Novel * Albert Camus * L’épidémie de extistential * 1947
Once again we have come upon one of these weighty works of literature that have been discussed and analyzed by people much smarter than I for decades. This, of course, is the bane of Literature students everywhere. After all, if there have already been countless articles, books, and essays written about this work by academics and specialists, what else could possibly be left to say? That’s when I have to remind myself that I read because art is subjective. There are as many perspectives as there are readers, so hey, why not write about it a little? This affirmation is brought to you by French Existentialism.
The Plague, written by the Algerian-born philosopher/renegade journalist/human-rights activist/Resistance member/sometime novelist Albert Camus, is a story about a plague. Look, he was a busy man and didn’t have time for creative titles, okay? The epidemic strikes the city of Oran in Algeria, and as soon as it becomes clear that the plague is running rampant the town is locked down. The population is thrown back on itself, and the rest of the book is about people coming to terms with the situation. The narrative follows a small sample of characters who deal with the crisis in different ways. While this is a fascinating study of human behavior during times of abnormal stress, the focus on only a small group of people has the odd effect of diminishing the event. It is stated that Oran has a population of some 200,000 people, but if that fact was omitted I likely would have thought the town was much, much smaller. Of course, it is also mentioned that over a hundred people are dying of plague a day, so the size of the city makes sense. Yet that intimate feel of the novel persists, which is likely because the plague itself isn’t particularly important.
There is a popular reading of this novel that states The Plague is a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, which of course wrapped up only a couple of years prior to the publication of the novel. This totally makes sense, now that I think about it. After all, Camus was a member of the French Resistance, and spent his time in wartime Paris cranking out anti-propaganda and otherwise being a nuisance to the fascists. I don’t know if y’all know this, but that was a dangerous activity at the time. Since Camus had the experience of living in a city during a total lockdown situation, he’d have personally witnessed how people reacted to essentially living under quarantine. That’s what The Plague is really about. The novel is a study of basic human interactions when put under abnormal stressors. I will quickly point out that despite the dry description of the story, it’s actually fairly engaging. Camus is not a master craftsman when it comes to characters or storytelling, but he’s good enough that the story carries its weight without getting bogged down in didactic philosophical musings. This is a novel of ideas, absolutely, but it doesn’t necessarily read like one. All that said, I don’t know that I’m totally on board with the Nazi allegory idea. While I’m sure that Camus’ experience during the war was instrumental in the evolution of his thought, making a one to one comparison doesn’t really pan out. Nor does it need to. Again, the event that causes the city to close itself off isn’t terribly important. It’s the reactions.
The characters, it should be noted, aren’t terribly diverse. They’re all French, middle-class, and men. Considering that the story takes place in Algeria, I would guess that many of citizens during this plague were not, in fact, any of those things (although a quick trip to Wikipedia has taught me that Oran had a majority European population at the time, which doesn’t change the fact that the Oran presented in the novel might was well be in France). That’s somewhat problematic, since it puts a damper on some of the philosophical conclusions one can draw from the story, but even given the limited character diversity, there’s a lot to consider. Dr. Rieux, a doctor, seems to be the primary character, and he comes into contact with a small assortment of other folks, including a fellow named Rambert, who is an outside journalist who gets trapped by the plague and cannot go home. There is also Mr. Cottard, who finds himself benefiting from the plague, and a few others who have distinct experiences with the catastrophe. All in all, it’s a worthwhile examination of how people respond to a drastic shift in their day to day life.
The Plague is, despite the protests of its author, a work of existential thought. I think cool guys like Camus simply dislike labels, because of the fear of being pinned down in their ideas. However, it’s easier for people to think about those ideas if they can have a handle on a broad outline. Existentialism, in its broadest terms, simply refers to the human as an individual and their relationship to an indifferent, at times absurd, external world. That’s it, and that is almost exactly what this novel is about. Sorry, buddy. The epidemic that forces Oran to shut down is entirely out of humanity’s control. It is a horrifying force of nature that kills indiscriminately, and appears to be impervious to the best efforts of humanity to stop it from doing so. As someone who has considered the many manifestations of apocalypse and calamity, plague is just the worst. If an asteroid or whatever slams into the earth, at least you can see it, you know? Also, there’s no spectacle. If the world’s going to end, it may as well go out with a little flair. After all:
“Nothing is less sensational than pestilence, and by reason of their very duration great misfortunes are monotonous…. The grim days of plague do not stand out like vivid flames, ravenous and inextinguishable, beaconing a troubled sky, but rather like the slow, deliberate progress of some monstrous thing crushing out all upon its path.”
Yeah, what he said. Plague is a unique means of destruction because it is invisible, which forces the individual and the community upon itself for extended periods of time, to the point where even the ever present threat of death becomes more of a bore than anything else. This numbness becomes something of a refrain throughout the novel. While the primary characters tend to be more active despite being almost entirely ineffective in their efforts, the population as a whole is almost universally described as being lethargic and morose. This is the cumulative effect of the plague. Even if individuals aren’t directly affected by the disease, they are still stuck in the oppressive heat without recourse to leisure or reprieve. Even the sea is closed to the public. This has a stultifying effect not only upon the mind, but the heart as well.
“Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a fine temper, began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility…. Moreover, in this extremity of solitude none could count on any help from his neighbor; each had to bear the load of his troubles alone…. For while he himself spoke from the depths of long days brooding upon his personal distress, and the image he had tried to impart had been slowly shaped and proved in the fires of passion and regret, this meant nothing to the man to whom he was speaking, who pictured a conventional emotion, a grief that is traded on the marketplace, mass-produced.”
Yikes. Okay, first of all, “alone under the vast indifference of the sky” is the most existential phrase ever written. I mean, come on. As for the rest of this passage, it drills down directly to why the populace as a whole has come to terms with this isolating catastrophic event. People shut down into themselves to the point where communication with others is impossible. Isolation from the world becomes an intensely personal issue here, because everyone has been personally affected, which is of course more important to the individual than the grief of a perceived whole. This is to say that if you have lost someone to the plague, or have been separated due to the quarantine, this is of course a tremendously traumatic event. That sudden, intense grief grows in the echo chamber of your mind and heart. That emotion is larger than anything. There comes a point where you have to express that grief and sorrow, because we’re human and are wired that way, but inevitably the person you attempt to communicate your emotions to is feeling the exact same thing. However, these feelings are experienced differently, about a different set of individuals, and so may as well not exist to the other person. Anyone else’s grief or sadness comes off as generic. Your grief isn’t as authentic as mine, because how could you possibly understand my specific circumstances?
These are the troublesome ideas that The Plague doesn’t shy away from. Yet the book isn’t a total bummer, despite the subject matter. Dr. Rieux, our narrator, loses damn near everything over the course of the novel. Yet at no point does he give up, despite the utter futility of his position. Nor does Rieux see this as particularly noble. Rather, it is his natural response to the onslaught of suffering and turmoil. While his work during the plague was exhausting, didn’t actually keep anyone from dying, and was potentially damaging to his soul, it was still worthwhile work. He was able to ease suffering, and managed to curtail the spread of the disease. He managed to focus on helping his town cope with a disastrous situation without succumbing to despair himself. This, according to the good doctor, is rather the point: “to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in man than to despise.”