Miscommunicating Magnified: Expressing Affliction in ‘The Plague’

“If, by some chance, one of us tried to unburden himself or to say something about his feelings, the reply he got, whatever it might be, usually wounded him.  And then it dawned on him that he and the man with him weren’t talking about the same thing.  For while he himself spoke from the depths of long days of brooding upon his personal distress, and the image he had tried to impart had been slowly shaped and proved in the fires of passion and regret, this meant nothing to the man to whom he was speaking, who pictured a conventional emotion, a grief that is traded on the market-place, mass-produced.  Whether friendly or hostile, the reply always missed fire, and the attempt to communicate had to be given up.”

~Albert Camus, The Plague (1947, Modern Library, NY: p. 69 [emphases mine])


Several aspects of this quote reflect themes prominently found in Camus’ The Plague.  The isolating aspect of pestilence is particularly insufferable and this, time and again, goes well beyond the expected ‘conventional emotions’.  In connection, the lack of adequate sympathy is exacerbated for while each suffers from the same fears and many of the same restrictions imposed by plague – their experiences drive them farther apart.  It is, in fact, this being driven apart that unites these members of the plague-stricken town.  One would expect, then, that sympathy (feeling with the other) is natural in such circumstances.

But it seems that, if we are to agree with Camus’ narrative, sympathy in suffering is extremely difficult to communicate – most especially so by means of words.  In the case of such isolation, these words take on a precision sharpened by one’s isolation.  The depth of this isolation is felt more sharply when one finds that the meaning associated with these terms – the deep feeling behind them – is understood in the most general manner.  The communicant is stunned to find that where the medium of language should allow for communication, the generalizing nature of language drives them farther from communication – from truly sharing the other’s feeling.


To step into the personal/practical, I often wonder how to communicate with the grieving.  It seems ‘being there’ in principal means community members see to clear needs and each provides space should the grief-stricken approach.  But in such moments, I find myself unable to bridge the gap – to truly understand being generalities what the other is experiencing.  In a similar position I would perhaps describe such pains as being separated from some important aspect of myself…but such rational expression (again the idea of ‘ratio’ or measure) never manages to scale what is being experienced.  Perhaps we never know our feelings until after we are finished experiencing them in full vigor.  It ‘s rather like what C.S. Lewis had to say about toothache; while experiencing toothache one cannot think of anything but the pain — the concrete.

This is what I ‘ve most valued in The Plague; considering the place abstraction has in our concrete experiences of affliction.  We communicate abstractions but we are concerned with the concrete.  Is the isolation then abstract or concrete?  It is experienced concretely, but acutely driven home by abstraction – by the fact that all rationalizations fail.  The mind is unable to give full and lasting reprieve from what is being experienced.  In a case where the suffering is isolation (from one’s loved ones, one’s expectations, and therefore a certain view of one’s relation to reality – the expectation of the future) – abstraction offers little reprieve in communication.


It acutely describes the failure of words – words only serve as a medium when they are understandable.  This is only possible when we have managed to funnel meaning through them so that the concrete can be expressed.  In order to do so, abstraction must occur and such a medium paints a raging sea with one chalk on a flat slate.


4 responses to “Miscommunicating Magnified: Expressing Affliction in ‘The Plague’

  1. Hopefully my reply here makes some sense. I’ve only been awake for about 20 minutes, and for all I know, I may just be preaching to the choir.

    In times of grief, I find it to be common amongst individuals to express sympathy with ulterior motive to satisfy their own guilt. Working in a hospital, I’ve seen numerous people on their deathbed, and have had to care for them in their final hours. The ones on life support I find are rather difficult to send off, as you will have the family members who signed the papers saying “Enough is enough,” only to have someone fly in from across the country and say that what they’re doing is cruel and inhumane. What this kind of behavior, in my opinion, translates as is a feeling of guilt in not having seen the patient in question during the final days of their life, ignoring them until it was too late.

    I sometimes see the same thing in loved ones trying to counsel one another. They say things like “I just want to help you,” or “Why won’t you let me in?” Forgive me for sounding cynical, but for some, the act of reaching out to help is really just a way to make themselves feel like they did their good deed for the day and satisfy their own conscience.

    This isn’t to say that genuine desire to counsel doesn’t exist. It most certainly does, but only in those who understand that they cannot force the hand of the individual requiring help. It is those with that clear conscience, whose grief stems not from guilt of their own, but from grieving the human condition, understanding we are all at a loss for ability to aid someone without their desire to come and receive that help.

    Getting back to the use of words to describe the concrete, and the uselessness of them without abstraction, I think the reason why these words stand worthless is our suspicion of the motives of individuals apart from ourselves (and perhaps suspicion of our own motives) to actually sympathize. Our guarded nature, viewing vulnerability as weakness, doesn’t want to bridge the gap to anyone offering (or offer to close the gap to the wounded), because it’s the one element of strength left within us. The members of the city afflicted by the plague in Camus’ book who weren’t yet infected saw the walls closing in around them, and they clung to the one piece of themselves they had left: their distinct need to survive. When you wish to survive, other people are a threat, not an aid, and in that, we are indeed united.

    I hope that makes sense; I read that book some time ago and loved it. Clearly, I’m due for another read.

  2. I think much of what you initially bring up falls under the comments on ‘heroism’ (which I haven’t noted yet but are strung throughout the book). It flows out of the same need to be approved against a standard regardless of the person standing there in pain. ‘At least I’ve done what was necessary’ is the general sentiment.

    Tarrou is always willing to listen to his friends’ abstractions, although he finds heroism foolish. It can still be said that Tarrou is acting from guilt, although I believe it is unrealistic that we should be set free from such claims against us. Meaning, even when we do act with ulterior motives, still there are some actions which we should partake of as part of humanity. Tarrou feels he has participated in humanity’s plague in which our choices unbeknownst to us murder others, and yet he cannot choose not to act.

    I suppose I am saying that I see my ability to counsel as very limited and rather dependent on how the other opens the windows. Although I doubt my own motives, trying to do well by the other person is a worthwhile pursuit. I wonder if it possible to grieve the human condition alone – I suspect it is not. Instead, I believe we attempt to unburden ourselves where possible and are naturally awestruck by others’ difficulties – not settling to assume that the others’ sufferings are merely generalities following from events.

    I like that you point back to the underlying psychologies at play. I suppose the point I drew was more that abstractions draw away from the person. It is when we attempt to bridge that gap through language that we find words’ expressive weakness. I’ll agree completely that the townspeople of Oran are most drawn together in their horror at isolation – and therefore they are suspicious of all others. Particularly in this passage, I believe the horror is in finding that one cannot truly enter another’s suffering – even those in whom we have some confidence.

    Really glad to engage with you, however limited this medium is, concerning a common book. By all means, enjoy another read! 🙂 Thanks for the feedback – I hope my offerings approached communication

  3. Although I feel totally inadequate to communicate with you on such a philosophical level, I thought I’d add my comments from this side of the “experienced” grief chasm. Our son, Jason, and his best friend died instantly when they were broadsided by a drunk driver.

    It’s very true that words can be inadequate in times of deep loss and grief. I also agree with the above comment that “trying to do well by the other person is a worthwhile pursuit.” Too often those who feel inadequate around deep grief back off and disappear, adding to the void in the the griever’s life created by the loss. That’s why so many grievers feel so isolated and end up being so guarded. Experiences truly do drive people apart.

    Have to run, but wanted to let you know how thought-provoking I found your entry.

  4. I feel totally inadequate to speak to you regarding your son. I don’t mean to withdraw, and I’ve seen what damage withdrawing can cause. That’s where ‘trying to do well’ comes in – it may not be wholly effective, but I can’t in good conscience resort to viewing your particular grief in general (because that pares down too much what you’re really expressing) and treat it as such or, worse, to shut off. I’m sorry if that comes across as too pessimistic – I try to handle things well despite my pessimism in practice.

    I’m glad you found this thought-provoking — that’s the best I can intend. If you can find something meaningful amidst all my rabbit trails, then good for you! Thanks for stopping by and welcome :).

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