For friends and strangers with hope, to survive.
In the past, vibrant cities of the whole world were almost empty and quiet. All the public institutions, museums, galleries, and stores are closed. A few months ago places which were full of people, such as pubs, restaurants, and cafes stayed quiet, with empty chairs in dark venues. Everyone avoids contacting others, especially unknown people. It is unusual in the city where people used to chat with strangers in the street. Today, we pass each other in silence, often with a mask on our face, and in gloves which emphasizes how undemanding is accidental contact with another person. Traffic is much less intensive than it used to be, and in this situation, the ambulances are much more visible than usual. In every day, vibrant cities nobody even notices these vehicles speeding to save somebody’s life, but today they recall the danger and grief of death.
It is a very tough time for many people. It is the deadliest disease from the Spanish flu when many people died suddenly in 1918-1919 worldwide. The Second World War was also a reason for the deaths of many innocent people. Today, after many years since this tragic event, again humans die without a logical explanation. An absurd of human death is another existential problem, which I would like to notice in my blog.
Camus’ The Plague
For this reason, people come back to the book of one of the XX century philosophers, Albert Camus (1913-1960). He was a French and Algerian existentialist. In 1947 he published La Peste – The Plague, which is a novel about life in an Algerian city Oran in time of a plague. When the epidemy broke out in the city, many people got stuck in Oran against their will. For others, the reality of their everyday life was changed extremely for a long time. They were convicted to live according to new rules under the terror of death. Does it sound familiar today?
What surprised me in the described reality of Oran was that, despite the plague, people in an isolated city socialized intensively. Restaurants, cafes, theatres, and cinemas were full of people. When I read this book for the first time many years ago, I didn’t even notice how strange it is. Today, in time of lockdown, I thought about this discrepancy between my experience of reality and Camus’ interpretation. I think the everyday reality is much more difficult when the possibility of socializing is strictly limited by the threat of infection. In this situation, one stays much often with oneself and has to face problems that disappear in a rush of everyday social life.
Grand as Clerk
I would like to dedicate this post to one of the most interesting characters of Camus – Joseph Grand. We recognize him as a clerk of Oran mayoralty. He is a modest person, one who is meaningless to everybody. In Camus’ interpretation, Grand has a tendency to sneak under the walls and do his job honestly and systematically. His work is unnoticeable but necessary.
Grand dropped out of education when he got married. He had financial problems, so he started working for the mayoralty in Oran with hope for a promised help in the continuation of the study. Unfortunately, his manager did not keep this promise. Although he struggled with the worst cases in the public sector, he did not receive a promised position as a secretary which could give him better financial conditions and demanding financial independence.
Grand’s Financial Situation
Despite the occasional slight rise, his salary was still very low, which led his family to poverty. Grand was complaining about this situation all the time, but he did not even try to fight for the better contract and the promise, given by his employer. In fact, Grand’s career has never been an important aspect of his own life, because he did not even exactly remember that promise.
Therefore, he lives almost in aesthetic conditions, in the scarcely furnished one-bedroom. However, the dictionaries and workbooks on his shelf turn out to be his intellectual passion. But, he tries to hide this time-consuming passion, which often makes him overworked in his office.
Although he was busy, he had extra work in the statistics office where he was preparing a list of deceased people because of the plague. He did his work for the sanitary sector honestly like everything else in his life.
Grand as Volunteer in “Plague City”
We can even say that Grand was a weak person and a coward in relation to his employer, but as a secretary of the sanitary sector, he puts his life at risk. It wasn’t the theatrical gesture and courage, but a consequence and accuracy that made him such a unique and important person in the time of plague. He was a typical hero of the “plague city” – quiet and hard-working, free from a great exaltation, and full of authenticity.
In Camus’ eyes, Grand was an even greater hero than his friends, Rieux and Tarrou, because he agreed without doubts to join the sanitary service. However, Grand reckoned the situation in a realistic way, and to avoid overworking, he dedicated to voluntarily work only two hours a day.
Although Grand spends only a limited time in the sanitary sector, it has influence on his social life.
Gradually, Grand, who was usually introverted, became more and more open in relation with them. They asked him about progress in his creative work. Sometimes, they tried to help him find a proper word. They did it with a sense of humor and a distant kindness which engaged the clerk-artist to continue working. We can say that they were his creative team.
Grand’s Friendship in Shadow of Plague
Observing Grand, we can even notice that for him, voluntary work becomes more important than a professional one. He neglected his duties at work but still was devoted to the sanitary service. What could influence that? His “plague friends” – Rieux and Tarrou – show him much more understanding than mayoralty colleagues and management. It is another symptom that his hierarchy of values differed from what we can expect. Friendship was much more important for him than earnings. Of course, still in the first place was creativity.
The issue with an expression of his own feelings was not the only problem. With time, it was more and more present in his friends’ life. The extreme experiences of “plague city” put them at the edge of the mental stamina. Unfortunately, expressing these difficult emotional states is almost impossible. Probably, for the same reason, they are so close by being connected by something that is too hard to express.
Grand is an approximately fifty-year-old, tall, thin man. In addition, he used to wear baggy clothes. Firstly, thanks to it he could make an impression of a person who needs help from others. Secondly, by wearing clothes that are too big, he tries to hide his shaming fragility. Probably, it is not the only fragility in physical, but in a mental sense as well.
He makes an impression of the frail man who has no chance to survive an attack of the plague. The reader recognizes him when he rescues the life of another person. It is the first information we find out about him: he is a sensitive and empathic person.
We can observe Grand’s shyness is his smile. Lack of teeth in the top jaw gives him a special character. In addition, it puts his mouth in the shadow. Thanks to it, he makes an impression of a melancholic, mysterious and distant man. Probably, it was only a physical crystallization of his character.
Unfortunately, Grand’s mental fragility damages his career because he did not decide to fight for his contract. From one side, he was afraid to be claimable, from the other side, he did not want to be thankful, because he lost his dignity in this way. This dilemma proves his sensitivity and a tendency to perfectionism.
Grand as Human Being
In Plague, we can find a description of Joseph Grand as a person. What does it mean? We can learn something about his character. According to Camus, Grand has an exemplary life. He is a unique person who is not afraid to express his own positive feelings. For example, his love for his nephews and sister who he visits every year in France.
Grand’s sadness when he mentioned his dead parents is another proof of his sensitivity. His feelings are constant, exceeds the limits of life and death which we can interpret as a sign of emotional maturity. His feelings are very rich. They are so intensive and variable that he has a problem with an expression of them. He cannot find suitable enough words for them, and it becomes his obsession with time. According to his words, his biggest demand was to learn to speak. But, I am afraid; it is not the essence of his problem. Probably, Grand’s real demand was to express his unique and deep feelings, wasn’t it?
Another example, when Grand was confiding in Rieux, he was not afraid to tell Rieux that he trusted him; it impressed Rieux. Although Grand usually hesitates at his choice of words, this time his speech was fluent. What does it mean in his case? It is evident that he thought a lot about this problem for a long time.
Evidence of Grand’s empathy is a way in which he describes a controversial character of Cottard, his neighbour who struggles with legal problems. He is very caring and tries to not reinterpret reality or not to destroy Cottard’s opinion with a snap or missed statement. He was aware of how harmful and meaningful words can be, especially negative words, in social life. In addition, thanks to his sensitivity, Grand correctly observed changes with his neighbour behaviours as evidence of Cottard’s frustration. Grand did not judge him but tried to understand him.
Grand’s opinion was similar when Cottard, as a wanted criminal, caused shooting in the streets. He was his neighbor, housemate, and a human in trouble in the first place. For this reason, he did not react with condemnation and rejection but with compassion for someone, he knows in person.
Another example of Grand’s sensitivity is his reaction in contact with an unknown lunatic in the street. He came home after work with Rieux. Although he did not know this human, his emotional reaction was intensive. He felt a deep bond with this man who was as mentally fragile as he was. To explain, it was evidence not only of his empathy but also of self-consciousness.
In this situation, to calm himself down, Grand drank a glass of strong alcohol in the nearest cafe and said that fortunately, he has his work. Is it a strange statement, isn’t it? About what work meant for him. Even though his words were so enigmatic, Rieux knew that he was thinking about his novel. Creativity protected him against crisis and kept him in mental balance.
Grand has the tendency to quote sayings from his hometown, Montelimar. In addition, he has a habit of adding some searched phrases to an usual conversation. It was annoying for others. But, in fact, it is a part of his passion. It is like information from another world.
One time, when doctor Rieux asked him about a character for his extra work, he said mysteriously that he works for himself.
Only after a few meetings and conversation, analyzing Grand’s allusive statements, and strange mysterious behaviors, doctor Rieux guessed that he was writing a novel. In the Rieux’s eyes, it was a venerable manner, especially in the plague time. But, why does Grand try so much to hide his passion? What can be the reason for this attitude?
At first, he is a modest person with low self-esteem. Secondly, he treats his creativity not as a reason to be proud, because of his creativity, but as a form of autotherapy, and method of struggling with incapacity to express oneself properly.
Grand treats his artistic activity as something completely private, and unrelated to his professional job. Furthermore, he stuck to mayoralty to have plenty of time to involve his passions without reproach.
Grand as Artist
We can say that the artistic ambition of Joseph Grand was huge. He wanted to write a perfect novel. But, what does it mean to write a perfect novel? If it is possible to create something so excellent that everyone will be delighted to read this piece of art. He dreamed that when he will take his novel for publication, one reaction will be an unquestionable delight for his work. But, is it possible in real life? Even though our work is very good, usually someone has the opposite opinion. It is natural.
Grand was a fifty-year-old human who had childish expectations. He dreamed of an unquestionable acceptance of everyone. This temptation has a symbolic sense. On the one hand, he demanded to exceed his complex of communication, and the success of his novel could be a testimony to it. On the other hand, his artistic success could be compensation in his difficult life without the support of milieu. So, in his eyes, the success of his book should be an act of existential justice for a muted human.
Grand’s Novel as Passion
Grand as a writer is controversial. Everyone expects that a novel contains many chapters, has many plots and characters, especially when someone works on it for so long. It turns out that, in Grand’s interpretation, a novel is something completely different.
To clarify, Grand was a clerk who made accurate calculations and data collations. It is obvious that for him accuracy is a key to success. For this reason, he cannot leave a sentence which was not perfect in his book. It leads to a ridiculous situation when a clerk-artist has been still working under an excellent version of the first sentence although he needs millions of sentences and content in his book. His friend Bernard Rieux was confused by this situation.
But, what is the first reaction of the reader? Grand’s behaviour is irrational, and his novel is only a proof of his madness and incapability to write a book. He can appear as a miserable loser. However, Grand’s accuracy and a methodical attitude leads a reader to hesitation.
The attitude of Tarrou and Rieux, his friends from the sanitary sector, has an influence on an interpretation of Grand’s creativity as well. They supported him giving valuable advice and comments and treating his creativity as a respectable unusual effort. Nobody notices how ridiculous the book made of one sentence is, even if it is an excellent one. Moreover, writing the novel is such an overwhelming passion, which absorbs almost all his emotional life. Grand was so absorbed by his novel that every problem related to it, he felt not only mental but even a physical pain.
Grand’s Passion of Love
Grand got married as a very young man. His wife, Jeanne was even younger, and more fragile than he was. Although Grand is not very practical, he is very protective of his wife. He is even afraid when she crosses the road. In his eyes, every vehicle was a potential danger for her. Almost everyone is worried about relatives, but in this case this fear comes almost to the point of absurdity. On the other hand, it is amazing that Grand has such intensive, and even obsessive feelings for his wife.
At the family home, Jeanne helps her mother around the house. So, she has a traditional imagination about a family life. According to tradition, the husband should support a family, and the wife’s task should be housekeeping. Grand tried to realise this example.
Furthermore, he was an object of mockeries for his future parents-in-law because of his clumsiness and quietness. Unfortunately, other people in contact with Grand had a similar attitude. It made his social life difficult. And, probably it is a reason for his self-esteem deeply rooted in the most private, family relationships.
His engagement has an ephemeral character. One day when they were walking together, Jeanne expressed her admiration for the display of a store at Christmas time. These special moods pushed them to engagement. Although they met each other a long time beforehand, the decision was not thought out, but it was made under influence of an occasional excitation. So, we can suppose that they were not ready for this step yet. Probably, they were both still not mature enough for marriage.
Grand’s Marriage as Passion
Unfortunately, life was hard for the young spouses. Firstly, Grand did not receive the promised contract which put them in a difficult financial situation. Secondly, in this situation, Jeanne had to resign from the traditional role of a wife, and go to work. This hit in Grand’s position and respect as a husband. He was incapable to support a family. Poverty made their relationship much more difficult. Grand knew that they were in the existential trap without the future.
To compensate, he tried to work more, but in this way, he neglected his relationship with wife. Shame and a sense of guilt moved him away from his wife. Love in their life was replaced by suffering. Jeanne has been feeling unloved for many years, and finally, she left him. Generally, she left him not because she stopped loving him but because she was tired of their hopeless situation. So, she started a new life with someone else.
Grand cannot find himself in a new situation. Probably everything happened too quickly for him. Their relation was based on an emotional and intuitive bond. Unfortunately, to explain some problems in this difficult situation, verbal communication was necessary.
Grand still had a sense of guilt. He felt responsible for the breakup of their marriage. To clarify the situation, he wanted to write a letter to Jeanne, but he did not find the proper words. With time, his obsession of communication was bigger and bigger.
He often thought of his wife, and he hoped she thought of him reading news about the epidemy in Oran.
His love was infectious just like his passion and sensitivity. Rieux also started talking about his own wife, to confide in him about his feelings. Both were conscious that the world without love is empty.
Grand was a very punctual person, but one day he did not appear in hospital, where he worked as the volunteer. His worried friends started to look for him. Rieux found him in the street in front of the store display with wooden toys. He was mentally disturbed. It was Christmas, and Rieux guessed his feelings at that moment. He remembered Grand’s memories of getting engaged with Jeanne at Christmas. Rieux was aware that the need to be loved is especially intensive for a tired, overworked person.
Grand was crying on his knees in the middle of the street. His mental suffering leads him to epidemic illness. Rieux and Tarrou cared about him. He is aware how serious his health problem is, and that he will probably die. He confronted this truth as self-consciousness of a mentally mature person.
Even though he was so sick, with fever, he asked for a manuscript of his novel. The text had approximately 50 pages with only one, first sentence in thousand different versions. Below the text, there was a dedication for Jeanne and the final version. But, when Rieux read this final sentence, Grand felt disappointment. He asked to throw this manuscript into the fire, and his request was granted.
Grand and Destruction of Plague
In the face of Grand’s disease we can understand the meaning of his novel. For someone who does not know his history it is still a ridiculous thousand versions of the same sentence, but in fact, his novel is full of content. It is in fact a perfect book; it is the book of his love. Paradoxically, when the reader can understand the deep sense of his book, Grand wants to damage it. Are you surprised?
We can say that he noticed how strange his novel was and wanted to hide its real sense, or he was ashamed of his feelings. Probably, he expected a completely different result of his effort. To explain, a sense of his novel is in his Christmas dedication for his wife. She is this mysterious beautiful amazon who is riding on the horse in a sunny morning in the park. In this sense, his novel is even an experimental new style in literature.
If Grand is meant to be a great artist and probably a genius of literature, he should die together with his work. But he was himself at first, and his creativity was only a tool for shaping himself. It changes perspective. His novel is not a great achievement of art but humanity.
Grand’s Recovery and Passion
The aim of his novel was to prepare for a meeting with Jeanne, and it does not make more sense in face of his death. Reader expects that everything will be finished, that he will die such as in his book, but it does not happen. Unexpectedly, he recovered after applying serum. His case is one of the early symptoms of the end of plague. For Rieux it was almost a resurrection. Soon he will have come back to work in the sanitary sector as usually.
When Grand met Rieux for the last time on the pages of Camus’ novel, he told him he wrote to his wife, Jeanne. Probably, he survived only to fill this internal duty. Jeanne is a real, living person, and an exact solution to his existential problem is to contact her. It is valuable, even though she will not decide to answer him. To specify, his conscious effort to change this relation is important.
Furthermore, Grand surprises yet again. He comes back to his novel and starts writing it again. Why does he do it? If he is ashamed of this activity, he should never come back to it. So, he had to notice something positive in it, which gave him the power to survive. For him, his “novel” – manuscript of his soul – is not only creativity but autotherapy as well. In this case, a continuation of it makes sense just like the pursuit of perfection and seeking more and more authentic, fuller, and better own self – the essence of self or super-self.
Camus A. (2001). The Plague, trans. R. Buss, London: Penguin Modern Classics