‘The Plague’: A Pedagogy for Pandemic Times
By Sacaria Joseph
As COVID-19 struck the world and assumed pandemic proportions, people from all walks of life and of all faiths across the globe began offering prayers and conducting various religious rituals in order to free the world of the deadly coronavirus that kept smiting people indiscriminately. Several months into the pandemic, the world is still writhing under the ghastly grip of the highly contagious virus. One begins to wonder if God has turned a deaf ear to the desperate cries of His children for deliverance. Even if God has not done so outright, one thing is evident: He has not responded to their cry for deliverance by intervening in their lives so far! This is a rather unsettling scenario, a moment of spiritual crisis for those who believe in an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.
Unable to reconcile the existence of God with the simultaneous existence of suffering and evil in the world, Albert Camus, the French novelist-journalist-playwright best known for his absurdist works, writes in his book, The Rebel, “The objection will be raised of evil, and of the paradox of an all-powerful and malevolent, or benevolent and sterile God” (287). In his novel, The Plague, Camus attempts to provide a resolution to the paradox through the contrasting responses of two characters – Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest who is the voice of organised religion and Dr. Bernard Rieux, a surgeon, humanist, and atheist who is the voice of science and rationality – to the plague that smote the coastal city of Oran in Algeria. This article will analyse the contrasting responses of Paneloux and Rieux to the same crisis, in order to focus on Camus’s answer to the question raised at the outset of this article, that is, how do humans reconcile their faith in the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God with their lived experience of pain and suffering in the world?
Perhaps nothing has bewildered the human mind over the ages more than or even as much as the question of human suffering and the concomitant existence of evil in the world against the background of our traditional notion of the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. The ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, articulates the complexity of the issue through his famous trilemma: “if God exists and he is unable to prevent evil, it means he is not all powerful; if he is able to prevent evil, it means he is not all-loving, given the existence of evil; and if he is able to prevent evil, and is also all-loving, then evil will not exist, but it does, so he cannot be both all-loving and all-powerful at the same time” (Guite, 2017, p. 424).
David Hume, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, reformulated the Epicurean trilemma in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion published in 1779. During a discussion among Philo, Cleanthes and Demea on the nature of God’s existence, Philo asks his fellow philosophers, “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” (Hume, 1998., p. 63) In the guise of Philo, Hume postulates the difficulty in reconciling the belief in an all-powerful and benevolent God with our everyday experience of pain, suffering and evil in the world. In 1946, some months before The Plague was published, Camus told a group of Dominican monks in Paris, “I am your Augustine before his conversion. I am debating the problem of evil, and I am not getting past it” (Todd, 1998, p. 337).
Camus dwells on this complex issue of suffering and evil in The Plague and posits an answer, which, in fact, is his philosophical response to the absurdity of human existence. As Paneloux, the spokesperson of Christianity, preaches his first Sunday sermon to the people of Oran, he argues that the plague that struck the people of Oran is a punishment from God for their sinful life. His argument is in line with the Pauline theory of divine retribution. According to St. Paul, “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way, death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). In and through the Fall of the first human parent, Adam, both human life and human nature were adversely and irrevocably affected. Everyone, “even those who did not disobey an explicit commandment of God, as Adam did,” become prey to death (Romans 5:14). Sickness, the agent of death, is the consequence of the fall of humanity in and through the fall of Adam.
Thus, the plague, according to Paneloux, is a manifestation of divine retribution upon a people who lived an essentially mercenary and profligate life. The narrator of the novel tells us that while the young people in Oran pursued their “violent and short-lived” passions, the older people gave themselves over to “games of bowls,” “banquets and ‘socials,’ or clubs where large sums change hands on the fall of a card” (The Plague, 6). In the spirit of the biblical retributive justice – “You will always harvest what you plant” (Galatians 6:7) – Paneloux thunders to the people of Oran, “Calamity has come on you, my brethren, and my brethren, you deserve it” (80). He drives the idea home forcefully, saying that God has “visited all the cities that offended against Him, since the dawn of history” (82). Now it is the turn of the sinful Oran from which God has turned his face away. “God’s light withdrawn, we walk in darkness, in the thick darkness of this plague” (81). According to Paneloux, repentance alone will save them from the darkness and death looming large over their city.
However, after witnessing the suffering and eventual death of a plague-stricken child, Jacques Othon, Paneloux realises that when confronted with an intensely tragic human predicament like the painful death of an innocent child, the theology of divine retribution does not suffice. He realizes that the ways of God are too mysterious and inscrutable for the finite human intelligence to comprehend. Paneloux’s example reminds us of the sceptical teacher in the book of Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) in the Bible. With advancing age, the teacher in Qoheleth comes to realise that God being a mystery far beyond human comprehension, the hallmark of the wise is nothing but trust in Him. Paneloux’s example also reminds us of another biblical character, Job, who also learns a similar lesson through immense suffering; Job too submits himself to the inexplicable and ineffable ways of God.
Like the sceptical teacher in Qoheleth and the virtuous sufferer, Job, Paneloux too comes to the conclusion that when faced with the intense suffering inflicted by the plague, one must either make a leap of faith in the Kierkegaardian sense and accept everything as part of the mysterious divine will and plan or give up one’s faith in God altogether. Paneloux urges the people of Oran to take a leap of faith. He decides to take the leap himself. As he becomes unwell, he accepts his sickness as part of the will and plan of God; he refuses to consult the doctor and get treated – evidently, a misguided application of the concept of the leap of faith. When he dies, nobody knows if he died of the plague or of other causes, because, he had refused to get tested for the plague. According to Camus, the concept of the leap of faith is tantamount to a philosophical suicide, because it implies the naïve acceptance of an intangible and uncertain reality (God), the refusal to face the truth, that is the absurdity of human existence (human life bereft of inherent or objective meaning and significance), and the refusal to take responsibility for one’s own life.
Camus is of the opinion that if we accept the absurdity of human existence as the reality of our life, we are free to create our own subjective meanings, and resolve our problems ourselves. Human responsibility, therefore, is at the heart of Camus’ philosophy; when humans have no absolutes, and no God to turn to, they must learn to rely on themselves. That is why Camus says, of his Sisyphus, “The Struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (The Myth of Sisyphus, 11). Confronting the absurdity of his existence, Sisyphus has learned to take the absurdity head on and create his own personal meaning and live a happy life. Camus goes on to write in The Myth of Sisyphus, “Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion” (62). ‘Revolt’ refers to his feeling of outrage and rebellion against his absurd and tragic condition, and a defiant refusal to be broken by it. ‘Freedom’ refers to the freedom from the confines of religious and other absolutes and their moral codes. ‘Passion’ refers to the passionate experiencing of life every moment on account of the fact that since we are devoid of hope, every present moment must be lived completely.
Therefore, the scientific-tempered and practical-minded Dr. Bernard Rieux, Camus’s spokesperson in The Plague, does not subscribe to the theory of divine retribution; nor does he find consolation in taking a leap of faith. Against all odds, he keeps on working hard to develop a cure for the plague. He is conscious of the fact that his struggle against the plague is symbolic of his struggle against human suffering. “None the less he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers,” says the narrator of the novel who, the reader realises towards the end of the novel, is none other than Rieux himself (251-52).
To his friend Tarrou’s question as to whether he believes in God, Rieux answers saying, “No – but what does that mean? I’m fumbling in the darkness, struggling to make something out.” To Tarrou’s further question, “Why do you yourself show such devotion, considering you don’t believe in God,” Rieux answers saying, if he believed in an all-powerful God, he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. The narrator of the novel goes on to remark, “in this respect Rieux believed himself to be on the right road – in fighting against creation as he found it” (106-7). Rieux finds creation unfinished and imperfect; he also realises that the notion of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent and interventionist God is not intelligible to him. Therefore, with stoic courage and commitment, he goes about fulfilling his role (every human being has a similar role) in contributing to the betterment of his flawed and battered world even if his effort yields no result.
In general, people expect God to intervene in human affairs. Their prayers and religious rituals are manifestations of their effort to make God intervene in their lives as per their expectations. While expecting divine intervention in human lives, people tend to abdicate their responsibility and place it on the shoulders of their God. After having learned lessons from the Holocaust, to those who tend to abdicate personal responsibility, Camus seems to highlight the example of Rieux. The experience of the Holocaust questions the notion of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent and interventionist God. It would be the height of human naivety and irresponsibility to expect God to intervene in human lives in answer to their prayers and religious observances after He remained silent and indifferent to the fate of His ‘chosen people’ during World War II. Except in religious and mythical narratives, God has never been found to intervene in the world – be it in times of natural calamities, manmade catastrophes or pandemics. If God were to handle issues that human beings themselves are capable of handling, unfortunately, little would be left of human knowledge and agency.
The spirit and mission of Rieux in The Plague are both an inspiration as well as an invitation to all in times of pandemics to face odds with courage and commitment. His example also urges us to take the responsibility for finding the means of deliverance from the COVID-19 pandemic on our shoulders by relying on the manifold human capacities and working to the best of our ability, instead of expecting God to intervene and provide deliverance. Camus’s novel underscores the significance of human, not divine agency in delivering humanity from all forms of suffering and evil. The Plague – and literature of pestilences, epidemics, and pandemics in general – is, thus, best read as human attempts to come to terms with the widespread fear and despair ensuing from human experiences of pestilence, epidemics, and pandemics in particular, and the pain and suffering that characterize human life in general.
The novel seems to tell us that it is time we faced the absurdity of human existence (if we regard existence as essentially absurd as Camus did) with a courageous despair like that of Sisyphus and find our own subjective meaning and happiness. It is time we faced the torments of our lives with a stoic spirit and a commitment like that of Bernard Rieux.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. 1981: Penguin, New York.
—. The Plague. New York: Penguin, 1980.
—. The Rebel. Trans. Anthony Bower. New York: Vintage, 1956.
Guite, Haulian. Confessions of a Dying Mind: The Blind Faith of Atheism. New Delhi: Bloomsbury, 2017.
Hume, David. Dialogues Containing Natural Religion. Ed. Richard H. Popkin. 2nd. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998.
Todd, Oliver. Albert Camus: A Life. Trans. Benjamin Irvy. New York: Knopf, 1998.
Dr. Sacaria Joseph is an assistant professor of English at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. A student of St. Xavier’s College during his graduation, he did his M A in English literature from Pune University, M. Phil from Jadavpur University, Kolkata and Doctorate from Visva-Bharati University, West Bengal. His area of special interest and research is cinema and literature.
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