Like any lover of literature, I have turned to books for help in coping with our current crisis. One novel, Albert Camus’s The Plague is frequently mentioned as an outstanding example of “plague literature,” and I recently read it for the first time to see if it had anything to say to those of us who live in Santa Barbara about how we might survive our own contagion.
Like Santa Barbara, Oran, Algeria, where the novel is set, is a seaside town. And, as was the case for so many of us this year, the citizens of Oran initially can’t wrap their minds around the looming catastrophe. “A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure,” Camus writes, “therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away.”
However, as we learned in Santa Barbara, it doesn’t take long for an epidemic to circumscribe people’s lives: “At first the fact of being cut off from the outside world was accepted with more or less good grace, much as people would have put up with any other temporary inconvenience that interfered with only a few of their habits. But now they had abruptly become aware that they were undergoing a sort of incarceration.”
The Plague does a good job of detailing the few ups and many downs of life during a quarantine, from the initial hope that it won’t last long to “expending so much energy on…hunting round for supplies, and lining up” to the mind-numbing boredom of being stuck in the same place for no one knows how long.
Still, despite its perspicacity about plague mentality, Camus’ novel will likely have Santa Barbara readers noticing as many differences as similarities between the two outbreaks. For one thing, the sickness in The Plague is far deadlier than COVID-19, and unlike Santa Barbara, which so far has been spared the worst effects of our pandemic, Oran is ground zero. Oran is also, apparently, the only place in Algeria suffering from plague, so its citizens feel especially picked upon by fate.
One of the main reasons the plague is able to conquer Oran so thoroughly is that it is a walled city, and all its gates are guarded. People try to escape occasionally, but the vast majority of citizens accept their fate with a composure it is hard to picture Americans exhibiting. No contingent of “Liberate Oran” appears, and the town’s mayor, rather than fomenting rebellion against his own policies, is himself sick with the virus. Granted, a certain “slackness and supineness” eventually keeps some people from “taking steps to safeguard themselves against infection,” but this only occurs because the characters are so exhausted from helping their fellow citizens, not because they believe the plague is a hoax.
Advances in technology also make some elements of The Plague, which is set in the 1940s, feel extremely dated. Rather than Zooming or Instagramming with friends in far-flung places, the Oranians must rely on infrequently delivered letters for communication. Oran has a daily newspaper, but its primary purpose is to prop up the citizens’ sagging spirits; there’s no logging onto The New York Times website every half-hour to learn the latest contagion-related outrages.
Another striking dissimilarity between The Plague and life during COVID-19 is the lack of anything resembling social distancing, and no one, including Doctor Rieux, the book’s narrator, seems to find this odd. The virus in the novel is pretty clearly a version of the bubonic plague, which means it is passed not just through bacteria-carrying fleas, but also through exposure to droplets from an infected person’s cough. You’d think everyone in Oran would be vigorously sheltering in place, but the cafes and bars are open and packed. Despite the lack of new films, movie theaters are full. There’s even an opera company giving frequent performances — at least until one of the leads drops dead on stage. One explanation for these medical inconsistences may be that Camus never actually experienced a plague himself: his book is a work of literature, not the record of an actual epidemic.
In addition to being a novelist, Camus was also a philosopher, so it’s no surprise he sees the plague as a metaphor for existential angst: “each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it.” However, as is the case with his famous “Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus turns a potentially bleak insight into a call for quiet stoicism. We may not be perfect, he suggests, but we should refuse “to bow down to pestilences” and strive instead “to be healers.” That stoicism might sound like heroism to some, but Doctor Rieux concludes that “there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is — common decency.”
Common decency: now that’s a standard we can all aspire to, no matter when we face a plague.
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