On "The Plague"
Involuntarily, as if my once-obedient neurons were overtaken by a literary spirit, as though my nervous system was conquered by an eloquent tyrant to whom no mortal protestation might be made, my hand found itself being thrust into the bookshelf before which I stood. Inattentive to the modest dictates of which my brain, its former master, had been, up until then, unerringly productive, this rebellious little hand of mine proceeded to plunge its seeking fingers into the depth of the uppermost ledge. Once arrived, it plumbed that oak-finished mountain from whose musty, agreeably odorous bowels a precious gem, amongst a repository of the loveliest stone—if I may flatter the quality of my own collection—was to be retrieved.
That work for which my insatiable hand grasped, a title by whose successful procurement my mind, awaiting the breathless production of that devious limb, was now very little surprised, was Albert Camus’ The Plague. Though slender in its binding, it weighed heavily in my arms. It is, without me needing to say it, a monumental work, befitting a monumental time.
What work besides this, at a time such as this, could ever be deemed more apropos? What work could be of greater moment when all of the world is riddled with, yes, nothing short of an unmitigated and international plague? With forgiveness, then, did I look upon my Promethean hand, a daring venturer by whose uncharacteristic autonomy and phantom temerity it was, for its own sake, quite visibly embarrassed. There, there, gentle hand. At ease, rogue appendage by whose lapsed obedience I’ve been, at least in this situation, curiously surprised. Softened by my look, and irrepressibly curious of the written experience atop which it hovered and before which I stood, it took upon itself that grand and daunting initiative of opening The Plague to chapter one.
Compared with the other eminent works by which Camus’ shockingly ample oeuvre is composed (and indeed, by any measure, it was “shockingly” ample. He was just arriving, at the time of his violent and premature death, at what might be called the fullest maturation of his literary growth—his “golden age” of philosophy and pen. The number and tone of his works, you see, will forever be considered as disproportionate to that of his years), The Plague hasn’t the most memorable of beginnings. That designation, I think, rightly belongs to his great and lasting work, The Stranger—a conclusion at which I’ve arrived with no dearth of confidence, and one with which no literary critic would persuasively quibble. (For those of you who are curious, The Stranger’s introductory passage, by which the somber mood of its nihilism and drama is devilishly well-established, can be concisely restated here: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know…” One ought really to remember the death of his poor mother).
For The Plague’s greatness, and greatness certainly presides therein, one need turn not to its beginning, but to its coda—to the very ending of the book at which the fearless reader, heavily clad with exhaustion and despair, will somberly arrive. You’ll find him there, weary of spirit and downcast of gaze, limping toward its conclusion, burdened by the terrible scenes through which he’s been made to pass. He’ll have done so, still standing upright, yet with a depressed immune system and a pessimistic gait. In its tenebrous foreshadowing, and its haunting suggestiveness, one is made to feel entirely unsettled as he glimpses its lines. Indeed the passage, the unforgettable lines on which this moribund work ends, has upon the reader not only a psychological, but a real and physiological effect. One feels within his breast, not the slow and restful pacification for which we continually return to our easier books, but the increasing rapidity of his anxious heart’s beat.
Initially, during his examination of the city of Oran (from which, one might add, the disease had only recently and incompletely departed), Dr. Rieux found himself cautiously optimistic. What physician, for that matter, wouldn’t be? Months of his life were spent in the midst of what was a pervasive and crippling terror. No horror so grave had yet befallen man. With the application of all his medical specialty and tact, with the combined, though often desultory efforts of the government under which he served and the science to which he was loftily devoted, the plague simply refused to yield. It was as lethal as it was unpersuadable. There was no antidote to which it was susceptible, no prayer to whose glorious evocation it was compliant. It dared not, despite all the religious and medical exhortations by which it was assaulted day in and out, agree to unfurl its deadly grasp—an obstinate hold between whose virulent fingers the torrid city was squeezed of life.
Dr. Rieux, a less-than quintessentially Camusian hero, dedicated his life to the unachievable rescue of the city—for whose restoration to normal life, there was but scanty and diminishing hope. It was, in this way, a Sisyphean task. He spent thousands of hours in the examination rooms and in the surgical theaters hunched over treatment tables—atop which thousands more fellow Algerians died. Every push of this boulder led to its inevitable fall. No intervention of his was consistently availing. Neither excision nor drainage, lysis nor bleeding, was successful in halting the virus’s spread. And, excepting the advent of a powerful antidote by whose introduction the plague might fully be swept away, nothing he did ultimately mattered. He might’ve slowed, but he never stopped the accumulation of dead bodies for which, alternatively, he, the government, or some absent divine entity was held responsible.
Thus, upon his early perusal of this post-morbid city, one can appreciate the caution by which his timid optimism was attended. It was a caution, however, of which most of the other citizens by whom he was surrounded were blithely impatient. How quickly they’d forgotten the ravages—by which, less than a month ago, they were completely overwhelmed—of the plague. Dr. Rieux, perhaps uniquely, knew that the “tale” of which he was now in possession, the tale of the arrival, the suffering, and the retreat of the plague, was not one of a “final victory”, but an ongoing correspondence between the healers of yesterday and the saints of time to come.
Joy, at the slow conclusion of this trying time, had become an emotion of which Dr. Rieux was now fully dispossessed. One wonders, though, if even before the arrival of this affliction (which jumped, in its infancy and with dizzying velocity, from mites to rats to men), he’d ever expressed it at all. His wife, exiting the flowering stage of nubility, but still a pretty figure to behold, was committed to a life at a sanatorium abroad. Given the breadth of his medical training, he must’ve been unconvinced that she’d ever convalesce and return. She did not. He cried not. One can’t surmise, however, that he cared not.
Though intimately related to pain, joy wasn’t an emotion to which, when seen in the faces of those common folk beside whom he stood, he was wholly insensitive; he could still recognize where it lived, and he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town of which he was, forever inextricably, a part. In so doing, he remembered that such joy is always imperiled, and never the least bit secure. Joy is but a temporary respite between two bookends of grief. It’s a narrow and finite passage around which Scylla and Charybdis both lurk and wait. To elude the one is a feat worth celebrating, but you’ll doubtless fall into the other. One’s fate, in this way, is preordained and sealed. As it pertains to life, this is a dour but inescapable truth. Yet he knew, with neither the pretenses inspired by fables, nor the disfigurements of reality born of faith:
“What those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and book-shelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it roused up its rats again and sent them forth to die in a happy city”.
Being that I live in such a city, in the bosom of such a country, in the tranquil locality of this peaceful part of the globe, I’m lucky to hold in my hand his book. Dr. Rieux, it seems, is not only doctor to the body, but captain of the mind—a seaman by whose prescient direction, one’s mental voyage is unfailingly to be lead. At the very least, I’ll avail myself of the knowledge of evil’s imperishable nature, as well as its naughty tendency to recrudesce whenever it feels the weight of the moment and the calm of the sea. These rocks and icebergs, looming figures with which we come into contact as we navigate our ship, might not be unavoidable, but they can be anticipated in advance. An evil seen from the horizon is better than an evil that swallows you from below.
Until that time, of which, sadly, we shall have no forewarning, I’ll let my hand have its freedom and my mind its contemplative repose. As the latter turns upon itself its inward gaze to think, the former will continue its tactile, excitable dance. It’ll continue to leap and scurry across my book shelf in which, sobering though it is to realize, that same bacillus might yet reside. That it will re-emerge is an assurance. What changes is the manner of our response. The Plague by Albert Camus—pick it up in this monastic moment of "Coronavirus"-induced solitude and read it through and through.