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The Plague

In the midst of Covid-19, it's hard to read Camus' The Plague (1947) and not regard it as representative of today. For me it also served as a sort of guide towards a deeper understanding of the current pandemic as well as humanism within a present-day context. But "the plague" described by Camus, or rather by his protagonist-narrator, Dr. Bernard Rieux, is more than the pestilence that's killing at random the people of Oran in 1940s French Algeria; it also stands in for all death, by any means or under any circumstance. With this idea Camus uses fiction as a framework to examine and build up his philosophy that human existence has no intrinsic moral or rational meaning, and that although all of us essentially are born to live under a death sentence (we're all going to die, after all, plague or no plague, coronavirus or none), we are responsible for giving our lives meaning and fighting (or rebelling against) death and suffering while at the same time knowing both will inevitably come.

There's much, much more to the book. Camus reveals his philosophy—all its threads and components—with a hodgepodge of characters including a journalist, smuggler, government official, Jesuit priest, and traveler. There are the townsfolk too, a sort of collective character, with a collective fate, many of whom regard their "peace of mind," while plague-stricken, as being "more important than a human life." Through them all, Camus/Rieux shows us human nature as he and others may see it, using a journalist and also Kafkaesque narrative style, along with plenty of horrific descriptions, from Bubo lancing to pirouetting rats dribbling blood and to the deaths of children. He puts forth the argument that too many of us take life for granted, that we become overly absorbed in repeatedly playing out our routines, and that when calamity, such as plague, strikes, only then do we realize what freedoms and love we had once possessed. Even then, he tells us, too many of us pine for that comfortable life of habitual routine we used to have, rather than living it presently for a fuller, more meaningful existence, for ourselves and for others.

So much of this novel can be applied to various stories we see on the news today. Quarantines, food shortages, anxiety about receiving contaminated letters, sick pets, leaders pushing to open their towns and countries, a priest who believes the disease is God's will and thus will not fight it, the medical workers and many others who do fight it, and so on and so forth. Surely reading The Plague now will enhance your experience, of either the fiction in your hands or the "new" reality we're living in.

A few of the myriad lines that particularly stood out:

The furious revolt of the first weeks had given place to a vast despondency, not to be taken for resignation, though it was none the less a sort of passive and provisional acquiescence.

...since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence.

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. state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.


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