“Camus believes that the deadly crisis will bring out the best qualities in people, that endurance and courage will prevail.”

From a Wall Street Journal story by Jeffrey Meyers about Albert Camus’s book The Plague titled “An Allegory, But Also a Guide”:

The world-wide Spanish influenza epidemic that began in 1918 killed about 50 million people, more than all the combined deaths in World War I. The current coronavirus epidemic is just as frightening. Official reports convey unpreparedness rather than reassurance. No one knows how long it will last or how much damage it will cause. The disease incites panic in the streets and in the shops, and infects us with fear and insecurity.

For this reason, it’s the right time to consider the brave wisdom of Albert Camus’s “The Plague” (1947). Camus (1913-1960) was a French-Algerian novelist, dramatist, actor, essayist and Existential philosopher. Handsome in his Bogartian trench coat, he won the Nobel Prize in 1957 and died—like James Dean—in a car crash. “The Plague,” his most ambitious novel, has a lucid style, ironic tone, complex characters, riveting plot, emotional intensity and exalted themes. . . .

“The Plague” is a vivid allegory of the then-recent Nazi occupation of wartime France. The mass burials and crematoria recall the concentration and extermination camps; there’s an organized Resistance to the plague and the invading bubonic rats finally retreat. But the novel is also a grim account of the threatening contagion. It shows how desperate citizens fight the disease that ravages the city, how they respond to the quarantine and lack of a cure during the overwhelming disaster. . . .

“The Plague” portrays people’s sense of unreality and lack of readiness; their denial and despair, suffering and isolation, selfishness and sacrifice, indifference and affirmation, hatred and sympathy; the power of love and the will to prevail in philosophically absurd conditions. The selfless hero Dr. Rieux, who fights the plague and narrates the book, is outraged by the anguish of the victims and expresses the transcendent theme of love. He believes in the collective destiny of human beings and promises a better life after the plague disappears.

Like his hero, Camus gives us hope. He believes that the deadly crisis will encourage solidarity and bring out the best qualities in people, that endurance and courage will prevail. Camus writes, “No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague” and the emotions of exile and deprivation, fear and revolt. The chastened people return to normal life with a clearer vision and deeper understanding of the precarious nature of human existence. He concludes, “what we learn in time of pestilence is that there are more things to admire in men than to despise. . . . By refusing to bow down to pestilence, they strive their utmost to be healers.”

Jeffrey Meyers, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has recently published books on Thomas Mann, Robert Lowell and the realist painter Alex Colville.

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