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‘The Plague’ Book Club.3

Father Paneloux's sermon, and the psychosocial need for narrative
Close-up: Albert Camus

This is the third entry in this blog’s book club reading of Albert Camus’s 1947 novel, “The Plague.”

First entry here.

Second entry here.

I’m heavily moderating the comments section to exclude those who have neither read nor are reading the book. This is to prevent the discussion from veering too far from the text. I encourage discussion relating the novel to the current coronavirus situation — that’s why we’re reading it — but I don’t want the discussion to be too tangential. I may approve some comments by people who indicate by their remarks that they haven’t read and aren’t reading the book, but mostly I won’t.

Today’s discussion will cover Chapters 11 through 14.

In Chapter 11, Father Paneloux, the respected Jesuit priest, delivers a rousing homily to the townspeople. He offers a traditional Christian interpretation of plague. It’s important to note that the Narrator describes him as a scholar of history and antiquity; this priest is not a wild-eyed street preacher. The Narrator says that one Sunday during the plague, an overflow crowd came to the cathedral to hear Father Paneloux preach.

He has a powerful, rather emotional delivery, which carried to a great distance, and when he launched at the congregation his opening phrase in clear emphatic tones: “Calamity has come on you, my brethren, and, my brethren, you deserved it,” there was a flutter that extended to the crowd massed in the rain outside the porch.

Yeah, that’s quite an opening line. It announces the theme of the priest’s homily. He cites Scripture to talk about how God allowed plagues to come upon on pharaohs and peoples in the past to humble the proud and to call them to repentance.

“Yet this calamity was not willed by God. Too long this world of ours has connived at evil, too long has it counted on the divine mercy, on God’s forgiveness. Repentance was enough, men though; nothing was forbidden. Everyone felt comfortably assured; when the day came, he would surely turn from his sins and repent. Pending that day, the easiest course was to surrender all along the line; divine compassion would do the rest.”

The priest is speaking in the voice of a Biblical prophet here. He is telling the people that they were complacent, and did not take their lives seriously, because they always figured that they would have time to say they were sorry for their sins, and anyway, God is a kind gentleman who would never judge them harshly. He says that God has withdrawn His protection from the town.

Paneloux speaks with incredibly vivid words, trying to put the fear of God, literally, into his hearers, to drive them back to God. “Now, at last, you know the hour has struck to bend your thoughts to first and last things,” he thunders. And:

“Today the truth is a command. It is a red spear sternly pointing to the narrow path, the one way of salvation. And thus, my brothers, at last it is revealed to you, the divine compassion which has ordained good and evil in everything; wrath and pity; the plague and your salvation. This same pestilence which is slaying you works for your good and points your path.”

Father Paneloux concludes by saying that he hopes when the faithful leave church, that they will not only be aware of the wrath of God, but also take away a message “of comfort for your hearts.”

Well. I doubt one would ever hear a sermon like that today, away from the pulpits of snake-handlers. I don’t think this is to our credit, if I’m honest. I wouldn’t preach with such fire and brimstone, but it may come as a shock to Christians used to hearing mewly pap from contemporary pulpits to learn that Father Paneloux’s sermon is historically a theologically correct Christian response to traumas like the plague. Christians are supposed to see all things as working for our salvation. That is to say, we are supposed to react to all things as an opportunity to grow closer to God.

When I first became Orthodox nearly 14 years ago, I knew a priest who would react to bad things that happened to him by saying some version of, “I wonder what the blessing is in this?” He was serious. I thought that was weird. But now that I’m older, and have been practicing the Orthodox faith, I see his point. This really came home to me in this past year, reading the accounts of Christians thrown in prison and even tortured for their faith. What strengthened them and held them together through their trial was learning to regard this suffering as an opportunity to deepen their relationship with God. It might sound like a cliche to you, but I’m telling you, reading the words of the late Dr. Silvester Krcmery makes it real. Here is his reflection on his early days in prison:

Even though this was my first experience with this level of violent physical assault, I actually did not feel anything. Perhaps I was in such a state of shock that I was not fully conscious of the pain.

I considered the whole thing a very valuable ordeal. For hours I repeated, “Lord you didn’t disappoint us. You always promised that you would be with us, that you would never abandon us. What could I now possibly bring you as a sacrifice? nothing hurt me. I really have nothing to offer you as a sacrifice.”

Despite everything, in a sense I cherished those wounds. This was after all the only tangible, although insignificant evidence I had that I had offered Christ something.

After this interrogation I found that I had two broken ribs. I was not allowed to see a doctor but in the course of three or four weeks they healed, apparently without consequences.

The Soviet dissident Alexander Ogorodnikov, in my interview with him in Moscow last fall, said the same thing. He said that it was only when God showed him in his cell that he, Ogorodnikov, had been allowed to suffer in that way for the salvation of other souls, did he reconcile himself to the pain. Solzhenitsyn, as many know, famously wrote, “Bless you, prison” — because it was what saved his soul.

This is the point that Father Paneloux is trying to make to his congregation. He might have done it with more gentleness — his sermon reminded me of the priest’s in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, or, comically, of Amos Starkadder’s butter-based jeremiad in “Cold Comfort Farm.” Still, the priest is correct. He is imposing a Christian narrative onto the plague (I would say “finding the truth in the meaning of the plague”), and you have to ask yourself: do you have a better idea of how to respond to suffering that cannot be avoided?

The people of Oran do, according to the next chapter. Or rather, people got out of it what they brought to it. Some thought Father Paneloux was right; others thought that the priest simply highlighted the injustice of their fate; “there were others who rebelled and whose one idea now was to break loose from the prison-house.”

The Narrator tells us that this Sunday — “the Sunday of the sermon” — “marked the beginning of something like a widespread panic in the town, and it took so deep a hold as to lead one to suspect that only now had the true nature of their situation dawned on our townspeople.”

Dr. Rieux meets Grand, who invites him home to see the manuscript that he, Grand, has been working on for so long, and with such passion. Being able to articulate his vision in print has become the telos of the sad, lonely, toothless civil servant’s life. It is the thing that gives him purpose and dignity. When Rieux reads the opening lines, they are hopelessly banal. Rieux sees that poor Grand lives with the illusion that he is hard at work on a literary masterpiece — and he does not puncture the man’s illusion. Why should he? What would the purpose be? It would not make Grand’s life any easier, plague or no plague.

It’s interesting that Camus seems to juxtapose Father Paneloux’s sermon with a chapter about the story Grand is writing. What does this tell us about the importance of living by stories? Stories — narratives that we accept as true, as truly true, not just true for ourselves — as a way to make suffering bearable.

The next chapter is about the journalist Rambert’s struggle. He believes that if he can just make his case to the right official, that he will be able to work the system and get out of Oran, and back to his true love in Paris. It turns out that Rambert’s epic journey through the French colonial bureaucracy really did do what Dr. Rieux suggested his quarantine in Oran might do for him earlier in the book: give him important journalistic insights. Rambert is learning how bureaucracies work, or fail to work.

We learn that Rambert tries to keep his mind off his predicament by walking around the city and noticing things. He thought about certain scenes of life in Paris, and how much he missed the city, where his true love awaits him. “Rieux felt fairly sure [Rambert] was identifying these scenes with memories of his love.”

So here we have three ways of responding to the catastrophic suffering of the plague: Religious (Paneloux), Aesthetic (Grand), and Sentimental (Rambert).

In the final chapter we’re considering today, the Narrator discusses how the plague changed the sense of life in the town. Summer arrives in Oran, with its oppressive heat. People can’t go to the beach to escape the heat, either. The townspeople strain to bear up under the heat, the monotony, and the fear. Tarrou, the visitor to the town who keeps a diary, reflects that rhetoric Father Paneloux used “is not displeasing.”

“At the beginning of a pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric. In the first case, habits have not yet been lost; in the second, they’re returning. It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth — in other words, to silence. So let’s wait.”

That’s powerful. He’s saying that painful events at last make one realize that there are no words capable of imposing order onto the immensity of suffering.

The rest of this chapter is Tarrou detailing the habits the townspeople keep to for the sake of disciplining themselves. There’s the unintentionally comic behavior of the old man who spends his days in bed counting out chickpeas, and who has pretty much lived his life that way. Tarrou writes about the more ordinary habits of the other townspeople, whose habits form a kind of liturgy of their daily lives. That is, their daily deeds are the story they live, and it gives a sort of structure within which to shelter psychologically under the quotidian torment of threatened doom.

The final lines of this chapter are Tarrou’s:

“In the early days, when they thought this epidemic was much like other epidemics, religion held its ground. But once these people realized their instant peril, they gave their thoughts to pleasure. And all the hideous fears that stamp their faces in the daytime are transformed in the fiery, dusty nightfall into a sort of hectic exaltation, an unkempt freedom fevering their blood.

“And I, too, I’m no different. But what matter? Death means nothing to men like me. It’s the event that proves them right.”

Did you know that in the Black Death, some medieval Europeans had orgies in cemeteries, as a way of defying death? This really happened.

I wonder if we will see any of that here?

I just saw that the first case of coronavirus in Louisiana has been reported. I wonder if that will make it real to my mom. I’m struggling with my frustration, bordering on anger with her. I told you last week that she’s a 76-year-old heavy smoker with COPD. I thought I had her in a good place in terms of taking the threat to her health seriously, and staying at home, where she’s got a well-stocked larder. Last night when I called to check on her, she was so excited that she had had company all day long. Lots of people coming by to visit her.

After I let her finish, I told her that having people in and out of the house defeats the purpose of staying home. She did not want to hear that. She said frostily, “Well, I’m sure that I won’t get it” — the virus, she means.

“You can’t know that!” I said, exasperated. “If you get it, you’re going to be very sick, and there might not be a bed for you at the hospital!”

“I’m sure that I won’t get it,” she repeated.

This is the narrative she lives by in these days. We all have one. Is yours sound?



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