Dr. Bernard Rieux, the narrator in Albert Camus’s The Plague, is a surgeon in the Algerian city of Oran, a serious, honest, and conscientious man with a rich but subdued sensibility. It is through Rieux’s eyes that we witness the horrifying pestilence that first kills the rats and then the humans. Rieux is a pragmatist. He believes in facts. If they are missing, he moves on. But nobody is pragmatic all the time. Some facts are easier to accommodate than others. Nobody, including Rieux, wanted to admit that the plague—that ancient disease that had turned Athens into a charnel-house “reeking to heaven and even deserted by the birds”—had arrived in Oran, a happy town bathed in the sweet radiance of a spring day.
Who can imagine the precariousness of all things on a day of blue skies? What are we to do without our habits? No theme in The Plague is repeated with such rich variation. Lovers say goodbye at train stations expecting to make a fresh start, but there is no fresh start. There is only exile and death. Even before the plague, how many lovers make fresh starts?
On a similarly sweet spring day in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I ask myself: Is this the right time to reread The Plague—this moment as COVID-19 sweeps across America? Probably not, but I still find myself irresistibly drawn to doing so, just as irresistibly as Camus seems to have been to writing it. A philosopher and moralist, a passionate journalist with a streak of spare lyricism, an intellectual who had the common man’s wariness of intellectuals, Camus insisted on asking questions that few writers were willing to ask. He was a man who understood that even to be a normal person in normal times is a difficult proposition. How then to be so under the conditions of the plague—of exile, sudden deprivation, random suffering, and even more random death? How do humans, all kinds of them, act under such conditions? And what are our responsibilities, in a world seemingly forgotten by God, to ourselves, to family, to community?