April 28, 1994
The Black Death has left a mark on western culture that survives to this day. For many, this legacy is one of grotesque and horrendous images of pain and filth, of fear and flight, and of a people trying to survive in the midst of death. Camus, in his novel The Plague and Bergman in his film The Seventh Seal do not hesitate to portray this apocalyptic vision of plague. Through Paneloux, the priest, Camus presents a striking image of plague as a "huge wooden bar whirling above the town, striking at random, swinging up again in a shower of drops of blood, and spreading carnage and suffering on earth." (89) He describes in detail the physical manifestations of plague in the human body. The swelling ganglion, the blood and pus, the stench of corruption all figure prominently. (32) Bergman's images are just as intense. The shock experienced by the squire as he discovers the priest he is talking to is actually a desiccated corpse, the detailed murals that the painter is creating on the church wall portraying all the grisly and frightening elements of plague, and the agonizing death of Raval the wicked seminarist are a constant reminder that plague is all around.
But for both men, the plague is more than collective anonymous destruction.The Plague and The Seventh Seal allow their creators to work through specific themes relating to life, death, and faith. The people in Camus' novel are all "up against the wall that plague had built around [them] and in its lethal shadow [they] must work out [their] salvation." (201) Bergman's company is also in a constricted world where, despite the distance traveled by the small band, the same characters continually overtake and surround them.
Throughout The Plague Dr. Rieux is surrounded by people who wish to provide sweeping generalizations and statements of ideologies to explain the reality of the mass affliction. The authorities, more concerned with the bureaucratic problems that will ensue as a result of a public declaration of plague, stave off decisions with arguments of semantics. The people outside the stricken area attempt to commiserate but cannot do so in terms that will have any real meaning for the unfortunate victims. Paneloux's catastrophic image is one of collective destruction, although he says God is striking out at the people to force their attention. However, this celestial raging has little or nothing to do with a personal God treating with individuals.
Dr. Rieux, as he battles the plague, continually tries to bring the generalizations into focus upon these individuals. His stated purpose for writing the chronicle is to "bear witness in favor of these plague-stricken people." (278) He entered the medical profession "abstractedly, because it meant a career like another." (117) However, he has come to realize that he can never get used to people dying; that death is not an abstract, not a generalization, but a suffering faced by each individual. Bergman brings death even closer to the individual by making Death an individual himself, collecting each individual personally at the ends of their lives.
Not only does Rieux inexorably turn attention to the individual, he will not blithely allow others to casually dismiss or obfuscate the consequence of plague. When confronted by the bureaucrats he keeps returning the focus of the discussion back to the fact that whatever the words or stratagems, the consequence of inaction is that people will die. As a result of his determined stance, the eyes and minds of each man in turn are brought to focus upon this central fact. Rieux demands that each individual act. Block, too, is waiting for his single act. It is this that drives his bargain with death along with the need to know.
A defining act is not easy to accomplish in a town like Oran that is conducive to a somnambulant social consciousness. It is a town that encourages "habits" which, once formed, allow one to "get through the days there without trouble." (5) It is place where there is no social unrest, "treeless, glamorless, soulless. . .seeming restful," (5) in other words, devoid of the concern and the dilemma faced by Rieux. It is even, perhaps the popular view held of the medieval world--a world of unchanging sameness.
Tarrou also knows the danger of ignoring the reality of plague, of shunning such dreadful awareness. He sees the plague as a metaphor for the dark side of man. Call it original sin or simply hatred, it infests every person. Bergman, too, portrays the spiritual plague in the physically healthy. The townspeople torment the innocent Jof in the tavern and the soldiers and the priest are only interested in seeing the frightened young girl as the personification of evil so that they can offer her as sacrifice to their fear. Raval, the most wicked since he not only steals from the dead and torments the innocent but also, as a seminarist or almost-priest, is one of those responsible for encouraging Block and his squire to chase folly in the Holy Land, finally manifests his inward plague of spirit in an agonizing death from plague of the body.
Sufferers of this spiritual plague are tempted to conceal or even deny the very existence of the disease. Attempting to come to terms with such infestation is too wearying, too difficult. "For the plague-stricken, their peace of mind is more important than human life." (227) Tarrou has seen and felt the horror of this metaphysical plague and finds he cannot gloss over its implications, cannot turn his back on the lives of his fellow human beings, whatever the ideals or high-blown phrases dictate. Nor can he allow himself, however unwittingly, to be among the guilty. Indeed he even works to encourage others to act against plague by establishing the civic squads.
In this respect he shares Rieux's view that what is important is not the rhetoric of ideologies but the individual. It is during their brief reprieve from fighting the plague, that Rieux and Tarrou realize the commonality of their ideas. Tarrou describes how he has come to understand the personal nature of his encompassing self-plague. He tries to distill his feelings into a statement that accurately captures their essence. Unlike Grand, whose inability to articulate his thoughts is a symbol of his inability to act, Tarrou has found his essential statement and hence the meaning for his life. He knows that "there are pestilences and there are victims, no more than that." (230)
Because Tarrou has grappled with and learned to understand plague of the soul he is ready and willing to assist Rieux fight plague of the body. He will not fall prey to the forgetfulness of the town's survivors. He will not succumb to the false peace of denial. Though the plague may consume his body it will not imperil his soul. His knowledge of plague's danger does not lead him to condemn those who seek to spread it or ignore it. He concedes that "good-natured men" like his father are carriers of the pestilence. But he also knows that railing against such men and the society which produces them can, in turn, lead him to perform the same abuses that he abhors. It is this thought that he must ever keep before himself, this danger that he must guard against.
The rapport that Rieux and Tarrou discover in their brief respite in the sea away from the plague ridden town is one of the warmest moments of the book. So, too, is the twilight peace found by the knight as he meets the loving family of Jof, Mia and their Michael. Despite the fact that the death mask watches over Jof's shoulder throughout, the knight whose thoughts have been so much within himself, finds himself sharing not only strawberries and fresh milk with the small band but friendship and himself as well. This moment of tranquility, away from the claustrophobia of the town or the forest, near the freedom of the sea, prepares him for his defining action. When that moment comes it is not a stroke of brilliantly conceived strategy or an act of heroism, rather it is a simple, clumsy, desperate ruse--the "accidental" spilling of the chess pieces--that allows Jof and Mia time to make their escape. Like a magi, this knight gives his gift to this holy family.
Clumsy thought it is, this act is made in an attempt to help individuals and it is the recognition of individuals and action on their behalf that defines the successful in both Camus's novel and Bergman's film. The flagellants, though they act, have no such success. Their leader rails at the townspeople seeing not individuals but a "fleshy nose" or a "bearer of the lust of life." His followers stagger through their repetitive and meaningless acts of self-torture paying no attention to the crowd they pass through. They leave the town and fade into the dust of the earth making no difference, leaving no mark. Nor are their words headed by the townspeople who go on with their futile attempts to explain the plague and their jeering pleasure in Raval's cruelty to Jof.
Each of the characters introduced by Camus will make the decision between anonymity and individuality, between state and self, between plague and life. Paneloux originally describes the plague as apocalyptic vision, as mass condemnation. But when confronted with the agony of the dying boy, a boy whose agony has perhaps been prolonged by the very thing meant to save him, Paneloux is confronted with the individual nature of death and is irrevocably changed. M. Othon, portrayed almost as a caricature, as someone who does not recognize his children as individuals but rather as "performing poodles" (26) joins the ranks of the "spiritually alive" when he faces the death of that same boy, his son. Block reveals unwittingly to Death that he had planned to depend on his "Bishop and Knight" or belief in the representatives of organized religion and power, to outwit his adversary in the chess game. Jof, graced by his visions, the love of his wife, and Block's desperate ruse, can escape the calamitous night to emerge from his ark unscathed. He too has seen Death and has watched the dance of the dead but is graced with immunity for a time.
Produced just ten years apart, Camus and Bergman use the plague of the fourteenth century as a lens through which to view their own times. In the wake of the anonymous death of world war and in the midst of cold war that threatens global destruction, they focus our attention on questions faced by individuals. Plague, by forcing us to look at death, allows us to realize that there are no "loopholes, even for actors." In so doing we must decide how we will live what lives we have. While these stories are less about historical plague of body than of modern plague of spirit, they remind us that plague and the questions it raises, though they may become invisible at times, are always with us.