1. Interesting times
An introduction to reading Albert Camus' The Plague during COVID, climate change, and various political crises
‘There is an analogy to The Plague, by Camus. The country isn’t willing yet to admit it has the plague, but it pervades the whole society. We must discuss it openly and honestly... If we ignore it, it’s going to blow up in our faces.’
~ Bob Moses, 1964, meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
Albert Camus was fond of repeating the story of an ancient wise man who would pray to the divinity to spare him from living through interesting times. Camus, living through the Second World War – including the Nazi Occupation of France, its resistance, and the immediate post-war period of social and political unrest, both domestically and internationally – suggested that the divinity had not spared his generation from living through such time, perhaps because they lacked the necessary wisdom.
I always had more modest hopes, and wished we’d never have to live through an Albert Camus novel – but here we are.
Camus’ 1947 novel, The Plague, recently resurfaced. It had been included on most lists of books to read during the coronavirus pandemic, and many articles have already appeared in the general media making a case for this being arguably the novel for the current moment. There are, of course, immediate parallels that can and have been drawn. There was an initial period of denial of what was happening, at both an individual and administrative level. The concierge of Dr. Rieux’ apartment, Michel, was adamant there were no rats in the building, even as more and more dead rats appeared in the building. Later, after Michel died of plague – the first official fatality – the administration prevaricated as to whether or not a crisis existed, then to what degree they ought to do something about it. At first, they issued small notices around the town, but in places where they would not attract attention. ‘It was difficult to see these posters as any proof that the authorities were taking the situation seriously,’ the narrator tells us. But as the death toll grew and reality had finally sunk in, more rigorous orders were delivered: plague was announced and the gates to the town were shut.
Until then the people of the town had continued to cultivate their routine existence, their daily habits, and simple pleasures. In other words: ‘to do business.’
They continued to go about their business, they prepared for their journeys, and they had their opinions. How could they have imagined that a plague would cancel the future, the travel and conversations? They thought they were free, and no one will ever be free as long as there are scourges.
Yet when the plague was announced and the gates closed, all economic activity ceased: ‘commerce, too, had died of plague.’
But what does it mean to read a work of fiction whose central metaphor is already happening literally in the world of the reader? It would perhaps be like reading Moby Dick as a guide to whaling. Even with Melville’s encyclopaedic chapters interspersed throughout the narrative, it would not only be a bad idea to take that novel to be some kind of a user’s manual on how to raise a white whale, but it would also entirely miss the point of the novel itself, as a work of fiction.
In the case of The Plague, many of the current readings seem to be of a consolatory nature, seeking a source of hope in harried times, the literary corollary of hoarding toilet paper in an effort to assert a false sense of control during a period of uncertainty. But Camus already prefigured, and satirised, such a reading in the novel itself. There is a point in the progress of the plague when the newspapers and radio stations turn to promoting ancient soothsayers, with prophecies, talismans, and superstitions, regarding plagues from history. Libraries are raided to find these stories for the public to consume. ‘When history itself ran short of prophecies,’ the narrator states, ‘they commissioned them from journalists, who, on this point at least, proved to be just as competent as their counterparts from previous centuries.’ At this point in the narrative, those who were actively working against the plague ceased to read the newspapers or listen to the radio, because their immediate reality rendered obsolete such mediated abstractions.
In the recent commentary about The Plague, the most cited line from the novel – which is also offered as a précis for the novel’s supposed moral message – is this: ‘that there is more to admire in humans than there is to scorn.’ This line is lifted from a note Camus made in early 1943, during the drafting of the novel, from where it found its way to the final page of the published book, at the moment when the plague had finally receded, the gates to the town were opened, and the townspeople began celebrating, already beginning to forget what they had just gone through. The narrator understands the temptation to forget, and he shares the urge to regain a sense of normality. But he also realises the rush to return to some prelapsarian social state is dangerous because what had just happened had changed things irrevocably, that something like it was going to happen again, and that the population would once more be unprepared. The very next line of text adds a qualifying remark: ‘Yet he knew that this could not be a chronicle of definite victory.’ Earlier, the narrator pointed out that plagues, like wars, always take people by surprise. His point, however, is that neither should. It was in this moment, on the last page of the novel, that the narrator resolved to write a chronicle of the plague, to counter this consolatory temptation – the product of his resolve being the very narrative which the reader had just completed. Camus himself had gone through a great deal over the next few years, between first making that note in 1943, and publishing the novel in 1947, which encourage this qualification.
And so in that final moment, the sentiment that there is more to admire than despise in human beings actually refers back to an earlier moment in the work, during the plague, when the narrator parses this phrase:
‘The evil in this world almost always comes from ignorance, and goodwill can do as much damage as wickedness if it’s not well informed. Men are good more than they are evil, and honestly, that’s beside the point. But they are more or less ignorant, and this is what we call vice or virtue, and the most desperate vice comes from the person who is ignorant but believes he knows everything, and who authorizes himself to kill.’ (emphasis added)
One of the forms this ignorance takes is hope. In a notebook entry from 1942, Camus wrote about how he wanted to show in the novel the way people lose all critical sense: ‘The most intelligent among them can be seen looking in the newspapers and radio broadcasts for reasons for believing in a sudden end of the plague, building up unfounded hopes and feeling gratuitous fears on reading the reflections that a journalist wrote at random as he yawned with boredom.’
A year earlier, when he started writing The Plague, Camus was also preparing for publication his book-length essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. One of the central arguments of Sisyphus is against the way hope can be deployed to distort one’s relationship with reality. Camus referred to such hope as a form of intellectual suicide. In the same essay, he applied this argument into the realm of fiction. In fact, it was an argument that originated in this realm of fiction, and only afterwards transposed into the realm of ideas. In a long section on the work of Franz Kafka – excised from the published version of Sisyphus, due to Nazi censorship, and replaced with a section on Dostoevsky – Camus contrasts Kafka’s novels, The Trial with The Castle, and argues that the latter is a failure precisely because it introduces this element of consolatory hope into the novel. ‘Within the limits of the human condition, what greater hope than the hope that allows an escape from that condition?’
Kafka was a writer of symbols, Camus argued:
A symbol, indeed, assumes two planes, two worlds of ideas and sensations, and a dictionary of correspondences between them.... If the nature of art is to bind the general to the particular, ephemeral eternity of a drop of water to the play of its lights, it is even truer to judge the greatness of the absurd writer by the distance he is able to introduce between these two worlds. His secret consists in being able to find the exact point where they meet in their greatest disproportion.
In The Trial, this distance is achieved, this disproportion maintained, and the work is a success. In The Castle, all this collapses.
The Plague, too, is a symbolic work, and enormous effort was consciously undertaken by Camus over several years to create a work of fiction in which the symbol of ‘the plague’ is clearly differentiated from the reality which it aimed to symbolise, the better to address that reality lucidly, and more broadly. As readers, we should not so readily collapse that difference, and conflate symbol and reality, the metaphoric and the literal, the better to approach both the novel and the world within which we sit while reading the novel. In this way we can see how the novel becomes open to various questions which were of concern to Camus, but which have only become more urgent in our own time. Questions that touch on our growing ecological crisis, and various crises of political legitimacy, exacerbated by anachronistic political ideologies, the rise and threat of political violence, the persistence of racism, and social problems formally structured by technology, generally, but communications technology, in particular.
Of course, none of this is to suggest The Plague should not be read during a period of actual pestilence. When Camus’ mentor, Jean Grenier, received his copy of the novel in 1947, he was based in Egypt, which was then undergoing a cholera epidemic. ‘Your book is so relevant here that one could say it is the burning issue,’ he wrote to Camus in October of that year, ‘with its realistic aspect, which strikes the reader right away.’ But this is simply to suggest that in such a time far more effort is required, on behalf of its readers, to remain faithful to the novel’s contours, its movements, and to its distances. Two months later, after re-reading the novel, Grenier agreed, applauding Camus for his stance against realism: ‘The book should not have too specific a significance,’ Grenier wrote to Camus that December.
Equally, none of this is to suggest that an abolition of hope, this refusal to accept consolation, should be replaced with despair. The Myth of Sisyphus, for example, rejects suicide, both physical and intellectual. After all, Camus concluded we should imagine Sisyphus happy. But this is no easy platitude. The happiness Camus refers to is a happiness hard earned, and it is experienced only momentarily, when the burdens of the day are temporarily set aside, when the tension in the muscles is allowed a brief respite, a relief carved from the very rock which always awaits our invariable return. The point is to be conscious of such moments, and not unconscious of this unrelenting background reality.
Elsewhere, Camus argued that a true literature of despair isn’t possible, not least because a person in the grips of such a state could neither read nor write. And the very act of being able to do either activity is itself a minor rebellion against circumstances that may conspire against one’s ability to concentrate – these unfounded hopes and gratuitous fears – which obstructs one’s attention to the present moment, and our capacity to imagine it otherwise. That Camus chose to write the novel in the form of a chronicle – which positions the reader outside of the events described and after the fact – suggests that perhaps it is best for us to read – or re-read – the novel after the pandemic, or at least during its later phases, rather than at the beginning of such an event. This is to ensure we don’t forget what we have just gone through, what we have just learned, about ourselves and each other, and to ensure that we don’t slip inattentively back into the very state of unreality which accompanied our everyday lives prior to the pandemic, if only to prepare us for the next crisis, which will surely come, be it viral, environmental, or political. It was certainly to achieve, and to maintain, this state of individual rebellion that the narrator at the end of the novel chose to begin writing his chronicle. And it is to share in this rebellious spirit – and perhaps to build upon it in practice, together with other individuals in the present moment – that we are invited to read The Plague.
In an interview in 1951, in preparation for the publication of his book-length essay, The Rebel, Camus reflected on The Myth of Sisyphus, which he completed writing nearly ten years prior. ‘Even as I was writing The Myth of Sisyphus I was thinking about the essay on revolt that I would write later on, in which I would attempt, after having described the different aspects of the feeling of the absurd, to describe the different attitudes of man in revolt.’ In this intervening ten years, Camus also conceived, wrote, and published, The Plague. During the same period, he moved from obscurity in Algeria, to renown in France, and then international fame. In that same interview, Camus added: ‘And then there are new events that enrich or correct what has come to one through observation, the continual lessons life offers, which you have to reconcile with those of your earlier experiences.’
The newsletters that follow attempt to describe some of these events, these observations, and these lessons that life offered to Albert Camus during this period, which, in part, he transfigured in order to create The Plague. A period, unfortunately, the consequences of which, the still unresolved contradictions at its centre, and the repeated errors of political judgement, continues to reverberate to this day – and provides the deep background to our current reading of the novel, and its fatal, ongoing relevance.