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Camus’ Absurdist View of Plague


Enjoy the view while you are here.

As a little girl, my mother taught me this prayer, which I said on my knees each night before sleeping:

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep;

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

However, I taught a modern version to my son, which edited the last two lines:

Guide me safely through the night

And wake me with the morning light.

I did not teach him the earlier version of the ancient prayer because I wanted to spare him the absurdity of life at such a tender age. I wanted him to feel safe, to feel that he would make it through the night. I knew that the prayer was hundreds of years old. Therefore, I deduced that it came from a time when children’s mortality rate was much higher than it is in the 21st century. The second version intimates that something untoward may happen during the night, but it does not name the Grim Reaper and, in not naming it, spares the reciter the truth of fleeting life.

Albert Camus had an absurdist view of life. He knew that life teeters on the edge, no matter the century. In The Plague, dead rats begin to appear in the town of Oran on the Algerian coast. Oran is no different than other modern towns in which people live “to work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce and their chief aim of life, as they call it ‘doing business’. Naturally, they don’t eschew such simpler pleasures as love-making, seabathing, going to the pictures. But, very sensibly, they reserve these pastimes for Saturday afternoons and Sundays . . . “

Yet, these are the very things that make life worth living.

At first, the town’s inhabitants, leaders and newspapers ignore the rodent phenomenon until the numbers grow enough to merit incinerating the varmints. Dr. Bernard Rieux, the protagonist, and the much older Dr. Castel, are convinced that the bubonic plague has infiltrated Oran and persuade the authorities to take action.

“There have been as many plagues in the world as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared,” says the omniscient narrator who reveals his identity near the end of the story.

The Plague, published in 1947, reads like a chronicle of our COVID-19 times. It all starts on April 16, sometime in the 1940s, when Dr. Rieux steps over a dead rat lying in the middle of his landing. On April 25, 6,231 rats were collected in Oran and burned to ashes. On April 28, there were 8,000 rats. Denial outweighs the evidence for a long time.

“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.

“. . . Our townspeople . . . thought that everything was still possible for them, which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”

Eventually, the officials close off Oran to the world. They post sentries who stop people from entering to re-join loved ones or leaving for the same reason. So, the epidemic ruins tourist trade and shrivels businesses. Football matches are memories of crowded stands, “the colored shirts of the players, showing up brightly against the tawny soil” and “bottled lemonade that titillated parched throats”.

Dr. Rieux treats patients. Dr. Castel works on an anti-plague serum. And Joseph Grand, a town government clerk, helps the sanitation squad collect and dispose of the dead. In a tragic-comedic twist, Grand also rewrites the first sentence of his novel over and over again as he strives toward impossible perfection.

The months go by. People think that cold weather might help end the epidemic. Many believe that Dr. Castel’s anti-plague serum might work. “Peppermint lozenges had vanished from drugstores, because there was a popular belief that when sucking them you were proof against contagion.”

Jean Tarrou suggests organizing volunteers to fight the plague before the authorities conscript citizens or enlist prisoners. He says:

“Each of us has the plague within them; no one, no one on earth is free of it. and I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless manner we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest, health, integrity, purity (if you like) is the product of human will, of a vigilance that most never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fervent lapses of attention. And it needs tremendous will-power, a never ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses. Yes, Rieux, it’s a wearying business, being plague stricken. But it’s still more wearying to refuse to be it.”

Camus accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature on December 10, 1957. At 46, he was the second-youngest recipient after Rudyard Kipling at age 42. In Camus’ acceptance speech, he acknowledged that he was “a man almost young, rich only in his doubts and with his work still in progress”.

In an absurdist twist, Camus died two years later on January 4, 1960, in a car accident.

In The Plague. Dr. Rieux and Tarrou took a break from the randomness of the contagion by climbing onto a terrace overlooking the Oran harbor:

“In a city swept crystal-clear by the night wind, the stars showed like silver flakes, tarnished now and then by the yellow gleam of the revolving light. Perfumes of spice and warm stone were wafted on the breeze.

“Everything was still.

“A pleasant spot,” said Rieux, as he lowered himself into a chair. “You’d think that plague had never found its way up here.”

Enjoy the view while you are here.

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© 2017-2020 by Cynthia Adina Kirkwood