Reading ‘The Plague’ by Albert Camus feels relatable today
When COVID-19 seems like a never ending defeat
In the midst of COVID-19, each of us right now has a different way of expressing our emotions . But as I read the book — The Plague, it almost felt like my emotions (rather, our emotions) were curated and then articulated in the words of Albert Camus.
In this poignant book by Camus, you’ll read a story of a fictional town that experiences a plague and relate with various types of characters and their reactions to being isolated from the world in quarantine. One can hardly believe that it was written in 1947 and we can still relate to this existential classic. Camus has beautifully explored many philosophical themes of humanism, mortality, spiritualism and many more through a town at peace confronted with a deadly plague, suddenly re-evaluating their lives and living under the terror of knowing they could catch it at any moment.
Down below, I have tried to quote excerpts from the book that I found surprisingly relatable during various stages we have been living in, during the pandemic.
- Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.
- When a war breaks out, people say: “It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.” But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves; in other words we are humanists: we disbelieve in pestilences.
- A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.
- Figures floated across his memory, and he recalled that some thirty or so great plagues known to history had accounted for nearly a hundred million deaths. But what are a hundred million deaths? When one has served in a war, one hardly knows what a dead man is, after a while. And since a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead, a hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination. The doctor remembered the plague at Constantinople that, according to Procopius, caused ten thousands deaths in a single day. Ten thousand dead made about five times the audience in a biggish cinema. Yes, that was how it should be done. You should collect the people at the exits of five-picture-houses, you should lead them to a city square and make them die in heaps if you wanted to get a clear notion of what it means.
- And then there was always something missing in their life. Hostile to the past, impatient of the present, and cheated of the future, we were much like those whom men’s justice, or hatred forces to live behind prison bars.
- Some of our fellow citizens became subject to a curious kind of servitude, which put them at the mercy of the sun and the rain. Looking at them, you had an impression that for the first time in their lives they were becoming, as some would say, weather-conscious. A burst of sunshine was enough to make them seem delighted with the world, while rainy days gave a dark cast to their faces and their mood. A few weeks before, they had been free of this absurd subservience to the weather, because they had not to face life alone; the person they were living with held, to some extent, the foreground of their little world. But from now on it was different; they seemed at the mercy of the sky’s caprices, in other words, suffered and hoped irrationally.
- For in the heat and stillness, and for the troubled hearts of our townsfolk, anything, even the least sound, had a heightened significance. The varying aspects of the sky, the very smells rising from the soil that mark each change of season, were taken notice of for the first time.
- And for every one of us the ruling emotion of his life, which he had imagined he knew through and through, took on a new aspect. … Sons who had lived beside their mothers barely giving them a glance fell to picturing with poignant regret each wrinkle in the absent face that memory cast up on the screen. 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 two-fold; our own to start with, and then the imagined suffering of the absent one, son, mother, wife, or mistress.
- The cars are now the only means of transport; a queer thing is how the passengers all try to keep their backs turned to their neighbors, twisting themselves into grotesque attitudes in the attempt, the idea being, of course, to avoid contagion. At every stop a cataract of men and women is disgorged, each in haste to put a safe distance between himself or herself and the rest.
The Habit of Despair
- None of us was capable any longer of an exalted emotion; all had trite, monotonous feelings. “It’s high time it stopped,” people would say, because in time of calamity the obvious thing is to desire its end, and in fact they wanted it to end. But when making such remarks, we felt none of the passionate yearning or fierce resentment of the early phase; we merely voiced one of the few clear ideas that lingered in the twilight of our minds.
- Our fellow citizens had fallen into line, adapted themselves, as people say, to the situation, because there was no way of doing otherwise. Naturally they retained the attitudes of sadness and suffering, but they had ceased to feel their sting. Indeed, to some, Dr. Rieux among them, this precisely was the most disheartening thing: that the habit of despair is worse than despair itself.
- Without memories, without hope, they lived for the moment only. Indeed, the here and now had come to mean everything to them. For there is no denying that the plague had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship. Naturally enough, since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left us but a series of present moments.
- Each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest, health, integrity, purity (if you like), is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter.
- The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill.
- All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.
The excerpts mentioned above are the author’s work and my intention was to provide a vent to our collective emotions through this piece of Art. I strongly recommend reading this timeless masterpiece in which Camus has not only made the story relatable to today’s times but has beautifully captured what it’s like to experience life through the mesh of decisions and reactions, successes and failures, loneliness and camaraderie.