The Plague

What does a town under quarantine—walled off against the world, shutting its doors against commerce—feel like? What if those doors have been forcibly shut, against the citizens’ will? What is it like to be medically captive in a city? At the very least, how does one pass the time?

Nearly two years ago, while living and working in San Francisco, I would often spend my lunch breaks down at Stacey’s, an amazing bookstore that sadly went out of business this past spring. One of the books that I gravitated toward—and eventually purchased—was The Plague by Albert Camus.

Camus’s novel—about a quarantined city in North Africa called Oran, where the bubonic plague has erupted, originating in rats that have come crawling out into the streets to die en masse—seems to illustrate quite well the proposition that fiction is an extraordinarily effective medium through which to describe architectural and urban experiences. One of Camus’s characters, for instance, surveys the quarantined city laid out before him: “At that moment he had a preternaturally vivid awareness of the town stretched out below, a victim world secluded and apart, and of the groans of agony stifled in its darkness.”

Quarantine, Camus suggests, can have the effect of heightening the sensorial impact of certain urban details: “For in the heat and stillness, and for the troubled hearts of our townsfolk, anything, even the least sound, had a heightened significance. The varying aspects of the sky, the very smells rising from the soil that mark each change of season, were taken notice of for the first time.” The city has become amplified, so to speak, by its isolation. We even read that a “new paper has been launched: the Plague Chronicle,” as if all of these newly noticed details, and the alterations in daily routine that revealed them, were too numerous—and far too extraordinary—not to catalog.

But the city looms, stripped of vitality, anemic, its purpose gone; it is urbanism as depicted by Giorgio de Chirico.

The silent city was no more than an assemblage of huge, inert cubes, between which only the mute effigies of great men, carapaced in bronze, with their blank stone or metal faces, conjured up a sorry semblance of what the man had been. In lifeless squares and avenues these tawdry idols lorded it under the lowering sky; stolid monsters that might have personified the rule of immobility imposed on us, or, anyhow, its final aspect, that of a defunct city in which plague, stone, and darkness had effectively silenced every voice.

I won’t review the book here; it is worth reading, even if it’s emotionally imperfect, so to speak (and often a bit boring), but its literary merits are not what I’m concerned with. I’m concerned with its descriptions of space.

I thought, then, especially in light of the quarantine studio that kicks off in NYC this autumn, I would simply excerpt some of Camus’s more memorable thoughts on quarantine.

For instance, he writes, describing this strange state of medical siege-urbanism:

At first the fact of being cut off from the outside world was accepted with a more or less good grace, much as people would have put up with any other temporary inconvenience that interfered with only a few of their habits. But, now they had abruptly become aware that they were undergoing a sort of incarceration under that blue dome of sky, already beginning to sizzle in the fires of summer, they had a vague sensation that their whole lives were threatened by the present turn of events, this feeling of being locked in like criminals prompted them sometimes to foolhardy acts.

Oran, Camus continues, its city gates closed against foreign visitors, its citizens often sitting there, listless in the desert heat, “assumed a novel appearance.”

You saw more pedestrians, and in the slack hours numbers of people, reduced to idleness because shops and a good many offices were closed, crowded the streets and cafés. For the present they were not unemployed; merely on holiday. So it was that on fine days, toward three in the afternoon, Oran brought to mind a city where public rejoicings are in progress, shops are shut, and traffic is stopped to give a merry-making populace the freedom of the streets.

What is there to do in quarantine? Not much, it seems:

So now he drifted aimlessly from café to café. In the mornings he would sit on the terrace of one of them and read a newspaper in the hope of finding some indication that the epidemic was on the wane. He would gaze at the faces of the passers-by, often turning away disgustedly from their look of unrelieved gloom, and after reading for the nth time the shopsigns on the other side of the street, the advertisements of popular drinks that were no longer procurable, would rise and walk again at random in the yellow streets. Thus he killed time till nightfall, moving about the town and stopping now and again at a café or restaurant.

This level of ennui—”You could see them at street corners, in cafes or friends’ houses, listless, indifferent, and looking so bored that, because of them, the whole town seemed like a railway waiting-room”—unsurprisingly soon breeds violence (and, with it, glimpses of a new constitutional order):

It was incidents of this sort that compelled the authorities to declare martial law and enforce the regulations deriving from it. Two looters were shot, but we may doubt if this made much impression on the others; with so many deaths taking place every day, these two executions went unheeded—a mere drop in the ocean. Actually scenes of this kind continued to take place fairly often, without the authorities’ making even a show of intervening. The only regulation that seemed to have some effect on the populace was the establishment of a curfew hour. From eleven onwards, plunged in complete darkness, Oran seemed a huge necropolis.

For all of these descriptions, however, the question remains: what is the effect of quarantine on a city’s populace? Can public policy reach down into the emotions of a resident and predict how he or she might react? And how is urbanism itself transformed by states of temporary—but enforced—isolation?

For that, a much larger conversation about quarantine and the city must ensue.

4 thoughts on “The Plague”

  1. I like this, which comes after a description of how burying the bodies becomes an increasingly industrialised process:

    "After that, they were covered with quicklime, then earth, but only up to a certain height, in order to leave room for more occupants to come. The following day, the relatives were invited to sign a register – which just showed the difference that there may be between men and, for example, dogs: you can keep check of human beings."

    Well, I don't exactly like it, but you know what I mean.

  2. Great suggestion: I'm going to re-read it. Of course in French which the title is "La Peste". I read it when I was in Collège (in France College means that you're aged between 11 and 14 years old). This time I'm going to read it one more time to analyse its "description" of space.
    Thanks a lot for the suggestion.

  3. One of the reasons I left the design program at Cooper Union (this was a looong time ago now) was that we had an assignment to do the title page spread for a favorite novel. For The Plague I reprinted the last page of the novel 1:1 on the left side of the spread.

    The facsimile of the last page (broken at this exact point) was:

    "have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedroom, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day will come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”

    On the right side of the spread I had the conventional title: "The Plague. Albert Camus"

    My professors told me that had nothing to do with design, and I said that was cool, then I didn't have anything to do with design either. Ended up studying sculpture instead. Worked out.

  4. Quarantine Cities then, now are quarantine countries.Swine flu or avian flu, human behavior under duress has not evolved much from hunter gatherer instinct.HIV+ve are wall-less isolation.

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