I recently finished Albert Camus’ great novel, The Plague (1948). It vividly brought to mind the condition that our country is in today.
The book is set in the early 1940s in the Algerian coastal town of Oran. The narrator, Dr. Bernard Rieux, the tale’s lead protagonist, describes Oran as ugly and sizzlingly hot. Oran’s citizens, like its landscape, are dried out from too much sun—the narrator calls them “bored.” They work from morning till evening making money, lots of money, then fritter it away at card tables and other trivialities. They are not incapable of passion, but their passion is short lived. Their manner of loving, like everything else they do, is superficial. Life in Oran, the narrator says, is “treeless, glamourless, soulless”; it’s lost all inkling of drama or anticipation—“in other words, completely modern.”
Then come the rats. Sick rats by the thousands. From every hole in the city, out of sewers and cellars, they stagger forth into the daylight, do a sort of pirouette and fall dead at the feet of incredulous onlookers: “In the mornings the bodies were found lining the gutters, each with a gout of blood, like a red flower, on its tapering muzzle; some were bloated and already beginning to rot, others rigid, with their whiskers still erect.”
Certain levelheaded people conclude at once that trouble is brewing. But most of Oran’s citizens, including its public officials, ignore the warning signs. They grow tolerant of the macabre performances and inured to the spectacle of trashcans full of rodent bodies.
Alarm begins to grow when cases of fever, with delirium, vomiting and swollen lymph nodes begin to multiply. With great reluctance, the town’s officials finally agree that an outbreak of the bubonic plague has arisen; consequently, they order Oran to be locked down.
Despite every effort to stanch the fallout, the plague’s wrath increases to the point that hundreds per day are dying. Then, after months of remorseless assault, without rhyme or reason, the plague abates.
Camus’ existentialist message is familiar. We live in an indifferent universe—a universe without order or meaning and certainly devoid of compassion. The fickle fingers of chaos, suffering and death are arbitrary and capricious. Like the plague, they crash upon us unannounced and unwelcomed. All our most skillful resources—reason, will, science, even a transcendent God—are impotent against them. We take comfort in our vanities and busy ourselves with trivialities until the blackness slaps us. And then we face a choice. Will we submit willingly or fight back?
Curiously, Camus seems to believe that the right choice is obvious. Dr. Rieux, whose views I take as representative of the author’s, leads the town’s fruitless fight against the plague, and many of Oran’s citizens follow his example. Rieux personifies the virtues of fortitude, self-sacrifice and altruism. His sacrifice is rewarded by the deaths of his best friend and his beloved wife. When he learns at the novel’s end that the city’s quarantine has been lifted, he says he feels like a mother who, having lost her son to war, receives the announcement of an armistice. In other words, for those who have awakened to life’s absurdity, there’s never really a happy ending.
Experts in literature tell us that Camus’ novel is an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France between 1940-1944. The French people in the late 30s were complacent in the face of the waxing threat from their German neighbors and distracted by the pursuit of wealth, and so they were easily overthrown. Many fought courageously, especially through the heroic efforts of the French resistance and consequently threw off their captors. Yet even in peacetime, man’s warlike nature endures. Rieux’s closest friend, Tarrou, says to the doctor: “I know positively that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it.”
The message for us in 2013 seems plain enough. Rats lie dead on our streets, in our classrooms, our halls of power, even our homes. We ignored them decades ago. And now we have the plague.
We tolerated the cry that “God is dead,” tolerated it and did not resist it. O yes, it irked us, but it irked our propriety more than it did our souls. We didn’t see so clearly the implications of letting the false cry that God is dead settle into our hearts, how, in the words of Dostoyevsky’s character, Raskolnikov, “if God is dead, anything goes.”
Then came the voracious promiscuity of the 1960s. Like rodents, it always existed in dark places. But fifty years ago it came crawling out of the sewers. Some thought it bizarre and fascinating; others shouted invectives with their eyes closed; most just yawned and rolled over. Now our daughters dress like prostitutes, violent hardcore porn streams into our living rooms, and our six-year-olds are taught in the classroom that Heather has two mommies.
Levelheaded people saw at once that promiscuity demands the blood of innocents. But most of us turned away and redoubled our efforts at making ourselves comfortable. We breathed in one another’s face and passed on the infection. Roe came and went. Women felt perversely liberated. Men felt freer to fornicate. And the wrath of the epidemic played out in the bodies of the little ones.
Most of us are complicit, and all of us, because of human solidarity, share the shame. At the height of Oran’s epidemic, Tarrou says to Rieux: “For many years I’ve been ashamed, mortally ashamed, of having been, even with the best intentions, even at many removes, a murderer in my turn. As time went on I merely learned that even those who were better than the rest could not keep themselves nowadays from killing or letting others kill, because such is the logic by which they live; and that we can’t stir a finger in this world without the risk of bringing death to somebody. Yes, I’ve been ashamed ever since.”
In any case, here we are, far down stream. Now we’re holding hands and gaily running towards the euphemistic cliff of ‘marriage equality.’ But at the bottom of the redefinition of marriage is not warm clear water, but rocks. Some levelheaded people see this. Most are more interested in the economy and the next election.
Camus’ world is actually one that bears less culpability for spreading the plague than we do in the real world. Camus could take comfort, however minor, in the fact that his universe doesn’t care, that life is meaningless, and that good and evil have no ultimate foundation. But Camus’ world is a fairy tale, told and retold by spoiled children who plug their ears when the true myths of human origins are spoken.
In the real world, free choice is ultimately not meaningless, but infinitely meaningful. Through it we collaborate in Christ’s redemptive plan for overcoming all evil and filling up every privation. The universe, despite the darkness of evil wills, is brilliant with the providential plan of God. We can submit to it and cooperate with it or shake our fist and oppose it. But we cannot ultimately frustrate it.
The universe of Camus is graceless, and so devoid of hope. His character Tarrou states, “some of us, those who want to get the plague out of their systems, feel such desperate weariness, a weariness from which nothing remains to set us free except death.” Camus’ death, of course, is annihilation, a nothingness that ‘frees’ us not only from weariness but also being.
Good people today also feel the weariness. They too look forward to the freedom that comes “after this our exile.” But their death is no annihilation. Rather it can be the definitive putting on of the new man, Jesus Christ. And so, there’s hope.
Despite the graceless finale, The Plague is actually a profitable book to read. It offers few solutions. But it does shed light on how we got into our appalling condition.