Since last March, the COVID-19 pandemic has corroded and disrupted daily life the world over. Schools are closed. Businesses are shuttered – many without hope of ever reopening. Hospitals are forced to turn away grievously sick patients: no room at the inn. Men, women and children are crowded together in lodgings not fit for long periods of enforced quarantine. Once taken-for-granted plans are put off until … until who knows?
Time is out of joint: past, present and future are weirdly disfigured. Widespread anxiety eats at us – sometimes a dull gnawing, sometimes a devouring fever, but always present, a most unwelcome guest.
It is not surprising, then, that Albert Camus’ 1947 French novel, “La Peste” – “The Plague” – has been disappearing from the shelves of libraries and bookstores; the book provides a you-are-there account of an outbreak of bubonic plague sometime during the 1940s in the Algerian port city of Oran, 220 miles west of Algiers on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
Camus, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, describes in great detail the physical manifestations of the disease, with its characteristic painful swellings, called buboes. But he devotes most of his narrative to exploring the psychological, even spiritual, effects of those trapped in the quarantined city.
The populace moves from denial, from being too wrapped up in themselves to grasp the gravity of the threat, to the claustrophobia of legally enforced isolation, to the mounting dread of seemingly inescapable death as the corpses continue to pile up.
Those of us who choose to read “The Plague” during these COVID-19 days know in our bones that the author knows the complexity of our predicament.
But it is Camus’ 1955 collection of philosophical essays, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” that forces us to dig most deeply into the challenges that COVID poses to our sense of self. The theme of this book is “the absurd,” that feeling of being thrown into an irrational world by an act of fate totally beyond our control.
The experience of COVID heightens our sense of the absurd because it heightens our sense of mortality; more than 400,000 Americans have died of this disease in less than a year. As of this writing, on our most devastating days, more than 4,000 of our countrymen are dying. How can we not feel threatened by this invisible but lethal enemy? How can we not be reminded of the absurd fact that every one of our lives ends in death?
Clearly, in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus is not using the word “absurd” in its primary meaning of “ridiculous” or “irrational” or “self-contradictory” or “just plain silly.” Rather, he is using the term to call up our fundamental bafflement at being born to die.
Camus’ sense of existential absurdity also touches on matters less filled with dread than our mortality; so much of our lives, if we pause to think about it, overflows with one accident of fate after the other. Thus it is absurd, in an existential sense, that I happen to have been carried for nine months in a Jewish womb. My mother could have just as easily been born a Catholic or a Methodist or a Buddhist or a Shinto or a Bantu – or an Australian Aborigine, for that matter.
It is by an accident of fate, then, that I find myself a Jew. Were it not for this accident of fate, I would never have become a rabbi. But who knows? Perhaps in some alternate life, I might have become a priest or a minister … or a medicine man!
I have been wrestling with these notions of the absurd for years, but reading Camus during this time of COVID has caused me to become hypersensitive to my inner wrestling with unanswerable questions. COVID has shattered my sense of normalcy; I stagger through these days off balance. I am swimming in the absurd, struggling to keep my head above water.
Paradoxical as it may seem, I have found that my facing the absurd during this COVID siege has strangely – absurdly? – strengthened my religious faith rather than weakened it. Perhaps my COVID-heightened sense of mortality has helped me realize that mature religious faith is a work in progress – a strife of the spirit that can fill us with awe and with energy, and, at times, even with ecstasy, a sacred pilgrimage that can provide all of us with the strength and the courage to say “Yes!” in the face of “No,” to choose life in the very palpable face of death.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.