Under the Plague

Some events transform a society.  While we keep waiting for things “to get back to normal,” many of us have already come to realize that there is no normal to which we can get back.  That’s my main impression after reading Albert Camus’ The Plague.  The story is set in 1940s Algeria where the Bubonic Plague breaks out in a single town that has to isolate itself from the rest of the world.  As the months and realizations of long duration develop, the emotions the characters go through are very much in line with what seems to be happening with Covid-19.  Indeed, that’s why the novel seems to be going through a surge of popularity right now.  I’ve always associated Camus with the great existentialist writers, but that slipped to the back of my mind while reading this poignant story.

Existentialism is all about making one’s own meaning in a meaningless universe.  This is precisely what Dr. Rieux does in Oran as his former life becomes one long ward call of service to the town.  He befriends characters who represent the best and the worst of human nature as they respond to the pressures of isolation and boredom.  Camus pointedly notes that despite the equalizing forces of death and hardship, the rich manage to make sure they have it better than the poor although they all end up in the same common grave.  There are morals to this story, and it’s clear that “leaders” in Washington have never read it.  Literature quite often teaches important lessons, but to get at them you have to read.

Rieux befriends Tarrou and it seems to me that Tarrou’s lengthy monologue on why he has volunteered to stay in Oran and help those who are suffering is the main message of the book.  Tarrou understands the lessening of suffering, the attempt to bring peace, as the main purpose of human beings.  He says at one point that it’s like becoming a saint.  Despite the ways saints are often worshipped these days, that is at the heart of their canonization.  Care for others.  Rieux points out that Tarrou doesn’t believe in God, and yet, as the story winds down it is clear that he has become a kind of savior figure.  The novel is disturbing in its simplicity and in its timeliness.  It would seem that if we’re to get anything at all out of being under the cloud of a modern plague that we need to take the view that others matter, despite what Washington says, perhaps even more than ourselves.

Teutonic Ennui

I don’t remember its title or its author.  I do recall that there was a character, or perhaps there were characters, who kept saying “etwas muss getan werden”—“something must be done.”  You see, we read quite a few existentialist short stories in German IV in high school.  There were so few of us left from the freshman intro all the way back in ninth grade that our teacher could put us right in the middle of German literature and have us read.  I wish I still had that facility now.  Although I can work my way through many languages academically (German, French, Spanish, Italian, and, of course, the dead languages of koine Greek, classical Hebrew, Ugaritic, and assorted other semitic dialects), the fluency of sitting down and just reading atrophied long ago.  Still, etwas muss getan werden.  That sense of anxiety feels like it’s permanent now.

Every now and again, when tensions are running high—this past week is an example—I find myself nervously checking online news sources frequently to see if anything dramatically good has happened.  This gets to be almost a tic.  I need to have some assurance that we’ve not become a dictatorship, or that there are those in power with enough humanity left inside them have tried to do something to make things better.  Being a nation of throw-away people is ethically wrong no matter what scale you use.  Skin color and national heritage do not lessen the worth of any human being.  We can’t even get out to protest properly because a pandemic, which is still being mishandled, rages.  The days are full of such sameness.  Etwas muss getan werden.  Please.

I wish I could remember the stories I read in high school.  Some have stayed with me through the years.  German class was my introduction to existentialism, a philosophy with which I still mostly identify.  That was the reason I would pick up books by Kafka, Camus, and Dürrenmatt when I would find them in the once plentiful used book stores.  I remember the latter’s Der Besuch der alten Dame. I recall seeing the play performed and being reminded that we are all players in a drama whose only sense comes from our assignment of the same.  Now I sit inside on sunny days.  Afraid of economic insecurity—who knows how long the jobs will hold out?—I don’t go to stores and try to order as little as possible online.  I keep waiting for something to happen.  As I learned in high school etwas muss getan werden, no matter where I read it.

Stranger Things

Albert Camus preferred the label “absurdist” to “existentialist” to describe himself. The problem with labels is that we don’t always get to pick our own. As a young man fascinated with existentialism, I was introduced to Camus as one of their number that I should read. Categories, of course, are only abstractions to complex realities. So, for learning about existentialism Camus was recommended reading in those days. I selected The Stranger. So many years have passed since then that I only recollected a single part of the plot. Coming back to it as an adult is like walking down that beach a second time, unaware that you’ve just been down this way and something bad happened last time. Existentialism is like that.

Meursault is little effected by life. He has no strong opinions since, at the end of the day, everything seems pointless to him. He sheds no tears at the death of his mother because death is to be expected. When a heat stroke confuses him sufficiently he unintentionally kills a man. At his deposition the examining magistrate finds Meursault’s atheism inexplicable. In the face of the possible consequences of his actions, such indifference leads him to refer to the prisoner as “Mr. Antichrist.” Awaiting his execution, Meursault has a final confrontation with the priest that has come to his cell unbidden. The prisoner is convinced that even on death row he believes more sincerely than the man of the cloth. Camus’ story is surreal but realistic. A parable for his day and ours.

I’ve lamented before about the decline in philosophical literature. Taking philosophy straight requires the kind of concentration that I lack on the bus or before going to bed. Novels like The Stranger express such ideas in digestible form. The reader identifies with and despises Meursault. Why doesn’t he do something to help himself? Boredom and indifference will literally kill him. He is, however, steadfast, and that is something to admire. Along the way existential ideas are woven into the character’s thoughts and dialogue. Everyone is like an actor in a play—they did not write it, they simply perform the roles assigned to them. When it’s all over they end up in the same place. Absurdism and existentialism aren’t very far apart. They’re both categories devised to help us comprehend the enigma that we confront in books such as The Stranger. Meursault can’t give the chaplain any false belief since, as he notes, those who believe have more need of convincing than those who don’t.

Hiding Out

It’s seen better days. The spine is coming unglued and the pages are brittle, fracturing into tan snowflakes as I turn the pages. Still, this unusual little book is crowded with memories. I recall the used book store where I bought it—the Boston Book Annex, now sadly defunct. Unlike any other paperback I’d purchased, this one has gray-dyed page edges, adding an appropriate October gloom to the reading. Friedrich Duerrenmatt may not be properly among the existentialist novels, but that’s where he lives on my bookshelf. I picked up The Quarry three decades ago when “Der Besuch der alten Dame” was still relatively fresh in my mind. If I were a younger man I might’ve tried to find an edition in German, but the internet didn’t exist in those days and after a few years of no use, my Deutsch was dusty. It had been my gateway language.

As I read The Quarry I wondered why I had waited so long to do so. The story is brief but intense. And like novels of the period, it is philosophical and theological. (Like many translations it is sold under different titles; this one is also known as Suspicion, but The Quarry captures the duality nicely.) Hans Bärlach, a Swiss police commissioner, is on the trail of a Nazi war criminal. Suffering from cancer, Bärlach is bed-ridden but his quarry is a doctor and he finds a plausible excuse to become his patient. To help him set the trap, he enlists the aid of Gulliver, a Jewish concentration camp survivor. Their dialogue is what makes this brief story so theologically pregnant. Gulliver calls Bärlach “Christian” and reflects on how that feels to a Jew who was intended to be exterminated. I won’t spoil the ending here, but when Bärlach meets his quarry and realizes that he is also the quarry, the conversation once again turns to religion.

There’s an honesty to such novels as this. Writers were not yet afraid to invoke philosophical dialogue. A friend at the time I purchased the book once told me “nobody writes like that anymore.” Since his father-in-law was a novelist, I supposed he was right. I should have instead relied on my memories from high school German. We read “Der Besuch der alten Dame” and even went to see a stage adaption at the local community college. I’d shortly discover the existentialists. Their views on the absurdity of life mingled so readily with a theology becoming broken, tired, and top-heavy. Those ideas I’d met in class such as, if memory serves, Ilse Aichinger’s “Wo Ich Wohne,” became a part of my young psyche and, not surprisingly, many years later I’m finding myself their quarry.

The Falls

I can’t recall if I’ve been to Mexico City before. You see, back in the late 1980s I frequently read the novels of the existentialists, and although a copy of The Fall has been on my shelf since then, I don’t recall if I read this Camus classic. It’s sometimes that way with existentialists. In late 1980’s Back Bay, a used bookstore called the Boston Book Annex charmed my days. The Annex has sadly closed, but I do remember buying my Camus novels there. This one, however, I don’t remember reading.

So, unsure of my past, I decided to read it. Perhaps again. The existentialists make sense to me. I have to say that in today’s rushed and harried lifestyle it’s a little more difficult to find time to spend in Mexico City. Although the book is short, it’s not quick. There’s much to ponder as you wend your way through an evening bending elbows with Albert. Perhaps that’s an unwonted familiarity regarding a man who died before I was born, but existentialists know that kind of thing happens.

One of the more compelling aspects of this literature is that the existentialists often address religion. The Fall is a first person narrative throughout, and about four-fifths of the way through Jean-Baptiste Clamence begins to address Christianity explicitly. Since this is a retelling, in secular terms, of the biblical “fall,” this is not unexpected. Jean-Baptiste is a lawyer who is making his confession. He states that his clients “probably feared that heaven could not represent their interests as well as a lawyer invincible when it came to the code of law.” Genesis, of course, is attributed to Moses, himself a law-giver. From this point until the end of the chapter he reflects on the fact that although no one is innocent, all are glad to find the crime in others. He describes torture devices of the Middle Ages, exonerating God from their invention. He respects Jesus, but not what people have made of religion.

Reading, perhaps re-reading, this reminded me of why I found the existentialists so compelling as a seminarian. They force you to think. I read Kafka, Camus, and Duerrenmatt, pondering how much wisdom could be crammed into such brief books. Ironically, it takes time to read them. Our world is crowded with concerns about money over meaning. Matter over mind. Once in a while we need to step back, spend an evening or two in Mexico City, and consider how we’ve become a fallen race.

Final Frontiers


Is there such a thing as an existential illness? Answer that if you want to, but it’s rhetorical. I’ve been voting since 1980 and I’ve taken my fair share of bruises in the process, but this time my soul feels as if God has hung his “gone fishin’” sign on the pearly gates for good. I am ill. Maybe it was the ebullience that came from having eight years of progress where, although things weren’t perfect, they were sort of holding steady. I’ve always considered myself a populist. I don’t know how a billionaire can convince millions of people he’s one. To be populist you’ve got to be one of hoi polloi. Growing up poor, I took my licks then and I’m still taking them now. No, this wound goes deeper than the bone. Deeper than the viscera. It’s an existential illness.

All things considered, I don’t write too much about politics on this blog. All my adult years I’ve been an unapologetic Democrat. I confess to having grown up Republican. But I believe in the fair treatment of others. I know not everyone will or can be happy. I also know that it’s wrong to denigrate anyone because of their gender, race, orientation, or physical ability. Seems to me that our country was sort of the final frontier where you could go if you believed this kind of thing. Where can you go from the final frontier? There are no other land masses to discover. Maybe if I put on enough layers, Antarctica might not be so bad. Beyond that, where can one go to be a liberal in a world that desperately need some heart? Where money isn’t the measure of all things. Where Mom is right just as often, if not more than, Dad.

It’s a strange thing, this existential illness. Politicians are already cooing their pleasantries, as if nothing more than a slight upset occurred. It seems to me that whenever there’s an upset the popular vote disagrees with the electoral college. It also seems to me there should be a place where the wealthy aren’t considered better by virtue of their material status. I have this existential illness, but I can still dream. Is there a way forward from here? Sometimes I think I can see that horizon where all people are treated fairly and equally, and sometimes the sun seems to be rising over that horizon. Today I feel motion-sick from being jolted backwards. I’ve been disappointed before, but I don’t remember it hurting this badly. If anyone knows a good existential doctor, please pass along her name.

Engineering Meaning

ExistentialPleasuresofEngineeringEngineers have been a part of my life in many ways. My mother’s father was an engineer. Although she did not know it, my grandmother’s grandfather was also an engineer. My wife’s father is an engineer, and grandparents on both sides of her family were either scientists or engineers. My daughter is studying engineering, and other relatives have made it their profession. In fact, had the peril of my everlasting soul not caught my early concern, I would likely have headed into the sciences myself. Not that I would have made it in the profession, but the interest is certainly there. Many years ago my wife bought me a copy of Samuel C. Florman’s The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. Unlike my claims about engineering, I can boldly declare myself an existentialist. The moment I found out what existentialism was, I knew it was my outlook. Now that I am firmly settled in a profession about as far from science and engineering as I can be, I decided to read the book.

Quite surprisingly, I found Florman turning to religion from time to time. Existentialism isn’t inherently religious, but engineering is inherently empirical. Florman notes that the New Testament, with its spiritual values over the physical, often presents serious problems to engineers, enmeshed, as they are, in this universe. That made sense, even if it surprised me a little. A few pages later, however, I was astonished that Florman praises the “Old Testament” for its more earthy viewpoint that has a great appreciation for the physical world its god has created. Perhaps there was a reason my life took this track after all. Although I’m not Jewish, I always felt an attraction to the Hebraic outlook. Maybe I should’ve been an engineer.

Toward the end of his extended essay, Florman once again turns his thoughts toward the spiritual. Noting that massive works of engineering tend to evoke the divine—the most obvious, but by no means only, example being cathedrals—we glimpse a sense of the sublimity in the greatest of human edifices, sacred or secular. The engineer still has recourse to the spirit which is, to a frustrated scientist, a cause for great hope. When I pulled a book on engineering off the shelf, I certainly did not expect to find any religion in it at all. Of course, the book was written before science and religion had become entrenched in such a shrill standoff as they seem to be today. There is balance here, and an appreciation of beauty. And when the engineer does the impossible, it is indeed a work of human divinity.

Nothing Unusual

WhyDoestheWorldExist“Is this a world?” Ranger Tom asks seriously, “And if it is, am I in it?” On the lips—or fingertips—of some, this set of questions appears profound. Although I’m not technically a philosopher, I find it impossible to walk by a book with the title Why Does the World Exist? and not pick it up. I am not familiar with Jim Holt’s other work—I engage a little too heavily with books to spend much time with magazines—but the question of the title is one I’ve often pondered. It is right up there with “Why can some people get published and others can’t?” Holt is, however, on a serious quest. Not surprisingly, religion features prominently in the discussion. For the usual existential reasons, including a couple of significant deaths in the family, Holt asks perhaps the most basic of all questions and engages a number of prominent philosophers on the issue. Why is there something rather than nothing? For some in the western world such a question appears a non-starter, because our culture is biblically suffused. Whether we want to admit it or not, our social ocean veritably bobs with the basic belief that God created the world, end of story. We don’t need to ponder it, we just have to accept it. For those who look deeper, however, the answers aren’t that easy.

Holt goes through some serious computation in various forms of logic to try to arrive at a schematic demonstrating that the world is a surprising place. Not trained in such rigorous logic, I was interested to notice how the language occasionally slipped from “world” or “universe” to “reality.” Reality is perhaps the slipperiest concept of them all. Many simply accept their own experience as real, a position known as “naive realism.” Others probe somewhat deeper, seeking to verify reality. How do we know what is really real? It is, however, a different question than the existence of the world. Reality has the distinct ability to haunt with its half-answered questions and surfeit of ambiguity. Every time I wake from a dream I ask myself what is really real.

Once the divine is removed from the equation, why the world is here becomes a much more complex issue. Holt engages the new atheists as well as the neo-orthodox. It turns out that God may not help as much as we generally assume: whence God? Or, in its more childlike version, where did God come from? Once brute fact is ruled out, this becomes a tangled problem indeed. Faced with an endless regression, logic quails. Perhaps, however, we have reached the limits of rationality—even Einsteinian physics breaks down at the Big Bang. No matter what scientists or philosophers may tell us, we will always wonder, “and before that, what?” I put Holt’s book down with a sense that I’d spent a few pleasant hours considering the possibilities, but I still wonder, with Ranger Tom, if this is a world. And if it is, am I in it?

Grendel’s Gods

GrendelGardnerSometimes I think that if I had to do it all over again, I might’ve chosen Beowulf instead of the Bible. Let me define “it” here: if I had to pick a vocation that would lead to personal fulfillment and personal penury, that is. Beowulf is the earliest written story in English and, it’s a monster story. What’s not to like? In honor of Banned Book Week, I decided retroactively to read a banned title, John Gardner’s Grendel. An early parallel novel narrated from Grendel’s point of view, we are introduced to the introspective, existentialist monster who is really just wondering, like the rest of us, what the point of it all is. Not surprisingly, the protagonist often addresses the question of religion—indeed, it might even be at the heart of the story.

In chapter nine, Grendel sits in the darkness in the ring of wooden gods of the Danes when Ork, the great, blind priest stumbles in and believes the monster is the Destroyer god. As Grendel toys with his theology, the old priest understands this all as a revelation, and although Grendel gives him no answers, the words are taken as divine utterances. The other priests, finding their leader out on a winter’s night, insist that he has gone senile, that gods do not reveal themselves like that. The old man, however, is unshakeable in his faith. As in much of the novel, there is more going on here than meets the eye. The deluded priest believes a monster is his god.

The question of theodicy (literally, the judging, or justification of God) is never-ending for theists. The world is a problematic place (made so, I must note, by human consciousness) for the creation of an omnipotent deity who is good. Too much suffering, Grendel, too many failed expectations. Clergy and theologians have, for centuries, tried to frame a convincing answer to the dilemma. The tack they all studiously avoid is that God is a monster, although some posit that as a straw hypothesis quickly to be knocked down. Gardner, although not a theologian, was the son of a lay preacher and farmer. One suspects that elements of that childhood crawled out through the pond with Grendel. One of the truly tragic characters, a “son of Cain,” Grendel still has an immense power on the imagination. And that power, at times, might even appear godlike.


“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” I borrow the opening words from Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis since upon rereading it yesterday I found it consonant with much of mythology. Even the title chosen by Kafka resonates with Publius Ovidius Naso’s (Ovid’s) Metamorphoses. Transformation at the hands of the gods. The idea lives on in the concept of conversion, the religious experience of profound change at the behest of God; some claim a willful hand in their conversion while others simply give God the whole credit. Kafka, one of the great existentialist writers of the twentieth century, considers the transformation without the gods and the terrifying results.

Having discovered the existentialists in high school, I was immediately taken by their writings. Characters find themselves cast into a world devoid of meaning, a world that they can’t understand and in which they often suffer unusual consequences. Little did I know that I was in training for my own experience in the academic world. Academia involves a major metamorphosis, one from which the victim cannot return, and after which she or he will find him or herself ineligible for employment. Reading The Metamorphosis as an often displaced instructor who’s only ever received positive evaluations, I saw much in the novel this time that I could not appreciate last time I read it. In short, I had metamorphosized.

Gregor Samsa, discovering he is now a bug, immediately worries about how to get to work. The painful description of his financial worries and ultimate rejection resonated a little too clearly. Is conversion a positive phenomenon? It is difficult to evaluate. In my experience, those who’ve converted tended to have been pretty decent people in the first place. As Ovid notes over and over again in his lengthy epic poem, when the gods make you into something else a sadness will pervade this new existence. If you survive. As Gregor slowly starves to death (in a fate hauntingly similar to Kafka himself) he finds no divine consolation. The situation is absurd—best just come to terms with that. Kafka could have been a struggling academic in the century after his death and he would have found the same situation applies.