The Plague: An Absurdist Guide to Surviving a Pandemic
If you’re reading this right now, chances are that you’ve been stuck at home for a few days – possibly a few weeks, and for some, even months. You may have noticed that after decades of seamless commercial activity, the world has collectively hit pause and come to a halt. Loved ones that were previously a mere drive away are now separated from us indefinitely, restricted within the tiny confines of our phone screens. Students and employees, though now relieved from certain deadlines, are finding themselves inevitably in pursuit of some sort of defined structure to their more vacant schedules. Grocery store cashiers, once considered background characters to our busy lives, are now pushed to the fore as guardians of civility, while healthcare workers are being forced into the role of frontline soldiers, fatigued by the relentless onslaught of life-or-death decisions, likened only to times of war.
What are we to do?
Although there isn’t much most of us can do, besides staying inside and washing our hands, an inescapable uncertainty likely pervades the minds of nearly all household prisoners. How long will life remain like this? Will things ever go back to the way they were? Is there an appropriate response in our personality, in daily behaviour, in small acts, that can be gleaned from such a crisis? The French-Algerian writer Albert Camus may have already provided us with these answers many years ago.
Camus was a Nobel prize-winning journalist, playwright and philosopher who lived through the Nazi occupation of France, as well as the Algerian war. His works, closely tied to themes of existentialism and humanism, advocated for his own philosophy of what is known as absurdism. In short, absurdism argues that there are two certainties that pervade human existence. For one, humans are in a constant striving towards the acquisition of, or identification with value and significance. It seems to be an inherent craving in our psyche, the urge to define our lives as meaningful. However, the universe, silent and wholly indifferent to human affairs, gives us no such assurance. This is the second certainty of our existence: its apparent lack of meaning. According to Camus, when our insatiable desire for meaning and lack thereof collide, it is within this moment in which the absurd is illuminated.
This is not to say we should all pack our bags, resign, and descend into chaotic nihilism. Camus argues that we must instead accept the absurd, not passively but actively, by nonetheless existing with a conscious joy. By doing so, we rebel against the absurd and affirm ourselves as heroes. The Plague, or La Peste, published in 1947, deals with this exact theme.
The story is somewhat simple. In the 1940s, a terrible epidemic hits the town of Oran, a place described as 'difficult to die'. As the bodies of dead rats begin to accumulate and cases of an unknown disease increase, the commercial energy of Oran becomes its weakness. When protagonist Dr. Rieux finally uses the word 'plague', even he himself is surprised.
“There have been as many plagues in the world as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared.”
“In this respect, the citizens of Oran were like the rest of the world, they thought about themselves; they did not believe in pestilence. A pestilence does not have human dimensions so people tell themselves it is unreal, that it is a bad dream which will end.”
The citizens continue to carry about their lives, thinking that the disease is simply an unwelcome, impermanent visitor, rather than an entity that would shape their lives forever. At first, Dr. Rieux struggles with coming to terms with how long the plague might last; however, he soon pulls himself out of futile hypothesizing and asserts that no matter what, the main thing is to do one’s job. Nothing else exists beyond this point, and so he declares a town-wide quarantine in order to stop the pandemic in its tracks.
Interestingly, the subsequent individual feelings of exile, separation, and loss becomes a shared mass of agony. This agony, very different from the heroic despair of war, stretches out long enough to become quite, well, boring. To further this point, one character compares the plague to an earthquake:
“A good shake and that’s it… One counts the dead, one counts the living, and the whole thing’s over and done with. But this rotten bastard of a disease! Even those who don’t have it, carry it in their hearts.”
As the reality of the plague sets in, people once accustomed to living for the certain future are now condemned to the present moment. For once, they are forced to pay attention to their surroundings, to the world around them – a world indifferent to their woes and frustrations, to their desire for something beyond them. Other far less stoic behaviours are common; many blame the authorities, commit crimes, and become overly superstitious. Up until this point, the way that the town acts is fairly close to our current predicament; rooted in denial, paranoia, hedonism, and the irrational attempts to attribute value to our suffering. The plague worsens as the year goes on, and in the wake of such colossal adversity, the people of Oran eventually begin to lose the ability to experience great feeling and emotion.
“The plague had taken away from all of them the power of love or even of friendship, for love demands some future, and for us there was only here and now.”
It is clear that the citizens have resigned themselves to apathy and quiet acceptance. Acceptance, according to Camus, is the first step but not the sole object of dealing with the absurd. The priest comes close to summarizing Camus’ idea of a proper response – the notion of active fatalism.
“One should not heed those moralists who said we should fall down on our knees and abandon everything. One should merely start to move forward, in the dark, feeling one's way and trying to do good.”
This is perhaps the very essence of what it means to be human. Trying our absolute best, with great error and many mistakes, to act decent in times of uncertainty. And even during those times, we are all still fragile animals operating in the dark; we may be doomed, but we must be clear, this fate is not enough to justify resignation. We must still do what is decent, and what is decent is founded in our commitment to one another. This may be why Dr. Rieux is in a sense the hero of the story. Despite everything, he does what needs to be done without any reliance on ideals or values beyond his fellow man. Those that do not know what is to be done – the hedonists, the deniers, the ideologues – are not lacking in virtue or goodness, but rather in understanding.
And although Camus was apprehensive about hoping for anything in particular, it is evident that there is always at least one reason to persist.
“Who knew now, that if there is one thing one can always yearn for, and sometimes attain, it is human love.”
We’re all in this together, and yes, that may be a simple message. However, in times of panic and fear, even the simplest of messages can be lost to paranoia, hysteria, and ignorance. There has never been anything more human than the persistent and collective struggle against all odds – so be decent, and be kind to one another.
And go wash your hands.