Oran is our town: Experiencing Camus’s ‘Plague’ during our own

camus_plague_penguin_coverMany people who are reading this novel for the first time at the present moment, with a new kind of plague sweeping the world, are surprised by how well Albert Camus’s 1947 work reflects our experience. I was. But a little reflection showed me another angle on it. If you can look for differences between things—between the present and the past, for instance—you can also look for similarities, and those aren’t hard to discover in this case. Maybe, in fact, we should expect to find that others have lived through what we’re living through. Infectious diseases have marched back and forth across the planet throughout recorded history, and they’ve usually worked in similar ways, appearing like unprovoked and seemingly unconquerable invaders, who lay waste for a while before being repulsed, only to return a little later. With the global spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we’re living through history turned back upon itself, for epidemics and pandemics, you might say, used to be endemic; the biggest difference may be that our current pestilence has so far descended upon us only once.

Historian Fernand Braudel devotes a small section of The Structures of Everyday Life, the first volume of his study of ordinary life before the industrial revolution, specifically to plague, and he reports some astonishing figures and appalling anecdotes, which are, as often as not, like now, only worse. In the 16th century, Orleans experienced plague 22 times; it recurred in Amsterdam every year from 1622 to 1628. At the first sign of it, the rich would typically leave town, and the authorities often did as well; Braudel notes that “in France, whole parlements emigrated” and adds that Montaigne, the mayor of Bordeaux at the time, abandoned his post during the 1585 epidemic. Cities ceased their bustle; Florence in 1637 was essentially shut down—“no business activities and no religious services.” The dead piled up, sometimes in the streets, where they were gnawed by dogs, and they had to be gotten rid of by any means possible; at Genoa in 1656, corpses were loaded onto boats that were taken to sea and burned.

Even after the 18th century, when it began to subside in the West, plague hardly vanished. Marseilles endured a major outbreak in 1720, it appeared twice in the Balkans in the first half of the 19th century, it remained endemic in parts of China and India, and it turned up in the Algerian city of Oran in the 1940s.

Oddly, Camus appears to have decided to situate his novel’s outbreak in that city before it actually occurred there—recurred, rather, since plague had afflicted Oran in the past. Braudel says it came back in 1942; Wikipedia (without linking to or even fully naming a source) says it was 1944. One might suppose, on the basis of this book, that Camus had lived through it himself—that’s what I thought at first—but he had moved to Oran in early 1941, partly to gather material for a plague novel, and seems to have returned to France before the disease appeared.

The Plague didn’t result directly from experience, then, but it wasn’t pure invention either. He already knew the city of Oran, having grown up in Algeria, and he knew tuberculosis—which resembles the pulmonary form of plague and is sometimes called the White Plague—from the inside, having been diagnosed as a teenager. Daniel Defoe may have had more work to do in imaginatively reconstructing the 1665–66 onslaught of plague in London decades after the fact, in A Journal of the Plague Year. But how writers know what they know isn’t always a simple matter. However it came about, Camus’s novel feels remarkably familiar. The disease arrives by stealth, heralded only by rats (which thankfully we’ve been spared), but it soon takes hold; the authorities, who at first equivocate and hesitate to act, come around and close off the city from the outside world. The tally of new deaths rises and keeps rising; the dead begin to accumulate so quickly that they must be disposed of in pits outside of town, and then in an incinerator; efforts to find a treatment or a cure continue to prove fruitless. Through the eyes of the story’s main character, Dr. Rieux, we witness many dismaying scenes in which the unmistakable symptoms (a good deal more unpleasant than anything caused by today’s coronavirus) of a new sufferer are reviewed before the victim is sent off to quarantine, from which, much of the time, there is no return.

As translator Robin Buss renders the text, Camus repeatedly describes the emotional experience of the characters in terms of imprisonment or, more often, exile and separation, whether from pleasures as simple as walks outside the town and swimming in the sea or from loved ones who are elsewhere or simply gone. “This abrupt separation,” the narrator observes, “without any halfway state and with no predictable future, left us disconcerted, unable to react against the memory of that presence, still so close, yet already so far away, that now filled our days.” Time changes its tune: “if only because they last so long, great misfortunes are monotonous.” Some of Oran’s residents will soon find themselves numbed: “the time had yet to come when the plague would seem to them like the very shape of their lives and when they would forget the existence that they had led in the days before.” Some give up, such as those who, having been told by the town’s priest that “you have deserved it,” conclude that “nothing was any use and…we should go down on our knees.” Others—including Rieux and the handful of men who choose to work with him—contend the opposite, that “one must fight, in one way or another, and not go down on one’s knees,” because “this business concerns all of us.”

In many ways, then, Camus’s novel rings true to what’s going on today. As an old Latin expression has it, it’s easy to feel that “this story is about you.” And that’s so despite many differences: the people of Oran have no internet or Zoom calls and have trouble even getting letters out; we, on the other hand, are mostly forbidden to gather, as they can throughout their epidemic, in restaurants or bars, cinemas or opera houses.

The book is encouraging in part because it’s a story that comes to an end. Eventually the day comes when a treatment works; eventually the count of new deaths stops climbing and starts to fall; eventually the city gates reopen. We can’t be sure yet that days like that will arrive for us, that SARS-CoV-2 will be beaten back as almost all the previous invaders have been (HIV, to name one, has never been repulsed), but the novel makes it easier to believe. In another respect, though, The Plague is admonitory, a fable, a parable—historian Tony Judt, in an afterword to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, calls it an allegory, as do others. For many present-day readers, this may be harder to discern, especially if you assume—as the back cover text seems to invite—that it’s specifically about French resistance to the Nazis during the occupation of World War II. (Incidentally, the time setting is given only as “194–,” and the war doesn’t explicitly appear in the novel.) Caught up in its literal narrative, you may have trouble, as I did at first, seeing much in the novel’s figurative dimension. How can a mere disease, which is unchosen, tell us anything about politics and history? Judt’s answer is that this misses the point: “The allegory may have been tied to Vichy France but the ‘plague’ transcends political labels. It was not Fascism that Camus was aiming at…but dogma, conformity, compliance and cowardice in all their intersecting public forms.”

In other words, the novel’s moral point of view is complex. Camus is less interested in dispensing blame, or praise, than he is in finding ways to understand. Many people cite a line from near the end of the book, in which Rieux says, “There is more in men to admire than to despise.” But the novel includes a profiteer, who is neither admired nor despised by Rieux and his partners. And it includes a figure who, having seen the light, changes his stance and joins the medical team, one of whom says, “Everyone is like that. You just need to give them the opportunity.” That line subtly invites us to consider what happens when the opportunity isn’t given. In Shaw’s Saint Joan, someone declares flatly that those who do not understand are condemned; here, you might say, everyone is culpable, but no one is condemned.

Other views are out there. Virginia Heffernan, looking at plague literature in an essay for Wired, sees The Plague as a critique of conformity that also has something to do with commerce and the value of the ecstatic over the mundane. Jill Lepore, surveying the field for The New Yorker, declares that in Camus’s novel “the plague is, of course, the virus of Fascism” but also that “the plague is man.” Orhan Pamuk, in a New York Times opinion piece, grants that Camus gives readers “a glimpse at something other than politics…, something intrinsic to the human condition” but says nothing else about the novel. Jacqueline Rose, in a long commentary on The Plague for the London Review of Books, provides a wide-ranging and sensitive, though not uncritical, assessment. She considers today’s finger-pointing with regard to the coronavirus and concludes, on the basis of Camus’s novel, “We are all accountable for the ills of the world.” But I favor Tony Judt’s as the fullest and most straightforward appreciation of what Camus and his novel are up to. Judt’s afterword is online, having been published as a standalone piece in November 2001 by The New York Review of Books.

If, as we must hope will happen, SARS-CoV-2 recedes, the novel’s account of responses to an epidemic will become less familiar to readers, but Camus’s other plague will still be out there, maybe camped in the darkness on the edge of town, maybe surreptitiously working its way among us again. Thus The Plague will always resonate. In the conclusion of Judt’s afterword, using a telltale image of alarm, he praises Camus’s own final words.

“The closing sentence of Camus’s great novel rings truer than ever, a firebell in the night of complacency and forgetting: ‘[Rieux] knew that…the plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely…it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing…it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and…perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.’”

(This review also appears on Goodreads and on Medium.)

A note on the lack of comparisons for the pandemic

From “Casualties,” the print-magazine title for a review by Peter Schjeldahl in the 12/02/19 New Yorker of a PS1 art exhibition called “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars, 1991–2011”:

When will we stop obsessing about our gimmickry of communication and just communicate as best we can? Inexplicably, to me, the show’s catalogue features a reprint of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s flashy, repellently foolish essay of 1991, “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” which sashays past the actuality of blasted lives for fancies of postmodernist exposition. According to Baudrillard, “simulacra” have come to displace realities in human understanding. No, they haven’t. But the callousness of his essay may symptomize the condition, shared by all, of feeling overwhelmed by today’s volume and speed of information.

I agree with Schjeldahl and like the directness of his rejoinder to Baudrillard. However, there may have been a portion of Baudrillard in the often-heard, or at least often-cited, response from people who watched replays of airplanes flying into the World Trade Center, that it was like watching a movie. Notably, I’ve seen no such remarks about the coronavirus pandemic. I have seen commentaries, which I haven’t taken the time to read, about the odd allure of photographs showing our oddly depopulated streets and plazas. Maybe the commentaries include comparisons like that. It certainly seems possible for someone to think of The Omega Man (1971), which featured Charlton Heston, or I Am Legend (2007), with Will Smith—both were based on the same 1954 book about a pandemic—or, no doubt, a number of other visual entertainments when we look at such images. On the other hand, maybe people have gotten more sensible or callous or knowing, or maybe we’re in a period where reality keeps biting us harder than our entertainments can. I think it’s more likely, though, that the effects of the current pandemic have crept up on us instead of bursting upon us out of the blue, and that we’re accommodating to it bit by bit: however much things have changed, and however quickly, nothing out there in the world beyond our windows has yet caught us entirely off guard and left us grasping for comparisons. Instead, though this is little better, we keep telling ourselves how unprecedented it all is.

It can happen here: How a new epidemic might come to America

Left, George Young as Dr. Victor Cannerts in a poster for Containment; right, Dr. Li Wenliang.

Left, George Young as Dr. Victor Cannerts in a poster for Containment; right, Dr. Li Wenliang. (Images: The CW via IMDb; The New York Times, original source not given.)

Republished, with revisions, from an original post here.

Imagine that a recent immigrant—illegal, it later turns out—staggers into a hospital in your city with what seems like a bad cold and consults with a doctor before vanishing, and the doctor, after showing symptoms almost immediately, dies soon after, of what proves to be a highly lethal and hitherto unknown virus. It’s hard to say how things would go from this point, but your city could find itself facing what Atlanta faces in a single-season TV drama from a few years back—the quarantine of the hospital and an entire section of the city. Continue reading

However you label it, ‘Years and Years’ is fascinating

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What’s happening now? Members of the Lyons family try to catch up. (Image: via HBO.)

Other than saying that Years and Years is a relatively new show on HBO, co-produced with the BBC, it’s hard to know what to call it. For now, I’ll just call it a near-future drama.

The first episode—which aired in the U.S. at the end of June, though I saw it only a couple of days ago—takes us neatly, in its opening section, from something like the present to a few years in the future. It places in the foreground an extended family in England (most of them live in Manchester), which gets most of the screen time as their characters and relationships are carefully built up, but the episode always keeps in view a background of local, national, and international developments: Continue reading

The moon landing and me

Lately it’s become common to remark on the togetherness effect of humankind’s first moon landing. A good example comes from today’s Axios AM newsletter:

Yesterday’s 50th anniversary…was a fleeting chance…for the country to rally around something that was exciting and important, brought us together, and ultimately produced the biggest single historic moment ever.…

I’m pausing to honor this moment because they’re so rare, outside the Olympics. The last truly unifying national moment was the tragedy of 9/11.

But Apollo 11 and the later moon landings and the entire sequence from the first Mercury flight to the last liftoff from the lunar surface were not universally welcomed. Continue reading

Passing glances: How to link to a book, what Hedy Lamarr did in the war, on discovering Dawn Powell’s diaries

Henrik Ibsen, during a period in which he kept a scorpion in a glass on his desk (somehow it seems perfect that Ibsen would keep a scorpion on his desk), noticed that the insect would sometimes become agitated. If he dropped a small piece of fruit in the glass, the scorpion would sting it and then settle down. The conclusion, drawn either by Ibsen in a journal or by the biographer who reported this, was that an occasional discharge of venom helps restore one’s equanimity, or something to that effect. Allow me to try it here.

In reading Charles McGrath’s article on Anthony Powell in the 11/12/18 New Yorker, I came across a fine sentence, Continue reading

What’s it all about, Charlie? Making sense of ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’

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Decisions: it’s what’s for breakfast. (Screencap via Netflix)

Much of what we’ve seen in previous releases of Black Mirror, an anthology series offered by Netflix, is supposed to make us uncomfortable and does. In “Nosedive,” the eagerness of the central character to participate in a social-ranking system that seems destined to slap her down becomes more and more distressing to watch. In “Metalhead,” our anxiety grows as we watch a woman trying to evade what seems at first to be a very persistent robotic guard dog, which eventually seems more like one of the bringers of an apocalypse. We tune in to these episodes to see what fresh horror—or, far less often, what fresh delight—creator Charlie Brooker and his executive producer, Annabel Jones, can envision for our technological future. In the show’s latest iteration, an interactive movie called Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (I’ll call it BM:B for short), we get a lot of the discomfort we expect, but this time the story takes place in the past, and some of our uneasiness may be unintentional—though I doubt it. Continue reading

Passing glances: Amazon, coincidences, and war

In a private forum on the Authors Guild website, a contributor recently posted a link to a New York Times opinion piece bearing the provocative headline “New York Should Say No to Amazon.” The op-ed began by reminding readers, “This week, word leaked that Amazon may be close to finalizing a deal to set up a major operation in Long Island City, Queens” (the link is in the original), and it went on to subject Amazon itself as well as its possible New York expansion to withering criticism. The forum contributor said he had previously favored the deal but now wasn’t so sure, and he asked for other responses. Because the moves, literal and otherwise, of major tech companies are a pressing concern in New York and elsewhere, I’m reposting here the response I wrote for the forum: Continue reading

Reading notes: On Sam Mendes and long-form TV

The 9/24/18 issue of The New Yorker contains an excellent profile of director Sam Mendes by John Lahr, called “Showman” in the printed edition. It reports this, which I had never noticed:

Much to his union’s chagrin, Mendes refuses to benefit from the hard-fought battle for “possessory credit”—you won’t find “A film by Sam Mendes” in the credits for any of his movies. A film, he said, “is written by someone else, shot by someone else. It’s not all me. It’s because of me.”

That comes off as a little less modest than Mendes may have thought, but it’s hard to judge how it sounded when he said it. In any case, it’s clear that he doesn’t think a film comes to exist solely because of him.

Something else that struck me was this: Continue reading

Memory and humility: Two notes on Brett Kavanaugh

One: During the confirmation hearings for the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, disagreements arose over what would seem to be basic facts, such as whether Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Blasey Ford at a party or whether Kavanaugh even attended a party where Ford was present. One thing that’s important to keep in mind while wrestling with questions of what really happened and what it means is that memory can be an unreliable witness. Continue reading