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Coronavirus Through Literature

By: Eli Wizevich

As the first patients of the coronavirus were running fevers, coughing, and being hospitalized, I was sitting in my room in a green leather chair reading José Saramago’s Blindness. In the past few months, I have had the uncanny chance to read two novels detailing the outbreak of deadly pandemics, similar to COVID-19: Blindness and Albert Camus’ The Plague. In this article, I hope to bring the reader some clear insight into the human response to these epidemics and to inspire the reader into viewing and analyzing our own predicament critically. 

The Plague begins with the inertia of the masses: the citizens of Oran, a coastal town in Algeria, ignore the warning signs of disease. First rats flood the streets, but the people continue to frequent the same cafés, breathe the open air on balconies, and engage in “their chief interest,” commerce. By the time the first human death comes, after the rats have died, too, little has changed. One man, though, Dr. Bernard Rieux, the narrator, is nevertheless concerned and (vainly) lobbies his neighbors, colleagues, and the Municipal Office into taking the signs more seriously. 

As weeks pass, we meet a cast of characters who have starkly different responses to the increasing death toll. Raymond Rambert, a reporter from Paris on special assignment, is anxious to leave the town in spite of an enforced quarantine and to rejoin his wife in France. He desperately relies upon the ugly underbelly of Oran to smuggle him out, but all his attempts are futile. Cottard is a wanted man who, before the plague strikes, attempts to take his own life to avoid arrest. When the plague in its full force finally arrives, the town falls under the same veil of fear, and so Cottard no longer feels alone in his existential terror. He begins to blossom out of his shell, and lives more fully. Jean Tarrou, an outsider, writes a fastidious account of the outbreak, and Rieux often cites his journal as an objective view of the happenings. 

All the characters have a different reaction to the plague and more broadly to the suffering inherent in life. Cottard’s response to distress is to take his own life (a path Camus derides in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus). Rieux battles hard against the plague, even if his altruistic efforts are ineffectual. Tarrou commends his work, arguing—on behalf of Camus—that life, in and of itself, is meaningless, but it gains “meaning” when we freely choose to participate in the struggle of existence. Finally, Rambert tries desperately to leave, but upon learning that Rieux is also separated from his loved ones, he, too, gains an appreciation for Reiux’s selfless work and resolves to stay and help.

Faced with the often harsh conditions of life, especially in this time of virus, the reader may venture to question its purpose. Camus argues that life is without inherent purpose, yet humans are continually driven to search for meaning—a fruitless task, indeed. Camus (and before him Søren Kierkegaard) denotes this conflicting relationship as the Absurd and likens it to Sisyphus, a mythological Greek king forced by the gods to roll a boulder up a mountain ad infinitum. When one accepts the Absurd for what it is, Camus argues, one can then lead a joyful life. Rieux, Rambert, and Tarrou recognize this truth in the face of impending disease, suffering, and potentially death and in turn present the best that humanity has to offer to the reader: charity, innovation, and love. 

Our second novel is Blindness by José Saramago, the shocking tale of a town upended by the spreading of a white blindness that eventually impacts the whole population (more on that later). The first characters to become blind are interned in an old mental institution, and, isolated from authority, Saramago details how the blind internees forsake their humanity. A group of armed thugs takes over in the authority void and controls the food supply and demands payment for measly portions. Saramago spares no detail of the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse rampant in the asylum. 

The novel chiefly follows a group of unnamed characters led by “the doctor’s wife,” the one person in the city who hasn’t lost their sight. With her are the doctor (her husband), the old man, the boy with a squint, and the girl with dark glasses (alternatively known as the prostitute). Only this group keeps their moral compass and values, and they navigate around their ethically devoid peers. Eventually they escape into the city, but they are still confronted with filth, chaos, and suffering. 

Yet the human spirit shines through the abhorrent conditions. The girl with dark glasses, under no obligation, cares for the boy with a squint like a mother; the doctor’s wife puts herself through unbearable feats of physical and emotional strength, sacrificing her dignity for the welfare of the group; and other minor characters, through small yet profound actions, display glimpses of their humanity. 

Might it be easier to give up? Might it be illogical to continue fighting on principles when everyone else looks out for their own benefit? Arguably the actions of our so-called heroic characters have no impact on the outcome of the blindness. They do not develop the cure, nor do they make widespread change in the living conditions. But Saramago’s ultimate argument in Blindness is that the human spirit is resilient—in spite of illness, rape, murder, and other unspeakable external circumstances. That we have the ability to push forth, Saramago decrees, is enough to find the will to do so. 

In both books, the traditional sources of authority break down. The governments fail to act effectively, and so citizens must step up. Of course there are those who seek to exploit the system: the smugglers in Oran, the armed thugs in the asylum, and, in our world, the man in Tennessee who tried to upcharge on 18,000 bottles of hand sanitizer. In short, society breaks down, leaving a power vacuum to be filled. But it is our choice as to what we fill it with.

The grand conclusion that one reaches after reading these two novels is that, in Camus's words, there is more to be admired in humanity than there is to be despised, and that humanity has the power to be good, moral, and just when it wills it. Our best qualities, not our worst, ought to shine through the coronavirus—our altruism, our compassion, our love. But, of course, that is a conscious choice we must each make. 

(For more reading on Absurdism, I recommend Albert Camus’ The Stranger [The Outsider in some translations] and The Myth of Sisyphus, and At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. Alternatively, the internet has some great resources: The School of Life on Youtube and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

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