Skip to main content

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...
*** 
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.
📖
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.
📖
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.
📖
'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.

Comments

TRENDING

Vishwanath has been unfairly excluded from global list of 100 best cricketers

By Harsh Thakor  Gundappa Vishwanath scaled zones in batting artistry or wizardry unparalleled amongst Indian batsmen. The best of his batting was a manifestation of the divine. He was also the epitome of cricketing sportsmanship. Sadly 40 years ago he unceremoniously bid farewell to the International cricket world, after the concluding test at Karachi in 1982-83., in January end. Very hard to visualise a character like Vishwanath being reborn today His memories are embedded in cricket lovers today when sportsmanship and grace have virtually been relegated to oblivion with the game of cricket turned into a commercial commodity. Today agro and unsporting behaviour is a routine feature Vishy shimmered cricket’s spirituality. His behaviour on the cricket field was grace personified, No one in his age defined cricket more as a gentleman’s game, than Vishy. Vishwanath could execute strokes that were surreal with his steel wrists. His strokeplay resembled the touches of a painter’s brush,

Abrogation of Art 370: Increasing alienation, relentless repression, simmering conflict

One year after the abrogation by the Central Government of Art. 370 in Kashmir, what is the situation in the Valley. Have the promises of peace, normalcy and development been realised? What is the current status in the Valley? Here is a detailed note by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties , “Jammu & Kashmir: One Year after Abrogation of Art. 370: Increasing Alienation, Relentless Repression, Simmering Conflict”:

Reproductive, conjugal rights of women in India amidst debate of uniform civil code

By IMPRI Team  A Three-Day Immersive Online Legal Awareness and Certificate Training Course on “Reproductive and Conjugal Rights of Women in India” is an initiative of the Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC), at the IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi, and ran for three consecutive days starting from December 22, 2022 to December 24, 2022. The online paid certification was aimed to provide attendees with an enriching experience on the gender discourse with a special focus on women’s rights and the much-discussed reproductive rights in India.

Covid jabs: Pretexts cited to justify young, healthy succumbing to heart attacks

By Jay Ihsan   Truth is stranger than fiction – when dedicated doctors raised the red flag against the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines, they were persecuted and their concerns barred from being heard. These honest doctors unequivocally made it known the Moderna Pfizer vaccines injure the heart and human body. One of them, Dr Peter McCullough, an American cardiologist, has repeatedly issued the clarion call to people to reject these harmful vaccines. An equally alarmed World Council for Health said the harmful Covid-19 vaccines should be removed from the market and the global inoculation must be stopped. “In Japan the vaccines were not mandated or made compulsory. The vaccines are not safe or effective enough to mandate them. The day the vaccines go away will be a day of celebration,” Dr Mccullough had lamented during an interview with India’s media outfit, Qvive several months ago. Meanwhile, the number of people jabbed with the Covid-19 mRNA vaccines died soon after or have developed lifelong

Gender gap 17%, SC and ST levels of education between 7% to 14% below upper classes

By IMPRI Team  The treatment of school education in a holistic manner and improving school effectiveness in terms of equal opportunities for schooling and learning outcomes has been the aspiration of all and multiple challenges are faced to maintain and provide proper education. On the occasion of India@75: Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, as part of its series- the State of Education- #EducationDialogue, #IMPRI Center for ICT for Development (CICTD), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi organised a special deliberation on The State of School Education In India with Prof Muchkund Dubey, who is the President of the Council for Social Development, New Delhi. The moderator for the event, Dr Simi Mehta CEO and Editorial Director of the IMPRI. The chair of the event was Prof Jandhyala B.G. Tilak, an Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) National Fellow, the Distinguished Professor at the Council for Social Development, New Delhi and also a Former Professor & Vice-Ch

Rahul Dravid exhibited selflessness in heights unscaled by any other Indian batsman

By Harsh Thakor*  On January 11th maestro Rahul Dravid turned 50. No Indian batsmen were ever more of an embodiment of temperament or grit.as Rahul Dravid. Dravid was the best ambassador of sportsmanship in cricket in his day and age. In his time no Asian batsmen did what the doctor ordered, to the extent of Dravid. Dravid was manifestation of single-mindedess, tenacity and selflessness in sport. One hardly has an adjective to the ice coolness and craft Dravid exhibited in adjusting to the given situation. Rarely did any batsmen exhibit such a clinical o methodical approach to batting.

Data analytics: How scientific enquiry process impacts quality of policy research

By IMPRI Team  Given the multidimensionality of policy and impact research, tech-driven policy prescriptions are playing a dominant role in the 21st century. As such, data analytics have become integral in this space. IMPRI Generation Alpha Data Centre (GenAlphaDC) , IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute New Delhi has successfully conducted a #WebPolicyTalk 6-Week Immersive Online Hands-on Certificate Training Course on Data Analytics for Policy Research, spanning over 6-consecutive Saturdays from October 15th to November 19th, 2022. Along with this, datasets for hands-on learning were also provided for data analysis and learning. Participants were required to make a submission for evaluation at the end of the course, to obtain the certificate. This course comprised hands-on data learning sessions and various expert sessions on data discourses. The course especially catered to data and policy enthusiasts – including students, professionals, researchers, and other individuals lo

NHRC blindly followed BSF status report on fencing farmland off Indo-Bangladesh border

Kirity Roy, Secretary, Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM) writes an open letter of protest against the action taken status report on restriction imposed by the BSF personnel upon the villagers of Changmari near Indo-Bangladesh border: *** I have the honour to inform you that we received one action taken status report dated 11.01.2023 from your Commission in respect of the above referred case from where it is revealed that your authority closed the case based on the report of the concerned authorities. In this connection I again raise my voice as the enquiry in respect of the above referred case was not properly conducted. Hence I submit this open letter of protest for the ends of justice. From the action taken status report of the Commission dated 11.01.2023 it is reported that concerned authority submitted a report dated 18.01.2022 where it is reported that the concerned area comes under the OPS responsibility of BOP Chengmari, 62 Bn BSF and is highly susceptible to trans-bo

Great march of migrants during lockdown: Lessons not learned, missed opportunities

By IMPRI Team  A panel discussion on “The Great March of Migrants During The National Lockdown: Lessons Not Learned and Missed Opportunities” was organized by the #IMPRI Center for Human Centre for Human Dignity and Development (CHDD), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi on the occasion of International Migrants Day, i.e December 18, 2022. Inaugurating the session, Ms Aanchal Kumari, a researcher at IMPRI, welcomed the speakers and participants to the program with an introduction to the eminent panellists. The event was moderated by Dr Devender Singh, a Visiting Senior Fellow at IMPRI. The panellists included Prof. R.B Bhagat, Professor and Head, Department of Migration and Urban Studies, International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai; Prof Arun Kumar, Distinguished Economist, a Former Professor Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and Malcolm S. Adiseshiah Chair Professor, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi; Ms Akriti Bhatia, Founder of People

Brutal assault on Delhi Univ students as fear grips present rulers on rise of dissent

By Arhaan Baaghi  Various democratic student organizations (bsCEM, fraternity, DSU, SIO, AIRSO) had planned a screening of the BBC documentary "India: The Modi Question" in the Delhi University Arts Faculty, but the guards of the university and the Delhi police along with paramilitary forcefully detained the students just because we were trying to watch a documentary that scrutinizes the role of Modi in 2002 Gujarat riots. At first when the students started screening the documentary, the electricity of the department building was cut down. Students were brutally beaten by the police and university guards. Female students were also brutally manhandled and beaten. This whole incident shows the Brahmanical Hindutva fascist nature of the government and the university authority that is working as its puppet. An activist of bsCEM was manhandled by a male security guard, who tried to pull out his T shirt. Also various female activist were dragged by male security guards and their h