The Coronovirus: The Plague and other writings by Albert Camus
In my essay Elie Wiesel’s Early Work I promised a return to the novels by Albert Camus (1913-1960), 1957 Nobel Laureate in Literature.
Then the world as we know it changed with the onset of COVID-19 and the relevance of Camus’ novel The Plague, published in 1947, struck hard.
When Camus writes in The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays, “How should I negate this world whose power and strength I feel? Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure that this world is mine,” I am struck with the thought that the questions do not change—even as we face the pandemic of the Coronovirus.
In rereading The Stranger, The Plague and The Fall with the essay The Myth of Sisyphus, I am struck by the unity in man’s questioning the unanswerable. In 2017 I began writing this essay after the death of my adult son at age 46. The insurmountable grief of this loss, threw me into the abyss.
I looked then to Camus, who also died at age 46—not that I compare the two men—for answers.
I knew that my cry of anguish in the face of the incomprehensible and inevitable united me with the epochs of time.
And now as we face this worldwide pandemic, I am struck once again and have returned to write you:
I hear Job cry out on the ash heap from physical pain and suffering but more indeed from the anguish of ignorance and the desire for guilt—a rationale for his punishment. The play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles unites me to all those caught in a world we attempt to understand and control but are doomed inevitably powerless. And too, when Shakespeare’s Lear in his madness cries, “Is man no more than this?” my cry joins with his.
So, today let’s look at Camus’ novel The Plague in the face of the worldwide pandemic.
I begin with a brief discussion of a novel many of us read in high school before I move on to The Plague—with its direct relevance to our current circumstance—and as a final footnote here, to Camus’ The Fall—for it too challenges us in our current trial and reminds us to ask the questions, Who am I? Who are we?
Meursault of Camus’ The Stranger becomes vitally aware of his life and its values by the close of the novel, divided in two parts. Part I presents, in Meursault’s unemotional and fragmentary words, his life until and including his purposeless murder of an Arab. The past has little meaning for him. His mother has died, gone and not mourned: “It occurred to me that somehow I’d got through another Sunday, that mother now was buried. And tomorrow I’d be going back to work as usual. Really, nothing in my life had changed.” He does not dwell on the past.
The sensual pleasure of the moment seems to hold importance, but he doesn’t consciously judge the importance of any pleasure. He says he always enjoyed washing his hands at midday when the roller towel was dry. In the evening, it was always wet, unpleasant. He deems the problem important enough to mention to his employer, who considers it a mere detail.
The day after his mother’s funeral, Meursault enjoys sunbathing, meets a former acquaintance, the appealing Marie with whom he attends a comic movie and later that evening they make love. The present has value. The past and future, little meaning. When his boss suggests a job with the company in Paris, including the possibility of travel in France, Meursault says he doesn’t care one way or the other. When asked if a change of life appeals to him, he tells us, “I answered that one never changed his way of life; one life was as good as another and my present one suited me quite well.” Indifference defines him.
He becomes friends with Raymond, a known pimp, agrees to write a letter to anger Raymond’s girlfriend, all seemingly because he has nothing better to do. This alliance leads to the murder of the Arab who wants to avenge Raymond’s treatment of the girlfriend. Although Meursault does kill the Arab under the influence of the sun’s intense heat to which he is quite sensitive as he is to all physical aspects of this environment and there is an element of self-defense, it does seem that Meursault could have avoided the encounter. His interest in the affair certainly was not vital.
At the end of Part I of The Stranger, Meursault’s trial ensues. The court assumes, as most of us do, that men live by or at least recognize certain common values of behavior. Meursault, intensely truthful, shows the court that he does not share that view. The case then becomes defined by society’s condemnation, not so much of the crime, as of the man with no value system.
The fact that he didn’t weep at his mother’s funeral because he is not sad becomes the most vital piece of evidence that illustrates his callousness. He smokes at the vigil of the body and makes love to Marie the next day. These actions and his attitude condemn him in the eyes of the court.
Meursault is not in fact tried for the killing of the Arab. He is tried for callousness— or better, for the discrepancy between his values and the court’s.
One might argue—and this is not an easy argument—that Meursault is rather heroic in his quiet refusal to save himself by speaking what for him are society’s lies. He tells his truth. He maintains his integrity.
Some of you who read this will know that Camus has been studied for his views of what is philosophically and literarily discussed as “the absurd,” but I do not attempt here to discuss that thorny subject—even as we face the absurdity of our current pandemic.
My subject is the question of identity: Who am I? Who are we?
When Meursault kills the Arab, he kills life. It certainly cannot be argued that the Arab’s life was expendable.
It may be argued that the sun’s influence controls Meursault’s behavior. But he had a choice that he did not exercise when he submitted to the sun’s force. He says. “It struck me that all I had to do was to turn, walk away, and think no more about it. But the whole beach, pulsing with heat, was pressing on my back.” He says, “And just then it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire—and it would all come to absolutely the same thing.”
In Part II Meursault becomes intensely aware of his life because he is imprisoned and condemned to death.
Let us contemporaneously consider his imprisonment as the metaphor for the imprisonment of social isolation many of us are now experiencing, and of the potential death for many to come.
Consider this: When Meursault, who is sentenced to death, no longer seeks escape and begins to experience the realization of his own death, he is able to explain to the priest who visits him the value of living. He is no longer passive but vehement and intense.
In the essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus describes what essentially is Meursault’s experience: “The divine availability of the condemned man before whom the prison doors open in a certain early dawn, that unbelievable disinterestedness with regard to everything except for the pure flame of life … .”
At the close of the novel, we have Camus’ gorgeous language in Meursault’s words: “I … felt ready to start life all over again. It was as if that great rush of anger has washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.”
But on this note, Camus is far from done with us.
The Plague is set in the Algerian city Oran that is besieged by plague. The city is of necessity closed to the outside world by authorities: All communication except for telegrams is forbidden to avoid the possibility of further contagion. The business of maintaining life in the midst of the holocaust is begun, Meursault’s prison becomes the world of the people of Oran. All are made to realize their own deaths. The narrator tells us that “no longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all. Strongest of these was the sense of exile and of deprivation, with all those cross currents of revolt and fear set up by these.”
The people of Oran before the plague descends seem much like Meursault in their complacency and lack of awareness of the inherent forces that impede their lives and happiness. Dr. Rieux says of them, “How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.” The plague awakens them to the value of living and all it entails by isolating them with the peril of death ever-present.
At first they are made aware of separation and the love they need and cherish. As the plague progresses, even their memories begin to lose meaning. “Without memories, without hope, they lived for the moment only. Indeed the here and now had come to mean everything to them. For there is no denying that the plague had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship. Naturally enough, since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left us but a series of present moments.”
It is here late in the novel that Camus reveals that the apparent omniscient narrator has actually been Dr. Rieux, who slides into first person as awareness of the effects of the plague rise to a conscious level for all.
The people of Oran move from an unconscious awareness to a deep recognition of the value of life as they are dehumanized by their exile.
Camus in this novel asks the question, When faced with the horror of the plague, what does man do? What does he think?
Various characters in the novel represent the possibilities, the choices as well as the difficulties each must face.
Father Paneloux chooses to understand the plague in terms of his belief in God and what he sees as divine justice. In a powerful sermon, he tells the people of Oran, “Calamity has come on you, my brethren, and, my brethren, you deserved it. … If today the plague is in your midst, that is because the hour has struck for taking thought. The just man need have no fear, but the evildoer has good cause to tremble.”
Dr. Rieux, in contrast, is interested only in relieving human suffering, not in pointing out its excellence. He says that “since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where he sits in silence.”
Father Paneloux does indeed experience difficulties in finding solace in his belief in divine justice when he too begins to work to avert the plague. He and Rieux watch a small boy suffer and die while they hope that a new serum will succeed. Rieux fiercely confronts Paneloux at this moment. “That child, anyhow, was innocent, and you know it as well as I do.” Paneloux responds by saying that “perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.”
But soon he himself is deeply troubled. Although he does not relinquish his faith, he suffers greatly toward the end of his life when he too dies of plague.
Tarrou, who is Rieux’s friend and who organizes a volunteer sanitation squad, serves as Paneloux’s counterpart: He deals with the plague as an active worker but his goal is more transcendent than Rieux’s. Tarrou says, “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.” And he adds, “What interests me is learning how to become a saint.” Rieux responds by saying, “I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man.”
Raymond Rambert is a journalist from Paris caught in the plaque-ridden city that is not his home. He wants to escape—not through belief in God as Camus might argue is Paneloux’s chosen path—but through happiness and the love of a woman. While Paneloux, Rieux and Tarrou appear tacitly to accept that personal happiness in not possible at this time, Rambert strives to find some way, legal or illegal, to leave the city. “Rambert has elected for happiness, and Rieux, had no argument to put up against him. Personally he felt incapable of deciding which was the right course and which the wrong in such a case as Rambert.”
But, ultimately, Rambert, when given the chance to escape, chooses to stay and fight the plague. He appears to realize that one cannot elect for happiness in the face of disaster. One must fight first. But the answer is not so easy. Rambert gains little by staying and the plague takes its toll not only on his present happiness but on his potential for happiness as well.
At the close of the novel, when the plague has lifted and he’s about to be reunited with his mistress, he thinks, “If only I could put the clock back and be once the man who, at the outbreak of the epidemic, has one thought and one desire: to escape and return to the woman he loved! But that, he knew, was out of the question now; he had changed too greatly. The plague has forced on him a detachment which, try as he might, he couldn’t think away, and which like a formless fear haunted his mind.”
Early in the novel we learn that “Rieux pulled himself together. There lay certitude; there in the daily round [meaning his visits to the stricken]. All the rest hung on mere threads and trivial contingencies; you couldn’t waste your time on it. The thing was to do your job as it should be done.” He does not seem heroic in his automaton devotion to diagnosing and isolating the sick, for he is never able to say he cures. He says, “There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which makes some people smile but the only means of fighting a plague is common decency.” He sees life as worth living and men as worth helping.
After the plague has subsided, we learn 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 time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
Somehow the plague subsided but not perhaps because it was beaten. Dr. Rieux knew that the plague “never dies or disappears for good. … It would rouse up … again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” This is the closing line of the novel.
Some have suggested that Camus was portraying the holocaust of World War II, particularly because he tell us in the novel’s first sentence that the events in this chronicle occurred in the 1940s.
I argue that the plague represents anything that destroys life, that imprisons, exiles and deprives man of happiness and hope. As Tarrou and Rieux conclude, “a fight must be put up, in this way or that, and there must be no bowing down.”
The Fall confronts the reader, not with the problems of man’s innocence in the face of the irrational, as I argue The Plague does, but with man’s guilt in a world without reason. Although this novel doesn’t present us with relevance to the Coronovirus, it presents us with the essential question of decency.
As we face the current crisis of a pandemic that crosses all geographic boundaries, our decency must ultimately define us.
The Fall is the confession of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a Parisian lawyer who once defended the poor and victimized. While walking one evening he tells us, “I straightened up and was about to light a cigarette, the cigarette of satisfaction, when, at that very moment a laugh burst out behind me.” There was no one there. This is the beginning of his guilt that becomes more specific when we learn of his cowardice: One evening he hears a girl jump from a bridge into the river. He does nothing and does not report the event. His guilt stems not only from this event, but from his entire past life.
He has given up his law practice and chosen to live a life of debauchery, culminating in his self-imposed exile in Amsterdam. There, in the Mexico City Bar, he confesses his guilt to a stranger, to anyone who will listen, and concludes his confession by accusing the listener of the guilt he asserts all men share. He gives himself the title “judge-penitent.”
Clamence relishes experiences, lives intensely—“I love life—that’s my real weakness. I love it so much that I am incapable of imagining what is not life.”
But his identity is at stake—as our own will come into play in the face of this worldwide crisis of the pandemic we are experiencing.
Clamence says that if he displayed his true identity to the world, his sign would be “a double face, a charming Janus” and above it the motto of the house, “Don’t rely on it.” On his professional card would be this message: “Jean-Baptiste Clamence, play actor.”
Clamence. collects people, especially women. He collects their love and loyalty and considers this an appealing game. He says, “I could live happily only on the condition that all the individuals on earth, or the greatest possible number, were turned toward me, eternally in suspense, devoid of independent life and ready to answer my call at any moment, doomed in short to sterility until the day I should deign to favor them. In short, for me to live happily it was essential for the creatures I chose not to live at all. They must receive their life, sporadically, only at my bidding.”
Clamence is a destructive personality, one that desires power over others.
In the COVID-19 crisis, those who have and those who have not are faced with choices—and with the ultimate questions, Who am I? Who are we?
I end here where I began: With the cry of Job on the ash heap, with Lear in his madness, with Oedipus in his unknowable undoing and with Rieux in his devoted attention to the deed, to his care for others in the face of no cure.
In the world of COVID-19, we must join together in our humanity, in our connection to our inter-connected world and define ourselves by our decency.
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