• On Not Learning from Camus’s The Plague

    Camus’s The Plague has found a new life in newspapers and magazines in the last few weeks. It is, if we are to believe what we read, a novel that teaches us that suffering is random, or a book that is finally about  “human goodness.” We read that the lesson of the novel is that “men will always become, again, rats,” or that it is a tale about “the conflict between individual happiness and moral obligation.” But my students and I read The Plague a couple of weeks ago and just could not come to these neat conclusions. Instead, we found a novel that refused the shortcuts to insight that we all seem to be looking for these days.

    When my university announced in early March that classes were being moved online, I knew that I would have to drastically change the syllabus of my literary history survey class. As seamless as video conferences can be, we would never be able to keep up the frenetic pace of readings of poems and short stories that I had originally planned to jam into the second half of the semester. On top of that, it was clear that the move to online learning would increase inequality among students’ educational experiences. We needed, I thought, to spend more time reading slowly and engaging deeply with longer pieces of writing. A vague memory of reading Camus’s The Plague came to me, and I decided to ask the students to read it. First published in 1947, and written as WWII raged, the novel tells the story of a city under quarantine as a result of an outbreak of plague in the French-controlled Algerian port city of Oran. Its careful chronicle of the arrival of the plague, and the slow adjustment by the population to their new reality, seemed to describe our present moment.

    It was not the perfect choice — the gruesome descriptions of widespread death were hard to read at this time of global trauma; the objective, sometimes cold narrator gave little consolation; the lack of African characters and near absence of women made for maddening reading; and some of the students struggled both to finish the novel and to talk about it. I am not a Camus scholar, nor an expert in French literature, and none of my students was either. We all felt while reading it somehow “lost, / Unhappy, and at home,” to borrow an arresting phrase from Seamus Heaney. We experienced the strangeness of our own world, and we sensed that our bafflement and bewilderment were not incidental to Camus’s project.

    The narrator’s insistence throughout the novel on the “ordinariness” of the town of Oran is what makes the story so poignant. Never mind that no African city under European colonial control could ever be ordinary; the European inhabitants of the city felt that their lives were entirely unexceptional, and unsusceptible to spectacular disruption. Even Dr. Rieux, the reluctant hero of the novel, refuses to believe that “a pestilence on the great scale could befall a town where people like [this] were to be found, obscure functionaries cultivating harmless eccentricities.” It is the shared fantasy of those who live in wealthy, relatively stable societies that spectacular events happen elsewhere on our planet, far from our shores. We must learn to see that this is a fantasy, and that we too live in a time and place that can become instantly unrecognizable. “Thus,” Camus’s narrator tells us, “the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile.” Those who have most to learn in Camus’s Oran are those who fail to see this state of exile in which they are living. They insist on going on as if nothing has changed, on trying to live their lives by a set of expectations and values carried over from the time before the plague. But “a pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure,” and its very purpose seems to be to make going on with our lives — our trips to the beach and our haircuts — impossible.

    The final words of the novel strike what might seem a fatalistic note: “And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperilled… that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good… it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” On these words rest Alain de Botton’s argument for the randomness of suffering, but that reading seems too nihilistic and too apolitical at a moment when we know that, especially in the US, death visits ethnic and racial groups in vastly unequal ways. The sense of these words seems closer to Giorgio Agamben’s arguments that we have always lived in a state of exception, but that this fact only becomes visible to us at moments of crisis. Crisis can seem very far away to many of us in our daily lives, but that is only because we have convinced ourselves, like the citizens of Camus’s Oran, that we live ordinary lives, and that everyone around us does too. Those among us who live precarious lives, endangered by want or war, know that the plague is always there.

    But this is not a lesson about pandemics so much as it is a statement about the world. Despite the raft of recent essays mining for some precious nugget in The Plague, Camus would never be so crude as to be didactic. If the novel holds out any lesson at all, it is that this time of disruption calls us to mark properly the fundamental strangeness of this world that we live in, and to commit to muddling through it together from a position of humility, in the muck. We cannot presume to go on as if the world has not shifted again on its axis, but we also cannot simply conjure a new, improved version of our world without taking stock.

    This stock-taking will come in micro and macro forms. For all of us who are striving to be productive in our isolation, or to excel in bread-baking or parenting, this might be a time to question the value of “productivity” and “excellence,” two words devoid of meaning that we have learned to use without thinking. On a much bigger scale, there are questions that we might now ask about whose labor we value and how; why we exclude people from access to health care; whether we have valued profit over human lives; why we tolerate and expect wars and mass death overseas but not at home; whether all people have a right to seek to live with dignity regardless of where they were born; or even whether our very way of life can or sought to be sustained.

    But the experience that my students and I had while reading The Plague suggests that we don’t yet know precisely what the questions are that we should ask, let alone what the answers might be. And that is a good thing. Outside of the true experts — those who are keeping us all alive right now — we cannot claim mastery of this situation. Agamben himself, in a blog post on the coronavirus from late February, complained about “the invention of an epidemic” in Italy, designed to consolidate the state of exception. Maybe he should have waited a little. Maybe this is not a time just yet for prescriptions and certainty and pronouncements. Maybe we are best served by acknowledging, as The Plague helps us to do, our bafflement and bewilderment at the world as it has been revealed to us. Maybe we could start to think about tomorrow by taking time today to “lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart” (Yeats).