Albert Camus, Our Existential Epidemiologist

The author of one of the best books ever written about a plague, Albert Camus has a lot to teach us today about how to approach this faceless, inexplicable evil.


If the Ebola virus does spread in this country, it is only a matter of time before we hear that it is the will of an angry God bent on punishing someone somewhere for some kind of sin. There’s nothing new about that: The Old Testament is a trove of stories that view plague and disease as penalties for bad behavior. Go ask Pharaoh.

As late as the 18th century, writers such as Daniel Defoe were still arguing that plague was divine punishment. And even in more recent and more secular centuries, the idea persisted in literature and the world at large that widespread disease such as the Black Death was, if not divinely ordained, certainly no less than the very incarnation of evil.

Then there is Albert Camus. Two years after the end of World War II, he published The Plague, a novel in which an epidemic of the Black Death consumes the Algerian port city of Oran. Memories of Vichy France and collaboration with the Nazis were still fresh when the novel appeared (and they weren’t even memories when Camus began writing—they were actualities). So plainly faceless malignity was much on his mind when he wrote this book. But the thing to note is that aside from observing in the novel’s opening pages that Oran’s population is at first indifferent to the danger, and then hysterical as the death toll mounts, Camus is not much interested in blaming the victims.

Based on the evidence in his notebooks, Camus assiduously studied the literature of plague, from Thucydides to Boccaccio to Artaud and certainly the Bible. But always for this author, the plague is foremost a scientific fact, a sickness spread by rats and fleas that infects humans both good and bad indiscriminately. Like the white whale in Moby-Dick, a favorite novel of Camus’s, the plague is lethal but it has no rationale. It is a force as opaque as it is deadly.

Camus is not interested in explaining bubonic plague. He only cares about exploring its effect on a population and most particularly on their responses.

He concentrates on a handful of characters that includes a doctor, a bureaucrat, a criminal, a priest, and a journalist. Each of these men views the plague differently. The crook, for instance, welcomes the quarantine that comes with the epidemic because he thinks it will hide him from the authorities. The priest at first sees God’s agency behind the disease, a view that changes as the novel progresses. But by far the most complicated character, and the man through whose eyes we see most of the action, is Dr. Rieux, a man of science and healing who does all he can to save lives and hold death at bay but yet a man who emerges at the end with his humanity badly damaged.

“As [Rieux] watches the exuberant crowd on the night when [the quarantine is lifted after a year of confinement and] the gates of Oran finally open, he realizes that he will always be a prisoner of the plague,” writes Germaine Bree in her brilliant critical biography Camus. “For him the plague is, in essence, the clear inner awareness of man’s accidental and transitory presence on the earth, an awareness that is the source of all metaphysical torment, a torment which in Camus’s eyes is one of the characteristics of our time.”

Bree cautions us against thinking about any of the characters singly. They are, after all, carefully selected “types,” and to isolate them runs the risk of seeing the book as an allegory. Instead, she urges, study how people succeed or fail to connect and help each other. Tellingly, Rieux finds common ground with every character except the priest.

In a section of his notebooks where he is sketching out ideas and themes for The Plague, Camus wrote, “Medicine and religion: two functions that seem compatible. But today, when all is clear, one realizes that they are irreconcilable, and that one must choose between the relative and the absolute. ‘If I believed in God, I should not treat mankind. If I had an idea that mankind could be cured, I should not believe in God.’”

Or as Bree puts it, “Nowhere has Camus more starkly depicted his reaction to the total unintelligibility of man’s condition, nor his protestation against the amount of suffering inflicted on human bodies and human feelings. No religion, no ideology, he tells us, can justify the spectacle of the collective suffering inflicted upon man.”

Like Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, Camus’s novel was written by a man who never endured an actual plague. But he did endure tuberculosis and the Nazis, so he knew a thing or two about suffering. And what he knew he shared: that life, the here and now, is all we have, all we know, and we should hold it dear, helping each other as best we can. Or, as Dr. Rieux puts it when describing what it felt like to live under the siege of quarantine, “Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.”