Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Plague by Albert Camus


Tarrou says, “Each of us has the plague within him. No one on Earth is free from it.” This would be the punchline of the novel, regardless of whether Camus himself agrees or not. (Camus said he was not an existentialist, in an interview over the book, according to Wikipedia.) The plague, in Tarrou’s argument, is very close to the concept of Dasein (“Being there”) and Sein-in-der-Welt (“Being-in-the-world”) of the German existentialist Heidegger’s. We are confined to this, and only this condition of life. And we agonize ourselves with this confinement. Camus is more direct to this problem of existence in his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, saying that the only question we human beings should ask is whether we should commit suicide or not.

The story has many characters with different views about life - the plague. The way they deal with the plague is the way they face their lives - their existences. Some acts upon moral codes, some derives the meaning of life from religion, and some - the main character Dr. Rieux - just lives on. Some sees it as being extremely unfair, while some others take courage (even delight) facing the revelation of the fact that everyone must face death. In this aspect, the novel is a wonder with allegorical mastery.

Then what about the realism? Jean Paul Sartre once wrote a short story called The Wall, where he audaciously claimed that he would describe the last day of a prisoner who faced an execution the next morning. But, I would like to ask, how? What does Mr. Sartre know about this particularly intriguing situation? The short story is a miserable piece of crap, due to this very apparent reason - he dared to write on a thing he knows nothing about. Albert Camus, in this regard, is not free from the same kind of criticism.

My final verdict about this novel is this: it is a very good piece of literature if it is an allegory. However, should it be in the form of a novel? He could have achieved what he aimed at by writing a play - like The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco, or a more allegorical novel - like Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. This means, of course, Albert Camus is a lesser talent compared to Eugene Ionesco or Thomas Hardy as a literary writer.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

1491: new revelations of the Americas before Columbus

The book aims to change the popular view about the native American people before the advent of the Europeans. (I do not think Indians are the right term to denote them, despite the author’s  rationale.) There are two popular views about the native Americans: 1) uncultivated primitive people with a wretched level of technology, or 2) the noble savages. Roughly, my view about them was aligned with the second category, even though my view differs a lot from the vanilla version of the noble savages. I thought of them as people who gained wisdom to live with the nature, rather than being ignorant of living in the capitalistic ways.

The big questions are as follows: 1) was America really a vacant place with small populace? 2) were the native Americans technologically behind the old world? 3) did the Europeans enlighten the native Americans, leading to a better way of life?

Of course, the answers to all those questions are NO. The population of the Americas before Columbus is an on-going issue of debate, but many evidences show that the continent was rather densely populated. The massacre by the European diseases was of a magnitude much bigger than usually imagined. It is almost sure that the population was reduced to less than half the original size solely due to the epidemic. In some extreme cases like Plymouth, the death ratio was roughly 95%. I am sure nobody these days buys into the rationale of the Europeans settling in a vacant continent, but the take-away should be realizing the magnitude of the tragedy done by the separately developed diseases and viruses. As the author says, if the Americas had had their own hoofed creatures like pigs, the pandemic would have been two-directional instead, killing much of the population in Eurasia as well.

About the second question, the author’s exemplification with the case of plow is very cogent. Before they adopted the Chinese version, the European plow was extremely inefficient, even though it is so hard to imagine that the Europeans could not discover the simple twitch. The same goes for the American civilizations. They had wheels, but only for children’s toys! Though unimaginable to us who are accustomed to the use of wheels, things can happen that way. Another insight is, like anything else, technological and scientific advancement is also relative. For example, the super-complex alloying technology the Incans used for their gold ornaments are simply amazing. As an even more important example, the North American natives’ political systems of having each gender taking care of different affairs of social life, is at least much more advanced than the political systems of most European countries in the 19th century.

The answer to the final question is apparent when we have answers for the first two questions. Ben Franklin wrote the following: Native Americans who were kidnapped early in their lives who were educated in the European way, will desert into the wild once they know of the way of living of her native people. On the other hand, European people who were kidnapped young to live among the natives, even though they learn about the European way of living, will not change the way of their lives. Even though they are taken by force to join their European relatives, they will seek opportunities to escape and return to the native American’s way of life. One might recall the move Dance with Wolves. The reason behind this phenomenon would be apparent: human beings seek happiness by nature.

Even though this book aims to repel the myth of noble savage concept of native Americans, I believe we are back to about the same position in the altitude/latitude. The native American people, living by themselves for thousands of years, acquired a different way of living - which might be less desirable for some of us, but more so for some others. Understanding and accepting differences is the least we human beings must be able to do to call ourselves sentient beings, I believe.