An important theme in Camus’ novel, The Plague, is exile from the self. What an odd idea! What does it mean to be exiled from yourself? We understand each word, but what is their significance together? Let’s begin with some excerpts then we’ll break it down and discuss it.
Under other circumstances our townsfolk would probably have found an outlet in increased activity, a more sociable life. But the plague forced inactivity on them, limiting their movements to the same dull round inside the town, and throwing them, day after day, on the illusive solace of their memories. For in their aimless walks they kept on coming back to the same streets and usually, owing to the smallness of the town, these were streets in which, in happier days, they had walked with those who were now absent.
Thus the first thing that the plague brought to our town was exile [. . .]. It was undoubtedly the feeling of exile–that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire [. . .].
Hostile to the past, impatient of the present, and cheated of the future, we were much like those whom men’s justice, or hatred, forces to live behind bars.
Exile as it is normally used means to be barred from one’s home. And so, exile seems to have to do with being forced to live in a strange place. But Camus writes later, “if it was an exile, it was, for most of us exile in one’s own home.” In what sense can we be exiled in our own home? Here we need to think more metaphorically. For Camus, exile needn’t necessarily be a matter of place but rather a feeling. Most of us now are probably experiencing feeling of disconnectedness. We’re stuck in our own homes yet we still feel out of place.
When you’re in exile you’re away from the things that you love and in which you find comfort. Your daily routines and interactions with friends give you comfort. But the plague takes this away from us.
We are barred from living in our homes in ways that are more familiar to us. Home is a place that we’re used to returning to. But we rarely leave so our way of living in our home feels foreign. In this sense we feel exiled because our home isn’t full of familiar activities, ways of living, and visitors.
Exile also implies feelings of unfamiliarity and loneliness. Our regular pattern of life has been disrupted and we are forced into a foreign way of living. As he says, But the plague forced inactivity on them. We’re used to going to work, meeting friends for coffee, going to the gym, and so on. We struggle to get our bearings as though we are in a foreign land whose customs we don’t understand. We are cut off from the people who normally populate our days. We miss gathering with our friends. Our life feels foreign.
There is another more important sense of exile Camus is concerned with. This is exile in time. Something strange has happened to us in this pandemic. Time is standing still and we are forced to sit with ourselves. Sometimes we might find ourselves wanting to speed through time: Can’t we just fast forward through all this?
Other moments we retreat to our memories. We relive the past. But, Camus cautions, this can be dangerous since dwelling too much in the past can spawn regret. Whether we are imagining our lives once this plague has ended or retreating to memories of life before the plague, we are exiled from the present. Our consciousness is not in the present. Partly because it is so strange to us. Partly because we want to be temporally elsewhere. We yearn to be back in the familiar–our home. In this way we are exiles in time.
Of course, all good philosophical writing also functions as metaphor. Exile is a major theme throughout Camus’ writing as a metaphor for the moment we stop our mechanical thoughtless daily living and realize that there is no ultimate or cosmic meaning to our lives. Or if there is, we don’t know what it is. The universe replies only with silence.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, he claims that this is a feeling we all experience occasionally throughout our lives. This is what he means when he says the feeling of exile–that sensation of a void within which never left us. We can choose to ignore it, but we all carry that little voice inside that reminds us of what we, at moments, cannot help but feel: The universe is indifferent to my life and everything I do. There is no cosmic purpose or meaning to my life. From the point of view of eternity, my life and everything I do is insignificant.
Some might insist that there is ultimate meaning to each person’s life but, whatever it is, the universe is still silent as to what it is–which amounts to the same thing from the point of view seeking guidance on how to live. We can tell ourselves stories but we cannot know. For example, a child dies of Covid-19. What’s the cosmic significance of that child’s life and death? Whatever story we tell ourselves, it is ultimately a human creation; an exercise in human interpretation. Ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different answers. The universe itself returns our searching gaze with silence. The meaning of our lives does not transcend the human meanings we give to it.
In the moments I have these thoughts and feelings I am exiled from my everyday way of living–the way we live most of our lives. This way of living tacitly assumes my life has a meaning beyond human meaning. All of us, we get up, eat breakfast, go to school or work, socialize, eat, sleep, perhaps travel, and make love. We repeat this over and over year after year. But occasionally we all step back from our lives and reflect:
Why am I doing what I’m doing? And why am I doing that? This reasoning saturates me with the feeling of my life’s ultimate insignificance. I feel out of place. The familiar, my sense of place, my everyday patterns of living no longer hold the meaning they once did. I am exiled from the familiarity of my life but am still confronted with the problem of how to live.
Those who look to banish these uncomfortable thoughts seek refuge in the past–a time before we were aware. This is the irrational longing to hark back to the past. But he who doesn’t shy away and, at the forefront of his mind, deliberately maintains his cosmic insignificance, Camus calls the absurd man. Despite the ultimate meaningless of his life, he still chooses to live. But how?
Let’s close with how we might manage and live with this feeling of exile from the self. Anxiety is another word for it. Here’s a short passage from The Myth of Sisyphus in which I’ve found guidance:
In that daily effort in which intelligence and passion mingle and delight each other, the absurd man discovers a discipline that will make up the greatest of his strengths. The required diligence, the doggedness, and lucidity thus resemble the conqueror’s attitude. To create is likewise to give shape to one’s fate.
Translation: Throw yourself into creative projects–writing, music, art, carpentry, modeling, pottery, home improvement, cooking, baking, whatever. It doesn’t matter that they don’t have cosmic significance or that they won’t survive eternity. It’s creative engagement that, in part, makes life worth living. Find activities which require intelligence and passion [to] mingle and delight each other.