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On Paradox and Albert Camus's The Plague

The flap copy of the original Modern Library edition of The Plague (trans. Stuart Gilbert) opens with this:

Suddenly one April the rats in Oran came out of cellars and sewers, first singly and then in tens and hundreds, to die in the streets. At first the citizens of Oran refused to connect this with the mounting human death rate. But finally the implications had to be acknowledged; the Prefect telegraphed: Proclaim a state of plague stop close the town.

This near-perfect introduction covers all of part I, some 60 pages wherein Camus captures the uncertainty, the confusion, and yes, the willful ignorance of those first disorienting weeks of an epidemic. For some, reading The Plague as the world still grapples with a global pandemic is a bit on the nose, too much for a scared and broken humanity shaken by our mass mortality. For those who can stomach it, you might find that though insightful overlaps abound between our reality and Camus's, his ability to understand the human condition extends far beyond our current moment.

Oran is, the narrator tells us, an ugly town with a "smug, placid air." And though we are told to note its many differences from other parts of the world, the opening paragraph insists upon its ordinariness, and the reader quickly feels familiarity creeping in. Here, then, is exhibit A:

Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, "doing business." Naturally they don't eschew such simpler pleasures as love-making, sea-bathing, going to the pictures. But, very sensibly, they reserve these pastimes for Saturday afternoons and Sundays and employ the rest of the week in making money, as much as possible.

It is no leap for the American reader to see himself in this description. So, too, a preoccupation with the weather. It is a driving force in Oran, nearly as present a character in the text as the plague itself. From the intense heat of summer to the mud of autumn, Oran's residents are governed by the extremes of temperature and landscape that surround them. As the first human casualties of the plague begin to appear, the weather mirrors the shift, changing "for the worse" and leaving Oran's residents feeling "trapped by the climate."

As the plague insists itself upon this town, the people respond as any of us might, as many of us did:

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. . . . How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long a there are pestilences.

Eventually, of course, as the summary revealed, they are forced to admit the dangers. The town is closed, part II is opened, and the rest of the book does not easily recommend itself: 200-plus pages where very little happens except people dying from a terribly painful, terribly contagious disease? No, thank you. Why, then, read The Plague? What does Camus have to offer?

Readers familiar with Camus will know that understanding or reckoning with the absurd is central to the experience of his work. Though definitions vary, the absurd could be explained as the tension between humanity's search for a grand purpose in life and the very real possibility that there isn't one. A nihilist would respond to this tension by arguing the search for order in a chaotic universe is futile and should stop. Existentialists would say the only order is what you individually make of it. And Camus would argue that we cannot know and thus should embrace the paradox, living boldly in spite of our uncertainty. And, of course, the thing that proves each of these philosophies right in their own way is death. Death shows everything to be meaningless, and in a plague there are abundant reminders of death.

The characters that walk us through these months of isolation, pain, suffering, and loss each handle the situation uniquely. They offer fractured versions of ourselves, allowing the reader to think -- would I be like Tarrou, the saintly helper? Or like Dr. Rieux with his quiet vigilance? What of Grand and his obsessive writing? Or of Rambert and his efforts to escape? Camus makes clear that we are all of them, or at least we could be. They all must reckon with the danger they face and decide how to act in response. Father Paneloux, in his extraordinary sermon lays out Camus's philosophy:

There was no question of not taking precautions or failing to comply with the orders wisely promulgated for the public weal in the disorders of a pestilence. Nor should we listen to certain moralists who told us to sink on our knees and give up the struggle. No, we should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at time, and try to do what good lay in our power.

It is in during this sermon, of course, that the weather makes its most profound appearance. "A high wind was blowing," we are told, "pouring in great gusts through the swing-doors and filling the aisles with sudden drafts." As Paneloux concludes and the people are leaving the church, "a violent gust swept up the nave through the half-open doors and buffeted the faces of the departing congregation. It brought with it a smell of rain, a tang of drenched sidewalks, warning them of the weather they would encounter outside."

There will be storms, Paneloux is saying. There will be plague, Camus is saying. There will be death. And it will always be so. For Paneloux, it is an enduring facet of his faith; for Rieux, it is confirmation of his disbelief. But their response is the same. When Tarrou says to Rieux, "But your victories will never be lasting; that's all," Rieux responds:

Yes, I know that. but it's no reason for giving up the struggle.

Even in the face of "never ending defeat," Rieux insists that the fight to save others from the plague is the only possible response to the plague.

Camus, with The Plague, says to his reader: Hold out your two hands.

Into one hand he places these words: there is nothing we can do

and into the other he places these: still, we must hope.

Even though the final words of the novel remind us that the plague can and always will return, the overriding truth is here in the waning days of the epidemic:

The change, no doubt, was slight. Yet, however slight, it proved what a vast forward stride our townsfolk had made in the way of hope. And indeed it could be said that once the faintest stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of the plague was ended.

We, too, have endured and are beginning to feel those stirrings of hope. But we still face the plagues of climate change, of racism, of political turmoil, of violence. We can so easily be tempted by the "habit of despair," but The Plague reminds us that hope, too, can be a habit, even in the face of suffering, even in the face of death. It's a paradox, and it's true.


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