- The Unwilling Guide:Camus's The Plague
the novel coronavirus has introduced a different kind of novel, Albert Camus's The Plague, to a new generation of readers. By early March, copies of Camus's novel—an account of first responders resisting a plague in the Algerian city of Oran—had sold out on Amazon. At the same time, numerous articles and essays have used the novel in order to understand our own plague—my Google search "Camus/plague/coronavirus" brought up 175,000 links to articles. Though their authors take different teachings from the work, they mostly agree it is the work to serve as a guide in these perplexing times.
As a Camus biographer, I agree. But while The Plague is a guide, it is not as straightforward as we might expect. Certainly, the qualities that readers in a war-devastated world found in the novel, first published in 1947, are the same qualities that readers in our virusdevastated world now seek. These traits, affirmed the Italian resistance fighter and writer Nicola Chiaramonte, are "ordinary humanity and good sense" (Lottman 1997, 450). The novel's "ordinary" characters—doctors and drifters, clerks and correspondents—in their resistance against the inhuman force of the plague, anticipate the resistance of the "ordinary" men and women we applaud today.
Yet the humanity shown by these resisters is ordinary only when contrasted to the insouciance, indifference, or inhumanity of those who hold extraordinary power. Frustrated by the refusal of the authorities in Oran to act on the irrefutable evidence of plague, the novel's protagonist, Doctor Rieux, observes that it "was only a matter of lucidly recognizing what had to be recognized." This ethic of seeing [End Page 297] clearly and speaking candidly ultimately means, in Rieux's words, "to do your job as it should be done."
How extraordinary these ordinary qualities appear in dark times. Whether such qualities can be quantified is a matter I leave to my colleagues in the social sciences. What seems essential to recall, though, is that these virtues do exist. In fact, Camus insisted that they are more common—that we are "more good than bad"—than the behavior of political leaders might lead us to think. At the same time, he believed that this was mostly beside the point. The true issue, as Rieux reflects, is that we are "more or less ignorant" and that the "most incorrigible vice is that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims the right to kill."
As editor of the resistance paper Combat, Camus saw too many instances of such deadly ignorance in France during the German occupation. He would not be surprised to learn that our own country is hardly exempt from leaders afflicted with the same degree of ignorance. But while this might give us no reason for hope, it is not, Camus believed, a reason for despair. We must do our jobs during this plague, just as we must recognize that we will be called to continue doing them when the next plague arrives, as it inevitably will.
robert zaretsky is a literary biographer who has written widely on Albert Camus. His latest book, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas, will be published in 2021 by University of Chicago Press.