Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Emergency Literature

Manya Lempert

In Camus’s The Plague (1947), two Frenchmen in the Algerian town of Oran “gazed down at what was a dramatic picture of their life in those days: plague on the stage in the guise of a disarticulated mummer.” An actor has passed away mid-performance. As he plays the role of ill-fated Orpheus, plague overtakes him and pulls his limbs asunder. Clearly for Camus, art is not immune to life’s emergencies. Instead, art confronts audiences with a piercing “dramatic picture” of them.

Imperiled communities lie at the heart of literary tragedies. The god Dionysus in Euripides’ Bacchae also spreads his infectious violence to the stricken people of Thebes. “Disarticulated mummer” (histrion désarticulé) sounds like Dionysus’ victim Pentheus as well. Pentheus, too, is a felled and dismembered player.
As we read in the news that “The Coronavirus Is a Preview of Our Climate-Change Future,” tragedy, I think, is a very important literary mode for representing these nested and ongoing catastrophes, in ways that do not downplay their carnage or obscure their histories. This exposé is what we need now. Camus’s narrator in The Plague knows “that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world.” This is also Camus’s formulation of tragedy – it is cyclical, it is Sisyphean. Tragedy narrates cycles of devastation and repeated traumas.

I hope that in setting plague in Oran, Camus sought to register that colonialism is pestilential. Greek tragedies, too, appearing to endorse Athenian supremacy, harbored subversive meanings about the horrors of war, invasion, and xenophobia. Consciousness-raising, these artworks implicated ruling orders in the production of disaster. Commander-in-chief Agamemnon in Euripides’ Hecuba looks forward to going home, “released as we are, from this ordeal.” Not so for his Trojan captives. The colonizers of Camus’ novel await “the end of [the] ordeal” and “deliverance” from “incarceration” – how ironic. Tragedies emphasize these supremely different fates. In so doing, in their sensitivity to injustice, they enjoin us to contest injurious forms of power and to imagine the polis anew.

Modern European writers like Camus, Hardy, Woolf, and Beckett gravitated toward tragedy because it was a space to name and to lament undue and unequal suffering. Literary tragedy was, for them, a diagnostic tool and a rallying cry. With it, they traced present-day pains to their political and existential sources. Modern tragedy was a refutation of progressivist or Panglossian accounts of the capitalist, imperialist status quo; Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss maintained that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Tragic literature thought otherwise. It featured Cassandras whom no one believed, who were right. Prior to our pandemic and now during it, who are our contemporary Cassandras?
These Cassandras are vindicated at too high a price. Works of a tragic cast do not shy away from grief, rage, and loss. Tragedies dare to represent wanting justice, absent consent, and limited agency. The modern writers above responded to these wrenching conditions with an ethics of tragedy as well, which involved the utmost collective resistance to atrocity, in straitened circumstances. Literary works cried out for the dismantling of structures of harm – not their denial or reproduction. This is the tragic imperative now.

About The Author

Manya Lempert

Manya Lempert is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Arizona. She received her B.A. in English and French from Stanford University and her Ph.D. in English from the...

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