The Plague

camus_the-plagueIn Albert Camus’s celebrated novel of a plague outbreak, he tells us that at a certain point, the citizens of the afflicted North African town of Oran turn to reading. Specifically, they show a “remarkable interest” in “prophecies of all descriptions. [. . .] The local printing firms were quick to realize the profit to be made by pandering to this new craze and printed large numbers of the prophecies that had been going round in manuscript.” But there is not enough material to satisfy demand, and so after searching “in the municipal archives for all the mental pabulum of the kind available in old chronicles,” they turn to “journalists to write up forecasts” that are devoured eagerly to find literary clues to their personal fates.

Some predictions were based on far-fetched arithmetical calculations [. . .] Others made comparisons with the great pestilences of former times [. . .] and claimed to deduce conclusions bearing on the present calamity. But our most popular prophets were undoubtedly those who in an apocalyptic jargon had announced sequences of events, any one of which might be construed as applicable to the present state of affairs and was abstruse enough to admit of almost any interpretation. (221-222)

Much the same could perhaps be said of The Plague itself, which surely admits of many possible interpretations and is often enough read as an allegory of the German Occupation of France. Plague does, after all, make for a fine metaphor. Even in Camus’s own text, we see how pestilence is made to signify by those affected by it, not least in the fiery sermon delivered by a Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux, as the fever begins to take hold. “Plague,” the priest tells his congregation, “is the flail of God and the world His threshing-floor” (95). Yet as the disease progresses, Paneloux somewhat backs down from his certainty as to what it all means. A second sermon, we are told, “display[s] more uneasiness than power” (229). Perhaps sometimes a plague is simply a plague, and brings with it no great moral lessons or truths.

Indeed, by the end of the novel the narrator’s main worry is how fleeting any such lessons may be, as he observes a population, finally liberated from the epidemic, now prepared to

den[y], in the teeth of the evidence, that we had ever known a crazy world in which men were killed off like flies [. . .]. In short, they denied that we had ever been that hag-ridden populace a part of which was daily fed into a furnace and went up in oily fumes, while the rest, in shackled impotence, waited their turn. (297-298)

The real problem, in other words, is that the trauma is all too easily forgotten, that it is a text that frays or is soon invisible. Hence the narrator’s impulse to write everything down, to draw on his experience as well as the documents left him by others, “so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise” (308). Yet it is not clear whether people’s propensity to amnesia, to forgetting what they have been through, is one of these admirable qualities (a sign of resilience?) or a fault that the text has therefore to rectify.

A similar ambivalence shrouds then the main characteristic imputed to the citizens of Oran, and perhaps to humans more generally: the fact that they are creatures of habit. For it is part and parcel of the way in which the town is described from the outset as unremarkable, ordinary, and frankly mediocre in every way (“a thoroughly negative place” [3]), that in it “everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits” (4). Such routines both hide and are a symptom of “the banality of the town’s appearance and of life in it. But you can get through the days there without trouble, once you have formed habits” (5). People don’t think, perhaps they do not even really fully live, dedicated as they are to “fritter[ing] away at card-tables, in cafés and in small talk what time is left for living” (4). So a plague, whose first consequence is to disrupt those habits, might even be welcomed (in theory at least) as an opportunity for reflection, for awakening and seeing what life could be about when faced with the possibility of its extinction. Indeed, for Camus (but surely not only Camus) the question raised by pestilence is precisely the question of existence, of what it means to be human in the here and now when the promise, or threat, of transcendence wavers in the face of calamity.

Yet ultimately, in a book that struggles to shake off the religious vocabulary that it purports to reject, if there is salvation it is to be found in the repetition that constitutes habit. No wonder, as Camus famously argues elsewhere, we should imagine Sisyphus happy, for what is a man endlessly rolling a boulder up a hill but an image of a creature defined by his habits? Likewise, here, the doctor who attends to the plague victims and the others that help him with the task do so not out of any great ideological conviction or faith, least of all out of any illusion that they are making much of an impact against the implacable foe that is the disease. In the end, after all, the plague disappears because it is imagined to have ended of its own accord, “leaving as unaccountably as it had come. [. . .] It had, so to speak, achieved its purpose” (271). Nor, we are told repeatedly, can we regard those who choose to fight it as heroes: “there’s no question of heroism in all this” the doctor says at one point. “It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is–common decency” (163). As for “those who enrolled in the ‘sanitary squads,’ as they were called, [they] had, indeed, no great merit in doing as they did, since they knew it was the only thing to do” (132). The plague itself, rather than being any great spectacle or event, is also a habit–if it means anything, it is simply “the same thing over and over and over again” (161)–and yet it can and should be confronted by a sort of counter-routine, a sense of obligation that is almost unwilled and unconscious. Hence if there is any “saintliness” (and the novel rather doubts that there is), it can only be “an aggregate of habits” (118).

We are now, of course, in 2020 learning new habits. And let us hope that one day we will have forgotten many of them. One I personally rather like is the custom of applause, of making a noise of some sort, every evening (here in Vancouver) at 7pm, in tribute to the health workers and other key workers, often underpaid and long overlooked, who are going about their jobs in the midst of the pandemic. It is rightly pointed out that that, indeed, is what they are doing: simply what they have to do. And that the applause is ritual without much meaning. But if we learn anything from Camus’s depiction of the plague, it is that such habits may be part of what is quietly admirable, and should not be so readily despised.