Our story has changed. Yours. Mine. The story of Decorah.
Collectively, over the last two weeks, we’ve come to understand we’re more connected than we thought. Before COVID, many of us thought the world was chaotic; those incongruences, in the blinding light of an epidemic, seem trivial.
It isn’t simply that our physical and emotional health depends on a myriad of networks, relationships, and systems. Our economy, health care systems, schools, infrastructure, and political and municipal government also depend on a plethora of unseen networks and patterns that, prior to COVID, went unseen for many of us.
Both on a micro and a macro level a way of life has died, and a new story is being born.
The trouble—both collectively and individually—is we don’t know the shape of this story. This uncertainty, for many, is debilitating. The reassurances from political leaders are a crude consolation for grief and economic collapse.
In this time of collective loss—while the nation, Decorah, and myself are scrambling to figure out who and what we are—I’ve lately found consolation in two works of art: Albert Camus’s novel The Plague and Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal.
Both artists deal head-on with plague and though both works wrestle unflinchingly with the physical and emotional devastation of plague, nevertheless they each offer a hopeful testament to human goodness and the moral value of life and human connection.
Published in 1947, Albert Camus’s novel was inspired both by Daniel Defoe’s novel A Journal of the Plague Year and the Nazi occupation of France.
In Defoe’s novel, he chronicled how quarantine and plague redefined and exposed the connections and relationships between inhabitants in the vast metropolis of London. Though Camus adopts Defoe’s measured, journalistic tone, The Plague is more empathetic and philosophical, exploring the ways self-isolation (Camus describes it as “exile”) tests our understanding of love, memory, and our relationship to death.
Despite its dramatic subject matter, The Plague is a quiet novel, sober and restrained in its narration, and above all empathetically concerned with the trauma of separation: “Thus, for example, a feeling normally as individual as the ache of separation from those one loves suddenly became a feeling in which all shared alike and—together with fear—the greatest affliction of the long period of exile that lay ahead” (67).
While plague ravages the seaside community of Oran, collectively each characters suffers from their separation.
Paneloux, the priest, grows removed from the god he worships and struggles to reconcile the evil of plague with God’s will.
Rambert, a journalist separated from his lover, at first tries to flee the quarantined city before accepting that he must stay, bear witness, and help however he’s able.
Inept local and municipal officials, suddenly faced with decisiveness, are shown to have motives separate from and counter to the common good.
Doctor Rieux—the novel’s hero—anxiously using disinterested reason to find a cure and aid the sick, is separated from the scientific knowledge that will save lives. Nevertheless, in face of mystery, Dr. Rieux persists: “a man can’t cure and know at the same time. So let’s cure as quickly as we can. That’s the more urgent job” (210).
Camus–winner of the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature–is a philosophical novelist, often associated with Existentialism, and paramount for Camus is life. Life is the supreme virtue and plague, he demonstrates, challenges everyone to reconsider the meaning of weighty notions like happiness, meaning, relationship, and survival.
Camus’s novel makes vivid the fact that, during plague (and under normal conditions, Camus would argue), everyone is a potential murderer: everyone holds the potential for transference and, Camus contends, it is a moral duty—for both doctor and civilian—to do no harm.
The character Tarrou makes this point near the end of the novel: “All I maintain is that on earth there are pestilence and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences” (253-254). It’s a daunting, Sisyphean task, yet, Camus argues, it’s a moral duty to be on the side of life. This means bearing witness of suffering and the meaningless pain that plague creates.
Bearing witness requires courage and The Plague, in its unflinchingly chronicle of human connection and separation, shows that courage usually isn’t composed or authoritarian or put-together; courage, instead, is messy and requires self will and honesty and, perhaps above all else, empathy.
The Plague is, above all, an empathic book and it doesn’t shy away from articulating that plague challenges our core belief systems.
Plague, like the character Death in The Seventh Seal, appears at your side, shrouds you in uncertainty, and challenges you to consider: to what extent do I value life?
The Seventh Seal
The filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, growing up the son of a Lutheran minister, was intimately familiar with the Christian iconography of apocalypse—gothic images plucked and inspired by the Book of Revelation. Indeed, the title “the seventh seal” is a reference to the book of apocalypse which, the Book of Revelation foretells, will be opened upon the end of this world.
The woe and pain ushered in by the opening of the book of apocalypse is, Bergman argues, on par with the devastation of the Black Plague in the mid-fourteenth century, when a third of Europe perished. Likewise to Bergman, the potential for nuclear war was a sort of modern plague that could usher in devastation on par with the Black Plague centuries earlier.
For Bergman, plague is a metaphor of destruction: the way disease destroys the body, but more fundamentally the way that plague and death compel people to self-destruct and inflict harm on others.
In Bergman’s filmography, characters are always searching for meaning and in The Seventh Seal, when forced to confront the meaning of senseless pain and suffering, most characters opt for various delusions.
The Knight, when faced with the literal personification of death, is overcome with existential rumination and regret, deluding himself into thinking he can outsmart death. Only too late does he realize the futility of his quest to seek the presence of god in a land of plague.
Other characters, resorting to self-torture, accept the religious authorities who blame the pestilence on human sin. And then there are those characters who embrace nihilism, using a meaningless and godless world to make a profit. Despite their class, social standing, or physical health—all are fearful and seeking a cause to explain plague.
Similar to Albert Camus, for Bergman life and human connection were the supreme virtues. This is shown in a quiet, moving scene where the Knight and the Squire share a bowl of milk and wild strawberries with a family of theatre performers.
Sharing a sacrament of milk and wild strawberries, and understanding for the first time the meaning of love and human connection, the Knight remarks: “I shall remember this moment. The silence, the twilight, the bowls of strawberries and milk, your faces in the evening light. Mikael sleeping, Jof with his lyre. I’ll try to remember what we talked about. I’ll carry this memory between my hands as carefully as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk.” Turning and looking off into the distance, he continues: “And it will be an adequate sign—it will be enough for me.”
As in The Plague, we see here in the Knight’s monologue a courageous embrace of human connection and love as paramount. Indeed, at the end of the film, it is the family—tied together by love and devotion—who escape death, for it is their bond, Bergman argues, that spares them the horrors and destruction of plague.