Revisiting: The Plague by Albert Camus
translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert.
If Albert Camus were alive today, he would undoubtedly have much to say about the current state of international relations and the human condition. Fortunately for us, we have his body of written works—both to serve as a caution (against hardening our hearts) and an inspiration (to continue to act with love and sympathy). For in these times in which the dominant message is that violence equals salvation, patriotism equals redemption, and tighter state control equals penance, Camus’ writings remind us of the essential role of "healers" in our society. His works also remind us that thought is nothing if not connected to action.
One of Camus’ most celebrated pieces was his 1947 novel The Plague (originally published as La Peste). Set in an ordinary seaside town in Camus’ native Algeria, then a colonial French territory, the book documents a 10-month period during which the bubonic plague—an extremely contagious, fatal disease—exacts a high death toll and robs the town’s residents of any semblance of a normal life. A foreboding smoky pall emanating from the crematorium—which operates around the clock—hangs eerily over the town. Soldiers guard the entrances to the town, which has been quarantined from the outside world, to prevent escape.
Out of that desolate mix arise two unassuming heroes—Bernard Rieux, the town doctor (who also serves as the story’s narrator); and Jean Tarrou, a newcomer to the town who voluntarily assists the doctor in his grim tasks of diagnosing plague, caring for the dying, and arranging for the removal of the dead. In the following passage, Tarrou explains to Rieux what he thinks about plague.
"All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences. That may sound simple to the point of childishness; I can’t judge if it’s simple, but I know it’s true....If, by making that statement, I, too, become a carrier of the plague-germ, at least I don’t do it willfully. I try, in short, to be an innocent murderer. You see, I’ve no great ambitions.
"I grant we should add a third category: that of the true healers. But it’s a fact one doesn’t come across many of them, and anyhow it must be a hard vocation. That’s why I decided to take, in every predicament, the victims’ side, so as to reduce the damage done. Among them I can at least try to discover how one attains to the third category; in other words, to peace."
Tarrou was swinging his leg, tapping the terrace lightly with his heel, as he concluded. After a short silence the doctor raised himself a little in his chair and asked if Tarrou had an idea of the path to follow for attaining peace.
"Yes," he replied. "The path of sympathy." [p. 229-230]
Most of Camus’ works were published between the years 1932 and 1957, and were shaped largely by World War II, the German occupation of France, and the French occupation of Algeria. Camus strove to define the essence of humanity during a most difficult historical period: the march of fascism and totalitarianism through Europe, with its accompanying police terrorism, torture, war, and concentration camps. He shunned indifference and stressed that by confronting injustice and adversity, one confirms the human spirit. In that vein, Camus’ philosophy was similar to that of another famous humanitarian, Mohandas Gandhi, who stated, "The real test of nonviolence lies in its being brought in contact with those who have contempt for it."
In The Plague, Camus expresses through his two protagonists, Rieux and Tarrou, his solidarity with downtrodden people and his opposition to all forms of killing—including state-sanctioned killing. In one episode, the pair take a break from their work in order to get better acquainted. Rieux thus learns how Tarrou’s eyes came to be opened to human suffering.
"To make things simpler, Rieux, let me begin by saying I had plague already, long before I came to this town and encountered it here. Which is tantamount to saying I’m like everybody else. Only there are some people who don’t know it, or feel at ease in that condition; others know and want to get out of it. Personally, I’ve always wanted to get out of it....
"When I was seventeen my father asked me to come to hear him speak in court. There was a big case on at the assizes, and probably he thought I’d see him to his best advantage. Also I suspect he hoped I’d be duly impressed by the pomp and ceremony of the law and encouraged to take up his profession....
"The only picture I carried away with me of that day’s proceedings was a picture of the criminal. I have little doubt he was guilty—of what crime is no great matter. That little man of about thirty, with sparse, sandy hair, seemed so eager to confess everything, so genuinely horrified at what he’d done and what was going to be done with him, that after a few minutes I had eyes for nothing and nobody else. He looked like a yellow owl scared blind by too much light. His tie was slightly awry, he kept biting his nails, those of one hand only, his right....I needn’t go on, need I? You’ve understood—he was a living human being.
"As for me, it came on me suddenly, in a flash of understanding; until then I’d thought of him only under his commonplace official designation, as the defendant! And though I can’t say I quite forgot my father, something seemed to grip my vitals at that moment and riveted all my attention on the little man in the dock. I hardly heard what was being said; I only knew that they were set on killing that living man, and an uprush of some elemental instinct, like a wave, had swept me to his side. And I did not really wake up until my father rose to address the court.
"In his red gown he was another man, no longer genial or good-natured; his mouth spewed out long, turgid phrases like an endless stream of snakes. I realized he was clamoring for the prisoner’s death, telling the jury that they owed it to society to find him guilty; he went so far as to demand that the man should have his head cut off. Not exactly in those words, I admit. ‘He must pay the supreme penalty,’ was the formula. But the difference, really, was slight, and the result the same. He had the head he asked for. Only of course it wasn’t he who did the actual job. I, who saw the whole business through to its conclusion, felt a far closer, far more terrifying intimacy with that wretched man than my father can ever have felt. Nevertheless, it fell to him, in the course of his duties, to be present at what’s politely termed the prisoner’s last moments, but what would be better called murder in its most despicable form." [p. 222-225]
Camus was a historian, a philosopher, a socialist activist, a journalist, a theater director and actor, and a playwright and novelist (and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957), but above all he considered himself an artist—one who believed that the purpose of art was to serve humanity. Of all the French existentialists and other European writers of his generation, Camus is considered the most humanistic.
Camus shunned restrictions placed upon free thought by both the powerful, authoritarian right and the sectarian, dogmatic left. He knew about government censorship first hand, from having been ordered to quit the left-wing Alger-Républicain by French colonial authorities (for being pro-peace and pro-Arab) and from having his Paris publication being forced underground during his days of working with the French Resistance.
Camus also had demands placed upon his writing by the Communist Party of Algeria. He resisted the intrusion by, for instance, refusing to use terms like "the proletariat" or "the masses" that lumped all downtrodden people into one category. Having grown up among poor people (Camus was the son of an illiterate, hard working mother; his father had been drafted into the French army and killed in battle when Camus was an infant), he came to know and understand them as individuals. "What touched [Camus] deeply," wrote Germaine Brée in European Writers (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990) "rather than ideologies or aethestic theories, was what he called ‘the human face,’ certainly not the allegedly inevitable ‘march of history.’"
Camus’ concern for the downtrodden individual, as well as his disdain for cruelty and his search for the truth comes out again in the following expository by Tarrou.
"Have you ever seen a man shot by a firing-squad? No, of course not; the spectators are hand-picked and it’s like a private party, you need an invitation. The result is that you’ve gleaned your ideas about it from books and pictures. A post, a blindfolded man, some soldiers in the offing. But the real thing isn’t a bit like that. Do you know that the firing-squad stands only a yard and a half from the condemned man? Do you know that if the victim took two steps forward his chest would touch the rifles? Do you know that, at this short range, the soldiers concentrate their fire on the region of the heart and their big bullets make a hole into which you could thrust your fist? No, you didn’t know all that; those are things that are never spoken of. For the plague-stricken their peace of mind is more important than a human life. Decent folks must be allowed to sleep easy o’ nights, mustn’t they? Really it would be shockingly bad taste to linger on such details, that’s common knowledge. But personally I’ve never been able to sleep well since then. The bad taste remained in my mouth and I’ve kept lingering on the details, brooding over them.
"And thus I came to understand that I, anyhow, had had plague through all those long years in which, paradoxically enough, I’d believed with all my soul that I was fighting it. I learned that I had had an indirect hand in the deaths of thousands of people; that I’d even brought about their deaths by approving of acts and principles which could only end that way. Others did not seem embarrassed by such thoughts, or anyhow never voiced them of their own accord. But I was different; what I’d come to know stuck in my gorge. I was with them and yet I was alone. When I spoke of these matters they told me not to be so squeamish; I should remember what great issues were at stake. And they advanced arguments, often quite impressive ones, to make me swallow what none the less I couldn’t bring myself to stomach. I replied that the most eminent of the plaguestricken, the men who wear red robes, also have excellent arguments to justify what they do, and once I admitted the arguments of necessity and force majeure put forward by the less eminent, I couldn’t reject those of the eminent. To which they retorted that the surest way of playing the game of the red robes was to leave to them the monopoly of the death penalty. My reply to this was that if you gave in once, there was no reason for not continuing to give in. It seems to me that history has borne me out; today there’s a sort of competition who will kill the most. They’re all mad over murder and they couldn’t stop killing men even if they wanted to.... [p.226-228]
At the time that Camus wrote The Plague, France was under Nazi occupation and Europe had become a cesspool of mass murder, torture, fear, and other forms of unspeakable injustice. The ugliness around him, however, only heightened his need to create a literary work that would cast light on the darkness. Camus gained inspiration from the hellish reality, as well as from those who fought against it, to create the literary tale of calamity and courage that is The Plague. As Camus wrote to a friend, "The Plague, which I wanted to have read at several levels, has nonetheless as its evident content the struggle of the European resistance against Nazism."
Through Tarrou, Camus struggled with the question of how to exist in a diseased society.
"...I have realized that we all have plague, and I have lost my peace. And today I am still trying to find it; still trying to understand all those others and not to be the mortal enemy of anyone. I only know that one must do what one can to cease being plague stricken, and that’s the only way in which we can hope for some peace or, failing that, a decent death. This, and only this, can bring relief to men and, if not save them, at least do them the least harm possible and even, sometimes, a little good. So that is why I resolved to have no truck with anything which, directly or indirectly, for good reasons or for bad, brings death to anyone or justifies others’ putting him to death." [p. 228-229]
All this brings us back to the present: What lessons would Camus have us take from his writings and apply to the world today, with its spiraling violence, deepening poverty and despair, and shrinking liberties? What would Camus say to caring, conscientious people, especially those who are feeling hopeless and powerless? In my opinion, Camus would say: Don’t be indifferent, resist injustice, speak the truth, identify with the oppressed, and be a "healer"—one who attempts to lessen the suffering of others. Camus would say that confronting the madness is the only way to affirm and define our humanity. The following passage from the final page of The Plague seems to speak directly to us.
From the dark harbor soared the first rocket of the firework display organized by the municipality, and the town acclaimed it with a long-drawn sigh of delight. Cottard, Tarrou, the men and the woman Rieux had loved and lost—all alike, dead or guilty, were forgotten. Yes, the old fellow had been right; these people were "just the same as ever." But this was at once their strength and their innocence, and it was on this level, beyond all grief, that Rieux could feel himself at one with them. And it was in the midst of shouts rolling against the terrace wall in massive waves that waxed in volume and duration, while cataracts of colored fire fell thicker through the darkness, that Dr. Rieux resolved to compile 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 a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.
Nonetheless, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers. [p. 277-278]
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