‘La Peste’ by Albert Camus
[slight spoilers - but nothing to ruin the story]
Albert Camus’s ‘The Plague’ was written in January 1941, and published after the war in 1947, it is considered the greatest postwar European novel. The overall plot of the story talks about a virus in a large town in French Algeria that ends up wiping out a significant part of the population.
It’s no surprise that Camus had his story take place in French Algeria being a pied-noir himself. Just like it is no surprise that this story is an ideal read during our times now as we watch the world transform in our global pandemic.
Though the main character may be a doctor and we get a good account of how this virus affects the town in a practical way, it is the psychological effects on the people that make this a book worth reading and talking about now.
The book feels very believable and real with its lightly fictionalized town of Oran on the coast of Algeria and following the main character, Doctor Rieux, who is a version of Camus himself.
The story starts off with Camus showing how ‘normal’ the people of the town are, going about their lives barely even noticing they are alive. They focus on money with the occasional moment of enjoyment. They could be seen, like many Americans today, as people that ‘live to work, rather than work to live’. A phrase I learned from my own time living in France.
Then, like a good horror story, the pace of the novel becomes thrilling. It starts with a dead rat, and then another, and then another, until the people start to take notice and wonder about these undeniable and mysterious deaths of thousands of the port city's rats.
Eventually, enough discontent is stirred up by the town’s citizens that the magistrate’s office finally gets around to disposing of all the rats. The people are relieved, but Dr. Rieux knows that it is just the beginning of something.
He references some of his own readings and feels that this is a typical sign of plague.
Of course, Dr. Rieux is right, and the epidemic soon takes hold of the city. Camus did his research about plagues and you can see it in the writing. When talking about the novel in one of his letters to André Malraux in 1942 about why he chose to write about a plague he responded that he ‘wanted to understand what a plague meant for humanity’.
‘Dit comme cela, c'est bizarre, [...] mais ce sujet me paraît si ‘naturel”
- Albert Camus, André Malraux, Correspondance 1941-1959
[Said like that, it's weird, [...] but this subject seems so natural to me.]
He uses this idea of the plague being ‘natural’ in the last chapter by having a strange, but wise, old man say this to Dr. Rieux.
And despite what many call another metaphoric story about the Nazis, I don’t believe Camus falls under that spell as many other writers did during that time. Nor do I believe that he is writing solely of plague in that region itself, though there were some cases of plague outbreak a few years beforehand, it was nothing to the degree that the novel creates.
Camus was a philosopher and is even given credit for a school of thought called ‘Absurdism’. It isn’t that absurd in thought, and you can read much of his philosophical way of thinking in ‘La Peste’.
When he speaks of the plague, he is speaking on a deeper level about how we are all already living through a plague. A plague that wipes out half a city’s population in the novel is just a visual aid to how truly vulnerable we are as humans.
The true plague Camus is trying to teach us about is another type of widespread, silent, and invisible disease that may kill us, which may destroy our lives that we believed were so solid. This plague that always exists in us humans, yet we fail to see, is the universal prerequisite of existence that we may be randomly taken out of existence by anything: a virus, an accident, or the intent of one of our own fellow human beings.
It all seems absurd, and hence why his philosophy is called Absurdism. We are all living on the edge, no matter how safe we may feel standing wherever we are currently standing in life.
This can sound very demoralizing and depressing for most people, but it isn’t meant to be. It should provide a feeling of relief and freedom. It should be the beginning of redemption with a tragic, yet comic, perspective.
You can see it in the people of Oran at the beginning of the story. They seem to have this entitled sense of living forever. It is this general naivety of the average person that Camus despised.
You can see it in ‘La Peste’, and in other his writings, what types of behavior he hated in his fellow man:
An obsession with status
A tendency to moralize and judge
A refusal of joy and gratitude
A hardness of heart
The people of the novel, much like the people today with the Coronavirus, feel that all of this plague stuff that is happening is somehow beneath them. As if people with phones and airplanes and the internet are above nature and the laws of the universe. After all, it is medieval to be subject to something as natural as sickness and death.
Camus didn’t lie to himself. He knew when it came to dying, there was no amount of progress we could make in science that would prevent it. There is no escape from our frailty. Being alive was a condition, an ‘emergency’.
Whether it’s the Coronavirus or some other type of plague isn’t the issue. We could just as easily be killed by something else. We may think we will live forever, but the truth is, our deaths could be as sudden as tomorrow and everything we thought we lived for will turn meaningless.
In the novel, you can see people dropping dead as quickly as the rats that preceded them, yet the citizens still roam around in denial. Even going as far as making reasons as to why it won’t happen to them.
This isn’t meant to put us into a panic. Panic is reserved only for the more immediately dangerous to which we can escape from into safety. Death is always there and we are never truly safe from it.
‘We're all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn't. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.’
- Charles Bukowski
This is a quote from Bukowski but it follows along the same lines that Camus wanted us to see. We can’t escape death. It isn’t something to be feared. It isn’t something to grow in a panic over. It is as natural as being born. Yet, knowing that we are all equally damned to the same fate, we should do our best to try to make life a little bit better for each other, or at least, a little less of a nightmare.
There is, of course, some theme of religion in the story, and I enjoy how it shows the human spirit turning towards a divine being and then turning away from it as the plague progresses. What could be Camus’s enemy, or more correctly Dr. Rieux’s enemy, is a Catholic priest named Paneloux.
He only gives one sermon during the epidemic and it comes at its peak. In proper Christian fashion, he blames the people for the plague. It is God’s punishment for them for their years of depravity.
I will say, he did it in a way that even a non-Christian could feel the sting of ‘Maybe I do deserve this…’
Yet, despite how powerful the man’s speech was, Camus and I are in agreement that such an idea is loathsome. A plague isn’t a punishment for anything deserved. To insist such a thing would be to assume the Universe had some moral code or was a design by a great architect.
‘Le mal qui est dans le monde vient presque toujours de l'ignorance, et la bonne volonté peut faire autant de dégâts que la méchanceté, si elle n'est pas éclairée.’
- Albert Camus, La Peste
[The evil in the world almost always comes from ignorance, and goodwill can do as much damage as wickedness if it is not enlightened.]
It only takes the witnessing of one innocent child to die to see that death, especially in the hideous form as dying from the plague, is not a punishment from on high. Nor should any great architect be worshipped for bestowing such suffering.
Suffering is distributed without any sort of planned sense, and it is not driven by the ethics of an almighty being. It may seem unfair or scary that this isn’t true. Yet, there is a sense of order and fairness in the absurdity of it all.
Perhaps the nicest thing that can be said about the universe and the condition of existence is ‘How absurd!’
Existence is, if you really sit down and think about it, a pretty strange thing. Accepting this and even calling it for what it is, with a smile, can relieve a lot of the fear and oftentimes panic we feel when facing the potentiality of our own end.
As you read the story, you see and feel how Dr. Rieux struggles with himself and his own ideas about life when fighting the disease.
He became a doctor to try to save people’s lives. And though that may have been the case before the plague, he slowly begins to see after days, weeks, and months of watching people die in front of him feeling helpless, that death is unavoidable, and the only thing he can really do is to try to help his fellow man suffer a little less on his way out the door.
We are at the mercy of nature no matter how clever we get, no matter how well we have learned to prolong the inevitable.
As Rieux starts to accept the absurdity of it all, he realizes that he himself is no saint. It isn’t his role in life to pretend to be some hero. He is simply a decent human ‘doing his job.’
Despite the travesty of everything happening, Camus shows that Dr. Rieux isn’t a defeated man. He isn’t a nihilist or fatalist. We get to watch him enjoy the smell of flowers or watching people dance. At one point, with my favorite character, Tarrou, they slip past the guards at the beach to go for a swim at night, allowing the waves to crash on them with a smile.
After about a year, the plague starts to die away. The people are celebrating and Rieux can see that for most people, everything will be back to normal. That they will tell stories of the plague as if they were heroes for surviving it, but beyond that, they will be as if it never happened.
Yet, Rieux had been changed (along with a journalist - another version of Camus himself). Yes, he sees he did his part to fend off the disease this time, but he does not feel it as a victory. The plague seemed to come and go of its own accord and had nothing to do with the hopes or efforts of the citizens of Oran.
Camus’s novel today isn’t proof he is smarter than the best epidemiologists. He writes beyond the knowledge needed to predict that diseases will spread and kill people.
He writes about human nature. He understood a fundamental truth most of us choose to ignore or forget, perhaps due to its absurdity, that we are always vulnerable. Camus saw this vulnerability and not only wanted us to know it as well, but to be aware of our tendency to so easily forget about it.
The true plague of the human race isn’t a disease in biological form, it is something beyond that. It is a plague that everyone has in himself and that no one can be immune to.
With that said, I hope you read this great novel and learn more about Camus’s plague yourself.
Happy Quarantine Reading.
Stay Safe and Be Decent.