Why Write? — Learning From Albert Camus

Albert Camus, 1913-1960

Why do I write about my family and why, in particular, do I write about Hoebers in Germany and their passage to America?

Albert Camus’s The Plague, published two years after the end of World War II, is an allegory of the world’s experience of the Nazis.  In the last pages of the book, as the survivors of the plague celebrate the resurrection of their city, the protagonist, Dr. Rieux, reflects on living through the disease that decimated his city.  He recognizes that he needs to tell of the horrors of the plague and those who died and those who survived.  Camus’s words beautifully articulate the impulse to record history:

From the dark harbor soared the first rocket of the firework display organized by the municipality, and the town acclaimed it with a long-drawn sigh of delight.  Cottard, Tarrou, the men and the woman Rieux had loved and lost — all alike, dead or guilty —  were forgotten.  Yes, the old fellow had been right; these people were “just the same as ever.”  But this was at once their strength and their innocence, and it was on this level, beyond all grief, that Rieux could feel himself at one with them.  And it was in the midst of shouts rolling against the terrace wall in massive waves that waxed in volume and duration, while cataracts of colored fire fell thicker through the darkness, that Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people, so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence:  that there are more things to admire in people than to despise.

Nonetheless, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and it relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.

And indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled.  He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books:  that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-closets; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

(Translation 1948 by Stuart Gilbert.)

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