In the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 began sweeping through Europe and the Americas, a 73-year-old novel suddenly found itself on the bestseller list. That book was Albert Camus’ The Plague. While some might have purchased the novel to gain an understanding of what quarantine conditions are like, the purpose of the book is to answer a much larger question: How should one best live with those conditions?
While during other times this might be an interesting academic exercise, given our current situation the exercise seems far more urgent. What we find ourselves in is not as dramatic as the outbreak of plague, thankfully, but the order that we believed once permeated our existence has been largely upset. We cannot travel much, the way we work (if we are fortunate enough to work) is altered, and the resumption of traditional school remains largely in question; we are undoubtedly facing uncertain times.
In order to answer such a question from Camus’ perspective, however, we must first establish the condition in which he believed we exist, that of absurdity.
Absurdism Is Encountering Ourselves in the Mirror
Absurdism is the philosophical centerpiece of Camus’ writing. Best expressed in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942), the absurd results when a person seeks to find meaning or inherent value in their existence and comes to discover that we exist in a meaningless and irrational universe. The absurd is not so much an objective state of affairs but rather arises when an individual becomes aware of the ratio between the two terms of comparison. Without spending too much time on examples, if you have ever had an existential crisis, then you have experienced the state of Absurdity.
Camus mentions examples in “The Myth of Sisyphus” such as realizing the majority of your existence is following a daily pattern from home to work/school to home to dinner to sleep only to do it all again each day, over and over and finding little meaning in it. He also mentions the common experience of encountering ourselves in the mirror or a photograph and looking just a little too long: “Likewise the stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in a mirror, the familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photographs is also the absurd.”
It is that distance between what we conceive of as ourselves and the stranger we meet in the mirror that brings into consciousness the absurd. Yet these are small examples and not terribly dramatic. What about something like a plague?
It is important to note that the plague referenced in the book is the bubonic plague of historical fame, the Yersinia pestis. The nature of the plague is that it is entirely unpredictable. No one knows why it begins where it does, there seems to be no way to combat it, and it disappears as mysteriously as it appears. It can lie dormant for decades or longer and then suddenly one day, just begin again. There is nothing one can do about it other than try and stop its spread through isolation and quarantine. There is no rhyme or reason to it. The distance between the perceived order of civilization and the chaos of the plague is tremendous. Simply put, there is nothing more absurd than the plague, and so it stands as a metaphor for the condition of absurdity.
[Read “The Mythos of Pandemic“]
Courage in the Face of the Absurd
Once the walled city of Oran comes to the realization that the plague is a very real problem (and it does take some time to arrive at this conclusion) the entire city is quarantined from the rest of the world; no one may enter, no one may leave. People are not even allowed to send letters for fear that the plague might somehow be able to travel in such a manner. In every way imaginable, the citizens are cut off from the rest of the world.
The main character, Dr. Rieux, is the one who initially raises the alarm and tends the sick throughout the book to the point of exhaustion. At the beginning of the novel, his wife leaves town to be treated for an illness. While she is away, she dies and Rieux does not have the opportunity to say goodbye. If anyone has a cause to let the plague get him down, it is Dr. Rieux.
Though not impervious to despair, Dr. Rieux carries on with his work. He is not cynical, but also not overly optimistic. He finds a measure of dignity and nobility in his work of tending the sick, even though as tirelessly as he fights, it does not seem to make much difference. At one point he reflects, “I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”
His courage in the face of daily death is seen more so by others than acknowledged by himself. In his mind, there is nothing heroic about his actions. He fights the plague because that is what he is trained to do; combat death and heal the afflicted. We especially see this nobility expressed when near the end of the novel, Rieux’s good friend Tarrou contracts the plague. Rieux watches over him in his home until Tarrou dies, accompanying him on the final journey.
Rieux is also a man of passion. He finds pleasure in sunsets, dancing, and, especially, swimming. In a beautifully written scene near the end of Part Four, Rieux and Tarrou go for a swim in the bay at night. In one of the more moving scenes in the book, the narrator begins, “Once they were on the pier they saw the sea spread out before them, a gently heaving expanse of deep-piled velvet, supple and sleek as a creature of the wild.”
No doubt, the ocean for Camus represents the condition of absurdity. The wide-open nature of such a seemingly endless body of water, how one must fight against it or drown, but also submit to it as the condition—with struggle, one can live and find happiness in it.
[Read “Philosophy on the Danube River“]
The Third Category to Living
Tarrou serves as a companion to Rieux’s thoughts and is the second-most prominent character in the book. He is more philosophical and perhaps a little more cynical, but both are closely aligned in thought and belief. The pair are absurd heroes in that they understand their condition and accept it with Sisyphean courage. There is a nine-page monologue that Tarrou gives which embodies this notion. Near the end he asserts, “All I maintain is that on this earth, there are pestilences and there are victims, and it is up to us, so far as it is possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”
And he then concludes in the next and final paragraph:
“I grant we should add a third category: that of the true healers [he considers Reiux a true healer]. But it’s a fact one doesn’t come across many of them, and anyhow, it must be a hard vocation. That’s why I decided to take, in every predicament, the victim’s side, so as to reduce the damage done. Among them I can at least try to discover how one attains the third category; in other words, to peace.”
This third category Tarrou speaks of is likely in reference to ideas from “The Myth of Sisyphus.” When one becomes aware of the absurd, Camus identifies two ways one can respond to it. The first is to make a leap of faith towards belief in God which provides meaning to existence. The second way is to accept that existence is meaningless, which, for Camus, leads to suicide. Neither of these ways was acceptable to Camus, so he proposes a third way: acknowledge the condition of absurdity and create meaning for oneself in the face of an illogical and meaningless world.
Yet how does one create meaning for oneself? Camus offers this at the end of the opening section of “The Myth of Sisyphus”: “Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide.”
Tarrou and Rieux both embody this hopeful third way of creation through the circumstances of life. Both revolt against the absurd, creating meaning through tending to the sick. By choosing this action, they express their free will, and they do so with passion—not only a passion for their work but passion for life in relationships and experiences, such as that nighttime swim.
[Read “The Power of One Idea“]
Attempted and Failed Escapes from the Absurd
Of course, one can choose not to face the absurd and attempt escape. There are two characters who attempt to do so in the novel and end up with very different results. The character Rambert is a visiting journalist who becomes trapped when the city locks down for quarantine. He is a conflicted character in that he wishes to help, but also has a wife on the outside to whom he desperately wants to return. He spends much of the novel attempting to escape Oran so that he might be reunited with her. All entrances and exits are guarded by the military, and so escape proves difficult. Rambert eventually begins working with the underworld in hopes of getting smuggled out, but the underworld is an unpredictable place and after many attempts without success, he resigns himself to staying. He remarks, “Until now I always felt a stranger in this town, and that I’d no concern with you people. But now that I’ve seen what I’ve seen, I know that I belong here whether I want it or not. This business is everybody’s business.”
After this scene, Rambert joins the recovery effort alongside Rieux at his invitation. Though disappointed to not escape, Rambert accepts the condition and chooses to find meaning in his actions.
The other character is Cottard. He does not believe the plague is everybody’s business. We never know the exact crime, but at the beginning of The Plague Cottard is hyper-concerned about a crime he has committed, to the point of paranoia. In fact, he unsuccessfully hangs himself in the beginning of the book in an attempt to escape the situation. Once the plague begins in earnest, the authorities are so consumed with plague-related business, there are no resources available to deal with someone like Cottard, so the attention towards his likely minor crime is temporarily allayed and his paranoia abates.
Given the new situation, Cottard could have chosen some form of redemption by aiding in the effort against the plague or, at the very least, simply been a decent human being. He, however, chooses otherwise. With his newfound freedom, he involves himself in the smuggling business and dives into the pleasure of life rather than helping with the plague. In fact, he is the only figure that welcomes the plague. He is the ultimate “in it for himself” character. Once the plague ends, his paranoia returns, and he is arrested for firing a gun at innocents in the street. This is the last we hear of Cottard.
Rambert and Cottard make for good comparison when answering the question of how should one live with the absurd. Both men have reasons for behaving as they do, yet Rambert redeems himself while Cottard does not.
The Choice Is Ours
What does any of this mean for us and our current situation? In The Plague, we are presented with a fictional situation based on a real threat, the bubonic plague, and a condition Camus cites as the absurd. The first step for us is to acknowledge what our condition is, whether that be absurdity or any other interpretation of existence, but this is not the end—acknowledgment is the launch point. Our response should be first to rebel against despair, which in itself is an act of free will. We might not be able to do anything about COVID, but we can choose how we respond to the situation. And finally, we can live that free choice with passion, creating meaning for our existence through the relationships we have, fostering a zest for living.
Though this approach to our condition might seem individualistic, another message to take away from The Plague is that none of us face this condition alone. The importance of community, even in semi-quarantined conditions, is resonant. COVID does not just face individuals, but all of us. As Tarrou says in his monologue, “I know positively—yes, Rieux, I can say I know the world inside out, as you may see—that each of us has the plague within him.”
For Camus, the absurd is not unique to any individual. We all have it, so how should we face it? How should we confront the absurd? How should we contend with COVID? Together. Unquestionably and undoubtedly together.