45 years since I’ve left Lebanon, and even though I do most of my academic reading and writing in English, I still am far more at ease reading novels in French. So, when I decided to start reading novels dealing with pandemics, Camus’ La Peste* was the first book to come to my mind.
I have read the novel twice before. The first time for my French literature subject at High School in the early 70s, and the second time, for the ‘Existentialist Philosophy’ subject at Uni in the late 70s. So I haven’t looked at it for a good forty years. I remember enjoying my first reading, the picture of an actor dying on stage and the bourgeoisie literally ‘running for their lives’ out of the theatre, abandoning all pretense of refinement, appealed to the sixteen years old counter-culture boy who harbored a genuinely venomous hostility towards the conservative cultural manners and morality of the Lebanese bourgeoisie. I also enjoyed reading it the second time and I thought it spoke more generally and very deeply about ‘man’s moral choices’ in the face of ‘death’. Neither in the first or the second reading did anyone tell me about the autobiographical dimensions of the novel and that the plague was among other things referring to ‘the German occupation’ during WW2 and the different ways people related to it. I read this much later in Tony Judt’s review of a new translation of the book twenty years ago (New York Review of Books, November 29, 2001). Nor did anyone draw my attention to the fact that this was a novel set in an Arab city with no Arabs in it. I heard a Lebanese academic speak about this much later. I have also noted in this last reading that while women, unlike Arabs, are present in the novel, none are presented as being serious human subjects with agency and existential problems of their own.
But all this critical knowledge did not stop me from reading the novel as being about what it says it is about, a plague epidemic, in a town, Oran, that could be any town in the world – actually, not any town. For, as Camus tells us on the second page of the novel, there are ‘towns and countries where people have, every now and then, an inkling of an otherwise (un soupçon d’autre chose). In general, it doesn’t change their lives. Except for the fact that they’ve had that inkling.’ Not so, Oran. ‘Oran’, he tells us, ‘seems to be a town without such inklings; in other words, it’s completely modern (p.12).’ From this sentence onward, reading the novel was a total pleasure for my anthropological imagination – anthropological in both a philosophical and ethnographic sense. I can say that I enjoyed this third reading even more so than I enjoyed the first or the second. Most importantly, many of its passages offered a very astute description of people’s various practical and moral behavior in the face of a long term epidemic. Those descriptions related usefully to the situation we are in today as we face the Coronavirus pandemic.
The first passage that spoke to me in this way was when Camus was describing how people were having trouble accepting that their predicament was going to last far more than they imagined it will. ‘When a war breaks out, people say: ‘It can’t last long. It’s too stupid.’ And, no doubt, a war is certainly too stupid. But this does not prevent it lasting. Stupidity always gets its way (p.41).’ Even though I have experienced the Lebanese civil war where this happened again and again, I was reading this while people around me, and I myself, were in a state of denial, refusing that this can last for a long time. We humans, Camus says, have problems believing that plagues last. ‘We tell ourselves that they are unreal bad dreams that will come to pass. But they don’t always come to pass. And from one bad dream to another bad dream it is men who come to pass, and the humanists first, because they haven’t taken their precautions (p. 41).’
By the time the plague epidemic looked like it was nearing its end the townspeople were now more inclined towards prudence and were in no hurry to celebrate (p.243). But before that, even when they come to accept that the plague has captured their present, people find it difficult to think that it has also captured their future. They keep thinking the future as they did before the plague, as a future that went without saying. It was this ‘stupid human confidence in the forthcoming (p.67)’ that made people kiss each other on the railway station’s platform ‘sure that they were seeing each other again after of a few days or a few weeks at the most (p.67).’ But quickly their imaginary of the future adapts, and, as the narrator puts it: ‘if some among us were tempted to live in the future, they refrained from doing so, as quickly as it was possible, as they felt the wounds that the imagination ends up inflicting on those who trust it (p. 71).’
Furthermore, when people are asked to sacrifice certain things, they are far more brave doing it while they thought the crisis would only last for a short time, when they come to accept that the present (in its plagued form) is bound to last a long time, people experience an abrupt ‘collapse of their courage, willpower, and endurance’ and they fall in the holes of hope they’ve dug themselves in. They drift through life rather than live it, they become victims ‘of aimless days and sterile memories, like wandering shadows (p. 72).’ Even if not is such a dramatic fashion, all this made sense of some dimensions of my behavior and the behavior of the people I have been in touch with during this on-going crisis. Interestingly, Camus has an ‘existentialist’ solution to this. In such times of crisis, life only acquires substance if we consent ‘to root (our)selves in the solid earth of (our) distress (p.72).’
Another interesting dimension of living through the plague that I thought was masterfully examined by Camus is the tension between our sense of self as an individual and our sense of self as a general category. To use a sociological Durkheimian language, the extent to which our sense of personhood is structured around us being an individual fact or around us being a social fact. People have problems and they think their problems are unique and they go to officials to treat the uniqueness of their case. But the officials facing the plague are dealing in social situations.
Thus, while one key character, Rambert, initially experiences himself as having a compelling reason to leave the confinement of the city, the doctor, Rieux, whose help Rambert is seeking, refuses to help him in the name of the public good. This is staged as a struggle between those who seek individual happiness versus those who seek social or collective happiness. Rambert who is seeking his own happiness in wanting to join his wife outside the city accuses the doctor of seeking ‘an abstraction’. For, how can one struggle for social happiness if one is unable to help individuals reach their personal happiness? But Rieux has no problem with the idea that he is seeking an abstraction. Abstractions are real and concrete. For, as he put it, the pest was itself an abstraction. It does not just kill people individually. It kills them by the hundreds. It kills a high percentage of a population, and, ‘like abstractions in general, (it) was monotonous.’ (p. 87).
This reminded me of my friend Paul Dugdale who is medical doctor but also a public health manager. As he put it to me once, ‘I do not deal with a broken leg. I deal with things like “a high percentage of broken legs among the elderly”.’ Rieux takes this further. He concludes that: ‘to fight against an abstraction one has to resemble it a little bit’ (p.87). Thus, an individual is not just ‘thought of’ as an abstraction by someone thinking statistically. Individuals are partly abstract or inversely, abstraction is part of what they really are. Abstraction, then, is a mode of existing, not just a way of thinking about someone – it is an ontological category as anthropologists would say today. And it is this part of ourselves that is an abstraction that social reality particularly conjures in times of pandemics.
Therefore, Camus wants to also convey to us, that in such times, there are no individual heroes in the sense of an individual that shines compared to others. The heroes, as the narrator ends up saying, are all the people who do what they have to do, including the boring bureaucrat doing his job. Rambert himself, in the end, stops seeking his own individual happiness and decides to stay and fight the plague with others. While Rieux never stopped him from doing so and even tells him that ‘there is no shame in opting for one’s own happiness.’ Rambert replies that its true, ‘but there can be shame in being happy by oneself (p.190).’
Throughout the novel, it is often argued that ‘life’ itself is all that matters. Interestingly enough, this is not a universal declaration about the intrinsic importance of ‘life’. Life matters because the plague, by wanting to take it away constructs it as the most important thing there is. It is because of this that what matters is fighting the plague and not allow it to do its job. As the narrator put it:
Many fledgling moralists in those days were going about our town proclaiming that there was nothing much that can be done against the plague and one should just kneel before fate. And Tarrou, and Rieux, and their friends might reply saying this or that, but their conclusion was always what they knew for sure: on must fight, in whatever way, and there must be no bowing down. The crucial aim was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying and being doomed to the final separation. And there was only one way to do this: fight the plague (p. 125-126).
Despite his ‘existentialism’ Camus often ends up with a ‘biopolitical’ conception of life as ‘biological life’. When the priest Paneloux tells the doctor Rieux that ‘you too work for the salvation for man’s salvation’. Rieux replies: ‘Salvation is too big a word for me. I don’t go so far. I’m concerned with man’s health; his health before all else (p. 199). But one must ask today is the opposition between the secular and the religious allowed to overdetermine the opposition between life as health and life as salvation? Is there no way to think salvation as a way of thinking life as ‘more than just health’ other than religiously?
At one point in the novel, a possible answer emerges with the fusion of life and love, in the conflict between Rambert who sees his life as only worthwhile in so far as he is seeking love and Rieux who is seeking to save lives. As they argue it out, Rambert tells Rieux:
"You see. But you're capable of dying for an idea; one can see that right away. Well, personally, I've seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don't believe in heroism; I know it's easy and I've learned it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves."
Rieux had listened to the journalist looking at him attentively. Still looking at him, he gently says:
"Man isn't an idea, Rambert."
Rambert jumped off the bed, his face lit with passion.
"Man is an idea, and a precious small idea, once he turns his back on love. And that's my point; we -mankind - have lost the capacity for love. We must face that fact, doctor…
This seems to me a crucial question to ask today as we engage in all the ‘techniques of the body’ that we are invited to engage in to save ourselves and ‘the population’ we are part of. What kind of human being and what kind of ‘life’ are we saving when we engage in such techniques? Are we simply protecting ‘life’? or are we going to end up saving a ‘life’ that is further impoverished of anything that can be articulated to it such as love, or the idea of salvation.
* Albert Camus, La Peste, Paris: Gaillmard, (1947) 2011. Translations are mainly my own.