Vinoth Ramachandra

Camus’ The Plague

Posted on: November 28, 2020

Since my university days, I have been deeply attracted to Albert Camus (1913-1960), both his novels and his philosophical essays. It is difficult during these Covid days not to recall his most famous novel The Plague (1947) which describes the outbreak of a terrible disease which ravaged the population of Oran in North Africa, resulting in its isolation and shut down. The narrative describes the struggle of the townspeople to cope with the avalanche of suffering and death.

At another level, the plague has been taken as a symbol of the German occupation of France, against which Camus fought heroically as a member of the resistance. And, towards the end of the novel, there are hints that the story is also a parable of the perennial human condition- fighting the plague of evil in all of us.

When the plague strikes Oran, the local Jesuit priest Father Paneloux preaches a fire and brimstone sermon announcing that this was a judgment of God brought about by the failure of the people to repent of their sins. The atheist doctor Bernard Rieux is too busy helping the victims to indulge in such speculations. “Paneloux is a man of learning, a scholar,” he wryly observes, “He hasn’t come in contact with death; that’s why he can speak with such assurance of truth- with a capital T. but every country priest who visits his parishioners, and has heard a man gasping for breath on his deathbed, thinks as I do. He’d try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence.”

However, Father Paneloux joins the doctor and his workers in the town’s hospitals and comes into contact with people suffering from the plague. His repeated exposure to the tragedy of the deaths of children, softened his rhetoric and brought about a profound change in him, so that when he preached his next sermon he “spoke in a gentler, more thoughtful tone than on the previous occasion” and “instead of saying ‘you’ he now said ‘we’”.

Bringing down his fist on the pulpit, Father Paneloux declares in ringing tones that all Christians should stay in the town and not run away. “There was no question of not taking precautions or failing to comply with the orders wisely promulgated for the public weal.” Nor was it an occasion to surrender to the plague in a spirit of fatalism. “No, we should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at whiles, and try to do what good lay in one’s power. As for the rest, we must hold fast, trusting in the divine goodness, even as to the deaths of little children, and not seeking personal respite.”

Jean Tarrou, a recent visitor to the town and the chronicler of these events, is the novelist’s own tormented voice. He tells Dr. Riux towards the end of the novel “I can say I know the world inside out, as you may see- that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it… we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in someone’s face and fasten the infection on him.” Yet such constant vigilance is wearisome. It is a weariness “from which nothing remains to set us free, except death.”

What I love about Camus is his unflinching honesty. While he presents the challenges posed by the plague to traditional theodicies, he does so with respect and empathy, not scorn. And he is equally clear that people like him who have rejected faith in God struggle with profoundly troubling questions of their own. While announcing that existence is absurd, his very being cries out for coherence, order, justice. He wants to confront the disorder and suffering that reigns everywhere. But why? On what his passion for justice grounded?

In his most famous philosophical essay The Rebel, Camus summed up the paradox of protest atheism: “When man submits God to moral judgement, he kills him in his own heart. And then what is the basis of morality? God is denied in the name of justice but can the idea of justice be understood without the idea of God? Have we not arrived at absurdity?”

The struggle to “live as a saint [a just man] without God” haunted Camus all his life. And, I was not surprised to learn that over the course of a few years before his untimely death in 1960 he met regularly with an American Methodist pastor, Howard Mumma, in Paris. Mumma records that Camus read the Bible several times and confessed to him:

“The reason I have been coming to church is because I am seeking. I’m almost on a pilgrimage- seeking something to fill the void that I am experiencing- and no one else knows. Certainly the public and the readers of my novels, while they see that void, are not finding the answers in what they are reading. But deep down, you are right- I am searching for something that the world is not giving me.” (Howard Mumma, Albert Camus and the Minister)

Mumma felt that Camus was close to Christian commitment but shrank back from baptism because of his ingrained aversion to the institutional church as well as fear of the public frenzy this would arouse. Camus’s death is labelled a road accident, but Mumma believed it was suicide. He lamented “my failure to restore faith in my friend, Albert, at least enough faith to stave off what to me was obviously suicide. Perhaps the depth of his despair was beyond anyone’s ken, perhaps not.”

All the great works of art, music and literature (East and West), not to mention religious philosophy, have been inspired by human suffering and death.

Is it too much to hope that, from the midst of this terrible pandemic currently blighting the planet, there will arise new novels, art, music and films that will enrich our lives and deepen our sense of human fragility, dependence and solidarity?

5 Responses to "Camus’ The Plague"

Thank you for this very encouraging post. The pandemic is indeed causing stock-taking of various sorts—private and public, acknowledged or not—with some problems finding resolution while others continue to get worse. It has been an exhausting year, and the light at the end of the tunnel still looks dim and far away. May God help us persevere through the madness and despair.

Your article is excellent but for one thing: the book by Howard Mumma is a fake by a minimum rate of 90%. I read it carefully, and I made the demonstration that the author embroidered his memories (provided the whole book is not a fake…). Many things he says simply cannot have happened, including the final accident which doesn’t correspond with the circumstances and even the shape of the road!
If you can read French, you could buy my book: Philippe Malidor, “Camus face à Dieu”, éditions Excelsis 2019 https://www.xl6.com/articles/9782755003697-camus-face-a-dieu I wrote a whole chapter on Mumma’s book. Best regards!

Thanks for your post about Camus. I can remember a literature seminar where the two Christians in the room presented a discussion of Camus’s vision of grace and that of the Dutchess of the piece “The Just Assassins”. We went to great lenghts to contrast the 2 visions and that of the NT and the prof as well as the fellow students really liked it.
I’ve often recommended to my students to read Camus and they also say it’s helping them to be more honest in their faith and their analysis of the world.

Pale Rider:

Thank you for your correction. I can’t read French, but trust your version of the fatal accident. However, I’ll leave my post as it is and hope that readers will also read your comment.

Amen. Suffering is the provenance of much great art as you say. I believe there was evidence of that in 2020, especially on the music front. It remains to be seen the full effect on the arts in general. It’s further complicated by how much the Arts (already underfunded in certain parts of the world) have been adversely affected by venue closures etc during lockdowns.

Thanks for the literary tip. I was unfamiliar with ‘The Plague’. In the West, it’s ‘L’Étranger/The Outsider’ that is arguably Camus’ most celebrated work. That might speak more to the individualism of many Western cultures.

Camus’ cynical attitude towards God/Faith is certainly more prevalent in ‘L’Étranger’. It therefore comes as a surprise that he might have been more open and searching than is usually discussed.

In terms of what you describe as the paradox of protest atheism, and what this says about Camus’ own internal conflict, I had a similar impression many years ago reading an English translation of Sartre’s ‘The Age of Reason’. The irony (if it is such) of not being able to wholly slough off a morality influence by Judaeo-Christian tenets.

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