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As the linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson once observed, we live by metaphors. They govern how we think, experience, and act. Not only are there metaphors that we live by but there are metaphors that we die by. At times, quite literally: in Rwanda in 1994, Hutu Power radio stations described Tutsis as snakes. To remove their heads with machetes, then, made sense. Germany’s Third Reich portrayed Jews as vermin, then murdered them at Auschwitz. That the camps used Zyklon-B, a commercial pesticide, was not a coincidence.
There are other metaphors we risk dying by, if only metaphorically. Take the case of plague, a metaphor that has spread like, well, the plague since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. Whether it is a Washington Post op-ed delineating “The Ten Plagues of Trump,” The American Prospect diagnosing the plague festering in the White House, or an op-ed in The Hill calling for the eradication of the “Trump plague,” this particular metaphor has been as persistent as the disease itself. Trump is not the sole vector: politicians and pundits have repeatedly identified the rise of nationalism and populism, racism and anti-Semitism in plague-like terms.
The metaphor’s ubiquity has not dulled its utility. In his novel The Plague, Albert Camus found within the conceit not only an expression of anxiety but a call to moral behavior that was both modest and profound. That novel and its message bear revisiting for all the reasons that the metaphor resonates today.
By the time The Plague was published in 1947, Camus had won world renown for his novel The Stranger and his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Those two books, published during the German occupation of France, founded his postwar reputation as an existentialist writer—a label he always rejected—who portrayed a world shorn of significance, shaped by contingency and shrouded by absurdity. Our pursuit of meaning, Camus declared, will always meet with silence.
Camus described those books, published in 1942, as belonging to his “cycle of absurdity.” At the time he was already sketching a novel that belonged to what he would call the “cycle of rebellion.” Stricken by tuberculosis and ordered to rest his lungs, he had left his native Algeria for a farm near the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in southeastern France. Camus stepped into a France where the clocks were set on German time, and once there he reconsidered his earlier attitude toward moral duty. Not only does “absurdity teach us nothing,” he wrote in his journal, but no matter “how foul this war might be, no one can stand aside from it.”
Both the inception of The Plague and the decision to enter the resistance stemmed from this realization. In 1943, Camus joined the clandestine journal Combat as editor and began to sketch what would become his second novel. The story’s narrator recounts the actions of a small group of men when the plague invades the Algerian port city of Oran. Bernard Rieux, a doctor who doubles as the narrator, and Jean Tarrou, a stranger who dabbles in moral reflection, lead voluntary sanitation teams that carry off the dead, confine the sick, and thus protect the healthy.
Can we find not just meaning but also a moral code—something that resembles a normative ethics—in this novel?
The plague’s sheer enormity—in every sense of the word—dwarfs their efforts. Even as the teams shoulder their tasks, the plague gathers strength, indiscriminately striking down men, women, and children. The protagonists’ actions seem to have no practical impact, but the men nevertheless brim with the purposefulness and meaning that Camus sought but could not find in his earlier writings. When Tarrou remarks that a doctor’s victories can never last, Rieux replies, “Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason to give up the struggle.”
Can we find not just meaning but also a moral code—something that resembles a normative ethics—in this novel? Any attempt to do so is tricky—Camus wrote a work of fiction, after all, not a moral treatise. Moreover, his early critics questioned his use of the plague as a metaphor to describe the experience of living under the occupation. They claimed that it transformed the German invasion, which was driven by a genocidal ideology, into a random and objective phenomenon. The literary theorist Roland Barthes worried that the metaphor risked reducing a historical event into an ahistorical happenstance.
Seventy years later, however, the criticism and not the chronicle (as Rieux describes his account) seems dated. Molded in that fleeting moment between the end of a world war and the start of a cold war, the novel is no more confined to the nature of Nazism than, say, George Orwell’s Animal Farm is to that of communism. For Camus, the metaphor of the plague expressed “the suffocation which we have all suffered and the atmosphere of threat and exile in which we all lived.” While the causes of oppression vary, plagues are a recurrent feature of the human condition. Nevertheless, as Rieux notes, “we somehow find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.”
Recent events on both sides of the Atlantic reveal that impulsive and irrational leaders, who inspire blind adoration or sheer cravenness on the part of their followers, are hardly specific to totalitarian societies. Camus’s novel explores some of the available responses to the affliction in today’s embattled democracies.
The first order of response is descriptive. Though shaken by the implications, Rieux accepts the math: the incidence of deaths plus the nature of the symptoms equals the plague. He has no choice but to accept this conclusion, because his task is “a matter of lucidly recognizing what had to be recognized.”
Camus’s novel explores some of the available responses to the affliction in today’s embattled democracies.
Similarly, Tarrou insists on clear and simple language. He recounts to Rieux a pivotal episode in his life when he heard his father, a state prosecutor, try a case. The young Tarrou studied the accused man: the peculiar twist to his tie, the owlish expression on his face, the bitten fingernails of one hand. Ablaze in a red court gown, Tarrou’s father rose to demand the death penalty, unspooling long and empty phrases that transformed the man into an abstraction. Marked by this experience, Tarrou concluded that the good person is one who “has the fewest lapses of attention,” not just to others but also to language. “All of our troubles,” he insists, “spring from our failure to use plain, clear-cut language.”
Prescription follows on the heels of description. Just as speaking clearly is a moral act, so too is seeing clearly. In turn, repressing one’s own concerns in order to recognize the concerns of others—to give them your full attention—cannot but lead to acting on their behalf. As one admirer of Camus, Iris Murdoch, insisted, to see the world with such clarity means that when the moment arrives to make a moral choice, the decision is already made.
While he worked on The Plague, Camus lived on the outskirts of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Under the guidance of its pastor, André Trocmé, this mostly Protestant village saved the lives of more than 3,000 Jewish refugees during the war. At one point, a German officer asked the pastor for the location of the town’s Jews. Trocmé’s response exemplified the move from seeing to doing: “We do not know what a Jew is. We know only men.” While Camus never revealed what he knew about Chambon, the fact that the village’s doctor was named Rioux was perhaps not incidental.
In the novel, Rieux ultimately remarks that the plague revealed itself “as what it really was; that is, the concern of all.” The decision to fight the plague was no more admirable, and no less logical, than teaching that two plus two equals four. Such an act is rendered laudable only when those in power insist that two plus two equals five. Even in such cases, Rieux insists that not heroism but something quite ordinary drives those who resist: decency. When asked what he means, Rieux replies, “In my case it consists in doing my job.”
This idea—that the better part of human decency lies in remaining faithful to one’s duties—“may make some people smile,” Rieux concedes. Two generations later, yet more people will likely smile, even smirk, at the notion. Camus was painfully aware of this fact. In the midst of French Algeria’s war of independence, he wrote in his journal: “The values I ought to defend are average values. This requires a talent so spare and unadorned that I doubt I have it.”
When his stubborn effort to defend these values fell short, Camus lapsed into silence and never again spoke publicly about the war. Like Rieux, however, Camus privately continued to “do his job,” repeatedly trying to dissuade French authorities from executing Algerian prisoners. Like Rieux in his battle against death, Camus met with defeat: all of the prisoners he sought to save were guillotined.
Literature does not offer practical lessons on how to live our lives, at least if it is truly literature. We should not, as a result, look to The Plague as a guide for action or to the plague as a metaphor for all purposes. But literature, at least when it is truly literature, offers insights into how other lives have been lived. These insights can, in turn, cast light on how we have invested—or failed to invest—lasting meaning in our own lives.
At the novel’s end, Rieux reflects on the nature of plague: namely, that the “bacillus never dies or disappears for good.” Just so. Rieux does not question the importance of his actions during the plague, but he also does not question the sobering limits of those same actions. For those battling today against the plagues of nationalism and irrationalism, we should remember his greatest insight: while hope might well be foolish, despair is even more so.
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