By Ivan Spencer
In his 1947 novel, The Plague, Albert Camus tells the riveting story of the quarantined city of Oran, Algeria, that suffers a vicious outbreak of the plague. The plague increasingly and randomly kills the young and the old, the rich and the poor. The doomed citizens, shut off and abandoned to die, cope with various strategies as the months drag on their languished souls.
Many citizens revel in profligate eat-drink-and-be-merry behavior, enjoying a few nights of debauchery and lust, even if it risks death. This reminds me of the spring-breakers who now insist on partying while the world falls apart.
In Camus’s novel, the six main characters take six psychological stances to cope with quarantine, now euphemistically called, “shelter in place.” Giddy with schadenfreude, Cottard, a shady sketchy criminal, enjoys the dark times. His smuggling allows him to profit from the situation and he escapes notice for his former crimes. In the present coronavirus, profiteering and price gauging occurs, like the man who hoarded 18 thousand bottles of sanitizer to sell at extreme profits, or the myriad of other coronavirus scams. There will always be Cottards, vultures, in times of calamity.
The protagonist, Dr. Rieux, fights against the plague, organizing sanitation of the city, leading crews of volunteers, and caring for the sick. His humanitarian resolve forms the ethos of the novel and for Camusian humanitarian existentialism. Rieux, our example to follow, may well be Camus’s autobiographical character. Today, one could look to the myriads of health officials and workers, but especially Dr. Antony Fauci, the renown immunologist.
Christians possess a better action: practicing a gospel that inherently blends benevolence and spiritual regeneration.
Rieux finds great friendship and inspiration with Tarrou, an altruist activist who spurs Rieux to fight. In a revealing conversation Tarrou says,
“It comes to this, what interests me is learning how to become a saint.”
“But you don’t believe in God.” [Rieux]
“Exactly! Can one be a saint without God?—that’s the problem, in fact the only problem, I’m up against today.”
Can one be a saint without God? Tarrou represents the altruists and humanitarians who find deep meaning and redemption in their heroic actions in our present crisis or other endeavors. A veritable army of people in the secular age follow this code, seeking secular sainthood via disasters.
Another character, Grand, leads a quiet civil servant life, plodding forward, soldiering on, to assist with fighting the plague. For Camus, Grand lived as the true hero of the novel. He contracts the plague, but lives. Grand represents the dutiful legions of volunteers, unsung heroes, who will overcome our coronavirus plague through methodical persistence.
Rambert, a reporter who lives in Paris, had visited Oran to write up a story and quickly leave, but now finds himself trapped. Depressed and frantic to return to his newly wed wife and beloved Paris, he tries to illegally escape the city. Eventually he repents and joins Rieux to fight. Rambert represents everyone’s inner desire to flight instead of fight when faced with danger.
The last character, Father Paneloux, relates directly to Christians. Paneloux preaches that the plague of Oran justly scourges the citizens as a divine punishment reminiscent of the plagues of Exodus or the Apocalypse. One should not fight against God’s actions. The disease must run its course. Then one day, Paneloux witnesses a writhing young boy who dies in protracted excruciating pain. The experience changes his mind. He joins Rieux to fight the plague but catches the disease and dies. Paneloux represents those Christian voices who rebuke in times of calamity: we are sinners who deserve the outpouring of divine wrath in plagues or other disasters (like Katrina).
For the absurdist Camus it is an extreme absurdity to condemn those suffering absurd illnesses or gratuitous evils, blaming the victims. Camus creates a Prozac to deal with gratuitous evil: fight it with humanitarian acts, even if you lose. Fighting absurd evils generates meaning for a Sisyphean task. What started off as a story ends up as an existential philosophy of life in the face of evil. Most interpreters say Camus’s plague represents Nazism. It was 1947 after all, and the world was still reeling from World War II. Some say it’s just a story to take at face value, one you’ll have to read to learn the end. I tend to interpret Camus’s plague as the absurd, the stupid haphazard evils randomly annihilating innocent lives, including fascism. He pioneers absurdist existentialist atheism, channeling Nietzsche. Christian philosophers try to address the absurd when we tackle the evidential problem of evil (maybe in another post).
Camus envisioned a good and necessary, even if insufficient, plan of action: humanitarian benevolence. Christians possess a better action: practicing a gospel that inherently blends benevolence and spiritual regeneration. Camus’s humanitarianism hoped to save the world and benefit people, but it leaves souls desolate—without Tarrou’s sainthood. A Christian gospel can save creation and people’s souls.