On Albert Camus’s novel The Plague (1947), which has been selling out lately like N95 COVID-19 face masks. How shall we face adversity? Camus gives us colorful characters that embody various approaches. Should we put faith in God (Paneloux), or refuse to believe that a God would allow such suffering (Rieux)? Should you dwell on the one you love that the plague is keeping you from (Rambert)? Or should you aspire to sainthood (Tarrou), or throw yourself into your art (Grand), or profit from chaos (Cottard)? Here’s a quick cheat sheet describing these characters if you get lost.
Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Seth are all here to talk about this modern, existential tragedy. Yes, the plague is an extreme situation, but we’re all dying all the time anyway even though we ignore that fact and go about our business, with our shallow passions and our belief that nothing truly terrible could happen. We’re also already plagued by each other, by the violence that civilization is based on. Camus’s solution? Solidarity, despite the fact language is not sufficient for us to really communicate the important stuff, and we’re not really built to enact the deep love and devotion we aspire to. Nonetheless, Camus claims that people are more good than bad, and that doing your duty in (or out of) a crisis is just a matter of common decency, as difficult as that may be to achieve sometimes.
Is the book an allegory for the creep of fascism, or for the French experience of World War II, or perhaps it’s not an allegory at all, but a very thoroughly researched, gripping piece of very realistic fiction, with essentially two narrators, one (Rieux) a medical professional and the other (Tarrou, whose journal Rieux paraphrases frequently and at length) an alienated but insightful philosophical observer not unlike Sartre in Nausea.
Image by Solomon Grundy.