Translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert
Albert Camus’ La Peste or The Plague, written in 1947 is a fictional account of the sudden arrival and spread of bubonic plague in the Algerian town of Oran. Lasting for about a year the epidemic has a disrupting and disturbing effect on the lives and minds of its inhabitants. Camus was drawn to exploring the source of that deep anguish and vulnerability at the heart of human existence; our mortality.
But written in the wake of occupied France, The Plague is also a metaphor for the suffocation of human freedom in and by a political ideology intent on the systematic destruction of the other. It is a metaphor not only for Fascism but also for the collusion, passivity and resignation which embraces death in the institutionalisation of murder.
The following extract describes the feelings of separation and exile that emerge following the quarantining of the city along with the debasement of language and the loss of memory as a resource for moral risk, change or challenge in the present.
From now on, it can be said that plague was the concern of all of us. Hitherto, surprised as he may have been by the strange things happening around him, each individual citizen had gone about his business as usual, so far as this was possible. And no doubt he would have continued doing so. But once the town gates were shut, every one of us realized that all, the narrator included, were, so to speak, in the same boat, and each would have to adapt himself to the new conditions of life. Thus, for example, a feeling normally as individual as the ache of separation from those one loves suddenly became a feeling in which all shared alike and, together with fear, the greatest affliction of the long period of exile that lay ahead.
One of the most striking consequences of the closing of the gates was, in fact, this sudden deprivation befalling people who were completely unprepared for it. Mothers and children, lovers, husbands and wives, who had a few days previously taken it for granted that their parting would be a short one, who had kissed one another good-by on the platform and exchanged a few trivial remarks, sure as they were of seeing one another again after a few days or, at most, a few weeks, duped by our blind human faith in the near future and little, if at all diverted from their normal interests by this leave- taking, all these people found themselves, without the least warning, hopelessly cut off, prevented from seeing one another again, or even communicating with one another.
Even the small satisfaction of writing letters was denied us. It came to this: not only had the town ceased to be in touch with the rest of the world by normal means of communication, but also, according to a second notification, all correspondence was forbidden, to obviate the risk of letters carrying infection outside the town. In the early days a favored few managed to persuade the sentries at the gates to allow them to get messages through to the outside world. But that was only at the beginning of the epidemic, when the sentries found it natural to obey their feelings of humanity. Later on, when these same sentries had had the gravity of the situation drummed into them, they flatly refused to take responsibilities whose possible after-effects they could not foresee.
Some few of us, however, persisted in writing letters and gave much time to hatching plans for corresponding with the outside world; but almost always these plans came to nothing. Even on the rare occasions when they succeeded, we could not know this, since we received no answer. For weeks on end we were reduced to starting the same letter over and over again recopying the same scraps of news and the same personal appeals, with the result that after a certain time the living words, into which we had as it were transfused our hearts’ blood, were drained of any meaning. Thereafter we went on copying them mechanically, trying, through the dead phrases, to convey some notion of our ordeal. And in the long run, to these sterile, reiterated monologues, these futile colloquies with a blank wall, even the banal formulas of a telegram came to seem preferable.
For most people it was obvious that the separation must last until the end of the epidemic. This drastic, clean-cut deprivation and our complete ignorance of what the future held in store had taken us unawares; we were unable to react against the mute appeal of presences, still so near and already so far, which haunted us daylong. In fact, our suffering was twofold; our own to start with, and then the imagined suffering of the absent one, son, mother, wife, or mistress.
Under other circumstances our townsfolk would probably have found an outlet in increased activity, a more sociable life. But the plague forced inactivity on them, limiting their movements to the same dull round inside the town, and throwing them, day after day, on the illusive solace of their memories. For in their aimless walks they kept on coming back to the same streets and usually, owing to the smallness of the town, these were streets in which, in happier days, they had walked with those who now were absent.
Thus the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile. It was undoubtedly the feeling of exile, that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire. Sometimes we toyed with our imagination, composing ourselves to wait for a ring at the bell announcing somebody’s return, or for the sound of a familiar footstep on the stairs; but, though we might deliberately stay at home at the hour when a traveler coming by the evening train would normally have arrived, and though we might contrive to forget for the moment that no trains were running, that game of make-believe, for obvious reasons, could not last. Always a moment came when we had to face the fact that no trains were coming in. And then we realized that the separation was destined to continue, we had no choice but to come to terms with the days ahead. In short, we returned to our prison-house, we had nothing left us but the past, and even if some were tempted to live in the future, they had speedily to abandon the idea anyhow, as soon as could be, once they felt the wounds that the imagination inflicts on those who yield themselves to it.
At such moments the collapse of their courage, willpower, and endurance was so abrupt that they felt they could never drag themselves out of the pit of despond into which they had fallen. Therefore they forced themselves never to think about the problematic day of escape, to cease looking to the future, and always to keep, so to speak, their eyes fixed on the ground at their feet. But, naturally enough, this prudence, this habit of feinting with their predicament and refusing to put up a fight, was ill rewarded. For, while averting that revulsion which they found so unbearable, they also deprived themselves of those redeeming moments, frequent enough when all is told, when by conjuring up pictures of a reunion to be, they could forget about the plague. Thus, in a middle course between these heights and depths, they drifted through life rather than lived, the prey of aimless days and sterile memories, like wandering shadows that could have acquired substance only by consenting to root themselves in the solid earth of their distress.
Camus’ examination of the social and psychological distortions of freedom under any sort of contagion or totalitarian control shows how easily our greatest fears and anxieties can be exploited. But the consequences cannot be met by denial, passivity or by a normalising it’s reality. The moral imperative, for Camus, lies in our ability to acknowledge a plague when it is happening, that its effects will be devastating and that we will be a part of its experience long after it has gone. We should not be left intact by the death that it brings otherwise we would not have the choice to revolt against it. The plague is in us all and we are in it, says Tarrou in the novel. ‘No one is immune’ and to not become its victim requires a constant vigilance so that we do not suddenly ‘find ourselves breathing in another person’s face and infecting him’.
Read more from Dr Rebekah Howes on Camus’ The Plague
This piece is part of our Liberal Arts Applicants Summer Programme