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?
Naturally, I want to enjoy the book as a work of art, which it most assuredly is, and not as a guidebook through the various stages of the mass epidemic. I do my best simply to savor the deeply meditative passages, such as this one:
In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions. Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.
I am fully taken in by the book’s achievement—the precision of its language, the depth and originality of its insights—but at the same time, sitting self-isolated in my home, I cannot suppress the fear and dread as I read about the progress of the disease in Oran, the dying rats, the dying inhabitants with their swollen ganglia, and the inability of medical researchers to produce a vaccine.
Sometimes, I look up from The Plague and say to myself: At least things are better now. In the 1940s, in French Algeria, no one even talked about “social distancing.” Doctors wore face masks and the sick were quarantined, but every night the bars, churches, restaurants, theaters, and music halls were packed. This seems insane (as do those spring-break revelers on the beaches of Florida, it must be said), but then I try to imagine the world before TV, before cell phones and social media, before our night life had been tamed by Netflix, before air-conditioning, before so much technology.
But my imagination fails to reach that far back. What sort of world was that, I ask myself, when people went out at night to walk around the streets, to talk to friends, to play cards, share fears, feel a breeze from the nearby bay, sit in cafes. There were radios of course, but in Oran the radio played only plague news and conventional messages of encouragement from the world that still functioned in the regular old way beyond the locked gates of the city. Yes, we are better off now. For the most part, we’re better at self-isolating. We have a huge online community of friends who don’t know us. Then, thinking of Italy, I say to myself: Your imagination has lost its depth. Patients in bubble-masks gasp for breath in hospital hallways tended to by doctors wearing hazmat suits. There are not enough hospital beds, ventilators. Triaging, prioritizing, is necessary. It’s hell. The plague is here.
At the beginning of a plague, everyone is implicated. We are not obliged to keep looking at the sky, but according to Camus, it is from the sky, suddenly and unexpectedly, that war and pestilence arrive: We should have been better prepared.
But it’s the human condition—not to be prepared. Frankly, there is something unfathomable about people who are always prepared. I tend not to enjoy their company. So I’m dumbfounded that COVID-19 has arrived on our shores and I’m washing my hands all day. I feel duped, betrayed. Then I read that in 1918, as the Spanish influenza was gathering steam, the local politicians in Philadelphia held a patriotic parade attended by 200,000 citizens. Six weeks later, 12,000 of them were dead. St. Louis, on the other hand, which canceled its parade and closed down schools, churches, theaters and saloons, lost only 700 citizens. So, I say to myself: Better wash my hands and “flatten the curve.” And acknowledge I’m not prepared for this.
My innocence, however, isn’t shameful. Pathetic, but not shameful. Like the functionaries of Oran, our political leaders, who are directly responsible for the public’s welfare, were indifferent to the rumors of infection. Now, with a straight face, they say they were ready for it; that it was the others who were unprepared, who were responsible for the calamity. That’s shameful, but this is the way politicians act. Now and forever. These are the well-paid, blameless public servants that Camus refers to when he wrote that “the real passion of the twentieth century is servitude.”
The 1948 edition of The Plague begins with an epigraph by Daniel Defoe: “It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not.” Over time this quotation has come to suggest that what was to follow—a fictive and harrowing description of a modern-day plague—would also serve as metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France. As such, it works, but it doesn’t describe Camus’s deeper intentions.
Those intentions become clear in Part IV, when Dr. Rieux and his friend Jean Tarrou, a philosophical observer of the stricken city, converse on a rooftop above the embattled city. “I had the plague already, long before I came to this town and encountered it here,” Tarrou declares. “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.” Three existential choices: blindness, complacency, or engagement. It’s quite a moment, but Tarrou has more to say. He describes his middle-class upbringing and his growing disgust with the injustice of the law, and particularly with the death penalty, which his father, a prosecuting attorney, advocates. He speaks of his exile from home, his association with revolutionary groups who justified their butcheries with complicated arguments, and his growing sense that having chosen not to kill, he has no place in the world. It is the human condition. But despair is not an option. “All I maintain,” Tarrou says, “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.”
It’s up to us, Tarrou says. I’m too old, I think. I wash my hands. I listen to the news. I walk. I wipe down doorknobs. Buy rubber gloves. Friends are trying to leave cities. A young man, thirty, falls apart, is hospitalized, released. A friend’s brother with the virus is attached to a ventilator. Older friends are choosing attitudes. Too much courage and you become a fool, the enemy. I watch Jules and Jim. A book doesn’t change anything. The poor will suffer. The blind won’t see. To the relatives of the dead, the plague is here.