What Camus Sees: The Plague Within

There is a scene in The Plague, the relentessly grim post-war novel by existential icon Albert Camus, that still shocks: the hopeless, tortured death struggle of a beloved child – made worse by his father’s plea to the protagonist Dr. Rieux to “save my boy.” It’s a scene (and I say “scene” because I find Camus to be deliberately cinematic) that does not dissolve; it remains with anyone who reads it.

The wrestling match with mortality drew me back to Camus recently, perhaps by my own creeping middle age and perhaps by the events of recent years. The war is endless, yet soldiers perservere. They serve and die.

Why? This question is at the center of The Plague, where the death count is not man-made at all, but just inherent to the imperfection of life. The standard view of Camus always comes back to this question: if we’re all fated to die anyway, what’s the purpose, what’s the reason?

But that’s too simple, really. It neglects all the flavors of experience in The Plague, which features a wide and interesting group of characters, all trapped in plague-ridden Oran for months.

The North African city (as yet unblemished by the violent Arab revolt and French reprisals of a few years later) turns inward upon itself as the bacillus spreads and kills. Camus makes wonderful use of architecture and weather, using the layout of the city to create a vivid portrait of a closed port with armed guards on the city walls.

Further, The Plague is so clearly a post-war work – indeed, it is often at odds with purity of philosophy in Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus essay, which was published in 1942. The long war and its mass murder revelations made the “purely absurd” view of human existence seem frivolous; this is my view, Camus never said it.

But there is no view of the trial of Oran’s disease-stricken citizens that suggests pure absuridity, pure existentialism. Indeed, human love is a strong motivator and some characters chart a noble path of sacrifice. Even religion is not entirely mocked; the pompous priest still achieves some respect.

The stoic Dr. Rieux is, however, a protoypical Camus character – seemingly devoid of emotion, trudging forward to accept fate, but with conscious free will. Is he a good man?

His deeds would suggest a positive response; the good doctor works himself to the bone in the service of his neighbors. Yet his efforts are hopeless, and he is constantly aware of that painful fact. Still, there are no outbursts, no tears, no violent episodes of self-examination.
Over at Tales from the Reading Room, blogger litlove ponders Dr. Rieux and finds him a blank slate – in some ways, the bland stand-in for society itself, an empty page to be filled by events.

If Dr Rieux is what we might call the hero in this book it’s because he can find a way to witness the atrocity of a child’s suffering and keep on relentlessly fighting the plague. He’s one of Camus’s cold fish; he won’t be drawn into discussing what the plague means, he won’t predict its progress, and he won’t waste his energy on compassion for the dying. At first he seems a bit repellent, but then his constant repetition that he must do his job and his tireless attempts to cure the sick and to co-opt the healthy into community work confers upon him a kind of authentic nobility. Rieux recognizes that concerns and anxieties beyond the immediate limits of his role are misplaced and ultimately self-indulgent. His quiet devotion to his duty, and the terrible personal losses he will suffer make him a profoundly moving character.

Last year, President Bush famously discussed his summer reading list, which included The Stranger – pretty much a high school reading list standard. It’s a solitary tale, the equivalent of Crime and Punishment in the Dostoevsky playlist.

I always preferred the vast ensemble works though: The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot, for example. The Plague is in the latter class. It’s a rich read, and will stay with me for a while. It’s a portrait of perseverance in the face of an unending, deadly misery. President Bush would have done better to invest in its long, difficult story.