Learning from The Plague

Several months in, it seems to me that too many Americans have begun to accept the ongoing pandemic as some kind of “new normal.” Perhaps not the millions who have recently lost their employment, and certainly not those who have been directly impacted by COVID–19, but many, many others seem to have become quite acclimated to America’s current state of affairs. This may be due in part to the rash/rush of “openings” in the past few weeks.

Casual accommodation is not a realistic viewpoint, as the majority of American health officials continue to maintain. Not with a death count of more than 100,000 and rising. If you’d like a corrective dose of reality, you could do far worse than read Albert Camus’s classic novel, The Plague. I reread the Stuart Gilbert translation a couple of months back and it is a brilliant work of art and philosophy which goes straight to the heart of what it means to experience a pandemic.

Albert Camus's exemplary novel still packs a punch. Jacket photo: Penguin Random House.
Albert Camus’s exemplary novel still packs a punch. Jacket photo: Penguin Random House.

The novel describes the sudden disruptions, growing fear and increasingly desperate measures taken to fight the invading disease in ways that are now intimately familiar to thinking Americans. Its protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux, exemplifies the heroic medical personnel fighting on the front line of today’s pandemic. Moreover, the book is a gripping read in and of itself.

But perhaps the novel’s greatest contribution lies in its depiction of human nature, vis-a-vis the outbreak. While it’s true that the townspeople in Camus’s novel did not have to contend with deluded far-right “patriots” determined to expose themselves and others to the disease in the name of “freedom,” they did have to contend with many other dark strands of humanity. The novel’s invading plague is often cited as a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France. One might make a similar comparison of the COVID-19 pandemic and what passes for “government” in America today.

Our broken and corrupt national government will certainly need to be dealt with, and soon. But so will COVID–19. The current policies being implemented, especially in Middle America and the South, are not going to work.

Odd as it may seem, reading The Plague today is a strangely uplifting, even hopeful experience. This is because, while it tells stark truths about human nature, it also shows people at their best, as with Dr. Rieux. The book is both cautionary and morally instructive, as shown in its final paragraph:

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: 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, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

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