No book has been revisited more in recent months by the general public, serious readers, and public intellectuals than Albert Camus’ The Plague. Set in Oran in North Africa during the 1940s, it documents the struggles of a city in the grip of an outbreak of plague that lasts for months, forcing the authorities to quarantine the town, preventing anyone from coming or leaving. An unknown narrator describes how the various characters living during this quarantine are forced to make difficult decisions about how they should live and what moral codes they should apply to their actions. As they struggle to survive the disease with little real help from the authorities, the community organizes itself to try to fight the outbreak and deal with the consequences. Ultimately the plague diminishes and life returns to normal, but not until many have died leaving the remaining citizens to grieve and try to cope without lost loved ones.
Many contemporary reflections on the book have sprung up in recent months as individuals throughout the world turned to the text for answers about how to come to grips with the onset of a mysterious disease that has made business, political, religious, and scientific leaders seem powerless. In this very basic sense, Camus’ book seems to fit the bill for our extraordinary times.
A Different Kind of Plague
The book is full of compelling characters and conflicting interests, but most readers agree that the main “hero” of the book is a local physician, Dr. Rieux. Rieux is separated from his wife who is in a sanatorium outside of the quarantined city, but he never considers trying to escape to be with her. Instead, he dutifully and consistently works to alleviate the sufferings of his fellow citizens and battle this disease as it strikes old and young, healthy and infirm, those of good character and bad.
In one of the most well-known scenes in the book, Rieux meets with a young journalist, Rambert, who is in love with a woman in France and has been helping them battle the plague. The journalist now has a chance to escape the city and reunite with his love, but he will be leaving the very people he has been working for and his friends, including Rieux. The journalist served in the Spanish Civil War on the losing side and now believes that heroism is no longer a laudable goal. He wishes to simply live in love. Rieux, older and more realistic, tells the journalist that there is “no question of heroism in all of this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency.” And what is common decency for Rieux? He says it is simply doing his job. Here Camus is staking out a position of doing what’s right and decent during times of crisis.
Now I hate to break it to everyone reading The Plague in the age of Covid-19, but when Camus wrote this book immediately after the end of World War II he wasn’t writing about a real plague, and he wasn’t writing about disease in the literal sense. He drew upon historical material about outbreaks of disease in cities throughout history, but in a world struggling to emerge from years of conflict against the forces of fascism, readers flocked to it as a way to understand what they had just been through. Camus’ biographer Herbert Lottman notes of the initial public reaction to The Plague:
For it was obviously what the public was waiting for, a book about their years of trial with no direct allusion to those years, nothing about defeat, Nazi occupation, atrocities; it was all in the allegory. The disaster which strikes the Algerian city of Oran is plague, not war; the heroes are doctors and medical aides, not resistance fighters; the city is isolated not by the Wehrmacht but by quarantine. This is the way the book was read.
It helped readers during that period understand what they’d suffered through, which was not a literal plague but world war. Since we have not suffered through such a war, does this make the book less relevant to our current state of affairs? If we consider all of the unrest in our current world, the civil strife, the ideological conflicts and cancel culture, and the rejection of basic values, the book is perhaps more relevant, more important, and more timely than contemporary readers can imagine. When one unpacks Camus’ career and The Plague specifically, one finds not a roadmap for surviving Covid, but rather a statement about surviving a political period in which the very nature of the European liberal project was under assault by the forces of Stalinist Communism and Nazism—two of the most deadly threats to freedom of the last hundred years. In our world in which the left and right have staked out extreme, inflexible positions, with some seeming to reject much of the liberal project, there is much to be learned from Camus and The Plague today.
Camus, much like George Orwell, was converted to socialism at a fairly young age. For Camus, the choice was based partially on his rejection of fascism, but it was also the result of his working-class upbringing in North Africa. Camus was not raised as a wealthy intellectual. He became successful through merit as a promising student. These working-class roots and the political context of the 1930s with the rise of fascism, the prevalence of socialism as a popular cause, and the war in Spain, moved Camus towards the left.
But he was skeptical about communism from the beginning of his affiliation with the party. Lottman notes that even as a student when he was approached by the Communist party to help organize a group in Algeria, Camus’ journal entries on the matter are equivocal. He mentioned a phrase about communism that a contemporary friend and author had used in describing the philosophy: “For an ideal of justice one must subscribe to stupidities?” While he was active in writing plays to represent the struggles of working people, he remained at arm’s length from the firebrands of the party.
The war, of course, hardened the entire generation of Europeans who lived through it, and Camus spent the war participating actively in the resistance in France. Camus was one of the founders of the French resistance publication Combat, and published frequently in that outlet. He eventually returned to Algeria, under Vichy rule, while he was recuperating from tuberculosis. It was during that period in Oran that he began collecting notes and ideas for The Plague.
After the war, Camus began to achieve legitimate success with the publication of The Plague, and critics began to read his (at the time) less well-known work, The Stranger, published in 1942. Once the war ended both his earlier writing and more recent work brought him wide acclaim.
Camus went on to become a prominent French intellectual who was friends and drinking partners with famous leftists such as Sartre. Sartre of course was famous for declaring himself an existentialist and believing that individuals create their own values and create their own identity or value. Camus rejected this label and interpretations of his works, most notably The Stranger, as being existentialist. Sartre was also famous as someone who was an apologist for the Soviet labor camps and individuals such as Che Guevara.
For a short time, there was a third strong and volatile personality in the group, Arthur Koestler. Koestler wrote Darkness at Noon, which—like Animal Farm— never explicitly attacked the Soviet Union and its horrendous actions. But the message of the book and the relationship was clear, and the surprising broad-mindedness in Camus’ personal life (keeping acquaintances with Sartre on the one hand and Koestler on the other) revealed something about his world view.
Immediately after the war, many intellectuals on the left, including Sartre, began to gloss over or openly defend the Soviet show trials, labor camps, and various human rights abuses. Camus, on the other hand, stormed out of a meeting with Sartre and others, enraged that none of them were willing to confront the totalitarian nature of the Soviet regime. Camus then publicly split with Sartre and debated many who refused to condemn the Stalinist Soviet system either through fear or moral compromise.
Given what he viewed as the unpleasant moral choices presented by the Cold War in which the West propped up dictatorships, for example in Greece in the 1940s, or the murderous reign of Stalin, Camus chose a lonelier and more complicated path. In 1948 Camus had a public exchange with Emmanuel d’Astier, who had also fought in the resistance and was a man of the left. d’Astier was unwilling to publicly criticize the Soviet regime, particularly the forced labor camps under Stalin. Camus, on the other hand, freely and openly condemned the Soviet system as well as the role of the United States in the death of Greek political prisoners who were victims of the right-wing regime there trying to establish a position that did not provide unqualified support to either side during the Cold War.
In his conclusion, Camus did not believe that he could “transform the world, nor man . . . But it is, perhaps to serve in my way the several values without which a world even transformed, is not worth living.” Not only does this phrase evoke Dr. Rieux, but Lottman describes it as an appeal to a form of the liberal conscience and the solitary individuals who “were unwilling to accept without protest abuses of freedom and human decency whether in the Western or Eastern bloc.” This was not an isolated event. After the war, Camus had described the world as besieged by extreme partisans. At its worst, these partisans were perpetuating murder and violence. His purpose, he believed, was to simply represent what he called “average” values since he was simply “an average man.” He said in his personal journal that “The values that I must defend and illustrate today are average values.”
None of this means that Camus did not recognize that the Soviet regime was totalitarian and murderous while the American regime wasn’t. In 1948 Camus helped organize a group of left-wing, anti-Communist and anti-fascist intellectuals in Europe called the Groupes de Liaison Internationale. Camus wrote the manifesto and in it, he clearly acknowledged that while the Soviet system was totalitarian, the American system “accepts the individual’s neutrality,” although he remained concerned with what he described as the American’s “worship of technology” and its reach through the media to a global audience.
It is sometimes difficult to remember that, as fraught with danger and conflict as our current world is, we don’t live in an era like the Cold War in which the progress out of the darkness that shrouded the world after World War II still seemed uncertain, and the growth of Soviet influence was used to justify frequently immoral and costly choices by regimes, leaders, and intellectuals who should have known better. Today we see people calling for extreme action while rejecting compromise and the basic norms of dialogue and discussion.
Instead of relying on such extremism masquerading as heroism, Camus offers us another path. Living as average people and choosing the path that rejects the widespread destruction of basic social norms, liberal values, discourse, and debate. If we don’t try to live as normal, average people it may have more far-reaching effects on our future. Ultimately, the death and material destruction we have seen during our plague may not be the worst long-term loss we will suffer if we get swept along by the inflammatory calls for revolutionary change and purges. Camus and Dr. Rieux can remind us that, during a crisis, sometimes simply doing the average, decent, right thing is, in a sense, more than heroic. It may be lonely and not seem like much, but being average may be the best hope we have.