BY MATTHEW HERBERT
Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague is amost always read as an allegory. It is said to be about the spread of Nazism among the French during World War Two. For Christopher Hitchens, it is a warning about the underlying malice of religion. The desire to burn heretics only goes dormant under the civilizing forces of science, politics and common sense, Hitchens believed. The Plague shows us that tyranny can always break out anew under the right conditions.
But today it is instructive to read Camus’s novel as simply about what it says it is about–an epidemic. We need no deeper symbols to give it meaning.
The focus of the story is on the progession of people’s responses to the sudden onset of a lethal, contagious disease. One day in nineteen forty-something, the denizens of the Francophile city of Oran, Algeria were going about their lives, “with blind faith in the immediate future,” as Camus puts it. With unthinking certainty, they expected every day to be followed by another one, differing in no important respect from the last. Love, ambition, work–everthing that requires the positing of a future for its fulfillment–unfolds in glorious normalcy.
Then the rats start to die. First in ones or twos, soon after in large groups. Building supervisors and trash haulers have to gather them up and carry them away. People step on them unawares, feeling something soft underfoot, then kicking them away in disgust.
Soon, people start dying too. Two Oran doctors evaluate the evidence and hypothesize that a plague is underway. Their first reaction when they speak the word to themselves is to anticipate what will happen next–a large-scale official denial of the threat even as it unfolds before everyone’s eyes. “You know,” one of the doctors says, “what they’re going to tell us? That it vanished from temperate countries long ago.”
It’s funny that we European-Americans, too, think this kind of thing, but we do. We lived in such close quarters with our animals for so long, that we contracted a whole range of ravaging diseases, then became immune to many of them, then conquered the new world through a global campaign of germ warfare we didn’t even know we were waging. So it goes. Millions died.
Late in The Plague as Oran is dying, the protagonist, Dr. Rieux reflects on how little human agency matters once a brutal, unthinking pandemic is unleashed. Rieux has been working 20-hour days, and he is beginning to realize he will eventually lose the fight against the plague’s exponential spread. Amidst the stench of the dead and dying people of Oran, he achieves a kind of clarity:
Had he been less tired, his senses more alert, that all-pervading odor of death might have made him sentimental. But when a man has had only four hours’ sleep, he isn’t sentimental. He sees things as they are; that is to say, he sees them in the garish light of justice–hideous, witless justice.
I have read all of Camus’s books, and I am confident that this is a statement of record: it is Camus speaking directly to the reader. Camus believes each person lives alone beneath a “vast, indifferent sky,” and must confront an ultimate absurdity–that life, the one thing we humans are encoded and conditioned to seek with all our energy, is precisely the thing the universe will deny us. We are guaranteed not to get it. Some justice, right? You can see why Camus calls it hideous and witless.
The plague comes for us all.
But this is not the whole of the human situation for Camus. Faced with desperate absurdity, we invent things. One of these is society. We create all kinds of groups whose overarching purposes endow our individual lives with meaning. We subordinate our selfish desires to higher ends. They give us a reason, as Marcus Arelius put it long before Camus, to rise each morning and do the work of a human. Having a society is what enables us to be fully human.
But the thing about society is that it does not come for free. It is not just there, like the elements of the periodic table. We create it, and we are responsible for sustaining it. And this is actually what The Plague is about, whether you take the plotline straight or as an allegory–it is about moral responsibility.
About one-third of the way through The Plague, the people of Oran start to understand that the epidemic ravaging their home will soon re-shape their lives. With the shit getting real and minds suddenly focused, a prominent priest decides to give a straight-talk sermon. It is, ahem, a come-to-Jesus moment:
If today the plague is in your midst, that is because the hour has struck for taking thought. The just man need have no fear, but the evildoer has good cause to tremble. For plague is the flail of God and the world his threshing floor, and implacably he will thresh out his harvest until the wheat is separated from the chaff. There will be more chaff than wheat, few chosen of the many called. Yet this calamity was not willed by God. Too long this world of ours has connived at evil, too long has it counted on the divine mercy, on God’s forgiveness.
Camus was not a religious man. Quite the opposite. The part of the priest’s sermon I have bolded, though, is something Camus believed in, in a way, with great passion. So do I. It is really about society, responsibility and solidarity.
For too long we have connived in evil by pretending that society gets by on its own, or as Margaret Thatcher thought, it simply doesn’t exist. Americans tend to take this rugged pose in various forms, either by pretending that we’re all atomized individualists; or that the market will solve all problems; or that government itself is the problem not a solution; or if we all had enough guns everything would work itself out; or if we just wait for the super-rich sprinkle a few dollars down on the poor through gig work and mcjobs, they will get by. Or my personal favorite: As long as I have a big enough pile of money, everything else is as good as it needs to be.
These are all variations on the same kind of moral illiteracy.
For many years I had the privilege to live among adults who did not believe any of these childish fantasies–or at least they did not act in accordnce with them. They knew that society was a human invention. If you wanted a decent society, you would have to pay for it.
And I don’t just mean money. Money is just a start. You would have to pay by believing that you really are responsible to your neighbors. You really do have to help set up good schools for everyone, even if you think your kids are more deserving than theirs. You have to build clinics and hospitals on the same model. Libraries, roads, tramlines. It all has to be good, and it has to be good for everyone.
We need these things all the time if we are to indulge our blind faith in the immediate future–the assumption that tomorrow will bless us with the same certainty today did.
What we are discovering through our current plague is how fragile our society is. It is fragile because we have allowed the rich and greedy to set its priorites. And so we inhabit a system designed only for the best of times–the only thing the rich can envision. Our healthcare system is set up to function well for the rich, just barely for the middle class, and not at all for the poor. Under “normal” circumstances, this is tolerable. Well, it is tolerable in the sense that it does not incite a general insurrection.
Same goes for labor and wages. Marx’s Iron Law of Wages is viable but only under the best conditions. Our country is constantly running an experiment designed to discover how low wages can be driven for the maximum number of people. Sure, we can have a country where hundreds of thousands of people use paycheck loans to survive and never send their kids to a dentist, but only as long as widespread disaster does not strike. We need feel no responsibility for those poeple. It’s part of the American story to watch them struggle, alone, for survival. It’s interesting.
But when the plague landed on our shores, all our lives suddenly threatened to become more interesting. The moral corruption of our system was exposed. Suddenly it has become an urgent matter to supply people with money, goods and services they haven’t strictly speaking earned. But what if we had already had a system in place in which we collectivized our responsibility for one another–a system that normalized the imulse to take care of each other?
Writing in the Atlantic Monthy this week, Anne Applebaum counts the cost we are now paying for letting our society believe the lie of rugged individualism. That lie has led to institutional rot and a decline of not just governmental, but civilizational capacity:
The United States, long accustomed to thinking of itself as the best, most efficient, and most technologically advanced society in the world, is about to be proved an unclothed emperor. When human life is in peril, we are not as good as Singapore, as South Korea, as Germany. And the problem is not that we are behind technologically, as the Japanese were in 1853. The problem is that American bureaucracies, and the antiquated, hidebound, unloved federal government of which they are part, are no longer up to the job of coping with the kinds of challenges that face us in the 21st century. Global pandemics, cyberwarfare, information warfare—these are threats that require highly motivated, highly educated bureaucrats; a national health-care system that covers the entire population; public schools that train students to think both deeply and flexibly; and much more.
The plague comes for us all. That is undeniable. But we need not pretend we are up against it alone. We need a system that takes care of everyone all the time, before emergencies happen. That’s what society is for. And, yes, Maggie, society does exist. It’s been one of our best inventions.