Where were we?
So, last time we talked about allegory, the achievements of evil and Superman. In Part II:
- 2+2=4? (and other metaphysical questions) – with guest appearance by 1984
- Word choice
So there I was, reading 1984 by George Orwell, published in 1949. In the middle of an entire book about freedom, I found a stunningly simple reduction. ‘Freedom is the freedom to say that 2+2=4’.
Wait a second, think I: haven’t I seen 2+2 recently? Yes. I had. In La Peste, to be precise. Shortly after the formation of the sanitary teams, Rieux dedicates a good long section to heroism. Heroism, he says, is not doing something extraordinary. Saying 2+2=4 under duress is not heroism. Heroism is working every day, without any moral pretensions, to say that 2+2=4, even when it’s not exciting.
It’s interesting that Camus would find no ‘heroism’ in Orwell’s protagonist – he searches constantly for ways to differentiate himself from the regime through rebellion, but ultimately fails. He lacks the plodding dedication that Camus finds essential.
Although does Orwell himself consider Winston to be a hero? Winston is not brave, intelligent, commanding; he is in every way average. He is the ‘hero’ of the novel in so far as he is the protagonist, but he does not display traditional heroic qualities, and in fact agrees to commit war crimes against innocent citizens.
Camus identifies Grand as his ‘hero’. On one level, the characters seem similar. Grand is also unassuming. He differs from Winston in that he is unable to declare his love, and does not fight the system even though he is trapped in a demeaning job for which he is overqualified.
Grand is a hero where Winston is not for one reason only. He lacks drive, but has dedication. His objective – to write a fantastic book – does not require rebellion or huge gestures. It requires patience. Likewise, we see Grand’s dedication to his humdrum job, and to the work of the sanitary teams. Above all, his pointless heart-warming dedication to his sentence. Grand doesn’t hurt anybody, and his morality is a way of life, where Winston’s is spur-of-the-moment, and linked more to sensuality than to morality.
Both Camus and Orwell choose to write about everyday people, and identify them as ‘heroes’. For both of them, heroism means something different to the classical heroes of epic song.
Why? What links these two men? Let’s look at the publication dates. 1947. 1949. Both men were writing during and after WW2. After the harrowing events of the war, most were disillusioned with the traditional values. Senseless death had occurred on a huge enough scale that everyone was affected. The old ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ was less than a myth. The importance of each and every human life had been realised. We needed new heroes.
Never mind rebellion, never mind prowess in war, never mind bloodthirstiness. We needed heroes for peacetime. And who better than the man who keeps all the wheels turning, the man who wouldn’t go out seeking war but protects his own, the man you’ve known all your life and who has never let you down? In short, the ordinary man. (Even then, we weren’t ready for gender equality, more’s the pity.) For the first time, we see stories about people power, about what the individual can accomplish. The man who knows that two plus two equals four, who’s said all his life that two plus two equals four, has never tried to make it different, has never tried to make it out to be more or less than it is (politicians need not apply). Camus refers to this explicitly as ‘honesty’.
According to Orwell, the ultimate evil is someone who can make you believe that two plus two does not equal four. Someone who distorts your view and – sends you off bright-eyed to war?
Why was this so great a fear? Two plus two equals four, two plus two has always equalled four, two plus two will continue to equal four – right? Wrong. After WW2, many ‘certainties’ were being called into question. It’s good to die in war – right? Suffering is compensated for by the afterlife – right?
There’s a life after death – right?
You guessed it, we’re back at existentialism (see Part I here). For centuries, Western society had been promised life after death if they followed the rules. Suddenly all that was gone. And it left a void. Nothing was certain any more. For a moment, let’s substitute ‘two plus two’ for ‘life’. Two plus two is no longer certain. Two plus two could equal anything. Worse, two plus two might be meaningless.
Two plus two had always been the basic building blocks of everything, an absolute certainty. When it becomes meaningless, life too becomes meaningless. Scary stuff. Camus and Orwell were both, in different ways, commenting on the results of this paradigm shift in ideology. Orwell chooses to focus on freedoms and autonomy, Camus on meaning and suffering, but zeitgeist links the two works incontrovertibly.
Time to get technical!
While reading La Peste, several words jumped out at me. Often. I’m going to look at this ‘key vocabulary’ and comment on its significance, but this list is by no means exhaustive.
‘la peste’ – Obviously. I discussed this in Allegory but it’s worth looking at its synonyms. Camus often chooses not to call the plague ‘plague’. Instead, he calls it ‘un fléau’ – a scourge. We can divide his usage into two pretty distinct categories. When we’re talking about the disease in a specific way – either medical or technical, or when this particular plague is being personified – we get ‘la peste’. Most of the rest of the time, it’s ‘le fléau’. Why? Because this is allegory at work. When we talk about ‘scourges’, we can mean the scourge of war, the scourge of evil. ‘Scourge’ is a much broader term which allows Camus to refer to his other influences in a much more unhindered manner, hence we see it particularly when Rieux is advocating the prevention of ‘scourges’ before they occur, and most importantly in Tarrou’s autobiography, where scourge is for the first time associated directly and explicitly with death (and therefore the question of existentialism).
‘veiller sur’ – to watch over. Rieux watches over his mother, his mother watches over him, relatives watch over their plague-stricken…the list goes on. At first, I thought, ‘well, Rieux’s a caring guy’. Then it showed up again. And again. Throughout La Peste, Camus advocates collective positive responsibility. According to him, it should be expected (back to the ideas about heroism) that people will do their bit and generally look out for another. More wartime camaraderie. Veiller is one way in which this manifests itself.
‘concitoyens’ – along with confrères, this is a very common piece of vocabulary, mainly used in the voice of our narrator cough-and-cough Rieux. It’s a tricky one to translate, but possible choices might be fellow-citizen or brother-citizen. The prefix ‘con’ is from the Latin, meaning ‘with’. In this case – together, all in the same boat. This is more evidence of Rieux’s – and by extension Camus’ – idea of a collective society. It is clear that Rieux at least sees his fellow-men as very much linked to him by thought, location and deed. He dedicates himself to Oran’s citizens and this is reflected by his parlance. Nice characterisation, Camus. However, he only uses this term of those people trapped in the city suffering the same fate as him – when describing the wellwishes from faraway cities received by the radio, he doesn’t use this term. Camus’ message is clear: empathy is only possible where people share situation and/or suffering. Otherwise we cannot understand each other, and as Rieux says, ‘all that man could win in the game of plague and life was knowledge and memories.’
‘exil’ – one of the big themes of La Peste is separation and its effects. We see lovers and families separated, but also a complete isolation from the outside world. This takes place in two ways. Firstly, because of a paper shortage it is physically forbidden to write letters. But gradually the citizens lose their desire to write telegrams or connect through the radio. Telegrams cannot encompass human feeling, but more importantly, the citizens cannot express their feelings. Their suffering is too great and too far removed from normal life for them to explain to someone who has not likewise suffered. Exil is a blanket term covering many things in La Peste – first comes physical separation from loved ones, then from material possessions, then psychological separation from the normal world, and last but not least emotional detachment from the events around the citizens. As long as ‘fléaux’ exist, groups of people will be isolated from others by their suffering.
My Favourite Quote
That’s a lie. This isn’t my favourite quote. It’s the one that occurred to me first, and as soon as I went through my notes, I wanted to put at least another ten down.
If I could, I’d just type up the entire book here. Better yet, go read it (again). It’s genius.
‘When you see the misery and the pain that it brings, you’d have to be stupid, blind, or cowardly to resign yourself to the plague.’ Rieux
With all allegory interpretations implied.
Thank you for reading! On Sunday – How Do We Translate Idiom?