One of the most famous of ‘plague’ novels penetrating into the heart of the world’s current pandemic is Albert Camus’ La Peste/The Plague. Written in 1947 this most extraordinary book is a fictional account of the sudden arrival and spread of bubonic plague in the Algerian town of Oran. Lasting for about a year the epidemic has a disrupting and disturbing effect on the lives and minds of its inhabitants. The novel is a detailed examination of the social, cultural and psychological losses, fears and violences experienced by a people suffering life under a contagion. Camus’ interest in various historical plague accounts, including Daniel Defoe’s record of the great plague of London, informed his vivid descriptions of the effects of isolation and incarceration.
Camus, that great ‘moralist of the absurd’ (Merton, 1967: 718), was drawn to exploring the source of that deep anguish and vulnerability at the heart of human existence; our mortality. The enlightened subject of modernity rides the wave of reason’s unchallengeable assertion that it is its own ground and principle of existence. Yet no matter how advanced its rational, scientific and technological prowess it cannot avoid the possibility of a sudden death by bacillus or otherwise that would threaten such prowess. Camus was concerned to show that the absurd presence of death in life does not have to lead to illusion, meaninglessness or despair.
But written in the wake of occupied France, The Plague is also a metaphor for the suffocation of human freedom in and by a political ideology intent on the systematic destruction of the other. It is a metaphor not only for the Fascism which thrives within the diminished life and death relation of freedom but also for the collusion, passivity and resignation which embraces death in the institutionalisation of murder. The story explores the slippages in meaning and moral action that can occur in a complacent and disenchanted world. Camus explores the fascistic tendencies of the modern subject’s anguished helplessness and asks, in effect, what sort of resistance is possible for fighting the violent and diseased death of an inexorable and endemic evil. He wrote in his notebooks that ‘I want to express by means of the plague the stifling air from which we all suffered and the atmosphere of threat and exile in which we lived. I want at the same time to extend that interpretation to the notion of existence in general’ (Camus, 1965: 53).
The town of Oran in the novel is ‘an entirely modern town’ (6) whose primary purpose is to trade and do business. Devoid of nature and soul it is a fairly ‘neutral place’ (5). All things – work, love, pleasure, leisure – are carried out ‘with the same frenzied and abstracted air’ (5) of routine and order. But its inhabitants are ordinary people. Their life ‘is not too exciting’ (7) but they are healthy, open and likeable. They pay little heed to the inconveniences of sickness and death for there are no substantial patterns of behaviour or rituals through which they are attended to or have much meaning. Dying is a lonely affair but distraction is the currency and time passes easily without disruption. To such a people there are no ‘inklings’ of graver happenings for nothing unexpected ever occurs, certainly not pestilence and the sorts of social and political unrest that it would bring. And so what appears to be a most natural condition of peace is really an ‘unthinking tranquillity’ (35), blind to the cracks in the fragile edifice of its constructed existence. The town of Oran, where all things are possible, is thoroughly conditioned by the illusion of modern freedom, that it is immune from the reality of death, human limitation and failure.
Rieux, the caring and resourceful doctor in the novel, is the first to find a dead rat. Soon another is found, then another. It is not long before the town is overwhelmed by the deaths of thousands of diseased rats who have emerged from ‘basements, cubby-holes, cellars and drains’ to die, bloodied and rotting, in homes, offices, schools and cafes. The people call for radical measures to remove what is ‘a rather disgusting accident’ (15). They ‘accuse the authorities of inaction’ (15) and ‘heave a sigh of relief’ (15) when they are told that numbers have been brought under control. But Rieux knows enough about plague transmission from rats to humans to suspect this is not the end. The newspapers are soon reporting the first human deaths. Initially, the media accounts create a consoling ‘spirit of objectivity’ (91) for statistics, as we know, can be a convenient form of defence against the wound of doubt about the human condition. But such data also breeds its own uneasiness for whilst there was an element of meaning to the spectacle in the fact that ‘6,231 rats had been collected and burned in a single day’ (15) there was likewise an increasing awareness of the inadequacies of such meaning. And so, even as the unreality of the situation persists with the idea that nothing has to change―for they carry on as normal ‘with business, with making arrangements for travel and holding opinions’ (30-31)―there were ‘the first stirrings of that slight nausea with regard to the future that is known as anxiety’ (31).
Anxiety reminds us that we are not in control and so, at first, the citizens of Oran deny what is happening for ‘they were humanists: they did not believe in pestilence’ (30). Plagues, like wars, ‘always find people unprepared’ (30). They say of war that ‘it won’t last, it’s too stupid’ (30) but it does last and stupidity ‘carries doggedly on’ (30). Similarly unprepared, the town’s inhabitant’s deceive themselves that they live free of pestilence by filling the streets, cinemas, cafes and bars, treating quarantine as merely a ‘temporary irritation’ (77). Nothing has to change, everything is still possible. Even at the peak of the plague when the radio is ‘no longer announcing some hundreds of deaths per week, but 92, 107 and 120 deaths a day’ (87), there are those who ‘talk, argue and lust after one another’ (93) with the ‘crazed excitement’ of ‘an uneasy freedom’ (93). ‘I, too, am like them. And yet! Death is nothing for men like myself’ (93). And so there is no need to make a choice about whether to take a stance with or against the plague, a paradoxical refusal of the very freedom they are trying to maintain. Thus Camus is able to show the ease with which the plague’s reality is normalised, infecting the social, psychological and moral life of the people of Oran.
After a few months during which the plague has ‘covered everything’ the people no longer ‘felt the sting’ (129) of its relentless progression. In fact, they come to resemble in their work and social life the unspectacular, monotonous and flattened landscape of its mediocre and efficient routine. The plague was ‘carrying out its daily murders with the precision and regularity of a good civil servant’ (182). The primary contributing factors to this normalisation are the feelings of exile and separation. The familiar enactments, gestures and habits of social life are soon lost or disfigured. This is exacerbated by their forced separation from lovers, friends and family following the sudden closing of the city’s gates under quarantine. Without the other, love and friendship lose their solidity, their intimacy and so what was previously ‘a quite individual feeling’ of separation becomes ‘the feeling of a whole people’ (53). This collective anxiety of separation is ‘the greatest agony of that long period of exile’ (53) and the source of the loss of that most ordinary of human faiths in the future.
Hence the theme of exile and separation is twinned with that of the impotence of memory. Camus gives us a disturbing picture of a people who, because they had to ‘give up what was most personal to them’ (141) live ‘with a memory that is of no use to them’ (57). The thought of the past only collapses into the pain of ‘remorse or longing’ (57). Memory, which St Augustine famously described as that ‘huge cavern, with its mysterious, secret, and indescribable nooks and crannies’ (Augustine, 2008: 186), is the substance of our recollecting who and what we are as selves formed in time in relation to others. The diminishing of this capacity, both in the individual and the city, is a dangerous reduction of the past and the future to a stagnant present bereft of the work of learning that attends ordinary experience.
In the attempt therefore to deceive their pain they force themselves ‘to keep their eyes lowered’ (57) in a passivity which ‘hoped and suffered without reason’ (59). Language itself is thus also debased. Fearful of the risks of meaningful communication, words are ‘translated into the banal clichés of conversation’ or ‘the language of the market-place’ (60). This is how the infection spread from one human to the next. It ‘hollowed’ out the conditions for recognition through which we ordinarily learn of the good of the other as somehow constitutive of our own good. And so the people of Oran did not live so much as ‘settle… into the present’ (140), into the habit of a sterile and despairing freedom with no real choices to make, for ‘everything was accepted as it came’ (142). The ability to choose is still there, just ‘unusable, heavy to carry, inert inside us’ (142). This imprisonment of time becomes an eradication of the resources for moral risk, change or challenge in the present, the plague’s way of naturalising a passivity which they had in fact created.
The two main characters in the novel who dedicate themselves to fighting this passivity are Rieux, the Head of the hospital, and Tarrou, the quiet stranger newly arrived in the town from whose diaries of the plague the narrator reads. Both of them, at great personal cost, care for the infected and dying throughout the entire time of the epidemic. But they are not to be seen as heroes in the ordinary sense of the term. They lack the drama of taking exceptional risks for their own sake. Their heroism is rooted in the routine and unexciting practice of the local, no more remarkable than the teacher who must show ‘that two and two make four rather than otherwise’ (101) but just as remarkable as the teacher who risks herself in times when ‘the person who dares to say that two and two make four is punished by death’ (101). They are like the nurses, doctors, carers and other essential workers who under such conditions act with ‘no great merit’ just the ‘clear-sighted’ practice of living in the presence of death as part of what it means to serve the universal. Heroism in this sense is the responsibility of all to do ‘whatever needs to be done’ (101) and what would always ‘have to be done again, against this terror and its indefatigable weapon.’(237)
At one point Rieux is accused of abstraction, of dealing too rationally, too much with the facts of the situation over and against the particularities of its experience in the ‘struggles, tears, pleas’ (70) of families. This forces him into reflection. He knows the abstract and therefore tragic nature of his work, that the impersonal decisions he makes are a gradual ‘closing [of the heart] around itself’ (71). But he knows too that this is his own ‘struggle against abstraction’ (71), that he may well have to ‘come to resemble it a little’ (71) in order to fight the spread of the infection. His sometimes ‘empty eyes’, which so sadden his mother, express the necessary and temporary usurpation of happiness by a broken personal and social order. His relation to abstraction is thus the work to carry out that changeable and contingent border between agency and passivity that allows him to negotiate and understand the moral and political losses to him that result from the corruption and violence of public political life. It is because he refuses the false sentimentality of identifying with the victims of the plague that he avoids the potentially melancholic and fascistic descent into the dramas of his own will.
There are, as always, those for whom plague is an opportunity. Cottard, a ‘little man of means’ (151), is a self-serving and mercurial profiteer of the black market trade. A pseudo individual, he surveys and exploits the unfolding events of the plague, excited by the opportunities afforded by the life and death struggles of the town’s inhabitants. He knows that the normal rules do not apply, that there are new legal structures and dispositions of power which will work in his favour, that he can delight in and indulge the people’s unmediated desires for pleasure and the superfluous. He is described as one ‘growing in stature’ (151) and ‘a living image of satisfaction’ (151).
One of the unanticipated consequences of the town’s long term quarantine is a heightened awareness of contradiction. The onset of summer with its heat, blue skies, colours and blossoming flowers gives out ‘a hollow sound’ (87) that has the ‘same sinister meaning for everyone as the hundred additional deaths that weighed daily upon the town’ (87). Everything loses ‘its resonant shine of happier times’ (87) and soon only the ‘whistling flail of the plague’ (80) is heard in the warm air alongside the faint sound of the town’s ‘stifled cries’ (80) in the silence of the night. The expression of collective anxiety thus gives way to the ‘hardened heart’ (86) of a people able to ‘live alongside these moans as though they were the natural language of mankind’ (86). It is not long before camps emerge on the poorer edges of the town to contain those infected. Guarded so that no-one escapes, the camps instil fear and suspicion into those interred who soon come to know themselves as a ‘forgotten people’ (185).
From this point on in the novel Camus describes how a people’s eschewal of death in the abstractions of a market oriented culture results in their collusion with a degraded, disfigured and violent existence. It is the image of a people ‘drifting into a state of immobility’ (133) resembling the lifeless passivity of those recently deceased. How easily the contagion turned the town into a ‘necropolis’ (133). What little significance was given to an individual death before the arrival of the plague is finally destroyed by the mass cremation of the dead in the incinerating ovens on the edge of town. Here the dead are anonymised, no longer particular identities that belong in and with the identities and destinies of others. They are, to use the words of Gillian Rose, buried ‘without community, without commemoration and hence without end’ (Rose, 1996: 102). We belong ‘body and soul in our relationships and in our self-identity’ (Rose, 1996: 103), she writes, ‘to the polis’ (102), to its ‘splendour and misery… its laws and its anarchies’ (Rose, 1996: 102). The important work of mourning, of working through the reality of loss, takes place within the boundaries of the city. Only then can we ‘recommence’ (101) and return to carry out or restore the justice of the city.
As the disease starts to weaken and the number of cases decline ‘spontaneous signs of optimism appear’ (210). Relief, coupled with a cautious expectation of the end and a return to normality begin to take hold. It was, of course, a ‘two-faced’ deliverance in that the happiness of many couldn’t hide the suffering of those ‘behind closed shutters’ (211). Liberation was inevitably a liberation of ‘laughter and tears’ (211). But what would the town look like on its return to normality? Would everything ‘begin again as before…as though nothing had happened?’ Yes, and no, perhaps. For whilst the plague reacquaints the people of Oran with the vulnerabilities of freedom and so the conditions for recollecting what they were previously unable to see, they soon forget that they had been living in a ‘senseless world in which the murder of a man was a happening as banal as the death of a fly’(229). They avoid the memories of a ‘well-defined savagery, the calculated delirium and the imprisonment that brought with it a terrible freedom from everything that was not the immediate present, the stench of death that stunned all those whom it did not kill’ (229).
Camus’ examination of the social and psychological distortions of freedom in the time of the plague is a powerful account of the ways in which any sort of contagion or totalitarian control exploits the modern alienation between law and morality, between the subject as public and political citizen involved with processes beyond its control and the subject as a private, autonomous and moral agent. But the consequences cannot be met by passivity. The moral imperative, for Camus, lies in our ability to acknowledge a plague when it is happening, that its effects will be devastating and that we will be a part of its experience long after it has gone. Our moral and spiritual life cannot and should not be left intact by the death that it brings otherwise we would not have the choice to revolt against it. The plague is in us all and we are in it, says Tarrou. ‘No one is immune’ (195) and to not become its victim requires a most uncompromising and sustainable education about death in life so that we do not suddenly ‘find ourselves breathing in another person’s face and infecting him’ (195). Learning, we might say, must ‘refuse to be on the side of the pestilence’(195) for reading The Plague reminds us that we can be the most ordinary of citizens carrying out our work with a conscientious proficiency whilst that work results in the death of another human being.
Like the people of Oran all we can know at the moment is that this disruption will end. But Camus warns us that other plagues and viruses will return for plague ‘never dies or vanishes entirely…it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing… it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and… perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them die in some well-contented city’ (240). Have we learned enough to read the signs so as to be prepared for what another plague will ask of us?