READING CAMUS' The Plague in our Time
We live in strange times. The columnists and commentariat have run out of ways to milk horror and agony out of their visions, and now drift like crows over the ruins of a journalistic waste land of hyperbole, exhausted metaphors, bankrupt symbolism, and rhetoric rusting on the battle field like old artillery and tanks. It's an age that has wrung all the energy and raw emotion out of language. If it were up to the churches to conduct our journalism, the bells would all be cracked and the ropes to pull them would be frayed and broken. Instead, we go around with heavy hearts wondering what new atrocity to our faith and beliefs will happen next.
I am bemused when I listen to the weather reports here in Vermont. They are like parodies of the news, with forecasts of storms rushing to overwhelm us with floods, sieges of deep snow and ice, strange warming trends that merely inform us how we underestimate the furies of global warming. The weather has become psychological in America, an allegory of our spiritual malaise. The snow is never as deep as projected, the wind is not quite the scourging of our towns, and the flooding and ice-jamming don't quite narrate the chapters of our end of days. But the forecasters plod on, heads down, gazing deep into the will of some malevolent or merely angry spirit bending the jet stream, boiling the oceans, melting our ice caps, and blowing ills and chaos into the once serene weather maps of yore.
Nothing escapes our mood of self-pity and despair. If some small event should occasion a sigh of relief, it is usually accompanied by a cautionary remark to stop us from breaking into a smile. The stock market was about to start its long dive into the yawning chasm of bankruptcy and ruin. When that didn't happen with a "recovery," then the recovery itself was merely a flutter in the wind, nothing to reassure us we might be safe for a few months longer. The nudges and jags of the stock market needles are scrutinized for the first sign that the Book of Revelations as written by the prophets of Wall Street might come true. No upswing can last, we are told; nothing is good forever. True enough. What goes up, must come down, sayeth the lords of money. And they have Newton on their side.
Outside my window, nature is as brown as fox fur. It sleeps in the cold mud, its head nestled on its right arm. It dreams of nothing. Its inexhaustible energy can't be glossed for meaning or intentions. The birds are gone; the chipmunks have inherited the sere, leaf-strewn ground and play in it like tiny sprites. They have no idea how terrible is our future. They make tunnels in the snow when there is sufficient thickness, or construct intricate labyrinths under the leaf meal when the earth lies bare. Tracks on the ground are of the occasional venturing stag from the nearby woods, or the delicate script of some wandering hare that has left home for the day. Otherwise, the world has become a dungeon of silence and unconsciousness.
I haven't heard any enterprising journalist try to connect the present uproar from the students who survived the Parkland massacre with the Children's Crusade of the twelfth century. Supposedly, the children and the poor rose up in a wave to take back the holy land from the Muslims, and embarked on a march down to the shores of the Mediterranean and boarded waiting boats. So far, so good. The mythic imagination continues the narrative by asserting that these brave youngsters proceeded to the arid latitudes and fought bravely to take back the monuments of Christianity from the heathens. That is the old school paradigm when Christianity ruled the west. Today, in smugly sardonic prose, you will read that this crusade was never driven by kids, but by ragtag armies of the poor who were hoping to find a better life behind a rifle. They, whoever they were, ended up at the docks of various ports and were promptly bid to come aboard waiting ships, only to be sold into slavery in Tripoli, in what is now Libya.
The bright, sunny moralistic tale of these righteous young kids, however, empowers the present story of the Parkland protest -- even if no one recalls the original crusade story. The kids will guide us, when the adults have failed. Marco Rubio, junior Republican senator of Florida, bearded the lion in the state house by trying to defend the gun manufacturers and his NRA sponsor, but perhaps felt the determination of the Parkland protesters and began to give way to some notion of reform of the gun laws. He soon recovered his resolve and fell back in line with the strident, pro-gun rhetoric of his leader, Donald Trump. The slight flurry of warm wind blowing out of the optimistic souls of the young had not held the weather vane for long, before it swung back to the ominous winds that blow out of Washington and Fairfax, Virginia, where legions of NRA lawyers plot their machinations.
The land is half-frozen as I look down at it. The air is unmoving, as still as the breath of the despairing onlookers at what has become of us in a few short years of the new century. Bringing in Trump was an act of such defiance of principles and wisdom that it leaves many of us without a place to put our feet. The cabinet is filled with men and a woman or two eager to take down the elaborate structure of liberal thought and to leave behind the desolate market place that once governed thought in the 19th century. We believed our reforms and laws of tolerance would outlast the rages of political extremism, but the sound of mortar falling, and the emptying of government agencies tells us that revenge and resentment on the right have built up a resilient, determined army against our Rooseveltian world. When things look a little too dark in the news, Trump knows to throw a sop to the disillusioned, and the press duly reports the gesture as a hopeful sign.
Only to reverse itself to proclaim that the executive order or the tweets of the day were a bit of window-dressing by a clever manipulator of the masses. And then we pull our coats closer to our chest, duck our heads down, and continue plodding forward in this overcast world.
I feel like a citizen of the Algerian town of Oran, the setting of Albert Camus's novel, The Plague. Everyone watches as the wagons gather up the dead from the night's traumas, and no one has any reason to hope they will be spared from the destruction. The town is quarantined; the gates are bolted shut. Only the doctor and our narrator are permitted to walk out to the beach without fear of being dragged off to prison. Life is steadily diminished by the menace of this disease eating at the vitality of a once prosperous city. The mystery of its steady destruction of a world haunts the hospital where the devastation is witnessed first hand. The malice of the unseen enemy is unfathomable to those who believe in the goodness of the world. How can anyone or thing will the collapse of a system that works?
And yet, there are many who seem zealous to complete the work of a dark force among us, even as the newspapers and the TV news lament like a Greek chorus the return of black lung disease among the coal miners, the pollution of our sea coasts and inland waterways by chemical factories, the toxic consequences of fracking in the Midwest, the brutalization of women in the workplace, the roll back of welfare and medical support for the poor. It's all happening as we get up each morning and slurp our coffee and turn on the radio or the TV to hear of the next assault upon our wellbeing coming out of the back rooms of the White House and the dark corridors of the Congress.
Hope is the tiny motion of the hedge as a sparrow appears and flies away looking for a twig to make its nest. I have to cherish this moment as if it were the only one in the world.