Camus’s Plague — and Ours

Medical staff load a patient infected with coronavirus onboard a TGV high-speed train at the Gare d’Austerlitz train station, to evacuate some of the coronavirus patients from Paris region hospitals to Brittany, France April 1, 2020. (Thomas Samson/Pool via Reuters)
What the 1947 novel has to say about our coronavirus challenge.

‘There have been as many plagues as wars in history,” Albert Camus writes in The Plague (now an Amazon best-seller!), “yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” The latter example may strike modern readers as a bit outdated — we’ve become accustomed to “endless” war — but recent events have certainly vindicated the former. Indeed, this observation is but one of many ways this 1947 novel speaks to our time.

The superficial details are the most obvious. Set in Oran, a coastal town in Algeria, the book describes the outbreak of the disease and the slow, insouciant response of government officials. One doctor laments the radio silence, saying it’s “the usual taboo, of course; the public mustn’t be alarmed, that wouldn’t do at all.” The city prefect is convinced the threat is wildly overstated, while another character says — stop me if you’ve heard this before — “The great thing is not to take an alarmist view.” The precautions city officials eventually do take are far from draconian, leading Dr. Bernard Rieux, the novel’s protagonist, to conclude: “One had the feeling that many concessions had been made to a desire not to alarm the public.” The plague worsens.

Mercifully, our present virus doesn’t match the plague Bacillus in lethality. The truly haunting legacy of the novel doesn’t come from its characters’ tallying up the dead, but their describing the changes they see among the living. As the seriousness of the disease sets in, Oran eventually shuts down. Locked inside their town’s limits, fearful of gathering in groups or meandering for too long outside, Oran’s residents grow detached from their past and unable to imagine a different future. “They came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles,” Camus writes, “which is to live in company with a memory that serves no purpose.” They grow listless and aimless while other men, women, and children continue dying as Rieux and a fellow helper named Jean Tarrou try to heal them, but fail. This continues for months, culminating not in outrage or anarchy but monotony. “This precisely was the most disheartening thing,” says Rieux, “that the habit of despair is worse than despair itself.”

And yet The Plague ultimately makes for edifying reading in this time of quarantine. Not simply because its plague eventually subsides — all plagues eventually do — but because Camus’s novel provides a guide for living amid such upheaval. Its advice can be quite practical: “Each of us has the plague within him,” Tarrou says, so “we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him.” These instructions are much more vivid than our ubiquitous directives to “practice social distancing.”

It’s the underlying message, however, that makes The Plague a classic. The illness is the main antagonist, but also an afterthought, a plot device to torment Oran’s residents and reveal life’s fundamentally absurd nature: We can all be struck down on a whim without warning, and through our own careless actions we can strike down others without cause or even intent. We all carry the plague, this capacity for evil and destruction, within us. (As Christians would say, we are all fallen creatures.) Given that, the relevant question becomes not how to eradicate it — we can’t — but how to live with our knowledge of it.

“There’s no question of heroism in all this,” Rieux says. Living a worthy life does not require too much. “The only means of fighting a plague,” he says, “is common decency.” For Rieux, that means simply doing his job and continuing to treat patients. For others, the responsibility seems even less burdensome. “All I maintain,” Tarrou says, in perhaps the novel’s most famous passage, “is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” But the simplicity of this moral belies its challenge. Siding with the victims and fighting for the innocent does not come naturally to us; the truth is closer to the opposite. “What’s natural is the microbe,” Tarrou continues. “All the rest — health, integrity, purity (if you like) — is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter.”

Intentionally or not, Camus’s ostensibly agnostic philosophy evokes G. K. Chesterton’s Christianity. “It is always simple to fall,” Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy. “There are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.” In either worldview, existentialist or Christian, the instructions are the same. Living well, like living hygienically, doesn’t require checking the boxes off a list of unattainable virtues — just ceaseless, vigilant attention to deceptively challenging commandments. Wash your hands. Avoid touching your face. Love thy neighbor. Don’t join with the pestilences. Ultimately, Camus writes, “The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses in attention.”


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