The twentieth century afforded the opportunity to augment the “spiritual” Walt Whitman eloquently described in his nineteenth century work “I Hear America Singing ” with the voices of the human collective the world over (from the downtown city dweller to the indigenous natives roaming the wilds). The mechanics wives and many different human identities could have sang “What belongs to him or her and to none else.”
In this century Humanity s collective accomplishments made it possible for man to destroy the world. Whitman s grand illusion of stability was not realized and the twentieth century instead imparted upon humanity a reality composed of conflicts and paradoxes. With the ability to shape the world and a facade of control over the collective destiny of the species we bitterly learned what the ancients summed up as fate things work out as they do because the circumstances of life are as they are and the people affected and affecting them are as they are. A sort of double-edged sword that both imparts collective and individual responsibility over man and yet admits to what is essentially his inability to mold the world as he like has imposed upon humanity a permanent state of cognitive dissonance and complete confusion over mans place in the world. Collectively we suffered two world wars and the great depression. Together mankind became a species of exiled aliens in regards to language culture and countrymen with a general awareness that we are not in control of our destinies and that life may just be the universes cruel little mistake. Revelations such as the one noted above moved human beings to search for order and meaning in their lives through avenues such as communities tradition and habit. In a world such as ours man has no choice but to create meaning through his own means.
Through a terse narrative the omniscient Dr. Rieux covers the outbreak of bubonic plague in a large French port on the Algerian coast known as the town of Oran. The story imparts its audience with what the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre said confidently “You are what your behavior demonstrates you to be.” The account chronicles how a community composed of outsiders from far away lands native folk those longing loves left behind and those who would profit monetarily through the suffering of others is broken down and renewed in the town overcoming by the plague.
Before the plague struck Oran the town was not a perfect place but the people felt secure in the predictability of their lives. Oran was not paradise; in fact Dr. Riuex describes the pre-plague town as a quite banal place a place where “You can get through the days without trouble once you have formed habits. (Camus 5).” When something as unforeseen and unpredictable as the plague strikes man has only his rituals and habits to give meaning to life. Once the plague fully raged the populace shared the collective destiny of the plague and felt consumed by an internal emotional “sense of exile (Camus 167) ” and people were comforted only by doing their jobs which they took comfort in calling simply human decency.
The volunteerism and sense of community the plague imparted upon its victims were what people needed to be able to cope with a tragedy of the plagues magnitude. Spaniard whom happened to be Riuex s patient reaffirmed mans banal place in the world while summarizing the towns former sense of distress in a conversation with the Dr. “All those folks are saying: It was plague. We ve had the plague here. You d almost they expected to be given medals for it. But what does that mean- plague ? Just life no more than that (Camus 306).”
The Visit a tragi-comedy written by Friedrich Durrenmatt that had its first dramatic production in Switzerland in 1956 is a caustic denunciation of the treachery of justice that we have come to use as a standard for how far man has come as species. Through a plot riddled with greed and a fa ade of order Durrenmattt demonstrated how the richest woman in the world could buy justice on her own terms and how people would rationalize her want for revenge and their own outright greed for the prospects of a more comfortable life. The Guellner s (towns people) are offered what can be thought of as one billion dollars to murder a man named Alfred whom is branded to be their next mayor for a crime he committed in his youth. Never mind the irony that because he paid vagrants to lie and brand Claire Zachanassian (then known as Clara) a woman who knew her way around the bedroom he inadvertently setup the chain of events that permitted Zachanassian the opportunity to acquire all her riches.
At first the town s people publicly deny her what she wishes and the current mayor hypocritically says “Justice can not be bought (Durrenmatt 36). ” The town acquires monstrous debts on the assumption that things will work out for them. They believe Alfred Ill will die because that is just the way things should be and good things should happen to them because they (the Guellner s) are “good people.” The town digs a hole so deep that it can only be filled with the death of Ill. Fortunately for the town Ill has learned from his life and the tragic mistake of his youth and takes responsibility for his action because of a blind faith he shares in the laws of his land quite similar to the tacit agreement outlined by Plato in The Crito when he too faced a community searching for a sacrificial lamb.
Ill realizes that the Guellener s are not evil and that they like he must find meaning in their own lives. Although his execution will be a mistake he understands the fatality inherent in life and bears the burden of a town for the prospects of a better life for the people whom he had the privilege of calling countrymen. He allows them to ascribe “right” to expediency and sacrifices his own life so that they can move past the ugliness of their current greed and simply continue with the cruel unpredictable game that is life.
Seize the day written by Saul Bellow in 1956 whom also a received the Nobel Prize for Literature captures mans displacement in the twentieth century. In the course of a day of the protagonist of the novel New York native Wilhelm Adler stands by and watches his world unravel while he is helpless to affect the type of change he feels is necessary for his survival. This account seamlessly exposes a neurosis man has acquired as a direct result of his powerless yet unmatched position on the face of the earth.
A smart fellow with the ability to analyze himself and others Adler is paralyzed by the duty he feels to his children and wanting to please his father while realizing that his circumstances are merely those of life and he really should not require the assistance he believes he so desperately needs. An unwise business deal with a man whom he is sure is less than truthful leaves Adler out in the cold and stumbling hysterically crying into a stranger s funeral at the end of the day he so futilely tried to seize.
In all three examples great things that he has been able to control surround man. It is simply up to him to recognize his limits and move on. The world post bomb as is the case with all three works gave man new hope through exposing his limits and revealing the tricks he must utilize to survive in a world that cares not about his survival.