Review: The Plague

Review: The Plague

The Plague by Albert Camus

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic.

As with all of Camus’s books, The Plague is a seamless blend of philosophy and art. The story tells of an outbreak of plague—bubonic and pneumonic—in the Algerian city of Oran. The narration tracks the crisis from beginning to end, noting the different psychological reactions of the townsfolk; and it must be said, now that we are living through a pandemic, that Camus is remarkably prescient in his portrayal a city under siege from infection. Compelling as the story is, however, I think its real power resides in its meaning as a parable of Camus’s philosophy.

Camus’s philosophy is usually called absurdism, and explained as a call to embrace the absurdity of existence. But this is not as simple as giving up church on Sundays. Absurdism is, indeed, incompatible with conventional religion. Camus makes this abundantly clear in his passage on the priest’s sermon—which argues that the plague is god’s punishment for our sins—an idea that Camus thinks incompatible with the randomness of the disaster: appearing out of nowhere, striking down children and adults alike. But absurdism is also incompatible with traditional humanism.
The best definition of humanism is perhaps Protagoras’s famous saying: “Man is the measure of all things.” In many respects this seems to be true. Gold is valuable because we value it; an elephant is big and a mouse is small relative to human size; and so on. However, on occasion, the universe throws something our way that is not made to man’s measure. A plague is a perfect example of this: an ancient organism, too small to see, which can colonize our bodies, causing sickness and death and shutting down conventional life as we know it. Whenever a natural disaster makes life impossible, we are reminded that, far from being the measure of all things, we exist at the mercy of an uncaring universe.

This idea is painful to contemplate. Nobody likes to feel powerless; and the idea that our suffering and striving do not, ultimately, mean anything is downright depressing. Understandably, most of us prefer to ignore this situation. And of course economies and societies invite us to do so—to focus on human needs, human goals, human values—to be, in short, humanists. But there are moments when the illusion fades, and it does not take a pandemic. A simple snowstorm can be enough. I remember watching snow fall out of an office window, creating a blanket of white that forced us to close early, go home, and stay put the next day. A little inclement weather is all it takes to make our plans seem small and irrelevant.

A plague, then, is an ideal situation for Camus to explore his philosophy. But absurdism does not merely consist in realizing that the universe is both omnipotent and indifferent. It also is a reaction to this realization. In this book, Camus is particularly interested in what it means to be moral in such a world. And he presents a model of heroism very different from that which we are used to. The humanist hero is one who is powerful and free—a person who could have easily chosen not to be a hero, but who chose to because of their goodness.

The hero of this story, Dr. Bernard Rieux, does not fit this mold. His heroism is far humbler and more modest: it is the heroism of “common decency,” of “doing my job.” For the truth is that Rieux and his fellows do not have much of a choice. Their backs are against the wall, leaving them only the choice to fight or give up. An absurdist hero is thus not making a choice between good and evil, but against a long and ultimately doomed fight against death—or death. It is far better, in Camus’s view, to take up the fight, since it is only in a direct confrontation with death that we become authentically alive.

You might even say that, for Camus, life itself is the only real ethical principle. This becomes apparent in the speech of Tarrou, Rieux’s friend, who is passionately against the death sentence. Capital punishment crystalizes the height of absurdist denial: decreeing that a human value system is more valid that the basic condition of existence, and that we have a right to rule when existence is warranted or not. To see the world with clear eyes means, for Camus, to see that life is something beyond any value system—just as the entire universe is. And the only meaningful ethical choice, for Camus, is whether one chooses to fight for life.

This book is brilliant because its lessons can be applied to a natural disaster, like a plague, or a human disaster, like the holocaust. Indeed, before the current pandemic, the book was normally read as a reaction to that all-too-human evil. In either case, our obligation is to fight for life. This means rejecting ideologies that decree when life is or is not warranted, it means not giving up or giving in, and it means, most of all, doing one’s job.

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Quotes & Commentary #66: Boccaccio

Quotes & Commentary #66: Boccaccio

Let us avoid like death itself the ugly example of others, and go to live in a more dignified fashion in our country houses (of which we all have several), and there let us take what enjoyment, what happiness, and what pleasure we can, without in any way going beyond the bounds of reason. There we can hear the birds sing, and we can see the hills and the pastures turning green, the wheat fields moving like the sea, and a thousand kinds of trees; and we shall be able to see the heavens more clearly, the heavens which, though they still may be cruel, nonetheless will not deny to us their eternal beauties and which are much more pleasing to look at than the deserted walls of our city.

—Giovanni Boccaccio

There are many famous historical examples of plagues, pestilences, and pandemics. The most famous in European history is the Black Death, which killed somewhere between one- and two-thirds of the population. Boccaccio describes the symptom of that disease in grisly detail, noting the “swellings either in the groin or under the armpit,” followed by “black or livid spots,” which very often resulted in death. The characters in Boccaccio’s Decameron—ten young nobles—have the resources to leave the city and retire to an isolated country spot, where they pass the time by telling one hundred stories.

I never thought that I would be in even a vaguely similar situation. But beginning on Monday morning, everyone in Spain—in every region of the country—will be confined to their house, and only allowed to leave to buy medicine or groceries. It will be a complete lockdown, in other words, which will put us in a situation very much like Italy now, and even like that of Boccaccio’s young nobles. That is, we will have an awful lot of time on our hands while we wait out the winter. And we will need to be artistic in passing the time. Already in Italy, the people are playing instruments and singing from their balconies, making impromptu bands. Just a few minutes ago, in Spain, everyone came to the balcony to applaud the efforts of the doctors and nurses—and we are not even in lockdown yet.

It will be a long couple weeks—if, indeed, it ends in a couple weeks. As if the whole society is sick, we all must take to our beds. The future is looking increasingly uncertain. Just last Monday was a normal work day for me. Every day, the virus has accelerated, and the government’s response has struggled to keep up. Now, hopefully, events will begin to slow down with the coming emergency measures. We will have an awful lot of time to sit and think—a maddening amount, perhaps, if we do not know what to do with it. What is even more maddening is the huge deal of uncertainty that has been injected into all of our lives. Apart from the health consequences, which are grave enough, there will almost certainly be economic ramifications that will affect everyone. It is frightening to think of what the worst case scenario might look like. In retrospect, we may see it as a historical turning point.

Well, then, we shall just have to hope that we avoid a worst case scenario, while we count the hours until we can re-emerge from our dens. My own room is comfortable but quite small; and it is internally situated meaning that I have no view of anything but whitewashed walls. It is certainly no Italian villa. Now it is Saturday—only three days of serious disruption so far—but I already miss my old routine; and I know that, in a couple days, I will desperately miss taking long runs and walks. There is a surreal feeling to this whole affair, as if we have somehow been transported back one hundred years or more, when infectious diseases were sources of mysterious dread. 

Considering these circumstances, it is tempting to panic or to wallow in despair. From the present moment, it is difficult to see how this crisis can end. But one way or another it will end. And now that all of the governments of the world are coming to realize the scale of the danger, we will hopefully avoid the worst. We humans have already weathered much worse pandemics (though of course not without some horrible consequences in the interim). In the meantime, like those ten noble Italians, we have to contend with two undramatic foes: boredom and uncertainty. And like them, one of our best allies will be our creativity. We can tell stories, write poetry, practice cooking, or improve our chess game. My main goal is to finally get some drawing done.

And, of course, there are always books to read. Boccaccio himself might be a good place to start. For Boccaccio had an abundance of another one of our major allies in this struggle: humor. I am going to be needing a lot of it in the weeks ahead. All of us will.