The Plague: Camus's Masterpiece on the Human Predicament

When the plague stealthily but mercilessly struck Oran, Dr. Rieux and his friends had to fight in the dark a noiseless enemy and could only rely on their courage and resilience. Whether the plague symbolized the Nazi occupation of France or the general suffering of our human condition, Camus focused on the internal character and strength of Rieux and his friends rather than the storm’s force and direction. Tarrou organized the sanitation team and Grand joined even though, as Rieux noted, their surviving it was only one in three. And the journalist Rambert could have left the city and returned to Paris, but was willing to risk not only his happiness with his girlfriend but also his life to struggle alongside Oran’s inhabitants to defeat the plague.

A Quote from The Plague

Unlike Meursault in The Stranger, who stood alone and alienated, Dr. Rieux fought the plague alongside his comrades Tarrou, Grand, Rambert and Castel. Though in the end, the plague took Tarrou’s life and those of several acquaintances, camaraderie had strengthened their resolve to fight this unknown and powerful enemy and highlighted the hope that in tumultuous hours and charred wastelands a few good men and women might sacrifice for the common good. And though when the city celebrated its victory, Rieux must mourn the loss of his wife, not through the plague but through a previous illness, newborn aroma seeped through the stench of the plague. As Rieux noted at the novel’s conclusion, the enemy might return; and in the next battle victory might escape beyond the city, but their courage and sacrifice would carry the fight across desert and sea.

An allegory of our existential condition, The Plague sprinkles hope without relying on Pollyanna.

War and Peace Book Review

Beyond the panoramic Battles of Austerlitz and Borodino, the muffled burning of Moscow and Napoleon’s dilapidated retreat, Tolstoy in War and Peace painted the Napoleonic War’s dislodging the cast of characters from their apparel concerns, gossipy sorties, troubled marriages and career ambitions and through their social clumsiness, oppressive ideals, spiritual dullness and determined naivete, extorted their unavoidable responses to these tidal waves.

While Napoleon sought to drive history’s course through his lashing will and reining determination by marching onto Moscow, Kutuzov by sensing and attuning to the historical current tactically retreated beyond Moscow and after the Napoleonic army’s natural dissipation trailed its chaotic retreat. Tolstoy, who believed historical crosswinds to be too complicated for any Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan to align, favored Kutuzov’s naturalistic craftsmanship and through Pierre, applied it to personal destiny.

French Retreat from Russia by Illarion Mikhailovich Pryanishnikov

After his wife had left him, Pierre’s clumsy and sometimes-comic search for meaning led him to freemasonry, whose esoteric philosophy failed to pave a new path beyond the thorns and thistles. Although he accepted life storms serenely, his what for and so what would continue to harass him until he met Karataev, who showed him the life unified to the land, the sea and the air and harmonious with their rhythms¾a mystical naturalism favored by Tolstoy. However, at the novel’s conclusion, our hero’s life as a conscientious nobleman, a contributing intelligentsia and an accommodating family man, perhaps a sign that age would squander aspirations and the years would sap physical and emotional energy, smelled of defeat to his previous pilgrimage.

The Battle of Austerlitz by François Gérard 

On the other hand, Andrei’s escaping from marriage, career and the mundane drudgery, and impulsively grasping after the wintry Polaris led to the battlefield where he almost died. Although Natasha’s love provided respite, her unfaithfulness confirmed his suspicion of an earthly Eden. In the end, even though he had forgiven her, he gave up that love for the ultimate rainbow, death, wherein he finally could rest. If he had not died, he probably would have been disillusioned by his love for Natasha.

It is sad that Andrei had given up youth, love and the possibilities of life, but it is equally sad that Pierre had decayed into a Nikolai Rostov after his courageous journey through what for and so what. Must we like the samurai commit seppuku to immortalize youth, vitality, creativity and aspiration so as not to decay into a grumpy and lecherous old man or a jealous and nagging old woman? Tolstoy’s determinism would dictate that Pierre would ultimately return to the natural cycle of birth, growth, education, career, marriage, procreation, contribution, decay and death. But whether we agree with Tolstoy or not, War and Peace would continue to tower above the greatest novels.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle

In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut through humor jabs at science, religion, and government. Bokonon, founder of the religion Bokononism, stated, “If I were younger, I would write a history of human stupidity…” A summary of Vonnegut’s theme in this novel.

Cat's Cradle

When the narrator John sets out to write a book about what important people were doing during the Hiroshima bombing, he begins a journey into human destruction. Through the children of Felix Hoenikker, a co-founder of the atomic bomb, he learns of the mad genius of this nuclear physicist. And stumbles upon the man’s invention, ice-nine, a substance when in contact with water changes it to ice. Like the atomic bomb Vonnegut was alluding, ice-nine can destroy the world. Indeed, it did, changing the seas and oceans into ice, killing anyone whose lips touches it. That potential for human destruction has only increased since Vonnegut wrote the novel. We no longer doubt that we can tilt the earth’s axis, contaminate our food and water, and change the earth’s climates.

The Possibilities of Ice-Nine

When John travels to San Lorenzo, a Caribbean island, he learns about Bokononism, a religion of absurdity and contradictory wisdom, invented by Bokonon, born Lionel Boyd Johnson, a friend of US Marine deserter Earl McCabe, who found the nation of San Lorenzo. Its nihilistic and anti-religious wisdom gives the natives the illusion of hope that they needed so much to endure their poverty, illiteracy and suffering. Absurdity: the government has banned the religion but the dictator practices it. Absurdity: the nation’s official religion is Christianity, but everyone practices Bokononism. Absurdity: Bokonon, the founder of the religion, advised the ruler to ban the religion to instill the people’s fervor for the belief. Indeed, Bokononism succeeds in what institutionalized religions should do: give people hope what reality is too difficult to bear.

San Lorenzo

San Lorenzo is not much different from other banana republic. Colonialists came upon the natives and took over the land. They set up a government and imposed their religion, language, and values. They left or died off, leaving room for a dictator to seize power and oppress the people. The dictator allies himself with a superpower and can do whatever he wants within his country. But of interest here: the dictator “Papa” Monzano’s ice-nine frozen body drops into the ocean to destroy San Lorenzo and the rest of the world. A symbol that even after he had died, he still could wreck havoc.

Cat’s Cradle is Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian novel. His humor only adds to the novel’s poignancy. The theme is as relevant today as when it was written decades. In trying to advance civilization through science, religion and government, we may instead destroy it. A vision worth considering.