“Sometimes carrying on, just carrying on, is the superhuman achievement.” ["Camus and the Myth of Sisyphus", illustration by Vedran Štimac]instagram/politebastart

Self-isolation is a chance to finally dive into all the classic works of fiction you’ve been meaning to read. It seems the British public is using coronavirus as an opportunity to discover Albert Camus’s classic 1947 novel The Plague, sales of which skyrocketed in this country between February and March. In Camus’s short life he was a novelist, a journalist, a member of the anti-Nazi French Resistance, and a profound philosopher of the absurd nature of modern life. In The Plague the absurd manifests itself in the form of a terrible pestilence, a semi-fictional outbreak of rat-borne plague that devastates the Algerian town of Oran. “Only artists know how to use their eyes,” declares one of the characters early in the novel, and perhaps Camus agreed. But the book is much more than a work of art; Camus’s writing was deliberately philosophical, and his stories are repositories for urgent messages which are especially relevant today.

Camus' stories are the repositories for urgent messages that are especially relevant today; the concerns of The Plague are still our concerns. 

The Plague’s style is unpretentious, not as vibrant as his essays nor as urgent as his occupation-era journalism, and it soon becomes clear that this style is part of the message he wanted to convey. Although the narrative primarily follows the fortunes of the mild Dr Rieux, a sizeable cast of characters are portrayed dealing with the plague in their own human ways. As the pandemic grows and the citizens of the town are spurred to action, the narrator (at this point anonymous) reflects that he “is rather inclined to believe that by giving too much importance to fine actions one may end by paying an indirect but powerful tribute to evil.” This is not a way of saying that we should downplay the work of doctors like Rieux (or NHS workers in our own day), or for that matter civilians – such as Grand or the journalist Rambert - who upend their lives to help Oran’s community cope. Camus’s message was the opposite: it exemplified an ethic of the ordinary. His book is filled with characters who simply get on with the task of fighting the disease. It is gripping, sure; but as the narrator often stresses, flair is a luxury we can do without in existential times.

Camus’s worry, as articulated in his journalism, was that human beings respond to questions of life and death by finding solace in “abstractions.” He looked around him and saw that his contemporaries in the 1940s were gripped by a “century of fear”: they were scrambling for grand unifying theories in the face of the decline in traditional values and a vacuum of meaning, driven by ‘–isms’ for which they would kill and die. While a plague is not an ideology, Camus knew that fear and dogma are themselves forms of pestilence, and the novel was constructed as an allegory for the stifling conditions of Nazi occupation.

Camus seems to think the hardest part of a crisis is not working out the right thing to do, but rather having the guts to get on and do it.

Our present crisis does not come close to the horrors of Camus’s world. Hyperbole is something Camus warned against because it distracts from the real problems. But the concerns of The Plague are still our concerns. Camus feared that the greatest threat to our ability to do the moral thing is a situation in which doing the moral thing is perceived to be extraordinary. The Plague’s characters are normal people, most of whom knuckle down to do what is required to alleviate suffering, nothing more. None of the characters are too heroic, nor are any of the scenes overly dramatic. His philosophy foregrounded the idea that although nothing can be transcendentally justified, we still act, and the only important question is how we choose to act.

Camus anchored moral action in the fundamental stuff of life and death. It is a secular ethics - some would later call this impulse the ‘liberalism of fear’. Camus wrote that although human thought and action is constructed on a variety of conceits, we can still keep hold of our “lucidity” in the face of extraordinary events. That means remembering that the most important things are to alleviate suffering and to keep people alive. For ordinary people, Camus seems to think, the hardest part of a crisis is not working out the right thing to do, but rather having the guts to get on and do it. Volunteering in community groups, pulling an extra shift, social distancing – all are examples of things we are encouraged to do in 2020.


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Camus’s characters are not perfect, but they do come to have a basic sense of duty: Rambert tries to flee the chaos around him, but has a change of heart and returns to aid the collective effort. Of course, things are far from simple at the highest level of decision-making. Who knows what pressures policy-makers are under as they make impossible choices on the basis of uncertain projections? But Camus urged leaders to ensure that whatever course of action they take is not poisoned by their own abstractions; in our time, that could be the totalitarian ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, who tried to silence the first doctors to raise the alarm, or it could be the reckless Trumpian ego that flounders in the face of the biggest challenge of his career.

In such strange and unusual times, it is far from obvious how we should act. Camus’s ethic of the ordinary is a good place to start, with its philosophy that everyday humane actions are our first line of defence. There is a reason why in his notebooks he called it the “redeeming plague.”

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