The Plague by Albert Camus
Translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert
‘Baba, can I go down to play?’
It is late afternoon, and voices of a few children in the carpark can be heard from our first-floor apartment.
Instant tears well up in the eyes of the eight-year-old…’I never go to play anymore. They are playing!’
I scoop up the little body in my arms and whisper in his ears ‘How about you and I try a new recipe today and surprise mama when she comes back from work?’
‘How about I stay close to you and you can handle the fire?’
Diversion worked today.
The WHO statistic stating how many souls have succumbed to the virus till date does little to explain to children why they are prisoners in their own homes. It is but a ‘large number’ used as a tool for learning addition or subtraction in a grade 3 mathematics notebook. How does one explain to an eight-year-old that this, now, is the time for caution, of humility, of humanity, of empathy? The natural propensity of an eight-year-old is to run, to jump without caution, to question, to investigate, to make mistakes and to make them again. Are they free to be the young explorers they are meant to be? Or have we carefully and systematically placed the wisdom of the world on their shoulders and cheered them on as they become capable of regurgitating facts they have learnt, but not experienced? The German philosopher Hegel once said, ‘Education is the art of making man ethical.’ The eight-year-olds will soon become eighteen, forty or sixty-five. Are we facilitating and partnering in their journey of self-discovery so that they may imbibe values that make them ethical? Would they, during the next pandemic or some other natural or manmade disaster, be sympathetic to the cause of their fellow human beings? That, according to me, is the central theme and question that Camus brings home through his many existential and absurdist themes in The Plague: What is it to be human?
Boxed in, adults have copious amounts of time to spare. Social media groups mushroomed across virtual platforms that helped counter melancholy and fear. Opinions and jest shared in equal measures. Recipes, jokes, political analyses, past accomplishments, news, links, and daily numbers of the pandemic illustrated with graphs and probabilities of its end filled the virtual space. Lockdown has become a norm. Social distancing has become a way of life. Slaves of habit, we are getting used to living our lives in the pandemic and settling into a disquieting ennui.
With a year into this particular pestilence, Albert Camus’s La Peste (The Plague, translated from French to English by Stuart Gilbert) shakes you out of your reverie and sentences you as a prisoner of plague to the Algerian town of Oran where the plot is set. Divided into five parts, the novel is a veritable cornucopia of questions asked to individuals and to the collective norms of communities and societies. The book is an inquiry into the human condition and at the backdrop of one episode of bubonic plague that has engulfed the town of Oran, Camus questions the very nature of human existence. Are we living our lives bordering on the absurd? What are our base emotions? Does fear change how we act? Are morality and humanitarianism so fragile that it is torn apart in the face of a potent challenge to self or community? The French sociologist Emile Durkheim spent a good part of his career studying the function of religion in maintaining social order. He believed that shared beliefs and values were the glue that held society together. Camus objectively questions the role of religion in The Plague and leaves the reader to find answers for themselves. Is being a hero absurd in the face of the unknown? Is capital punishment justified? The present pandemic will eventually reach the end of its natural cycle unbeknownst to us and enter dormancy. It may recur after a hiatus, or other epidemics will hold sway over our societies. Millions will grieve for their dear departed again, now at a fuller measure at the end of the pandemic, when the rigor of daily life in the pandemic ends and the true extent of loss hits home amid loneliness and an empty, absurd existence. As the borders open, the jubilation of the re-united will drown the silent suffering. Camus asks in allegorical terms, has the plague really gone? What is the plague? Is it a bacillus or a virus that causes an illness? Or is it an inherent human condition? Diseases are a part of lived experience, a pervasive and essential part of being who we are. All that is living will eventually die. Although we are resilient, we are mortal and fragile. We suffer, but how we respond to that suffering defines us. In present times, frontline medical workers are lauded as real-life heroes! People who have stepped up to go to work despite imminent danger to their lives give us the rarity of hope. These heroes are people who have chosen to fight the pandemic simply because it is the decent thing to do, an integral part of being human.
Camus puts the idea of heroism in perspective through his protagonist Dr. Bernard Rieux:
‘there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of righting a plague is, common decency.’
When asked what he meant by common decency, the doctor replies,
‘I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case, I know that it consists in doing my job.’
One sees the novel as a reflection of Camus’s life experiences and philosophy. Born in a pied noir family, Camus had a modest upbringing. He was an integral part of revolutionary circles that wanted French colonizers ousted from Algeria. Exposed to radical ideas about social transformation and change, young Camus became vociferous in demanding greater power for Algerians in administration and work. He later developed a deep interest in philosophy. After migrating to France, he joined the French Resistance, published political commentaries on the Second World War, and condemned the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Camus’s work looks closely into the alienation of individuals and communities in modern life through his philosophical standpoint of absurdism. He outlines the absurd as a pointless search for meaning in an inexplicable universe that arises out of the tension between our desire for order, meaning and happiness, and the indifferent natural universe’s refusal to provide that. In one of his most notable work The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus expands on his idea of the absurd: total absence of hope, a continual refusal, a conscious dissatisfaction.
The Plague is arguably one of the greatest novels post World War II. Kafkaesque in its treatment, it decrees its characters to threatening situations they can neither understand nor escape. This gripping narrative can be seen as an allegory to the German occupation of France when Camus was active in the French Resistance. He opens the novel describing the town of Oran with its people mindlessly going about their business of life. When reports of dying rats comes in and a few human cases arise, Dr. Rieux communicates his concerns to the city authorities. Mired with denial and waylaid in the labyrinth of bureaucracy, the government is slow to respond. The infection soon spreads to humans in increasingly large numbers. Dr. Rieux calls for immediate action to quarantine and treat the disease as highly infectious as his patients afflicted with this strange disease show marked symptoms of the bubonic plague, and requests for urgent availability of the plague serum. The city government continues its wait and watch policy as it does not want to unduly create panic in the citizenry. With a sharp increase in the number of deaths, the city finally goes into a lockdown and the inhabitants settle into a morose acceptance of separation. Camus exposes the conceited nature of people who think that their plight is distinct and unique. Narcissistic profiteers like Cottard pounce at the opportunity to take financial advantage through racketeering, or others like Father Paneloux to advance their positions in society through fearmongering. Parallels are created from the days of the holocaust when the huge number of deaths make individual funeral services practically impossible
‘The naked, somewhat contorted bodies were slid off into the pit almost side by side, then covered with a layer of quicklime and another of earth, the latter only a few inches deep, so as to leave space for subsequent consignments.’
Ceremonious rites of passage for the dead are dispensed with as absurd sentimentalities confronted with the crises of the living. When mass graves are rendered ineffective by the exponentially increasing volume of the deceased, a mass crematorium is used to burn bodies of victims brought in by remodeled streetcars through a newly laid line, eerily reminiscent of the final solution
‘…when a strong wind was blowing did a faint, sickly odor coming from the east remind them that they were living under a new order and that the plague fires were taking their nightly toll.’
Tarrou, a mysterious tourist to Oran whose narrative forms a major part of the novel, raises poignant questions about life, love, and capital punishment. His account lends a greater texture and objective analyses of the activities of the town, and raises existentialist questions in his dialogues with Dr. Rieux and a stranded journalist Raymond Rambert. The most telling passages in the novel are these brilliantly crafted reflections from the diary of Tarrou documenting his experiences and opinions. The novel teems with symbolical representations like that of an old man who drops pieces of paper from his balcony to lure cats just to spit at them, and stops appearing in his balcony when the cats are exterminated by the city authorities. Without the genealogy of the disease or any means of effective treatment, Dr. Rieux focuses on identifying and facilitating the quarantine of the affected. Camus equates the efforts of Dr. Rieux with the actions of this old man hinting at an absurdist universe that he suggests in the book, but redeems the good doctor by underscoring the inherent philosophy of the absurd: individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence, and create meaning and purpose through compassion, morality, and common decency.
The world today is one that would have vindicated Camus’s philosophy. The year gone by was almost a part for part replay of the novel with us witnessing the central characters leaping out of the pages of The Plague and pirouetting on world stage. As Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair’
On the one hand, we witnessed the overreach of governments and naked profiteering of corporations that endorsed Camus’s misgivings in this novel. We wonder at the genius of the writer who so accurately presaged the events of a pandemic although he himself had never lived through one in his lifetime. On the other hand, however, the Covid 19 pandemic has brought into light innumerable stories of humans being kind to fellow humans. From the youth fundraising to provide food aid and PPE to waste collectors, teachers becoming instant youtubers and broadcasters rushing to create virtual content for their students stuck at home, to hundreds and thousands of Dr. Rieux working tirelessly amongst us, all hint at the core of Camus’s absurdist philosophy: We do it because it is the decent thing to do! That is the essence of being human.