During this eighteenth week of lock-down it seemed a good idea to look again at Albert Camus’s The Plague [La Peste]. Camus was a name to conjure with when I was growing up in the 1960s; a French writer, philosopher, and journalist. He was often labelled an existentialist, a label that he always rejected. He was born of pied noir parents in Algeria, then a French territory, in 1913, and was brought up in North Africa. As a young man he had a variety of jobs, including playing in goal for the Algiers football team. When he moved to Metropolitan France he took up journalism, and was active in the Resistance during the German occupation, becoming editor of the clandestine paper Combat. After the war he abandoned journalism and politics to become a full-time writer.
In 1957 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was killed in a car crash early in 1960. He was in a fast car being driven by his publisher, Michel Gallimard, on the old Route Nationale 5 when the car hit a tree on a fast, straight stretch of road. Two of his better-known published books are L’Etranger [The Outsider] in 1942 and La Peste [The Plague] in 1947. Unusually I have these books in both English and French; and I thought to read them in French, but made only slow progress so I changed my mind.
The Plague [La Peste]
The novel is set in Oran, a large French port on the Algerian coast. It is made clear at the outset that this is not a pretty town.
“The seasons are discriminated only in the sky. All that tells you of spring’s coming is the feel of the air, or the baskets of flowers brought in from the suburbs by hawkers; it’s a spring cried in the market-places. During the summer the sun bakes the houses bone-dry, sprinkles our walls with greyish dust, and you have no option but to survive those days of fire indoors, behind closed shutters.In autumn, on the other hand, we have deluges of mud …”
As he leaves his surgery on an April morning, the narrator, Dr Bernard Rieux, feels something soft under his foot. It is a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing. Over the next few days the porter, old M.Michel, complains that young scallywags have been dumping dead rats in the building. One of Rieux’s patients comments “they’re [the rats] coming out good and proper, have you noticed ?” Rieux’s wife has to leave him for a sanatorium, and his mother comes to keep house for him. Within a few days the door-porter is dragging himself around with his head bent and his arms and legs splayed out. And he feels pain in his neck, armpits, and groin. A few days later he is dead; an early victim of what Dr Castel, one of Rieux’s older colleagues, recognises as the plague. Recalling what he knows of the disease, Rieux recalls that seventy years earlier, at Canton, forty thousand rats died of the plague before the disease spread to humans.
The response of the authorities is to close down the city. Totally.
“One of the most striking consequences of the closing of the gates was in fact this sudden deprivation befalling people who were completely unprepared for it. Mothers and children, lovers, husbands and wives, who had a few days previously taken it for granted that their parting would be a short one … all these people found themselves, without the least warning, hopelessly cut off, prevented from seeing each other again, or even communicating with each other.”
As the deaths mount in the locked-down city, sentries are posted at the gates, and the townsfolk seek to come to terms with their sudden isolation. Rieux as a practising doctor is busy injecting serum, lancing buboes, checking the statistics, and making afternoon rounds of his patients. The church authorities call for a Week of Prayer, culminating in a High Mass under the auspices of St Roch, the plague-stricken saint. The cathedral is full for the service, at which Father Paneloux tells the congregation very clearly that God has ordained good and evil in everything, and that this pestilence is punishing them for their sins and pointing them their future path. It is hard to know what effect this has on the townsfolk.
The book conveys powerfully the sense of hopelessness within the stricken city. Strong winds and summer heat drive up the number of victims. The plague has obliterated colour and vetoed pleasure. A small group of acquaintances cluster round Rieux and work with him to combat the plague; cordoning off the worst affected areas and keeping accurate records of deaths. Funerals are reduced to the bare minimum, and take place not in churches but as perfunctory rites by the grave-side. The illness, incurable and implacable, continues to strike down innocent people. Acceptance of the rising deaths does not overcome a dogged determination to fight the plague.
Is it about the German occupation ?
Camus’s novel is said to be loosely based on a cholera epidemic that erupted in Oran in 1849, not long after French colonisation. But it is not a book about a medical condition; it is rather about how individual men [and they are all men] react to a lethal enemy that they cannot see. Unlike our own COVID pandemic, there is no television news and no daily press conferences by blustering Boris and hapless Hancock. Explanations of what’s happening have to be worked out on the spot.
It is often said that Camus’s plague is an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France. We know that Camus tried to flee France after the German occupation. [Just as the journalist Rambert tries to flee the plague-ridden city.] He fled from Paris to Lyon, and then to Oran, before returning to France and to Paris, where he joined the Resistance and edited the magazine Combat. The book asks the question, ‘How would you react in this situation ?’. When we find ourselves in an appalling situation which we cannot control, what qualities emerge in people ? It is now customary to pay tribute to the courage and the suffering of the French Resistance. But Le Chagrin et La Pitie, Marcel Ophuls’ documentary of 1969, showed that there were many different reactions in France to the Vichy government and the Nazi occupation. It makes for uncomfortable viewing.
The Plague doesn’t offer easy moral answers. And it doesn’t deal with heroism, at least not of the conventional kind. The authorities initially seek to dismiss the plague as a false alarm. [Shades of President Trump and President Bolsonaro.] Rieux is a practical man; he offers no ideology, but stubbornly applies his medical skills. Others gather round him. Joseph Grand, the government clerk. is struggling with the first sentence of his intended novel [a wonderful running joke] , but works tirelessly to record the statistics of the plague with careful precision. I don’t always agree with Ben MacIntyre, but I think he is right to conclude “Albert Camus’s 1947 novel suggests quiet courage and decency are the greatest virtues at times like this”. And there is an ominous coda, as the jubilant crowds finally celebrate an end to the plague:
“Rieux knew what the jubilant crowds did not know … … that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves … … and that perhaps the day would come when it roused up the rats again …”
On the Emmaus Road
As a student I never associated Camus with Christianity. But David Smith in his 2007 book Moving towards Emmaus: hope in a time of uncertainty sees Camus as one of a number of contemporary humanists who are companions in dialogue on the Emmaus Road. Writers and thinkers who seek to balance faith and unfaith, oscillating between expressions of despair and the recovery of hope.
Thus Camus writes, in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death:
“How to live without grace … that is the question that dominates the nineteenth century. ‘By justice’ answered all those who did not want to accept absolute nihilism. To the people who despaired of the Kingdom of Heaven, they promised the kingdom of men. The preaching of the city of humanity increased in fervour up to the end of the nineteenth century when it became really visionary in tone and placed scientific certainties in the service of Utopia. But the kingdom has retreated into the distance, gigantic wars have ravaged the oldest continent in Europe, the blood of rebels has spattered walls, and total justice has approached not a step nearer. The question of the twentieth century … has gradually been specified: how to live without grace and without justice ?”
In the epilogue to Moving towards Emmaus, David Smith retells the story of Camus’s friendship with the Methodist minister Howard Mumma. Camus had come into the American Church on the Quai d’Orsay in the late 1950s to hear the organist Marcel Dupré, but then came back to church to listen to the preacher. From this initial contact a close friendship developed between Albert Camus and Howard Mumma, and [according to the latter’s book] their wide-ranging conversations about the meaning of human existence culminated in Camus’s request for Christian baptism. It doesn’t happen; Mumma returns to the States, and shortly afterwards Camus is killed in a road accident.
This then is perhaps the question that the COVID pandemic raises for church leaders: Are we willing and able in times of great uncertainty and suffering to respond to the spiritual and intellectual questions of honest seekers ? People who are far from being church members. Are we willing to walk with them and to listen to them ? Before we think to enrol them on Alpha courses or the equivalent.