French philosopher, journalist, writer and Nobel laureate Albert Camus wrote his novel The Plague in 1947. The book was a direct response to the horrors of World War II. The disease itself and its defeat are a metaphor for the fight against the Nazis, the brown plague. In the current corona crisis, war is a distant concept for most of the affected countries, but other than that the parallels between the book and the bizarre reality of 2020 are striking. Escher attentively read The Plague and other works by Camus. And it is back in the spotlight now.
The story is set in the Algerian city of Oran, then (1940) still a colony of France. The city has been affected by disease several times over the course of its history, but the novel is said to be based specifically on the cholera epidemic of 1849. A sizeable percentage of the population lost their lives to it at the time. In the book, the city gradually succumbs to another disease: the Black Death. The descent into hell begins with dead rats in the streets. After that, people get purulent wounds and severe bouts of fever. The city is closed off to the outside world, violence and looting are on the rise, attempts at escape are put down with deadly precision and the inhabitants also start attacking each other. Camus describes how human reactions develop in the face of advancing calamity: from initial indifference to denial, desperate attempts to combat the disease and finally to resignation. After almost a year, the drama ends with the opening of the city gates and the reunification of survivors. A certain relief and a renewed belief in the power of humanity predominates at the end of the book. At the end of The Plague, Camus has his narrator say that ‘there is more to be admired in man than to be despised’. At the same time, the threat posed by the disease has not been done away with. It has merely receded, and the disease could strike again at any time.
The similarities with the corona crisis will be self-evident. The many deaths, the blame game, the search for a vaccine, the opinions on how to fight it, the communication on the number of deaths, the isolation and quarantine, the boredom and the enforced separation from family and loved ones—the plague scenario suddenly looks suspiciously similar to the 2020 scenario.
For Escher, reading the book must have evoked memories of the pandemic he had lived through many years earlier. The world was also overwhelmed by a deadly virus, the Spanish flu, just over a century ago. It started at the end of the First World War and claimed an estimated 50 to 100 million lives between 1918 and 1919. Much more than the war itself and it is also by far the greatest medical disaster in history. Escher was forced to stay at home with his parents in Oosterbeek. He used the time wisely by making a number of linocuts and sending them to an exhibition of drawings and linocuts in the Dutch art association Artibus Sacrum. Hence he made his official debut as an artist at a time of crisis.*.
In addition to The Plague from 1947, in which he most probably recognised elements of the Spanish flu, Escher also fell under the spell of Camus’ other literature in the 1950s. For example, in 1952 he read the essay The Rebel from 1951 and went on to read Camus’ philosophical novel The Fall in 1956, the same year that the book was published. The novel The Stranger was also an object of close scrutiny.**.
Escher was no doubt drawn to Camus’ books because of the themes treated therein, among other factors. His signature contribution to philosophy was absurdism, in which he assumed that human life is without meaning or purpose. Escher eschewed the idea that life is meaningless. The absurd has a different meaning for him than it does for Camus, but there is nevertheless some degree of overlap. Escher himself was driven by a desire to depict the absurd. In prints like Relativity (1953) and Convex and Concave (1955), multiple realities coexist side by side, with figures that appear to be close to each other but are actually very far apart. Another point of overlap is the fact that Escher did not attempt to portray a deeper meaning in his prints. His primary aim was to amaze and deceive people with the possibilities presented by his graphic work. Even when people openly searched for meaning in Escher’s work, he disagreed. There are plenty of enthusiasts of Escher’s work who have (for example) attributed religious characteristics to his lithograph Reptiles (1943). Reincarnation was alluded to in the cycle of reptiles and the box featuring Job in the foreground could also have a Christian connotation. But that was never Escher’s intention. He just liked the movement of the cycle. And that box with Job on it? That was the brand of cigarette paper of the many cigarettes he smoked.
Escher was not afraid of reading the big names in literature when he took up a book. He read several works by Albert Camus as well as authors such as Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Jorge Luis Borges, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, Alberto Moravia and H.G. Wells. The analogy between all those writers is that there is a lot of room in their books for the fantastic, the bizarre and the absurd. This is certainly the case with Camus. When Camus died on 4 January 1960, Escher was working on his lithograph Ascending and Descending. In a letter to son George, he wrote***:
‘Is this profound or absurd? Camus asked similar questions and now he is dead, killed in his car (or that of his friend) as it struck a tree. The weirdest thing of all is that it has really made an impression on me, not so much the death of Camus (a little bit) as the absurdity and sadness of my print. […] We imagine that we climb—each step about 20 cm high, terribly tiring—and what do we gain from it? Nothing; we don’t get any further or higher. Nor can we descend, rolling down wonderfully.’