One upshot of the coronavirus pandemic is that it gives (some of us but not all of us) greater than usual blocks of time to read. And if we read why not—especially now—Albert Camus? And if Camus then, of course, his great novel La Peste, that is, The Plague.
Set in an unspecified year in the 1940s in the coastal Algerian town of Oran, The Plague is Camus’ grim, anti-totalitarian allegory. On the surface, it depicts Oran’s battle against an outbreak of bacillus plague. Early on, rats rouse from the sewers to surface and die in the streets of the happy town. Though they are harbingers of the coming epidemic, the rodents at first are ignored, or their existence denied altogether. But reality—which has a way of knocking out the crutch from under our deceits and self-delusions—soon becomes irrefutable. Eventually, the only option is quarantine; the walled city is shut, cut off from the world. The Plague is a study of how the various townspeople relate to one another during catastrophe. More broadly, it is a meditation on how humanity acquits itself in crisis. This all sounds rather familiar. The Plague has always been good for reflection, but now it’s truly a mirror.
Camus wrote much of the novel during World War II while convalescing in Panelier, a French mountain hamlet set above the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a Huguenot community that nearly doubled its population as it hid Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi malevolence. The Chambonnais ultimately saved upward of 3,000 souls. Camus undoubtedly knew much of what was happening in Le Chambon, and The Plague is, in some ways, a chronicle of that remarkable history. But not everyone in his story follows the lead of the other-centered rescuers of Le Chambon. Camus crams humanity in all its variety into Oran, and not all of its representatives come out very well. Alongside heroes, The Plague has moral cowards, foot-draggers and deniers, profiteers, and the many who refuse any sense of responsibility to help the sick or dying. Oran is a microcosm of the human world.
The bacillus, for its part, functions in several ways beyond the literal. At one level, it’s a stand-in for Hitlerism and totalitarian evil in the main. At a wider aperture, the bacillus is simply the human condition writ large, what Camus refers to as “the absurd”—the disjunction between reason and expectation and human experience. The absurd describes the human desire for purpose in the face of an indifferent universe against which humanity finds only unending defeat and meaninglessness. But at whatever level it functions, the bacillus is a thing to be resisted. Within the novel, Camus’ central resister is the medical doctor Bernard Rieux, who leads a small cadre committed to combating the bacteria. Rieux’s position is tragic; he fully recognizes the ultimate futility of his endeavor—he knows the bacillus will never be entirely eradicated. And, yet, he manages to find some measure of meaning in the struggle to oppose and not give in.
This might bring to mind another writer who has been enjoying a surge in quotation these last days. In writing about living under the threat of nuclear annihilation, C.S. Lewis suggests that while bombs might “break our bodies,” they “need not dominate our minds.” His prescription therefore is to continue living life. “If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb,” he insists, “let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep thinking about bombs.” Leaving the potential lack of mindful social distancing aside, Lewis’ defiant prescription would resonate with Rieux—certainly with Camus. Judging by how often the selection has been cited lately, it does so with us as well.
Grasping the quote’s context is important. As with Camus’ literary exploration of living hemmed in by plague, in “On Living in an Atomic Age” Lewis lays out the options for living with the threat of instant extinction. Lewis, grounded in Hebraic soil, doesn’t think the nuclear menace changed the conditions of life or human obligation much. In every age, he asserts, life is lived not only under the prospect of death but also under a moral law that insists our focus in the face of death—whether as individuals or the collective—is never simply on survival, whatever the costs.“We must resolutely train ourselves,” Lewis emphasizes, “to feel that the survival of Man on this Earth, much more of our own nation or culture or class, is not worth having unless it can be had by honorable and merciful means.”
Camus, for his part, knows this. In The Plague, as he does throughout his oeuvre, he reserves his condemnation for those who effectively collaborate with pestilence against the weak, either by refusing their responsibility to help them or by worsening the scope of the crisis through opportunistic predation. This mustn’t be, he insists. Despite the seeming absurdity of life—or because we recognize the absurdity—Camus stresses that certain things—including certain ways of living—are simply wrong. “If nothing has any meaning,” he challenges, “and if we can affirm no values whatsoever, then everything is possible and nothing has any importance. There is no pro or con: the murderer is neither right nor wrong. We are free to stoke the crematory fires or to devote ourselves to the care of lepers. Evil and virtue are mere chance or caprice.”
But this is not to be believed. How people love one another, even during a plague, is of paramount importance. Born in Algeria, Camus might have been familiar with the old Bedouin saying, “I, against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.” He would have rejected it. It’s not that Camus disbelieved it. Indeed, one of the narrator’s lamentations in The Plague is his recognition that the contagion has a way of turning everyone inward, of gradually killing “off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship.” Yet while acknowledging the veracity of the Hobbesian temper, Camus endorses, instead, human solidarity.
For Camus, this solidarity is possible because it doesn’t require superhuman effort. It is never “a question of heroism” but rather of “common decency.” Rieux, asked what this common decency means, suggests it is different for everyone. In his case, it means simply doing his job. As a doctor, what his job entails in the midst of a plague is clear. But whatever one’s vocation, common decency includes such things as the simple commitment “to comply with the orders wisely promulgated for the public weal in the disorders of a pestilence,” to “try to do what good lay in our power,” and to not “seek personal respite” to the unjustified detriment of others. Common decency is a basic commitment “to love or die together.”
Which is why so much of the behavior on display in our virulent age is a disappointment. In some quarters, solidarity is as scarce as toilet paper. It’s not just COVID-19 that is exponentially growing but also, it appears, our political division, social fragmentation, distrust of one another’s motives, and skepticism toward supposedly expert claims about facts and prescriptions for behavior. Fearful, too many descend on supermarket shelves like a swarm of Sawyers to greedily snatch up and hoard scarce resources, leaving others without. Others take advantage of the crisis to buy out critical supplies and resell them at exorbitant markups. Still others sanctimoniously bully everyone around them, insisting that if you don’t respond to this situation precisely as they do, then you are a bad person. Whether unctuous, avaricious, panicked, or dismissive, too many of us put the pest in pestilence. Crisis, like booze, brings to the surface one’s true character.
I don’t mean to make light of any of this. It is not—always—simply a matter of selfishness. People are taking extreme measures not necessarily only for themselves but for their families as well. As a father, I recognize that I have a particular responsibility to care for my family. I have an obligation to provide for their essential needs: food, security, shelter, and the like. In most cases, when forced to choose, it is right for me to care for my children first, before I care for those of others. But even in these cases, my obligation to care for my children’s essential needs is not absolute. I must never focus simply on survival, whatever the costs. This is because my children’s essential needs extend beyond the merely material to include the spiritual.
Like all of us, my children will live forever. The question is whether they are being morally formed to habituate within themselves a taste for the other-centered self-donating solidarity of heaven, or for the self-centered other-donating atomization of hell. Everything we do, everything we choose to love, shapes our preference for one or the other. Nothing is neutral. If no one else does, at least those in the Hebraic tradition ought to know if we cannot live by honorable and merciful means, it is better not to live at all. Death is not the worst that can befall us.
As with people, so too nations. It is right for a national government to be concerned primarily for the security of the people over which they govern. This security will be characterized by the presence of justice, order, and peace. These political goods are hard-won and easily lost. But their acquisition and maintenance do not always have to come at the expense of other nations. America, more than many nations, has historically struck a reasonable—if imperfect—balance between caring for its own and exercising responsibility and charity for the community of nations. Refusing to believe in a zero-sum game, we do not make simplistic distinctions between being compassionate and being secure.
Much of our work at Providence is grounded in this desire to describe how the habits of faith intersect with the way we as a nation relate to other nations, especially amid calamity and crisis. We believe the rich cultural inheritance of the West—primarily grounded in our Hebraic tradition coupled with Greco-Roman thought—has much to say about how we live under the threat of death with honor and mercy. C.S. Lewis believed this too. He understood that how we choose to live today had much to do with where we believed we would spend all our tomorrows. “Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best,” he insists in the shadow of nuclear terror. He concludes, “Those who love Man less than God do most for Man.”
Albert Camus did not have so much faith in the security of his eternal condition or the soul of man. But, better than many of the faithful, he was clear-sighted about what it means to love his neighbor and to fear dishonor more than death. The Plague is a testament to the possibilities of common decency even when the very air is poisoned. For Camus, this decency is nowhere better depicted than by those who “unable to be saints” nevertheless refuse “to bow down to pestilences” and rather “strive their utmost to be healers.”