The Pestilential Imagination (2): Consciousness as a Moral Code

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“On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.” (Albert Camus, The Plague, 131)

One of my non-negotiable assumptions is that literature matters. Books are important. So are poems and plays and films. We are storytelling animals who can only think in narratives, so the narratives that we consume have a lot to do with how we think about important things. If we cannot find good stories, we will have to make due with bad ones, which are never difficult to find and always easy to consume. And if all we have to think with are bad stories, then we will find it hard to have anything better than bad thoughts.

If there is anything we need a lot of during the COVID-19 crisis, it is good thoughts, which, if I am correct, cannot be had without good books. And as it turns out, there aren’t many really first-rate literary works about plagues and epidemics. We have Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, of course, and Elder Allan Poe’s “Mask of the Read Death,” and, on the outside of the definition, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. It’s something, of course, but when we consider that plagues have reshaped the world even more than wars, and every third book since the Iliad has been about war, we can easily see that plague writing has been lagging behind for the last few thousand years.

But we do have The Plague, by Albert Camus. And this one is worth almost every war novel of the last 2,000 years.

The Plague is not merely one of the best novels ever written abut an epidemic; it is one of the best novels ever written about anything. In is realistic portrayal of a fictional plague in the North African city of Oran in the 1940s, Camus finds a frame for discussing devastatingly important things like human nature, social organization, belief in God, disbelief in God, compassion, integrity, and freedom. And that is just in Part One.

In Part Two, the two heroes of the novel emerge to describe their heroism. Dr. Rieux, the viewpoint character for most of the novel, avoids any talk of being a hero. When asked to generate an ethical rationale for his tireless efforts to care for the people of Oran, he just shrugs and says, “There are sick people and they need curing. Later on, perhaps, they’ll think things over; and so shall I. But what’s wanted now is to make them well.”

That’s it. The middle of an outbreak is to time for abstract philosophical games involving trolley cars or Picasso paintings. There are sick people, and they need curing. Q.E.D.

Rieux’s companion in this conversation, though, is much more disposed to philosophizing. Jean Tarrou, a stranger visiting Oran when the plague hits the city, steps forward to help organize a team of volunteers to care for the sick and dispose of the dead. Rieux asks why Tarrou, a stranger, would risk his life to do these things. The response could not be more vital for us today

“Out with it, Tarrou! What on earth prompted you to take a hand in this?”
“I don’t know. My code of morals, perhaps.”
“Your code of morals? What code?”

This passage jars me when I read it because it gives us a one-word moral code that would take a lifetime to unpack: “comprehension” as the basis for morality.

This is not what I expect Tarrou to say. By his actions in the novel, most people pressed to define his moral code in one word would say “compassion.” But compassion, or “feeling with” somebody is really the opposite of “comprehension,” or thinking about something. Tarrou’s formulation is both unforgivably arrogant and morally dazzling. At the same time.

The arrogance is absolutely typical of the French intellectual that Camus satirizes (and also identifies with) Tarrou. As a marker of arrogance, Tarrou uses “comprehension” here about the same way that people now use “woke.” He gets it. He understands oppression and poverty and all forms of social injustice. He is aware, and he wears his awareness on his sleeve.

But that is not all he does. Tarrou does not merely signal his wokeness by saying things about the plague. And, in fact, plagues are not the kind of enemy that can be defeated by political awareness. The plague of Oran is a social leveler. It strikes without regard to social class or nationality. It cannot be intimidated or negotiated with or bought off. It is an enemy without levers.

What Tarrou is saying, though, is much different than the typical moral posturing of an intellectual elite. In his view, clarity and comprehension don’t make one moral; they give one the tools that one needs in order to become moral. Morality for Camus is always the result of a choice, and it is always, on some level, an intellectual choice. We make the choice first, and then we become the sum total of our choices. Its Existentialism 101.

The moral choices that Tarrou makes are what the cognitive scientist Paul Bloom has recently called “rational compassion,” which consists of understanding a situation, identifying the people who are suffering (or who will suffer), and acting in the most rational way to relieve as much of that suffering as possible. What Tarrou understands is that dead bodies are not hygienic and, if not properly cared for, will cause more people to get the plague. He volunteers to do something unglamorous, but absolutely necessary, to address that problem.

Tarrou’s heroism is astonishing in its ordinarinesss. Rieux, the doctor, has the ability to treat people directly, losing many but healing some, and always knowing precisely what his contribution is. Tarrou volunteers to bury bodies and dispose of infected waste — and to convince others to do the same. Nobody names buildings after sanitation crews, and he can never know for sure that his efforts worked, since the people whose lives he saves will never get sick in the first place. But it matters, and his sacrifices are perhaps the most noble of anyone in the novel.

That’s why my motto this week, during the current epidemic, has been “What Would Tarrou Do?” How, in other words, can I pay attention to the very real suffering that people are going through and act, rationally and compassionately, to relieve it. Fortunately, my town doesn’t have bodies in the streets, or even a single case of the coronavirus. But there is plenty of suffering for anyone who goes in for quiet heroism. A few thoughts:

Staying home, as many, many people have pointed out, is a baseline requirement of a moral code based on consciousness. Not going anywhere is an act of faith because it requires invisible sacrifices for people we will never meet. And if we end up saving someone’s life, neither we, nor they will ever know that it was saved.

But “doing nothing” is not enough. Here are some more things that I suspect Tarrou would do if he were in our plague instead of Camus’:

  • Witness to the profound anxieties caused by an indefinite period of isolation. The Coronacrisis has, almost overnight, caused millions of people to enter into a time of separation, economic anxiety, loneliness, and Baudalire-level malaise. Recognize this, find ways to support and encourage people who are desperately afraid for their health, their welfare, and their families.

These are the things I think of when I try to understand consciousness as a moral code. Such a code, I am convinced, tries to see and understand specific kinds of suffering that specific people are going through. And then it tries to relieve it.

None of the things I have mentioned is very glamorous. I suspect that this is the reason that there is so much more war literature than plague literature. Wars have enemies that can be vanquished. They provide the opportunity for glory and dramatic combat. Wars breed heroes. Plagues, on the other hand, breed only victims. Few people sing songs about the ordinary people who, day after day, relieve the suffering of disease, isolation, and anxiety. But that suffering is real, and real heroes are the people who can see it, understand its impact, and do concrete and meaningful things to relieve it.

Author’s note: The first installation in can be found here.

Written by

Michael Austin is a former English professor and current academic administrator. He is the author of We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition

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