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Camus’ Plague and Ours

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.

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 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.

Average Values

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.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on August 14, 2020 at 10:19:13 am

I have always thought ridiculous the notion that Camus wrote an allegory of la Resistance and of human nature under Nazi occupation. He was too talented to write allegory, let alone poor allegory, and the French offered too little resistance to warrant such a good novel.

As for lessons from Camus for the Red China Pandemic, examining the essential themes and characters of the novel serves the purpose of showing there are but few:
Foremost is the sacrificial-Christianity of Father Paneloux and the stoic courage of Dr Rieux as they struggle to save souls and lives. In their dedication to duty and courage in caring for the sick both professional men can be seen as models of current behavior by hospital personnel and, perhaps, even by some clergy. Yet, sadly, anti-religious animus of today's secular regulators, their harsh ban on religious services and their cruel, total quarantining of hospitals have shut down religion, denying church and synagogue, priests, ministers and rabbis their essential traditional roles in mitigating plague and suffering.(E.g., Father Damien, Mother Theresa and the fictional Fra Cristoforo in Manzoni's novel, "The Betrothed.")

The Plague's juxtaposition of pettiness and generosity seems absent today, unless one looks to the major media for its abundant display of self-serving pettiness and its dearth of moral generosity and contrasts that with the magnanimity of taxpayers in funding the bill to mitigate economic disaster. Yet, Camus' contrast of courage and cowardice can be readily seen today, the courage of ambulance drivers and ER staffers contrast sharply with the cowardice of public teachers' unions which use the Red China Virus as an excuse for getting prolonged paid vacation while shirking moral responsibility to children.

Camus offers a unique (for us) picture of people struggling with mass sickness and death absent the overriding specter of ideology, a scenario opposite that of the U.S. today, which is dominated by the overt, ideological attempts of the Revolutionary Democrat Party to politicize every aspect of the Red China Virus pandemic and deploy it as a campaign weapon in the 2020 elections.

I suppose today's clearest exemplar is Camus' character of greed, Cottard, who profits from the plague and is saddened to see it end. Today, Cottard can be seen as the major media, the Revolutionary Democrat Party and the Chinese Communist Party. One important difference is that Cottard is driven to insanity at the plague's end, whereas our major media was insane well before our plague's beginning.

After Camus' plague ends, his narrator informs us that life goes on, people learn nothing, yet "we learn in the midst of plagues (that) there are more things to admire in men than to despise." Camus was half-right about that.

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paladin
on August 17, 2020 at 11:22:23 am

I found the most disappointing institutions during this time to be those same religious outfits. They shut up shop at the order of the states with nary a peep of objection.

For a group whose existence and unfettered practice of their rituals is the subject of the very 1st clause of the very 1st amendment to the Constitution, their relative silence and acceptance of government oppression was frankly shocking...

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OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on August 14, 2020 at 10:58:23 am

I am among those who read "The Plague" just this month. I found it an example of how the good in men gets them through the problems that arise from living in a world with natural problems for mankind due to nature's disinterest in our welfare. I saw no malevolent or evil characters: no Gestapo or KGB to oppose. The rats and virus are not willful, the are merely present. As Camus said in his Nobel Prize address, his view of literature is to show the average man how to act better.

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William P Balleau
on August 14, 2020 at 11:17:05 am

While it is still too early to say with certainty since the data continues to roll in and will be analyzed over the ensuing months and years, Sweden's example - and data and initial if tentative studies/conclusions have begun to throw light on this - does in fact appear to be a strikingly more beneficent set of policies, virtually on every level, than the heavy handed, intrusive policies we've been subjected to in the U.S. and elsewhere. And yet interest in this, for comparative purposes, in terms of standard reporting, in terms of more robust and scientific analyses, in terms of inter-governmental colloquies and cooperation - none of this is occurring. Rather it's treated as something like a social or family embarrassment, a subject to be inconspicuously and politely avoided. Hence we become complicit, stealthily, in that "widespread destruction of basic social norms, liberal values, discourse, and debate."

(E.g., Sweden has apparently - again this remains tentative - achieved herd immunity to a high degree, for example they have had only one (1) COVID-19 death reported for the entire country for the month of August to date - as of Aug. 13. Other data supports this conclusion as well.)

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Michael Bond
on August 14, 2020 at 14:36:08 pm

Well said!
Fortunately for the Swedes, they do not have Chicago type politicians who believe that "One should never let a [plague] go to waste."

I would add that the Swedes also benefit from the absence of a "Fickle Fauci" whose tidbits of wisdom are as ephemeral as the mating dance of the fruitfly and as changeable as the chameleons coloring.

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gabe
on August 14, 2020 at 16:23:38 pm

Foreswearing sex without Fauci's mask is a form of abstinence-as-birth control that even the Little Sister's would fund.

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paladin
on August 14, 2020 at 16:55:51 pm

Regarding my original comment above, with a single exception it all remains in good standing according to the study I've reviewed. The one exception is the statement indicating they have thus far experienced only one death due to COVID-19 in the month of August. This was a piece of information I heard from a separate source, a standard top-of-the-hour news item. I now suspect I misunderstood this bit of information for I've been unable to verify it and in fact have since read information contradicting it. So place this one bit of information in a more doubtful light. Everything else I mentioned, however, remain in good standing - is confirmed in the study read. (And the "Other data supports this conclusion as well." statement refers to the high degree of herd immunity they have apparently achieved, and achieved without the draconian measures, the policy-over-reach we've been subjected to.

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Michael Bond
on August 14, 2020 at 17:55:49 pm

“Camus was half right about that.”

Given the fact that it is unusual for a virus to target specifically the elderly, and those who are immune compromised, it would be helpful to know first and foremost, whether this virus was created in a lab, accidentally or intentionally, or if it evolved naturally.

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29594459/

https://www.msn.com/en-ae/news/other/state-department-cables-warned-of-safety-issues-at-wuhan-lab-studying-bat-coronaviruses/ar-BB12EUKU

https://arxiv.org/pdf/2003.12191.pdf

I also wonder how hepcidin in animals differs from human hepcidin and whether that information might be helpful in determining whether something manipulated in the lab resulted in the creation of a novel coronavirus.

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Nancy
on August 17, 2020 at 00:57:08 am

From an 8/13/20 RCP column, a quote from Angelo Codevilla, no mean observer and analyst, sums up our CCP virus experience all too well:

"What history will record as the great COVID coup of 2020 is based on lies and fear manufactured by America’s ruling class—led by the Democratic Party and aided by the complaisance of most Republican politicians."

And so we remain under the thrall and subjection of our political overlords. This is also why Camus's work doesn't serve to help us much at all, the novel features nothing like the overarching political manipulations we have been subjected to, and (seemingly) uncomprehendingly so by the greater part of the population. Though the upcoming election may serve as something of a barometer in this regard.

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Michael Bond
on August 21, 2020 at 17:33:17 pm

The majority who have tested positive for Covid 19, and thus we can assume have been exposed to the virus, have little or mild symptoms. I wonder what the missing link is that makes this fatal to some, while others have little or mild symptoms. Is anyone studying those who have had a fatal reaction with those who had only mild symptoms to see what that missing link might be? Is it possible that there is something that, in addition to being exposed to Covid 19, like a toxin of some sort, or some type of medicine, that, when combined with Covid 19, may be responsible for causing such a toxic reaction?

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ND
on August 21, 2020 at 17:37:38 pm

For example:

“ In medicine, cyanide can be found in the widely used anti-hypertensive, sodium nitroprusside, each molecule of which contains 5 molecules of cyanide. The most common cause of cyanide poisoning is smoke inhalation in fires.”

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ND
on August 24, 2020 at 16:02:34 pm

Does anyone else who travels here, find it interesting to note:

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/08/pandemic-appears-have-spared-africa-so-far-scientists-are-struggling-explain-why

https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/hydroxychloroquine-oral-route/proper-use/drg-20064216

https://www.google.com/search?q=hydroxychloroquine+and+cholinesterase+inhibitors&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&hl=en-us&client=safari

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ND
on August 26, 2020 at 10:36:03 am

https://iai.asm.org/content/71/12/6693

Interesting video that raises the question why questions regarding Proportionality and Statistics have neither been raised or investigated.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X21UboS93qc - H/T Br. Bugnolo

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ND

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