A Void like the Plague: Fragments of Domestic Theory

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis




by Howard Prosser (Boon wurrung/South Gippsland)


Camus is back. The Plague is everywhere. Its brave everyday characters resonate with our ideal selves, our care workers, and our belief in a possible ending to the global pandemic. But his allegory also highlights how exclusionary politics is always an option. Our city selves are vulnerable – to plague, to authority – in spite of our desire not to be. Outbreaks remain possible. They can get out of control. Liberalism is not immune to tyranny.

*

Everyone is at home now. Thankfully. We live on a southern edge of the Kulin Nation, outside of a greater Melbourne experiencing lockdown déjà vu. Like everyone, our extended families are spread around Australia and the world. Some work in health care, some reside in aged care, some have recovered from the virus. The restrictions here are less stringent than in the nearby city. Still, family, work, and school are now all in one place. Strangely, the arrangement is in the direction of a social intimacy I aspire to: the five of us and our generous small-town neighbours. We’re close. And very fortunate.

*

Over the last few years, I’ve often thought of writing a piece titled “Why not Camus?” But like so many thought bubbles, it probably won’t happen. Life intervenes. Perhaps this piece is it.

*

A few minutes of our mornings pass like this:

“Daddy, I have to put numbers on two axes. Can you help me?’

“Just follow the pattern. Maths is about patterns and logic. This number here indicates the x axis. And this one is the y axis”

 “Dad, can you come and help me now? I know what they’re asking me to do, but I don’t know how to do it.”

“What’s the common denominator of 4 and 8?”

 “Darling, can you help me here. The screen’s too big. Normally I press ctrl + or – ; but that’s not working.”

“Maybe just try turning it off and on again.”

 “Here, Dad, look what I made.”

“Really, you made that? That’s amazing!”

“Hey Daddy, do we have any whiteout?”

“In the cupboard.”

“Hey, Dad …”

*

I never quite understood why Camus fell out of favour as a social theorist. Times change, of course. French theory is a genealogy of eclipse. He always sat awkwardly – another colonial outsider – among the Parisian set, anyway. Now he speaks of another era, a mid-twentieth century blokey moment that arguably stifles thinking clearly about our current milieu. Nietzschean individualism often resounds. He didn’t really outline a program, more a sensibility. Other criticisms are possible. But aspects of his thinking surely remain important. The themes certainly are – friendship, alienation, rebellion, justice, death; so too the range of ways he presented his thought – novels, plays, short stories, essays, and exegeses.

*

Camus became “old theory.” Something that went onto, and then off, school syllabi. (That hasn’t happened to Foucault just yet.) But Camus shouldn’t be reserved for serious adolescent seriousness, as valid as that feeling is. At sixteen, like many, I devoured a well-worn copy of The Outsider among the suburban sand dunes of Perth, Western Australia. That’s Noongar country. There the light, air, and ocean – Mediterranean, supposedly, but not really – offered an affiliation with the sites of Camus’s works. I rescued the book from a stack of school throw outs. I’d heard, probably via The Cure, that it was important. The Plague soon accompanied me to the beach. Just another case of Antipodean cosmopolitan becoming.

*

“Can you look at your brother’s learning plan and find out what he needs to do next?”

“Can we have some morning tea?”

“No one is having morning tea until everyone is out of their pyjamas and has cleaned their teeth.”

*

Camus’s pied-noir perspective paid little attention to the Arab-Berber experiences in Oran. He’s rightly criticised for this oversight. Black lives didn’t matter. But we know he knew they did. I’ve been wondering if perhaps this absence in The Plague was unconsciously intentional. That’s probably too generous. Perhaps it’s just another unintended lesson from the text. All societies pretended to ignore their Others till they need them as that. Like right now. Plague pronounces social exclusions.

*

My daughter is learning to sew by making an advent calendar on the sewing machine. She is dreaming of Christmas. My youngest son loves making little stitched pockets. The machine is out on the dining table because my partner has been mastering the art of mask making. Our seventeen-year-old neighbour taught her. The room is filled with the sound of photosynthesis as my older son watches a video explaining the process. It’s narrated by a man speaking English with a French accent.

*

The First Man is probably my favourite Camus. It’s an unfinished autobiographical novel about his childhood in Algiers. Reading such manuscripts always sits awkwardly with me. I bought it at a bookshop in Warsaw at the end of last century. I was cycling across Europe and read it when resting by the roadside. A few days later I ended up staying in a town to the east of the capital. I lodged with an Irish teacher working and living in the secondary school. He’d done a Masters on Camus at Trinity College. It was a memorable few days of serendipitous friendship. He loved Bob Dylan. I know he still does.

*

My daughter has finished their set school work for the day. It’s not yet mid-morning. She sits on the couch reading Hergé’s Tintin adventure, King Ottokar’s Spectre. Written at the end of the 1930s, it is an anti-Nazi satire of Hitler’s expansion into Czechoslovakia. When the Nazi’s arrived in Brussels, however, Hergé changed his tune to keep in step. He chose self-promotion in Le Soir; Camus ran the French Resistance’s Combat. My daughter doesn’t care. But she’s wearing a Mafalda t-shirt, a different comic-strip child, a resistor of the same adult tyranny as Tintin from a different but related context of unrest, 1960s Argentina. Her voice sings out: “Stop the world! I want to get off!”

*

Camus and Francine Faure, a mathematician and pianist, had twins: a daughter and a son. Did he write about his children in his works? Not that I recall. Someone else will know. Someone’s always read more of someone’s work than someone else. Social theory is a social theory.

*

During the twenty years that I’ve taught in universities, mainly on short-term contracts it must be said, I’ve had numerous children in my classes – sometimes infants in prams, usually sweet primary-aged children who were remarkably attentive. Almost always they come with their mothers. Once, a father brought his daughter. This year my son appeared in a tutorial wearing pyjamas. He dragged a basket of Lego across the floor of our spare room, waving as he exited.

*

The First Man is Camus’s homage to his mother. It contains a visceral scene that always reminds me of his, and our, tenuous economic circumstances. His childhood home was far from bourgeois. Money was tight. One day Jacques, Camus-the-boy, thought he’d keep for himself a two-franc piece he’d received as change when running an errand. He wanted the money to attend a football match. At home, he assured his beloved working-class grandmother that the money had fallen into the toilet, which was “too exalted a term” for the fetid hole in the ground. (Did they have enough toilet paper?) The grandmother reached into it, up to her elbow, to feel around for it. No avail, of course. Camus gave voice to his guilt from this episode in the book:

“There was nothing there,” she said. “You’re a liar.”

That memory’s stench is stronger than the aroma of madeleines.

*

My son is running through the house while I type, sitting in the living room. He stops next to me. Says nothing. Kisses me. And then leaps back across the room.

*

Absurdism might seem apposite, but it’s inadequate.

*

“Kids, I’ve reached my limit. Everyone needs to go outside now for at least twenty minutes.”

*

Ours is a crisis of care. Who’s caring for who? Who’s not being cared for? Who doesn’t care? How is care assessed, arranged, acted? How is care perpetuated? How can care become the central organising principle of our time? Camus cared about care in The Plague. It was written during the war and appeared in 1947. His was the kind of thinking that made permissible the exceptionalism – however problematic – of post-war social democracies.  Public service and public good were means of combatting and recovering from crises that affected everyone.

*

“Hey, Daddy, when will you be finished your work?”

*

My kids and I play football with a stress ball in the living room. The front door is the goal. The furniture becomes deft team mates – Barstooli! Brooke Shelfy! Kit Shinbench! Camus was a reliable goalkeeper at Racing Universitaire Algerios (RUA). He stopped playing when he contracted the white plague – tuberculosis. In an interview before his unexpected death, in a car accident aged 46, he offered this now well-loved line: “After many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it in the RUA.”

*

“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!”

“No, no. Let them sort it out. They’ll be fine.”

*

As much as I’m suggesting his writings are still relevant, Camus is no longer enough. Perhaps he will always remain a starting point. Times have changed. Camus’s female characters were poorly developed, but elements of his thought are reconcilable with a feminist ethos. (He championed Simone Weil – who also deserves more attention.) As for ecological devastation, that wasn’t on his radar.  These, among others, are the “struggles and wishes” of our times. Our tradition of thinking, in which I gladly include Camus, offers many ideas to counter the strange combination of parsimony and avarice that is still being presented as our future. Another alternative – authoritarianism – is also a serious global contender. Others, like you, are working toward a better future – tangibly more kind, more just. This important work will continue to challenge uncaring forces. I am grateful and hopeful.

Biography

Howard Prosser is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Monash University. He wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment in the Anglosphere (2020) and Global Liberalism and Elite Schooling in Argentina (2018). Email: howard.prosser@monash.edu

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