Sales of Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague have skyrocketed since the onset of coronavirus. It’s easy to understand why: It tells the story of a town quarantined after experiencing a mysterious, infectious and deadly virus. Passages detailing daily life include descriptions of a governmental death toll broadcast and enforced separation from loved ones living elsewhere – things which strike a chord with us all now.
However, there’s a deeper resonance in the existentialism that pervades Camus’ writing. The novel is actually an allegory for Nazi occupation, and it is the bleak but empowering philosophy he felt the situation necessitated which speaks to me.
Existentialism is not a coherent doctrine. Popularised after 1945, the term was retrospectively applied to create a now accepted ‘cannon’. Very few – with Jean Paul Sartre a notable exception – ever used it themselves. Yet there are recurring themes which constitute a shared existentialist outlook running through the work of Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Fanon and others.
One theme is suffering. For existentialists, being alive is inescapably difficult and unsatisfying. Schopenhauer’s metaphysics famously cast self-consciousness as an insatiable striving, totally incapable of reaching fulfilment or of ceasing. Sartre, meanwhile, charts how self-consciousness’ structure entails a lack – a void we necessarily attempt to fill but if successful would end that self-consciousness, thus making it impossible.
This thought runs through Camus’ arguably more relevant work for today, The Myth of Sisyphus. Here he analyses another existentialist theme – ‘the Absurd’. With life considered meaningless, Camus urges us to confront the fact that our lives are mere unproductive toil, but also that we can and should flourish nonetheless. Camus was fascinated with the figure of Sisyphus, condemned to endlessly re-roll a boulder to a hilltop for eternity. Hence his famous dictum that ‘one must imagine Sisyphus happy’.
By recognising that human existence and suffering are inherently entwined we can confront the hardships we experience and witness in order to thrive regardless.
This idea is boldest in the work of Nietzsche. He proclaims that everything that happens is destined to repeat endlessly. His point, in the seemingly hellish notion of ‘Eternal Return’, is that you must affirm and truly believe this in order to be free and able to find your own meaning in life. This point is not a dangerous acceptance of life-destroying events such as coronavirus, nor that we shouldn’t do everything we can to prevent and mitigate them. Rather, it values and provides solace during trying times by promoting the individual’s ability to recognise that living is inherently hard and will inevitably entail difficulties and dissatisfaction, and with that recognition in mind, crucially, we need and should not give up.
Existentialism puts forward that embracing life’s problems allows us to create our own meanings, celebrating the value we can find amidst the trials. Today, for example, this could be a socially distanced walk with a friend or a new professional project you believe in.
Now may even be the extra time to write that blog on existentialism you’ve always meant to.
To evidence the point about sales of the book in case you need it: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/mar/28/albert-camus-novel-the-plague-la-peste-pestilence-fiction-coronavirus-lockdown
Andrew Hyams is a communications and digital consultant from London with a background in politics and campaigning, having worked for the UK, Australian and New Zealand Labour parties. He studied History and Philosophy at the University of Sussex and UCL. You can get in touch with him on firstname.lastname@example.org