[6-7 minute read]
To say that The Plague is a novel about revolt is not, of course, to say that the concept of the absurd is not overlooked. Tarrou, after dies, and the reader does not want Tarrou to die, and in this, Camus fails to keep the reader at a distance from the characters he’s created. It would have been more reasonable somehow, more predictable, more satisfying if Joseph Grand had died instead of Jean Tarrou. It is not fair that Tarrou dies, and as in all calamities and natural disasters, nothing is fair — and we’re better off recognizing that from the start. Fairness has nothing to do with anything.
So how should one behave in an unfair universe? This is the question of The Plague. How to we live now that COVID-19 has upended — permanently — our lives. We still don’t know what the new normal is going to look like. But it’s clear we are not returning to the “normal.”
Cottard sees the plague as an opportunity for personal aggrandizement; he profits from the pestilence that befalls the city. Grand typifies the common and ordinary person who is tempted to think, “It doesn’t matter what I do, I can’t make a difference.” Grand’s life changes immeasurably because he decides to get involved, to fight against this crazy stupid and absurd intruder in his town. Rambert (who I did not mention) changes also by taking up the struggle. He discovers that love, although it is powerless to alter the fact that we live in a crazy, unpredictable, unfair world, is itself left unchanged and can emerge from the struggle as strong as ever. Father Panelous, a man better than his sermons, never really comes to understand what the plague is all about. His death seems perhaps the most tragic of all. He dies alone.
Rieux and Tarrou experience little character change throughout the novel. They are, if not saints, at least healers.
For Camus, there is no such thing as victory over the plague, just as it seems unlikely that we will ever be able to declare “Mission accomplished” in the struggle against the virus in our midst. Indeed the novel, according to Rieux, is only “the record of what had to be done and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaught.”
The Plague, then, is a call for humans to become, to experience being, authenticity, to achieve personhood — which many people and families are coming to realize today. But it is also a call to realize that such achievements do not come without the refusal to surrender to meaningless, randomness, or absurdity of it all. We still must fight for human dignity, we still must we willing to alleviate pain and suffering where it is found. We still but be willing to take up the banner of love, understanding and solidarity.
We must be willing to live in revolt against any social philosophy which dehumanizes, depersonalizes and destroys human dignity and honour.
Camus also noted that although revolt is first of all a term of opposition and destruction, for Camus it is also an action on behalf of something or someone (i.e. it is a position, not just a negative action) — even if what the action is for is not entirely clear or any more profound than being a decent human being. Thus Camus’ revolt is different than simply being “against.”
As I wrote in an earlier post, Camus was optimistic as to “man,” although rather pessimistic as to human destiny. He had been shocked at Christianity’s response to various inequities before, during and after World War II. And he explained the difference between the Christian response and his own by saying that “If Christianity is pessimistic as to man, it is optimistic as to human destiny [original sin, the fall and a glorious eschatological future]. Well, I can say that, pessimistic as to human destiny, I am optimistic as to man.”
Camus argues that the focus of religion ought not be to defend doctrines, the Bible, or one’s sacred texts, ought not be to defend God, but rather to bring faithfulness and resources of commitment to bear upon our lives — that is, to enable or empower people to be real human beings.
The novel closes with a reminder that what we learn in the time of plague, in the Age of Covid, is that there are more things to admire in we mortals than to despise!