Perhaps because I just read Dennis Lehane’s recent novel, Moonlight Mile, I’m in an existential frame of mind.  Or, at least, I am trying to remember what I learned about Existentialism in my college philosophy class.  Isolation and the Absurd.  Lehane’s books are peppered with both.  Lots of people struggling to exist – and if possible to transcend – in the face of inexplicable tragedy.  Tragedy usually gets the best of them.   (Moonlight Mile is an interesting change of pace for Lehane, though.  I don’t want to give anything away, but read it if you enjoyed Gone, Baby, Gone or Mystic River, and let me know what you think.)

So when I read that looters broke into the Egyptian Museum and damaged antiquities – and decapitated two mummies – it felt a bit like a scarab beetle had just flown into the room.  And bam, I made the Camus connection, particularly to his novel, The Plague.

 

Set in Algeria in the 1940’s, the novel tells the story of a city, Oran, beset by bubonic (and eventually pneumonic, if I remember correctly) plague.  At first, the residents of Oran deny that anything is wrong.  A colony of rats has died, there have been only one or two human deaths, and the politicians in charge refuse to believe that further action is necessary.  But soon many are dying and the entire city is quarantined.  Camus follows a number of characters trapped within the gates.  Some of them make heroic efforts to save the sickened and the dying.  One of them develops a vaccine.  Others descend into barbarism or find ways to profit. 

The fact that Mubarak’s government has been a friend of the United States does not mean that it was a good or a democratic government.  Mubarak has ruled for thirty years.  That makes him a dictator by most definitions, not that anyone in the West wants to admit that.  Egypt gets $ 1.3 billion in military aid from the U.S.  Reform or regime change would hopefully democratize Egypt (which has been in a state of permanent martial law for years), but democratization will almost certainly mean the passage of distinctly anti-Israel policies.  One people given its freedom calls for the destruction of another.  As good an example of the Absurd as any other.

Camus, of course, wrote The Plague with the French Occupation in mind.  Fascism took hold in Germany because the people considered themselves oppressed by economic and other sanctions under Versailles.  National identity politics sometimes begin with newly won freedoms.  But they rarely end with them.