French philosopher and Nobel Prize award winner for Literature in 1957, Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague was on the Comparative Lit curriculum at Ohio University during my freshman year in 1969-70. My prof insisted that the pestilence the author describes signified the uprising of the Nazi Third Reich. I’m certain that was one part of it.
Metaphorically, literally or figuratively; the point being, Camus set his story in Oran,
Algeria (likely) for more than one reason. That district in the Algerian interior had suffered through a great Cholera Epidemic in 1849. The Plague remains urgently relevant today, as it was even before it was written.
1969-70, Tin Soldiers and Nixon Comin’…
We didn’t have a Spring Quarter at Ohio University in Athens during my freshman year. On account of a whole series of events that led to, and resulted from the killing of four students at Kent State University near Cleveland. Shot dead by armed soldiers of the Ohio National Guard on May 4th 1970, while peacefully protesting the U.S. war in Viet Nam and Cambodia.
Our anti-war activities had already become more active in April, after President Richard Nixon’s secret genocide bombings inside of Cambodia. For us, it was all tear gas, barricades, broken glass and police in riot gear after that. A group I belonged to was associated with other campus chapters of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
We were among the first to organize lockdown strikes against going to classes. Instead, we held rallies and workshops getting high on the College Green. Which was a necessary sacrifice from my point-of-view at the time, though it didn’t stop me from finishing the novels I’d been assigned in the course I had been taking in Comparative Lit. Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, is the one I still recall best of all. Timelessly relevant, as you can see for yourself.
It wasn’t just the war in Viet Nam, or the killing of innocent students by our own military that we were so vehemently opposed to. It was the entire materialist, capitalist oligarchy—symbolically represented by the local, monopolistic, price-gouging Logan’s Campus Bookstore—through whose glass doors and windows we threw our rocks, police pepper gas canasters, and bricks through.
Two of the heroes I most identified with in The Plague were medical doctor Bernard Rieus, and Jean Tarrou, who was vacationing in Oran when the outbreak required an immediate quarantine of the city. They were
courageous realists and humanists who believed in the value of human life, and who were willing to risk their own lives to help save others’. They were among the first to see the potential epidemic of the plague. The vast majority preferred wishful thinking, and much willful denial.
“[It] has small importance whether you call it a plague or some rare
kind of fever,” Dr. Rieus says. “The important thing is to prevent its
killing half the population of this town.”
Jean Tarrou’s perception of the plague—being that of an outsider—is more expansive and philosophical than other people’s. “I learned that even those who were better than the rest could not keep from killing or letting others kill,” says Jean Tarrou. “Yes, I’ve been ashamed ever since; I have realized that we all have plague, and I have lost my peace.”
My prof insisted that the pestilence the author describes signified the uprising of the Nazi’s Third Reich. I’m certain that was part of it. Metaphorically, literally, or figuratively. The Guardian reviewer Ed Vulliamy
reminds us that Albert Camus’ The Plague, (last modified August 2019),
remains urgently relevant today, as it was even before it was written.
Reading and Writing as Instruments in Creative Thinking-through Tragic Uncertainties
Sitting in a cafe on the corner of 4th and Mercer in New York City beside NYU students tapping away on their laptops, British author and University of Cambridge academic Andy Martin asked himself, “What is it about the café that makes it such a natural venue for thinking, the habitat of the
philosopher and writer?” I drink coffee, therefore I am.
Please think about this: The café is somewhere to go to meet other people, to sit and talk and “think out loud together.” A form of agora—the ancient marketplace that evolved into the first Academy. Where parallel lives intersect. “The seats,” as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, “are owned by everyone and no one.” The café is also, philosophically “a battlefield,” added Andy Martin (in The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre Vs. Camus, 2012), “a place where verbal wars—the agon—can be fought out in metaphysical combat.”
Something essential we can’t do without. We need tables and chairs to sit at with other people in close proximity. Like the Café de Flore on the Boulevard Saint-Germaine in Paris, where Jean-Paul Sartre sat near the wood stove, while he wrote most of his treatise on Being and Nothingness. This was in the midst of the war with Germany, which was one of the crises Albert Camus was writing about in The Plague, a work of fiction where invading rats cause an epidemic of the bubonic plague in an Algerian town in the 1940s.
But, at that time and place in which he wrote it, Camus had no idea how either the war or his book was going to turn out. He felt like a failure. His book lacked an ending. He did finally come up with this open-ended admission that something like this could happen again, at any time: “The plague bacillus never dies or disappears.” Yet, the author later admitted to his friend Jean Grenier, “I do not think that the war is finished, and in any case the worst of it is yet to come.”
Epidemic Negligence and La Peste Capitalism
“Nowadays,” wrote Ed Vulliamy in his recently modified Guardian piece on, “Camus’ The Plague… can tell the story of a different kind of plague: that of a destructive, hyper-materialist, turbo-capitalism; and can do so as well as any applied contemporary commentary…It can describe very well the plague in a society which blares its phantasmagoria across the poor world so that millions come, aboard tomb ships or across murderous deserts, in search of its empty promises.”
Camus had, prior to The Plague, written an essay entitled, “Le Desert,” about “repugnant materialism” plundering nature. And echoes of today’s coronavirus era politicians can be heard coming from the same sort of repugnant bureaucrat characterized in Camus’ fictitious Plague, insisting, “There are no rats in the building,” as their diseased corpses rot in the hallways. The politicians and newspapers rally the public with news that the contagion is under control when it isn’t. Sound familiar?
Towards the conclusion to The Plague, Dr. Rieux is watching families and lovers reunite when the gates of Oran are finally opened again. He wonders—in the aftermath of so much suffering and much unnecessary
vying for unobtainable control—whether there can ever be true peace of mind or contentment without hope and expectation. Perhaps, he decides.
For those “who knew now that if there is one thing one can always yearn for, and sometimes attain, it is human love.”
So how realistic is it to imagine that the current pandemic crisis we’re facing in 2020 could become a political game changer? A unifier to all the disparate issues and vested interests. There are hard-right conservatives, as well as wealthy moderate neo-liberals—who would rather put their inheritance money into denying the extent of the outbreak, than allocate funds to the proletariat whom most desperately need it.
In spite of each new disclosure of credible statistics about how a clique of 25 oligarchs and kleptocrats controls half the world’s wealth. Despite the unmasking of the mythological policies of privatization and deregulations for the thinly veiled licence to steal they always were to begin with. There are those who maintain their hope and yearning and, eventually, who will overcome their hopeless fear and confusion. To become more self-sufficient and compassionate towards those stricken by any devastating, recurring disease.
On the last page, Camus writes,
“Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace, but should bear witness in favor of those plague- stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
Until next time.
Peter Chiaramonte, PhD