No longer merely metaphor: Re-reading The Plague by Albert Camus

Photo of Albert Camus, seated at desk, smoking cigarette
Albert Camus, 1957

Camus’ novel The Plague offers a portrait
of a town under quarantine, ravaged by an epidemic. It tells us of life arbitrarily
constrained and unjustly shortened, of human beings isolated by law and by
disease, of panics and shortages, of despair and heroic sacrifice. It presents
a grim picture of human life, but an affirming picture of human beings.  It ends with a clear moral, that “what
we learn in time of pestilence” is that “there is more to admire in
humanity than to despise.”[i]

book follows the lives of several men — most notably Rieux, a doctor; Rambert,
a Spanish Civil War veteran now working as a journalist; and Tarrou, a
Communist turned pacifist — as they do what little they can, risking their
lives and suffering separation from their loved ones, in order to try to fight
the contagion and attend to the public health.  That it falls to such people to take the initiative says
much about the failures of the authorities, and reflects Camus’ attitude about
authority overall. 

official response to the outbreak is belated, dithering, confused, and
inadequate.  The inaction of the authorities
forces ordinary people to take extraordinary measures.  The turning point comes when Tarrou,
the former Communist, approaches the doctor, Rieux.  “The sanitary department is inefficient —
understaffed, for one thing,” Tarrou remarks.  “I’ve heard the authorities are thinking of a sort of
conscription. . . .”  Rieux
admits that this is true, though the Prefect remains paralyzed by indecision.

then asks,
If he daren’t risk compulsion,
why not call for voluntary help?

been done, [Rieux replies].  The response
was poor.

was done through official channels, and half-heartedly, [Tarrou points out].  What they’re short on is imagination. Officialdom
can never cope with something really catastrophic.  And the remedial measures they think up are hardly adequate
for a common cold.  If we let them
carry on like this they’ll soon be dead, and so shall we.
then proposes:
I’ve drawn up a plan for
voluntary groups of helpers.  Get
me empowered to try out my plan, and then let’s sidetrack officialdom.  In any case the authorities have their
hands more than full already.  I
have friends in many walks of life; they’ll form a nucleus to start from.  And of course, I’ll take part
network Tarrou set up took on a range of responsibilities: They
“accompanied doctors on their house-to-house visits, saw to the evacuation
of infected persons, and subsequently, owing to the shortage of drivers, even
drove the vehicles conveying sick persons and dead bodies.” They did their
work diligently.  But to what
degree these measures contributed to the ultimate waning of the epidemic, or whether
the plague just ran its course, we naturally cannot know.  Nevertheless, the sanitary squads may
have served a more important purpose: 
These groups enabled our townsfolk
to come to grips with the disease and convinced them that, now that the plague
was among us, it was up to them to do whatever could be done to fight it.  Since plague became in this way some
men’s duty, it revealed itself as what it really was; that is, the concern of
plague, of course, is not simply the plague.  It also serves as a metaphor for the French experience under
Nazi occupation, when the official response — surrender and collaboration —
forced ordinary people, Camus among them, to take action themselves and form a
Resistance movement. 

analogy is striking, and has deep implications.  Camus saw fascism — and indeed any belief system that
justifies murder — as a threat to all humanity which, nevertheless, human
beings spread and to which anyone may succumb.  His thinking on this point was almost mystical in its
severity: To affirm life meant that one must resist death.  To accept even the fact of death was equivalent
to suicide, and akin to murder; it was in fact to become complicit with death
in all of its forms.  The
challenge, always, was to affirm the value of humanity against the tyranny of
death, knowing that such a struggle would ultimately end in defeat.  This required a spirit of rebellion,
and thus Camus placed his hopes not in authorities or institutions, but in the
hearts of ordinary people.

The Plague now, in the midst of a
pandemic, one finds that it suddenly has a new relevance. It is no longer
merely metaphor.  Our hopes for surviving
the scourge of Covid-19 cannot rely on the actions of those at the top of the
social hierarchies, whose decisions so often manage to be at once draconian and
inadequate.  Politicians, bureaucrats,
and police are not to be trusted and, in any case, will pursue solutions
dependent on laws, bureaucracies, and police.  They are, to Camus’ way of thinking, simply another set of symptoms
of the plague itself, which is a spiritual and political, as well as a medical,

cure, if one is to be found, relies not merely on medical science, but on
social solidarity.  Our survival
may depend on the actions of our coworkers and our neighbors — people with no
official position and no authority, but with enough courage and common sense to
act in the public interest even against the orders of the authorities and the
instructions of their own purported leaders. In a growing wave of wildcat
strikes, auto workers, librarians, electricians, sewer maintenance workers,
garbage collectors, fast food workers, bus drivers, warehouse workers, and workers
at slaughterhouses have shut down facilities to prevent the spread of contagion
when their bosses refused to. 
People around the country are forming mutual aid networks to share
resources, check in on neighbors, and provide for those who are under
quarantine.  Such actions need not,
and should not, wait for official decisions.  And these moments carry in them also the promise of a
different kind of society, where the bureaucrats are sidelined, where everyday people
suddenly discover their own power, and where we look to each other, instead of
the authorities, to meet our basic needs. 

then, Camus’ analogy may be borne out by reality: Perhaps the means of fighting pestilence will prove to be
the same as those for fighting fascism.

The edition quoted is The Plague, by Albert Camus. Translation by Stuart Gilbert.  New York: Vintage, 1991.


Photo by United Press International, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

[i] I have
slightly altered this quotation. The Gilbert translation reads “men.”

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