The Plague reduxAlbert Camus’ novel from 1947 provides a peek into the absurdity of human behaviour and the inherent failure of authority when faced with a disease crisis.
Soon after we went into the national lockdown in March, my TV service provider had the idea of offering a number of films dealing with outbreaks of all manner of diseases in its free movie package. I initially wondered what would drive people to watch such movies when the same thing is being played out in real-time everywhere. I suppose the TV chaps knew human nature much better since, within days, I had watched a couple of those.
The one from the 1990s, Outbreak, was quite bad despite a star cast. But the newer one, Contagion (2011), was spooky since it felt as if the filmmaker had foreseen the current novel coronavirus outbreak, so eerily similar it was to what the world has experienced these past few months. Or, at least so it seems to a non-specialist like myself. In fact, Contagion has seen renewed popularity in other parts of the world as well. But two films was all I could do and thereafter soured of viewing a fate that could easily be ours at any time.
What I did tell myself was to hunt for my copy of The Plague by Albert Camus, and this time go beyond the first few pages I had always managed to stop at over the decades. As it so happened, there were many others who seemed to be thinking similarly, since this 1947 novel has picked up sales of the likes not seen in recent times. Nobel Prize-winning Camus certainly had a deep insight into the human spirit and the book does not fail on that score. There are many parallels between its storyline and how we have been dealing with the coronavirus, individually, as a nation, and as part of larger humanity. In the rest of the column, I present some of the passages that particularly struck me and which I hope will resonate with readers as well.
The Plague is set in the town of Oran in Algeria, at a time when it was a French colony. Camus himself was born in Algeria, which is also the setting of perhaps his most famous work, The Outsider. The backdrop to the novel is of plague-swept Oran closed off to the outside world while the story itself is an account of individual and collective endeavours to live through the pestilence.
Even though, in Oran, in ordinary times religion had to compete with more temporal pursuits such as bathing in the sea, it is only to be expected that people would turn to religion during distress. After the plague sets in, a Week of Prayer is designated with people attending in large numbers. As Camus writes: ‘Many of those who took part in the Week of Prayer would have echoed a remark made by one of the churchgoers… “Anyhow, it can’t do any harm”’. A fairly common response, one should say, when dealing with matters of faith.
I was reminded of the clanging of pots and pans in India when one of the characters says, ‘...the Chinese fall to playing tambourines before the Genius of Plague...[even though] there was no means of telling whether, in practice, tambourines proved more efficacious than prophylactic measures’. There is no knowing indeed, either of the senseless cacophony or the quack cures being peddled across the world.
The uncanny human ability to see one’s situation to be unique comes across clearly when one of the protagonists, a visitor from France, tries to use his contacts to get out of the city. ‘The gist of his argument was always the same; that he was a stranger to our town and, that being so, his case deserved special consideration. Mostly, the men he talked to conceded this point readily enough. But usually they added that a good number of other people were in a like case, and thus his position was not so exceptional as he seemed to suppose’.
The visitor does the rounds of government offices without avail. Until one day when a form is sent to him, asking for all his particulars. Initially believing that was the first step towards his exit, he later realises the details were needed because of ‘the possibility of his falling ill and dying of plagues; the data supplied would enable the authorities to notify his family and also to decide if the hospital expenses should be borne by the Municipality or…recovered from his relatives’.
Camus’ observation then about the government machinery goes thus: ‘The really remarkable thing…was the way in which, in the very midst of catastrophe, offices could go on functioning serenely, and take initiatives of no immediate relevance, and often unknown to the highest authority, purely and simply because they had been created originally for this purpose’.
On the municipal authorities and their response to the plagues, he writes: ‘Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic. And the remedial measures they think up are hardly adequate for a common cold. If we let them carry on like this they’ll soon be dead—and so shall we’. Do we not know that so well here in Nepal?
Camus goes on in words that appear to speak of many who are in power today: ‘The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole men are more good than bad...But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything...’ No comment required here.
The power of the printed word is so strong that people do not give any thought about its provenance. Hence, Camus writes: ‘They seem to derive fantastic hopes or equally exaggerated fears from reading the lines that some journalist had scribbled at random, yawning with boredom at his desk’. Compound that with what is passed around on social media and the matter is made worse many times over in this day and age.
If empathy is what we are seeking in times of crisis, the existentialist Camus reminds us that ‘nobody is capable of really thinking about anyone, even in the worst calamity. For really to think about someone means thinking about that person every minute of the day; without letting one’s thoughts be diverted by anything; by meals, by a fly that settles on one’s cheek, by household duties, or by a sudden itch somewhere’.
The perennial issue of the class divide rings familiar during the current pandemic: ‘[P]oor families were in great straits, while the rich went short of practically nothing. Thus, whereas plagues by its impractical ministrations should have promoted equality amongst our townsfolk, it now had the opposite effect and, thanks to the habitual conflict of cupidities, exacerbated the sense of injustice rankling in men’s hearts. They were assured, of course, of the inerrable equality of death—but nobody wanted that kind of equality’.
How people actually manage the daily business of living amidst death all around is no mystery to Camus. ‘There was no room in any heart but for a very old, grey hope, that hope which keeps men from letting themselves drift into death and is nothing but a dogged will to live’.
The one idea that stayed with me for a long time was his wry description of what the novel’s heroes felt about their fight against the plague, for it is a fate we hope we can collectively avoid—‘A never-ending defeat’.