When Antonin Artaud delivered his lecture on Camus’ The Plague to a group of students at Paris-Sorbonne University, they all walked out. The creator of the Theatre of Cruelty started by presenting an academic paper on the book about infectious disease and the human condition, and the effects of an epidemic in the Algerian city of Oran. Then he stepped it up a notch. The story of The Plague is ostensibly about the transformation of the obsession with personal suffering when faced with a collective disaster. There is a sense that individuals, usually obsessed with their own personal condition, actually ‘rise above it’ in the face of a disaster that affects all. When Artaud delivered this lecture to university students he started coughing. Then he found it hard to breathe. By the end of his presentation on the plague, he died from the plague. Of course he wasn’t really dead, he acted it out. You can’t develop a thing called the Theatre of Cruelty that is supposed to disrupt the relationship between audience and performer and not do the obvious – die of the plague during the presentation. Imagine if someone did that now! There would be a stampede. Apparently all the students walked out, except one. I think that was Jean Genet. I heard this story so long ago I am a bit sketchy on the identity of who remained.
I woke today thinking about Camus and that book which I read such a long time ago – that stunning chronicle in the scene of human suffering. It feels very timely. Right now the world is gripped by a plague, COVID-19 as we know it.
I have wondered about the name. Was there a COVID-4? Or -5? It’s named like an iPhone and gives the appearance that this is the latest version. Except in this case no one wants to be an early adopter. Every newsfeed is awash with headlines… ‘Hobart man ignored COVID-19 quarantine’, ‘Boy Scouts hold coronavirus training in Milton’, ‘World-famous SXSW festival cancelled over Covid-19 fears’, ‘Single toilet paper roll sells for $1000’. And yes, that’s true; A NSW man bought a single Woolies homebrand two-ply roll, with a butterfly imprint, for $1k. A 32 pack of Kleenex toot paper sold on eBay for $500. People have assaulted each other in supermarkets over toilet paper supply. It is the stuff of existential literature. Not even Camus took bad behaviour that far.
It’s not the disease that is terrifying. It’s us. It’s what we do because of fear.
This version of The Plague is even more compelling and bizarre than Camus’. He didn’t foresee the role of the media in nurturing the pandemic of fear. Fear is a contagion far more lethal and fast moving than any virus. The media is the incubator and vector for paranoia and hysteria. The viral force of panic has affected worldwide behaviour in a tidal wave of toilet paper buying. Our anarchic madness is more dangerous than a respiratory illness.
I’m intrigued by the story of COVID-19. I understand its potential, and that it is a highly infectious disease with a mortality rate of about 0.2%. To date, it seems only to have killed older and immune compromised people – people who probably would have been just as susceptible to the flu.
Malaria kills one million children annually. One-and-a-half million people died from Tuberculosis last year. There are still close to one million people dying each year from AIDS related illnesses. But that’s in developing countries. Their deaths don’t raise panic among the general population of wealthy countries. Because ‘they’ are not ‘us.’
As of 8 March, according to WHO statistics, there have been 105 586 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 3, 584 deaths worldwide.
In 2018, in the US, 80 000 people died from the flu. You’re much more likely to catch the flu than this coronavirus – so why are people so paranoid? There’s every reason to take COVID-19 seriously – but panic buying? Mask wearing? Even when you’re not immune-compromised… it’s nuts. The media have a lot to answer for. I wonder who the PR Company is for COVID-19 ? Could they please do the campaign for the Climate Crisis and Domestic Violence? With that kind of affect on human response – we’d have two of the world’s most serious issues sorted in a week.