Today Alain de Boton wrote a guest editorial for the New York Times about the coronavirus and the Camus novel, The Plague. I have been thinking about the book for a long time. The other day I was driving my wife’s car to the library. Her car is newer than my own, and can sync with my iPhone, so when I drive it, I often listen to the one and only very large playlist on my iPhone. The collection of music is extremely eclectic. When I play random tracks, I am often surprised by what I hear. On the day in question, the song was Wehrane Wehrane by Khaled. In it he sings from France nostalgically of his homeland and the city of his birth, Oran. This theme of nostalgia for one’s homeland, in poetry and song, has always been a common one around the world. That same playlist has a very old recording by Wadih el-Safi and Fairus at the Baalbek Festival, where she sing about flowers in the spring and her love for Lebanon. There is even a recording of Un Canadien Errant, an old French Canadian poem about exile after the Rebellions of 1837-1838, set to music.
French kids used to memorize Heureux qui comme Ulysse by Joachim du Bellay, a Renaissance poet who compares his rural home in the Loire Valley with the grandeur of Rome , where he was stationed as a diplomat, and finds the magnificence of the latter cold and foreign compared to his birth place. I, too, know the poem by heart now, not because I was forced to recite it, but because I came to appreciate it years after I first encountered it. That was in my second-year French class. In those days, I struggled with French poetry, and French in general. Indeed, I often struggled just to keep awake! The class took place around four-thirty in the afternoon, after intramural sports, and I was generally exhausted after playing soccer. The class of eleven students all sat around a huge oak table with the teacher, Deveaux Delancey, while twilight fell. There was no place to hide. On one occasion I fell asleep, to be awakened by the elbow of Mr. Delancey, who was seated next to me. He kindly nudged me back to consciousness. I was embarrassed, of course, and he and my classmates were amused. Today I find it surprising that I fell in love with the French language after such a rough start.
Oran got me thinking about The Plague by Camus. The coronavirus was quickly reaching pandemic proportions, so reflecting on a novel that depicts the lives of residents who are quarantined is nothing out of the ordinary.
I have always loved the novel for the various ways in which Camus’ characters look at life while facing death. I chose The Plague one year for my high school book club, despite my fear that it was too dry and foreign to have interested anyone. When you are an adolescent, is there anything farther from your mind than how to face death? At least, for an American teenager, since this is what teens in Afghanistan, Syria, Gaza, and most of the Sahel routinely face every day of their lives. Many know nothing else.
In The Plague, the inhabitants of Oran are trapped in their city by a quarantine, and must face the possibility that they will contract the disease and die. Each protagonist sees his situation differently. One of them, a doctor without religious belief, finds life absurd, but decides that he must struggle against the contagion, risking his life to save the sick out of plain and simple solidarity with humanity. He typifies Camus’ existential hero. In another work, La pierre qui pousse, which I read in college, the type appears again. That short story is part of a collection, L’exil et le royaume.
For many Peace Corps volunteers, service was exile. Of college age, most opposed the Vietnam war on political and moral grounds, but faced military service there unless they could defer it. In that era, everything depended on one’s draft board, an organization of prominent local citizens. The policies of draft boards varied enormously from place to place. If you had political connections or money, the perfect contemporary example being Donald Trump, multiple deferments were easy to come by. Almost all draft boards granted deferments to volunteers, though the deferment did not mean one would escape conscription upon return. During my junior year in college, one of the fellows in my dorm was told by his Texas draft board that after two years in Nepal, he would soon be drafted, since now that he had seen peace, now he ought to fight a war for his country.
Many volunteers joined the Peace Corps hoping to escape conscription, or at the least, to delay it. This wasn’t necessarily their only motive. Everyone wanted to be of service. They simply didn’t want to fight in a war about which they had serious qualms. All of us wondered what would happen when we returned. One of my buddies, Bob Wood, another dorm mate, went to northeast Thailand, then returned to graduate school at Yale to graduate with an M.A. in South East Asia Studies.
The war was a transformative event for Americans of the time. Vietnam veterans, who returned home to protests, are still bitter about their perceived lack of recognition for their service, and most cherish memories of camaraderie with fellow soldiers under battle.
The U.S. eventually established a draft lottery to promote fairness. The first lottery, which took place in 1969, was for men born between 1944 and 1950, a group that included me. The highest number that would be selected was 195. I drew 333, and I could be assured that I would not serve. Had I been drafted, because I spoke French, I probably would have been made to serve in military intelligence.
Having learned French, I had understood the French experience in Indochina, and I had concluded that the war made no sense. Today that opinion is widespread, and the knowledge that American politicians and the military lied continually about the war is well documented. I still remember Dick Holbrook’s incredulity when the Pentagon Papers were published by the New York Times. They contained information he never wanted to share.
The war killed many young men. I have looked for their names on the Vietnam memorial in Washington several times and even taken pencil etchings on paper. For many of the survivors, the war meant lost love and broken marriages. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a French film just being reissued in a restored version, told such a story, though the war in Algeria, not Vietnam, was the event that ripped the lovers apart. For most young men, in any case, the Vietnam war meant a hiatus.
Just as the coronavirus will be a deeply disruptive hiatus to a world of people today. And today there is no escape to Morocco.