Camus: Ignorance and clear-sightedness

Along with others, I have been revisiting Albert Camus’ novel The Plague (like Vox’s Sean Illing speaking to historian and Camus biography Robert Zaretsky or Book Riot’s Christine Ro contrasting two different versions of the novel). As Ro puts it, “If Contagion is The Movie of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Plague is The Novel.”

Trying to get back into quotes, I was drawn to the one below about ignorance and what is often translated as clear-sightedness or lucidity:

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as good, if they lack understanding. On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. There can be no true goodness, nor true love, without the utmost clear-sightedness.

Though the novel is directly about the Algerian town of Oran under quarantine for Bubonic plague and the main characters finding various ways of coping and addressing the isolation and rising body count, it also explores deeper themes of humanity in the face of overwhelming challenge. The plague itself is partly a symbol for Nazism and other fascist regimes, nihilism, and the specter of the absurd.

This leads to the above quote. Camus’ post-war morality, which developed firmly in his Letters to a German Friend during the war, focuses on these two sides: ignorance and lucidity. Elsewhere in The Plague the two main characters have a conversation:

“What on earth prompted you to take a hand in this?”
“I don’t know. My… my code of morals, perhaps.”
“Your code of morals. What code, if I may ask?”
“Comprehension.”

Throughout much of his writing, including his early work like The Wrong Side and the Right Side, Camus argues that clarity is at the core of morality. One cannot do the right thing clouded with ignorance, and vise versa: having a clear sense of the situation makes it harder for tyrants to perpetuate atrocities. For example, as he writes on capital punishment:

When the imagination sleeps, words are emptied of their meaning: a deaf population absent-mindedly registers the condemnation of a man. … There is no other solution but to speak out and show the obscenity hidden under the verbal cloak.

Part of this belief seems to step from Camus’ faith in the underlying goodness of most people, a resilient theme in his work. As he says, “men are more good than bad.” This faith girdled his humanism and informed his break from other French intellectuals, like Sartre, who took a more Marxist view of history, less focused on individual morality and more focused on grand causes and social movements.

But as Camus says, most people are inherently ignorant, causing suffering through their uninformed actions or letting leaders abuse them and stir them to abuse. And if clear-sightedness is the core of morality than the opposite is the worst: “an ignorance which fancies it knows everything.” Over the years, I have often come back to this form of ignorance, which I often term “impassioned ignorance,” where individuals, for whatever reason, refuse to change their views in the face of information.

While not new and not inherently destructive (Will Sorr’s The Unpersuadables takes a more positive view, for instance), this impassioned ignorance seems especially destructive today, whether in the rhetoric of anti-vaxxers, science-deniers, those vilifying other races and ethnic groups, and those peddling conspiracy theories like QAnon. Amid fake news and post-truth rhetoric, impassioned ignorance is flourishing.

And I think Camus’ warning is as important as ever, though like the plague itself, addressing ignorance presents an seemingly impossible challenge.

Burn out, game development, plant scraps, and other things that have stuck out this past week to me

Hey all, it has been a busy time of the year, and my post has not come together in time. So I figured I would do another “things I ran into this week.” This time, no particular categories.

The first thing is this new forward to her forthcoming book on Millennial burnout that Anne Helen Peterson wrote, written with COVID-19 in mind. I read it today, and it really hit home, both for its eloquence and thoughtfulness.

This section in particular stood out to me:

Like the generations before us, we were raised on a diet of meritocracy and exceptionalism: that each of us was overflowing with potential, and all we needed to activate it was hard work and dedication. If we worked hard, no matter our current station in life, we would find stability.

Long before the spread of COVID-19, millennials had begun to come to terms with just how hollow, how deeply and depressingly fantastical, that story really was. We understood that people keep telling it, to their kids and their peers, in New York Times editorials and in how-to books, because to stop would be tantamount to admitting that it’s not just the American Dream that’s broken; it’s America. That the refrains we return to — that we’re a land of opportunity, that we’re a benevolent world superpower — are false.

I am looking forward to her book–and have kept an eye on her twitter feed to look at books she drew from, given my own interest in work v. play. For more like this, there is an interview with Peterson and Derek Thompson, of The Atlantic, on the Ezra Klein Show and Peterson’s viral Buzzfeed piece on Millennial burnout.

On a lighter note, my adviser alerted me to this weekly newsletter by writer Robin Sloan (Sourdough and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore) as he develops a new narrative game. I’ve liked each newsletter a lot so far, and as someone who has never built a game, I am fascinated by the journey and decisions. The updates can get a bit technical, if you are interested in typography, sound design, coding, etc., but Sloan’s clear, concrete language and friendly tone make a transparent, fun, and fascinating Sunday read.

Meanwhile, if you are interested in more low-tech gaming, this New York Times article has advice how to play board games over teleconferencing apps. Although, if digital games are your thing, Kotaku has a list of Indie games you now have time to play and The Guardian has a list of games especially suited for socializing long distance.

More in line with Peterson, I have been thinking about Laurie Penny’s reflections in Wired about apocalypse and the odd normality of this current, disruptive crisis:

There’s an important difference between apocalypse and a catastrophe. A catastrophe is total devastation, with nothing left and nothing learned. “Apocalypse”—especially in the biblical sense—means a time of crisis and change, of hidden truths revealed. A time, quite literally, of revelation. When we talked about the end of every certainty, we were not expecting any revelation. We were not expecting it to be so silly, so sweet, and so sad.

Indeed, it’s worth remembering, as Mary Harris does at Slate, that “We’re not ‘Going Back to Normal,'” and that technologies, like test and trace (The Economist & The Atlantic) will be with us for some time. As per usual, Ed Yong’s cogent writing is clear on the matter:

The pandemic is not a hurricane or a wildfire. It is not comparable to Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Such disasters are confined in time and space. The SARS-CoV-2 virus will linger through the year and across the world. “Everyone wants to know when this will end,” said Devi Sridhar, a public-health expert at the University of Edinburgh. “That’s not the right question. The right question is: How do we continue?”

Until things ease to the next steps, however, we should remember the harrowing experiences of the “necessary” front-line workers, like the author of this must-read diary of an E.R. worker in New York and the hospitality and delivery workers.

We also may grow some plants from grocery scraps in the windowsill, for us apartment dwellers, or for more the more industrious, prepared, and spatially endowed, turn our homes into food producers, with advice from Alice Waters.

Last, if you are looking for a little historical perspective, here is a fascinating collection of historic letters in The Atlantic reflecting hardship, ranging from the Dust Bowl to Georgia O’Keeffe. Or, you could always go online, which is either been especially retro and good lately or our familiar dumpster fire, depending on who you ask.