My current novel is The Plague by Albert Camus, first published, in French, in 1947; I’m 14 pages from the end. It documents the arrival of plague in the Algerian coastal city of Oran (modern Wahran) sometime in the 1940s, and the lives of a few men who are closely involved in the unfolding epidemic. The novel is famous, and no doubt contributed strongly to its author’s being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, when he was 44 (Camus would die in a car crash in 1960).
I first read this book in, I’m pretty sure, 1977 (my Penguin Modern Classics edition is signed by me but not dated—a practice I took up in September 1978 when I started at university), when I was 18. I read it along with one or two friends as part of a mini-craze we went through about Existentialism, for Camus was closely connected with that philosophical movement. We had been introduced to Existentialism in grade 12 English class with the reading of The Outsider, an earlier novel by Camus, and were excited by the whole idea of having a philosophy—a considered intellectual stance to the world that could make sense of one’s experience and guide one’s actions. Arriving at the end of high school, we were at the threshold of proper adult life, and it seemed most appropriate that, as intelligent young men, we should have a philosophy as part of our equipment as newly fledged adults.
We all found The Plague to be funny and, I don’t know, manly. We were inspired by the understated, self-controlled heroism of the characters, especially the volunteer plague worker Tarrou. The incidental characters, like the severe old man who spits on the cats below his balcony and the bedridden asthma patient who cheerfully marks time by counting dried peas from one saucepan to another, we found hilarious. We read with attention, not wanting to miss anything, and I think we tried to take away lessons in how to live in a proper, manly way. We might talk about the book while eating cheap but excellent Chinese food in a steamy kitchen off an alley in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. Gosh, those were the days.
Okay, that was me at 18. Here I am at age 61, and am giving the book another go. My decision was triggered by reading an article in the latest issue of Philosophy Now magazine that looks at the novel in light of the current global pandemic of covid-19. There are, of course, parallels, and the recent experience of lockdown makes it easier to imagine and feel along with what the citizens of Oran go through in the novel, but I wouldn’t want to press the connection too far, in part because the literal level of the novel is not its key focus.
Right on the title page Camus has placed an epigraph taken from Robinson Crusoe:
It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not!
This struck me as odd and even mysterious. On the one hand it points directly to an allegorical or metaphorical reading of the work; on the other it seems to warn against putting too much weight on the parallel, since the two things being compared differ from each other in the biggest possible way, namely in whether they possess the important quality of existence. I must say, the epigraph works on me rather in the manner of a koan: a kind of mental mirage that exists somewhere between a profound truth, a paradox, and a joke. But at least it warns us not to be beguiled by a purely literal reading of the story, which indeed is narrated in a scrupulously factual way. And indeed, toward the end of the book, Tarrou acknowledges to the main character, Dr. Rieux (and here I should maybe make a spoiler alert—don’t read on unless you’ve read the book!), that to him the real plague of humanity, the one that he is always really fighting, is the plague of the human penchant to kill one another. Murder is the real plague.
I know that people have speculated about whether The Plague is really talking about the Nazi occupation of France (Camus was a member of the French Resistance), but to me there is no need to go beyond Tarrou’s declaration. Our collective love of murder is a bigger and more enduring plague than any given historical instance of oppression. Indeed, if we didn’t love murder, then presumably political oppression would not even exist, for murder is simply the end term, the strongest case of the urge to impose one’s will by force. Tarrou was galvanized in his view by witnessing the execution of a condemned man by firing squad—an act which he regards, significantly, as murder just as much as any so-called criminal act. For him, the sanction of law does not justify it in the least.
Religion plays a strong part in the novel, not least in the character and sermons of Father Paneloux, but also in Tarrou’s stated desire to strive for a secular sainthood. My thought is that if the real plague is murder, then we need to look at the biblical story of Cain and Abel, which tells how murder enters the world. Cain, envious of the favor shown to his brother by God, kills him. Interestingly, the issue is about whose offering God prefers: God prefers the meat offering of the shepherd Abel. God favors the gift that is the product of killing, so Cain kills Abel—he “sacrifices” him. The precedent of murder is established. Cain envies Abel, but I don’t think that’s why he kills him; I think that Cain is offended at the injustice of having his offering disrespected by God. Although it is Abel he kills, I think the act is really directed against God—he is striking back at his unjust master in the only way he can.
If the real plague is murder, this suggests that it is something external to us—a bacillus that enters us and works its mischief on us. It is not in our own nature. What might this bacillus be? Going back to the Bible, it’s presumably original sin: a corruption of human nature that entered when Eve and Adam ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Only then did murder become possible. The taint was passed on to their firstborn Cain and their other offspring, and thence to all of us. In this view it’s something more like a hereditary disease than a bacillus. But maybe the difference is not significant, since, as Dr. Rieux notes at the end of The Plague, “the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good.” Either way, it’s ever present and ready to recrudesce at a time of its own choosing.
Christianity offers a cure for original sin, but the virulence of the plague shakes the faith of even Father Paneloux, and the other characters are mainly secular in their outlook. It’s as though they have inherited the grave problem of original sin but have lost access to the cure—not unlike Rieux’s difficulty in getting hold of plague serum early in the epidemic. Their world has become a quarantine camp, which is just another type of prison camp: corpses are heaped in lime pits—who will be next? And what was it all for?
When I was 18 I regarded Tarrou as a role model. While I still see him as an admirable character, I don’t feel that way now. He has some saintly characteristics, but even he knows that he falls short of being a true hero. Dr. Rieux is aware that his story lacks a hero; this, to me, might be the greatest tragedy of it, greater than that of the plague itself. Without a hero the Waste Land cannot be redeemed, and the corpses will keep piling up.