Miscalculation: When Words are “Not to Scale”

“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash own on our heads from a blue sky.  There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

“In fact, like our fellow citizens, Rieux was caught off his guard, and we should understand his hesitations in the light of this fact; and similarly understand how he was torn between conflicting fears and confidence.  When a war breaks out, people say: ‘It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.”  But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting.  Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.”

~ Albert Camus, The Plague (1947, Modern Library, NY: p. 34 [emphasis mine])


I ‘ve really appreciated the manner in which Camus colored the incomprehensibility of plague.  Up to this moment Rieux and most of his fellow doctors have refused to seriously consider the possibility that they are observing plague for plague is ultimately a worthless abstraction completely unhelpful for the mind.  Throughout, Camus repeatedly shades the various manners by which members of the town attempt to grasp the horror besieging them.  This commentary fuels my own abstractions.

Though evil, especially in the forms of war or pestilence, escapes the mind’s capacity to weigh – still we consistently attempt to gain some sense, and consistently we find that evil in the form of war or pestilence goes beyond scale.  It ‘s “too stupid” but while this protest is agreed to by all, stupidity still gets its way.  Our protests seem to hold no sway in determining such horrors’ scope.  It is this sense that leads me to appreciate the abstraction – for the limits of abstraction are prominently displayed.  It is at once ir’ration’al and yet true-to-life — to scale in its critique of the use of scales.