ALBERT CAMUS’S – ‘THE PLAGUE’ – ITS RELEVANCE TODAY
written by: GS Subbu
Forty-five years ago, I first read Albert Camus’s novel ‘The Plague’. This was the third book of his after ‘The Fall’ and ‘The Outsider’ that I had picked up for reading, not only because the first two had created such an impact on my thinking process, but because this was cited as one of the great books of those times. Now looking back, I am convinced that it is one of the great books of all time. The relevance of Camus’s novel becomes even starker when we contemplate and try to understand the situation we now find ourselves in. The Corona pandemic has made us reassess our attitudes towards life and death. It has exposed our fragility in the face of ultimate termination. The book is prophetic; which we realize now. When I first read the book, what left an impact was its literary translation of human emotions and one could actually feel the terror that encompassed the whole population of a city when faced with an epidemic of enormous proportions. As a young man, my life was proceeding on predicted lines and the possibility of such a situation sweeping the entire world was never within the scope of my imagination. Of course, though such epidemics have occurred from time to time in some clusters around the world, they never threatened a whole population. Even when I used to travel from Ahmedabad to Baroda and back, daily during the plague epidemic in Surat, I have never felt so insecure as I do now. I could never imagine being locked down in one’s own home for three months at a stretch. Though we are hopeful that a cure will be there in the course of time, what until then? Like all things, this too shall pass is the common refrain, and we continue with that hope and I am sure we shall overcome. Now, as a much older and presumably a more mature individual, I find myself reassessing my view of the world and my way of life. I am sure this situation is bound to bring about a new normal and like we believe a crisis in our personal lives, brings about an awakening within us, so also this universal crisis is bound to give rise to an awakening in the universal consciousness. And so, it happened that I was reminded of ‘The Plague’ and Albert Camus and what I had read decades ago. I knew I had to read it again and it was no surprise that for so many people out there it had become a topic for discussion and reviews. Camus had become relevant once again and this time his book was flying of the shelves. Though I had a paperback edition dating forty-five years ago and whose pages had also started aging along with me, it was lying in my bookshelf in Chennai. I decided to buy the Kindle version which would make it easier for me to review the book. And as I read through it, the characters came alive once again, more real, and I felt as if I was also one of the many unnamed characters in the book.
There have been plagues and epidemics dating back to prehistoric times decimating millions of people along the way. They have often resulted in changing the course of history. If we just confine ourselves to the last hundred years starting with the Spanish Flu which lasted from 1916 t0 1920 which claimed over 500 million people, there have been five of them not counting the present Corona epidemic. The Asian Flu, Ebola, H1N1, and Zika. But perhaps the one epidemic for which a permanent cure is yet to be found is AIDS which first came to be noticed in 1981 and to this day is still prevalent, though medication has since been developed in managing the virus. The fact is that we have learned to live with epidemics and come back to our normal lives though with a change as to how to live again.
The Plague by Albert Camus is an extraordinary odyssey into the darkness and absurdity of human existence. Other than Camus’s book there have been a number of books on pandemics of which Katherine Anne Porter’s book ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ written in the year 1939 based on the Spanish Flu, and Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Year of the Flood’ written in 2009 in which she envisages a world devastated by a virus immediately comes to mind. It’s our misfortune that we find ourselves in the midst of something akin to what these authors prophetically wrote. There will be books and there will be epidemics in the future also, but as always, we shall carry on.
Coming back to Camus and ‘The Plague’, there have been various interpretations. While some find that the story is an allegory of the French Resistance to the Nazis in World War II, others find a metaphor of something stealthily taking over our lives and causing a change in our behavior.
The story is woven around a plague pandemic that threatens the entire population of nearly two hundred thousand in the city of Oran, a French colony of Algeria. The year of the plague is not specific, it is in the spring of 194- that it first raised its head and went on till February of the following year. The entire novel is in the form of a narrative and it is only, in the end, we find out who the narrator is. The first ominous signs of what is to follow appear early in the book-
‘On the morning of April 16, Dr. Rieux emerged from his consulting-room and came across a dead rat in the middle of the landing. It starts with the rats. Vomiting blood, they die in their hundreds, then in their thousands. When the rats are all gone, the citizens begin to fall sick. Like the rats, they too die in ever greater numbers. The authorities quarantine the town. Cut off, the terrified townspeople must face this horror alone. Some resign themselves to death or the whims of fate. Others seek someone to blame or dream of revenge. One is determined to escape. But a few, like stoic Dr. Rieux, stand together to fight the terror. A monstrous evil has entered their lives, but they will never surrender to it. They will resist the plague.’
The narrator says – ‘In this respect, our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words, they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.’
The book is replete with philosophical musings and each of the principal characters represents an aspect of human character and behavior. There is one sentence towards the end that tells us – ‘quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.’
The principal characters in the book are – Dr. Rieux, Jean Tarrou, Raymond Rambert, Joseph Grand, Cottard, and Father Panelou. It is not my intention to discuss the role of each character here. But I shall highlight certain passages and conversations that take place between them, especially Rieux, Tarrou, and Father Panelou. The essence of the book lies in these conversations and one cannot but conclude that it is through Rieux that Camus speaks for himself. Rieux does not believe in God but believes that he is doing what needs to be done in the struggle against death despite the fact that the outcome is ultimately doomed to fail. At the other end of the spectrum is Panelou, a Jesuit priest who believes that the plague is an act of God to punish those who have sinned but offers hope that God is present to offer succor to those who believe in him. Though towards the end he softens his stand, he is taken ill but refuses to call a doctor, firm in his belief that God alone can cure him and dies.
The following conversation between Tarrou and Rieux I feel is very much Camus himself –
“Do you believe in God doctor?” Again, the question was put in an ordinary tone. But this time Rieux took longer to find his answer.
“No, but what does that really mean? I’m fumbling in the dark, struggling to make something out. But I’ve long ceased finding the original.”
“Isn’t that the gulf between Paneloux and you?”
“I doubt it. Paneloux is a man of learning, a scholar. He hasn’t come in contact with death; that’s why he can speak with such assurance of the truth, with a capital T. but every country priest who visits his parishioners and has heard a man gasping for breath on his deathbed thinks as I do. He’d try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence.”
“My question is this,” said Tarrou. “Why do you yourself show such devotion, considering you don’t believe in God? I suspect your answer may help me to mine.”
His face, still in shadow, Rieux said he had already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God, he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; not even Paneloux, who believed he believed in such a God. And this is proved by the fact that no one ever threw himself on Providence completely. Anyhow, in this respect Rieux believed himself to be on the right road in fighting against creation itself.
“I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this; there are sick people and they need curing. Later on, perhaps, they’ll think things over; and so shall I. But what’s wanted now is to make them well. I defend them as best as I can, that’s all.”
In another piece of the conversation, Rieux says –
“Since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death. Without raising our eyes towards the heavens where he sits in silence.”
Tarrou nodded. “Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.”
Rieux’s face darkened.
“Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.”
At the other end of the spectrum we have Father Panelou whose extreme faith in God is brought forth by the narrator –
‘He, Father Panelou, refused to have recourse to simple devices enabling him to scale that wall. Thus, he might easily have assured them that the child’s sufferings would be compensated for by an eternity of bliss awaiting him. But how could he give that assurance when, to tell the truth, he knew nothing about it? For who would dare assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment’s suffering?
No, he, Father Panelou, would keep faith with that great symbol of all suffering, the tortured body on the Cross; he would stand fast, his back to the wall, and face honestly the terrible problem of a child’s agony. And he would boldly say to those who listened to his words today: “My brothers, a time of testing has come for us all. We must believe everything or deny everything. And who among you I ask, would dare deny everything?”
It is necessary to discuss both Rieux and Panelou to understand Camus’s view of life. When Rieux says ‘I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this; there are sick people and they need curing’, it is about finding a purpose in life and pursuing it rather than speculating on the meaning of existence. Despite the discussions on existentialism and absurdism which center around the plight of the individual in an irrational universe, we can try to relate the above sentence to what Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita about Karma, about doing one’s duty without expecting the fruits thereof. It is not necessary to believe in God to realize the importance of this statement; this only defines a purpose in life. So, there is no anomaly when Rieux says he does not believe in God. In the end, he has contributed more constructively by healing and saving lives than Panelou did, but we cannot discount the fact that Panelou served the devout in us and gave hope that atonement of one’s sins and placing faith in God was the only way towards healing, though it may not have prevented the deaths, it still left open a window of hope to those who were critically ill.
In my viewpoint, the characters of Rieux and Tarrou give glimpses of Buddhism especially doing what is required of an individual to attain liberation through finding a purpose in life. Buddhism encompasses the basic existentialist view that life is full of anxiety (Dukka). But it goes beyond, by identifying the causes for this suffering and the path to overcome this and attain enlightenment. Rieux works tirelessly throughout the epidemic, though he has his own misgivings as to the final result. The final retreat of the plague is perhaps his redemption.
While Camus never wanted to be dubbed an existentialist of the Sartre school of atheistic existentialism, which believes that life is intrinsically meaningless and is only the sum total of the choices one makes, in trying to make it authentic, Camus’s Philosophy of the Absurd is reflected in the basic premise that it is the innate tendency of an individual to find a purpose even though he is not sure as to the final outcome. This is the absurdity that is explored in Camus’s ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’.
How relevant is the ‘The Plague’ to the present scenario we find ourselves in? It is really astounding that when you go through the book you realize that what is happening now is very similar to what has been described in graphic detail decades ago. Whether it is the fear psychosis, the measures taken to prevent the spread of the epidemic, the dedicated and tireless work of groups of individuals in taking care of the afflicted, the resistance to the imposition of stringent regulations by the authorities and lastly the realization that we have to move on but with a changed perspective and living a new life. The threat will always loom over our heads but that is where new lessons are learned, new beliefs come into existence. The concept of divine redemption may also undergo a change. Man can never exist without hope and hope without faith. We will continue to pray to the same Gods; and the temples, churches, and mosques will open again, but hopefully this time with more understanding rather than blind faith.
- A QUESTION OF CONSCIENCE II - April 4, 2021
- Sisyphus and I - February 7, 2021
- Interview Q&A With GS Subbu - December 10, 2020