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Recalling Albert Camus' "The Plague" in our age of pandemic and polarisation

Writing on the one of the world’s topmost novelists, Albert Camus, author of “'The Plague'”, Mugambi Jouet calls him “a thinker for our age of pandemic and polarization.” Titled “Reading Camus in Time of Plague and Polarization”, published in the Boston Review, a political literary forum, Jouet's review says, “The French Algerian writer steadfastly defended democracy and humanity against dogmatic ideologies of all stripes. We need to read and reread him today.” Read on...
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This year has not only seen revived interest in Albert Camus’s novel 'The Plague' (1947), it also marks a key anniversary: Camus’s death at the age of forty-six in a sudden car crash sixty years ago. The occasion has led to commemorations in France but it has been understandably overshadowed in the United States by COVID-19, the fateful presidential election, and beyond. Yet Camus is a thinker for our age of pandemic and polarization. He sought to transcend the divides of his own epoch by warning against dogmatic ideologies on both the left and right, all while earnestly defending democracy and humanity. His writings have acquired an ageless quality. 'The Plague' recounted how a deathly virus destabilized society. It embodied the legacy of an author who passionately explored how to live in an “absurd” world where relentless injustice can test our hope.
Despite his lasting popularity in America, Camus is often misunderstood. Tellingly, in the midst of the Tea Party rebellion a decade ago, Newt Gingrich quoted 'The Plague' while on stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The former speaker of the House tried to co-opt Camus into his denunciation of “Obamacare” as the mark of a tyrannical, secular, leftist government. Camus was, in fact, a European social democrat who backed universal health care and was deeply skeptical of organized religion. Such disinformation—a prelude to the rise of Trumpism—was precisely among the pitfalls of ideologies that revolted Camus.
'The Plague' evoked the shadow of authoritarianism that would resurge in our age. According to biographer Olivier Todd, Camus began writing the story in the midst of World War II when he was involved in the French resistance. Published two years after the war ended, it came to represent the advent of the Third Reich. A nonbeliever, Camus equally used his allegory to call into doubt religious or spiritual explanations for tragic life events. The words of a resilient old man in the final pages of the novel exemplified this outlook: “What does it mean, 'The Plague'? It’s life, that’s all.”
The world that Camus paints in 'The Plague' may appear bleak. In reality, the novel is a testament to hope, resistance, and humanity. Camus explained that his allegory could be read in three ways: “It is at the same time a tale about an epidemic, a symbol of Nazi occupation (and incidentally the prefiguration of any totalitarian regime, no matter where), and, thirdly, the concrete illustration of a metaphysical problem, that of evil.” Camus raises a recurrent question in the book: How may one become a saint in a godless world? The answer may be through compassionate self-sacrifice.
“There always comes a time in history,” reads the translation by Robin Buss, “when the person who dares to say that two and two make four is punished by death.” For the protagonists of the novel, however, death would not come at the hands of an authoritarian regime but in their battle against a virus. As the narrator explains, many were...
“...saying that nothing was any use and that we should go down on our knees. Tarrou, Rieux and their friends could answer this or that, but the conclusion was always what they knew it would be: one must fight, in one way or another, and not go down on one’s knees. The whole question was to prevent the largest possible number of people from dying and suffering a definitive separation. There was only one way to do this, which was to fight 'The Plague'.”
As we continue to struggle against the coronavirus, some have taken issue with the interpretation of diseases as metaphors for wider social ills. Viruses are scientific phenomena, after all. Even so, it is difficult to see which natural events would be more suitable to artistic metaphors. Camus invites us to rethink our world.
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While Camus’s writings depict a world without saints, his admirers sometimes portray him as a saintly figure. Today he is commonly cast as a philosopher of consensus whose wise pronouncements can be cited by anyone. He actually was a divisive figure in his lifetime, suffering regular attacks from all sides of the political spectrum. 
Born in 1913, Camus grew up in colonial French Algeria before spending most of his adult life in mainland France. Throughout his career, he tended to oscillate between the roles of journalist, novelist, playwright, essayist, and philosopher. After briefly joining the Communist Party in his twenties, he became staunchly anticommunist. This led to his falling out with far-left figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre, who lacked his profound reservations about revolutionary violence. Camus was not an absolute pacifist—his pragmatism led him to accept that armed resistance against oppressive regimes could be necessary—but he was suspicious of ideologies convinced that it is righteous to kill in the name of some greater good.
Camus was simultaneously unyielding in his moral commitments—Sartre stressed his “stubborn humanism”—and wary of the tendency to dehumanize those who disagree with us or even people who are indeed despicable. These are among the reasons why Camus was a fierce opponent of the death penalty. He did not wish to reduce people to their worse thought or act.
As many have rediscovered this year, Camus’s humanistic ideals and sensibilities are omnipresent in 'The Plague'. The novel unfolds in Oran, an Algerian city under French rule. A group of volunteers, including Dr. Bernard Rieux, Jean Tarrou, and Father Paneloux, a Catholic priest, choose to provide health care to plague victims at the risk of contracting the virus. The volunteers’ solidarity symbolizes the French resistance during World War Two, which enlisted people of diverse stripes—liberals and conservatives, socialists and capitalists, believers and nonbelievers, and more.
Oddly, the novel hardly acknowledges the evil of colonialism in an Algeria occupied by France. Camus’s critics have emphasized his ambivalence toward French colonialism, which he did not radically denounce. This troubling colonial context is inextricable from 'The Plague', The Stranger (1942), and other writings, as Edward Said, Alice Kaplan, Tobias Wolff, and Marie-Pierre Ulloa, among others, have suggested.
Still, Camus did not fit the typical image of the colonizer, as he grew up in a working-class family in relative poverty. His early career as a reporter Camus saw him document the predicament of Algerians exploited by French colonial authorities. In a series of articles titled Misery in Kabylia (1939), he wrote: “I am obliged to say that the labor system in Kabylia is a system of slavery. I can’t see what else to call a system where the laborer works 10 to 12 hours for an average salary of 6 to 10 francs.” He also denounced various repressive measures by colonial France, as in Madagascar in 1947: “the fact is . . . we are doing what we criticized the Germans for doing.” This concern is not reflected in 'The Plague', which lacks Algerian characters and paints a segregated society by focusing on the lives of French settlers. Without dehumanizing Camus, the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud has exposed these contradictions in the French author’s worldview.
In the novel, Oran is sealed off as the epicenter of the epidemic. Its public health measures conjure social distancing and quarantines under COVID-19. The novel’s characters are trapped indefinitely and thrust into moral dilemmas. Rambert, a journalist on assignment, finds himself ensnared. Oran’s authorities prevent him from leaving. “I don’t belong here!” he protests. He becomes obsessed with escaping to be reunited with his girlfriend, making a deal with smugglers who will find him a way out the city. He discounts the risk of spreading 'The Plague' to other parts of the world. 'The Plague' should not crush his life.
Why do plagues or pandemics occur? Why such human suffering? Throughout the novel Camus calls into question religious or supernatural explanations. Consider how Father Paneloux identifies 'The Plague' as a trial of faith, claiming in a sermon that “God was doing His creatures the favour of putting them in such a misfortune.” Camus subsequently depicts an innocent child dying in agony from the disease in the vicinity of a helpless, distressed Paneloux.
But Camus did not see the world in black and white. He does not demonize Paneloux, one of the few who courageously joins the solidary group of volunteers who care for plague victims at tremendous personal risk. Dr. Rieux, a nonbeliever and the group’s leader, welcomes Paneloux: “We are working together for something that unites us at a higher level than prayer or blasphemy, and that’s all that counts.” Paneloux later falls prey to the disease.
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Caring for the vulnerable is a central theme of 'The Plague'. To Camus this mission unequivocally was a key dimension of social democracy. It remains a crucial issue in an age when the United States is the only Western democracy without a universal health care system.
Rambert, the journalist trapped in Oran, ultimately decides to stay and join the volunteers who care for plague victims, instead of escaping to his lover. Rieux tries to dissuade him, arguing there is “no shame in choosing happiness.” But “there may be a shame in being happy all by oneself,” Rambert replies. Choice is an omnipresent theme in Camus’s works, as he rejects fatalism and emphasizes human agency.
The volunteers are akin to the French resistance, yet they also incarnate an ideal of democracy based on compassion and humanism. Tarrou, who founded the group, finally dies of exposure to the disease. His coming of age had occurred when he grasped that his father, a prosecutor, sought the death penalty—a punishment symbolizing inhumanity in Camus’s eyes. “I was already suffering from 'The Plague' long before I knew this town and epidemic,” he recounts. As I have commented on elsewhere, the United States is the only Western democracy that has refused to abolish the death penalty, and it now has the highest incarceration rate worldwide. Alongside health care, criminal justice was a benchmark of democracy and humanity in Camus’s worldview.
The end of 'The Plague' reaffirms this perspective as the virus slowly disappears. This infuriates Cottard, the character who comes closest to resembling a villain because he only thinks of himself. A smuggler, Cottard profits financially from the disease and its human misery. Realizing that he will no longer be able to do so, Cottard erupts. He takes a revolver, locks himself in his home, and attempts a mass shooting by rabidly firing outside his window. The police eventually break into the building and arrest him. Camus then has a policeman beat up Cottard. Rieux, the narrator and arguably a stand-in for Camus, feels uneasy. The narration suggests disapproval, that doing violence even to the guilty dehumanizes all of us. As Rieux walks away from the crime scene to go see a patient, Camus writes: “Rieux was thinking about Cottard, and the dull sound of fists thudding into his face stayed with him.” The specter of police brutality is still with us.
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'The Plague' rewards our attention today not only because we live in an age of polarization, authoritarianism, illiberalism, and pandemic. In his time Camus also spoke with passion about the threats that ideology, disinformation, and cynicism posed for liberal democracy, as in Neither Victims nor Executioners (1946): “The long dialogue among men has just come to an end. Naturally, a man who will no listen is a man to be feared.”
Throughout his life, Camus wished to transcend the opposition between utopianism and cynicism. When he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, this was his call to the world:
“Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself. Heir to a corrupt history, in which are mingled fallen revolutions, technology gone mad, dead gods, and worn-out ideologies, where mediocre powers can destroy all yet no longer know how to convince, where intelligence has debased itself to become the servant of hatred and oppression, this generation starting from its own negations has had to re-establish, both within and without, a little of that which constitutes the dignity of life and death.”
Camus sought to reconcile idealism and pragmatism, hope and realism, humanity and inhumanity. We need to read and reread Camus.

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