“The plague had swallowed up everything and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all. Strongest of these emotions was the sense of exile and of deprivation.”
So wrote Albert Camus, Nobel Prize winner for Literature, in his 1947 novel The Plague, words that well could have been written in these times.
Set in the French Algerian city of Oran, The Plague was published only two years after the end of World War II. In this novel, the plague acts as metaphor for the destruction and evil the world had just survived.
The book opens by describing the increasing number of rats falling dead everywhere in the town, in corridors, apartments, homes, and in the streets. Eventually, the plague engulfed the human population with devastating impact on body, heart, mind, soul, and spirit.
The narrative is a journalistic conversation between a variety of characters: a doctor, a priest, a journalist, a forlorn lover, among others. Each struggle draws conclusions about life’s purpose and meaning.
The forlorn lover’s beloved remained in Paris. He felt perpetually as the outsider yearning to be reunited with his beloved until he understood, amidst the fear and death “that I belong here whether I want it or not. This business is everybody’s business.”
The priest is accusatory and judgmental of the townsfolk’s sins: “Calamity has come on you, my brethren, and my brethren, you deserved it. …The just man need have no fear, but the evildoer has good cause to tremble. For plague is the flail of God and the world His threshing-floor, and implacably He will thresh out His harvest until the wheat is separated from the chaff.”
The doctor, stoic in treating the sick and dying, considers the meaning of heroism: “There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is – common decency. It consists in doing my job.”
Camus considers the basis of evil and virtue: “The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men [humankind] are more good than bad; that however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.”
The plague forced everyone to isolate as individuals from their loved ones: “Suddenly … a feeling in which all shared … – together with fear – the greatest affliction of the long period of exile that lay ahead… hostile to the past, impatient of the present, and cheated of the future, we were much like those whom men’s justice, or hatred, forces to live behind prison bars…thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.”
One voice dares not “to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment’s human suffering,” that “the path to follow to attain peace…is the path of sympathy….[and that] There can be no peace without hope…What we learn in the time of pestilence [is] that there are more things to admire in humankind than to despise.”
We, in our time, have watched as scientists, doctors, nurses, psychologists, health care workers, first responders, religious leaders, do everything possible to help the sick and isolated, to comfort the dying, and sustain society. We consider the call of leadership, the moral demands upon each of us to comfort and alleviate the pain of others, and how best to care for ourselves.
Camus defines heroism as “ordinary people doing extraordinary things out of simple decency.”
As we approach Thanksgiving here in the United States, I grieve for all who lost their loved ones, am hopeful for the healing of the sick and the well-being of the rest of us, and grateful to those whose kindness and sympathy make real every day the better angels of the human spirit.