I’ve been thinking about this as we move through the present crisis, and especially after rereading two novels: J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace” and Albert Camus’s “The Plague.”
When people think of “Disgrace,” which won the Booker Prize in 1999, they tend to recall a novel about a South African college professor who was exposed after having a brief and queasy-making affair with one of his students. When I decided to reread the novel in January, I was thinking about “cancel culture” and #MeToo and wondering if “Disgrace” looked different in the light of recent developments.
In Coetzee’s novel, the protagonist, David Lurie, an English professor, is effectively cast out socially and professionally when his bad behavior becomes public. Failing to atone in the expected ways — thinking himself exceptional — he loses his job and leaves town.
But all that is merely the overture. Lurie goes to stay with his adult daughter on a farm. There, during a home invasion, he is assaulted and locked in a room while his daughter is raped in another part of the house. After this, the book takes on a very different complexion.
If “Disgrace” begins as a story about the price that is paid — by everyone — when men abuse their power, it gradually becomes about another kind of “disgrace,” one that attends our inability, in extreme circumstances, to take care of one another.
After reading “Disgrace,” I turned, like so many others have over the past month or two, to “The Plague,” and was amazed to realize that the two books are in many ways about the same thing.
Camus’s great novel focuses on Rieux, a doctor, during an outbreak of plague in the Algerian city of Oran. The book is often treated as an extended allegory about fascism. But during a global pandemic, it reads as straight reportage.
Doctors are supposed to take care of their patients, to save lives. But during the plague Rieux struggles to save anyone. House visits in the quarantined town “were becoming unbearable,” we are told. “Diagnosing the infection meant quickly removing the patient. And here the difficulty and the abstraction began because the family knew that they would not see the patient again until he or she was cured or dead.”
Rieux, like medical workers today, must obey the demands of an abstraction — harm minimization — giving them priority over more human impulses: touch, affection, mercy, pity. Harm minimization takes precedence not only over the ordinary understanding of what it means to “take care” of people but also over the idea that humans have “rights.”
We do not, it turns out, have rights. They are a glorious fiction. The more urgent abstraction — defeating the plague, or in today’s parlance, “flattening the curve” — renders them provisional, at best.
Of course Rieux feels pity. Of course he believes that people should be allowed to die surrounded by loved ones and should be buried with dignity. But in the emergency of the plague, what good is pity?
Incredible as it seems, hospital workers around the world now find themselves in similar territory. Recently, in a Washington Post video report, Monica Ghitan, a brave infectious disease doctor at Brooklyn’s Maimonides Medical Center, sounded almost ashamed when she said she had specialized in infectious diseases “to make people better.” Now, she confessed, “we have very little, if anything, to give.”
In “The Plague,” Rieux — like Omar Taha, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Maimonides who compared his role to soldiering — understands that the only certainty is work. “The rest hang by threads and imperceptible movements; one could not dwell on it. The main thing was to do one’s job well.”
Reading “The Plague” right after “Disgrace” was sobering. I became fascinated by surprising points of overlap among the experiences of Camus’s admirable protagonist, Coetzee’s less sympathetic one and the medical workers at the front lines today.
In the aftermath of Professor Lurie’s scandal in “Disgrace,” he is introduced by his daughter to her friend, Bev. Bev runs an animal shelter, where Lurie, for want of anything better to do, helps out. Before long, he finds himself performing a task that is really the moral center of the novel: He puts down abandoned dogs, one after the other, by injection.
These dogs are victims of the plague of human indifference, or something even more impersonal. They “suffer from distempers, from broken limbs, from infected bites, from mange, from neglect, benign or malign, from old age, from malnutrition, from intestinal parasites, but most of all from their own fertility. There are simply too many of them.”
The people who bring these dogs to the clinic expect Bev to “dispose of [the dog], make it disappear, dispatch it to oblivion.” What is being requested, Coetzee writes, is a kind of “sublimation, as alcohol is sublimed from water, leaving no residue, no aftertaste.”
But there is a residue. And therein lies the real disgrace. Lurie’s job is to deal with it. He puts the bodies in bags and takes them to a furnace at the back of a hospital where they are incinerated. He “takes care of” them, in other words.
Humans are not dogs. But we all, when we die, leave just such a residue. A body that must be disposed of, and much else besides. The shame of this fact may not hit us until death approaches. But it infects those we love and those who have failed to save us. The doomed dogs, Lurie believes, can smell his shame, his disgrace, as he holds them still and “the needle finds the vein and the drug hits the heart and the legs buckle and the eyes dim.” He does not get used to his work. Driving home, this desiccated, morally compromised man has to stop the car to recover himself. “Tears flow down his face that he cannot stop; his hands shake.”
And yet the work continues. Lurie does it for reasons he doesn’t quite understand. He knows only that he “is prepared to take care of them once they are unable, utterly unable, to take care of themselves.”
This is very tough subject matter, so let me be clear: I am not comparing humans dying of covid-19 to dogs, or hospital workers trying their utmost to save lives to people giving lethal injections to animals. I am trying to talk about the deeper thing — our shared human helplessness — that both “The Plague” and “Disgrace” are about.
Beneath Coetzee’s cool veneer, “Disgrace” is a deeply compassionate book. It is about how we struggle — sometimes provisionally succeeding, but always ultimately failing — to take care of one another. We may try to prevent harm to those we love, and even to those strangers who are neglected, abandoned or unloved. But we are helpless, even in ordinary circumstances, to prevent the one ultimate thing that will happen to them, to me and to you: the humiliating passage from life to death.
Every death brings this home. But circumstances like those we are living through make it brutally clear. Sick people are dying, scared and alone, in overwhelming numbers. Nurses like Janett Perez at Maimonides sing and chatter to dying patients between checking monitors and rearranging tubing. “I talk to them like I would talk to my family and friends,” Perez told The Washington Post.
At the animal clinic, in “Disgrace,” Bev does her best to help the animals through: “I don’t think we are ready to die, any of us, not without being escorted,” she tells Lurie. As they perform their grim work, Lurie and Bev do not speak. Lurie “has learned by now, from her, to concentrate all his attention on the animal they are killing, giving it what he no longer has difficulty in calling by its proper name: love.”
Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post.