With Manila entering a rather militaristic community quarantine, I find my Saturday morning suddenly freed up. Naturally my first instinct is to pick up a book from my personal library and while away the hours perched on the bed with a hot cup of coffee. And to think we’re supposed to be in a state of emergency.
I went with Albert Camus’s 1947 masterpiece, The Plague, in a Penguin Classics translation by Stuart Gilbert (Penguin Books, 1960). I’d read some of the novel previously back in college for a class on world philosophy, and I thought the time couldn’t be more ripe for a second, more immersive reading. As of writing I’m at the sixth section of Part One, wtih the epidemic taking hold of the town. Outside, more than thirty new cases of COVID-19 infections have just been reported. So we read on.
Though told by an as yet unnamed narrator, supposedly drawing from his own observations and from the diaries of an outsider who had just arrived at the town in time for the outbreak, much of the novel’s first part centers on the experiences of the town doctor Rieux. On the first day Rieux finds a dead rat outside his office, something his door porter, Michel dismisses as a prank being pulled off by some bored youngsters. Michel even picks up the rat with his bare hand and parades it around in an attempt to draw out the culprits. But soon it becomes clear that the rat is less a prank than a portent of misfortune about to break: in the course of days, 8,000 more rats emerge from the sewers to die out on the streets. Then Michel himself dies, the first of a constant wave of patients suddenly coming under a mysterious strain of illness, characterized by “stupor and extreme prostration, buboes, intense thirst, delirium, dark blotches on the body, internal dissolution… and death ensues as the result of the slightest movement.”
Camus’s novel takes place in 1940s Algeria, during which communication among health professionals such as Rieux and his colleagues happen mostly via calls and personal meetings, and both medical science and technology are at their infancy. When Rieux first comes in to see a terribly ill Michel, whose temperature has shot up to 103, with “ganglions on his neck… limbs… swollen… two black patches… developing on his thighs”, despite complaints of the disease burning him up inside and tear-suffused headaches, Rieux’s recommendation to the porter’s wife is little more than to keep him on a “light diet”. Rieux and his colleagues, despite observing similar cases sprouting up across town one after the other, continue to reject the possibility of a plague. All the while the death toll rises right under their noses, until the town eventually has no choice left but to enter a state-enforced quarantine.
It appears that the distance of nearly a century, even with all the advancement that science and technology have given us, and after not a few more experiences with pestilences like the 2003 SARS epidemic and the 2009 influenza pandemic, not a whole lot has changed in how we think about and respond to disease outbreaks, and this is why I think Camus’s novel continues to be relevant today. In one of the novel’s most striking passages, given early on in section 5 of Part One, Camus writes:
“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe the 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.”
Probably no other novelist can have such a strong case for philosophical relevance, in light of, say, the thousand suddenly dead in Italy after being infected with the 2019 coronavirus, or the break in containment in South Korea after Patient 31 unwittingly and right under the nose of authorities, infected more than a thousand other people, or, to be closer to home, the utter lack of clear protocol on the part of the Philippine government for containing the disease other than a heavily militarized lockdown that, for some reason, still allows passage to and from the metro for workers (who are probably the 90% of people who would even be travelling in the first place given the state of things), with questions of mass testing, sanitation, and support infrastructure for health services still pretty much in the grey.
And in an uncanny case of a very old book directly commenting on a very recent event, I couldn’t help but think of Elon Musk tweeting about the coronavirus panic when I reached this terrifyingly lucid sentence:
“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 wrapped up in ourselves.”
How must we view the pandemic, and the panic that comes packaged with it? The panic might well be stupid, but it’s a serious and very real condition borne on the one hand by a startlingly fast-spreading infection and a broken system on the other. It should nevertheless be taken seriously – by both the people and their governments. To continue to deny the gravity of the situation might be about as dangerous as to be totally overwhelmed by it.
Camus himself seems to be outlining his own recommendation for facing this and other life threatening conditions natural to man – and of course one cannot help but read The Plague into the fabric of its author’s philosophy – by placing a character like Rieux at the novel’s beating heart. When the reality of the plague finally hits Rieux, he finally comes to think more seriously about the condition the town is in. The doctor finally concludes with this:
“Still, [the plague] could stop, or be stopped. It was only a matter of lucidly recognizing what had to be recognized; of dispelling extraneous shadows and doing what needed to be done. Then the plague would come to an end… The thing was to do your job as it should be done.”
I’ll be writing more about The Plague in light of the coronavirus outbreak in subsequent posts as I make my way through the novel. In the meantime, there are still a number of things that I’ll have to attend to. Of maladies and hysteria man has many, but life still goes on.
(Featured image from the Cambridge Blog.)