Yes Minister (and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister) is a British political satire sitcom that ran from 1980 to 1988 with a short-lived revival in 2013. The show follows the fictional political career of the, often naïve, elected minister Jim Hacker and his constant struggle to implement effective policy against the wishes of his permanent secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby, a career civil servant, who is committed to maintaining the status quo at any cost. An allegory for the tension between idealistic politicians and the established bureaucracy.
Sir Humphrey is portrayed as a seasoned political operator who attempts to outmanoeuvre his opponents, and indeed the minster, through his use of obfuscation, jargon and outright manipulation to maintain control and ensure the perpetuation of the political system which he considers sacrosanct.
In the video attached, Sir Humphrey and Minister Hacker debate
the role of morality in government and whether or not the civil service should
give precedence to morality over political interests. Sir Humphrey puts forward
the argument that government isn’t in the business of morality but rather its
purpose is to guarantee the continuity of government so that it can maintain
order and prevent anarchy.
How can we understand this argument in the context of Camus’ The Plague and other plague literature we have read this semester? Can it help us understand the motivations and rationale of a government that implements a quarantine or prevents external communication from within even when these policies cause so much grief to the citizens that government ostensibly serves? Does being in government necessarily mean trying to preserve order at the expense of the individual?
Once the plague comes into full force, we see the degradation
of the individual as government policy becomes a numbers game and the citizens
of Oran become a collective (e.g. no individual favours, no consideration of
individual circumstance). All this in service of the greater good: ensuring the
continuity of society. Does morality have a place in government when it
conflicts with the perceived purpose of government? Perhaps more importantly, what
is the purpose of government, especially in a time of plague?
I leave you with a quote from the perennially razor sharp and quick-witted Sir Humphrey: ‘ well, government doesn’t stop just because the country’s been destroyed! I mean, annihilation’s bad enough without anarchy to make things even worse! ’
The sentiments of isolation in Albert Camus’ The Plague, especially in the beginning of part 2, reminded me of similar sentiments in Berlin in the early 1960’s when the wall was erected through houses and communities to separate East and West Berlin. Though parts of Germany were contested and divided between the American, British, French, Soviet troops after World War II Berlin remained fairly borderless and East Germans could cross to West Germany/Berlin relatively freely. However, this caused brain drain in Eastern Germany, prompting them to build a wall to prevent Eastern Germans from moving to the more liberal West Germany.
Like in Oran, families were unexpectedly split, and communities that once co-existed despite being at the border of West/East Germany were demarcated by an impenetrable wall. Similar to Oran, loved ones were torn apart and communication ran scarce and dangerous. Though the separation causes are different, this overarching theme of uncontrollable big events causing individual collateral damages runs through not only for Berlin and Oran, but through other parts of history. I write about this because the fall of the Berlin Wall celebrates its 30th year today (Nov 9), and 30 years later such separation and isolation of human beings still occur, as evident in contemporary political issues of family separations at the U.S. border. In reflecting on this, I wonder how we can humanize such grand occurrences? It’s books like Camus that localise such sentiments to a particular socio-cultural context, and allows readers to resonate more with specific stories of love, loss, and separation. New forms of media such as this now function as more contemporary ways to memorialize the individuality of such events. While these remediations of reality capture the nuance of human emotion and experience during such historical events, and allow us to ponder on the complexities of human experience especially under such circumstances.
In The Plague, we see the people of Oran going to beaches (but only on Sundays!) and we see men and women performing “the act of love”: having to love one another without knowing much about it. The social encounter exists, but the force of the social encounter isn’t there. Pleasure is to be found in love-making, sea-bathing, or going to the pictures, but there is no passion in such pleasure. Life in Oran is more lifeless than death itself – it’s an absurd existence.
As a philosopher, Camus was interested in “the Absurd”: the human tendency to seek meaning in life, and the human inability to find that meaning. The paradox of the Absurd is reflected in another of Camus’ works, The Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is sentenced by the Greek gods to an eternal punishment: he must push a boulder up a mountain, but as soon as he pushes the boulder to the top, it rolls back down, and Sisyphus must start again. Here, Camus tells us we have three choices: we can either commit suicide by rejecting life as completely meaningless, take a leap of faith and reject absurdism itself, or we can do what Sisyphus does: embrace the absurdity of life. We can recognize two things: first, we are human beings with an innate need to make sense of the universe, and second, the universe doesn’t care about us human beings. There is no answer to the question “what is the meaning of life?” we ask. As the article from which this picture is cited states, Sisyphus recognizes “life was meaningless anyway so he might as well keep pushing this boulder”.
Rereading the novel, we can now ask: Who is Sisyphus in the novel? What is the boulder they must keep pushing? And finally, are we ourselves Sisyphus? If we are, what do we do now?
Albert Camus’ The Plague is a recount of the horrific events taking place in the French Algerian city of Oran circa 1940. There is an unexpected mass exodus of rats emerging from the sewers to die; always dying in twos and threes. The number of deaths within the rat population increases exponentially until people, instead of rats, start dying – the first victim being M. Michel.
The book is told by an unknown narrator that takes us to the beginning where one of the characters – Dr. Bernard Rieux – starts noticing the first signs of what later becomes the plague. However, there is also a second character that Camus briefly includes – Jean Tarrou – a man of few habits, that is “an addict of all normal pleasures without being their slave” (24). Before introducing us to either character, Camus describes Oran as a city that survives off of habit, geared towards “the object of getting rich” (4). But how could a man like Tarrou survive in such a place without habits? It is not only the plague that Camus pays attention to, but also these habitual actions. What significance could this hold further down the line?
Another interesting aspect of the narrative style is the reluctance of the narrator to identify himself. He argues that “the narrator would have little claim to competence for a task like this, had not chance put him in the way of gathering much information, and had he not been, by the force of things, closely involved in all that he proposes to narrate” (6). The anonymity of the narrator, coupled with Tarrou’s accounts, brings up the question of the distinction between a historian and a novelist – who is the narrator, and where can we see Camus’ voice come in?Does he intend the account to be historical, or fictional?
The citizens of Oran are not living so much as they are collecting habits. Their main objective to accumulate as much wealth as possible is what motivates them to keep working. Camus often refers to the absurdity of life and the complete lack of purpose which is why towns such as Oran are so bizarre to him; people work frantically and without enjoyment towards a goal they can never reach: “treeless, glamorless, soulless, the town of Oran ends by seeming restful and, after a while, you go complacently to sleep there” (6). Oran is a town haunted by its own ghosts – habits – their current system is peaceful and secure so they do not question it and “social unrest is quite unknown” (5).
Habit also plays a big role in determining Oran’s reaction to the plague. When rats begin dying out on the streets, we notice a concerted unwillingness to address the issue face to face. It certainly seems strange that hundreds of rodents are dying, but are people willing to dig deeper, to find the reason why? Not so. People are not willing to let minor disturbances get in the way of their daily routines. We notice people theorizing “rational” explanations. M. Michel, the concierge, says “some young scallywags…had dumped three rats in the hall” (9). The municipality is also unwilling to tackle the issue head-on. It is only when Rambert’s newspaper starts running the story that a meeting is convened to discuss the issue at hand.
The denial continues even when the victims of the plague transition from rats to people. M. Michel, with sores all over his body, says “It’s just swellings…I must have strained myself somehow” (17), to die soon after. The newspaper, once in a frenzy over the rats dying in the streets, “now had nothing to say. For rats died in the streets; men in their homes. And newspapers are concerned only with the street” (35). The citizens also deny the possibility that the issue could be anything more serious than an anomaly, a minor disturbance. As the narrator says, the “townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words, they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences” (37). So devoured by their daily routines, people are unwilling, even unable, to accept that anything as extraordinary as a plague could happen in their lives.
Fear also plays a central role in determining people and the government’s reaction to the plague. Interspersed within the unwillingness are traces of fear, of “what-ifs.” What if there is a plague? What if the signs all point to a disastrous consequence? Even entertaining the vague possibility of a plague prevents people from investigating the cause of the symptoms and devising potential solutions. The government, when faced with Dr. Rieux’s claims about the plague, is reluctant to put out a public proclamation, fearing the consequences and panic it could bring. At the doctor’s adamant requests, the government does take action, but in the form of “small official notices…in places where they would not attract much attention…it was hard to find in these notices any indication that the authorities were facing the situation squarely” (51). The situation brings a question to mind about the role of the government and how it should react to crises, as reflected in a previous post:
The reaction of the government and the measures taken have significant influences on the spread of the plague. What is the moral dilemma that falls upon the government when a plague hits their people/city? Do they tell them and risk panic that will cause them to attempt to leave and further spread the disease? Or do they risk their community and population completely dying?
The amount of time which takes the government to identify and react to the plague brings to our attention an interesting contrast to Johnson’s argument. Johnson argues that central, urban planning is key to tackling city-wide problems, especially the plague. He argues that past progress is built up to influence the future, and presents a temporal spectrum. In The Plague, the government officials are aware of past incidents, to the point that they are able to recall specific cases from Paris and other locations. However, they are not as quick to jump to decisions or actions. They stall and stall until they receive a confirmation via telegraph. It is as if they’ve forgotten the severity of past situations, or deny the situation as if denial would prevent the plague from happening. The contrast between Oran and London raises an interesting question: are people’s reactions to plagues determined by societal structures, as Johnson says, or by people’s base natures, as Camus suggests?
Death is accepted but largely ignored in daily life which is made evident by the fact that Oran’s inhabitants rarely go to the beach, and “very sensibly they reserve these pastimes for Saturday afternoons” (4). Thus, the two types of human existence in Oran are either death or a sleep-like life. One exception to this rule is Tarrou who lacks the rigid structure of work as he relies on other funds and disregards social norms that dictate limits on pleasure. Tarrou often goes to the beach – he is living. The plague is a mindfulness exercise that reminds people that their time is not guaranteed. Under the plague, Oran exists in the in-between, where planning for the future is naive, and every moment alive is scarce, which sanctifies time. Death and Life become conflated into one. As a result, a third state of being forms in the lives of those living in Oran. Individuals are put into place where not only the town but their everyday lives are also in limbo. This is Death’s dance.
There is a movement to it, the Dance of Death, that wraps itself around the living as they are side by side with the dead. The reader is first introduced to Death through its initial gradual move into the city using rats: “When leaving his surgery on the morning of April 16, Dr. Bernard Rieux felt something soft under his foot. It was a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing. On the spur of the moment he kicked it to one side and, without giving it further thought, continued on his way downstairs” (7). Camus meets movement with movement, constructing a rhythmic relationship between Death and Life. Who is to be our protagonist? The dead or the living? Death’s dance continues through the observation of Dr. Rieux who “remarked it was rather odd, the way all these rats were coming out of their holes to die” (13). Not only does Camus establish the movement of death through a network of rats, but he identifies the contagion’s spatial movement: “From the outer suburbs to the center of the town…From basements, cellars, and sewers they emerged in long wavering files into the light of day, swayed helplessly, then did a sort of pirouette and fell dead at the feet of the horrified onlookers” (15). Death’s infiltration into the city disrupts habitual practice, causing a cyclical process of confusion. Thus, death becomes a transformative power, altering the identity of the collective and individual within Oran. Citizens are forced to decide what to do, having never experienced a dilemma of this caliber. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes of this experience:
There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? This is why life is always like a sketch. No, ‘sketch’ is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture (8).
The first movement for citizens in Oran can also be their final movement. With the wrong choice, they become victims of the plague. But, Kundera’s quote also raises the question of eternal return, which he addresses in his book:
The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify? Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing…Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia (3-4).
If Camus treats Life and Death as subjects, perhaps individuals rehearse for death: we live a double-life. Are we to criticize the actions of the living in the books we have read? Reverend Whitehead and Snow were certainly able to make the correct choice, but what if they had not, would any of it mattered? An old commentator’s post begins to grapple with this conundrum:
In essence, the novel raises important questions about what happens to the passage of time when there is an imminent threat?
Camus’ novel addresses the issue of action – what is our responsibility to our surrounding community? Whether explicitly or implicitly, Jonhson, Defoe, and Porter have dealt with action in times of conflict. However, all such responsibility has been placed on the living, Kundera’s dilemma causes us to return our focus back to dead. We have so far, in the texts we have read, regarded with great focus our attention on the living and not the dead. In doing so, what have we missed out on?