What The Plague Can Teach Us About Ourselves
Michael C. White | Summer 2020
Recently I told a writer friend I was rereading Camus’s The Plague. He laughed and asked if I were crazy. He thought reading such a “downer” of a book was the worst thing one could do right now, when COVID-19 was all too real and ravaging our country like the fictional plague in Camus’s Oran. I replied, however, that it was exactly the sort of book I needed to be reading right now.
The last time I read it was nearly a half century ago as an undergrad. What does a twenty-one-year-old know about death and plague? About as much, I realized, as the current college kids enjoying themselves on the beaches in Florida, thinking the plague and death were for other people. As a novelist, I’ve always felt that literature, and certainly great literature, functions more than to entertain and distract. It can provide comfort in moments of pain and fear, enlightenment in times of darkness; it shows us the need for empathy when we see others’ suffering. Above all, it teaches us valuable lessons about our world and about ourselves, by offering the unvarnished and often unpleasant truth. What better time, I thought, to read about a fictional plague than during a real one.
Camus, who died in a car crash sixty years ago this past January, began taking notes for the novel during another sort of plague—the invasion and occupation by the Nazis of his homeland, France. He viewed the occupation in metaphorical terms. La peste brune—what the French called the brown-shirted Germans and their rapidly spreading, deadly presence—was changed into la peste noir in his novel. Set in a real but fictionalized Algerian town of Oran, the black death in Camus’ story, however, stands not only as a metaphor for the Nazis but as a symbol for a world that is “absurd”—one in which we are doomed to live under the constant threat of death. No matter what we do or don’t do, whether we are guilty or innocent, good or bad, religious or atheist, Camus believes we are nonetheless sentenced to death, a death which may, if we are not observant, give little or no meaning to our life.
But even while trapped in such an absurdist world—both in the novel and in our lives—Camus refuses the idea that mankind should remain passive onlookers. The Plague holds out valuable insights about how we should live our lives while dealing with a plague—one either man-made (the Nazis) or one more existential (the plague that is our individual mortality). Early on in the novel the narrator (who turns out in the end to be the atheist-saint Dr. Rieux) tells us the difficulty of being ill in a world that values health:
Being ill is never agreeable, but there are towns that stand by you, so to speak, when you are sick… An invalid needs small attentions, he likes to have something to rely on, and that’s natural enough. But at Oran the violent extremes of temperature, the exigencies of business… the very nature of its pleasures call for good health. An invalid feels out of it there.
Like Oran, America is a place that values its health, often expressed in terms of raw pleasures, the constant distraction of sports, or the compelling needs of its capitalistic system. Devoted as we are to pleasure (playing on the beach in Florida or going to a bar to watch a game) or the getting back to business (Trump’s delusional wish to “resurrect” our economy on Easter), we simply don’t have the time, the empathy, or the moral courage to stop for the needs of the sick and dying around us. We’re too focused on living for the moment to reflect on others’ and therefore our own mortality. We simply don’t have time for a plague. The novel’s narrator goes on to say, “Think what it must be for a dying man… while the whole population, sitting in cafés or hanging on the telephone, is discussing shipments, bills of lading, discounts!” As for those citizens in Camus’s world, America is not a friendly place to be sick even in good times; during a plague, it’s a disaster.
As in America, Oran’s people at first refuse to believe that a plague can descend upon them. “You must picture the consternation of our little town, hitherto so tranquil, and now, out of the blue, shaken to its core, like a quite healthy man who all of a sudden feels his temperature shoot up and the blood seething like wildfire in his veins.” Later on Camus writes, “Everyone knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.” Both Oranians and Americans know that pestilences may occur, but we prefer to believe they happen elsewhere (the middle ages, China, those “shit-hole” countries), and to others, not to ourselves. We’re too healthy, too vibrant, too committed to living in the present. Oranians, like Americans, are said to believe that a plague is a “mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass” (Trump’s “like a miracle it will disappear.”). We fancy ourselves “free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.” Even after the rats of Oran perish by the thousands, even, in fact, after people start to fall ill and die with obvious signs of the plague, most citizens in Camus’s world retain an almost child-like ability to deny the uncomfortable truth. The same is true in America. We squandered valuable weeks and months denying the novel coronavirus would or could come here.
Camus suggests it often takes a massive shock to our individual and collective systems to end such childlike denials. For the citizens of the novel, it was the shutting of the city’s gates, exiling people from their loved ones and trapping them inside with the plague.
Once the town gates were shut every one of us realized that all, the narrator included, were, so to speak, in the same boat, and each would have to adapt himself to the new conditions of life. Thus, for example, a feeling normally as individual as the ache of separation from those one loves suddenly became a feeling in which all shared alike…
Oranians refused to admit that a pestilence had descended on them until they were exiled. In our country, the virus was at first a Chinese and then an Italian or Iranian problem, not an American one. For Trump, it was a Democratic ploy or media hoax, not one that we would have to face. He even called it the Chinese virus, as if they owned it, had taken out a patent on it. We were told that we had only a few infections, that within a “couple of days [it] is going to be down to close to zero.” It wasn’t until the infections and the death tolls began to soar that Trump and many officials of a similar delusional bent were forced to admit that the “Chinese” plague had indeed become an American one (though even today some adamantly refuse to admit it). Tarrou, one of the main characters in the novel and a committed combatant of the plague, had this to say about such nearsighted authorities: “Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic. And the remedial measures they think up are hardly adequate for a common cold. If we let them carry on like this they’ll soon be dead, and so shall we.” This last point is extremely important. The half measures of those in power, certainly in Oran and perhaps in America, eventually lead to disaster.
Ironically, when asked if they had adequate means of fighting the disease, Dr. Rieux prophetically responds with, “We’re short of equipment. In all the armies of the world a shortage of equipment is usually compensated for by man-power. But we’re short of man-power, too.” When asked if there hadn’t been additional doctors sent to Oran from surrounding towns, Dr. Rieux admits there had been. But he goes on to say something that reflects not only the Oranian state of affairs but those in America, especially where we might end up: “But it’s barely enough to cope with the present state of affairs. And it will be quite inadequate if things get worse.”
If things get worse! They do get worse in Oran, and they will undoubtedly get worse here in America if drastic measures aren’t taken now. Yet, for both places, many don’t heed the warnings, and all will pay the consequences—officials and citizens alike.
And as with our heroic health-care workers of today battling our own plague, Camus gives us the remarkable Dr. Rieux. Part Mother Theresa, part pragmatic Dr. Fauci, the atheist Rieux doesn’t believe that his ministrations to the sick and dying will ultimately prevail. Humankind is doomed to die, if not from the plague then eventually from something else. Still, day after day he gets up and throws himself into the fray, putting his life on the line. There are many others in the novel who, for various reasons, also dedicate themselves to fighting the plague. Just as our own doctors and nurses and EMTs, our police and firemen, and so many others, put their lives on the line every day (my own wife is a physician, my daughter a nurse).
Seventy-three years ago, Camus presented a road map of how a country, or a world for that matter, would have to deal with a plague once it’s upon us. First by having the courage to admit it’s real. And second, by mustering our forces to combat it—be they medical, logistical, economic, philosophical, even spiritual.
But Camus holds out to us even more valuable lessons on dealing with plagues—both those man-made (the Nazis) and those more existential (our own mortality). Camus, the atheist, even offers a kind of religious comfort for those who might need it. At the beginning of the novel, Father Paneloux, a Catholic priest, offers the trite, age-old theological sermon that the plague is Oranians’ punishment for their sins, for not paying enough attention to God and not being grateful enough for his love. By the end of the novel though, his view has altered considerably. He has seen an innocent child die in terrible agony, and the experience has upended his previously banal answers to the nature of suffering and death. In his second sermon to the citizens of Oran he tells them, “My brothers, a time of testing has come for us all.” The “us” is important. Previously, he didn’t set himself among his brethren. A priest of intellectual abstractions, he didn’t consider himself truly a part of his flock, or assume the common suffering of those around him as his own. Now, however, he feels their pain and fear. Like others, he willingly throws himself into the fight and ends up dying.
This sense of being part of humanity, of suffering along with it, is fundamentally at the heart of the novel. Even early on, before the effects of the plague can be felt, some people are already enlightened by this concept of a common bond of humanity. The old man Grand stumbled upon a neighbor who had tried to commit suicide. He saves the man, and when asked by Dr. Rieux to watch over him, Grand replies, “I can’t say I really know him, but one’s got to help a neighbor, hasn’t one?” In another part of the novel Dr. Rieux tells a self-centered journalist who futilely seeks to escape from the plague that he works to help the victims not out of any sense of heroism. “It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea that might make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency.” As the plague rages on, we are told, “No longer were there individual destinies—only a collective destiny made of plague and the emotions shared by all.” Still later, the narrator reflects on the city’s situation: “Now, at least, the position was clear: this calamity was everybody’s business.” By the end, even the selfish journalist has arrived at his own epiphany, that he wants to stay in Oran and fight the epidemic side by side with strangers: “I know that I belong here whether I want it or not.”
As with Camus’s characters, our own plague can and must teach us fundamental lessons. They are certainly Christian lessons, but they can be shared by believer and nonbeliever alike: the need for helping a “neighbor,” of “common decency,” of our “collective destiny,” of “emotions shared by all,” of the plague being “everybody’s business.” My daughter recently called me nearly in tears because the hospital where she works was out of PPEs. When I asked if she was going to take some time off, she replied that she couldn’t do that. What would happen to her patients and her colleagues? And just the other day I had to bring my wife to one of those drive-through testing centers (we’re still awaiting the results). Every day on the news, we hear of acts that I would deem heroism but which Dr. Rieux would term only “common decency.” As a cynic and atheist, I have nonetheless been struck by this widespread sense of common decency by my fellow Americans.
During the course of the novel, Dr. Rieux becomes close friends with the younger man Tarrou. Early in his life, Tarrou saw a man condemned to death by Tarrou’s own father, a jurist. Tarrou sees in the man not a criminal deserving of punishment but a symbol of vulnerable humanity, of our need to be sympathetic to and empathetic with all of mankind—not just those we think deserving of our sympathy. Very much a Jesus-like figure of mercy, Tarrou decides to fight the plague alongside Dr. Rieux. At one point, he says to the doctor,
I know positively—yes, Rieux, I can say I know the world inside out, as you may see—that each of us has the plague inside us; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him.… Yes, Rieux, it’s a wearying business being plague-stricken.
What does Tarrou mean by saying we have the plague “inside us” and that we are “plague stricken”? I think, in part, it means that we carry around with us, from the moment of birth, our own frail mortality, that any moment we can be struck down by our own internal plague, and that we need to be acutely aware of that every moment of every day. We need to recognize that we have been exposed to the plague from the very start of our lives, and it’s merely a matter of time before we get sick and die; but also, we must be careful not to infect others, that is to say, not to hurt or inflict pain upon others along our life’s path. Tarrou says it’s a wearying business to carry around with oneself this burden not only of one’s own mortality but that of our neighbor. In Christian terms, it means to be our “brother’s keeper.”
Finally, at the end of the novel when the plague has seemingly been defeated, the narrator, Dr. Rieux, warns us against complacency, that the apparent victory was only a temporary one. His narrative told “only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.”
Unable to be saints, plague-stricken, wearied, we must nonetheless strive to be healers in times of plague.
Michael C. White is the author of seven published novels, including Beautiful Assassin, which won the 2011 Connecticut Book Award for Fiction, and Soul Catcher, which was a Book Sense and Historical Novels Review selection. He has also published a collection of stories, Marked Men. He was the founding director of Fairfield University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. His latest novel, A Racing Heart, is about the 1936 Berlin Olympics.