Strangely, reading Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947) during the pandemic did not depress me (further). Instead, I felt exhilarated. Yes, Camus depicts widespread despair in Oran (Mediterranean city in Algeria) as it undergoes months of quarantine. Fear and unrest rise as bubonic plague kills thousands each month But, as usual with Camus, his ideas are engaging.
Camus has intrigued me since undergraduate days. As a young man, I identified with his defiant attitude in “The Myth of Sisyphus” and L’étranger. Yes, our lives are utterly absurd in the sense of meaningless. But, despite all, including an empty heaven, we live. We may be Sisyphus with his futile unending task of pushing a boulder up a hill. However, we endure, and we can even imagine Sisyphus happy. Why? Because we devise our own meaning. As an older man re-visiting these works, I found that defiance less satisfying; perhaps age dulls the sense of possibility. In any case, in The Plague Camus is less defiant, humble, and even more chilling.
The crux of the novel is presented early, when the narrator (Dr Rieux, as it turns out) observes that people consider themselves free, but “no one will be free as long as there are pestilences.” This observation has an obvious, and a less obvious, meaning.
Obviously, epidemics and pandemics curb the freedom of everyone. People spend aimless days of high tension, mourn their dead, and are restricted to concentration camps if exposed to the virus. Yet the situation in some ways is not as dire as ours: people flock to bars, restaurants, cinemas and beaches, despite the contagion.
People wait to be freed from the pestilence. Religion offers little consolation. Father Paneloux, his own faith in doubt, pleads for people to surrender to “God’s will”, not to question a fate that is all part of His design. Dr Rieux is unconvinced. We can count only on ourselves. God remains mute in his heaven, in the face of all atrocities. Rieux, the model of an ethical and thoughtful person, acts to heal the afflicted purely out of sympathy. There is nothing more.
At the less obvious level, the plague represents the propensity within humans for violence and murder. Tarrou, a visitor to Oran of mysterious origins, develops this idea in conversation with Rieux. The plague is often said to represent fascism, but I see no evidence for this interpretation. Tarrou seems to have been involved, in his youth, in a radical left-wing group that carried out assassinations to advance an ideal future. He now realizes not only that no true justification for killing exists, but also, and more unsettling, that “we all have the plague, and I have lost my peace.” The virus can remain dormant, but it never disappears. It may become virulent at any time.
So how do we live? Of course, to be constantly on guard against the resurgence of the pestilence and to take the side of victims. “While unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilence,” we must “strive our utmost to be healers.”
Are we humans worth saving, if our basic natures are so debased? Yes, says Camus. “There are more things to admire in people than despise.” We hope he is right, that we encounter many Dr Rieux. But one thing is certain. To achieve peace, both in the political and the personal sense, we must be true healers. We must be alert to, and act against, the pandemic within.
Richard Sandbrook is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto and President of Science for Peace Canada.