The first book I have selected as a classic to be re-read is one I read a lifetime ago. Perhaps 45 years ago. I noticed the price tag on the back. I paid 85 cents for this book and have kept it for about 50 years. Not bad. It is high time to return to it.
The Plague, written by Albert Camus, is of course a highly appropriate choice as I and so many others are at this time basically in quarantine facing a plague of COVID-19 that is spreading around the world filling people with dread.
In the novel Camus tells the story of Oran, a city in Algeria, and its people, as they suffer through an epidemic—a plague. Like us they were quarantined in their town amid fear and trembling. Now that many of us have been sequestered in various ways already, for many of us, for more than a month with no end in sight. So we know how the people of Oran felt. We feel like that now.
On one level the novel is a book about that plague and how the people of the town are afflicted by it, resist it, and help each other through it. That really is enough, but there is more to it than this. Much more. It is a novel of ideas. Many ideas. Too many to cover in a short review. I will confine myself to just a couple in this review.
Some critics have suggested that the plague of the novel is a symbol of Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War and the French resistance to it. I have no doubt it is that, but that is not all. It is a symbol of all totalitarian regimes and those who revolt against them around the world. In fact it is a symbol of all oppression and the people who fight it.
Camus was famous for saying he believed in limits. Oppression had to be resisted with limits. He was opposed to politics without limits such a totalitarian dreams which he firmly believed led to the gallows or the guillotine. As a result, he said the hero of the resistance was not the great revolutionary.
Camus basic belief is it was best to be modest and humble. He was deeply suspicious after the rise of totalitarianism in Europe after World War I. He thought it was grand designs that led to totalitarianism or murder. Like Bob Dylan said, “You don’t count the dead with God on your side.” If you are about to bring about heaven on earth, as Marxists believed, any actions, no matter how horrendous were justified in the name of that magisterial distant goal.
Camus rejected all that in favour of humility or modesty. He is satisfied if he can accomplish small good. That is good enough. He doesn’t expect to be a Saint.
In the book Tarrou used to have grand schemes to be saint, but he gave those up. He has no grand design any more. He just wants to help without doing anything to assist someone else in being killed.
Tarrou earlier said he was working towards being a saint. That was his goal. He never achieved it. As a result this is what Tarrou said about the plague to his friend Dr. Rieux:
“That, too is why this epidemic has taught me nothing new, except that I must fight it at your side…each of us has the plague within him: no one, no one on earth, is free from it.”
Later Tarrou says,
“I’ve learnt modesty: All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with pestilences. That may sound simple to the point of childishness; I can’t judge if it’s simple, but I know it’s true. You see, I’d heard such quantities of arguments, which very nearly turned my head, and turned other people’s heads enough to make them approve of murder; and I’d come to realize that all our troubles spring from our failure to use plain, clean-cut language…there are pestilences and there are victims; no more than that…That’s why I decided to take, in every predicament, the victim’s side…”
Rieux asked Tarrou if he knew the path to peace? Tarrou replied “the path of sympathy.” Again no grand designs, no plan to save the world, just follow the path of sympathy and use plain clear language to get there.”
The path of sympathy or fellow feeling seems simple. Camus tries to make it so. But he knows it is not always simple. For example, throughout the book Rambert, a newly wed, was trying to get back together with his wife who was stuck on the other side of the wall surrounding the town. He tries a few times and fails. Then near the end, it is arranged. He can escape. But Rambert changes his mind and stays back to help Rieux to help the victims. Did he do the right thing?
Rambert says no, “For nothing in the world is it worth turning back on what one loves yet that is what I’m doing—though why I don’t know.” To this Rieux responds, ‘a man can’t cure and know at the same. So let’s cure as quickly as we can. That’s the more urgent job.”
Dr. Rieux and Paneloux, the Catholic Priest have a discussion on similar lines:
Paneloux say to Rieux, “Perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.” It is the typical religious response but Rieux does not buy it. He replies, “No Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day, I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” Paneloux then thinks Rieux wants grace. Rieux does not accept this either. He wants a simpler more clear answer. “We’re working side by side for something that unites us—beyond blasphemy and prayers. And it’s the only thing that matters.” Paneloux jumps on this and claims, “Yes, Yes, you too are working for man’s salvation.” Dr. Rieux won’t have that either. He says,
“Salvation’s much to big a word for me. I don’t aim so high. I’m concerned with man’s health and for me his health comes first.”
Later Rieux adds this: “I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is—being a man.”
Rieux did not want to be a saint. He believed,
“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.”
Camus always fears the logical murderer that he found in his book The Rebel. That is the person who comes up with a big plan and then kills to bring it about. That is what the totalitarians did in Russia and Germany. Rieux looked for no grand designs for they could lead to such colossal murders as in the camps of the totalitarians. He wanted more modest goals. He believed the hero was the man with humility.
The man the narrator in the novel looked to as an example or ideal was called Grand. But he was not grand. He was modest. He was “a little hero.” And to Camus that was always the best kind. The Saint with grandiose goals often led to mass slaughter.
Grand was the true embodiment of the quiet courage that inspired the sanitary groups. He had said ‘Yes” without a moments hesitation and with the large-heartedness that was a second nature with him. All he asked was to be allotted light duties…When Rieux thanked him with some warmth for his contribution Grand seemed surprised. ‘Why, that’s not difficult. Plague is here, and we’ve got make a stand, that’s obvious. Ah, I only wish everything were as simple!’
In Camus’ world as in Rieux’s world, the humble man of virtue is the hero not the one who creates the grand designs to save the world. As the narrator said of Grand, “a hero…this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth it’s due.” We don’t need heroes or saints when we have people like Grand.