What does one read during a pandemic that has changed the way we all live our lives?
The Plague (La Peste) by Albert Camus of course!
This existentialist (or absurdist, depending on who you talk to) classic from 1947 presents us with the day to day changes that occurred in a small city in Algeria when the plague suddenly turned up out of the blue.
The French Algerian town of Oran experienced real life plague events in 1556, 1678 as well as three lesser outbreaks in the early 1900’s. Camus wrote his fictional version of The Plague during and after WWII. Since then many have drawn parallels between the coming of the plague in his book and the Nazi’s. I’ll leave that for students of English and Philosophy to mull over, but for today, this review will focus more on the parallels between what we’re all experiencing now with Covid-19 and what the imaginary characters of this real town experienced during their fictional plague.
But first a little reminder about the definition of existentialist literature.
Existentialism is all about the experience of the individual – the thinking, feeling, acting, living human being – as they navigate an absurd, meaningless world with a sense of confusion, angst, anxiety and disorientation. It is the individuals responsibility to make sense of the world, not society or religion.
While Absurdism is the conflict between the human tendency to seek some kind of inherent value and meaning in life with our inability to actually find any in a purposeless, meaningless, chaotic and irrational universe! Camus was an Absurdist and believed we should live a life rich in ‘purposeful experience’ in spite of the ‘psychological tension of the Absurd’.
The fictional plague in Oran began with the sighting of one dead rat by Dr Bernard Rieux on the 16th April. It was considered to be ‘odd’ by the doctor and ‘a practical joke’ by the concierge. The next day there were three dead rats. The doctor was now ‘intrigued’ while the concierge hung around the doorstep waiting to catch the ‘jokers’. However on his rounds, the doctor realised that the dead rats were everywhere and that ‘the whole district was talking about the rats.’ Most people agreed that it was ‘peculiar, but it will pass.’
By the next day the papers had picked up the story and the authorities started to talk about ’emergencies measures.’
In the population, some people complained, some were disconcerted, some felt threatened or anxious. People began to accuse the authorities of inaction and others escaped town completely. Rumours spread along with a sense of foreboding. ‘Surprise gradually gave way to panic.’
Mistaken ideas had to be readjusted as new information about the rats and the plague were learnt the hard way…with people dying. Old habits and daily routines had to change and fear set in.
Dr Rieux was keen to prepare and take precautions, whilst the authorities tried not to upset public opinion. However, hygiene posters popped up around town, gas was injected into the sewers to kill the rats and the water supply was strictly supervised. Hospital wards were ‘suitably equipped’ and relatives of patients were urged to get tested.
Some people began to suggest the whole thing was exaggerated and refused to change their ways. Trams were still packed and the theatres and restaurants were full each night as many chose to defy the odds and thought that somehow the plague would not affect them.
As things worsened, the ports were closed and guards were set on the town gates. The people blamed the authorities and prioritised ‘their personal concerns.’ Discussions raged about whether everyone was actually dying of the plague or of other causes instead or even whether this number of deaths was within the normal range for the month.
A sense of unreality crept in. Some bewailed their fate, while others ‘accepted with good humour’. Monotony and indifference became factors as the ‘dreary struggle between the happiness of each individual and the abstractions of the plague’ set in.
Summer arrived and the heat served only to exaggerate the fear and anxiety. ‘The plague sun extinguished all colours and drove away all joy.’ Yet for some ‘a sort of crazed excitement, an uneasy freedom’ bubbled up, sending them out into the streets, craving pleasure and company, despite the risks.
A vaccination was talked about, with very few understanding the ‘industrial quantities’ that would be required to actually inoculate the general population.
Our good doctor believed that most people were more often good than bad and that the main vice was ignorance, especially ‘ignorance that thinks it knows everything.’
There were no longer any individual destinies, but a collective history that was the plague, and feelings shared by all.
As more people became sick and died, exhaustion and indifference set in. People began to neglect the good hygiene practices of before and mass burials became the norm. Irrational superstitions and old prophecies and predictions emerged. At this point, Camus, via his characters went into a lengthy discussion about the nature of good and evil, the meaning of life and death and the lessons that could be learnt from history, yet never seem to be learnt.
As the course and nature of the plague changed, ebbed and flowed and eventaully eased, people reacted with a curious mix of excitement and depression. The uncertainty was the hardest thing to live with, yet saved up reserves of hope were always close to the surface. People began to wonder what life would be look like after the plague. Would it return to ‘normal’? What had been changed irrevocably?
‘The plague would leave its mark, at least on people’s hearts.‘
‘All that a man could win in the game of plague and life was knowledge and memory.’
Camus leaves the ending open. Deliberately, I suspect.
We don’t get to see the end of the plague in Oran, yet reading this 70 years later, we know that this fictional plague and all the earlier historical plagues did in fact, eventually disappear. So much so, that when another one appears in 2020, we have no knowledge or memory to help us work out what to do!
It’s like each generation has to learn everything anew all over again, ad nauseam, instead of learning from history. One gets a sense that every generation thinks it is somehow immune, separate, different or special compared to any previous generations and that there is nothing that those older times could possibly teach us now. Our refusal to not see the repeating patterns of history is nothing but wilful ignorance.
I’m only part of the way into Absurdism with Camus, as I believe it IS possible to find some meaning in the chaos if you only pay attention to the history.
- Born 7th November 1913 in French Algeria
- Died 4th January 1960
- Was living in Paris when the Germans invaded during WWII.
- Unable to join the army due to his earlier tuberculosis diagnosis, so fled to Lyon, then Oran with his wife, where they taught in the local primary school.
- On medical advice he moved to the French Alps to help his tuberculosis. Started writing La Peste.
- In 1943 returned to Paris and joined the French Resistance.
- Became friends with Jean-Paul Sartre.
- Greatly influenced by Simone Weil. He saw her writings as an antidote to nihilism.
- Camus wrote in cycles – each cycle being a novel, an essay and a play.
- The first cycle, Sysyphus was about the absurd (L’Étranger, Le Mythe de Sysiphe, and Caligula).
- The second cycle, Prometheus, was revolt (La Peste (The Plague), L’Homme révolté (The Rebel), and Les Justes (The Just Assassins).
- The third cycle was love, Nemesis (Le Premier homme (The First Man).
- My Popular Penguin Classic was translated by Robin Buss.
- Introduction by Tony Judt.
- Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.
- He asks: Is it possible for humans to act in an ethical and meaningful manner, in a silent universe?
- In his notebooks, Camus suggested that the book ‘may be read in three different ways’:
- It is at the same time a tale about an epidemic; a symbol of Nazi occupation (and incidentally the prefiguration of any totalitarian regime, no matter where), and thirdly, the concrete illustration of a metaphysical problem, that of evil.
- There have been as many plagues in the worlds as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared.
- “This rotten bastard of a disease! Even those who don’t have it, carry it in their hearts.”
- “What is true of the ills of this world is also true of the plague. It may serve to make some people great. However, when you see the suffering and the pain that it brings, you have to be mad, blind or a coward to resign yourself to the plague.”
- “I have decided to reject everything that, directly or indirectly, makes people die or justifies others in making them die.”
- He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.