“Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything was still possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible…They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”
Albert Camus’s 1947 novel, “The Plague,” has often been described by critics as an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. One can certainly read and profit from it as such, or even make it more timely today as the drama of an inept and ill-intentioned presidential administration sowing the plague of chaos and discord upon the land.
But make no mistake, “The Plague” is also very much about the real bubonic plague that has reared its head in human history over thousands of years.
The plague’s frightfulness is largely due to the approximately 50 million people it reportedly killed in the 14th century, the infamous “Black Death” that decimated large swaths of the world’s population centers and left a lasting mark on human consciousness.
Today, in 2020, the plague still makes periodic appearances, most often in undeveloped countries. But it also has a contemporary spiritual cousin in the form of the coronavirus, Covid-19, that is turning our now thoroughly globalized world upside down, threatening massive casualties (more than 10,5000 deaths as I type) and already wreaking havoc on the world economy.
Beyond taking the much-chronicled safety measures that have essentially brought economic activity and social discourse to a standstill, what are we to do in the face of this modern plague?
What does it ask and prompt of those who are ill, and those tending to the ill?
What is our responsibility to others, our communities, ourselves?
What questions does it ask us about providence, faith, belief, disbelief, fear, exploitation, duty, honor, compassion, love?
Calamity, after all, almost invariably begets philosophy as we seek rationales for the suffering we see around us, or which we endure ourselves.
Why is this happening? What does it mean? Should we have seen it coming? What should we do in response?
Camus never shied from these big questions that underlie every drama in human life, and every plague brings those questions forth in abundance. And in response, human beings in extremis exhibit their best, their worst, their most desperate and their most saintly qualities, all of them bound up and often in conflict in their hearts at any given point in time.
Grappling with, much less answering, fundamental questions is never easy, but in the hands of the masterful writer and philosopher that Camus was, it cannot be anything but beneficial to tag along with him as he explores them in the haunting, sobering, and ultimately inspiring fashion that he does.
“The bare statement that three hundred and two deaths had taken place in the third week of plague failed to strike their imagination…It was only as time passed and the steady rise in the death-rate could not be ignored that public opinion came alive to the truth.”
“The Plague” is set in the city of Oran, Algeria, population 200,000, sometime in the 1940s. An unidentified narrator describes the sudden appearance of rats coming out in broad daylight to die in the streets. What begins as mere curiosity soon becomes discomforting and then alarming as their numbers increase and trucks are dispatched to dispose of the corpses.
As the death toll mounts within the cloistered walls of the city, many residents manage the fear and emotional swings with a kind of stupor of tamped-down expectations. Others party like it’s the end of the world.
This is mere precursor to the appearance of a virulent fever-based illness that causes skin lesions and bleeding and begins to affect individual residents, their numbers small at first, then mounting steadily, just as did the appearance of the rats.
The novel’s main character, Dr. Bernard Rieux, suspects something is amiss when he steps on a dying rat and soon begins to see cases of this fever in his human patients.
He consults an older colleague who has seen much the same, and it doesn’t take them long to utter the word that is nearly forbidden in the polite company that has long convinced itself that plagues are no longer part of modern, sanitized life. Rieux’s building janitor gives a preview of this when he continues to insist there are no rats in the building even as they are literally dying around him.
When the doctors take their concerns to the town’s chief administrator (“prefect”) who has convened a meeting among select insiders, the doctors press for calling the problem what it is while the administrative staff lobbies for a wait-and-see approach so as “not to attract attention.”
When the prefect asks him, “Are you absolutely convinced it’s plague?, Rieux responds, “It’s not a question of the term I use; it’s a question of time.”
Time they can ill spare as the disease spreads through an unaware population carrying on as usual.
The prefect, however, is quite convinced it’s a “false alarm,” and if this is all beginning to remind you of the events surrounding the coronavirus and the “administrative staff” of our own nation in its initial response to the pandemic that is now full-blown among us, then stay with me here, because Camus has much more to say.
“This is the time when those who have nothing to do venture out on the boulevards. Most of them seem determined to counteract the plague by a lavish display of luxury. Daily, about eleven, you see a sort of dress parade of youths and girls, who make you realize the frantic desire for life that thrives in the heart of every great calamity.”
Camus was primarily a moralist, consumed with questions of justice, virtue, meaning and right conduct in a world drained of the traditional comforts and guideposts of religion. His characters in “The Plague” represent the range of human responses to dire circumstances: those committed to alleviating the suffering it brings, religious guilt-mongers ascribing it to God’s wrath, others looking to escape, to exploit it for economic gain, or to simply survive it at a once-remove from direct involvement.
Dr. Rieux is the first of those types: ethical, hard-working, committed to human dignity and the relief of suffering. Also, he is an atheist.
He works tirelessly over the months that the plague engulfs the town and the death toll mounts. He makes no judgment of other’s behavior and adaptation to the scourge, seeking only to assess, comfort, and hopefully save the patients who present to him, while bolstering to the degree he can the many people of disparate motivations who are able to assist in fighting the worst of the disease.
When a French journalist who had come to Oran to write a story is caught up in the dragnet of the town’s strict closure in order to prevent spread of the disease, he approaches Rieux to write a letter to authorities stating the journalist is plague-free and urging his release so he can return to his wife in Paris. Rieux is sympathetic, but clinically, he cannot rightfully say the journalist has not already been exposed or will not contract the disease between the time of his exam and departure.
“Even if I gave you a certificate it wouldn’t help.”
“Because there are thousands of people placed as you are in this town, and there can’t be any question of allowing them to leave it.”
“Even supposing they haven’t got plague?”
“That’s not a sufficient reason. Oh, I know it’s an absurd situation, but we’re all involved in it, and we’ve got to accept it as it is.”
“But I don’t belong here.”
“Unfortunately, from now on you’ll belong here, like everyone else.”
This conversation shows the doctor as duty-bound to refuse what might seem like a reasonable request to he who asks. Rieux acknowledges as much, citing the absurdity of the situation while yet insisting that the journalist face it squarely and recognize his solidarity with all others caught up in his plight. It is a kind of snapshot of the existentialism that Camus is closely associated with in the world of philosophy and literature, even as he resisted the label for reasons we will touch on briefly below.
“Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.”
Existentialism sees human beings thrown into the world helpless and unawares, weighed down by a consciousness that slowly absorbs the hard facts of finitude and the guarantee of suffering.
“What’s the point of it all?” and “Why is there suffering?” are the perennial human questions, ones that humans seek answers from in religion, philosophy, literature, and too often, the bottom of a bottle and tip of a needle.
For existentialists, the quest for meaning deposits humankind on the doorstep of absurdity, but Camus differed greatly from other existential thinkers (and thus his denial of that label) by insisting that the struggle itself for meaning, justice, relationship, and love of the world and its many pleasures confers its own meaning, all the tortured rationales and comforts of religion or cynical celebration of absurdity be damned.
Rieux channels Camus in his spare, focused commitment to healing the ill, wherever he finds them in this fractured world, in this soliloquy:
“Do you know that there are some who refuse to die? Have you ever heard a woman scream ‘Never!’ with her last gasp? Well, I have. And then I saw that I could never get hardened to it. I was young then, and I was outraged by the whole scheme of things, or so I thought. Subsequently I grew more modest. Only, I’ve never managed to get used to seeing people die. That’s all I know.”
As the death toll mounts within the cloistered walls of the city, many residents manage the fear and emotional swings with a kind of stupor of tamped-down expectations. Others party like it’s the end of the world, and unlike our own time with nearly the entire commercial and entertainment industry shutting down to stanch the coronavirus, Oran’s restaurants and cafes remain open during the epidemic, with no shortage of patrons spending what they can afford to bask in the company of others.
In the end, we are not so different than the cows in vast fields who choose to cluster in tight groupings, tails flicking to-and-fro across each other. This is why, knowing as much as we now do about germ transmission, the self-enforcing “social distancing” we are required to do will be such a diabolically difficult challenge.
“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”
Others in Oran put their shoulders to the wheel of easing the suffering of their neighbors by forming volunteer squads to keep tabs on the ill. Among them is the journalist Rambert, who joins one such group while also going to great lengths to enlist smugglers to help him exit the town and reunite with his wife. However, when departure night arrives, he turns around at the last minute and goes back into the city. “Why?” he is asked.
“Until now I’d always felt a stranger in this town, and that I’d no concern with you people. But now that I’ve seen what I have seen, I know that I belong here whether I want it or not. This business is everybody’s business.”
There’s a lot packed into Rambert’s observation and decision.
Just when does any given bit of business become “everybody’s business?” When war comes, for starters.
And it is hardly straining a metaphor to regard every plague, whether bubonic or covid, as a kind of war that depends on extraordinary fidelity to human fellowship, expressed in the line that seemingly every politician has been heard to utter in recent days, “We’re all in this together.”
And so we are, in the “togetherness” that now paradoxically requires its exact opposite of willfully not being together so we can help keep each other safe. This generosity includes great self-interest, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with that overlap. It highlights, in fact, the interdependency that we rely on for our very survival, despite what self-styled libertarians like to tell us about the virtues and sufficiency of their rugged individualism.
Plagues, however, will test every person. What are the limits of our patience, our clinging to human values and our best selves?
At one point in the narrative, the bodies are piling up so quickly in homes and streets that they threaten to overwhelm the town’s capacity to remove and dispose of them. And when the ranks of gravediggers themselves begin to grow thin because too many of them are dying, the town must resort to mass graves more reflective of a genocide, as indeed the plague is, in a manner of speaking.
Which begets the question: When do we finally come to tolerate the intolerable, grow too weary, desperate and hollow-eyed to summon the energy to do anything about matters such as corpses rotting in the streets? Yes, we are far from the animals who simply meander past the carcasses dotting the plain until the vultures eventually dispose of them.
But not as far as we like to think.
Yet on the other side of the equation, there is Mr. Tarrou, a jaunty, somewhat mysterious man of independent means, recently arrived in town, whose idea it was to organize the volunteer relief squads. Tarrou loves dancing, music, and swimming in the sea. And doing good. Why?
Well, it just seems to be in his nature. But intellectually, and we can even even say spiritually, another matter concerns him. In a late night conversation with Rieux near the end of the tale, he tells the heretofore untold story of his life and influences, ending with: “What interests me is learning to become a saint.”
Rieux responds, almost incredulously, “But you don’t believe in God.”
“Exactly!” Tarrou exclaims. “Can one be a saint without God?—that’s the problem, in fact, the only problem, I’m up against today.”
He can be seen to solve the problem, however, with an equation that, like all great philosophical truth, is capable of presenting itself in stark terms, even as the challenges it lays upon the heart and conscience of humankind are anything but easily achieved:
“All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it is up to us, so far as is possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”
Tarrou doesn’t, no different than countless persons of good faith who answer the call to whatever modest measure of sainthood they can manage in their own lives. No great martyrdom or dramatic achievement required, nor any extraordinary virtue either, a point that Dr. Rieux makes in an earlier conversation with Rambert.
We will leave that point as the epitaph to this post and for all those who quietly do what they can, in the ways that they can, to relieve suffering and bring a little light into a world that will forever be in need of it.
“There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency.”
Though Camus did not believe in God, in a very real sense, he is the most religious writer I have ever read. I like to think he would have heartily approved of this music paired in discussion with his book.
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Angel of death by Ale Mora, Los Angeles, Chile https://www.flickr.com/photos/157477510@N05/
Night tree by Magdalena Roeseler, Switzerland. https://www.flickr.com/photos/magdalenaroeseler/
The Plague of Ashdod by Nicolas Poisson, 1630, from the Louvre Permanent Collection, Paris