For the Bane and Enlightening of Men: Writing as Conscience in Albert Camus’ The Plague and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart

For the Bane and Enlightening of Men:

Writing as Conscience in Albert Camus’ The Plague and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart

             As a poet, I feel intimately Joseph Grand’s struggle to “find his words.” The great symphony of our language bears in its undercurrent the tones of so many different words, it is as if they are singular instruments, each one uniquely voiced and emotionally nuanced. The first time I read Albert Camus’ The Plague, I read it for the plot, the fictionalization and imagery depicting the bubonic plague, a subject that has for a long time fascinated me. Reading it for a second time, however, brought to the surface the writerly concerns of the Camus’ text: the functions of language in all aspects of life, from the banality and ubiquitousness of love to the grand scale of a devastating pandemic. Nowhere is the ability of words to drive us into action or paralyze us into inaction so apparent. Nowhere is the necessity of finding the right word so clear as in works that deal with such large-scale disasters. Each of the characters in Camus’ novel is affected by writing, and indeed personifies, language in some way.  Rieux struggles with the other doctors to find a way to “name” the plague, Tarrou fills his journal with meticulous observations and odd details, Grand writes his novel with such tedious attention to word choice that he cannot finish either his writerly or his mundane work, Rambert is a journalist by trade, Father Paneloux pens his sermons and Cottard writes his suicide note. Each man has a tenuous and pivotal relationship with writing.

            Upon close reading, one might say that Raymond Rambert, with his career of journalism at the forefront, represents the utility of writing; that Jean Tarrou embodies the nuance of observation and specificity in writing; Dr. Bernard Rieux is the personification of the value of impartial documentation (inasmuch as this exists); while Monsieur Cottard represents writing’s mis-uses. Most importantly, Joseph Grand represents the conscience of writing. Grand’s writing is self-conscious, introspective, aware of its own weight and the nature of its responsibilities. When we observe Grand’s relationship to writing, we are as close as we can be to the beating heart of the text. (Regarding the heart of a text, is it mere coincidence that Larry Kramer chose for his activist play the title of The Normal Heart?) Grand is the defining image of the selfless writer, the one who writes, not for accolades or money, nor for his own betterment or even for the benefit of others, but because he must.

            Grand’s position is not without its dangers. When writing his novel, he carries such a concern over choosing the right word that he analyzes himself into inaction. Grand shows us that a writing with too much conscience is as dangerous as writing with no conscience. Its dangerousness is in its failure to disseminate its message: a message which people may be endangered for lack of hearing. This was the primary message in Kramer’s treatment of The Normal Heart. In the very first scene, Kramer lights upon the issue of writing as a way of communicating impending disaster, specifically the impending disaster of AIDS:

NED: What about you? What are you going to say? You’re the one with the health column.

MICKEY: Well, I’ll certainly write about it in the Native, but I’m afraid to put it in the stuff I write at work (21-22).

Its positioning at the front of the play gives the weight of writing specific significance and supplies it with a theme that effectively sews the play’s action (and inactions) together. There is moment after moment during The Normal Heart in which words create more gaps between those who are supposed to be united in their wants and desires than moments that seem to bridge those gaps. Not only do words have a way of separating two sides of an argument, they also have a way of driving a wedge between those who would be considered to be on the same side. An example of this in Kramer’s play is found in Scene Four where the activists are trying to decide what should go on the envelope of the mailings they are sending out to those who would be their allies:

BRUCE: Look at this! Was this your idea?

NED: I’m looking. I’m not seeing. What don’t I see?

MICKEY: What we put for our return address.

NED: You mean the word “gay” is on the envelope?

BRUCE: You’re damn right. Instead of just the initials.  Who did it?

NED: Well, maybe it was Pierre who designed it. maybe it was a mistake at the printers. But it is the name we chose for this organization. . .

BRUCE: You chose. I didn’t want “gay” in it (49).

Not only is there an outcry from the more conservative Bruce about whether or not to overtly identify the group, there is also a general reluctance on the part of the others present to accept culpability for the words that were chosen. Ned suggests other possibilities for the “mistake” and Bruce attempts to assign blame to everyone but himself. Interestingly, all members of the group identify with the epithet in question: gay. They want to be called “gay” rather than the more scientific term “homosexuals,” but they do not want to claim that name for themselves in public. Perhaps “homosexual” feels too clinical, too distancing. Perhaps it reduces them to scientific specimens, mere curiosities, rather than living and complex individuals. Bruce’s argument is not without its merits. Too much emphasis on such a loaded word could deny them the rights they seek, while to weak a view could cause their audience to fail to recognize the activists’ purpose, a purpose the individuals receiving the letters might support. Parallels exist in Camus’ novel also, and are evident by comparing and contrasting the different uses of words by Rieux and Grand. Consider the segment in The Plague where Drs. Castel and Rieux are trying to get the decision makers to name the plague directly:

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Rieux said, “how you phrase it. My point is that we should not act as if there were no likelihood that half the population would be wiped out; for then it would be.” (47)

Rieux is not adamant on quibbling with the specific use of words. He is more intent on the actions required now that the word “plague” has been identified. It is the other doctors who are focused on what the word means, what it entails, what it will require of them. Conversely, Joseph Grand treats the words at his disposal as if they are of the utmost importance. Though he is only talking about a young woman riding down a flowery avenue, his attention to the details, the sfumata, of words is more befitting a serious situation such as global pandemic. Grand conscientiously weighs not only the words, but what they sound like, what they could possibly mean and, more importantly, what those words are leaving out:

Some days later he confessed that the word “flowery” was bothering him considerably. . .For “flowery” he had substituted “flower-strewn.” He was rubbing his hands. “At last one can see them, smell them! Hat’s off, gentlemen!” Triumphantly he read out the sentence (125).

What is it that in Grand’s mind lends the sense of smell to the word “flower-strewn” that was not there when the word “flowery” was used? Perhaps the word “flowery” lent more focus to the avenues than to the flowers? Perhaps one has a more intrinsic sense of the smell of a cut or plucked flower than an attached one? Perhaps it was the fact that “flower-strewn” takes up more physical and audible space than “flowery?”  Rieux faces, but sidesteps, a similar concern when trying to convince the Prefect’s office to name the plague aloud. He can choose between the less-committal “a fever of a typhoidal nature, accompanied by vomiting and buboes,”  and “the plague.” The notices eventually emerge with the plague being named as “a malignant fever.” Here, it is easy to say that this term is less shocking than “plague.” With a malignancy, we know that the force is harmful, but it does not specifically seem to suggest an intent to harm. The fever is not, in fact, stalking you. You almost have the feeling of safety, provided you can avoid it. With plague however, the feeling has always been that of a specific intent to kill, as if the plague itself were a person sneaking up behind you, intent to do you harm for the sheer pleasure of it. We have these feelings because of our past experiences with plague, a term that seems unknown or exotic. But the word “fever” is much more common-sounding: much more of a known quantity. Still, Rieux is less interested in the word than in the actions naming it will provoke. He is therefore deeply dissatisfied with the Prefect’s decision to use a less-alarming language when notifying the public of the presence of plague:

On the following day, however, Rieux observed that small official notices had been just put up about the town, though in places where they would not attract much attention. It was hard to find in these notices any indication that the authorities were facing the situation squarely. The measures enjoined were far from Draconian and one had the feeling that many concessions had been made to a desire not to alarm the public (48).

The effect of such a notice is, understandably, a soothing of the public conscience, not an excitement of it. Weak words equal weak actions, as Kramer’s character, Ned, well knew:

BRUCE: You’ll scare everybody to death!

NED: Shake up. What’s wrong with that? This isn’t something that can be force-fed gently; it won’t work. Mickey neglected to read my first sentence:

MICKEY: “It’s difficult to write this without sounding alarmist or scared.” Okay, but then listen to this: “I am sick of guys moaning that giving up careless sex until this blows over is worse than death. . .I am sick of guys who can only think with their cocks. . .I am sick of closeted gays. It’s 1982 now, guys, when are you going to come out? By 1984 you could be dead.”

While Kramer’s Ned battles with his friends over the urgency of powerful words, Camus’ Joseph Grand gives more power to his words than anyone else would ever grant them. The care Grand places in choosing his words is disproportionate to the message he is trying to convey. Yet, both Ned Weeks and Joseph Grand at least realize the power of words to impart meaning and urgency and give such words the respect due them.

If Grand is the conscience of the writer, Cottard is his opposite. Cottard is shown using writing only for his own manipulative purposes. He only seems to use the written word when there is an objective to be met. He pens the suicide note on the door of his apartment, thus using writing to escape his shady past and to try to direct favorably his uncertain future. Cottard’s writing is writing without thought, without concern for its effects on others. In fact, Cottard does not consider Joseph Grand’s feelings on the matter at all: that it was Grand’s chalk which Cottard used to accomplish his selfish agenda. He cares not for the likely guilt the conscientious Grand might feel, nor does he care about squandering Dr. Rieux’s time so frivolously in the midst of a disaster that is greater than Cottard himself. To Cottard, nothing is greater than Cottard. Yet, even Cottard’s misuse of writing caused more excitement than Grand’s conscientious writing:

The Cottard incident seemed to have shaken the neighborhood out of its normal lethargy and even these remote streets were becoming crowded with noisy merry-makers (276).

Even Grand seems to reject his previous style of writing:

Just as [Grand] was starting up the stairs he added that he’d written to Jeanne and was feeling much happier. Also he’d made a fresh start with his phrase. “I’ve cut out all the adjectives” (276).

The paralysis caused by his heavy attention to the detail of words is now gone, defeated by the burning of his manuscript during his illness and he can now accomplish the primary goal of writing to his wife (a marriage that could be said to have been destroyed in the first place by Grand’s inability to “find his words”), thus defeating the fear that kept him from ever finishing his sentence. It was the adjectives that, in his mind, gave Grand’s sentence so much power: the quibbling between “young” and “slim” to describe the horsewoman, “plump” and “glossy” to describe the mare, and “flowery” versus “flower-strewn” to describe the avenues. In the end, he determines that the adjectives are the only words that should be severed from his writing. He has now become less concerned with the power of such defining words and more interested in the nouns and verbs that encourage right action. Both Dr. Castel of The Plague and Ned of Kramer’s The Normal Heart make the same discovery: call the plague “plague” and gay “gay.”

            If Grand’s conscientiousness came to naught in the long run, what does it matter that writing be conscientious? Why should we quibble about the weight of words and their ability to manipulate or inform the reader? Obviously, in the case of a widespread pandemic, words and images are almost all we use to convey up-to-date, potentially life-saving information (many times explicit images are too much for an audience to compute and may overly-polarize or otherwise paralyze an audience, as Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others claims). The conscientious decision of Rieux and Castel to rightly name their bacterial enemy can be found in Part I of The Plague:

I saw some cases in Paris twenty years ago. Only no one dared to call them by their name on that occasion. The usual taboo, of course; the public mustn’t be alarmed, that wouldn’t do at all. . . Come now, Rieux, you know as well as I do what it is. . . “Yes, Castel,” he replied. “It’s hardly credible. But everything points to its being plague” (33).

and the importance of their endeavors to find the right word surface again during the meeting with the Prefect when trying to enact public policy to combat the illness:

“Quite true,” the Prefect assented, “but I shall need your professional declaration that the epidemic is one of plague.”

“If we don’t make that declaration,” Rieux said, “there’s a risk that half the population may be wiped out.”

The visible consequence of a failure to find the correct word, as Rieux points out, is an unconscionable number of human deaths. Thus, the importance of conscientious writing is to prevent harm and to allay death.

            After the plague has receded, Camus makes sure to point out texts as a central focus of his work. His final chapters deal explicitly with the revealing of the narrator (Dr. Rieux) and explain his need to use “the tone of an impartial observer.”  The use of the third person documentary voice (with limited omniscience) served to represent the truth of the tale (in the case of fiction, the verisimilitude of the tale). Also, the text as character makes an appearance at the end when Rieux says that the “jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books” the plague’s tendency to remain alive despite all measures (278). The places that Rieux states the plague will hide until it emerges again also seem like places where books can be found: “bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves.” In both Camus’ and Kramer’s works, the text takes a central role in that both texts and resurgent, unconquerable disease share the same purpose: “for the bane and the enlightening of men” (278).


~ by ImaginaryCanary on March 9, 2010.

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