I first read, or, rather, struggled with, the French Algerian writer and philosopher Albert Camus when in my late teens because back then in the era of dabbling in Eastern philosophy and Alan Watts and psychedelic substances, not to mention Kerouac and Hemingway or the manic musings of Flann O’Brien or the cosmic creations of Carl Sagan, it was the thing to do among us hippies. Smoke a spliff, and read Camus or whoever.
Camus was born a year before the outbreak of the First World War and died a young man in 1960, on the eve of what was to be that decade of revolution, or so we imagined. He was also the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1957 aged 44.
I say I struggled with him because Camus was primarily a philosopher. He gave rise to the schools of thought that are Existentialism (in part) and Absurdism, that is the conflict between the human tendency to look for inherent value and meaning in life and our inability to find any in, what he saw as, a purposeless, meaningless or chaotic and irrational universe.
Existentialism basically says that the meaning of life is that there is no meaning to life (cue, Monty Python). It just is. (Depressing, I know, as if things weren’t down in the doldrums enough already).
In January 1941, Albert Camus began work on a story about a virus that spreads uncontrollably from animals to humans and ends up destroying half the population of “an ordinary town” called Oran, on the Algerian coast. ‘The Plague’, published in 1947, is often described as the greatest European novel of the postwar period.
As the book opens, there’s an air of everyday normality about life in Oran. The town’s inhabitants lead busy “money-centred and denatured” lives. Then the awfulness comes, like something out of a John Carpenter movie, a fog of sorts. The narrator, one Dr Rieux, comes across a dead rat. Then another, and another. Soon an epidemic seizes Oran, the disease transmitting itself from citizen to citizen, spreading panic everywhere.
To research for his novel, Camus locked himself in the history of plagues. He read about the Black Death that killed an estimated 50 million people in Europe in the 14th century, the Italian plague of 1630 that killed 280,000 across Lombardy (now an epicentre for Covid-19) and Veneto, the great plague of London of 1665 as well as plagues that ravaged cities on China’s eastern seaboard during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Albert Camus was not writing about any one plague in particular, nor was this, as has some critics suggest, a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France. He was drawn to his theme because he believed that what we call plagues are actually concentrations of a universal precondition, dramatic and draconian examples of a perpetual rule: that all us human beings are vulnerable to being randomly exterminated at any time, by a virus, an accident or the actions of our fellow man.
The people of Oran can’t accept this. Even when a quarter of the city is dying, they keep imagining reasons it won’t happen to them. They are modern people with phones, airplanes and newspapers. They are not going to die like the poor souls of 17th-century London, or indeed our own Famine.
“It’s impossible it should be the plague, everyone knows it has vanished from the West,” a character says. “Yes, everyone knew that,” Camus adds, “except the dead.”
For Camus, there is no escaping our human frailty. Pandemic or no pandemic, there is always, as it were, the pandemic, that human susceptibility to sudden death, an event, Camus the philosopher believed, that can render our lives meaningless in a nano-second.
Perhaps, as the writer Alain de Botton suggests, this is what Camus meant when he talked about the ‘absurdity’ of life. Admitting the possibility of this absurdity should lead us not to despair but to a redemption of sorts, a softening of our hearts, a turning away from the judgment and moralising of others, to joy and gratitude for those we have in our lives. I suspect, even just after a week or two in isolation, many of you have this thought about your lives slowly dawning on you.
Because there is always that pandemic or that plague, Camus believed we need to love our fellow (damned) humans and work for something better in this life than suffering. As an aside, pandemic or not, 83% of the world’s 7.5 billion people live in abject circumstances, whether politically, economically, socially or religiously. And watch how this plague upon us will render that fact so much more obvious (cue, the divide America).
As Alain de Botton says, life is a hospice, never a hospital.
Eventually, after more than a year, Camus’ plague goes away. The people celebrate. The suffering and death is over. A normality of sorts can return. But Dr. Rieux knows otherwise. The plague, Camus’ character contends “never dies”; it “waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers” for the day when it will once again “rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city”.
Camus speaks to me, to us, ironically if you like, because he correctly summed up human nature: that “everyone has it inside himself, this plague, because no one in the world, no one, is immune”. Rich or poor, young or old.
Never was there a more pressing time to keep life in perspective and to cherish what we have and those we love and share it with.
Stay safe… and wash those hands…
Paul Hopkins is an Irish journalist of nearly 40 years standing, and currently freelances for, primarily, the Belfast Telegraph, The Sunday Independent, Skerries New and is the OpEd comment writer for the Meath Chronicle.