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The Plague, Camus, and hope

Overcoming absurdity during a pandemic

20 04 21.beale2

There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.Albert Camus eerily familiar tale of a town in plague lockdown can show us how to preserve hope amid the prolonged suffering of a pandemic. 

Albert Camus’ The Plague almost reads as a contemporary account. The denials and delays of public authorities in responding, the shortage of vital medical supplies, the overcrowding of hospitals—Camus saw it all with uncanny clarity. Moreover, he understood how pandemics can harm not just the body, but also the spirit.

One of the worst things about the plague is that it seems never-ending. This may seem like an obvious statement, but the point is significant. A night watchman says he wishes the city had been hit with an earthquake instead of the plague. “A good bad shock, and there you are! You count the dead and living, and that’s an end of it,” the watchman says. Earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, and other similar natural disasters—as horrific as they are—have one saving grace: they end quickly. They have a clearly defined ending, from which survivors can grieve and move on.

Each day of the plague, on the other hand, brings a steady drip-drip of new deaths. The plague causes a different kind of loss as well: prolonged separation from loved ones who were out of town when the quarantine took effect. Fears that the plague could last a year or even longer fuels uncertainty about when a reunion will be possible. The townspeople begin to despair of a better future and decide it’s easier to just stop thinking about it. They become like “wandering shadows” that “drifted through life rather than lived,” tormented by “sterile memories.”

Despair hasn’t yet become habitual when the loss still hurts because you continue to hope for reunion.

The plague stole the simpler pleasures of life as well. Not only are the residents of Camus’ fictional city of Oran barred from travel, they can’t even leave for the nearby beach. Despite “all its nearness, the sea was out of bounds,” Camus says. Siestas and holidays “no longer invited” townspeople to “frolics and flirtation on the beaches.” To paraphrase Camus, part of the misfortune of the plague is its sheer monotony. Even the simplest of pleasures are snuffed out: one old man who once enjoyed spitting at street cats no longer can after the felines are euthanized (over concerns that they may be spreaders of the disease). “Plague had killed all colors, vetoed pleasure,” Camus writes.

Is there a way through the despair?

Camus suggests there is. He draws a distinction between despair and the “habit of despair,” in which people have become numb to their pain. Despair hasn’t yet become habitual when the loss still hurts because you continue to hope for reunion: your memory of your loved one has not lost its “fleshly substance.”

The only way to keep such memories alive is by doing what the townspeople avoided: imagining your beloved—both what they might be doing in the present and your potential future together. This may be more painful, but it is also the only way to truly live, Camus says. The alternative, according to Camus, is to become like one of the shadows that drifted aimlessly about the town.

This power of the imagination to keep love alive is spectacularly demonstrated through the character of Raymond Rambert, a Paris-based journalist who coincidentally had come to investigate the sanitary of the conditions before the outbreak and got trapped in the quarantine.

Rambert liked to set aside four in the morning for “thinking of his beloved Paris” and “conjuring up pictures of the woman from whom he now was parted.” Rambert also would daydream of Paris—as a kind of reverse synecdoche for his beloved who lived within the city. “There rose before his eyes, unsummoned, vistas of old stones and riverbanks, the pigeons of the Palais-Royal, the Gare du Nord, quiet old streets round the Pantheon, and many another scene of the city he’d never known he loved so much.”

The plague is also an absurdist phenomenon: it is vast in its scale, killing so many that it leaves little room to respect individual human dignity.

In addition to imagination, one must be able to see reality clearly. It is not enough to long for the future, one must still live in the present. According to Camus, the plague called for rethinking humanity’s place in the scheme of things, beginning with the recognition that Protagoras was wrong—man is not the measure of all things. This is contrary to our natural tendency to reduce all things to human terms in order to understand them, as Camus explains in the Myth of Sisyphus. “The cat’s universe is not the universe of the anthill. The truism ‘All thought is anthropomorphic’ has no other meaning.”

Camus’ absurdism recognizes that the universe can no more satisfy our yearnings for meaning and love than the cat can address the needs of the ant. The plague is also an absurdist phenomenon: it is vast in its scale, killing so many that it leaves little room to respect individual human dignity. (Camus’ account of mass burials without proper funerals is a particularly grim testament to this fact.) At the same time, the source of the contagion, the bacteria, is too small an enemy to be seen and battled. Thus, at every turn, the plague defies human attempts to make sense of it. What is needed is a sort of existential humility, an understanding of our true place in the order of things—what Camus calls “modesty.”

This mindset leads to Camus’ absurdist ethic. His characters realize that they cannot escape from the plague; they can only endure it. This is exemplified in the story’s protagonist, doctor Bernard Rieux. Like the mythic Sisyphus who was condemned to perpetually roll the stone up the hill, only for it toslide back down, Rieux envisions his vocations as helping his patients fight the inevitable—death. “I now can picture what this plague must mean for you,” says his friend, Jean Tarrou. “Yes. A never ending defeat,” Rieux responds.

Camus’ realism also makes possible a special kind of joy.

This kind of defeatism may seem dark, but it is also realistic. The plague is beyond the control of all the townspeople, including the doctors. Not everyone can be saved. People will die. The local economy will suffer. But this kind of realism is what makes a firm hope in a better future possible. You can’t, after all, hope for something you already have. Characters like Rambert keep the flame of love alive by being realistic in accepting the distress caused by their separation.

Camus’ realism also makes possible a special kind of joy. Near the end of the plague, Tarrou and Rieux quietly go out to the beach at night, thanks to government passes they have. As both men prepare to jump into the waters, they are overtaken by a “strange happiness” that “forgot nothing, not even murder.” Happiness doesn’t come through escaping from or denying reality. Instead, the moment is all the more joyful because it’s been stolen from the plague, so to speak. Apparently, Sisyphus can take breaks from rolling his stone.

Gloom seems to hang over much of Camus’ Plague. It does not always make for light or uplifting reading. The brooding darkness and empty despair cry out from almost every page. But this is what makes Camus’ exhortations to hope and joy so powerful. They aren’t born out of fantasy but instead are rooted in the reality of human suffering and distress. Camus’ absurdist ethic won’t buckle under the pressure of a plague or pandemic. When the going gets tough, his approach will continue to serve us well precisely because it takes hardship as a given.

See big ideas like this one debated live at the IAI’s online festival, HowTheLightGetsIn Global between September 19-20. Hundreds of events live-streamed from London, Delhi and New York, featuring the biggest thinkers in philosophy, science, politics, the arts and economics. Find out more here.
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