A Few Words in a Time of Plague

In France, Albert Camus’s The Plague has disappeared from the shelves. This is remarkable – faced with an epidemic, people seek salvation, information and guidance from literature. Let us trust the cultural instinct of the French. The only way to understand things that surpass our imagination is to immerse ourselves in their absurdity. Camus went for a head-on collision of life and death, a brutal, screaming verbalisation of the sense of existence. The book’s epigraph shows his intention:

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.’[1]

We have all found ourselves imprisoned in a singular situation, the demands of which have thrown us out of kilter with everything that has often, and so effectively, and enjoyably released us from deeper reflection on the sense and richness of existence. Suddenly, many questions surface, to be examined in the clear light of day. Such existential experimentation has its requirements, and goes through progressive stages. Above all, it demands an answer – a justification for all the suffering, fear and discomfort. Yet early on, it is difficult to find one. There is only a feeling of a vacuum, and desperate notions of escape. Unfortunately, the epidemic is a jail from which the only escape is the inner feeling of value and worth.

At the moment, we remain in a temporarily luxurious situation, despite the limitations it has imposed on us, along with fear for the future, dread of an economic collapse and anger against fate. But there has not been – and we hope that this will continue to be so – any direct ‘proof of existence’. The sick can count on being admitted to hospital, and there is not a stream of hearses passing below our windows. Caution and a justified obsession with hygiene ensure that we continue to feel relatively secure. At the moment, we have only been confronted with virtual signals of the epidemic, and may it remain so. One can be proud of Poles – insurgents, revolutionaries and anarchists – that in a situation of looming threat they have been acting with such a sense of community.

The situation has turned us all into slightly different people. All of a sudden, our close ones have become doubly present. Until now, the logistics of daily life have effectively acted as a fence between us and them: going to work, going shopping, and meeting with friends, then sinking into a torpor after a busy day. These guaranteed distance; now they have been swept away so radically, that the presence of another person is a physical touch. In a flash, we must learn to accept, or best of all – find pleasure in – being with our nearest and dearest, with whom we have been trapped by this situation. This is a great, and a difficult, lesson.

In The Plague, Father Paneloux, a Jesuit, identifies in his sermon with the punishing hand of Providence, saying; ‘Calamity has come on you, my brethren, and, my brethren, you deserved it.’[2] He rebukes the congregation for not keeping to the contract: ‘And this is why, wearied of waiting for you to come to Him, He loosed on you this visitation; as He has visited all the cities that offended against Him since the dawn of history.’[3] He is convinced that the epidemic is a punishment sent by God to shake his people up. Religions permit such methods of sheep control. These are beautiful literary structures; nevertheless, their message is entirely false. Epidemics are not a punishment for anything. They are just – and as much as – a complicated and tragic coincidence, resulting from a viral mutation, a climatic situation and human mobility. But while not a punishment, they are certainly a challenge. And all the more so because it is not easy to oppose something invisible and lurking. Especially for the many people in our political and economic situation, who for years have been spoiled by the absence of wars and serious crises.

The epidemic is something that both exists and does not exist. It should only affect our bodies – which are expected to behave in a sensible and as cautiously as possible – but not to affect our spirits – which in the time of plague must sustain themselves with profound reflection and the discovery of new values. It is good therapy to help others and help raise their spirits. Nevertheless, it is efficacious to attempt to understand and interpret with is happening to us and others – in the process, discovering where, besides the virus, there lurks the greatest enemy of people afflicted by the plague. The best way to break out of the jail of the epidemic is to release our fears and premonitions, giving it our own, intimate expression. Helplessness is then alienated – externalised, it can be argued with, and indeed conquered. In a nutshell, this is how art makes you free.


The lesson of art is that all difficult experiences may be turned into a value.

Continuing this message from Bunkier Sztuki Director Maria Anna Potocka, we urge follow the Gallery’s activities in the Internet, where we publish new content and information about contemporary art every day.

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[1] D. Defoe, quoted after: A. Camus, The Plague, trans. S. Gilbert, https://antilogicalism.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/the-plague.pdf, p. 1.

[2] Op. cit., p. 46.

[3] Op. cit., p. 47.