[8 minute read]

Camus’ novel, The Plague, published in 1947, follows the citizens of the Algerian town of Oran as it tries to cope with a pestilence in which people are dropping like flies. Historically, Oran was a victim of a variety of plagues, the most deadly being a cholera epidemic in the 1800s.

In his novel, Camus allows the characters to illustrate the revolt motif he has in mind. Even a quick glance at the townspeople of Oran — Cottard, Joseph Grand, Raymond Rabert, Father Paneloux, Dr. Bernard Rieux and Jean Tarreau — reveals the many possible responses to this shocking, perhaps absurd, but very definitely unwelcome, scourge. Just consider the people who are characters in your own story wherever you are, and you may find types similar to those in The Plague. Let’s look at the townspeople first.

The townspeople

In a town where everyday has been stifled by habits (having sex is relegated to weekends only), natural responses and reactions have taken on the character of simple-mindedness. The Oranian has grown used to a stultifying lifestyle. Now the onset of the plague promises to change things. The Plague is a story of a people who are “up against it.” It is the story of “sudden deprivation befalling people who were completely unprepared for it.” What are the townspeople going to do? How are they going to react to this sudden sense of alienation and separation? What will be their response to this terrifying form of death?

Things begin to change. At first, they react as if they have no feelings at all as individuals. For example, they fought the impulse to wait around for the doorbell to ring announcing the arrival of a loved one from whom they were separated. Or, they tried not to think about the plague, and if they did, it was only in connection with the idea that the plague might make their separation and exile a permanent one.

The avoidance mechanism, therefore, was widespread. The movie houses started to make money hand over fist. Cafes became popular spots, some even displaying signs as a “come-on” to potential customers. “Our plates, knives, and forks are guaranteed sterilized.” Many believed that “the best protection against infection is a good bottle of wine,” and immunization by intoxication was a frequent ploy in the early days of the plague.

However, it became apparent that the plague could not be avoided. Panic and unrest filled the hearts of the people. The authorities were abused. Widespread disorder ensued (coinciding, not surprisingly, with the first sermon of Father Paneloux in he proclaimed the plague a punishment for sin). It’s not clear whether there was a run on toilet paper. The people of the town found themselves at the mercy of the weather. Camus writes, “A burst of sunshine was enough to make them seem delighted with the world, while rainy days gave a dark cast to their faces and mood.” As the hot weather approached, a mood of profound discouragement set in. A spirit of lawlessness continued unabated.

At this time, Dr. Rieux reports that “fledging moralists” tried to calm the people by urging them to recognize there was nothing that could be done about the plague; the best response, therefore, should be quiet resignation and to let the plague run its course. This typifies the response of most of the townspeople to the plague: resignation, waiting.

This attitude resulted in several points of further distress:

First, the people wasted away emotionally and physically.

Second, they lost the power of imagining the intimacy that had once been theirs with a loved one from whom they were now separated.

Third, they lost the faculty for love and even friendship. The alienation they felt with respect to loved ones far away was now extended to those with whom they rubbed shoulders every day. On the streetcars, for example, the passengers tried to keep their backs to one another, “twisting themselves,” reports Dr. Rieux, “into grotesque attitudes in the attempt to avoid contagion.” In the face of such fears, friendships disappeared and love dissolved, naturally enough, writes Camus, since “love asks something of the future, and nothing was left but a series of present moments.” For many, this can be a serious problem. In a recent article, Matt Simon, a science writer at Wired magazine, quotes a woman who said of the current crisis, “It’s like there’s no future.” Simon then explained, “What she meant was we can’t plan for the future, because in the age of the coronavirus, we don’t know what we’ll be doing in six months, or even tomorrow. We’re stuck in a new kind of everlasting present” (emphasis added). It’s like Bill Murray as Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. Every day seems like a repeat of the day before. Tomorrow will be like today and today is like yesterday. And therefore, one’s actions have no real long term consequences. Nothing matters anymore.

Fourth, superstition usurped the place of religion. In the early days of the plague when the disease was like any other disease, religion held its ground. But when the plague became a personal announcement of death, religion dropped off.

The attitude of non-resistance and resignation would characterize the emotional posture of the Oranians for the duration of the plague. Despite the efforts of Dr. Rieux and Jean Tarrou, only a small number of people would decide to fight the plague, take positions on the sanitary squads, or engage in some other meaningful endeavour to counteract the influence of the pestilence.

When, at last, the plague broke, the habit of resignation had rendered many incapable of functioning in any other emotional framework. Though the danger was past, the townspeople continued to live by the standards of the plague; some in continued fear of their lives tried to escape. Others continued to suffer with irrational scepticism. Still others were, by now, allergic to hope. The plague mentality had become a way of life.

This is the peril of resignation according to Camus: the refusal to infuse into each present moment a sense of purpose and meaningfulness results in — or is tantamount to — philosophical suicide. In choosing not to live, one dies before dying—echoing sentiments expressed by the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau about 100 year earlier. For Camus, the Oranians illustrate the need to fully experience life in an incomprehensible universe by taking up the struggle for humanity and against whatever humiliates humanity.

Today, one might be tempted to equate Camus’ view of resignation and waiting with the “sheltering in place,” and “social distancing” that most of us are practicing — waiting, indeed, for the plague to wane. But Camus would regard this as an integral part of the revolt — a resistance fraught with perils: the loss of faith, a possible sense of alienation, and an uptick in emotional and mental health issues.

In my next post, I will write about some of the characters in The Plague, like Cottard — a little con man for whom the plague gives a new lease on life; a guy who intentionally steps to the side of the pestilence and refuses to join the sanitary squads: “It’s not my job,” he says, “and what’s more, the plague suits me quite well.”