On reading ‘the plague’

I have to admit that it’s many years since I read any work by Camus, and I have never read ‘the plague’. Back in those years of voracious reading of great fiction, I eventually realised that ‘great men’ were not necessarily useful in enhancing my understanding of the world as a feminist. However, Camus has become my indispensable companion for two of the first five days of the NZ lockdown.

In particular, he has given me a perspective on the rapid shifts of lens that are occurring daily. He has helped me to see that the phases of understanding that unfold each day in relation to the virus are completely normal. So if I am to read him as a sociologist, or occupational therapist, I can deeply appreciate the research he put into writing this book. Camus immersed himself in the history of plagues. He read books on the Black Death that killed 50 million people in Europe in the 14th century; the Italian plague of 1629 that killed 280,000 people across the plains of Lombardy and the Veneto, the great plague of London of 1665 as well as plagues that ravaged cities on China’s eastern seaboard during the 18th and 19th centuries.

There are layers of meaning within ‘the plague’, which will take another reading to fathom. Camus describes how the plague afflicted a single city (Oran), which became quarantined. This is both similar and different to our quarantine, extends across the rich countries of the world, not just one city or country. However, the comfort and middle class nature of Oran can be used to represent our quarantined sector that is crisscrossed by jetstreams and underpinned by a mobility paradigm that has long defined our concept of freedom and autonomy. “Oran”, for us, is the whole ‘developed’ world, caught in the first embrace of the virus. There may be a developing irony if refugees no longer look longingly across our gated cities, and maybe come to pity us for the privilege that led to such a plague.

Yet this sounds a bit moralistic, and such a perspective would be antagonistic to Camus. In March 1942, Camus told the writer André Malraux that he wanted to understand what plague meant for humanity: ‘Said like that it might sound strange,’ he added, ‘but this subject seems so natural to me.’ The plague is powerful as god, but Camus is at pains to demonstrate in his narrative that it strikes without meaning or moral sense. The plague for Camus is essentially shorthand for the absurdness of the human condition.

His answer to this absurdity is quiet one, delivered by Dr Rieux, the protagonist and narrator of the story. The doctor works tirelessly against death, he tries to lessen the suffering of those around him. In one of the most central lines of the book, Camus writes: ‘This whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.’ A character asks Rieux what decency is. Doctor Rieux’s response is as clipped as it is eloquent: ‘In general, I can’t say, but in my case I know that it consists in doing my job’.

This is one of the lines that will stay with me. The response to something as absurd as the plague, or Covid-19 is decency. Camus s recognised a fundamental and absurd vulnerability in us that we cannot usually bear to remember, which is exposed by the plague. In these days, as we brush up against a ‘new normal’ we can find that this brushing is being done by a wire brush. It scrubs away illusions and narratives that we had imposed between ourselves and the rest of the world. We start to see our own vulnerability and that of others. This is the role of the ‘plague’ according to Camus, it heightens our awareness of the facts that we have hidden from ourselves, but which have always been there. In the words of one of his characters, ‘everyone has inside it himself this plague, because no one in the world, no one, can ever be immune.’

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