Reading Camus in the Time of Corona
By Ananya Dutta Gupta
“What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest, health, integrity, purity (if you like) is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter.”
It is perhaps fitting that I should be writing this brief essay on Camus’s much-remembered classic in February 2021. For February marks the emergence of Camus’s fictive-actual town of Oran from the ravages of a nearly year-long plague epidemic. An article that had really captured the global imagination during the global lockdown last spring was Orhan Pamuk’s note in the New York Times on the lessons to be learnt from pandemic novels. Ten months on, as we witness the first phase of the vaccine rollout, time is ripe for revisiting some of them. Let me be perfectly unapologetic about my choice. Upon this, my second reading in less than a year and third since my long left behind young adulthood in reading, The Plague presents itself all over again as an unparallelled example of what fiction can do, not only with but for reality.
Methodologically, reportage of my reading experience around a fictional epidemic in the time of a potently real pandemic might seem like a mismatch. I argue however that an auto-track-report, as it were, of the reading experience is consistent with Camus’s own experientially mapped “narrative”.
It is intriguing that Camus’s novel should literally plot a mid-1940s epidemic and still, going by the frequency of casual references to it in everyday discourse, resonate with the millennial world struggling with coronavirus. For one would expect the experiential paradigm of a pandemic to be fundamentally different from that of a mere epidemic, making it difficult for us in 2021 to relate to the modest scope and scale of Camus’s book. Yet the fact that the novel manages to mirror our experience so vividly testifies to two potentially seminal inferences. Phenomenologically speaking, epidemic may be viewed as a metonymic microcosm that only expands in scope instead of undergoing material alteration when it takes on a macrocosmic scale. In other words, the global population today has become an actual Oran. This can come across as a dizzyingly deterministic model, for there is a suggested ahistorical repetitiveness or repeatability in it, recalling the cyclicality in ancient faiths of the East and West. The implied corollary is that advances in the medical sciences and public health management notwithstanding, the essential nature of individual and collective suffering remains unchanged. Further, that consciously or serendipitously, humanity’s coping mechanism and exit plan out of such collective crises and tribulations rely less on historically contingent and more on the innate and hence constant resources of a definitive “human” temper.
The philosophy of human condition that this posits is notably generic. I would here like to submit that the perceived doubling of the pandemic and the epidemic in reality as well as in the collective imaginary suggest that it is one of a handful of experiences that can be designated as pan-human and archetypal in the profundity of their impact on self and society alike. Together, these phenomena, i.e. war, pestilence, murder, natural calamity, and love elicit what may again be viewed as an “outbreak” of the gamut of universal human emotions – fear, grief, pride, envy, lust, wrath, and greed. All of them confront humanity with the natural ineluctability of time and death. Only that these intensify that existential challenge through a proliferation in space and/or an acceleration in time that might be considered “unnatural”. In a largely civilianized world, where warring is for the fortunate majority a remote televised spectacle between automated weapons of mass destruction controlled by satellites and drones, where natural calamities have become so routine as to have lost their edge of terror, we may well claim that the unforeseen uniqueness of the COVID-19 virus has put us through a crisis that William James could well have designated in his seminal 1906 address as “the moral equivalent of war”. Camus’s narrator reflects:
Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There has been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise. …
When a war breaks out, people say: “It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.” But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.
From this ensues the second insight, namely that a fictional narrative of a fictional epidemic can capture these universal truths about the meaning of disease in a way that a Nostradamus-like prophecy may not. The marvel of Camus’s fiction stems from its ability to embrace and envision a pandemic, in all its gory minutiae, even as it wrote of an epidemic. This is where we might turn to The Plague (La Peste, 1947) for lessons that it would be crass to call merely moral, for their morality is wisely diffused into a reading of the forces governing humanity that is Boethian. I say so because it addresses morality not as a received self-justifying normative law, but as a naturally evolved political response to the exigencies of the human condition. To quote again from the novel,
I can say I know the world inside out, as you may see, that each of us has the plague with him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him.
The narrative trajectory in the book misses nothing – the initial myopia and psychological denial in bureaucracy and civil society alike, making way, gradually and grudgingly, to shocked acknowledgement of the cruelties of existence, followed by stupefaction and resigned torpor, and finally acceptance, empathy, and resilient togetherness.
The small carefully chosen minority of individuals constituting Camus’s dramatis personae as well as the equally few focal episodes constituting its action allow for heightened allegorical intensity. It presents a mode of storytelling that can encompass the big picture and yet manage to excise needless sound and fury, the human noise and self-absorbed vanities of everyday urban life. It is interesting for me to note the same strand of grim and mythic minimalism in my current teaching assignment, King Lear. Like Shakespeare’s play, The Plague too seems to pose a vanishing point that alternates the telescopic and the microscopic. While we are never allowed to lose sight of the collectivity of human life, our gaze is progressively brought to bear upon the internal experience, the drama within the human consciousness and psyche. Without this commitment to psychological, rather than external, realism, Camus’s book would not have resonated with our minds in our current dispersed, displaced, and diverse geopolitical contexts. Yet such minimalism notwithstanding, the metonymic range of Camus’s brood of sufferers – doctor, journalist, priest, writer, lay philosopher, and mother – is nothing short of Chaucer’s astutely drawn up pageant of a composite society of interconnected occupations. This in itself would have been remarkable, considering the relative brevity of the novel; but there is more.
The exactitude of epidemiological futurism in The Plague is science-fiction-like, while its historical rootedness demonstrates another kind of exactitude, namely of the great Realist tradition in European fiction, and its later variant – naturalism. Right from the novel’s Pied-Piper-of-Hamelin-like inception, Camus is unsparing in detailing the terribly, sordidly corporeal nature of pestilence. Even at its most poignant, such as on the night that aged men stand and watch as a young child is wracked and ravaged by the disease, Camus refuses to sublimate physical suffering or reduce it to abstraction. In this, The Plague is a defiant, triumphant testament to the power of fiction to encompass a reality that is both equal to lived-in experience and transcendent.
I know that I am inviting the charge of giving in to the platitude around the timelessness of literary classics. But I beg to differ. The point is not that all literature necessarily captures truths in ways that are timeless; and in doing so impeaches Plato’s dismissal of the distorted inauthenticity of all imaginative writing. Rather I would maintain that there is something in the nature of this particular novel of Camus’s that contributes something potently “graphic” to world knowledge around epidemiological crises, such as the one we are currently grappling with. It challenges our expectations from fiction and re-defines its place in civilization.
Let me add that hybridity of the narrative makes it possible for it to speak to us in our time of corona in ways that mirror the all-encompassing, undifferentiated nature of the pandemic experience itself. Just as the experience of the pandemic defies classification, so also Camus’s novel is genre-bending precisely because it is generic. Let me catalogue its generic variety.
Many of us, nourished since childhood on Arthur Conan Doyle’s genius, would have found the following Introduction in his historical novel, Sir Nigel (1905-6), a most evocative account of the Black Death that decimated Europe’s population in the fourteenth century:
… They feared a famine, but it was worse than famine which was in store for them.
For the rain had ceased at last, and a sickly autumn sun shone upon a land which was soaked and sodden with water. Wet and rotten leaves reeked and festered under the foul haze which rose from the woods. The fields were spotted with monstrous fungi of a size and color never matched before—scarlet and mauve and liver and black. It was as though the sick earth had burst into foul pustules; mildew and lichen mottled the walls, and with that filthy crop Death sprang also from the water-soaked earth. Men died, and women and children, the baron of the castle, the franklin on the farm, the monk in the abbey and the villein in his wattle-and-daub cottage. All breathed the same polluted reek and all died the same death of corruption. Of those who were stricken none recovered, and the illness was ever the same—gross boils, raving, and the black blotches which gave its name to the disease. All through the winter the dead rotted by the wayside for want of someone to bury them. In many a village no single man was left alive. Then at last the spring came with sunshine and health and lightness and laughter—the greenest, sweetest, tenderest spring that England had ever known—but only half of England could know it. The other half had passed away with the great purple cloud.
Yet it was there in that stream of death, in that reek of corruption, that the brighter and freer England was born. There in that dark hour the first streak of the new dawn was seen. For in no way save by a great upheaval and change could the nation break away from that iron feudal system which held her limbs. But now it was a new country which came out from that year of death. The barons were dead in swaths. No high turret nor cunning moat could keep out that black commoner who struck them down.
I have quoted the substantial excerpt above precisely because it showcases everything that the literary realism of historical novels can offer to the general reader – an apocalyptic, near-Biblical pitch rendered in accessible, lucid prose that then links up unnatural upheavals in nature to the unfolding economic and political history of the nation that constitutes its readership in imperial Britain.
I argue that The Plague consciously steers clear of this pitch. Although it explicitly cites the plagues of history, including those in Constantinople, Milan, China, and the Black Death of Conan Doyle’s novel, its historical flavour is distinctly earthier, distinctly more modern. The Plague is a historical novel that nevertheless remains mindful of statistical and empirical data. It foregrounds itself as a narrative structured seamlessly in personal time and narratorial gaze, yet synchronised to the exact calendrical and seasonal chronology of the epidemic’s lifespan. Parallelly, it retains a conversational, if not confessional, authenticity that accords to the reader a sense of a confidant. This topos is reminiscent of early modern prose fiction. Its self-reflexivity, its playfully conspiratorial interjections, the manner in which it ruptures linearity by accommodating multiple points of view, or keeps the mystery of the identity of the primary narrator alive until the final disclosure not only dialogise the experience of the epidemic for the reader, but also dismantle the novel’s own carefully assembled veneer of realism.
Then again, thematically, The Plague may be called medical, epidemiological fiction (and let us not forget that the epic and epidemiological both pertain to the global that is similarly embedded in the prefix pan-). Even here, though, Camus is able to introduce a dimension that expands the scope of epidemiology. Today mental health has deservedly come into global attention as a key element in the science of health and wellness. Governmental and non-governmental bodies worldwide quickly came alive to the hidden cost of the pandemic in terms of anxiety, alienation, grief, and trauma. Camus’s book is notable for its neutral, non-prescriptive record of changing social psychology around a public health crisis:
A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; there we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere body of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad to dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken precautions.
Last but not the least, it is a philosophical and anthropological documentary on fundamental questions of life and death, love and separation, happiness and sorrow.
Tarrou: To make things simpler, Rieux, let me begin by saying I had plague already, long before I came to this town and encountered it here. Which is tantamount to saying I’m like everybody else. Only there are some people who don’t know it, or feel at ease in that condition; others know and want to get out of it.
What then does one keep of the book, for surely a book must be closed and put away, in order that we may continue to experience it? What part of the book then passes into the afterlife in the reader’s mind where it stands the true test of time? Camus’s novel sets the record straight about any suspicions of nihilism we might harbour around Absurdist philosophy. In this book at least, (for Absurdism is as heterogeneous as its practitioners and their oeuvre), it is a philosophy that allows unwavering commitment to free will to converge with an equally clear-sighted submission to the conditions of bare corporeal existence.
Beyond any notional adherence to any system of ideas, however, the legacy of the novel lies emphatically with Dr. Rieux, its central protagonist, later revealed to be its narrator too. In him we encounter a reluctant hero, a twentieth-century Aeneas, whose dogged humanism lies not in shrill Faustian irrepressibility, but in quiet, resilient deference to the logic of time.
The essential thing was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying and being doomed to unending separation. And to do this there was only one resource: to fight the plague. There was nothing admirable about this attitude; it was merely logical. …
“… the only means of righting a plague is, common decency. …”
“I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.”
In Dr. Rieux, his mother and the friends he inspires to work with him we might see a prefiguration of our “Covid-heroes”, our health-workers and medical researchers: the human story of a science of cure and healing that nevertheless defers to the spirit of love and nature.
Let me conclude with two poems:
A Letter to Dr. Rieux
What is an absence
I will tell you:
Without past or future
8 September 2020
Where’s Your Mask?
It’s between movements,
At Columbia Studios,
New York, 1955.
Glenn Gould is sitting
Next to the commissioning editor.
Too close, I muse. Too close.
It’s between planets,
In Kubrick’s Space Odyssey,
Heywood Floyd is standing
Next to the mysterious monolith.
In a cosmonaut’s suit.
Familiar, I muse. All too familiar.
10 November 2020
Camus, Albert, The Plague. Translated from French by Stuart Gilbert. Modern Library Books. New York: Random House, 1948. Kindle Edition.
Conan Doyle, Arthur, Sir Nigel. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia. https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/Sir_Nigel#Introduction. Accessed on 7 February 2021.
James, William, ‘The Moral Equivalent of War’. https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/moral.html. Accessed on 7 February 2021.
Pamuk, Orhan, What the Great Pandemic Novels Teach Us. Opinion. The New York Times. 23 April 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-orhan-pamuk.html. Accessed on 1 May 2020.
Ananya Dutta Gupta is Associate Professor at the Department of English, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. She was the recipient of the Felix Scholarship to pursue an M.Phil. in English Literature, 1500-1660 at the University of Oxford and Charles Wallace India Trust Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Cambridge. Her revised Orient Blackswan Annotated edition of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book I (2012) is currently in worldwide circulation and she has several other scholarly articles published in national and international journals to her credit. She has also published book reviews and translations of essays, poetry, and short stories. Her most recent work of translation may be found in Dalit Lekhika: Women’s Writings from Bengal, eds. Kalyani Thakur Charal and Sayantan Dasgupta (Kolkata: Stree-Samya, 2020). She published several commissioned book reviews for The Statesman in 2002-4 and then again for the Asiatic Journal. Her creative non-fiction and ethnographic travel writing may be found online at Cafe Dissensus, Rupkatha, Muse India, Pratilipi, Caesurae and Coldnoon Travel Poetics. Her latest such essay is titled Palate Tales, Kitchen Truths: Cooking in the Time of Corona (Rupkatha, November 2020). She is currently in the process of putting together several manuscripts.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.