Jean-Paul Sartre, his philosophy of Existentialism and his work, “Nausea”


Author–                        Jean-Paul Sartre

Category/ Genre–       Philosophical Fiction

Author Biography

Jean-Paul Sartre was a French existentialist philosopher and pioneer, dramatist and screenwriter, novelist, and critic. He was a leading figure in 20th-century French philosophy. He is commonly considered the father of Existentialist philosophy, whose writings set the tone for intellectual life in the decade immediately following the Second World War.  Born in Paris in 1905, he was brought up by his mother’s family, the Schwitzers ( The Alsatian polymath Albert Schweitzer was his older cousin). His grandfather was the inventor of the Berlitz method of teaching languages. He spent his early years with his grandfather in his library and is later said to have started writing seriously to ward off boredom.

He eventually studied philosophy at French and German Universities and taught at Le Havre, a port in the Normandy region. ‘Nausea‘ was his first full-scale work in which the commune of Bouville is modeled from Le Havre. The book was published in 1938 and was condemned by the academics, but welcomed by young readers of France. In a 1945 lecture, Sartre described existentialism as the attempt to draw all the consequences from a position of consistent atheism. 

Sartre entered the army during the second world war, was captured, sent to the prison camp, and released later due to ill health. After returning to Paris, under occupation he wrote several plays and his first major philosophical work, ‘Being and Nothingness‘ (1943). When the war ended, he was widely known as the leader of the entire war-bred generation of Parisian intellectuals.

He has produced novels, plays, short stories, essays, biographies, political and journalistic works, pamphlets, manifestoes etc…. He has been called the most brilliant Frenchman of his time. No one matched him for his wit, argumentative skill, polemical zeal and learning. ‘Nausea‘ is a powerful Existentialist novel and the protagonist Antoine Roquentin, a fictional and real archetype. 

Sartre had long been fascinated with the French novelist Gustave Flaubert. Among the last of his many uncompleted projects are a multi-volume study of Flaubert’s life and times, The Family Idiot (1971–1972). In this work, Sartre joins his Existentialist vocabulary of the 1940s and early 1950s with his Marxian lexicon of the late 1950s and 1960s to ask what we can know about a man in the present state of our knowledge. This study, which he describes as “a novel that is true,” incarnates that mixture of phenomenological description, psychological insight, and social critique that has become the hallmark of Sartrean philosophy. He was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in literature, which he famously declined lest his acceptance be read as approval of the bourgeois values that the honor seemed to emblemize. He refused all official honors, stressing that  “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.

Sartre was not politically involved in the 1930s though his heart, as he said, “was on the left, like everyone’s.” The War years, occupation and resistance made the difference. He emerged committed to social reform and convinced that the writer had the obligation to address the social issues of the day. He founded the influential journal of opinion, Les Temps Modernes, with his partner Simone de Beauvoir, as well as Merleau-Ponty, Raymond Aron, and others. In the “Présentation” to the initial issue (October, 1945), he elaborated his idea of committed literature and insisted that failure to address political issues amounted to supporting the status quo. After a brief unsuccessful attempt to help organize a nonCommunist leftist political organization, he began his long love-hate relationship with the French Communist Party, which he never joined but which for years he considered the legitimate voice of the working class in France. This continued till the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956. Still, Sartre continued to sympathize with the movement, if not the Party, for some time afterwards. He summarized his disillusionment in an essay “The Communists are afraid of Revolution,” following the “events of May,” 1968. By then he had moved toward the radical Left and what the French labeled “les Maos,” whom he likewise never joined but whose mixture of the ethical and the political attracted him. Sartre had complicated relationships with orthodox Marxism. He believed that violent revolutions would sweep capitalism away. He denounced the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, and argued that only socialism and not the bourgeis notions of justice and human rights could condemn it.  

Politically, Sartre tended toward what the French call “libertarian socialism,” which is a kind of anarchism. Ever distrustful of authority, which he considered “the Other in us,” his ideal was a society of voluntary eye-level relations that he called “the city of ends.” One caught a glimpse of this in his description of the forming group (le groupe en fusion) in the Critique. There each was “the same” as the others in terms of practical concern. Each suspended his or her personal interests for the sake of the common goal. No doubt these practices hardened into institutions and freedom was compromised once more in bureaucratic machinery. But that brief taste of genuine positive reciprocity was revelatory of what an authentic social existence could be.

Sartre came to recognize how the economic conditions the political in the sense that material scarcity, as both Ricardo and Marx insisted, determines our social relations. In Sartre’s reading, scarcity emerges as the source of structural and personal violence in human history as we know it. It follows, he believes, that liberation from such violence will come only through the counter-violence of revolution and the advent of a “socialism of abundance.”

What Sartre termed the “progressive/regressive method” for historical investigation is a hybrid of historical materialism and existentialist psychoanalysis. It respects the often decisive role of economic considerations in historical explanation (historical materialism) while insisting that “the men that History makes are not the men that make history”; in other words, he resists complete economic determinism by an implicit appeal to his humanist motto: “You can always make something out of…”

Never one to avoid a battle, Sartre became embroiled in the Algerian War, generating deep hostility from the Right to the point that a bomb was detonated at the entrance to his apartment building on two occasions by supporters of a French Algeria. Sartre’s political critique conveyed in a series of essays, interviews and plays, especially The Condemned of Altona, once more combined a sense of structural exploitation (in this case, the institution of colonialism and its attendant racism) with an expression of moral outrage at the oppression of the Muslim population and the torture of captives by the French military.

Sartre dealt implicitly with the issue of race in many of his works, beginning with Being and Nothingness. Race relations, especially segregation in the South, figured centrally in his reports from the United States during two visits after the War (1945 and 1946) and were a major topic of his many writings on colonialism and neocolonialism thereafter. It formed the theme of his play, “The Respectful Prostitute” (1946). He claimed that even as a boy, whenever he heard of the French “colonies,” he thought of racial exploitation. He wrote in Black Orpheus about the Africa poets using the colonizers’ language against them in their poems of liberation: “Black poetry in French is the only great revolutionary poetry of our time.” He fulminated against the violence of colonialism and its implicit “justification” by appeal to the sub-humanity of the native population. On several occasions in diverse works, Sartre referred to the cry of the oppressed and exploited: “We too are humans!” as the guiding ideal of their fight for liberty. His existential humanism grounded his critique of the capitalist and colonialist “systems.” He wrote that “the meanness is in the system”—a claim that resonated with liberation movements then and now.   His appeal for violence to counter the inherent violence of the colonial system in Algeria reached hyperbolic proportions in his prefatory essay to Franz Fannon‘s ‘The Wretched of the Earth (1961). In his introduction to ‘ The Wretched of the Earth’ he wrote ” it is necessary to kill, to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to eliminate at the same time the oppressor and the oppressed“.( I feel the strange similarity in ” it is necessary to kill“, to the manifesto of the anarchist Unabomber Ted Kaczynsky). Ironical that the celebrated philosopher of freedom, the great atheist maintained a religious faith in the ideology that vandalized freedom. 

Some of the images and language of his earlier work were clearly sexist in character. And yet, Sartre always favored the exploited and oppressed in any relationship and he encouraged his life-long partner, Simone de Beauvoir, to write The Second Sex, commonly recognized as the seminal work for the second-wave of the feminist movement. Sartre, in his short work, Antisemite and Jew(1946) on the other hand, argues “synthetically” (concretely) for the rights of the Jew or the Arab or the woman (his examples) to vote as such in any election. In other words, their “rights” are concrete and not mere abstractions. One should not sacrifice the Jew (or the Arab or the woman) to the “man.” In Michael Walzer’s words: Sartre is promoting “multiculturalism…avant la lettre.

In his last years, Sartre who had lost the use of one eye during his childhood became almost totally blind. Yet, he continued working with the help of a tape recorder. He was in an open relationship with the prominent feminist and fellow existentialist philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir till his death in 1980. As the headline of one Parisian newspaper lamented his death: “France has lost its conscience.” The relevance of Sartrean existentialism remains as actual today as does the human condition that it describes and analyzes.

Nausea Analysis

by James Wood( the prominent critic, essayist, and novelist, is a professor at Harvard and a staff writer for The New Yorker.)

The protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, a historian living in Bouville, France, has been researching the Marquis de Rollebon, a French aristocrat who lived during the French Revolution. He starts experiencing strange feelings of nausea that result in loss of interest in his work. He begins to write a diary noting down his strange feelings and experiences. He becomes aware of the existence of objects and connects his nausea to to this awareness of essence masking existence. . He fails to communicate these to his ex-lover or the self-taught man in the cafe and finally decides to move to Paris and write a novel.

Existentialists stress artistic creation  as a vital aspect of existence. Sartre’s fiction is not allegorical or mythological, but an outline of straightforward philosophical arguments. The ultimate cure to his nausea rests on artistic creation. The main themes are ‘existence precedes essence’ and the differentiation between ‘being in itself’ and ‘being for itself’. He concludes that the essence of objects like color, smell, shape, weight etc. are all facades that mask the fact that the thing exists in first place.

Roquentin seems a real enough character, but his past lacks clarity, there is only ‘nothingness’ when he tries to describe his past. He invokes multiple countries that he had been to, but in a careless manner. There is a fictive quality in his description of the past. In the style of Samuel Beckett and the noveau roman style, Sartre has created a character, an unstable one with no real past outside the creator’s world. Nausea’s subjects are thus the arbitrariness of reality, it’s fictionality, randomness, contingency and superfluity of existence. Thus Roquentin’s existence is contingent as an invented fiction. The novel, unlike the classical ones with definite plot, character, action, narratives, ideas and chronology , comes under the noveau roman style-  an individual version and vision of things, subordinating plot and character to the details of the world rather than enlisting the world in their service.

Roquentin is at war with everybody and everything around him. He exhibits Dostoevskyan anger towards the bourgeois. His bouts of nausea emanates from not finding a reason for existence and being simultaneously alienated from and immersed in reality. Still, nothing looked real, things were detached from names. The reality becomes a viscous abundance, a thick heavy existence. Things like a pebble, beer glass, tree, root and his own hands seemed to exist in random, contingent and superfluous. He too was superfluous. Unlike the generous abundance of life from God, as believed by religionists or some scientists, Sartre’s view of abundance was sickly, dismal and encumbered by itself. Roquentin looks at the trees and thinks, they exist since they cannot kill themselves. Likewise the bourgeois exist and does their work unenthusistically. Existence is not a necessity, but a gratuitous, contingent event only. Roquentin realises the randomness of his own life, in a park. At aother moment when he goes out of his home for a walk, he thinks why he should go out. And answers himself, that there is no reason to not go out too. Thus he is unable to choose on eaction over another. He announces that he is free and there is no reason left for living, he even contemplates suicide, since this freedom is rather like death. To be able to do anything could also be taken as to be able to do nothing. He cannot choose between the two. We essentially choose something by nullifying the others that we have not chosen. But we ignore this truth of randomness by canonizing the random decision by flourishes of inevitability or fatalism. For ex: ” made for each other” or “fate picked the two of us out”. 

Randomness of existence means freedom to choose or do anything. But it is a mistake to imagine that this is freedom, since Roquentin is no freer than his blind fellow citizens. Means, he can do everything but nothing. This is the terrible paradox of freedom. He is free to do nothing. The fellow citizens of Bouville go abot their mechanical lives ignorant of their randomness, they hide the imprisonment of their existence by doing this. They imagine that they have chosen this form of life, when it has chosen them. 

The scene at the local gallery, of Roquentin studying the portraits of the French aristocrats give a taste of the ‘mauvaise foi‘ or ‘bad faith‘. These pompous bourgeois imagine that their lives were meaningful and the paintings would preserve their imperishable achievements, but they conceals their dilemma of existence from themselves. This revolts Roquentin. A couple at the gallery are impressed by exactly what revolts Roquentin in the portraits. Sartre wants us to see this man’s mindless veneration and respect for musty institutions. Wood writes that there is something propagandistic about this mockery of bourgeoisie, a French tradition, something didactic from Sartre, his later novels becoming more and more didactic. There is a similar scene in gallery in Flaubert‘s ‘Sentimental Education’. Sartre later, after WW 2, became more and more political and intolerant to what he perceived as bourgeis or Western softness. 

Nausea is not a political novel, still Sartre wants us to register that the town’s notables were myopics of ‘bad faith’ and also right wing representatives. Roquentin lingers over a portrait of Oliver- Martial Blevigne, who broke a town dock- strike in 1898, was an anti- Dreyfusard(conservative or anti- Semitic opponent of Dreyfus’s innocence). Though the novel seems to be set in the 1920’s, Sartre wants us to ponder about the conservative ideology that burgeoned in France and other parts of Europe throughout the 1930’s that would bloom into Nazicism and collaborationism a few years after the publication of Nausea. The Nazified intellectual Robert Brasillach who was executed for his wartime collaboration with the Nazis in 1945 wrote in his 1931 book about Virgil, “ the land we are part of is above all this well-worn landscape, these well- seasoned words, the supreme ease we feel in rediscovering a street corner, the corner of a sentence, the corner of a memory”. These sentences also appear in Maurice Barres‘s novel, ‘ The Soil and the Dead. For Brasillach, the France of ancient customs and principles were threatened by atheists. republicans, leftists, Jews. bureaucrats and a writer like Sartre. In Nausea, though Roquentin do not seem to intend a political overtone , his apprehension of life’s randomness has a political charge. His world is unanchored, arbitrary, random. There is no well- seasoned words or pleasure filled old street corners in his world and customs and principle just dissolve into nothingness. 

In both Nausea and ‘Being and Noothingness‘ freedom is the issue at the centre. Roquentin believes himself to be free, but his freedom is without value because his sense of randomness has robbed him of a meaningful choice. Only at the climax does he makes a meaningful choice of art and life has meaning. The self wants the unthinking solidity of inanimate things(being in itself), to coincide with it’s unfree, unconscous nature. The , unstable, meaningless, conscious, impermanent self( being for itself) is absolutely free. From this freedom is born anguish and due to this the self will try to hide the liberty from itself(bad faith). So, as per Sartre, bad faith is the proof that we are indeed free and that we knows it. 

Sartre’s sense of doom and responsibility of burden was popular in post- war Europe poisoned by war and stupefied by the questions of responsibility and free will. His phiolosophy revvealed that one was just not “acting by orders” for example from the Nazis, but one had the free will to choose action, but acted in bad faith by denouncing the freedom to choose. His thoughts are anguished since we know that we are sentenced and  imprisoned by our freedom. Freedom makes us afraid. But also optimistic because we know we are free. Roquentin , like the fellow citizens , is aware of his freedom, but has nothing meaningful to do with it, he runs away from freedom. Thus his freedom is corroded by his own sense of freedom. This paradox is best found in Sartre’s comment “ French were most free while occupied by the Nazis” .

In the final part, Roquentin listens to his favorite song before departing to Paris. first, he scoffs at the idea that ‘ music consoles’ in his bourgeois bating way. Then he thinks about the melody sung by the Black woman and written by a Jew. Even though there is a scratch in the record, the tune plays on and the melody is untouched. Melody stays the same since it does not exist as superfluous. Thus the singer and the author has cleansed themselves of the sin of existing. And he decides he could also do the same by creating art, writing a novel about something that has not existed. There is a little irony here considering Roquentin’s own dismissal of ‘who takes consolation in art’ previously. This is nothing but a bourgeois consolation of art at a slightly higher intellectual level.

Camus and Sartre

Though Camus was dazzled by’ Nausea’ he disliked the philosiphy, though not explicitly. He disliked Sartre’s fatalism . For Camus, when we realise that life is absurd, our stoic battle begins against this absurdity. In his ‘Myth of Sysiphus‘ Camus concluded that the absurd person should not commit suicide, but ‘to live rebelliously with my freedom, my revolt and my passion’ . That was the best way of both acknowledging and rejecting death. Sartre in Nausea thinks of Roquentin weighed in by angst, killing himself in the park. For him life is random, so death by suicide too is random and meaningless. But death too is superfluous, means Roquentin is alreay dead , so why bother killing himself. This seemed too fatalistic to Camus. 

Camus argued that we create our meaning after God. Satre’s self- determination is not to be found in him. For Camus, who lived under a religious shadow, the battle was with terms handed to us by the life , a secular version of man’s battle with Gods. Life was a religious sentence for Camus. Sartre found this religiosity frustrating. So this was one of the reasons including political differences that caused a break between the two men in the 1950’s. Camus was a tragic religionist , but Sartre , according to himself, was a ‘providential atheist‘.

But for all their differences, they resemble in their solutions to the meaninglessness of existence. Roqurntin thinks of writing a novel and Camus tells us that we must fight life with our revolt , our freedom andd our passion. Camus in ‘ The Myth of Sysiphus‘ suggests that in an effort to outwit the absurd, we might live many roles , as a writer, a conqueror, a seducer, or actor. Roquentin too fancies himself as a traveller, lover, and writer. Anny tells about the perfect moments of existence as an actor. Thus the proposed modes of salvation seems the same from both authors. 

There is a logical contradiction in their conclusions since it is almost impossible to solve the dilemma that existence is not necessary. Thus both have to furnish non- arbitrary, necessary reasons for continuing to live in an arbitrary, non- necessary world. Both come to the conclusion that life must be lived, but could only give suggestions and couldn’t prove that that must be the case. Camus was a deeper thinker, though not an abler philosopher. His philosophy was tinged with theology, so has greater sympathy for failure. Camus always stressed the struggle with life’s terms than our capacity to choose. His philosophy touched and touches more lives than Sartre’s. Paradoxically , though Sartre was not religious, he had a religious faith in man’s ability to choose and be free. This gives a rather unworldly air to Sartre’s philosophy and politics whie Camus was realistic about the tragic, constrained, Sisyphean nature of our ordinary daily imprisonment.. But Sartre just concluded that we could just simply explode the prison.


To understand the deeper meanings of ‘Nausea‘, one needs to go through the basics of Existential philosophy. So adding whatever little I have understood from some essays about the topic. It is not a novel with straightforward indications, guiding lampposts, or thrilling plot twists. But, Nausea is not only a powerful philosophical novel but a crucial event in the evolution of sensibility.

The strategy of “indirect communication” has been an instrument of “Existentialists” since Kierkegaard adopted the use of pseudonyms in his philosophical writings in the early nineteenth century. The point is to communicate a feeling and an attitude that the reader/spectator adopts in which certain existentialist themes such as anguish, responsibility or bad faith are suggested but not dictated as in a lecture. Asked why his plays were performed only in the bourgeois sections of the city, Sartre replied that no bourgeois could leave a performance of one of them without “thinking thoughts traitorous to his class.”  And this is what existentialism is chiefly about: challenging the individual to examine their life for intimations of bad faith and to heighten their sensitivity to oppression and exploitation in their world.

Sartre’s early work Nausea (1938) is the very model of a philosophical novel. Its protagonist, Roquentin, works through many of the major themes of Being and Nothingness that will appear five years later. It can be read as an extended meditation on the contingency of our existence and on the psychosomatic experience that captures that phenomenon. In his famous meditation on a tree root, Roquentin experiences the brute facticity of its existence and of his own: both are simply there, without justification, in excess (de trop). The physicality of this revelatory “sickly sweet” sensation should not be overlooked. Like the embarrassment felt before the Other’s gaze in the voyeur example , our bodily intentionality (what he calls “the body as for-itself”) is revealing a reality.

In an introductory note, Hayden Carruth the American poet, literary critic and anthologist explain how the existentialist ideas are not new. He mentions its presence in the myths of Abraham and Job, pre-Socratic philosophies of Greece, dramas of Aeschylus and Euripides, Greek and Byzantine culture of mystery and as a fine thread in the central European tradition: the Church Fathers, Augustine, the Gnostics, Abelard, Thomas. In the Orient, concurrently, the entire development of religious and philosophical attitudes, particularly in the Buddhist and Taoist writings, seems to have been frequently closer to the actual existence of mankind than the rationalist discourses of the West.

Existentialism as we know today springs from philosophers Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Although they lived a generation apart, were contrary in many respects, they shared the same experiences in the concern for the fate of individuals. They influenced Dostoevsky, who expressed the existentialist sensibilities in his novels, especially ‘The Brothers Karamazov‘ and ‘Notes from the Underground’. Carruth mentions that “In literature many, or even most, of the chief modern authors have been, consciously or not, Existentialists; certainly the tradition is very strong in the line of development represented by Kafka, Unamuno, Lawrence, Malraux, Hesse, Camus, and Faulkner“.

The philosophy cannot be defined distinctly as it is a living experience as opposed to the rationalist tradition from the Renaissance. The Ideal Reason of the mind in the rationalist tradition could not account for human experiences like pain and ecstasy, doubt and intuition, anguish and despair as Kierkegaard was aware. The philosophy of Hegel, Hegelianism, described the reality in a unified rational mind of a crowd, submerging the consciousness and giving prominence to the mass instead of the individual. But for the Existentialist, who insists that reality is only what he himself knows and experiences, self and consciousness are not submerged and also they are cruel and coercive. For the Existentialist, the self is present, suffering existent and “A crowd is an untruth”. Only in the self could the truth occur. Focussing on self and consciousness is one of the ideas of existentialism.

The next idea is ‘nothingness as the reality‘. When a person looks back beyond his birth or forwards after his death, there is a void. Similarly, when he looks inside himself, setting aside the memory, knowledge, and sensations, he sees a chasm of formless ego, a nothingness. This nothingness becomes a reality that leads to man’s despair or existential integrity. Nothingness inside self as the new reality makes the human-centric version of the philosophy of Humanism untenable according to existentialists. Thus mankind is an accident in existentialist philosophy, a late and adventitious newcomer whose life is governed by contingency; and the proof, paradoxically, comes from rationalism itself, from the Darwinian idea of evolution. Man, the thinker is a contingent by-product only, a non- essential component of the reality of a world of stars, stones and trees. Thus, man and his works cling to existence by a tenuous hold.

Nothingness and absurdity of existence and the confrontation with anguish and despair are basic ideas of existentialism from which each existentialist philosopher found his own specific ideas of individual existence, Sartre one among them. The idea of confronting existence with anguish and despair has had a huge impact on the minds of the common people as well as intellectuals in a chaotic world as in the post-world war society of Europe. Thus the philosophy flourished in Europe in the twentieth century. Those who lived through torture, uprootedness, or chaos were impacted much by this philosophy. Thus the reason for the pessimistic, nightmarish imagery in Existentialist literature. Though the chaotic world impacted the flourishing of the philosophy, it is also seen in the works of Dickens, Pushkin, and Balzac. Also,  neither Kierkegaard nor Nietzsche lived in a turbulent, chaotic external world, too. So, it could be surmised that their inner searchings were deeply rooted than the external chaos in the origins of existentialism.

Suffering is the origin of consciousness,” Dostoevski.  

Life begins on the other side of despair.” Sartre

Sartre himself is an example and has been at great pains to define and enforce his exemplitude: in journalism, in fiction, in drama, in political activity, and in teaching.

Nietzsche’s remark: “I honor a philosopher only if he is able to be an example.

Sartre posits the idea that “what all existentialists have in common is the fundamental doctrine that existence precedes essence“, which means that the most important consideration for individuals is that they are individuals—independently acting and responsible, conscious beings (“existence”)—rather than what labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories the individuals fit (“essence”). The actual life of the individuals is what constitutes what could be called their “true essence” instead of there being an arbitrarily attributed essence others use to define them. Thus, human beings, through their own consciousness, create their own values and determine a meaning to their life. This view is in contradistinction to what Aristotle and Aquinas held; they taught that essence precedes individual existence.  In his essay, ‘Being and Nothingness‘, he explains the kinds of beings as in-itself (en-soi), for-itself (pour-soi), and for-others (pour-autrui). En-soi refers to the existence of inanimate objects, not conscious, neither active nor passive, and harboring no potential for transcendence. For humans, Sartre defines the for-itself being as one who is conscious, free, transcendent, with multiple roles. Sartre famously states that “humans are condemned to be free”.

One of the problems of human existence is the desire to be en-soi or to attain an absolute identity, full control over one’s destiny or the desire to be God. Sartre gives the example of a cafe waiter to explain these terms. Take the inanimate object, an inkwell for example. It plays the exact role of an inkwell only and so is a being-in-itself. The waiter in the cafe acts the waiter’s part, but his actual identity is that of a man and many other things who happen to be functioning as a waiter. So he is a being-for-itself. In playing the part of the waiter, he reduces himself to a being- in -itself and thus acts in “bad faith”.

The notion of absurd encompasses the meaninglessness or unfairness of the world. Thus it opposes the Abrahamic religious perspective that the purpose of life is to follow and fulfill God’s commandments. Albert Camus states that the world or the human in itself is not absurd, but the absurdity of existence happens when both juxtaposition against each other. The view by Kierkegaard states that absurdism happens by actions and choices of human beings. Any tragic event could plummet someone, good or bad, irrespective to confront the absurd. The notion of the Absurd has been prominent in the literary works of Kierkegaard, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Eugène Ionesco, Miguel de Unamuno, Luigi Pirandello, Sartre, Joseph Heller, and Camus that contain descriptions of people who encounter the absurdity of the world.

Facticity signifies all of the concrete details against the background of which human freedom exists and is limited. For example, these may include the time and place of birth, a language, an environment, an individual’s previous choices, as well as the inevitable prospect of their death. For example: currently, the situation of a person who is born without legs precludes their freedom to walk on the beach; if future medicine were to develop a method of growing new legs for that person, their facticity might no longer exclude this activity.

In existentialism, authenticity is the degree to which an individual’s actions are congruent with his beliefs and desires, despite external pressures; the conscious self is seen as coming to terms with being in a material world and with encountering external forces, pressures, and influences which are very different from, and other than, itself. A lack of authenticity is considered in existentialism to be bad faith.

Existential angst“, sometimes called existential dread, anxiety, or anguish is a term that is common to many existentialist thinkers. It is generally held to be a negative feeling arising from the experience of human freedom and responsibility. The archetypal example is the experience one has when standing on a cliff where one not only fears falling off it but also dreads the possibility of throwing oneself off. In this experience that “nothing is holding me back”, one senses the lack of anything that predetermines one to either throw oneself off or to stand still, and one experiences one’s own freedom.

Despair is generally defined as a loss of hope. In existentialism, it is more specifically a loss of hope in reaction to a breakdown in one or more of the defining qualities of one’s self or identity. If a person is invested in being a particular thing, such as a bus driver or an upstanding citizen, and then finds their being-thing compromised, they would normally be found in a state of despair—a hopeless state. For example, a singer who loses the ability to sing may despair if they have nothing else to fall back on—nothing to rely on for their identity. They find themselves unable to be what defined their being. What sets the existentialist notion of despair apart from the conventional definition is that existentialist despair is a state one is in even when they are not overtly in despair. So long as a person’s identity depends on qualities that can crumble, they are in perpetual despair

Atheistic existentialism is a kind of existentialism which strongly diverged from the Christian existential works of Søren Kierkegaard and developed within the context of an atheistic world view. It was formally recognized after the 1943 publication of Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre and Sartre later explicitly alluded to it in Existentialism is a Humanism in 1946. His novel Nausea is in some ways a manifesto of atheistic existentialism. It deals with a dejected researcher (Antoine Roquentin) in an anonymous French town, where Roquentin becomes conscious of the fact that nature as well as every inanimate object is indifferent towards him and his tormented existence. The existential angst experienced by the protagonist allows him to eventually understand that meaning exists only when he creates it for himself. Sartre once said, “existence precedes essence”. What he meant was “that, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterward, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first, he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but he is also only what he wills himself to be after this thrust toward existence”  Sartre wrote other works in the spirit of atheistic existentialism (e.g. the short stories in his 1939 collection The Wall).

Albert Camus writes of dualisms—between happiness and sadness—as well as life and death. In The Myth of Sisyphus, such dualism becomes paradoxical because humans greatly value their existence while at the same time being aware of their mortality. Camus believes it is human nature to have difficulty reconciling these paradoxes; and indeed, he believed humankind must accept what he called “the Absurd”. On the other hand, Camus is not strictly an existential atheist because the acceptance of “the Absurd” implies neither the existence of God nor the nonexistence of God (compare agnosticism).

Sartre believed in individual freedom of consciousness, a consciousness that results from each person’s subjective and individual experience of the world. He questioned the larger social structures like capitalist exploitation, colonialism, racism, and sexism that systematically objectified people and failed to affirm their individual consciousness and innate freedom. His focus on individual freedom shaped his views on Marxism. Though allied to the French Communist Party, he never joined and opposed authoritarianism especially after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Sartre always harbored a healthy libertarian or anarchist streak. He wanted the working class to collectively overthrow the capitalist system and believed that any political struggle should affirm and allow for the individual freedom of all human beings. Sartre affirmed that people are always essentially free. No matter how objectified they may be, the gifts of freedom and consciousness mean that they always have the possibility of making something out of their circumstance of objectification. In Sartre’s view, individual freedom of consciousness is humanity’s gift—as well as its curse, since with it comes the responsibility to shape our own lives.

The Burden of responsibility– Sartre believed in the essential freedom of individuals, and he also believed that as free beings, people are responsible for all elements of themselves, their consciousness, and their actions. That is, with total freedom comes total responsibility. He believed that even those people who wish not to be responsible, who declare themselves not responsible for themselves or their actions, are still making a conscious choice and are thus responsible for anything that happens as a consequence of their inaction. Sartre’s moral philosophy maintains that ethics are essentially a matter of individual conscience.

The difficulty of knowing the self– For Sartre, for any individual to claim “that’s just the way I am” would be a statement of self-deception. Likewise, whenever people internalize the objectified identity granted to them by other people or by society, such as a servile woman or dutiful worker, they are guilty of self-deception. Whenever people tell themselves that their nature or views are unchangeable, or that their social position entirely determines their sense of self, they are deceiving themselves. Sartre believed it is always possible to make something out of what one has been made into. This task of self-actualization, however, involves a complex process of recognizing the factual realities outside of one’s self that is acting on the self (what Sartre calls facticity) and exactly how those realities are working, as well as knowing fully that one possesses a consciousness independent of those factors.

Following Hegel, Sartre writes that an individual person, or being-for-itself, can become cognizant of his own existence only when he sees himself being perceived by another being-for-itself. That is, we can formulate a conscious state of being and identity only when we are confronted by others who are also possessed of that consciousness and we apprehend ourselves in relation to them. As Sartre explains, however, the encounter with the Other is tricky, at least initially, because we may first believe that in being perceived by another conscious being we are being objectified or essentialized by that being, who may appear to be regarding us only as type, appearance, or imagined essence. In turn, we may seek to regard others as definable, simple objects not possessed of individual consciousness. The notion of the Other plays a central role in Sartre’s thinking and writing about large-scale systems of social objectification, such as colonialism, racism, and sexism. Such systems enable the Other to be falsely seen as an object, a definable being-in-itself, and not as a free individual, a being-for-itself, possessed of his or her own undefinable, conscious state of being.

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“The Plague” by Albert Camus


Author–      Albert Camus (French- Algerian)

Genre–       Philosophical Fiction

Award–      The Nobel Prize( 1957)


Albert Camus biography

Born in Algeria (1913), he studied philosophy at the University of Algiers. His father was killed in 1914 during WW 1 and he was reared by his deaf mother. He spent most of his childhood days in poverty, under the blistering African sun on the plains of the Mediterranean (The sun and the sea are major presences in most of his works as the emotions and memories of his childhood, adult years and hometown.)

Camus developed Tuberculosis during his University years and had to do multiple jobs to support himself. Around the same time, he joined the Communist Party and founded the Worker’s Theatre group for presenting plays for the working class Algerians. His early essays were collected in ‘The Wrong Side and Right Side and ‘Nuptials‘. These dealt with man and death in relation to the oblivious universe, his defenselessness, isolation and the final exit of death.

Severely critical of the French colonial government, he had to leave Algeria in 1940. He lived in Paris where he worked as a journalist for a while before returning to Algeria when Germans invaded France. He started teaching in a school in Oran where the background ideas of his famous works, ‘The Stranger‘, ‘The Myth of Sysiphus‘, and ‘The Plague‘ were outlined and given shape. While in France, during the German occupation he became one of the intellectual leaders of the Resistance Movement and founded and edited the underground newspaper Combat. Handsome, charming, charismatic, exotic, and empathetic, he captured the hearts and minds of millions of French as an advocate of social and political change.

Internationally acclaimed after publishing ‘The Stranger’, ‘The Plague’, ‘The Just’, ‘The Fall’ and ‘The Myth of Sysiphus‘, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. The character Meursault in The Stranger, a literary paragon of honesty, a meritorious and murderous antihero, synonymous with Camus’s absurdity and irony, was absolutely novel to the readers who accepted him and the book with open arms. Meursault’s realization of loss of freedom after imprisonment and the isolation of the Oranian citizens in ‘The Plague‘ seems similar.

His masterpiece allegorical work, the most successful one ‘The Plague‘ was published in 1947 when Camus was thirty-three years old. Without the usual gimmicks and overripened plots, his somber narration captured the misery of isolation and death, that resonated with the postwar readers. The novel is hugely introspective and personal, his dislike for the materialistic town of Oran when compared to his home town of Algiers clearly evident. He was advised against swimming, something he loved the most, as a result of his worsening Tuberculosis while in Oran and was forced to spend his days and night in the stifling heat within the Oran walls. He is describing the heat that confined him as if in a prison, in The Plague. Similarly, exile, isolation, and illness are major themes of the novel, something he personally suffered after French Algeria was cut off when Allies landed in North Africa, the Germans having responded by occupying Southern France,  then governed by the puppet government of the French Marshal, Philippe Petain, Camus thus separated from his wife and mother until after WW II was over. Within a year it had been translated into nine languages and many more, later on, and it has never been out of print.

Camus became quite ill during 1949 when he isolated himself and started publishing his political essays. ‘The Rebel, a work of revolt was published in 1951, which became controversial and broke his friendship with Jean Paul Sartre. ‘The Fall’ was published in 1956, different from his other novels on account of first-person narration (others are mostly narrated in third-person) and the setting in Amsterdam and not North Africa. The book deals with the confessions of guilt by a lawyer haunted by his guilty conscience, who refused to help a drowning woman during a suicide attempt. It is a mirror of contemporary society.

Camus was killed in a road accident in 1960, three years after being awarded the Nobel Prize.  His unfinished last novel, ‘The First Man‘ was posthumously published in 1994.


I had read this allegorical, philosophical fiction some time back. This is a re-read for me, but as in any Classic or any book for that matter, each re-read opens up a whole lot of different perspectives with the age and life experiences of the reader. The  Italian novelist Italo Calvino( author of ‘Invisible Cities‘ and  ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller) in his short essay, ‘Why read the Classics?’ delineates seven points as the reasons, of which the one that I love the most is, ‘ A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’. 

While the whole world is reeling under the Corona pandemic, borders closed, neighbors and even our loved ones isolated and fighting an invisible enemy alone, this masterpiece of Camus seems so prescient in its literal elucidation of a city similarly under lockdown after a plague epidemic, the citizens condemned to an abyss of nonexistence. We, in today’s world, are far ahead of Camus’s citizens in ‘The Plague‘, technologically, socially, economically. Still, the meaninglessness and triviality of all the progress have never been more exposed as in epidemics and pandemics, not even during the war, when people contend with an invisible enemy that might kill us, even with an act as innocuous as a gentle touch or as existential as breathing in.

One cannot but reckon the absurdity and impotence of human lives in the vast Universe while going through the news reports from around the world of physicians having had to choose death for particular patients who could otherwise have been rescued, people who just a few days back were jovially enjoying lives, now dying lonely without their dear ones near the bed, saying their last goodbye through video chat, or coffins lined up head to toe in morgues for days awaiting a solitary burial without the attendance of loved ones. In Italy where many learn in school about the dreaded Monatti who, preceded by the ringing of a little bell, retrieved corpses on carts during the 17th-century Milan plague, the amassing of dead bodies seems out of another time.

The plague had already entered Milan,” Alessandro Manzoni writes in “The Betrothed,” the 19th century Italian literary classic renowned for its vivid descriptions of the 1630 pestilence that gutted Milan, written almost 200 years ago. He describes how the plague arrived in Lombardy from outside, how the Spanish kingdom that ruled over them failed to react at first and how the people first ignored and then panicked ( Exactly as what has happened here during the Corona pandemic). In the novel, people become suspicious of foreigners, authorities squabble among one another, scarcity of necessities arise and a health emergency takes shape.

The novel picturizes the dreaded cart men (hooded Monatti) winding their way through Milan’s streets and “purposely let fall from their carts infected clothes, in order to propagate and keep up the pestilence, which had become to them a means of living, a kingdom, a festival.” Manzoni writes that “the city, already tumultuously inclined, was now turned upside down.


( This haunting watercolor is by the Italian artist, Gaetano Previati, his most ambitious undertaking as a draftsman: a set of innovative illustrations for a deluxe 1900 edition of Alessandro Manzoni’s historical novel The Betrothed. Part of the story takes place in Milan during the plague of 1630. Here, Previati illustrates a passage in which Manzoni describes the grim role of the hooded monatti, or corpse carriers, who bore plague victims to the isolated hospital or an open grave. Previati’s watercolor features two ghostlike monatti (corpse carriers) descending a flight of stairs in a constricted alleyway, their frames weighed down by the naked body, which casts a foreboding shadow. )(

The Plague‘ brings to light Camus’s philosophy of Absurdism. The novel answers some questions in detail. What would it feel like if your town, state or country is shut off from the world, it’s citizens quarantined and isolated as a contagion spreads, disrupting daily lives, people dropping dead like falling autumn leaves? The book chronicles the abrupt arrival and slow departure of a fictional outbreak of bubonic plague to the Algerian coastal town of Oran in the month of April, sometime in the 1940s. Once it has settled in, the epidemic lingers, roiling the lives and minds of the town’s inhabitants until the following February, when it leaves as quickly and unaccountably as it came, “slinking back to the obscure lair from which it had stealthily emerged.”

Camus studied in detail the history of plagues before writing the book(probably he used the same narrative method as Daniel Defoe‘s 1722 fiction ‘A Journal of The Plague Year about the London plague of 17 th century). He read about the Black Death that killed an estimated 50 million people in Europe in the 14th century, the Italian plague of 1630 that killed 280,000 across the plains of Lombardy and the Veneto, the great plague of London of 1665 as well as plagues that ravaged cities on China’s eastern seaboard during the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the 14th century, the bubonic plague, also known as the “Black Death” killed almost a third of the people on the continent of Europe. When it rampaged through London in 1656 and 1657, it killed nearly a quarter of the population. The bubonic plague still exists today, not only in pockets of Asia and Africa but in the American Southwest. It’s transmitted by fleas from infected rodents and causes high fever, vomiting and painful swellings called “buboes” (hence the name “bubonic). Even when treated with antibiotics it had a death rate of 10 percent; and if untreated, up to 90 percent. Coronavirus is nothing compared to this.

The plague had decimated the city of Oran in the 16 th and the 17 th centuries. Though Camus relays the clinical progression and aftermath of the disease literally, he is allegorically picturing it in sociological and philosophical terms. His true subject is not so much clinical as metaphorical. He uses the contagion as something that subdues a population to any corrosive ideology like Fascism or Totalitarianism, man-made disasters, calamities, war- the list could be very long. Camus had seen the Nazis overrun Paris in 1940 during World War II. While he was writing The Plague, he was the editor in chief of Combat, the underground magazine of the French Resistance, whose contributors included André Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Raymond Aron.

What is quite surprising is that, in the novel, exactly as it has happened in many countries during the current Corona spread, Oran’s bureaucrats minimize the threat of plague as a false alarm and dismiss it as ‘a special kind of fever‘ until the evidence becomes undeniable and underreaction is more dangerous than overreaction. We could catch sight of how some world leaders just dismissed the corona pandemic as an ‘absurdity’ giving sway to the economy than health or life. In Camus’s words ” When abstraction sets to killing you, you’ve got to get busy with it.” He writes: it’s universal human frailty: “Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.” The catastrophe erases ‘the uniqueness of each man’s life‘ and the isolation and powerlessness become a collective emotion.

Another pandemic of misinformation and disinformation, one that is much difficult to treat, let alone cure, has been wreaking havoc since the advent of new technologies that came handy to the public. There is constant friction between facts, alternative facts, faith, lies, and fables. Those who shout out objective facts are slammed by naysayers who get themselves trapped in these media bubbles. The current situation of denial was pictured by Plato in his famous  “Allegory of the cave“. He speculated a lightless cave with eternal spectators buckled to their seats watching projections of what they would believe as limits of reality (This was way before the modern cinema halls!). Those of them who escaped the cave witnessed the rays of the sun( reality), but they got ridiculed and killed while they tried to spread the information( truth). The anti-scientism naysayers and deniers are not unlike these shackled crowd who never escape the bubbles of misinformation and disinformation, spreading them via the bubble blowers of new technology. Remember, this had been the norm for ages back, since the time of cavemen. The father of handwashing, Ignaz Semmelweis, who hypothesized the connection between unwashed hands of doctors and puerperal sepsis( sepsis after childbirth) and professed handwashing with chlorinated lime before assisting childbirth, in 1847, was criticized, ridiculed and attacked by his peers and he died as an insane man in an asylum, later.

During my first read, I had paid more attention to the clinical manifestations of plague, the physical suffering of people, the lime pits more than the psychological, philosophical and sociological dimensions of Camus’s dispassionate, but visceral narration. The “hectic exaltation” of the people caught up in the epidemic bubble of isolation when they decide to dress up and stroll aimlessly in “the frantic desire for life that thrives in the heart of every great calamity” would burn into the heart, after reading it, the import of community life for any individual. While practicing the art of ‘social distancing’, dutifully following hand washing and other measures, we might well wonder, for how long? We do not know and  Camus did not know the answer either.

Reading between the lines, this masterpiece seems like a prophetic warning of many more epidemics of war, contagions, totalitarian governments, man-made disasters, and more so, the moral bankruptcy at the core of a society faced with any of these. According to Camus, “There have been as many plagues as wars in history yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”


The story is set in the Algerian city of Oran, where thousands of rats stagger into the open and die mysteriously. The population is gripped by hysteria and newspapers shouts out for action, forcing the authorities to dispose of the carcass of rats. When Michael, the concierge of the hospital where Dr. Rieux works, dies of fever, and a cluster of similar cases appear, he and his colleague Castel realizes that the fever and deaths are due to bubonic plague. The authorities and other doctors are in denial and they refuse to acknowledge or take decisive steps to stop the spread until it becomes impossible to deny the facts. Now, the whole city is placed under quarantine and authorities enforce strict sanitation measures.

The isolation creates an intense longing for their loved ones, separated from them, some of them in other cities and countries.“The first thing that plague brought to our town was exile,” the narrator notes.  Convinced that the plague is a punishment to Oran’s sins, Father Paneloux delivers a sermon. Each individual thinks that their pain is unique compared to others. Raymond Rambert, a journalist, tries to escape Oran to rejoin his wife in Paris, but the bureaucrats prevent him. Dr. Rieux struggles to surmount the pestilence. Rambert tries to flee with the help of Cottard’s criminal associates. Finally, he is ashamed to flee after coming to know that Dr. Rieux, despite being separated from his wife is battling the plague. “This whole thing is not about heroism,” Dr. Rieux says. “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” Another character asks what decency is. “Doing my job,” the doctor replies.  The character, Cottard greets the plague with open arms. He had committed some crime before and he feels happy that he is not alone in fearful suffering. He utilizes the epidemic to amass wealth.

After the exile lasts for months, the residents of Oran learn that theirs is collective suffering and decide to fight it together. Dr. Rieux shouts at a shaken Father Paneloux, after Othon’s son suffer an excruciating death, that the boy was an innocent victim and delivers a second sermon, modified from the first. He exhorts Christians to choose between believing everything or believing nothing about God. Father Paneloux dies clutching the crucifix and refusing treatment and the doctor identifies his case as doubtful.

Finally, the epidemic comes to a halt and the lives of the citizens change for good. But, Cottard couldn’t cope, he fires his gun randomly and is arrested by the police. Rambert’s wife joins him in Oran, Dr. Rieux’s wife dies of prolonged illness. The novel ends with the public soon forgetting everything and returning to their normal lives except Dr. Rieux who keeps in mind that the war against plague is not over as the bacillus remains dormant before reappearing again.

Dr. Rieux “knew that this chronicle could not be a story of definitive victory,” Camus writes. “It could only be the record of what had to be done and what, no doubt, would have to be done again, against this terror.” The plague, he continues, “never dies”; it “waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers” for the day when it will once again “rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.


The narrator point of view of The Plague is third-person limited. The perspective of the narrator is limited and he knows only what is going on inside the heart and mind of one person. Only in the last chapter does the narrator reveal his identity. Tarrou’s journal entries throw some light on experiences outside the narrator’s description. This is a plot device used by Camus to provide the readers with additional information. There are collaborators, deniers and sympathizers of the plague. Some like Cottard think health teams are a waste of time and use the scourge to make money. Tarrou is sympathetic and tries to overcome his past by action and words. Father Paneloux is the voice of fatalism, that the scourge is the result of one’s sins.  Grand, the clerk is the symbol of unheroic resistance.

The epigraph is meaningful and we run into the allegory over and over again during the entire novel. It is taken from the preface of volume III of Robinson Crusoe.

It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not.” –Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe’s 1722 fiction ‘A Journal of The Plague Year about the London plague of 17 th century is similarly narrated in third-person limited narration.

Though Camus intends objectivity of narration, his atheistic, social and philosophical beliefs are scattered everywhere in the novel. He was fed up with questions that presumed to be given definite conclusions as to the answer. He mentions this in the novel to Rambert who muses – ‘The language that he used was that of a person who was sick and tired of the world he lived in-though he had much liking for his fellow men- and had resolved for his part to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth‘.

Similarly, Camus’s view against the judicial death penalty is reflected in Tarrou’s confession to Rieux, ‘ I thought I was struggling against the plague. I learned that I had indirectly supported the deaths of thousands of men, that I had even caused their deaths by approving the actions and principles that inevitably led to them’. Camus might be reflecting on his Communist years here when Tarrou says, “We are all in the plague…. All I know is that one must do one’s best not to be a plague victim…. And this is why I have decided to reject everything that, directly or indirectly, makes people die or justifies others in making them die.” The novel exposes his positions against some of the Communist ideologies, political/ judicial murder, that led to the end of his friendship with the other postwar intellectuals in France. The style of narration reminds us of a journalistic one, probably from years of Camus’ journalistic experience. The readers should not expect the typical impressionistic devices of a novel in this book.

The setting of the novel is in the Mediterranean North African city of Oran. Apart from the specific geographic location, his description of the people tend to border on the satirization of the Western people as a bored crowd with armchair attitude and cultivated habits and whose main purpose was “doing business”, those who fritter away what time is left for living.

Camus stresses his philosophical ideas of absurdism through the argumentative dialogues of the characters giving importance to these than the plot. It is not the disease plague that he is talking about, but only using it as an allegory. It is important to get an idea of Camus’s philosophy of the absurd in the core of the novel. It is basically a mix of existentialism (a philosophical theory or approach which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will)and humanism (a rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.)

The philosophy of absurd is a realization and recognition of the fact of one’s own death. Camus, an atheist never believed that human suffering, existence or death has any rational meaning in an irrational universe. He exhorts to choose to fight until the end against death and suffering. Camus announces the death of different people in the novel until the fact hits home for everyone, according to him one begins to live only when he realizes this fact. The announcement of death is paramount in Camus’ philosophy and in his novels. Camus believes in fighting and rebelling against death and not fleeing from it. He explains death as discomfort. The mention of a “normal” dying man, “trapped behind hundreds of walls all sizzling with heat,” suggests the mazes of Dante’s hell, mazes which must be traversed before the plague’s thousands of deaths are tolled.

Camus intends a didactic approach and he stresses the moralistic points very often. This has a touch of irony in that, though the narrator professes to be objective we could clearly find the shadows of Camus’s atheistic beliefs and philosophical views on the narrator. Though, the moralistic tone is carefully delivered by Camus, not in a preachy manner. Such a rebellion is considered noble by him. He defines heroism as ordinary people doing extraordinary things. out of simple decency. He repeatedly stresses to be optimistic at times of hopelessness. The citizens of Oran realizes the collective suffering and understand that death will strike whether they do nothing or act in defiance. They choose between the two and decides to act together. This is exemplified through the character, Rambert, the journalist, who realizes his moral bankruptcy of giving importance to personal needs, and afterward blending with the collective conscience and participating to eliminate the scourge.

Camus has treated the concept of freedom in an ironic way. Exile and isolation are important themes in the novel, something close to his heart. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator says, “the first thing that the plague brought to our fellow citizens was exile,” and that “being separated from a loved one…[was] the greatest agony of that long period of exile.” He makes use of the same themes in his other works too, thus emphasizing the absurdity of life when anything like these could strike anytime from anywhere. In ‘The Stranger‘, the same absurdity comes to play when Mersault murders the Arab randomly. The irony with interpreting freedom in The Plague is that, even before the quarantine, their freedom was questionable, as they were enslaved to habits. The people love mechanically, robotically without desire or intelligence. The love gone wrong in Oran is a symptom of disease even before the plague strikes. The vital living is suppressed by the habits cultivated by the soulless people. For instance, in Oran love-making is relegated to weekends. Camus tries to explain the strangling of natural responses by habits that simplify a person to simplemindedness. Recognizing the bottomless death in its horrible form and confrontation with death creates new values in the living. Things change after the plague and the people learn to love in the absence of their loved ones whom they had taken for granted before the plague.

It is impossible to see the sea“, the narrator tells. The sea here is a symbol of life. One could swim nakedly and boldly in the sea, but in social waters, swimming is done blindly against the hypocritic, jealous people.

As a Godless Christian, Camus expounds the Christian virtues in terms of sacred love for man and not to God.  Another notable feature is Camus’s use of contrast. He contrasts the ordinary and extraordinary, for example, the ordinariness of Oran is contrasted with the extraordinariness of the plague. ( We can see the use of contrast in The Myth of Sysiphus too- the natural and extraordinary, the Universe and the individual, the tragic and ordinary). For Camus, the Universe is full of paradoxes and contrasts- man lives, yet is condemned to die.

The rats are symbolic of the plague and the people. They drop dead as the people would, later on, the indifference to their death from the people symbolic to the indifference of the Universe to the deaths of people. There is a contrast in Camus’s adjectives too. Dr. Rieux feels something soft under his foot, but in contrast to something pleasant that could have been associated with the adjective’soft’, he encounters the bloated corpse of a dead rat. Similarly, when a rat comes out of the sewer it spins on itself with a squeal, a miniature ballet before death. Camus says later that the rats were coming out in long swaying lines and doing “a sort of pirouette.” He describes the blood puddles around their noses as looking like red flowers. Again, as in Chapter 1, he uses an extreme contrast — here, to point to the absurdity of the symptoms: rats can’t be seeping out of houses and sewers for a reason — rats’ deaths can’t be beautiful. Yet both are. The blood seeping from the mouth of the rats reminds him of the blood spurting from his wife’s mouth in the sanatorium. His early indifference with the dead rats changes to a kind of civic duty while he phones the sanitation department to deal with it.

Rieux’s mother exemplifies the attitude of the nonchalance of Oran residents. She is blase, she has seen war, gone through depression, a seen- much, lived- through- much person who survives. The journalist Rambert is a foil for Dr. Rieux, whose compromises with truth contrasts sharply with the honest Dr. Rieux.

Dr, Rieux’s fight to overcome the red-tape of bureaucracy, his colleague’s insistence that there is no definite proof that the disease is infectious, isolation of the doctor by the others- all seem to replicate in the present scenario of Corona pandemic. The progression of the novel is akin to the unfolding of a Greek tragedy, the scenes playing out the familiar fate and agony of Oedipus or Creon.

Camus exhorts each of us, wallowing in the comforts of life, to prioritize moral responsibility. All through the novel, he sympathetically parses good and evil, sympathizers and doubters, believers and nonbelievers through his allegory of a moral contagion sweeping through the society. The character of Cottard, an enabler in spreading the plague, and the numerous citizens who were sleepwalking and dutifully oblivious to the situation on the ground, are lucid references to the pre and postwar French citizenry similarly complacent of the puppet Vichy regime of German occupiers and their studied postwar amnesia. We would be able to appreciate Camus’s views of moral responsibility, humanism, judgment ( cleaved of its divine part), and empathy through the characters. The citizens beating Cottard at the end reminds us of the punishments meted out to collaborators after the Liberation by French men and women forgetful of their wartime sufferings, who gave color to their compromises and guilt in the form of revenge. He repeats the importance of doing something or taking responsibility during a crisis as goodness and not as heroism. He writes, that joining the health team during the plague in itself was not of any significance, but not joining must have been incredible. Rieux remarks, ‘ when you see the suffering it brings one must be mad, blind, or a coward to resign oneself to the plague‘. Thus his narrative is not a eulogy to heroism. Though many men and women had given their lives during the French Resistance, Camus was overtly uncomfortable with attaching heroism to deeds deemed as a responsibility by him. He abhorred the smugness and moral superiority with which many resistors (including many of his intellectual friends) looked down at those who didn’t do anything.

‘The Plague’ was criticized by his intellectual contemporaries who dismissed its tone, ambiguities, and moderation as politically incorrect. Simone de Beauvoir criticized its use of disease as an allegory of Fascism. She thought people who read the work would never take history or political responsibilities seriously.  Roland Barthes, literary critic, in 1955 accused Camus of offering the readers ‘an anti historic ethic‘. Another barb aimed at him is vis a vis the ambiguities in the metaphors and judgments. Though it could simply be analyzed that Camus was using plague as an analogy for Fascism, the conclusions about good and evil, guilt and innocence, reside in a gray zone. Tony Judt, in his recent analysis of The Plague in his introduction in the new translation of The Plague by Robin Buss(Penguin Books), mentions Hannah Arendt with her notion of “banality of evil”, the idea that unspeakable crimes can be committed by very unremarkable men with clear consciences. ‘ Like Hannah Arendt, he saw that “the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe—as death became the fundamental problem after the last war.”

The Plague, originally written in French is highly allegorical, steeped in philosophy, a war allegory with a commentary on WWII. The Nobel Committee regarding his combined work declared them as “illuminating the problems of the human conscience in our times.” It is a philosophical heavyweight work, is a masterpiece that gets you thinking of the absurd, even if you do not belong to the particular camp. He was a moralist, who tried to define good in all, who understood human frailties and his narrative does not breed political polemics. But, it is sure to make you a Camus fan with each re-read, and an admirer of his philosophy, the absurdity of human life and the knowledge that the plague lies dormant within human nature and no one is immune to its ravage.


Why Read the Classics?





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On ‘The Plague’

Meet the Unacknowledged Hero Who Discovered That Handwashing Saves Lives

Analysis of Objectivism and book review of “Anthem” by Ayn Rand

It is a sin to write this.

It is a sin to be alone.

It is a sin to think alone.

For, there is no transgression blacker than to do or think alone.

It is a fearful word, alone.

Still, we must write.

We wish to speak once to no ears, but our own

                                                                                          “Anthem” by Ayn Rand.


Genre-      Dystopic literature/ Philosophical fiction


Ayn Rand’s ‘Anthem‘ is a political statement against collectivism and blatant erasure of individualism, attacking the tenets of Soviet Communism, that, according to her, promulgates serfdom and slavery, disguising as and hiding behind the veil of ostensible freedom of the proletariat.  It is a dystopian novel, the atmosphere same as in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World‘ and to cite a more recent one, Yan Lianke’s ‘The Four Books‘.My review here(Book Review ‘The Four Books’ by Yan Lianke).

Rand and Objectivism

Rand was born Russian(1905) to an intellectual and well-off Jewish family and a witness to the Bolshevik Revolution, and a victim (according to her) when the communists expropriated property from the wealthy, nobles, landlords and aristocrats and distributed to the proletariat. ( The Russian Revolution had had many reasons other than this, though inequality was one notable raison d etre. Rand having had to lose everything, we can very well understand her ire against everything that had to do with communism. Yet, the significance of perspective shouldn’t go unnoticed. Thinking from the proletariat viewpoint, the revolution was a liberating force then. The state surveillance and curbing of individual freedom would have had the most negative impact while shaping the judgments and viewpoints of an intellectual like her).

She had done her Bachelors in History from St. Petersburg State University, Russia, where, she wrote later, she had encountered the distortion of history, art, literature, and past to propagate the Soviet communist propaganda. She turned out to be an excellent propagandist herself, later in the U.S, trumpeting her philosophy and capitalist ideologies, that were soaked up by a liberal crowd pining for change, a business flock hungry for profit and a conservative group who savvied its electoral significance.

She fled to the land of freedom, the USA, obliterated everything Russian( her name was ‘Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum’), took on US citizenship, and started writing novels and propounded her unique and controversial brand of philosophy, called ‘Objectivism’. ‘Anthem’ set the seeds of her philosophy, which was then expounded in detail through her other famous works, ‘The Fountainhead‘ and ‘Atlas Shrugged‘ and also her many non-fiction works.

(I was interested in reading Anthem and about objectivism after reading a newspaper article headlined, why ‘Conservatives and Libertarians embrace Randian philosophy while Academicians reject it‘. Texts about the philosophy were beyond my understanding, I just wanted to find out what the fuss is all about and I love non-fiction. Many GoodReads friends suggested reading ‘Anthem‘ first to make out the whats and whys and also many simplified explanations were available on the net. If you are not a fan of philosophical-fiction, better not try this one).

Objectivism has four tenets- reality, reason, self-interest, and individual rights and capitalism. Simply explaining, Rand’s philosophy is rooted in Ego or self-serving/ self-actualizing acts to achieve individual happiness and prosperity and through this happiness, the prosperity of a society. The moral goal of each individual should be achieving happiness as the purpose of life through the noblest activity of productive achievement with an absolute reason, living in a society that respects individual rights and promotes laissez-faire capitalism. Note, the many interesting points here for conservatives and capitalists, but, one thing that stands out in her materialistic philosophy, is, she is a self-styled atheist to a fault, that makes it an atheistic philosophy too, one that might not go well with conservative ideologies.

Conservatism, Rand and objectivism

The 40-th US president Ronald Reagen was a fan of Ayn Rand, as his private letters reveal A pamphlet was written by Rand after the 1960 presidential campaign,’ Conservatism, an Obituary‘ in which she states that capitalism is the only alternative to Statism. Though Rand was never a fan of Reagen( as her many speeches suggest) due to his alliance with the religious right and his pro-life stance on legal abortion. Her words-  “the appalling disgrace of his administration was his connection with the so-called ‘Moral Majority’ and sundry other TV religionists, who are struggling, apparently with his approval, to take us back to the Middle Ages via the unconstitutional union of religion and politics.

Though both were anti-communists to the hilt, there were many dissonances in their overlapping views on objectivism. Simply put, conservatism and anti-communism cannot be automatically linked to the Randian objectivism. There were obvious discordances at many points. Certain pieces didn’t fit into these groups that easily. But the 60’s conservative youth and libertarians, most of whom embraced atheism, found in the philosophy an excellent propaganda tool and inspiration for political and social contexts. Many were searching for ideologies to pin their faith on, about the role of individuals and government in a society. They misinterpreted Rand’s elevation of individualism into the extreme and set limits on government interference in the most minimalist terms possible. Many of the old conservatives who were religious and pro-life, later tried to let themselves out of the Randian hook or added their own convenient religious component into it. Both groups added a prophetic hue to her major novels, pointing to the dystopia that might alight upon them, given the consequence of electing a liberal government. Rand was an adamant pro-choice proponent and had warned and argued strongly against religious conservatism.

Rand’s philosophy encompassed the cold war struggle b/w free countries practicing capitalism like the USA and ostensible surveillance states curbing freedom and individualism like the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. She went on to write novels and was an acclaimed Hollywood scriptwriter.  The novels ‘Atlas shrugged’ and ‘The Fountainhead’ was remade into films, in which she countered and flipped over the communist agitprop of a heroic worker fighting tooth and nail with a sordid capitalist. ‘The Fountainhead’ released during WW-ll tells the story of a self-made heroic architect, Howard Roark, fighting the injustice of people who abuse the labor of others called ‘second-handers’.( Have read the review only. Looks like an interesting read).

Anthem‘ summary

Anthem is a paean to Ego. It is the self-realization of individual potential to the utmost when a person is free.

The novel is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, Equality 7-2521, (yes, that is his name, he does not have a proper name.), a young man languishing in a dystopian, apocalyptic future society under 24/7 surveillance. Not an ordinary society, here individuality has been cleansed right to the level of vocabulary for communication. No one had even heard of the pronoun ‘I’ or if someone knew that, they were not allowed to use. The collective term ‘We” should be used instead. They have been dictated that the reason for their existence, is to serve others. There is no individual existence, but a collective one.  A one- for- all and all- for- one kind.

Our hero happens to be an exception by standing out from the crowd in appearance, intellect, and free-thinking. Actually, there were a few others like him, a minority who had lost the war against a majority, when the era of the Great Rebirth came into existence. In spite of or because of his singularity, he had been assigned the job of a street sweeper, with tedious working hours amidst which he sneaks into an underground tunnel with candlelight and starts writing, thinking and doing scientific experiments, all by and to himself( something that is punishable).

Meanwhile, he falls in love with a lady by the name Liberty 5-3000. Another punishable offense, of giving importance to a person, in particular, a transgression by preference. Time passes and Equality discovers electricity by himself (that is more transgression) and decides to present it in front of the Council of Scholars( unpardonable offense). They freak out and Equality escapes to the nearby forbidden Forest, followed by Liberty and inhales the first air of freedom. They discover a house, an entirely private one and not a collective dwelling, books, and manuscripts from the Unmentionable Times before the Great Rebirth. They see their reflections in the mirror for the first time. From the books, they finally, find out the pronoun, ‘I’ and utter ‘ I Love You’ to each other, instead of ‘We love you’ ( this is exclusively Randian). Equality changes his name to ‘Prometheus'(light bearer, allegorical here) and Liberty to ‘Gaea'(The Earth personified as a goddess)

The climax is when Equality learns that he is extremely happy on his own, the only reason for his existence, tastes freedom and most of all, discovers Ego as the most sacred form of existence of an individual. He decides to go back and fight for the trampled ones in the city. There are other characters going by names like International 4-8818, Fraternity 2-5503 and Solidarity 9-6347. ( You could guess the roles by their constitutional names. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress cited as the first novel written in English in 1678 has characters going by names like Christian, Obstinate, Pliable, Civility, Goodwill and so forth.).

Anthem analysis

It is a short novella(65 pages only), but hidden within are allegories, images, and truth drenched in philosophical viewpoints.  So it takes time since you need to do some significant collateral reading to get to what she means exactly by each sentence.

The philosophical theme is basically ‘egoism’, though she had created the raw materials for ‘objectivism’, that later on, she would expand in her other major works. Collectivism is expressed as nightmarish confinement and subdual and freedom described as the springboard for individual development. Also, with freedom, comes identity( I instead of We) as an individual.

The strained relation between individual and society has been painted in the darkest of tones, as the society tries to control every aspect of individual life from what he should think to when or whether he should procreate.  (Reminds me of China’s one-child policy, now abandoned, censorship of literature in many countries, espionage of apparent dissidents, forced sterilization to limit population in democratic India during the Emergency period of 1976, forced sterilization as a part of Eugenic program in the USA in the first half of the 20th century extending to the 1970s. All of this leads us to the conclusion that this is not just something which happens in dictatorships only, even democracies practice many and more such atrocities. The case of Buck vs Bell, when Carrie Buck was stamped by the Supreme Court as imbecile and sterilized without her consent by Dr. John Bell in 1927, followed by many thousands is a notable one in the US). (For those interested, there is an excellent book about Buck vs Bell case -” Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v Bell” by Paul A Lombardo).

Rand explains the superiority of individual happiness over societal good, freedom to choose what one likes and not to toil for the common good. She makes it clear that progress in any field, science or any other, is possible by amassing knowledge individually and not as a group. Freedom to love has been forbidden in Rand’s dystopia and through Equality and Liberty, she argues that freedom to choose and love should be the foremost, though Liberty’s love has more of a submissive and slavish tinge( I don’t get it. Could be some allegory within allegory, not sure).

Symbolism, Imagery, and Allegories

Anthem is executed in scriptural language with Biblical and Mythological( Prometheus, Gaea) allusions. For eg., we could find the frequent use of the words, ‘ sin, transgression, Unmentionable Times, Unspeakable Word, Evil Ones’, etc.. What Rand is trying to affirm here, is  the frequent adoption of religion by totalitarian governments to emblazon their God-like power on people’s minds and thereby turning them to puppets, who idolize the state and the heads.

Biblical Gospel of Mathew states, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’, but Rand( remember, she was an atheist) conducts literal sabotage( sacrilege) by emphasizing her brand of solipsism and not a collective love. Similarly, Jesus’ famous “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”  is mirrored in  Equality’s proclamation,  “I am the meaning…. I am the warrant and the sanction“. There are many hard-to- not notice allusions like these.

Light and water symbolisms and imagery are also striking and brilliant. Equality’s discovery of electric light( knowledge, truth) in the dark tunnel, his renaming as Prometheus( who stole and carried fire to earth), his decision to spread the light on the darkness of fellowmen( he is a light-bearer), Liberty’s appearance as water- bearer, all these point to a new beginning, a rebirth. Again an allusion to the King James Bible, which reads, in context:” In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. … And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

Look at this beautiful interaction between water and light, when Equality meets Liberty, in Rand’s wonderful imagery,

And the drops of water falling from their(her) hands, as they(she) raised the water to their(her) lips, were like sparks of fire in the sun. Then the Golden One(Liberty) saw us(me), and they(she) did not move, kneeling there, looking at us(me), and circles of light played upon their(her) white tunic, from the sun on the water of the moat, and one sparkling drop fell from a finger of their(her) handheld as frozen in the air”.

Randian philosophy: who needs it?

Well, as per Rand, every human being needs to be philosophical. With this, she doesn’t mean that we should sit still and brood over philosophy. What she meant was that all of us should be aware of the reason for existence. And unfortunately, embraced by the far right, neo-fascists, and neo-Nazis.

Face reality independent of any consciousness and not try to re-write it, understand that all things have their own identity, the highest moral goal of man should be achieving happiness and this needs rational respect for reality. (This is o.k.)

There is some misunderstanding about the role of ego/ selfishness in her theory and many have construed this to suit their own goals, notably businesses and conglomerates. She makes it clear in an essay, ‘Philosophy: Who Needs It?’. She differentiates between selfishness as a virtue and selfishness without a self. Rand sharply contrasts her view with one conventional picture of selfishness: the mindless amoralist who does whatever he wants. According to her, a selfish person without self is one who “has no self and no personal interests, only momentary whims”. Whereas selfishness is forming a self, developing long-range goals, moral values, and standards through one’s own independent judgment, and staying committed despite distractions resulting in a self- confident individual. This has become jumbled. (What I have understood from objectivism is plain selfishness to achieve individual happiness and nothing to be justified morally or nothing that stands on a moral pedestal. )

Regarding faith, she argues that this goes along with brute force and mysticism like reason and freedom. She adds, ” no man or mystical elite can hold a whole society subjugated to their arbitrary assertions, edicts, and whims, without the use of force. Anyone who resorts to the formula: ‘It’s so because I say so,’ will have to reach for a gun, sooner or later.” ( Theocracy subjugating the masses(outright autocracy) or the poisoning of secular democracies by extremist uncompromising religious ideologues/ fanatics or a conservative sort of apathy in keeping the church and state separate .)

Regarding capitalism, she elevates the capitalist entrepreneur individualist as the true leader of society. Everything said, like socialism, capitalism has major pitfalls, the foremost being economic inequality and hoarding of a significant proportion of wealth by a small group of rich. And the political consequences are right before our eyes in many countries. We read about it in newspapers every day. To cite a recent one, 30 years of laissez-faire capitalism in Chile brought millions to the streets demanding change. Though Chile is considered a Latin American success story, the main reason behind the protest was economic inequality, the rich becoming richer and the poor poorer in a capitalist system with superadded corruption, paving the way to the young neck-deep in debt, a middle-class struggling to meet day to day expenses and an older generation languishing in privatized pension schemes.

{NYT article URL for ref. (}

Political capitalism is something like a never-ending quid pro quo, an economic and political system in which the economic and political elite cooperate for their mutual benefit. Most of the time, this goes on surreptitiously and under the radar of unsuspecting common citizens, but some states practice it in an explicit, unabashed manner rebuffing the very voters who gifted them the mandate.

The economic elite influences the government’s economic policies to use regulation, government spending, and the design of the tax system to maintain their elite status in the economy. The political elite is then supported by the economic elite which helps the political elite maintain their status; an exchange relationship that benefits both the political and economic elite. This happens everywhere, at all times, in India, the US, France, and many other countries.

We might support or reject her theories per se, depending on our perspective. From what I could make out from the understandable texts, the only take-home message for me, is to face the reality of things, seek identity and be SELF- LESS for self- actualization and for reaching the highest potential.

And, speaking to my own ears just for once, I don’t think I am going to like her theories or philosophy.


Philosophy: Who Needs It

Click to access basics.pdf

23 Advantages and Disadvantages of Capitalism

Click to access cj-v35n1-2.pdf 







‘Crime And Punishment’ – By Fyodor Dostoevsky.


Literary Movement   – Realism.

Literary Genre  – Psychological fiction, philosophical fiction.

Setting    –    Russian Empire, St. Petersburg.

 My review

My third try beating the brain out, mustering all idle neurons on the qui vive for delving into the allegories and nuances of Raskolnikov’s thought process that is something akin to a weathercock. The first two readathons seemed like Chinese arithmetic, more like the transcript of Graeco- Roman theatre played in St. Petersburg, that my muddle-pated neurons couldn’t make the head or tail of it nor read between the lines. One of the best ten classic fictions of all times couldn’t be a no-brainer either- Cela va sans dire. So this time, the lecture notes, analysis and summary at the ready and at a click of the mouse helped to see the lost thread in a new light. And the translation by LarissaVolokhonsky and Richard Pevear is on par with the work itself.

                 Intellectually exacting and viscerally overpowering, the metaphysical elements are still beyond me. Simply put, it’s a psychological thriller, a rigmarole of a crime, no less than murder, justified by the logic of the protagonist, a new esoteric theory put forward by him, that had been put to test. The rationales of the murder are multifarious- poverty, inequality, tug of war between his moral compass and necessitude to name a few. As Sonia( the protagonist’s future lover) mentions in the story, no matter what, the hideousness of the crime merits confession and so punishment as no one could take a life for whatever reason. 

                Dostoyevsky’s novels are the culture media of new ideas and propositions, by and large, those that had been making rounds in 19-th century Russia in particular, insanity theories, for instance. They depict the societal milieu and vices like drunkenness, debauchery, adultery prevalent during the century. The Marxist theory of dialectical materialism( conflict as caused by material needs) is alluded to in a conversation between the protagonist and others in the novel.

             Nineteenth century Russia was a breeding ground of intellectuals and the burgeoning readership buttressed the literati in propounding various theories, out of the box at times, and to make them seep into the minds of masses. Strikingly, many parts of the novel betray the thought processes and religious convictions of the author. Critics inveigh against his support for the Tsars and antisemitism ( ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ has repulsive instances of this), his anti-Jewish stance much more toxic than Charles Dickens, notoriously known for his execrable antisemitism.