Reflections upon Camus’ The Plague (I)

I’ve been re-reading Albert Camus’ The Plague and I wanted to share some thoughts.

Camus begins by establishing the very ordinariness of Oran. Indeed, the mundanity and blandness of its existence is brought to the forefront. And it takes a bit of a slow build before the plague itself breaks out on the novel. But when it does, it comes quite rapidly in the end. How accurate to our own times, perhaps to most times, the slow accumulation of evidence, the reluctance to call it a plague by authorities, given all that that name invokes, and the general malaise of attitude.

What has most struck me, upon re-reading, is the way Camus captures the very moments that the ‘shutdown’ takes effect.

There have been as many plagues in the world as there have been wars , yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared

However much we foresaw covid-19 coming upon us, and some saw further than others, collectively it came as a shock. Even a week before we started laying down severe public health measures, it was possible to think of it as something distant. And in fact, we go on trying to think of it as ‘distant’, even when it is very present. A plague, or a pandemic if you prefer, it hard to fathom, and so we fail to fathom it.

A pestilence does not have human dimensions , so people tell themselves that it is unreal, that it is a bad dream which will end. But it does not always end and, from one bad dream to the next, it is people who end…

It’s also very interesting the way Camus portrays the feeling of being in quarantine. He describes it as a kind of exile, or being in prison. And I think this is accurate. Exile as the exclusion from the places where we once where, places us in a new ‘place’, away from the past. Exile too, stretches out before us, while at the same time cutting off the future. Exile is an interminable state, in which one does not, cannot know, whether return is possible. He writes:

In short, from then on, we accepted our status as prisoners; we were reduced to our past alone and even if a few people were tempted to live in the future, they quickly gave it up, as far as possible, suffering the wounds that the imagination eventually inflicts on those who trust in it….

People give up trying to think or imagine when it will end, because once you have that fixed idea, “oh, it will last 3 months”, and then begin to realise that there’s no reason to suppose that it will, indeed it could last 9, 12, 18, 24, 48 months, or in fact change human society indefinitely, your original fixed-time hope is shattered, and the resolve it gave you washes away like sand castles in the tide.

Thus they endured that profound misery of all prisoners and all exiles, which is to live with a memory that is of no use to them. Even the past, which they thought of endlessly, had only the taste of remorse and longing

We must adapt to live in such times. In exile,

But, though this was exile, in most cases it was exile at home.