States, Bodies, and Epidemics

“La Peste/The Plague”

The first book in our reading list for the States, Bodies and Epidemics class is Albert Camus’ famous (1947) novel “The Plague,” originally written in French and titled “La Peste”. This novel is a classic of European literature and represents a major literary work in the existentialist tradition, which considers the human experience of life to be fundamentally absurd.

The novel tells the story of an outbreak of bubonic plague in Oran, Algeria through the eyes of a physican named Dr. Rieux. Camus’ characters are archetypes, meaning they represent uniquely human responses to epidemics. They each present a particular form of moral or physical weakness or strength, yet their fate is always somewhat arbitrary. You can read The Plague free of cost through the Internet Archive here.

The Plague ends with a reminder that the disease never fully goes away, but merely hides or bides its time before sending out the rats to die again “in a happy city.”

Check out this video of me below responding to student questions and comments about the book.

We also watched the 1992 film adaptation of the novel, which sets the events of The Plague in Oran, Argentina, instead of the original Algeria. The film stars William Hurt as Dr. Rieux and the late great Raúl Juliá as Cottard.

Here’s a video of me answering questions and responding to comments from students about the film.

Have you also read this book or seen the movie? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Assignments Humans and Non-Humans States, Bodies, and Epidemics

Pandemic Journals – first assignment

Write your story of this moment

Write a weekly journal for the next ten weeks. That’s it. Write at least 300 words once a week. Keeping your privacy concerns in mind, choose a medium for a digital journal. You decide how public you want it to be. It can be an Instagram account, or a Tumblr, Blogger, or WordPress blog. It can be a collection of pdfs. You decide what makes the most sense for you. Once you have created your Pandemic Journal, if you wish to share it with us, please post the address as a comment below (on this post).

In his diary of plague in Oran, Algeria, Albert Camus’ character the good doctor Rieux describes himself in the first few pages of the novel The Plague as a narrator with three kinds of data: “first, what he saw himself, secondly, the accounts of other eyewitnesses,” and third, “documents that subsequently came into his hands” (6). Through these, he will write the story of what happened and how plague tore through Oran and how it eventually subsided, only to bide its time until the day when again “for the bane and enlightenment of men, it would rouse up its rats and send them forth to die in a happy city” (308).

William Hurt as Dr. Rieux in, “The Plague” (1992) film Dir. Luis Puenzo

Like Camus through Dr. Rieux, many writers have used the form of the journal as a way to keep track of time, record events, and reflect on the human experience during outbreaks of pandemic disease such as HIV/AIDS or Bubonic Plague. The journal is an inherently reflexive genre, so it encourages the spilling of guts, so to speak. The journal brings its reader into the intimate experience of the narrator.

You can use different forms of data, both experiential and archival to analyze the events unfolding in this pandemic. That is, you can draw information about the human experience during the current pandemic of COVID-19 from the ways it is affecting your life, how it’s affecting the lives of those around you, and from scholarly sources, as well as from the internet and mass media.

Keeping track of your experiences throughout the next ten weeks will help you stay in touch with your emotions, which is helpful to mental health. It will also help you see patterns that may emerge that could be instructive or illuminating for you as you reflect on them later, and it can give you an outlet for your creativity, which is always good for your wellbeing. Don’t forget to drop your URL below in the comments! Also, take a moment to read and comment on someone else’s Pandemic Journal. In ten weeks, we will have a substantial human archive of this plague.

NOTE: Both classes will do this assignment. Folks taking the “Humans & Non-Humans” class, please pay special attention to how this pandemic is affecting non-human animals, landscapes, and the environment.