A 73-year-old warning about the need to be in the present
April 14, 2020
It was somewhat provocative, I admit, to stand in the queue for the supermarket – the statutory two metres behind the man in front and two metres ahead of the woman behind – reading a copy of The Plague. At one stage my reading was interrupted by a chuckle. I looked behind me and the woman was pointing at my book, saying ‘I've just seen what you're reading. Great choice!’
I first read Albert Camus’s novel about an imaginary plague hitting a North African port city as part of my French A’ Level in the late 1970s. It’s a powerful book, because it’s not just about a plague – it’s an allegory about how a people react to an outside threat, and it looks at all aspects of human behaviour, including how people’s faith is challenged by situations of threat. Needless to say, the book is enjoying a surge of popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, with online book suppliers reporting it sold out.
Having re-read ‘La Peste’ 40 years after I studied pretty much every detail, I would urge anyone to read it who likes having their thought processes stirred. The central character is the doctor, who is overworked and puts his private life to one side, but there is an array of other characters: a journalist desperate to get out of the locked-down city to rejoin his young wife, a criminal rather enjoying the plague because the police have other things to worry about so aren’t investigating him, a Jesuit priest who sees the chance to convert people, a dull bureaucrat who just gets on with his job, and a mysterious diarist who simply observes but claims to know all there is about life. You don't have to look far to find their counterparts today.
Despite appearing in 1947 and being a work of pure fiction (albeit Camus used a mid-19th century plague as a source of some factual research), The Plague is remarkably prescient for today’s lockdown. At various stages, Camus’s mouthpiece Dr Bernard Rieux says:
“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 people are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. They are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue.”
“There’s no question of heroism in all this [fighting the plague]. It’s a matter of common decency. The only means of fighting a plague is – common decency.”
“The real plague had nothing in common with the grandiose. It was, above all, a shrewd, unflagging adversary; a skilled organiser, doing its work thoroughly and well.”
“The tale could not be one of final victory. It could only be the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.”
Perhaps one of the biggest themes to emerge from Camus’s tale is that of how to be alive. Most of the townsfolk afflicted by the plague saw the interruption as a hiatus between what they had before and what they would have in future, forgetting that they were in the present for the 10 months it took to defeat the pestilence. We forget all too easily that people didn’t lose six months of their life to the second world war – they lived six years through the war. One day, our coronavirus will be tamed, if perhaps never fully defeated. Until that day comes, we must not forget that we are living now, whatever restrictions and hardships may be placed on our everyday lives.
P.S. A quiet acknowledgement to Raymond Kinehan, Chris Pickett and John Wise who did The Plague with me at A’ Level, and our patient teacher Liam O’Doherty (wherever they are now). Who would have known it would prove a briefing for much of what we would go through 40 years later?