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Albert Camus’ ‘The Plague’ and our own Great Reset

Two police officers on Rome's empty Spanish Steps on March 10.
Two police officers are the only ones on Rome’s Spanish Steps on March 10 amid the coronavirus outbreak.
(Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

In my self-isolating household in upstate New York, the pandemic has thus far produced boredom eating, boredom watching, hiking, candlelight dinners and, later in the evening, some reading out loud. We are living in the eerie, low-pressure vacuum before the storm. A friend emails from the Bay Area to say she’s baked her first loaf of bread; another writes from Australia to say that this epidemic will be “a giant mirror held up to everyone,” and that he is reading Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man.” A neighbor walking his dog halloos from across the fence. He doesn’t dare come closer, but he has something he wants to say: “Perhaps this will be a Great Reset.”

The last time the globe experienced a huge, simultaneous, nearly universal reset was immediately after World War II. In the relatively brief period of time between, say, Hiroshima and the dawn of the somnolent ’50s, as Keynesian policymakers were designing the welfare state, two writers produced two masterpieces of political introspection. In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, readers seized for obvious reasons on one of these, Orwell’s “1984.” Now, understandably, they’re reaching for the other.

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Some books are so venerated, so sacralized, they are almost forbidding to the touch. But — as I have now, belatedly, discovered — there’s no substitute for finally sitting down and reading the 1947 novel “The Plague,” by Albert Camus. Its relevance lashes you across the face. In a commercial port in Algeria, a disease appears, as if from nowhere. It begins inconspicuously, with the appearance of a few disordered rats, then works its way virulently through the human population, as aided by indifference, hypocrisy, laziness. Shops close, streets empty. But the infection picks up steam, spreading according to a geometric progression, producing a steeply rising “death graph.” En masse, the city is quarantined, but inside its walls there is a shortage of medical staff and lifesaving equipment and, yes, a controversy over whether masks are useless.

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At first, the epidemic, like all catastrophes, secretly confirms what everyone knew already; that is, it extends the narcissism of the times into the new era, often via the forbidden hope — that it will smite one’s enemies while sparing oneself. A priest delivers a harangue, the newspapers hawk counterfeit remedies. And the public cycles incoherently through moods: denial, dread, a growing sense of panic; sudden gusts of piety, followed by gusts of licentious abandon. Eventually, the town lapses into a kind of collective despondency with one predictable exception: the enduring complacency of “a privileged few, those with money to burn.”

“The Plague" and author Albert Camus.
(Vintage/ Everett/Shutterstock)

The novel is often called an allegory for fascism. I think that is exactly wrong, and on both counts. “The Plague” is an anti-allegory: It is vivid, tactile and frankly repulsive — the story of particular people actually dying from an actual disease, in ways medieval and pitiless. (Camus, who suffered from tuberculosis, knew illness too intimately to reduce it to a metaphor.) Second, the idea of a fascist allegory loses sight of Camus’ most daring choice, which was not to write a book about the Nazis. Barthes, Sartre, De Beauvoir — his eminent contemporaries gave him grief for substituting a bacillus for Hitlerism, for mistaking an implacable fact of nature for the most human of evils. But Camus knew precisely what he was doing.

By writing about an infectious disease, Camus was emphasizing the relative unimportance, to him, of the motivations of the evil thing. By stripping the story of any obviously ideological significance, he was also downplaying his own newfound fame as a courageous member of the French Resistance. (“What writer,” he said, accepting his Nobel prize, “would from now on in good conscience dare set himself up as a preacher of virtue?”) Camus was as uninterested in self-mythologizing as he was in anatomizing the fascist mentality. The Nazis were not evil because they occupied an extreme position on the political spectrum but because they were enemies of life itself. Such an enemy lies, like the microbe, beyond reason. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is: What are my reasons? Why do I fight, and on whose behalf?

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A worker carries out sanitation operations in Piazza dei Miracoli near the Tower of Pisa on March 17.
A worker carries out sanitation operations in Piazza dei Miracoli near the Tower of Pisa on March 17.
(Laura Lezza/Getty Images)

“The Plague” takes place in Oran, a city that Camus, as a son and partisan of its rival, Algiers, found tacky, shallow, commercial; treeless and soulless. As a younger man, he’d called it a city without “reprieve.” The citizens of Oran may not be especially sinful, but they subordinate every aspect of life to business (sound familiar?), and this has left them unprepared for something as indifferent to human needs and desires as a pestilence. Like Winston in “1984,” Rieux, the doctor at the heart of the story, is engaged in a constantly losing struggle to assert himself as the protagonist of his own story. There is no action in the novel that is not initiated by the plague itself — in a sense, disease is the only real actor here. An epidemic, it turns out, is “a shrewd, unflagging adversary; a skilled organizer, doing his work thoroughly and well.”

The machinery of global capital has gone quiet, and we find ourselves half-abandoned, each to our own little mindful solaces.

Everyone else is merely reactive — but each is reactive in his own way. Rieux refuses to philosophize, to abstract away even for a minute from his duty — but merely to do it. Then there is Tarrou, an observer and incorrigible overthinker, the one who must seek out why. There is Rambert, the journalist who longs to escape the city and reunite with his lover. And there is Paneloux, the Jesuit priest who must take every contingency, no matter how degrading, as a sign of God’s will and reconcile it to our salvation. Camus understood how a universal catastrophe lays a kind of filter over humanity, through which the strangest, most unexpected behaviors seep to the surface. Some profiteer and loot; a few express a previously hidden capacity for selfless heroism.

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There is no anger or bitterness in this book, only an immense spirit of forbearance and pity. Camus shared with Orwell the belief that the moralizers are always stationed far from the front lines. Both men were capable of lacerating polemic, to put it mildly, but they chose to write novels instead — each of which honors in its way the incorrigible sweetness of ordinary happiness. Each is thereby a reaction against grand ideological abstractions that caused so much suffering, so much exile and death. In both books, freedom is nonabstract, extremely localized, fragile and small. It is as tiny, in “1984,” as writing a sentence in a diary or exchanging glances with a beloved. In “The Plague,” Tarrou thinks and thinks and thinks, chewing endlessly over the nature of moral choice. In the end, all he can say is that in all instances he will side with the victim.

Albert Camus in Paris.
(AFP/Getty Images)

The closest Camus himself comes to voicing a moral is this: “What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest — health, integrity, purity (if you like) — is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter.” I wonder if, by some bitter irony, the seeds of our own current destruction lay in this postwar humility, noble as it was. That is the nature of repressed things: They return where you least expect them. Out of the principled reluctance, in the last Great Reset, to lapse into dogma arose the great anti-dogma — the idea that merely leaving people to their private satisfactions was adequate protection against political evil. And out of this perfectly insane conclusion arose the giant encompassing abstraction known as the free market.

Disease is cunning; it seeks out vulnerability. The market, it turns out, is a virtual synonym for lack of public vigilance. In response to our plague, there will be yet more tax cuts; already there are reports of insider trading among lawmakers; our healthcare system is in shambles. The machinery of global capital has gone quiet, and we find ourselves half-abandoned, each to our own little mindful solaces. If there is a Great Reset, once the storm has passed, may we build back up a public life on foundations more vigilant than those solaces, beautiful as they may be.

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Metcalf is the co-host of Slate’s “Culture Gabfest” podcast and is writing a book about the 1980s.


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