A 1947 novel by the French philosopher Albert Camus has racked up sales since the Covid-19 pandemic engulfed our lives earlier this year.
It’s called The Plague and, on the surface, it’s a fairly straightforward story about a coastal Algerian town beset by a mysterious epidemic. But the book is much more than a tale about disease; it’s also an intensely layered meditation on the human condition and the obligations we all have to each other.
I wrote about The Plague back in March, but I wanted to dive a little deeper into its meaning and significance. So I spoke with Robert Zaretsky, a philosopher and historian at the University of Houston, for Future Perfect’s new limited-series podcast, The Way Through, which is all about exploring the world’s greatest philosophical and spiritual traditions for guidance during these difficult times.
This is a conversation about the existentialist philosophy behind The Plague and what it has to say to us today. We talk about the symbolism of the novel and the moral lessons it can offer us in this moment of sickness and racial unrest. We also discuss why the coronavirus pandemic, as awful as it is, highlights a permanent truth about our vulnerabilities and our mutual interdependence.
You can hear our entire conversation in the podcast here. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.
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For people who haven’t read The Plague, can you sum up the basic narrative?
The Plague is a fictional account of the advent of the plague in the city of Oran, which was and remains Algeria’s second-largest city. We’re not given a precise year, but the city is suddenly hammered by the plague. And the story is told by a narrator who at first doesn’t identify himself. We eventually learn that the narrator is also one of the chief characters in the novel, a doctor by the name of Bernard Rieux.
What Camus is trying to do, philosophically as well as narratively, is convey both his experience of living under the plague, namely the occupation of France by the Germans, but also say something about the importance of moderation, which for him is really the most courageous of virtues. And what you find in The Plague are the ways in which Rieux and the other characters join forces over the course of the plague in Oran. What they achieve as a group, as opposed to individuals pursuing their individual interests, is quite extraordinary. And that’s really the whole point.
Camus distills this point in a famous tweak he gives to Descartes. Descartes, of course, is the 17th-century thinker who gave us the “Cogito, ergo sum — I think, therefore I am.” And Camus at a certain point says, “Well, that’s all well and good, if you’re interested in making the case for an individual ego. But I’m more interested in knowing how to make a case for the collective, rather than for the individual.” And so for him, it’s not so much “I think, therefore I am.” It’s “I resist, and therefore we are.”
In other words, what we find at moments of crisis is that people have to resist what’s taking place, and that initial step toward resistance, toward saying “No, this cannot be tolerated,” that’s when you look around and discover that other people are doing the very same thing. And that’s where the meaning is to be found. And it’s a bit heavy-handed, and probably also a bit unnecessary on my part, to point out how that’s taking place today, Sean, with the social movements that have formed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
No, I’m glad you went there. How does your understanding of The Plague shape your view of what’s happening right now?
In many ways, The Plague anticipates not just what’s taking place in the United States today but what has taken place over the course of decades, ever since 1947. The civil rights movement, for example. Or the pressure in occupied Europe behind the Iron Curtain. That finally led to that tipping point in 1989 and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the implosion of the Soviet Union. It serves as a kind of template, this wonderfully compelling and complex template, of the ways in which people respond to governments or forces that pose a threat to their dignity and to their integrity as human beings.
And so, on the one hand, what is taking place right now in the United States in regard to Black Lives Matter is quite extraordinary, and it’s something that I think would please Camus. But I think Camus would also be worried about the excesses of the response to George Floyd’s murder. This is something that he examines in great detail in the essay The Rebel, which is the philosophical pendant to The Plague.
Camus makes the case that rebellion is distinct from revolution. The rebel is not the revolutionary. The rebel, in fact, is a moderate. It’s somebody who insists, on the one hand, on telling that individual or that institution that “Here the line must be drawn. You cannot do this to me.”
But at the same time, Camus insists that we have to see the humanity of those who are attempting to steal our dignity or our life. And it requires tremendous exertion to hold the balance between becoming a revolutionary and doing what revolutionaries always do, which is yielding to abstractions and forgetting the human costs involved, or becoming apathetic and resigned to the way things are.
There’s a lot of symbolism in The Plague, but one thing it definitely symbolizes is the absurdity of life. The plague is absurd in the sense that it just happens. We’re living our lives the way we always live our lives and it simply arrives. And there’s no real explanation for it. It can’t be justified. It can’t be explained.
In the same way, we find ourselves hurled into this existence that doesn’t have any clear purpose and it will end and the question is, how do we respond to that fact? And all the characters in The Plague face this conflict we all have to face between our individual happiness and our obligations to other people. And all of the characters are defined by what they do in this moment of choice.
In the novel, Camus shows how the plague shakes us out of the stupor that we all live in. We have this default mode of life. We fall into routines. We take comfort in certain stories we tell ourselves. The plague explodes all of that shit at once, and all of a sudden we are all facing the same situation and we have to do something about it.
How do the characters deal with this choice?
Well, the protagonist, Dr. Rieux, is frustrated, probably in the same way Dr. Fauci feels right now. He knows something terrible is happening and at first he can’t quite believe it. There are legions of rats who appeared in the streets and are dying, and then a few of his patients begin to develop these really weird symptoms that had not been seen for centuries. But eventually he says, “I can’t avoid the truth, it’s the plague.” And he tries to communicate this to the authorities and they refuse to believe it. And they have all sorts of reasons not to deal with this truth, or as we might say, all these reasons not to tell people to wear masks, but all the reasons are political.
But the main thing about Rieux is that he’s a truth-teller. He wants to establish a one-to-one correspondence between language and the world. “There is a plague unfolding in our city, and we must respond to it.” And his ethic is made more complex by his belief that, though there are no transcendental sources of solace or salvation for humankind, his work nevertheless is his work. In other words, he insists, “I just need to do the best job possible.” So here is somebody whose job, saving lives, is primordial.
Then you have the character Rambert, the journalist, who comes down to do a story on the Arabs and Berbers of Algeria. And when the city is locked down, Rambert is beside himself because he’s from Paris. That’s where his girlfriend lives, and he wants to return. And so he tries to find all sorts of ways of escaping the city. And very early on, following the announcement of the quarantine, he goes to Rieux and asks him for a medical pass that designates him as healthy and able to return to Paris. And Rieux replies, “Well, you know I can’t give that to you.” And Rambert, frustrated, says, “But I don’t belong here.” And Rieux’s reply is quite simple and utterly true. “From now on, you do belong here.” That’s something I’ve been trying to keep in mind as Houston now approaches another lockdown. We all belong here.
There is the character Jean Tarrou, this mysterious man who lives in the same building as Rieux, who doesn’t seem to have any employment. He doesn’t seem to have a job or a profession. Soon after the declaration of the quarantine, he approaches Dr. Rieux with the idea of forming sanitation squads. And we eventually learn why he wants to do this, and it has to do with an experience he had as a teenager who went with his father one day to court.
His father was a magistrate and one day in the courthouse he saw his father demand the death sentence for this small figure and the whole thing seemed distant and abstract. All the teenage Tarrou could do was look at this little man and notice the tiniest details about him — his tie, his fingernails bitten down to the nub, his strange face. But no one else is looking at him that way. They seem him as a non-human abstraction. So Tarrou says, “At that moment, I realized we’re all carrying the plague, and that we have to be as careful as possible not to breathe it on one another.”
If there’s an ethical philosophy in The Plague, it can be summed up in one word: attentiveness. What do you think that word means to Camus?
It’s not the “attention” we find in human resource offices, or in banks, or in department stores, where people are pretending to listen to you but all the while thinking about how they need to respond or what they already have decided they’re going to say in response. What Camus means is what another French philosopher, Simone Weil, called “decreation,” which is undoing yourself in order to make room for other selves in your life. And this is what Camus’s characters in The Plague understand. This is what motivates Rieux and Tarrou — they attend to their patients, to the sick, in ways that are wholly admirable.
Something worth highlighting, especially as we’re confronting our own pandemic, is that the plague, for Camus, dramatizes a permanent truth of our condition, which is that we’re all vulnerable to loss and suffering. No one escapes it. We’re all victims in that sense, and Camus thought we should always take the side of the victim. And if we were able to do that, then maybe we could build a real human community, or what Camus called an “earthly kingdom.”
You’ve said it so well, Sean. It would be an extraordinary thing. I think of that scene in The Plague when Rieux and Tarrou are in Rieux’s apartment, and it’s at that moment that Tarrou had shared his story with Rieux about his experience with his father at the court, and what he has done ever since in order not to be an agent of the plague. And it’s at this moment that the plague is really at its peak. Both men are just exhausted.
But after Tarrou tells his story, Rieux says, “Let’s take a moment off for friendship.” And they go for a swim in the Bay of Algiers, in the Mediterranean. And it’s silent. They don’t say a word to one another. And at a certain moment while they’re swimming, their strokes begin to synchronize. They mesh. And it’s one of the most extraordinary beautiful images in the novel. And perhaps by holding on to this image of just trying to synchronize our lives with one another in ways that speak to our shared humanity, our shared dangers, our shared aspirations, that would be a wonderful thing.
I realize that may sound lame, but this is what I’m reduced to right now.