To Watch Someone Die: La Peste

Meaghan Emery

University of Vermont

 

With the global Covid-19 pandemic, Albert Camus’s 1947 novel La Peste has proved its lasting relevancy, not least of all because of the parallels in real and fictional responses in the face of a deadly epidemic. Just as Dr. Bernard Rieux had to overcome officials’ reluctance to identify the disease agent and announce restrictive measures to stem transmission, there has been political tampering with the medical and scientific recommendations here in the United States and elsewhere. Health officials have had to contend with the public’s and politicians’ complacency, downplaying the need to restrict “normal,” and often wealth-producing activity; and yet the disease marched on. When quarantine measures were finally put in place and temporary hospitals erected to meet the surge, social happenings and rituals stopped. Yet, in some places the response came too late. Bereaved families had to forego bedside vigils and funerals as the soaring death toll quickly outdid available cemetery plots and crematoriums. Mirroring some of the most horrific scenes in the novel, today’s mass graves replaced traditional burials in places such as Italy, New York, Iran, South Africa, and Brazil. Renewed outbreaks have brought masked technicians and medical staff into known or suspected hot spots in order to track the virus’s spread. In other places near-normal hustle and bustle in city streets and squares has resurged following hopeful reports of a flattened curve of new cases that silently threaten to multiply and, therefore, spike again. Camus recounts all of this in La Peste.

La Peste will therefore strike today’s reader as an uncanny reflection of our current experience, defined by sickness and political unrest, as many commentators have remarked. Camus’s novel soared to the top of 2020 bestseller lists for its acuity in describing the pandemic and has since lent itself to understanding the human crisis that has unfolded on American streets, in French cities, and elsewhere, notably since George Floyd’s death in late May. In response to an unforeseen, unfolding catastrophe that appears unstoppable, “I resist — therefore we are,” as Camus wrote in his 1951 essay L’Homme révolté, rings clear as a moral guide and a cure for feelings of impending doom. As philosopher Marc Crépon concluded in a recent interview, Camus’s works are strikingly relevant for their refusal of lies, servitude, and terror.[1] Historian Robert Zaretsky has since spoken of the power of the portrait of human solidarity within La Peste to convey the impetus behind mass movements to counter oppression and tyranny, with regard to the civil rights movements, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and today’s anti-racism protests.[2] Relative to our current circumstances, “plague” can be seen as a metaphor for the experience of ethnic minorities in societies where police killings have transpired, especially those that claim color blindness like France.

The experience of plague in our time illuminates Algerian writer Mouloud Feraoun’s reading of the novel seventy years ago. One of Camus’s close Algerian friends who would die at the hands of OAS assassins in March 1962, Feraoun had written in a 1951 letter to Camus that he had “understood [La Peste] like he had never understood other [books].” Although Feraoun expresses regret over the absence of indigenous Algerians and the description of Oran as “nothing more than an ordinary French department,” his reaction underscores the power of the novel to convey the human condition within an experience of injustice: specifically, severe restrictions and forced confinement punctuated by the struggle for freedom in a world of pestiférés, people sick with the plague, or, as defined in the novel, officially sanctioned murder.[3]

More than the disease, the meaning of La Peste grows from the narrative’s description of the human condition within a plague-stricken city — in this case, Oran, French Algeria, sometime in the 1940s. The novel introduces the reader to a group of people who come together out of their shared resistance against an illness that reaches epidemic proportions due to the government’s initial reluctance to act. The narrator, revealed to be a physician at the novel’s conclusion, Dr. Bernard Rieux, chronicles his and his fellow citizens’ efforts to stop the spread of the disease despite the delayed response of the authorities. He is joined by an epidemiologist, Dr. Castel, whose careful work consists of developing a serum, and sanitation teams organized by Jean Tarrou, a visitor to the city with a history of past political engagement. The cast of characters also includes Joseph Grand, a municipal employee who sets to work tracking the number of cases and providing statistical analysis. Raymond Rambert is a journalist on assignment from Paris to write a report on the living conditions of Arabs. He joins Tarrou’s group of volunteers while at the same time planning his escape in order to regain Paris and be reunited with his lover. Finally, like Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest, and the conservative Judge Othon, Rambert fully engages on the front lines of the illness, declaring, “I know that I belong here whether I want it or not.”[4] The narrative’s focus is not on their failure to prevent mass death, in spite of Drs. Rieux’s and Castel’s best efforts, but rather on the hard work of collective resistance, requiring endurance, grit, and a methodical and principled determination to save lives and stamp out the disease, a Sisyphean task that brings camaraderie and meaning to their lives. In the end, these efforts succeed, but, as Dr. Rieux warns, the plague bacterium lies dormant and threatens to reappear unannounced.

The setting of the story in Oran, Algeria, which increasingly resembles a police state after city officials announce a lockdown, is rightly a subject of inquiry. While Nazism, “the brown plague,” has long been considered Camus’s source of inspiration for La Peste, the obvious connections to the colonial setting cannot be ignored. Importantly, when La Peste was published, two years after the Sétif and Guelma massacres on May 8-13, 1945, the memories of the state’s harsh military repression of the nascent nationalist uprising in Algeria were still fresh. Through his work as a journalist, Camus had condemned France for its slowness to extend democratic rights to indigenous Algerians and justified their anger. Native Algerians were feeling painfully deceived due to continued political disenfranchisement. Their status is mirrored by their absence from the novel. Readers who have vainly sought a clear portrait of occupied France have likewise noted that no Jews appear in La Peste. Given this, it is important to consider La Peste as a universal tale, which explains how it could speak so clearly to someone like Feraoun whose daily experience was anti-Arab racism and inequality at the time of its publication.

Another source of disappointment for historically astute readers has been the lack of a human agent behind the plague. However, when understood as a malignant ideology legitimizing violence and murder, one sees that the plague bacterium resides in us all, even the most morally upright. In a scene that conveys the crux of this human predicament, when they are long into the struggle to gain an upper hand over the disease, Tarrou, who heads the public health teams of volunteers, confides in Rieux about his past as a political agitator. Out of spite for his father, a judge who had sent convicted men to their deaths, and with the goal of abolishing capital punishment, Tarrou had as a young man joined a group that, in the name of this goal, had itself sentenced people to death.

     

As time went on I merely learned that even those who were better than the rest could not keep themselves nowadays from killing or letting others kill, because such is the logic by which they live; and that we can’t stir a finger in this world without the risk of bringing death to somebody. Yes, I’ve been ashamed ever since; I have realized that we all have plague, and I have lost my peace. And today I am still trying to find it; still trying to understand all those others and not to be the mortal enemy of anyone. I only know that one must do what one can to cease being plague-stricken, and that’s the only way in which we can hope for some peace or, failing that, a decent death. (252)

As Tarrou lays out his story and his personal philosophy, he develops the portrait of the “plague-stricken” society, from the “most eminent,” the judges in red robes, or those who make the weightiest of decisions, to the “less eminent” [“les petits pestiférés”], to “decent folks,” for whom “their peace of mind is more important than a human life.” (251) In order to find respite from this false peace, he decided not to “join forces with the pestilences” but to “take the victims’ side.” (254)

“The logic by which they live” had made even decent people complicit with a system maintained by all means, including murder and death. It is this logic with which Camus took issue through his work as a journalist, his advocacy for condemned prisoners, and his fiction and essays. In 1945, the year that French existentialism made its entry on the world scene, Camus famously said that he was not a philosopher. “I don’t believe sufficiently in reason to believe in a system. What interests me is knowing how to behave.”[5] This statement allows us to distinguish Camus’s specific field of philosophical ethics from Hegelian or Sartrean philosophy, a “philosophy of systems,” notes philosopher Marylin Maeso.[6] Just as he denounced the existentialists’ embrace of the Marxist dialectic in his 1951 essay L’Homme révolté, Camus condemned the one-party system and was critical of the courts. As a journalist in French Algeria, he had denounced the justice system, which meted out different sentences based on separate penal codes for the European and indigenous populations. He was furthermore actively opposed to capital punishment. In general, Camus believed that any system that justifies state-sanctioned murder was prone to dehumanize.

“Revolt,” which we see in the novel’s characterizations, is a human reaction against and refusal of dehumanization and injustice, including systemic wrongs. Furthermore, in Camus’s formulation, it is a call for solidarity and dialogue for the purpose of reenvisioning society. In one of the more wrenching scenes in the novel, the scene of young Philippe Othon’s death, Rieux’s angry outburst at Father Paneloux’s call to “love what we cannot understand,” including an innocent child’s torture and death in the absence of an effective serum, finally opens Paneloux’s eyes to the unbearable cruelty of the disease. (218) Plague is not divine punishment but an “evil” when it strikes the innocent, the priest tells his congregated parishioners in his second sermon. (223) The difference between the two sermons marks the personal journey of a man, God’s servant, following his first experience of watching someone die an unjust death.

We are seeing such collective manifestations that transcend socio-economic, cultural, and intellectual barriers today, particularly salient in demonstrations against racism and police violence sparked by George Floyd’s murder in the U.S. city of Minneapolis and the spread of protests across American towns and cities beginning on May 26, 2020. They have served to channel anger over the higher infection rate among Black and brown populations, due to the increased risk of exposure in certain employment sectors and other environmental factors linked to housing and economic opportunity. The result was a full-throated criticism of the logic underpinning societies sick with exploitative capitalism, racism, violence, and murder. This logic has justified not only slavery, colonialism, ecological destruction, and war, but also higher arrest, incarceration, and death rates for ethnic minorities in police custody, in addition to disproportionate illness and suffering in global pandemics. In France, the rate of mortality in the department with the highest proportion of immigrants and foreigners, Seine-Saint-Denis — sixty times higher than the country as a whole — reflects the same pattern. With the disproportionate toll of Covid-19 on ethnic minorities as a backdrop, the rapid-fire spread of “revolt” to France, where anti-racism protests began on June 2, has exposed unresolved cases of police violence, accompanied by revelations of prejudice in the national police. These events and instances of injustice have provided a lens through which to study the human response to human catastrophes underpinned by the logic of sanctioned murder as depicted in Camus’s work.

At first blush, it seems that the French protests demanding justice for the victims of police violence strike a different note as compared to the sanitation teams in Camus’s novel. Although Rieux stresses the equal opportunity of illness, which penetrates both the wealthy and poor neighborhoods of Oran, his narration does not fold into the chronicle stories of the plague-stricken among non-Europeans, which was cause for disappointment. In reply to Feraoun’s letter, Camus explained that “in order to feature them, one must speak of the problem that poisons the lives of us all in Algeria; I would have had to write a different book from the one I wanted to write.” Camus further expressed his feeling of inadequacy to address in novel form the “stupid hatreds that dishonor our country.”[7] Quite different from L’Étranger, in which it is assumed that the argument of self-defense can exonerate a European for the murder of an Arab, the ethnic homogeneity of the characters in La Peste sidesteps anti-Arab racism and opens the narrative’s cautionary tale to universal application. Not only did the plague bacillus come from no specified source, no one was immune to it.

Yet, in spite of the novel’s universalist message, its fundamentally humanist message of solidarity stands to resonate strongly with today’s anti-racism protesters just as it did with Feraoun in postwar Algeria. When Tarrou makes his proposal to Rieux to organize volunteers, he remarks that only additional personnel could make up for the structural deficiencies overcome by the rapid spread of the disease; and individuals of many different backgrounds answer that call. The Oran government’s initial failure to prioritize human life over the concern not to cause panic leads to more extreme policing measures as the epidemic worsens. In the face of the ensuing horror, including police shootings of terrified individuals seeking a way out of the gated city, Tarrou’s sanitation teams work to restore the sanctity of life as a value. That ordinary people, like Tarrou, Grand, and Rambert, and notables such as Rieux, Castel, Othon, and Paneloux, act with both humility and urgency and even put their lives at risk to save those stricken with plague is a moving testament to the healing powers of collective resistance as an expression of human empathy. Similarly, an astute observer of the U.S. protests prescribed the collective outpouring of grievances and demands as “necessary medicine.”[8] In a senseless world where a Black life can be snuffed out without public outcry, the protests here and abroad have provided relief from injustice and drawn attention to needed reforms in healthcare and policing. They have provided meaning in opposition to complacency or authoritarianism and in service to democracy. As manifestations of human solidarity designed to cure societal failings, Tarrou’s sanitation teams in the novel and current protests are very much alike.

La Peste also shares with today’s protests the intrinsic goal of testifying to events that had happened and to “what had had to be done . . . by all who, . . . refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.” (308) Many French commentators have argued that, because there is no history of slavery in mainland France, systemic racism is absent from the national police. However, recent eyewitness reports and video recordings raise evidence that contradict that narrative and give credence to the charges of racism made by families of victims of police violence. The protests against police violence have been vigorous in France, where tens of thousands of people turned out in Paris and other cities, first led by Assa Traoré on June 2, 2020. Women, and particularly sisters of young men murdered by the police, have taken the lead, including Assa Traouré, sister of Adama, who died in police custody in 2016, and Ramata Dieng, whose brother Lamine died in 2007. Although the cause of Adama Traouré’s death had never been verified, the police report notes that he died on the ground, held under the weight of three gendarmes. “I can’t breathe,” George Floyd’s dying plea to his torturer executioners, was adopted by these protesters as “Je n’arrive plus à respirer.”[9]

Floyd’s death by asphyxiation has become a worldwide flashpoint, his dying words transformed into a slogan of protest against police brutality and symbol of longstanding oppression. The French language makes the link all the more clear since the noun oppression signifies both the violence and abuse of authority of opprimer and the depression or asphyxiation of oppresser. In a tragically simple and limpid phrase, “I can’t breathe” conveys not only the acute oppression experienced by victims of police brutality but also the despondency felt by victims of racism, denied certain rights and privileges and often relegated to living and working conditions that can lead to premature death.

The oppressive regime of the plague, when taken as a metaphor for a murderous, authoritarian ideology, could easily resonate with someone subject to segregated housing, restricted mobility, police brutality, and discrimination in education and employment. The novel’s description of the kind of “profound discouragement” (“abattement”) that had taken hold of the city of Oran, in 1940s Algeria, underscores the feeling of oppression, suffered in solitude. From time to time, sounds of suffering broke the heavy silence enveloping the quarantined city:

In some houses groans could be heard. At first, when that happened, people often gathered outside and listened, prompted by curiosity or compassion. But under the prolonged strain it seemed that hearts had toughened; people lived beside those groans or walked past them as though they had become the normal speech of men. (111)

This description of the closed homes on the outskirts of the city is juxtaposed with the violence witnessed at the guarded exits where stirrings of rebellion were squelched by armed police:

As a result of the fighting at the gates, in the course of which the police had had to use their revolvers, a spirit of lawlessness was abroad. Some had certainly been wounded in these brushes with the police, but in the town, where, owing to the combined influences of heat and terror, everything was exaggerated, there was talk of deaths. One thing, anyhow, was certain; discontent was on the increase and, fearing worse to come, the local officials debated lengthily on the measures to be taken if the populace, goaded to frenzy by the epidemic, got completely out of hand [“se serait portée à la révolte”]. (111-2)

The significance of the word “revolt” in the original French text is lost in the English translation. The populace, reacting against the enforced curfew, patrolling police brigades, and sharp bursts of gunfire as stray dogs and cats were eliminated, was also struggling to breathe as indicated by a phrase not included in the translation. After the brigade’s passage, “a wary and heavy silence descended on the threatened city” (“un lourd silence méfiant retombait sur la ville menacée”).

As a result, it could be said that La Peste recounts the assault on truth and justice in French Algeria. The novel’s ending appears to acknowledge this. Through the dual act of treating the sick and writing a chronicle, Rieux is deeply engaged in effecting change. At the conclusion of the story, however, he acknowledges that his account will not necessarily be read by his contemporaries but perhaps by future generations, as though the times were not ripe for the truth — an observation shared by both American and French journalists covering police brutality in 2020. Did Feraoun identify more with this grim undercurrent of the novel? Or was it the show of human solidarity promising to bring about change? And, a question for us and our contemporaries, with what line of thought might today’s protesters identify?

Albert Camus, The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert (Vintage International, 1991), originally published as La Peste, (Paris: Gallimard, 1947).

NOTES

  1. Marc Crépon, Interview by Laure Adler, “L’Étranger avec Albert Camus, episode 4,” (L’heure bleue, France Inter, 18 June 2020), https://www.franceinter.fr/emissions/l-heure-bleue/l-heure-bleue-18-juin-2020. Accessed 7 July 2020.
  2. Robert Zaretsky, Interview by Sean Illing, “What Camus’s The Plague can teach us about the Covid-19 pandemic: A Conversation about solidarity and revolt in Camus’s famous novel,” (Vox, 22 July 2020), https://www.vox.com/future-perfect-podcast/2020/7/22/21328295/albert-camus-the-plague-covid-19-robert-zaretsky. Accessed 22 July 2020.
  3. Mouloud Feraoun, cited by Hamid Nacer-Khodja, Albert Camus, Jean Sénac ou le fils rebelle (EDIF, 2000), 116, n.7.
  4. Albert Camus, The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert (Vintage International, 1991), 209.
  5. Camus cited by Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: une vie (Gallimard, 1996), 746.
  6. Marylin Maeso, Interview by Pascal Claude, “Que nous dit aujourd’hui ‘La Peste’ de Camus ?” Et Dieu dans tout ça? (La Première, RTBF, 27 May 2020), https://www.rtbf.be/lapremiere/emissions/detail_et-dieu-dans-tout-ca/accueil/article_que-nous-dit-aujourd-hui-la-peste-de-camus?id=10508465&programId=180. Accessed 30 June 2020.
  7. Nacer-Khodja, op. cit.
  8. See Steven McDonald, “As a Black Doctor, Should I Choose My Skin Color or My Health?” (New York Times, 14 June 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/14/opinion/coronavirus-george-floyd-protests.html?campaign_id=2&emc=edit_th_20200615&instance_id=19394&nl=todaysheadlines&regi_id=36560394&segment_id=30915&user_id=ad220e7e9bfd8523f6cfe9e14bd4081a. Accessed 14 June 2020.
  9. “Rassemblement à Paris contre les violences policières.” (Le Monde with AFP, 20 June 2020), https://www.lemonde.fr/police-justice/article/2020/06/20/rassemblements-a-paris-contre-les-violences-policieres-et-pour-la-regularisation-des-sans-papiers_6043589_1653578.html. Accessed 20 June 2020.
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