Camus, The Plague

I’m reading plague fiction at the moment. If you wonder why anyone would read plague literature in the middle of a huge pandemic, you have lots of company. But I imagine also others see value in aligning your reading with your experience, even if it’s really bad experience. Here are some thoughts on The Plague by Albert Camus (1947).The Plague is currently ranked # 143 on the Amazon Best Sellers rank. That’s very high. So I think others find the kind of consolation that I do in reading of tragic/catastrophic events while they’re happening in reality. Read it and compare Camus’s plague with our pandemic.

It’s a harsh, ruthless story. It doesn’t spare you any of the physical suffering, fear, terror, despair, loss, grief that a major pandemic causes. It is unsentimental. It has no explanation to offer for the plague. The sickness appears without any reason, just a blind, deadly force, and it leaves without any explanation. Mysterious and terrifying. That’s probably one reason why Camus conceived the plague the way he did: it had no meaning. It was not God-sent; not caused by humans; it was completely irrational, illogical, absurd. That means that the characters had to peal away any and all conceptions, convictions, illusions that humans might invoke to explain it: religion, history, politics (some say, it’s an anti-Fascist book, where the plague stands for the Nazi occupation of France). The plague makes human life seem pointless and absurd.The characters are challenged to find some justification for existence. The usual ideas exalting human life don’t work. This book asks, why are you alive, anyway, and why should you help others stay alive? Camus’s thoughts on the justification of life in a world that has gone absurd make the book worthwhile, even have some affirming force in our present situation.

A cholera epidemic hits the city of Oran, Algeria, lasts the better part of a year, and reduces the population (250,000 at the time) by about 1/3. Everything gets closed, the city, the stores, the schools etc. Social distancing evidently wasn’t discoered yet. The story is seen through the eyes of a doctor, Bernard Rieux, who has no heroic vision of his work during the plague. He’s just a doctor, doing his duty, not a hero or a martyr. He spends the entire plague time tending to the sick and dying. Rieux: “There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency… The only means of fighting a plague is common decency.” Rieux works 20-hour days, experiences the worst: family members begging him to save their loved ones, then reviling him when they die; patients “refusing to die,” then promptly dying; friends and relatives disappearing from one day to the next.

He’s never infected himself. He sees people stricken and dying without any selection: young and old, the good, kind, loving, hateful. The plague acts without any sense of intention, without reason, logic, without a good and loving God working out purposes that humans can’t understand.

Rieux forms teams of volunteers to help with the grim, dangerous job of managing the consequences of the plague. Many volunteer. That’s the form in which conversion happens in the plague-stricken world. Helping the sick becomes one of the moving forces in the novel. Everything the story affirms is in the efforts to save life and minimize the effects of the plague.

The author might have had it in for a religious view of the causes of the plague. A young priest, Father Paneloux, preaches a sermon. Its theme, “The plague has hit you. You deserve it! It’s punishment for sinfulness.” But as the disease spreads and completely discredits his idea that it’s aimed at evil people, Paneloux joins Rieux’s volunteers. He works at the quarantine station where the sick are isolated from the healthy, an especially nasty posting (tents set up in the city football stadium; ghastly, but not the worst of the jobs for which volunteers are needed).

Panelous is present at the death of a child, the son of a city official. The boy has cholera. It’s far along, but is still at the point where it could be stopped. A local doctor has developed a serum from antibodies taken from the recovered sick. There’s hope it could end the plague. Rieux decides to try it out on the young boy. He’s injected. It’s an excruciating scene, lots at stake: the life of the boy, the value of the serum, victory over the disease. Rieux and his associates are present, so is the priest Paneloux, and the boy’s father. The scene lasts for hours; they watch hopefully for every change in the boy’s condition. At the moment of the worst suffering, Paneloux falls on his knees, and prays, “My God, spare this child.” The boy dies. The serum doesn’t work. Instead of curing, it prolongs the suffering. Rieux mocks the priest for his belief. Paneloux, deeply shaken, says that he now understands what Grace is, a mystifying comment. He throws himself into the work of caring for the sick. In his last sermon he tells the story of a monastery in a plague. All the monks either flee or die. Only one stays behind to help the dying and bury the dead. “Bringing down his fist on the edge of the pulpit, Paneloux cried in a ringing voice: ‘My brothers, each of us must be the one who stays’.” Paneloux dies soon after this. The dead boy’s father, a high city official, becomes a regular volunteer at the stadium.

Another convert is Rambert. He’s a journalist who got caught inside when the city gates were closed and no one allowed in or out. All he wants is to get out. He has a wife waiting for him in Paris. He has arranged an escape by bribing two of the guards at the gate. But when he watches the boy die, he changes his mind; decides to stay and help Rieux. He says he’d always be ashamed of himself if he left.

So all the sources of self-worth are cut off, except fighting against the plague, helping the sick. It seems that the only life well-lived is one without any illusions, without any hope, just motivated by unquestioning, self-sacrificing opposition to the plague and support of the living. Rieux and his friends have one thing they’re certain of: “They had to fight and not give in in any way. The essential thing was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying. There was only one course of action: to fight the plague.”

It turns out that that course of action calls up a special strength and courage in the citizens that was not there before the plague. It also calls up a special, intense form of love. A married couple, living together for many years, grown indifferent to each other, “realize that they can’t live without one another, and in the sudden glow of this discovery the risk of plague seemed insignificant.”

“Sons who had lived beside their mothers hardly giving them a glance fell to picturing with poignant regret each wrinkle in the absent face .”

Tarrou (Rieux’s closest friend and co-worker): “What interests me is learning to be a saint.” Rieux: “To become a saint, you need to live. So fight away!” Tarrou dies of plague while fighting it. Rieux has seen the worst, but comes away with an affirmation of life he hadn’t felt before: “On the whole, men are more good than bad.”

A scene when the plague has ended seems to summarize the : Rieux walks through the streets, crowded with people celebrating, couples who had been separated over a year, eating drinking, celebrating, hugging, kissing, making love. He wonders about the meaning of the disease: “He was thinking it has no importance whether such things have or have not a meaning; all we need to consider is the answer given to men’s hope. Now for some time they would be happy. They knew now that if there is one thing one can always yearn for, it is human love.”

The end of the novel sums up: “Dr. Rieux resolved to write this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in people than to despise.”

It’s not a very satisfying ending, but what do you want? It’s existentialism. Life is absurd, but you have to live it with courage and love. Living is like the punishment of Sisyphus: just keep rolling the rock, and smile occasionally when you get to the top.

Now I’m on to Somerset Maugham’s novel, The Painted Veil (also cholera). Stay tuned. There’s an excellent recent movie version starring Robert Norton and Naomi Watts (2006).

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