La peste

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 8.20.11 PMLa peste
Albert Camus
Éditions Gallimard, 1947
(Collection Folio)

A sublime reading of La peste. By applying some of the concepts around the experience of the sublime to Albert Camus’ La peste I want to explore the question of engaging with a specific aesthetic concept within a literary work. This has been done innumerable times before, but I want to explore how it is actually possible. Therefore, in the case of La peste, there are two moments within the text which strike me intuitively as being representative of the sublime.

The first would be an example of Kant’s mathematical sublime. This occurs during a description of the escalation in the presence of the rats in the first few pages of the book: 

“Le docteur de souvenait de la peste de Constantinople qui, selon Procope, avait fait dix mille victimes en un jour. Deux mille morts fit cinq fois le public d’un grand cinéma. Voilà ce qu’il faudrait faire. On rassemble les gens à la sortie de cinq cinémas, on les conduit sur une place de la ville et on les fait mourir en tas pour y voir un peu clair. Au moins, on pourrait mettre alors des visages connus sur cet entassement anonyme.”

This psychological need to build an associated image of human bodies as relative to their occupation of space in a cinema is indicative of a possible experience of the sublime. The Doctor cannot synthesise each individual death into a purely numerical and logical representation of the totality of those dead. This experience mirrors our inability to comprehend such a large scale of death, not only in numbers but also in the weight and depth of each individual loss. The Burkean necessity of the feeling of terror is certainly present, for one cannot fathom such morbidity without a sense of one’s own mortality.

The second is tied more to the emotive qualities associated with an experience of the sublime, in particular that of interesting sadness.

“…la peste. Le mot ne contenait pas seulement ce que la science voulait bien y mettre, mais une longue suite d’images extraordinaires qui ne s’accordaient pas avec cette ville jaune et grise, modérément animée à cette heure, bourdonnante plutôt que bruyante, heureuse en somme, s’il est possible qu’on puisse être à la fois heureux et morne.”

When referencing the word plague the Doctor is assaulted by a multitude of conflicting and often paradoxical images. There is a certain disjunction between the way things currently appear and the way by which they are presently imagined. To be at once happy and sad is a feature of one’s experience of the sublime for Kant and this sense of interesting sadness is in fact a prerequisite for any experience of the sublime. This indicates a disparity between one’s experience of the world and the ideas which this experience evokes. Consequently, the sensation of interesting sadness is possibly heterodox to Kant’s pure theory of the sublime whereby impressions are directly linked to the images and ideas which they evoke.  


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