What do we owe our neighbors in times of crisis?
Most readers know “The Plague,” the 1948 masterpiece by Albert Camus, because it was Assigned Reading in school.
If you were taking something like 20th Century Thought, you read it in English.
If you were studying French, you struggled through it in the original.
Either way, the pages are, for you, spoiled by the chalk dust of the classroom.
What you were supposed to get out of it is this: The novel is an allegory, ultimately about the spread of Nazi ideology and a community’s reaction to that deadly invasion. It asks: How should people act when faced with a daily threat to life? How can they survive when an arbitrary fate marks some for immediate death, others for a later grave? What do we owe our neighbors? And, in the end, what does it all mean?
The last time I thought about those questions was the week after Katrina. We were spending a few weeks on Nantucket, sharing a house with friends. The days were Algerian, hot and clear. The beach was all ours, which certainly suited our daughter, then in the constantly naked phase. It was great times if you could put the suffering in New Orleans out of mind. I couldn’t. So I read “The Plague.” And wrote.
Now we have had a giant storm that affects everyone for hundreds of miles. In my city, there’s been major damage. But what I’ve been thinking about is the flooded subway system—so flooded downtown that the rats have been forced above ground. They breed fast, and they carry diseases, including viruses. Soon, if steps are not taken, we may all have reason to pick up “The Plague” again. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Hint: This time around, substitute “global warming” for “Nazi.”
The good news: “The Plague” is a better book than the one they talk about in schools. For one thing, it has a remarkably sympathetic narrator in Dr. Rieux, who is first to notice something amiss—rats appearing in unlikely places, their bodies twitching and blood spurting from their mouths. Rieux’s wife has just gone to a French sanitarium in the hope of a cure for her tuberculosis; confinement is much on his mind.
Oran, Algeria—the coastal city where Camus lived in 1942, and his setting for his novel—may overlook water, but its energies are dull and worldly. People worship money and devote all their time to making it. Love flourishes briefly, then dissolves into habit. Government is slow and formal; it is slow to conclude that frothing rats and dying people have any connection.
In short, a thoroughly modern city.
Less good news: “The Plague” isn’t exactly fun to read. How could it be—this is the account of a doctor who spends twenty hours a day watching people die. And yet it’s hard to put the novel down, for it describes—with great precision—the stages of this kind of disaster. At first, Dr. Rieux notes, people were “worried and irritated.” Their first reaction: “to abuse the authorities.” (Sound familiar?) Later, we hear that “officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic.” (Where have you heard that before?) “The newspapers, needless to say, complied with the instructions given them: optimism at all costs.” (That was back when media conspired with government to keep the citizenry docile. No more. Now media competes to see who can terrify us the most.)
The very good news: The book really achieves greatness in the last 50 pages, where Camus spells out the origin of the plague (it’s in us, in each and every one of us) and what that means for our lives together. There’s great tenderness beneath this savage analysis—Camus applauds “the passionate indignation we feel when confronted by the anguish all men share.”
Camus sees the fight against terror as “never ending.” But fighting it is our lot, indeed our glory.
Can anything save us?
Camus praises “human love,” but that doesn’t seem equal to the cruel challenges of malevolence.
He tries again: “We learn in times of pestilence … there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
That message — harsh and lyrical, terrible and ennobling — is worth a hundred bromides from the pundits and politicians who have, over an endless election run-up, crowded the airwaves with solutions that solve nothing.
“The Plague” is 308 pages of pure sanity. And, if we are unlucky, reality.
This was previously published on Head Butler.
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Image credit: metamatic/Flickr