When Albert Camus’ novel The Plague is trending online, you know you [we] are in deep trouble.
It is. We are. Published in 1947 and awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957,
Camus’ The Plague is surprisingly relevant to our own predicament today (Q2 2020), sheltering-at-home and locked in a worldwide pandemic.
The parallels of Camus’ narrative with our own situation deserve review.
The first phase of the response to the signs and indications that something is amiss in the domain of public health is similar. In a word: denial. There is nothing wrong here. Everything is in order. No problem; don’t worry. The deeply cynical say: Just because you have a germ phobia, does not mean you can’t get sick.
However, as the evidence mounts that all is not in order with public health, then authorities move to phase one, part two: minimization. No reasons to be concerned. Everything is under control. It is true some people have died, but they are “outliers,” whose health was already compromised. Measures are already being undertaken to handle the situation. The authorities – political and medical – assert they are competent and are doing their jobs.
Phase one ends as the numbers of sick and dying continue to expand. The press lags behind and has a reactive stance, eventually getting a clue and reporting what many people suspect but are too scared to acknowledge: the disease has got a foothold and is already spreading unpredictably like wildfire.
People know people who are sick or dying. The matter can no longer be hushed up. This ushers in phase two. The authorities – both medical and political – scramble to respond.
The authorities are well intentioned but overwhelmed. They limit their initial efforts to putting up some discrete posters about sanitation. The politicians say: we do not want the public to panic. The doctors say: without prompt and strict measures half of the city is going to get infected and many more will die. When the authorities do react, the response is clumsily calibrated, accompanied by ample blame shifting, finger pointing, second guessing, alternatingly too little and too much. Unlike phase one in which the single defense mechanism of denial predominates, no one single defense mechanism characterizes phase two.
Some people project blame on others; many people blame themselves. We have the medical moment, the religious moment, the existential (Dostoyevskian) moment, the opportunistic moment, and the absurdist moment.
In Camus’ narrative, the treatment for the bubonic plague is called a “serum,” presumably a blood extract containing antibodies from survivors. It is one for the “no good deed goes unpunished” file. Camus’ narrator describes the serum as helping boost the person’s natural defenses, thus prolonging the death agony in one case described in detail.
Rumors join alternative facts, dangerous half truths, and total nonsense in trying to figure out what is going on. In ancient times this results in Christians persecuting the Muslims, Muslims persecuting the Christians, and everyone persecuting the Jews. Okay, it’s not funny, and all these humans without exception form an aggressive species.
While fear is a common factor in all plagues, both past and present, today (Q2 2020) we also experience fear based on accurate information. As we watch the red dots proliferate on the map of the planet earth, we realize there is no where to hide. When the dictator of some central Asia “-Stan” reports there is no virus in his land, everyone knows he is a liar. This is as close as we can get to good news. The luxury cruise ship that is supposed to be isolated and hermetically sealed off becomes a petri dish spreading contagion at every stop between New Zealand and the Caribbean.
Questionable and even bogus treatments emerge – not anti-malaria drugs to treat a virus as in our own time, but pseudo-remedies such as drinking wine: “wine kills the microbe,” advertised by bars and restaurants in Oran, after all Algeria was a French colony. The good thing about wine is that even if it does not cure a person of the plague or coronavirus, it will generally not kill you.
The first response is to project blame outward. The ancient Greek historian Thucydides (c. 460 BCE – c. 400 BCE) noted that the plague that ravaged Athens came from Egypt and Ethiopia. While some people blame foreigners [for example, Camus’ Oran, Algeria, was a port city visited by “oriental diseases” from times past] other blame themselves.
This is the religious moment. Camus describes Father Paneloux as a “militant Jesuit.” He gives a fire and brimstone sermon: “Sinner repent! This is a message from God – you are all gonna burn!” But the plague carries off sinner and saint, young and old, innocent and guilty, alike. Illness is, in that sense, the great equalizer. In the end [spoiler alert!], Father Paneloux gets sick and dies, refusing to call the doctor, demonstrating his commitment to the Lord.
Next is the Dostoyevskian moment, in which an innocent young boy is described in detail as being wracked by the disease. He is given the anti-toxin serum – an early version of would-be antibiotics – but it only prologues his agony – and then he dies. This is the Alyoshia moment that there is no valid reason – no matter how beneficial the consequences – to cause suffering to an innocent child. In that sense, Camus is a Kantian, not a utilitarian – do not look to the consequences of an action, look to the motive to determine the moral worth of the action. So much for the Tramway problem.
Every person reacts to the predicament of the plague differently, and in line with his or her own personality. A man named Cottard who was in despair over a personal secret and had tried to kill himself, finds new meaning and vitality in becoming a smuggler. He thrives in a situation in which others are struggling, apparently because everyone else is not as afraid as he was. In the end, Cottard goes off the deep end and starts randomly shooting at pedestrians in the street, killing a dog before being cornered and arrested by the police.
The plague is the ultimate vehicle for absurdity. It is completely arbitrary and random in its behavior. The absurd is provides a story within the story. One character, Joseph Grand, a statistician who keeps track of the mounting numbers of dead, guards his free time in the evenings. He is working on the equivalent of the great American novel, but in French occupied Algeria in North Africa.
In a scene in which Camus was surely inspired by the fantasy writer Jorge Luis Borges, Grand’s novel is described as consisting in hundreds of pages of the same sentence, over and over again. Nietzsche’s eternal return of the same is inscribed as the first sentence of Grand’s novel, which, if Grand, the author, gets just right, will assure the literary and commercial success of everything that follows. Even when Grant burns the “novel” in despair, nothing is lost, since it is just one sentence and its variations which he knows by heart.
Just as the plague exposes the cracks in the political and healthcare systems, it exposes the weak spots in matters of the heart. Absence makes the heart grow fonder – as those engaged in an out of town visit are prevented from reentering the city.
But absence also creates a space into which to project jealousy, hostility, hopes, and fears. Couples that seem to get along just fine, find that jealousy suddenly takes hold. Those that did not feel close, discover new intimacy. Those that were intimate, feel estranged. Sons who neglected their mothers are suddenly preoccupied with mom’s well being.
The third phase of the plague shows that the disease is in control. Notwithstanding the effective and ineffective interventions of the political and medical authorities, the disease determines when people will go back to work and life will get back to normal. Camus: From this moment, the citizens are apparently left to the whims of the heaven, that is to say that they suffered and hoped without reason. The medical personnel put their heads down and do their duty, visiting the sick, declaring houses quarantined, organizing burial parties, arranging disinfection routines, absent a cure, coordinating and concentrating on damage control and reduction.
Finally, the disease runs its course when it runs out victims susceptible to its action and intervention by the authorities—medical and political—succeeds in stemming its tide.
The protagonist of Camus’ novel, Bernard Rieux, is an early version of Dr Anthony Fauci. “Rieux” means “laughing” in French, and though Dr Rieux is by no means a humorless individual, the bubonic plague provides few opportunities for laughter. He goes about doing his duty, making the tough decisions that need to be made, speaking truth to power and confronting the political authorities, who irresponsibly focus on securing their own narrow self-interest.
As a point of information, the bubonic plague is transmitted through the bite of a flea or contact with bodily fluids, so social distancing is not a common preventive measure. People are still hanging out at cafes in Camus’ narrative. Camus raises the spectre of the pneumonic plague – one that is transmitted as an aerosol through breathing – but, in the narrative, it does not take hold and people continue to congregate in public.
This is a significant difference between Camus’ novel – which after all needs to have people in the same space to further the dialogue – and our own predicament. Today (Q2 2020) people who are sheltering in place with family are complaining that they need to overcome social distancing so that they can really be alone again.
The herd instinct in us humans is stronger than many of us previously suspected and people are really starting to miss holding hands and hugging and breathing on one another’s faces at Churches, sports events, rock concerts, symphony events, theatres, and the like. I hasten to add that no one is saying such congregating is recommended in the short term; just that we are missing such herd-like opportunities.
Camus’ city of Oran, Algeria, is put under a military style quarantine which results in a black market for trafficking people from inside the city to the outside. One of the characters, Raymond Rambert, a journalist separated from his fiancé when the city is quarantined, spends half the novel trying to escape the town, surrounded as it is by military sentries with guns. Finally, in a moment of identification with the aggressor, Rambert volunteers for burial duty, cleaning up after the dead.
In Camus’ narrative sending written letters by post outside the quarantine zone is forbidden on the chance that the pathogen could be transmitted that way. Of course, this makes no sense, knowing what we know about the disease, even then, but provides another example of well-intentioned bureaucratic rules run amok.
Meanwhile, the populace continues to congregate in cafes, theatres, cinemas, and operas, which repeat the same performance in an absurdist version of the eternal return of the same because no new materials are able to be brought in. Telephone communications, in their infancy in Algeria, are overwhelmed and the system breaks down, and is restored to an extent to allow notification of essential life events such as births, deaths, and marriages. Telegrams are the only means of communication – as if we were confined to an early version of Twitter.
Camus’ literary language powerfully comes into its own: human beings linked by intelligence, heart, and sensations of the flesh were reduced to seeking signs of that old style communion in the telegraphic capital letters of six hurried words. This is not unlike the unintended consequences of social distancing.
Camus’ analysis? The plague creates a situation of exile. People are thrown back to their pasts, and are unable to imagine the future. Robbed of the future, they somehow become less human – not animal-like, but zombie like, going through the motions without meaning – the absurdist aspect.
Camus says the result of the fear is keeping one’s eyes lowered before the future and not looking straight at it. Camus: Stranded halfway between abysses and peaks of emotion, the citizens floated rather than they lived, abandoned to days without direction and sterile memories, wandering shadows that could only have gained strength by agreeing to take root in the land of their pain. The future gives us who we are being, and the future ain’t what it used to be. Still, the future is what we humans in our freedom make of it in spite of circumstances.
© Lou Agosta, PhD, and the Chicago Empathy Project