Misfortune is impossible to predict

What Albert Camus’ philosophical novel The Plague (1946) can teach us about pandemics

Two weeks ago, a good friend suggested I read the French existentialist Albert Camus’ philosophical novel The Plague (La Peste, 1947), with the world’s struggles with Covid-19 beginning to unfold. He said it would make for an interesting discussion. Initially I objected, fearing The Plague might force me into despair, but within an hour had downloaded the Penguin edition onto my Kindle and begun reading.

Upon recommending it to others, I noticed objections to its reading were similar to my own initial feeling, except they were quite immovable in their stance. It was all too raw, too real. Surely, it would also be perfectly a natural human trait to not accept the possibility of one’s imminent destruction.

But Camus is worth listening to, if you can. Having studied the history and pattern of global pandemics for over five years in constructing The Plague, he set himself the task of envisaging what we are all now experiencing, with the French Algerian city of Oran as his novel’s focus.

The central narrator is Rieux, a surgeon, who states simply: ‘This story captures the difficult atmosphere of the time.’ At the outbreak of the epidemic, an atmosphere of indifference among the populous is described:

The citizens of Oran were like the rest of the world, they thought about themselves; in other words, they were humanists: they did not believe in pestilence. A pestilence does not have human dimensions, so people tell themselves that it is unreal, that it is a bad dream which will end. But it does not always end and, from one bad dream to the next, it is people who end, humanists first of all because they have not prepared themselves. The people of our town were no more guilty than anyone else, they merely forgot to be modest and thought that everything was still possible for them, which implied that pestilence was impossible.

Rieux sympathises with the townspeople’s refusal to accept the epidemic, whilst understanding that this is what drives the spread of infectious disease. As has been seen with the onset of Covid-19, people have a natural tendency to battle against restrictions on their freedom: ‘They continued with business, with making arrangements for travel and holding opinions. Why should they have thought about the plague, which negates the future, negates journeys and debate?’ These questions are counterbalanced by hard reality: ‘They considered themselves free and no one will ever be free as long as there is plague, pestilence and famine.’

With an ever-increasing number of deaths, however, the population of Oran are brought to accept ‘this business concerns all of us’, as Rieux’s friend Rambert states. With this new, collective attitude comes terror, but also an increased consideration for one another: ‘This was where fear began – and with it, serious reflection.’ A morbid focus on the number of deaths themselves are now described as a pre-occupation, and an aspect of psychological oppression in Rieux:

Figures drifted through his head and he thought that the thirty or so great plagues recorded in history had caused nearly a hundred million deaths. But what are a hundred million deaths? When one has fought a war, one hardly knows any more what a dead person is. And if a dead man has no significance unless one has seen him dead, a hundred million bodies spread through history are just a mist drifting through the imagination.

Dr Rieux’s journalist friend Cottard states, the only way to understand a large number of dead is to witness them first hand. ‘You should get all the people coming out of five cinemas, take them to a square in the town and make them die in a heap; then you would grasp it better. At least, one might put some known faces on this anonymous pile. But of course it would be impossible; apart from which, who knows ten thousand faces?’

As a global population, we have learnt that the enforced isolation to prevent the spread of infection is one of the challenges particular to combating an epidemic. Rieux begins to ‘become afraid’ of the plague, and with that craves ‘the need for human warmth…one could not always be alone.’

After ‘four surprising leaps’ it becomes clear: ‘separation was to end only with the end of the epidemic. But the lethargy which isolation creates encourages natural agitation, against the recommendations of health authorities – in present-day jargon, leading some citizens to break social distancing rules: ‘The plague left them idle, reduced to wandering round and round in their mournful town, day after day, engaged only in illusory games of memory; for in their aimless walks it was likely that they would always pass along the same paths.’

A clamping-down on these freedoms enforced by the rapid spread of the plague leads eventually to further isolation, as Dr Rieux sympathetically describes: ‘the first thing that the plague brought to our fellow-citizens was exile’. An appalling sense of imprisonment follows:

[…] all of the people in our town very soon gave up, even in public, whatever habit they may have acquired of estimating the length of their separation….Thus they endured that profound misery of all prisoners and all exiles, which is to live with a memory that is of no use to them…Impatient with the present, hostile to the past and deprived of a future, we really did then resemble those whom justice or human hatred has forced to live behind bars.

Camus’ descriptions are hauntingly familiar, the results of his research into historical pandemics thus indicating common characteristics. With a knowledge of the impact of Covid-19, the reader consequently follows with fascinated horror the progress of this particular disease, a plague rather than a virus, and the changing psychology of the community attempting to survive it. Their working lives are now ruined: ‘trade, too, had succumbed to the plague’ and the initial reaction is despair: ‘Every night around two o’clock quite a large number of drunkards were thrown out of the cafés to fill the streets, where they delivered themselves of optimistic opinions.’ With drunkenness comes psychic uncertainty: ‘We’ll all go mad, that’s for sure’ – an ironic utterance from Cottard, who finally does go mad toward the end, opening fire on gendarmes (policemen).

The collective fear of death focuses citizens on survival, removing individualism: ‘There were no longer any individual destinies, but a collective history that was the plague’. One of the citizens notes: ‘it’s not getting any better, but at least everyone is in the same boat.’

At this stage, lockdown measures are instated:

Inside the town someone had the idea of quarantining certain districts which had been especially hard hit and only allowing people whose services were indispensable to leave them. […] ‘There’s always someone more captive than I am,’ was the statement that summed up the only possible hope at that time.

Despite these rules, the local populace are shown to adapt: ‘The townspeople had adapted, they had come to heel, as people say, because that was all they could do. Naturally, they still had an attitude of misfortune and suffering, but they did not feel its sting.’ Reinforcing this theory, the journalist, Cottrell, feels the effect of the plague to be beneficial to Oran’s citizens: ‘Think what you like, I’m telling you, the only way to bring people together is to send them the plague. Just look around.’ At the time of writing, it is difficult to understand this viewpoint. But Camus is promoting the argument that collective struggle binds citizens – and also nations – together, which various premiers around the world have recently been purporting in rallying cries through national news channels.

A pandemic has been variously argued as a similar psychological and physical struggle and state of trauma to those presented by a world war. And so this is described by Camus’ central character Dr Rieux: ‘it is very tiring to be a plague victim. But it is still more tiring not to want to be one […] We had to wait. But the longer you wait, the longer you are able to wait, and our whole town lived without a future.’ In his selfless pursuit of saving lives, gruesomely and described by Camus with unwavering and withering scientific accuracy, Rieux is representative of the best of Oran’s society. The reader observes his exhaustion, his waning energy after a solid year of surgery with no respite. His identity becomes his occupation, and he gives up on any end to the epidemic.

And at that point, of course, the end does come, and the plague is describes as deciding to end its devastation, seemingly without reason. But in the post-plague environment, citizens are initially wary, having so drastically changed their habits to adapt to it:

In some people, the plague had embedded such deep scepticism that they could not get rid of it, so there was no longer anywhere for hope to attach itself in them. Even now, when the time of the plague had passed, they continued to live according to its rules. Events had overtaken them.

Similarly, Rieux struggles to readjust:

He seemed unable to resume the sensible, obscure life that he had led before the epidemic. He lived completely shut up in his apartment and had his meals sent up from a nearby restaurant. Only in the evening did he make furtive sorties to buy what he needed, emerging from the shops to hurry down empty streets.

And yet, ending on a note of hope for those currently suffering under the notion that human life will not recover from the restrictions of Covid-19, the doctor recovers: ‘without any period of transition, he became sociable again…happily returning every evening into the crowd.’ But Camus does not suggest an entirely peaceful life is possible, post-epidemic. Before his tragic death, Rieux’s friend and colleague Tarrou reflects: ‘one cannot forget everything, with the best will in the world, so the plague would leave its mark, at least on people’s hearts.’ He adds: ‘things may work out for you too. In a sense, it’s a new life starting.’

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