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Camus and Kafka

I’ve been reading Albert Camus’ The Plague in light of the current-event-that-we’re-all-sick-of. I was always lukewarm on Camus, probably because I was too young when I first read The Stranger. Sometimes you just have to pupate a while for something to make sense.

I’m finding a lot of resonances with our situation, not so much in terms of the plague itself, but more in the exercise of government power. Camus and Kafka are often grouped together as if they were prophets of the modern day. I think Kafka is usually considered to be the more prophetic, with reference to arbitrary state power in the Soviet bloc, followed shortly thereupon by the modern surveillance state via CCTV and the Internet.

Camus never really seems to sit neatly in that model. His characters and situations are resolutely small-time and provincial. There is stong government action, but it’s semi-reasonable, and executed by semi-reasonable people. No Kafkaeque hallucinatory horrors here.

Where the contrast lies for me is in how Camus’ actors are mostly just… incompetent. They’re well intentioned people, mostly, just trying to live their own lives. They act as best they can and are always concerned with the goings-on in other people’s lives. They’re normal in other words.

When the powers-that-be act, it’s usually too little and too late. Committees aren’t secretive and all-powerful, they’re anxious about what they should do and deeply concerned about the public’s response and placating interest groups. In other words, they’re just like real governments run by real people.

And frankly, isn’t that our common experience of the last couple of years? We come to expect malevolence, but we receive bumbling, blustering incompetence. With very few exceptions, thus has it ever been.

Which I suppose is some kind of comfort.

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