Almanac Life (and book review): ‘The Plague’ by Albert Camus

 

‘But what does it mean, the plague? It’s life, that’s all.’
-Albert Camus, ‘The Plague’

 

Time of Coronavirus is upon us all. And despite the rise of telecommunications and travel, medicine and science, large numbers of our species have died.

 

Colleagues go for a walk. Time of Coronavirus.
“Is it Jill that’s the blonde one? Which one’s Jill?”
“Nah… Jill… we got her that voucher to the hot springs.”
“Oh, Jill.”

 

I write here on a cold and wet Wednesday morning in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. It is important to include the state of ‘Victoria’ there, as State governments in this country have responsibility for health and education (among other things). I think today is Day 52 of my work-from-home regime. Two of us here work from home. I feel very lucky that we each maintain our employment. Our two children are schooled remotely (Pedantic note: they are not home-schooled. Home-schooling would mean that all curriculum and assessment is developed at home. The heroic teachers at our local school continue to do all of that. We merely provide a safe (home) environment.) I feel very lucky that our children are old enough and self-motivated to deal well with remote schooling.

 

So here we are. We observe rules of physical distancing; rules of social contact. Mostly we do.

 

Last week I read The Plague, by Albert Camus (published 1947). Camus was a philosopher, journalist, author and Nobel laureate at age 44. He was from Algiers and seemed to consider the human condition and indeed, death, in various works across his life. My friend and neighbour described Camus like this: “useful all-rounder, Camus. Philosopher, novelist, resistant, smoker, Nobel laureate, goalkeeper for Existentialists United F.C.” He died in a motor vehicle accident at age 46. Camus wrote the novel in French, with the title La Peste. I understand that the plague of which Camus wrote can be thought of as metaphor for all plagues on human society, including war.

 

And yet, as I read last week, in this Time of Coronavirus, the text took on a very literal meaning. Many, many lines and scenes screamed off the page, these 73 years after publication. I suspect The Plague speaks with many voices. And I suspect that all readers of The Plague bring themselves to the book.

 

Since I finished reading The Plague, I looked up a couple of reviews. Each review was quite different, quite earnest and presented as being quite definitive. This echoes my reading of the text; everyone sees the same situation through their own lens. In The Plague, Camus creates characters that embody various philosophies.

 

Something I find striking, and more striking every day, is the splintering of human response to what is categorically a communal concern. Camus saw that coming.

 

Initially, it seemed to me that most people accepted the need for physical distancing, sometimes called ‘social distancing.’ And in response to this, many heart-warming tales of support and love were shared (e.g. neighbours pitching in to look after the oldies, toilet paper rolls given as gifts of solidarity). It seemed very positive.

 

With each passing day, though, voices of opposition have grown.
The government is not doing enough
The government is doing too much.
We need to rely on ourselves.
The whole thing is a conspiracy.
We need to relax physical distancing measures.
We need to help the economy.
We need to be able to play golf.

 

A child stands on the footpath. Mother’s voice calls from a nearby house. Time of Coronavirus.
“I said get in here now! How many times do I have to tell you?!”

 

I find all of this intriguing. I wonder if there has there been a sudden growth in medical research knowledge amongst the wider population. Did I miss a Zoom meeting?

 

‘There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.’
-Albert Camus, ‘The Plague’

 

== 

 

The onset of plague conditions, as always, has required physical distancing as a survival mechanism. Plagues have come before and they will come again. I wonder for how long this way of life will last. Will it be one year? Two?
From a distance we see footage of political leaders in the US and UK.
We see alarming death and infection.
We learn of stoic health professionals battling in the face of obvious hardship.
We understand that most humans simply try to get on with life as best they can.

 

Man on the phone, footpath, Time of Coronavirus.
“How are your flatmates? Are they starting to shit you yet?”

 

 —

 

‘Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.’
-Albert Camus, ‘The Plague’

 

==

 

And so we go on. The buds here are in Year 9 and Year 7 at the local high school. Work is provided, guidance and feedback given. Each day we all break for recess and we eat, in the way of Winne-the-Pooh, some delicious ‘elevenses.’ We all break together for lunch, too, when we usually make toasted sandwiches. Sometimes we play darts.

 

Two women dream, Time of Coronavirus.
“Yeah and sit on my camp chair. That’s all I want to do.”
“That’s ALL I WANT TO DO.”

 

 

‘And he knew, also, what the old man was thinking as his tears flowed, and he, (Doctor) Rieux, thought it too: that a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.’
-Albert Camus, ‘The Plague’

 

==

 

Too often, I open the floodgates of opinion via social media.
Tidal waves of opinion drown the facts (and yes, that is another opinion).
In such an environment, the calm statement of fact is elevated into an act of quiet heroism. Again, Camus saw this coming.

 

‘But again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. The schoolteacher is well aware of this. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is one of knowing whether two and two do make four’
-Albert Camus, ‘The Plague’

 

==

 

I understand that without a vaccine, Coronavirus remains a real and present danger to all of us. And I gather that physical distancing slows the spread of the virus. Physical distancing is good for our public health, but bad for our economy (as this thing called economy was previously measured and understood). And it seems that as physical distancing restrictions are lifted, decision-makers now prioritise things other than public health.

 

I guess it comes down to the economic value of a human life.

 

Two people out for a walk, Time of Coronavirus.
“So. The new course. How is it?”
“Well, it’s online. I’ve already met one woman who seems nice enough, but… I’ve been warned she’s a complete busy-body.”

 

 

‘The evil in the world comes almost always from ignorance, and goodwill can cause as much damage as ill-will if it is not enlightened. People are more often good than bad, though in fact that is not the question. But they are more or less ignorant and this is what one calls vice or virtue, the most appalling vice being the ignorance that thinks it knows everything and which consequently authorizes itself to kill. The murderer’s soul is blind, and there is no true goodness or fine love without the greatest possible degree of clear-sightedness.’
-Albert Camus, ‘The Plague’

 

==

 

I am struck by the different positions of, say, Scott Morrison (Australian Prime Minister, Conservative party) and Dan Andrews (Victorian State Premier, Labour Party). I am struck by the different positions of say, right-wing commentator X with left-wing commentator Y.

 

The frothing indignation and contempt of commentators.
That the very same circumstances can brook such divergent and strident views.
But then, we take ourselves wherever we go.

 

Mostly I have observed the social distancing rules of Victoria. Once or twice, though, I have gathered in a group of six (still maintaining a space 1.5m apart). Our children remain horrified and, in the way of the times, categorically certain that I did the wrong thing.

 

“How COULD YOU, Dad?!?”

 

I justify it to myself. I guess we can always justify our own actions to ourselves. We all act rationally (in our own minds).

 

Moral pestilences always come.

 

‘In fact, it comes to this: nobody is capable of really thinking about anyone, even in the worst calamity. For really to think about someone means thinking about that person every minute of the day, without letting one’s thoughts be diverted by anything – by meals, by a fly that settles on one’s cheek, by household duties, or by a sudden itch somewhere. But there are always flies and itches. That’s why life is difficult to live.’
-Albert Camus, ‘The Plague’

 

==

 

Indeed, we take ourselves wherever we go.
And so we go on.
Open hearts, open minds.

 

‘All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.’
-Albert Camus, ‘The Plague’

 

Well done, Albert Camus.
The Plague stands as a superb metaphorical and literal study of the human condition.
I thoroughly recommend reading it in this Time of Coronavirus, for the absurdity of modern existence is laid bare. It is all we have.

 

Rating: 5 rolls of toilet paper

 

‘I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.’
-Albert Camus, ‘The Plague’

 

==

 

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About David Wilson

David Wilson is a writer, editor, flood forecaster and former school teacher. He writes under the name “E.regnans” at The Footy Almanac and has stories in several books. He is married and has two daughters and the four of them all live together with their dog, Pip. He finds playing the guitar a little tricky, but seems to have found a kindred instrument with the ukulele. Favourite tree: Eucalyptus regnans.

Comments

  1. Kevin Densley says

    Excellent reading, David. Entirely fitting, of course, in connection to present circumstances.

  2. Jonno Evans says

    Nice one Dave. I was down the book shop looking for something like this the other day but settled on “on the road” by Jack Kerouac. Say hi to CJ and the buds. Jonno

  3. roger lowrey says

    Great read Dave. Loved the cross referencing and the use of original text.

    Been years since I read the bloody thing but given my current diary freedoms I may even move it up the list.

    RDL

  4. E.regnans says

    Hi Kevin, Jonno and roger.
    Thanks for leaving your comments.
    I hope all is well with you and yours – and stays that way.

  5. Great piece of writing E.Regnans. It captures brilliantly the complex range of emotions the crisis engenders.

    Could I add for the reading pleasure of your audience another extract from early in “La Peste” which is also eerily prescient

    “When a war breaks out, people say “It won’t last long, it’s too stupid”. And without doubt a war is certainly stupid, but that doesn’t prevent it from lasting. Stupidity endures, as is readily perceived if you don’t always think within yourself. Our fellow citizens were in this regard like everyone else, they did not think beyond themselves, in other words they were humanists, they didn’t believe in pestilence. Pestilence is not of a human proportion, we say to ourselves that it is unreal, that it’s a bad dream which will pass. But it will never pass and, from bad dream to bad dream, it is men who pass, and the humanists first, because they haven’t taken precautions. Our fellow citizens were no more to blame than anyone else, they forgot to be humble, that’s all there is to it, and they thought that everything was still possible for them, they who supposed that pestilence was impossible. They continued about their business, they planned trips, and they had opinions. How could they think of a plague which crushed the future, travels, and discussions. They thought themselves free and no one is free as long as there is pestilence in the future.”

  6. Ruth Chamberlain says

    As always, your reflections intrigue and inform me, Dave. Warm hello to Cath.
    Stay well.
    Ruth C

  7. E.regnans says

    G’day Macca and Ruth.
    Thanks for writing.
    Yes, Macca – another great example from the perceptive A Camus. And while the pestilence *may* be coronavirus itself… it may take any number of other forms (overt nationalism, ignorance, etc). I understand that Camus wrote the story as the second world war ended. “No one is free as long as there is pestilence in the future.”
    And thank you for your greeting, Ruth. Best wishes to you and David.

  8. geoff duke says

    Hi Dave
    Really well said. Ironically I read The Plague for the first time in early December while on holiday in New Zealand. I had read other stuff by Cumus but not this. I was reading it in a mountain hut when a french speaking Canadian woman commented how odd it was to see it in English. I am guessing it has seen quite a resurgence in every language. Might I say the Paul Kelly article is just as insightful. Stay safe and look forward to running in to you in the park with Pip
    geoff

  9. Luke Reynolds says

    Enjoyed your take on “The Plague” ER, I’ve not read it but you’ve inspired me to track it down.

  10. Jarrod_L says

    This has been open in a tab for a little while now E.r – glad I got around to reading it. One of those nice pieces that foster more connection with the author in one’s mind despite the “physical distance”.

    Have only read L’Etranger by A.Camus but as with Luke’s comment above, I will set about tracking down The Plague for future reading amid future pestilence.

  11. Thanks for taking the time to write this. I thought it was great.

  12. An enjoyable and thought-provoking read, e.r.
    As a younger man, I tried and failed to read The Plague. This surprised me, as I had really enjoyed “The Outsider”. I might have to have another go.

  13. E.regnans says

    G’day gents. Many thanks for writing.
    This morning I notice that The New Yorker has run this piece on Camus and his enduring story “The Plague.”
    Steve Coll examines Camus’ magnificent story through the political lens (of Nazi-occupied France and of Trump’s USA).

    https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/camus-and-the-political-tests-of-a-pandemic

  14. John Butler says

    Well played, ER.

    A long time since I read this book. Too long. You’ve inspired me to add it to the re-read list.

    Yes, a certain ‘splintering’ of response is increasingly detectable. We need to make sure it doesn’t become a sundering.

    Thanks for the NY link.

  15. DBalassone says

    Something to ponder ER. I’m with Smokie. I read “The Outsider” in my early 20s and that had quite an impact on me. But for some reason I cast “The Plague” aside after 40 odd pages. I don’t think I was ready for i – maybe it was the translation – but I’m willing to have another crack now after your thoughtful words.

  16. E.regnans says

    G’day all – I just discovered this short video on Albert Camus’ “The Plague” by Alain de Botton’s “School of Life.”

    From the text: “This whole thing is not about heroism, it’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”

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