I never wanted to be the sort of guy who would write about Albert Camus’ The Plague during an actual pandemic, but here we are.
Obviously, it seems a bit on the nose, reminiscent of the academic thinking one might expect from the very late ’90s or early 2000s. To be specific, and judging from the torn corner of an issue of the Missoulian newspaper used as a bookmark, the kind of thinking I was doing on Sunday, November 16th, 2003. Winter in Montana. At least it was an appropriate time of year for reading about existential grief, especially when reading about it in French and English simultaneously, because that’s just the sort of thing I would do then. No exit then, no judgement now (and yes, I know that’s a Sartre reference, not Camus; I don’t care).
Writing about The Plague, then, particularly now, would seem on the surface like the worst kind of campus nostalgia, a hankering for the simplicity of dorm-room certainty and coffee-shop wisdom (RIP, Finnegans of Missoula).
But I didn’t start writing about The Plague for any reason to do with the coronavirus. It started with a Netflix movie called The Half Of It.
The Half Of It, simply, is a re-telling of the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, but with enough twists and reformulations and riffs that it stands out and serves as my current no-reservations recommendation for something to see. It stars Leah Lewis (George from the CW’s Nancy Drew – which is another of my recommendations, despite the weird juxtaposition of the supernatural on top of the classic story of a teen sleuth; I think Jensen Ackles must have something on CW execs that compels them to keep supernatural topics at the forefront of all programming). Her Ellie Chu, a high school senior, plays the organ in the local church, despite being an atheist, and plays Cyrano for local athlete and aspiring sausage baron Paul, who wants help in courting Aster, presumptive bride of Big-Man-On-Campus and cashmere-sweater-swaddled Trig.
There actually is a Camus reference in the movie, but it isn’t even a direct quote that prompted this blog entry.
It was prompted, in fact, by this dialogue:
ELLIE: I don’t believe in God.
ASTER: That must be so nice.
ELLIE: No. It’s not. It’s …lonely.
Now this is where we get to why I’m writing.
The one passage from The Plague that’s always stuck with me and shaped my atheism (or agnosticism with atheistic leanings, as I’ve never fully committed) is as follows:
[P]uisque l’ordre du monde est réglé par la mort, peut-être vaut-il mieux pour Dieu qu’on ne croie pas en lui et qu’on lutte de toutes ses forces contre la mort, sans lever les yeux vers ce ciel où il se tait.
Or to put it another way:
[S]ince the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence.
Atheism isn’t necessarily an iconoclastic rejection of the mainstream path. I don’t think I’m smarter than anyone who believes. For instance, my wife’s grandfather, Walter Lammerts, was a brilliant breeder of roses, responsible for breeds such as the Queen Elizabeth and the Chrysler, and the heart and soul of Descanso Gardens in Pasadena; and yet, with such an in-depth knowledge of genetics and science, he was still a creationist in the sense of the people who argue for Intelligent Design. I mean, those people are still wrong, but you can’t assume they lack intelligence.
So no, atheism isn’t easy. It’s not always a smug self-congratulatory pose of superiority. It’s not just a dark coat worn on a cold night at a college town cafe by an English major who doesn’t want to feel there’s a universe against him because he doesn’t visit a church on Sundays.
When you’re an atheist, when you just … don’t … believe, you’re missing out on a spiritual safety net which must be quite nice to have beneath you. And yet there is an imperative to do good anyway.
And where is that sense of good and evil coming from? What tells us right and wrong?
There’s still an implicit understanding of the value of life which shapes and generates a morality independent of a silent, distant God. There is still reason to fight on and not look for God to save us from our own excesses and the violence of evil people.
Like the movie, you don’t know exactly how life will end; it likely won’t end the way you think it ought to, but that doesn’t mean the ending is wrong.
And that’s why we should continue to fight against the forces of death. Not the “Forces of Death” like a Saturday-morning cartoon, but those forces who would negate life and quash vibrant expression of the self, those whose only response to “Black Lives Matter” is “Blue Lives Matter”, those who count on a deus ex machina to whisk them off to heaven as soon as they burn and salt the earth.
No one likes a deus ex machina anyway. Let God stay silent up in heaven with her feet up; we can and we must make our own way. We just need to find the way to be kind to each other. That’s all that matters: kindness.