Contagious Reading: A Review of The Plague by Albert Camus
“A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure.” — Albert Camus
The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street was an episode of The Twilight Zone that aired on March 2, 1960. A shadow passes over a small town and the residents of Maple Street begin to speculate. They settle on a meteor until young Tommy tells everyone about an alien invasion story he read. Soon the idea sticks and rational conversation transforms to panic and hysteria. The climax of the episode is the shooting of a shadowed figure that turns out to be one of the townsfolk. At the end of the episode, viewers learn that aliens have indeed come to Maple Street. One of the aliens says to another, “Understand the procedure now?” In disrupting normal life procedures, humans seek the enemy and “pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, their own kind.” The episode’s closing narration speaks about a human desire for conquest that does not have to take the form of bombs, but can be found in suspicion and prejudice that result in frightened searches for scapegoats.
A plague, looking at it from one viewpoint, is a form of alien invasion; a zoonotic disease that arrives with little warning. Therefore, it’s interesting to consider human dilemmas in the face of monsters, apply the noun at will — to evil embedded in fascist mindsets as did Camus in The Plague, to the little Tommy hysteria-pumping media, to polarized politicians who politicize the disease, to snitch citizens who gladly rat out their neighbors, to those who have demanded police states, to those are scrambling to profit.
I went into Camus’ book with the through line question, what relevance, if any, does this book have for us now in the midst of a world-wide response to this pandemic?
First off, The Plague is a lesser novel compared to Camus’ other works, The Rebel for example. Yet, even as one of his minor works the novel is perceptive in tangentially touching upon many of the issues embodied in the current pandemic, although it’s probably hard to avoid them in any novel about a plague or pandemic. I say tangentially because The Plague hints for the most part, with the clearest articulation found in the last few pages. It is said friends of Camus critiqued him for playing up his metaphor to the Nazi party much too subtly in the novel.
Bubonic plague arrives at the industrial port city of Oran, Algeria, described as having a casual and thoughtless tranquility, a city where “it’s possible to at once be so dull and happy.” To situate, the last documented case of bubonic plague in Oran was 1946. Camus began The Plague in 1941 and it was published in 1947. The Rebel came out in 1951.
Suddenly rats are dying and before long people develop glandular swelling, vomiting, and black patches on the skin. They generally succumb quickly. Doctor Rieux, who has has sent his wife away to a sanatorium for a rest, reports an uptick in cases. As the government begins to recognize the seriousness of the problem, norms are enforced, for example it is taboo to mention the word plague. There is a desire to reduce public panic. An awares pervades, “There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” This awareness thought does not prompt immediate response. A long period of wait and see takes place as officials grapple with evidence, numbers, and the shifting mindset an announcement of the plague will require. Officials debate the application of prophylactic measures. Meanwhile numbers of those infected climb and a state of plague is announced along with a mandated quarantine. The city is closed. Here we have a bit of inconsistency in the book. Many people move about freely for the most part. For others, “It was undoubtedly the feeling of exile — that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time. ” It is in passing thoughts like this where Camus is brilliant.
Here in the novel is where I’d place most of us now during this quarantine, right between reconciling ourselves to lockdown and wanting to confront the lockdown. As the quarantine continued, people became “Hostile to the past, impatient of the present, and cheated of the future….” Years earlier Daniel Defoe wrote of the plague in London and reported that people in closed houses attempted sneaky means of getting out, and so strong-arm men would be position to catch and return them to their homes. In a crisis scenario feelings can be irrational.
Camus focused on individual moral reactions to the plague. Doctor Rieux considers it necessary to fulfill his duty as a doctor, and for this the reporter Raymond Rambert accuses him of impersonality. “You’re using the language of reason, not of the heart; you live in a world of abstractions.” This is Camus’ critique of the evil found with World War II fascists. Abstractions allow conceptualization and viability similar to the Eichmann defence in which Adolf Eichmann said, “It was my misfortune to become entangled in these atrocities…I stress that I am guilty of being obedient, having subordinated myself to my official duties and obligations.” (1) And note he also said later in his closing statement to the court, “My life’s principle, which I was taught very early on, was to desire and strive to achieve ethical values. From a particular moment on, however, I was prevented from the State from living according to this principle. I had to switch from the unity of ethics to one of multiple morals.” (2). The statements are rife with floating signifiers (abstractions) that distance the ideas from the human.
Rieux similarly, although altruistically motivated, relies upon his professional distancing as the duty of a doctor. To become entirely emotionally sympathetic to each patient would be to burn out in a day or week. Later in the novel Rieux muses he might have incoporated an element of abstraction in his attention to duty that could be perceived as a divorce from reality, but he then justifies, “Still when abstraction sets to killing you, you’ve got to get busy with it.” The impersonal personalized is also the personal impersonalized. As the plague becomes monotonous, Rieux finds he grows out of pity, because he says, it’s useless.
We know that Camus was a fan of Melville’s Moby Dick and the scene with Father Paneloux and his sermon in the middle of a rain seems influenced directly from Melville’s novel but with a anti-church jab.
— — — — — — — —
“on the gate of a field just by was cut with his knife in uneven letters the following words, by which it may be supposed the other man escaped, or that, one dying first, the other buried him as well as he could: —
We BoTH ShaLL DyE,
Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel DeFoe, first published 1772 about experiences in London during 1665 plague.
— — — — — — — —
Baudrillard wrote that in a society of hyperrealism the spectacle is preferable to reality. This is the main difference between The Plague and current conditions. For Camus the plague was real. Today the pandemic is entirely mediated, a fourth estate pandemic in itself. So we get bombarded with unreliable information. The same video of a United States hospital room with Covid-19 patients shown on CBS This Morning is found to be Sky News footage filmed in an emergency room in a Northern Italy hospital. (3)
Whipping up pandemic panic has become media’s most outstanding invention. Panic demands facts but facts are always sloppy and forthcoming. As a result the media are able to position themselves as necessary for anyone wanting to stay updated. In turn, media consuming individuals become inside-dopesters, to use David Riesman’s word from his 1950 book The Lonely Crowd. They accept the panic and they are desperate for the real story, probably as a result of fight or flight impulses, but this real story is nowhere to be found.
Interesting they may find that in an odd return to some vestige of journalistic integrity that there are reports about the influence of China on the WHO, and that there are fundamental problems with CDC numbers. In The Plague we find the pestilence has an ipseity. It was to be believed and dealt with to the best of people’s abilities, not with hyperbole, hysteria, and spectacle.
But to recall, Camus wanted to attribute to fascist extremism is a concept that arguably for most people is tied up with judgments of actions. A disease lacks intent and is not a moral agent, whereas a member of a political party has intent possesses moral agency. So we can see how Camus’ friends and readers wondered a bit about the analogy as exactly homogeneous. Evils rests for most people on a foundation, “Evil is the product of the ability of humans to make abstract that which is concrete.” Fair enough. Yet the author’s interest is always in the manner in which individuals act when confronted by the monster, be it the plague or its parallel.
In today’s climate indignation is passed around like a game of hot potato. China, seeing pandemic blame head its way launches PR campaigns and involves armies of scripted internet trolls to buff up their image on forums, media are silent on previous relationships between US funders and institutions and Wuhan labs, timelines are fudged, stats are rigged, and blame keeps moving looking for something or someone to adhere to.
All of these sorts of hyper managed responses are not found in The Plague. In Oran, individuals consider their personal responsibilities in light of the more neutral event that is reluctantly accepted. Condemnation is applied to Cottard who breaches morality by making money off the crisis by selling contraband.
Early on the death rate in Oran is 0.151% to about 0.185%, or 300–365 deaths a week, although as with Covid-19 there lacked standards of comparison because it was relatively new. But this is part of what’s at stake in the pandemic today. Trained to privilege identity and personal desire, trained to dismiss data and scientific evidence as fundamentally suspect, the populous now is asked to respect data and scientific evidence. It is perceptive that Camus identified the tension in this mental shift, from data generated to support agendas to providing it with, prima facie, a more neutral character.
For a long time the people of Oran are unclear about the cause of the plague and just who is at risk. Interactions on the street continue, newspaper boys continue to cry out the latest headlines, and yet word of the plague must be out because newcomers are not arriving. The city remains into lockdown mode with guarded gates. Jean Tarrou becomes a sort of contemporary Samuel Pepys or Daniel DeFoe for keeping a diary about what he observes.
A negative utilitarianism is applied as the best respone, in the sense of Karl Popper, in his book The Open Society and its Enemies of 1952. It’s the same now. The goal of negative utilitarianism is to reduce numbers of those who suffer as opposed to maximizing the most good for the most people. “The essential thing was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying and being doomed to unending separation.” And so suffering is provided with more value than is happiness. The citizens of Oran find their sense of freedom shattered under the aegis of immunity; they are to inhabit vulnerability while their big mother government is to be viewed as the beneficial protector albeit with tickets, arrests, and guns if necessary.
The critique of negative utilitarianism ends up with Derek Parfit’s ethical paradox known as the Repugnant Conclusion. Do we make the world a better place by creating additional happy people? And if so how do we reconcile personal identities, population sizes, and differences in qualities of live given limited capacity and resources. This underlies news stories and debate about lockdown to support ICU capacity, triage hierarchies — who should get ventilators in a limited ventilator scenario, or whether a country should be ultranationalistic regarding N-95 masks.
A gain of values for everyone may entail a loss of some of the highest values for some, and Parfit pointed out this can end up being a sliding scale in which we all end up with a life of listening to Muzak and eating potatoes, but at least there is a little bit of good in every life. Today we may have lost many of our freedoms and civil liberties, we exist in stay at home lockdowns, and we suffer empty store shelves, but at least we’re making the world a better place by reducing suffering. Or to use another practical example, impinging on personal information privacy, reducing freedom from surveillance, and providing digital proof (chips?) of vaccination are claimed to better everyone’s life in the future.
I haven’t read Kevin Chong’s book The Plague so I don’t know if he brings in any these issues to his rewriting of Camus’ novel but if the publisher wants to send me a copy, I’ll review it.
Camus also wanted us to consider the way people can acclimate to evil. He didn’t have the hindsight of the Milgram Experiment to help with the analysis although the conditions were probably obvious in reflecting back on the war. Authority was to appear legitimate, although not necessarily good or fair, and individuals will not be culpable for their decisions, as with the Eichmann defense. But of course those who oppose the normative “rules” will run into problems, as did Cottard.
The novel presents, as we have been living through, a scourge in which ethical dilemmas gain no particular clarity of answer. Decisions must be made on the spot, although today it seems there is effort to twist responses to ethical dilemmas for political gain. For Camus, the pacifist, a plague brings no explicit articulation of its rationale. Instead it rises nearly to a terrible absurdity. This is a metaphor Camus hopes we see. He wrote in The Rebel, “In the absurdist experience, suffering is individual. But from the moment when a movement of rebellion begins, suffering is seen as a collective experience. Therefore the first progressive step for a mind overwhelmed by the strangeness of things is to realize that this feeling of strangeness is shared with all men and that human reality, in its entirety, suffers from the distance which separates it from the rest of the universe. The malady experienced by a single man becomes a mass plague.” But although natural laws may explain a plague, they cannot explain the evil of humans.
Camus brings a curt, almost hard writing quality to The Plague writing, yet when describing Oran he can become wonderfully lyrical. “On the day following the unseasonable downpour of that Sunday, summer blazed out above the housetops. First a strong scorching wind blew steadily for a whole day, drying up the walls. And then the sun took charge, incessant waves of heat and light swept the town daylong, and but for arcaded streets and the interior of houses, everything lay naked to the dazzling impact of the light. The sun stalked our townsfolk along every byway, into every nook; and when they paused, it struck.” The writing in these passages is like Lawrence Durrell taking it easy. Camus presents a picture, while reading a description of Alexandria by Durrell is like eating sunlight.
In plague or pandemic, people are forced to endure. As for the relevance of The Plague for now, there’s not much. It’s a fine story but it offers little we’ve not considered and it doesn’t go into particular depth. I don’t know if Camus read or based the novel on De rerum natura, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius but there are similarities. In Lucretius’ work, pestilence comes, it will “Depopulous her towns — her streets desert. The vanquished physician with his idle art/Muttered low doubts, or silent stood through fear. In the doomed city, as before was wont — /Short funeral trains contentious crowd the ways.” At any rate, the pestilence brings changes to every character’s life in The Plague and in the end, as Ingmar Bergman so beautifully showed us in his The Seventh Seal of 1957, no matter how we play it, for some, death always wins.