in this respect, separating ourselves from our fellow Olympians by several billion dollars, we only succeed in making ourselves even more tiresome.

Pluto never travels without his polar opposite Bacchus: the conventional god of consumption. If we squander ourselves in the aimless pursuit of money during weekdays, we continue to waste ourselves in evenings and on weekends through an equally absurd indulgence in some repetitive round of sensate pleasures.

As Camus points out, there’s nothing peculiar about this. Olympian personalities have always been this way and always will be. The dreary gods Pluto and Bacchus continue to set the agenda and we simply go along with them and everyone else just to get along.

True, Jesus Christ changed all this forever and for good. Indeed, there continues to exist a handful of people who, witnessing to him through their Tufluvian personalities, give our Olympian personalities at least an inkling of something different. But, for now anyway, their number is limited and shrinking. Rarely does their example disturb our slumber. After all, we’re completely modern.

Copyright © 2022 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.