“Human beings travel side by side for years,” writes Antoine de Saint-Exupery in Wind, Sand and Stars, “locked up in their own silence or exchanging words of little substance. Until danger comes. Then they stand shoulder to shoulder. They discover that they belong to the same community.” Perhaps above all, disasters found communities: The Holocaust, World War II in France, 9/11, today throughout our world.
Albert Camus felt this deeply. In July 1942, when his doctor told him that he had tuberculosis in both lungs, he went to the mountains in south-central France to spend the winter. In October, his wife, Francine, went back to Oran, their home in Algeria, to resume teaching.
Albert was to follow shortly. On Nov. 7, however, the Allies invaded North Africa, and four days later, the Germans, fearful of an Allied invasion through the south, descended to occupy the formerly Vichy-controlled zone of France.
“November 11th. Like rats,” Camus wrote in his diary. He was trapped.
Camus would remain in those mountains until the latter part of 1943, when he moved to Paris. During that time, he would write the bulk of his novel, The Plague, that he had begun in Algeria.
In that novel, the plague would become synonymous with exile, separation, isolation. One of the characters, Rambert, whom Camus claimed he felt the closest to, is a journalist trapped in the city when the gates are definitively closed. He tries everything to escape, but when he finally has the opportunity to do so, he decides to stay: “I know that I belong here whether I want it or not. This business is everybody’s business.”
Rambert joined the “sanitary squads” fighting the plague and Camus joined the Resistance.
At the literal level, The Plague is the story of a fictional outbreak of the disease in the city of Oran, while more generally, it is about the human condition: “Each of us has the plague.” “What’s natural is the microbe.” “What does the plague mean?” “Just life; no more than that.”
I am focusing on The Plague as an allegory of the German Occupation of France: 1940-1944 because recent op-eds on Camus and the coronavirus have specifically denied it (The New York Times on March 19 and the Los Angeles on March 23). But it is impossible to miss: The date of the outbreak is 194-; the author refers to “the brutal invasion of the disease” and there are numerous allusions to wartime conditions in France; the hoarding of foodstuffs, the requisitioning of schools, the reruns of old films, the black market, the rationing of gasoline, the reduction in the use of electricity, even the treatment of foreign Jews “in the isolation camps” and several references to “crematorium [ovens].”
Today we too have experienced isolation and a heightened sense of community. But technology has developed to such an extent that we are not nearly as isolated from loved ones as were those trapped inside France during the Occupation. We may not be able to be with those we love but we are able to speak with them every day and even spend time with them, seeing and talking with them, on Facetime or other devices. In this respect, comparatively speaking, we have much to be grateful for.
More than anything, what brings me back to Camus’ novel during our current pandemic is the simple, ordinary morality that he delineates throughout the text. There is no heroism here, just ordinary people behaving in a decent manner, making “small daily efforts” not to infect others: Fighting the plague by doing one’s job, thinking of others, or, as the nonviolent character Tarrou explains it, “try at least not to propagate the microbe deliberately.”
As in our situation, Camus’ plague has its deniers, its leaders dragging their feet, its hoarders, and its profiteers. But watching our health care workers risking their lives day after day, some of whom are inadequately protected, working long hospital shifts in make-shift hospitals; businesses offering free lunches to those in need; supermarket employees putting their health at risk so that the rest of us can buy groceries; the great majority of people conscientiously practicing social distancing, many of whom are delivering meals to those who cannot leave their homes; experiencing this marvelous sense of community among the exiled, I concur with the narrator, Doctor Rieux, who concludes that, in times of pestilence, what one learns is that: “There are more things to admire in human beings than to scorn.”