The Plague and its Detractors

a little mix

“I can see,” Tarrou said, “that you’re not going to join in our effort.”

Twiddling his hat uneasily, Cottard gazed at Tarrou with shifty eyes.

“I hope you won’t bear me a grudge.”

“Certainly not. But” — Tarrou smiled — “do try at least not to propagate the microbe deliberately.” (159)

At the end of the second day of the second Impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, House Manager Jamie Raskin gave a pained paean in the prosody of the “Ma Nishtana”:

*Why did President Trump not tell his supporters to stop the attack on the Capitol as soon as he learned about it?

*Why did President Trump do nothing to stop the attack for at least two hours after the attack began?

*As our constitutional Commander-in-Chief, why did he do nothing to send help to our overwhelmed and besieged law enforcement officers for at least two hours on January 6th after the attack began?

*On January 6th, why did President Trump not at any point that day condemn the violent insurrection and the insurrections?

In The Plague by Albert Camus, the people of the Algerian port city of Oran are beset by the bubonic pestis sometime in the 1940’s. By his own admission, Camus wanted the work to be “read on several levels” and its testimony functions as both narrative and allegory.[1] It can simultaneously signify the historical predicaments of plagues, “ ‘cosmic alienation,’ ” as well as the “ ‘Nazi occupation of France.’ ”[2] Underlying these interpretations, is a portrayal of the human interaction with astronomical abstraction. The work showcases the very real, psychologically salient, reactions to the plague.

That being said, Trump’s actions have precedent. As one of the characters notes in the Plague, “officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic.”[3] Indeed, in the very beginning of the first spasms of the plague, many of the officials and doctors refuse to acknowledge the possibility of catastrophe. Preferring to take a “wait-and-see” policy in a still ambiguous situation, the officials only enact half-hearted measures (Camus,49). Dr. Bernard Rieux, one of the head doctors, surveying the municipal orders, reflects that their rationale presumes the plague might “cease spontaneously” (Camus, 49). It is only after more incontrovertible proof that officials finally relent, acknowledge its severity, and quarantine the city.

Almost immediately, people try to flee. One visitor, a journalist named Raymond Rambert, is separated by the decree from both his partner and their house back in Paris. He disdains that the law’s abstractions should give flexibility in the face of the “language of…the heart” (Camus, 87). When no special allowance can be offered to him by either the officials or doctors, he resorts to illicit overtures, trying to escape through smuggling. Other residents, as well, engage in nightly attempts to “elude the sentries,” even exchanging shots in minor bouts of “revolutionary violence” (Camus, 105, 171).

Other residents take to burning down their own homes. Thrown off by “bereavement and anxiety,” they burn them under the pretense that “they were killing off the plague” (Camus, 169). Other neighbors, seeing the owners “dazed with grief,” would run in and loot the domiciles, dashing back outside as “hunched, misshapen” shadows under various articles (Camus, 171).

One of the priests in the city, Father Paneloux, gives a sermon in the midst of this, denouncing the “criminal indifference” of the residents in bringing on this “calamity” (Camus, 97, 94). Wielding the imagery of a whirling flail hovering over the city, Father Paneloux asserts that God was now threshing the city’s gradations of spirituality. The time has come, he states, to think on “first and last things” and to finally turn to the “holy silence” in the center of all suffering (Camus, 97, 99). In this way, Christians could find “succor…[and] hope” in the midst of agony (Camus, 99).

And finally others, like Dr. Rieux and his friends, continue their sanitary and medicinal efforts, putting their faces close to the wheel, and acknowledging the insurmountability of the plague. They do not run or rationalize the plague, but instead respect its magnitude. Even in the draining of meaning and potency which the plague has sent to the city, some of the residents continue to try to alleviate suffering, because that is the only “logical” thing to do (Camus, 133). As one of the characters notes near the end: “there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences” (Camus, 254).

While the scholarly consensus over The Plague’s genre is still unsettled, I offer that it is like a tapestry or tableux: a panoply of human reactions to a monumental moment in space and time.[4] Whether or not all the actions are virtuous, they all have their own sense of resistance about them. Each resident is trying to “prevent the plague from besting him”; some do so by defending that last bit of “lost happiness” in their memories (Camus, 139). Regardless, each and every resident is a victim of the plague, and must cope with the “absurdity” of the situation, of which they all were involved (Camus, 86).

[1] Palud, Aurélie. “The Complexity and Modernity of The Plague.” The Originality and Complexity of Albert Camus’s writings, edited by Emmanuelle Anne Vanborne, Palgrave Macmillon, 2012, p. 22.

[2] Stephanson, Raymond. “The Plague Narratives of Defoe and Camus: Illness as Metaphor.” Modern Language Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 3, 1987, p. 225–226.

[3] Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York, Vintage Books, 1975, p. 124. All future references will be cited in text.

[4] Aurélie, “The Complexity and Modernity,” p. 20.

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