Cesare Battisti: The Plague

From lundi matin #249, 29/06/2020 …

In this text somewhere between poetry and politics, Cesare Battisti takes as a starting point Camus’ novel The Plague, to give us his contribution to the work barely started since the beginning of the Great Enclosure of half of humanity, to try to answer the question: “What is happening to us?” To which should be added, “What is happening to us that is still not finished?”

Albert Camus’s words are precious in the days of the coronavirus. They make us feel close at hand the anguish of the families separated by the “Plague” of Oran, in his Algeria of the immediate post-war period. It is, as we know, a never sufficiently celebrated metaphor for Nazism, which had just been defeated, but whose resilient germs will continue to threaten humanity, awaiting the next faux pas.

The plague arises like a war or a brutal change of regime. It locks people in, confines them. It is a calamity, however, that does not rise up from nowhere; it hides in the interstices of a weak society, accustomed to abuse, intoxicated. It is in homes, on the streets, in workplaces and in offices of power, in the misleading use of words, in the absence of rights so dear to our national populism. It is in the shortcomings of democracy, whose lacunae are filled by those who find in a momentary conjuncture the legitimisation for their use of force. It is in the eyes closed to the pain of the other.

The plague has always been there, at the doorstep, but we did not see it. We persisted in believing that it only cut down distant victims. How important are a million dead, when you have not even seen one? The cultural hegemony of our time is that of the simplification and the trivialisation of everything, and this contrasts with the complexity of the world which we seek. We separate things from their context, and we find a supposed solution for this bit of reality, as if it were not a part of everything else.

Meanwhile, the disinherited suffocate. In the name of order and progress, we destroy natural equilibria. Camus’ rats come out of the sewers of Oran to die in the sun; chased from caves, Wuhan bats flee in search of light. And wars continue to be unleashed, the south of the planet to be devastated, and fascist supremacism is back in fashion. Viruses are born in the heart of indifference. And one day, without forewarning, we find ourselves alone.

We are told that we must remain locked up in the house, that from now on it will be forbidden to shake hands. We can see no one from the window, we miss the noise of traffic, under a sky that has become too blue. It has to be an ephemeral moment, we delude ourselves into hearing the doorbell again and kissing our loved ones who left on a trip shortly before. But time passes and the pandemic grows, segregation becomes heavy, the forecasts give the shivers. We then prepare for the outcome, for the end, suffering from unexpected shortcomings, pushing back inadequate feelings. This is how exiles rediscover themselves, in regretting the values from which they have suddenly been separated. What was obvious and negligible is, from one day to the next, an unbearable deprivation. We feel defenseless, we entrust ourselves to the State-boss, which each day feeds the people-children television. They tell us that it is all over, then that it starts again, that it’s the fault of a kiss given without a mask. We must remain alert, denounce the transgressors. We introduce the culture of suspicion, salvation lies in denunciation, in the recovery of the Economy. Courage, the virus will be tamed, the evil has no future, we will continue to grow, the world belongs to us, the crowd pours into the street, joy returns, we will all go to the beach to warm our pale buttocks.

Camus’ Dr. Rieux remains at his window. He looks and smiles. He knows what the crowd ignores and what can be read in the history books. Viruses and bacilli are like fascism, they do not die, they never disappear, they remain hidden, on the watch until the day when, through the fault of men or bad teachings, rats and bats come to spread their blood in western regions. And then, there will be no more land even for exile.

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