Tarrou was swinging his leg, tapping he terrace lightly with his heel, as he concluded. After a short silence the doctor raised himself a little in his chair and asked if Tarrou had an idea of the path to follow for attaining peace. “Yes,” he replied. “The path of sympathy.” Albert Camus, The Plague, 225
The best part of Camus’s novel is the theme of commitment. In a time when there is plague (HIV/AIDS, empire, military occupation, to name three contemporary plagues people suffer from), what options do people exercise? Tarrou, Rieux, Grand, and eventually Rambert all take in one way or another “the path of sympathy,” the way of “comprehension,” which is Tarrou’s word for his code of morals.
Tarrou, who wanted to be a saint without God, is a hero, even with all his contradictions (and don’t we all have our own?): he looks unflinchingly at the plague and works to combat it, and risks his life. Ultimately, he dies. He is like Rachel Corrie: This must stop – but he couldn’t stop the plague, he could only accompany the victims. And not be condemning or judgmental.
And what is true religiosity in a time of plague? It is praxis, it is the path of sympathy, and you can take the dogmas, doctrines, and rituals—who needs them? It is Yitz Greenberg’s anguished cri de coeur: No theology talk is credible; pull the children out of the burning pits!
This means knowing that children are being burned alive (recall Steiner’s refusal to sit still). This means going near to where the children are, you’ve got to see it. And then doing something. But we keep our distance; we offer solidarity from afar, which alas isn’t much. Or is it? I myself said that “the real work” on behalf of Palestine was back in the US, what were we really doing to fight the plague there, in Gaza? It may have seemed heroic and risky from the stateside perspective. But I was convinced that we have more to contribute here, working to cut off the source of the funding and ideological support for the occupation, than doing accompaniment work. But it’s ambos: Both/and: I had that opportunity then, I have this opportunity now, to be vigilant. Here’s Rieux’s critique of distance: “…sometimes at midnight, in the great silence of the sleep-bound town, the doctor turned on his wireless before going to bed for the few hours’ sleep he allowed himself. And from the ends of the earth, across thousands of miles of land and sea, kindly, well-meaning speakers tried to voice their fellow-feeling, and indeed did so, but at the same time proved the utter incapacity of every man truly to share in suffering which he cannot see. ‘Oran! Oran!’ In vain the call rang over oceans, in vain Rieux listened hopefully; always the tide of eloquence began to flow, bringing home still more the unbridgeable gulf that lay between Grand and the speaker. ‘Oran, we’re with you!’ they called emotionally. But not, the doctor told himself, to love or to die together—and that’s the only way. They’re too remote.”  Read the rest of this entry »