Camus and Kübler-Ross in a Time of COVID-19 and Trump

Photograph Source: Robert Edwards – CC BY-SA 3.0

Truth may be stranger than fiction as Mark Twain once said.  Yet fiction often speaks truth to  reality.   In the case of civilization living under the dagger of Covid-19, many are turning to books and plays for distraction and pleasure.  While some might read Waiting for Godot in hopes that the quarantines and the disease will soon pass, or  Sinclair Lewis’ account of malaria in Arrowsmith, a better read would be both  Albert Camus’s The Plague and The Stranger.  Together they capture the absurdity and tragedy of life in the age of Covid-19, one full not necessarily of one where people pull together but instead cast a wary eye toward others, seeing in others the face of death or danger.

Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a French playwright and existential philosopher.  While born in Algeria, he was in Paris when the Nazis invaded, fleeing the city and becoming a member of the resistance and underground.  He, along with Jean-Paul Satre, were two of the most famous exponents of French Existentialism, a theory of philosophy that rejected any inherent meaning to life as well as emphasizing often the tragic incoherence of human existence.    French Existentialism was  honed during WW II at a time when France and the world were literally fighting a battle for existence, with Nazi Germany vowing a final solution for Jews and the reality of death everywhere.

As part of the French Underground Camus had to constantly fear others.  Who were your friends or enemies?  Could someone you thought be loyal rally be a spy or simply turn on you for no apparent reason.  Instead of finding comfort in others the French Resistance instilled a sense of paranoia and fear of others.  The look of others, their close contact, or trusting them too much could result in a betrayal.  Strangers were to be feared and contrary to Blanch DuBois of  a Street Car Named Desire, one should not rely upon their kindness.

The Stranger is the story of Meursault, a person who receives a telegram that his mother has died.  He goes to her funeral, meets a woman with whom he becomes involved, and then faces trial for the killing of an Arab.  As Camus describes the murder:

On seeing me, the Arab raised himself a little, and his hand went to his pocket. Naturally, I gripped Raymond’s revolver in the pocket of my coat…After all, there was still some distance between us….I couldn’t stand it any longer, and took another step forward. I knew it was a fool thing to do.”

The two, the Arab and Meursault, both fear one another and their glances  for reasons not completely known. There is no premeditation for the murder, as becomes clear in Meursault’s trial.  The absence of a viable  explanation is used as evidence of callous indifference for life that leads to his conviction and execution.    Yet distrust, paranoia, or simply the fear of the look or glance of the other and not knowing what he might do is perhaps the real reason.  The look of the stranger might simply be the most primordial rule of survival, kill or be killed.

Fear of the other is central also to Camus’ other major novel, The Plague.  Here, a fictionalized account of a plague spread by rats running rampant through a community  spews fear of one another as they are seen as a source of disease.

He has an insight into the anomalies in the lives of the people here who, though they have an instinctive craving for human contacts, can’t bring themselves to yield to it, because of the mistrust that keeps them apart. For its common knowledge that you can’t trust your neighbor; he may pass the disease to you without your knowing it, and take advantage of a moment of inadvertence on your part to infect you.

The Stranger but especially The Plague are stories for our times as Covid-19 ravages across the world.  The Plague follows  the pattern of the five stages of death described by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and then told in the 1979 All That Jazz with Roy Scheider fictionalizing Bob Fosse.  It is  how a community goes from denial, anger, bargaining, depression and to acceptance that the plague is real and will kill.  This is Trump’s world.  It is a blend of Camus and  a  Kübler-Ross in an absurd political tragedy in the age of Trump.

When the plague first breaks out in Camus’ play, denial was the word of the day.  So too was it with Donald Trump.

No one wished to acknowledge the disease.  Yet “when the Ransdoc Bureau announced that 8,ooo rats had been collected, a wave of something like panic swept the town.  There was a demand for drastic measures, the authorities were accused of slackness, and people who had houses on the coast spoke of moving there, early in the year though it was. But next day the bureau informed them that the phenomenon had abruptly ended and the sanitary service had collected only a trifling number of rats. Everyone breathed more freely.

A mere false alarm.  But the false alarm was not.  It could no longer be denied.

The word “plague” had just been uttered for the first time. At this stage of the narrative, with Dr. Bernard Rieux standing at his window, the narrator may, perhaps, be allowed to justify the doctor’s uncertainty and surprise, since, with very slight differences, his reaction was the same as that of the great majority of our townsfolk. Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

Plagues are not what happen to us, it happens to the other, the stranger.  He is the one who brought it to us, be he the vagabond, the foreigner, the immigrant, or simply someone who is not us.  For Trump, Covid-19 is the Chinese disease  Plagues are not homegrown directed at the righteous.  Plagues from Biblical times have been brought as a revenge by God against a people who did something wrong,  yet we are the innocent ones.  We are the Shining City on the Hill, the plague must be the result as Christian Pastor Rick Wiles tell us in an Elmer Gantry way, to  punish humanity for its sins or, as in the case of Jerry Fawell, Jr.  A plot by North Korea.  It is not our plague; it is from the stranger.

Denial takes many shapes.  It is not simply denial that the plague exists, but that if it does, it will be short term.  It will be not too bad as Trump said of Covid-19, or maybe a few cases will increase or go down, or whatever.  It will be short-lived; we can reopen America and go back to work soon.

When a war breaks out, people say: “It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.” But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.

Maybe it will end soon as the president hopes. But as reporters questioned his responses, Trump lashed out, angered that anyone could question his administration or its competence.  Anger too is that somehow this Covid-19 plague will hurt Trump’s reelection.  Maybe it just doesn’t exist and if we close our eyes and plug our ears a “pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore, we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away.” Were it to go on too long it might  hurt not just lives and the economy but more importantly, his political prospects for re-election?  Covid-19 simply was a partisan plot as FOX’s Trish Regan declared to hamper Trump’s reelection.  Maybe as Sean Hannity and others hoped, it would soon pass.

Nevertheless, many continued hoping that the epidemic would soon die out and they and their families be spared. Thus they felt under no obligation to make any change in their habits as yet. Plague was for them an unwelcome visitant, bound to take its leave one day as unexpectedly as it had come. Alarmed, but far from desperate, they hadn’t yet reached the phase when plague would seem to them the very tissue of their existence; when they forgot the lives that until now it had been given them to lead. In short, they were waiting for the turn of events.

If denial and anger do not work, bargaining might work.  Covid-19 is a test of American character and resolve, proof of the superiority of our way of life.  Pull together, like we did during WW II, and it will be the good plague, the one that transcends partisanship and brings us together in death and sacrifice.  We can win this good fight, deluding ourselves into thinking that self-exile was a product of free will and not necessity.  Bargaining is also the name of the game when it comes to states receiving needed supplies.  Trump has demanded that governors be grateful in return for help.

Thus week by week the prisoners of plague put up what fight they could. Some, like Rambert, even contrived to fancy they were still behaving as free men and had the power of choice. But actually it would have been truer to say that by this time, mid-August, the plague had swallowed up everything and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all. Strongest of these emotions was the sense of exile and of deprivation, with all the crosscurrents of revolt and fear set up by these.

Death is not a choice.  And as seen first in Italy and now in New York City, the solemnity of funerals turned into depression and acceptance.  Depression and acceptance at the prospect that deaths would occur there, but nationwide too that 100,000 to 200,000 will die.

Actually the most striking feature of our funerals was their speed. Formalities had been whittled down, and, generally speaking, all elaborate ceremonial suppressed. The plague victim died away from his family and the customary vigil beside the dead body was forbidden, with the result that a person dying in the evening spent the night alone, and those who died in the daytime were promptly buried. Needless to say, the family was notified, but in most cases, since the deceased had lived with them, its members were in quarantine and thus immobilized.

Moreover, depression and acceptance are the reality that the response to it is too little and too late.  It is also the reality that while Covid-19 itself might be the great equalizer, treating the rich and poor alike, the burdens upon how it will wear upon people will not be so egalitarian.

Meanwhile the authorities had another cause for anxiety in the difficulty of maintaining the food-supply. Profiteers were taking a hand and purveying at enormous prices essential foodstuffs not available in the shops. The result was that poor families were in great straits, while the rich went short of practically nothing. Thus, whereas plague by its impartial ministrations should have promoted equality among our townsfolk, it now had the opposite effect and, thanks to the habitual conflict of cupidities, exacerbated the sense of injustice rankling in men’s hearts. They were assured, of course, of the inerrable equality of death, but nobody wanted that kind of equality.

The winners and losers of Covid-19 simply replicate the that already existed in our society.  Accepting that this tragedy would be an occasion for significant political reform was a fantasy at best.

What we learn from reading The Stranger and The Plague is that there is a script to human nature.  It is the script of  Kübler-Ross that plays out with every tragedy.  How we respond to events like Covid-19 is like living in the movie Groundhog Day, where we simply relive and reenact a series of scripted events that prove that Hegel was correct–the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.

David Schultz, Professor in the Department of Political Science at Hamline University and editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE). His latest book is Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.