From Oran to San Francisco: Shilts appropriates Camus
Steven G Kellman
Was not Camus’s only fault, apart from being too widely read, that he was right too soon? Bertrand Poirot-Delpech
Even before his narrative begins, Albert Camus offers a cue on how to read The Plague. He positions a statement by Daniel Defoe as epigraph to the entire work. Any novelist writing about epidemics bears the legacy of A Journal of the Plague Year, the 1722 text in which Defoe recounts the collective story of one city, in his case London, under the impact of a plague, and uses a narrator so self-effacing that his only concession to personal identity is the placement of his initials, H.F., at the very end. Camus’s The Plague insists that it is the “chronicle” (6 ff) of an “honest witness” (272) to what occurred in Oran, Algeria, a physician named Bernard Rieux who is so loath to impose his personality on the story that he conceals his identity until the final pages. Rieux claims the modest role of “chronicler of the troubled, rebellious hearts of our townspeople under the impact of the plague” (125).
The particular passage appropriated as epigraph to Camus’s novel comes from another book by Defoe, from the preface to volume III of Robinson Crusoe. And, for the reader of The Plague, it immediately raises questions of representation: “It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not.” Coming even before we have met the first infected rat in Oran, the Defoe quotation is an invitation to allegory, a tip that the fiction that follows signifies more than the story of a town in Algeria in a year, “194_,” deliberately kept indeterminate to encourage extrapolation. “I had plague already, long before I came to this town and encountered it here. Which is tantamount to saying I’m like everybody else” (222), says a healthy Jean Tarrou, by which he suggests that the pestilence that is the focus of the story is not primarily a medical phenomenon; nor is it, like Camus’s adversary, quarantined in one city during most of one year, from April 16 to the following February. “I know positively-yes, Rieux, I can say I know the world inside out, as you may see-that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it,” declares Tarrou (229). Camus’s novel invites its readers to recognize that they, too, are somehow infected, though the diagnosis seems more metaphysical than physical.
In 1941, a typhus outbreak near Oran resulted in more than 75,000 deaths. However, that epidemic was clearly a source not the subject for Camus’s novel. The Plague is one of the most critically and commercially successful novels ever published in France. It has managed to sell more than four million copies throughout the world and to inspire an army of exegetes. For the generation that grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, it was, like The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and Catch-22, a book that was devoured although and because it was not assigned in school. But its appeal has not been as an accurate case study in epidemiology. Particularly in North America, where Oran seems as remote as Oz, readers have accepted Camus’s invitation to translate the text into allegory. The Plague offered a tonically despairing vision of an absurd cosmos in which human suffering is capricious and unintelligible. The lethal, excruciating disease strikes fictional Oran indiscriminately, and when it does recede it does so temporarily, oblivious to human efforts at prophylaxis. As in Camus’s philosophical treatise The Myth of Sisyphus, the health workers of Oran combat each case from scratch without ever being convinced that their labors accomplish anything.
In a famous letter addressed to Roland Barthes in 1955, Camus attempted to narrow the terms of interpretation. He insisted that his 1947 novel be read not as a study in abstract evil but as a story whose manifest reference is to the situation of France under the Nazi occupation:
The Plague, which I wanted to be read on a number of levels, nevertheless has as its obvious content the struggle of the European resistance movements against Nazism. The proof of this is that although the specific enemy is nowhere named, everyone in every European country recognized it. Let me add that a long extract from The Plague appeared during the Occupation, in a collection of underground texts, and that this fact alone would justify the transposition I made. In a sense, The Plague is more than a chronicle of the Resistance. But certainly it is nothing less. (Lyrical and Critical Essays 339)
Long after the Liberation of France, readers, particularly those born after World War II, preferred to read The Plague as something more than a chronicle of the Resistance, as the embodiment of a more universal philosophical vision. The novel was, in fact, even more popular in the United States, which did not experience the Nazi Occupation, than in France, where Camus’s aversion to torture and violence made him politically suspect by both the left and the right. The absence of an immediate historical context encouraged younger Americans to read The Plague as a philosophical novel. So, too, did our inexperience with plagues. “Oh, happy posterity,” wrote Petrarch in the fourteenth century, when more than half the population of his native Florence perished in the bubonic plague, the Black Death, “who will not experience such abysmal woe and will look upon our testimony as a fable” (417).
Before 1980, The Plague was facilely read as a fable. Polio had been vanquished, and the smallpox virus survived only in a few laboratories. Aside from periodic visitations of influenza, usually more of a nuisance than a killer, epidemics, before the outbreak of cholera in Peru in 1991, had been as common in this hemisphere as flocks of auks. Those of us who first read The Plague during the era of the Salk and Sabin vaccines were hard put to imagine a distant world not yet domesticated by biotechnology, in which a lere bacillus could terrorize an entire city. We read The Plague not as the story of a plague, an atavistic nemesis that seemed unlikely to menace our own modern metropolises. The story was a pretext, an occasion for ethical speculation, in short an allegory without coordinates in space and time.
However, though published long before the first case of AIDS was diagnosed and thirty-five years before the acronym was even coined, The Plague assumed a new urgency during the 1980s, as it became apparent that epidemics were not obsolete occurrences or quaint events confined to distant regions. Not long after a 1981 article in The New England Journal of Medicine reported seven inexplicable cases of severe infection, AIDS became a global pandemic. In the United States alone, more than 160,000 have died from the disease, and another 80,000 have been diagnosed with the deadly disorder. Close to 2 million Americans have been infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, believed to be the precondition for AIDS. At first, AIDS seemed to target homosexual men, Haitians, and intravenous drug users, but, like Camus’s plague, it was soon striking capriciously, without any regard to the social status of its hundreds of thousands of helpless, hapless victims. As in The Plague, a panicked populace responded in a variety of ways but without any cure. It is no longer possible to read The Plague with the innocence of Existentialist aesthetes. Joseph Dewey suggests that, for a contemporary novelist in quest of a paradigmatic AIDS narrative, it is not profitable to read The Plague at all-“Camus’s use of contagion as an undeniable occasion of mortality that tests whether those quarantined in the Algerian port can find significance in life within an infected geography seems too metaphoric, a luxury when compared to what AIDS victims must confront: the indignities of a slow and grinding premature death” (Dewey 25).
Laurel Brodsley, however, does not dismiss The Plague. She takes it seriously enough to try to demonstrate how Defoe provides a model for it and two other twentieth-century plague books: Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time, and Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On, both of them AIDS narratives. Yet it would be more accurate to say that Camus mediates between Shilts and Defoe-and even between Shilts and the contemporary pestilence whose first five years he recounts. Published in 1987, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic is a detailed report on the onset and spread of AIDS and of the spectrum of reactions to it. What, to a student of Camus, is remarkable about Shilts’s book-which, selected for the Book of the Month Club, was a bestseller in both hardcover and paperback-is how much it has in common with The Plague. Not only does Shilts document the same pattern of initial denial followed by acknowledgment, recrimination, terror, and occasional stoical heroism that Rieux recounts during the Oran ordeal. But it is clear that Shilts has read Camus and has adopted much of the style and structure of The Plague to tell his story of an actual plague. Where Camus appropriates Defoe for the epigraph to his novel, Shilts mines Camus’s The Plague for epigraphs to four of his book’s nine sections: Parts IV, V, VI, and VII. In Part II, describing baffling new developments among homosexual patients, Shilts echoes Camus’s absurdist Myth of Sisyphus when he states: “The fight against venereal diseases was proving a Sisyphean task” (18). That same Greek myth, for whom Camus is the modern bard, is alluded to two other times by Shilts-flippantly, in reference to AIDS victim Gary Walsh’s “Sisyphean task” (411) of renovating his Castro District apartment and, more portentously, in reference to the “Sisyphean struggle” (482) against AIDS directed by Donald Francis, a leading retrovirologist at the Centers for Disease Control.
Camus’s existential vision of a random universe in which adversity, though gratuitous and impossible to defeat, must nevertheless be opposed provides the subtext to Shilts’s book, which-translated into seven languages and even transformed in 1993 into an HBO TV movie directed by Roger Spottiswoode and featuring Matthew Modine, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, Richard Gere, Ian McKellen, Phil Collins, Steve Martin, and Lily Tomlinremains the most influential text on AIDS. “I had written a book to change the world,” explained Shilts in a 1988 Esquire memoir (142), and he did, though he despaired that instead of effecting fundamental change he merely made a bestseller. Nevertheless, by alerting and prodding professionals and the general public to respond to the crisis, And the Band Played On can be credited with saving lives and altering attitudes and behavior. Conceived in the dotage of the New Journalism, it is a work of committed nonfiction, though it is phrased and organized-with prologue, epilogue, epigraphs, and a roster of “dramatis personae”-novelistically, echoing Camus’s novel in particular.
Early in The Plague, its still anonymous narrator attempts to establish his credibility by assuming the humble role of historian. He insists on his distaste for rhetorical flamboyance and literary contrivance, assuring the reader that: “His business is only to say: `This is what happened,’ when it actually did happen, that it closely affected the life of a whole populace, and that there are thousands of eyewitnesses who can appraise in their hearts the truth of what he writes” (6). Rather than his own eccentric fabrication, what follows, he assures us, is an impartial account adhering scrupulously to reliable sources. “The present narrator,” says the present narrator, in an attempt at objective detachment even from himself, “has three kinds of data: first, what he saw himself; secondly, the accounts of other eyewitnesses (thanks to the part he played, he was enabled to learn their personal impressions from all those figuring in this chronicle); and, lastly, documents that subsequently came into his hands” (6).
Like Camus’s Rieux, Shilts also suppresses the first-person pronoun, camouflaging his own presence as both narrator and agent. While Rieux insists on the word “chronicle” to characterize a narrative that pretends solely to record verifiable facts as they unfold in time, Shilts acquired most of his information while reporting for a San Francisco newspaper that happens to call itself the Chronicle. A streetwalker and heroin addict named Silvana Strangis forms part of his story, and when he tells the reader that “a Chronicle reporter, tipped off by an emergency room attendant, knocked on Silvana’s door” (509), that reporter is presumably Shilts himself. When an unnamed San Francisco reporter “goads” epidemiologist James Curran into a statement about the dangers of gay bathhouses and then publishes his remarks, Bay Area gay leaders are irate. “The reporter, they agreed, suffered from internalized homophobia,” states Shilts impassively, though it is apparent that that reporter is Shilts himself, both the chronicler and the chronicled-also, implicitly, maligned. That has not prevented this book itself from being branded homophobic. Ellis Hanson, for example, reads And the Band Played On as “a continuous melodrama of gay male vanity and death” (Hanson 331) and analyzes the book as “an archetypal instance of how the myth of the gay male vampire got superimposed onto people with AIDS and how the whole package was sold (by a gay journalist) to the American public” (Hanson 331).
“This book is a work of journalism,” declares Shilts in a documentational appendix that attempts to mask his outrage and his personal stake in the story. “There has been no fictionalization” (607). Like Rieux, he is anxious to deny invention, to demonstrate that everything in his chronicle is a transcription of his own observations, copious interviews with others, and public documents. Like Rieux, who incorporates the journal of Jean Tarrou for access to events the narrator did not directly experience, Shilts relies on the diary of graphic designer Matthew Krieger for insights into the illness of his lover Gary Walsh.
Early in The Plague, before the epidemic forces authorities to seal Oran off from the outside world, Rieux sends his ailing wife to a sanatorium beyond the city. At the end of Camus’s novel, just as the quarantine is being lifted from his ravaged city, Rieux learns that his wife has died in exile. As chronicler, the widowed doctor claims to be a faithful representative of his fellow citizens, but his preoccupation with the plight of lovers parted by the plague is surely a product of his own poignant and singular situation. Similarly, though Shilts suppresses his personal identity and affects the impartial voice of History, his book is clearly the product of a particular sensibility. From its title to its final pages, And the Band Played On is an impassioned indictment of the indifference, vanity, and naivete that facilitated a catastrophe. Shilts quotes with scorn the characterization of AIDS as “the gay plague” (97), but his account of the disease makes it seem just that, as though the virus is as in love with homophilic men as they are with others of their ilk. Shilts, who was himself to die of AIDS in 1994, at the age of 42, acknowledges and emphasizes that the disease also strikes others, but the plight of gays receives the elephant’s share of his attention and compassion.
Some critics have faulted the book for its slighting of other sorts of victims; Diane Johnson and John F. Murray, for example, noted in The New York Review of Books that “most of his examples are taken from homosexuals, encouraging the impression that AIDS is mainly a homosexual disease” (57). AIDS did in fact affect gays disproportionately, especially in the early years that Shilts chronicles. But behind the mask of Olympian omniscience is an author who has acknowledged his own homosexuality, whose first book, The Mayor of Castro Street (1982) was a profile of gay leader-and martyrHarvey Milk, and whose third book, Conduct Unbecoming: Lesbians and Gays in the US. Military (1993), was being widely read and discussed at the time of Shilts’s death a few months after its publication. Though And the Band Played On reports on the hardships of Haitians, blood recipients, and intravenous drug users, it is understandable that Shilts empathizes with the gay victims whose lives he vividly dramatizes. Nor would a clinically detached chronicler write with such rage about the internecine squabbles within the Castro District that delayed effective action against their microbial enemy. “At the beginning of a pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric” (107), says Tarrou to Rieux, who, writing after the pestilence, eschews rhetoric and aspires to a zero degree of writing. Shilts is less scrupulous about restraining his language, and, amid the mass of statistics, in a style that one reviewer ridiculed as “overheated Sidney Sheldonesque prose” (Caldwell 342). Despite the pose of third-person chronicler, Shilts writes with fervent urgency, from within a community in peril. His choice of the Camus epigraph about prisoners and exile at the start of Part VII is, he explained in a private letter, “because I feel that gay people generally are exiles from the mainstream culture and, hence, something of prisoners of prejudice.”
In the drab and dreadful universe that Camus depicts, the possibilities of heroism are severely constricted. Yet, recognizing that readers crave heroes, Rieux nominates the perversely named Joseph Grand, a low-level municipal clerk who does his job and dreams of writing perfect sentences: “Yes, if it is a fact that people like to have examples given them, men of the type they call heroic, and if it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a `hero,’ the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal” (126). Shilts likewise chooses his heroes from among the meek: the health professionals who, often defying directives from more eminent leaders, persisted in their struggle against the new disease, and those victims of AIDS who managed to die with grace. While his book is often scornful of celebrities like Robert Gallo or Margaret Heckler, it is the unsung sufferers who agreed to be interviewed whom Shilts salutes in the final sentences of his Acknowledgments: “When I’d ask why they’d take the time for this, most hoped that something they said would save someone else from suffering. If there is an act that better defines heroism, I have not seen it” (xii). What Shilts has seen is the way crisis magnifies the grandeur of ordinary people. Recounting the arduous dedication of volunteers from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Shilts quotes author Larry Kramer: “There are no heroes in the AIDS epidemic,” but he concludes the paragraph with a rejoinder from Paul Popham, president of the GMHC: “There were heroes in the AIDS epidemic, he thought, lots of them” (558).
Like Camus, Shilts admires the health workers who persist in their task without either pomp or victory. He is particularly impressed by Selma Dritz, the assistant director of the Bureau of Communicable Disease Control at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. He so admires her stubborn refusal to ignore anything marginal to her mission of saving lives that he twice (186 and 255) precedes her name with the adjective “no-nonsense,” an epithet that might apply as well to Camus’s Rieux. Within The Plague, a sharp contrast to the selfless dedication of characters like Rieux and Grand is represented by Cottard, an opportunist who revels in others’ misery because the quarantine enables him to profit from black-market contraband. Shilts’s version of the egotist is Gaetan Dugas, the Canadian airline steward referred to as Patient Zero, for being a primary source of contagion in North America. Aware that he has contracted AIDS, Dugas refuses to curtail his hedonistic promiscuity, even allegedly gloating to some of his 2,500 sexual partners: “I’ve got gay cancer. I’m going to die and so are you” (165).
“There was venality, and there was also courage” (318), declares Shilts, who writes with righteous wrath about bathhouse managers who placed profits before lives and scientists and politicians who pursued careers rather than truth. Despite its guise as impartial chronicle, And the Band Played On is an exercise in moral indignation. Yet its narrator is as wary of moralism as is Rieux, who keeps his distance from Paneloux, the Jesuit priest who preaches two crucial sermons strategically and symmetrically positioned-in Parts II and IV of Camus’s five-part novel. In the first, Paneloux rails against the sinners of Oran, portraying the plague as the scourge of God, an instrument of retribution for the depravity of the entire community. By the time of his second sermon, Paneloux’s theodicy has been shaken by the experience of watching a blameless child die in agony, and he preaches that the plague is as unfathomable as the deity we must love without understanding. Shilts also depicts high-minded homilists who pretend to see a moral pattern to the plague of AIDS. “When you violate moral, health, and hygiene laws, you reap the whirlwind,” proclaims the Reverend Jerry Falwell. “You cannot shake your fist in God’s face and get away with it” (347). Elsewhere, invoking a Darwinian, rather than Augustinian, moral code, Patrick Buchanan declares: “The poor homosexuals-they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution” (311). Unlike Camus’s Paneloux, neither Falwell nor Buchanan alters his attitudes within Shilts’s book, and, though Shilts is highly critical of behavior that spreads the epidemic, And the Band Played On is closest to the non-judgmental stance toward suffering that Tarrou expresses in response to Paneloux: “No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture” (196-97).
Though it purports to replicate verbatim extended stretches of dialogue and to represent the thoughts of its characters, And the Band Played On is of course not a novel. Camus invented Rieux, Tarrou, Grand, Paneloux, and Cottard, but Harry Britt, Selma Dritz, Michael Gottlieb, Cleve Jones, Bill Kraus, and Gary Walsh existed independently of Shilts’s book. While Camus is virtually Neoclassical in his decision to intensify his five-act drama by confining it to one cloistered city, Oran, within less than one revolution of the earth, Shilts’s story is global and ranges through San Francisco, Kinshasha, New York, Paris, Atlanta, Vancouver, Copenhagen, Washington, London, and other locales for most of a decade. Rieux tells his tale in retrospect, after the plague has dissipated and the gates of Oran have swung open again, while Shilts writes in medias res, in the muddled midst of a deadly pandemic that would surely expand before it receded.
But both Camus and Shilts personify their plagues, depicting them as animate enemies aroused from sleep. Shilts explains that by the end of 1980: “Slowly and almost imperceptibly, the killer was awakening” (49). In the final line of his chronicle, Camus’s Rieux reminds us that any victory over plague is only provisional, “that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city” (278). Shilts’s view of human arrogance toward natural adversity seems shaped not only by his research into the often cavalier or inept responses to AIDS but also by his reading of The Plague. His account of Pneumocystic pneumonia, a disease that frequently results from a failure of immune systems, sounds remarkably like the final sentence of the Camus novel. Like Rieux, Shilts provides an admonition against overconfidence, since the disease will never be definitively defeated:
Pneumocystic pneumonia flared sporadically, eager to take advantage of any opportunity to thrive in its preferred ecological niche, the lung. The disease, however, would disappear simultaneously once the immune system was restored. And the little creature would return to an obscure place in medical books where it was recorded as one of the thousands of microorganisms that always lurk on the fringes of human existence, lying dormant until infrequent opportunity allows it to burst forth and follow the biological dictate to grow and multiply. (34-35)
The day would come, Rieux reminds us, when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, the plague, merely dormant never dead, would strike again. It strikes again when Rieux relives the collective ordeal of Oran by writing about it. But just what sort of enlightenment is brought by that account or by the plague itself remains elusive. “A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away,” admits Rieux, in a passage that Shilts chooses as epigraph to Part V of his book. “But it doesn’t always pass away, and from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away” (217). Protagoras’s confidence that “Man is the measure of all things” posits a universe that is intelligible to and governable by human beings. Both Camus’s plague and Shilt’s AIDS arrive as a challenge to the humanist’s presumption; they are inscrutable and invincible.
“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding,” Camus explains, in a passage from The Plague that Shilts appropriates as the epigraph to Part VI:
On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point, but they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness. (337)
“What I was thinking when I included that,” wrote Shilts in a private letter in reaction to this essay, was that I believe gay leaders who refused to move against the epidemic were basically indulging in a right to kill other gay people. I don’t mean kill as in outright murder. I mean that if it came down to a choice between sticking to their political idealogy [sic] and switching ideas in order to save lives, these leaders would, in the end, stick to their own ideas, even if it meant people would die. I saw these political leaders do this with my own eyes. As long as I live, I don’t think I’ll ever get over the alienation I felt from my community because of seeing that.
Shilts, like Camus, presents himself as a clear-sighted writer in a world where most prefer to close their eyes. He reveals how denial and temporizing by scientists, physicians, politicians, and sufferers squandered many lives. “One had the feeling that many concessions had been made to a desire not to alarm the public,” observes Rieux about official policy toward the plague, and the description is so applicable to initial reaction toward AIDS as well that Shilts employs it as the epigraph to Part IV (113). As a reporter, Shilts is especially critical of the failure of writers to dispel the widespread ignorance about the growing crisis. It is not just partisan pride in the anomalous coverage provided by his own paper, The San Francisco Chronicle, that prompts Shilts to note that:
In New York City, where half the nation’s AIDS cases resided, The New York Times had written only three stories about the epidemic in 1981 and three more stories in all of 1982. None made the front page. Indeed, one could have lived in New York, or in most of the United States for that matter, and not even have been aware from the daily newspapers that an epidemic was happening, even while government doctors themselves were predicting that the scourge would wipe out the lives of tens of thousands. (191)
In 630 pages densely packed with statistics and suffering, Shilts documents the evil that came from ignorance. And the Band Played On is offered to open our eyes or, to shift the metaphor, to stop the band so we might hear the sounds of torment.
Camus is of course writing fiction, and his artful prose aspires to the spare eloquence of the solitary sentence that Joseph Grand is forever honing into an economy of eloquence. Shilts’s massive book overwhelms his reader with the numbing evidence of actuality. Footnotes would have been an impertinence to The Plague, but they are essential to Shilts’s claim on the reader’s belief. Nevertheless, not every reader has honored that claim. Douglas Crimp reacted harshly to Shilts’s deployment of conventional novelistic technique, and James Miller, who contends that “Shilts has artfully mated Hard Times with Oliver Twist to produce a symphonic opus of public oppression and private suffering” (257), is enraged over the book’s Dickensian caricatures and emotional excesses. “I suspect that Shilts is making lots and lots of money out of his succes de scandale,” rails Miller, “by feeding his straight and some of his gay readers exactly what they want: large dollops of guilt” (264). Readers often turn pages because they want to find solutions. And the Band Played On is, like The Plague, a whodunit, a book designed to arouse and shape our curiosity about causes. What are the origins of catastrophe? Judith Williamson in fact faults And the Band Played On for exploiting the conventions of detective fiction so effectively that it demonizes Gaetan Dugas, Patient Zero, as the primal culprit in the global drama: “While Shilts’s book is rationally geared to blame the entire governmental system for failing to fund research, educate the public and treat those infected, he nevertheless cannot entirely resist the wish for a source of contamination to be found, and then blamed” (73).
Whatever the sources of misfortune, Camus leaves us with his plague in temporary remission, but, in Shilts’s final pages, AIDS is merely gaining momentum. Neither disease is near a cure. Yet both epidemics and both books leave us enlightened about the limitations of human understanding but the need to act on what we know. William Styron spoke for many American admirers when he praised Camus for his tonic recognition of a bleak cosmos: “Camus was a great cleanser of my intellect, ridding me of countless sluggish ideas and, through some of the most unsettling pessimism I had ever encountered, causing me to be aroused anew by life’s enigmatic promise” (21-22). Stronger on enigma than promise, Shilts has nevertheless created a book designed to arouse.
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Kellman is the Ashbel Smith professor of comparative literature at The University of Texas at San Antonio and film critic for The Texas Observer. His books include The Plague: Fiction and Resistance and Perspectives on Raging Bull
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