Why We Need to be Eternally Vigilant
As we slog through the Covid-19 pandemic, Albert Camus’s The Plague is back in the news, a novel about an epidemic spreading across the French Algerian city of Oran.
I have a hard-cover, Modern Library edition, list price $2.95, given to me by my girlfriend when I was in my twenties. At the time, being rash and impetuous, I found the book boring. Now, 50 years later, I have reread it.
As a 74-year-old man, my sentiments lie with what Stephen Spender wrote in a New York Times Book Review in 1948, when the book was first published. He would say I had completely missed the point if I expected a flashy, spellbinding novel.
According to Spender, The Plague is, first and foremost, a parable and a sermon, “of such importance for our time that to dismiss it in the name of artistic criticism would be to blaspheme against the human spirit.”1 It’s a message we desperately need to hear today!
At the beginning of Camus’s novel, the people of Oran ignored or minimized the plague, as some of us today are doing with Covid. But the bubonic plague was so deadly and the suffering so hideous, folks soon meekly fell into line, following procedures familiar to us today: sheltering in place, wearing marks, quarantining those exposed.
The populace also complied because the reality of the plague was visceral, oozing corpses dead in the street, as opposed to empty words on mass media. The novel’s narrator ponders the nature of the thirty or so big plagues in history that have undoubtedly caused at least one hundred million deaths.
“But what is a hundred million dead? When you go to war, you hardly know what a dead man is. And since a dead man has weight only if he has been seen dead, a hundred million corpses sown throughout history are only a smoke in the imagination.2
One of my patients who voted for Trump "to shake things up," represented this attitude. He believed that Covid-19 was a total hoax until his neighbor died from it. Camus understood, “Our fellow citizens in this regard were like everyone else… they did not believe in the plagues. The scourge is not on a human scale, so we tell ourselves that the scourge is unreal, it's a bad dream that will pass. But it does not always pass.3”
In fact, it will never pass because Camus's plague is a metaphor of many layers.
Camus tells us not to fool ourselves: the plague is always with us, forever lurking, whether it is pestilence, war, or humankind’s thoughtless predisposition to inflict pain on each other– now accelerated by viruses spread on social media.
“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 is natural is the microbe. All the rest – health, integrity, purity(if you like)– is a product of the human will of a vigilance that man must never falter.4”
And what does this vigilance require? “Take the present seriously and live into it as deeply as you can5,” as Episcopal priest, Nancy Taylor declared in a recent sermon.
The selfless Doctor Rieux, the narrator in Camus's novel – a saint, in my eyes, although he is not a religious man – is an embodiment of this perennial wisdom: getting up each morning, caring for all his patients, with no ego or expectations other than the necessity of doing his best. That’s what transcendence is to Camus: Going beyond yourself to do what needs to be done: Taking action, putting your feet on the ground.
Doing what needs to be done was Obama’s message in his speech at the Democratic National Convention: “I am also asking you to believe in your own ability — to embrace your own responsibility as citizens — to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure.6”
That’s my central takeaway from rereading The Plague: Everything we have that is good and truly human “is a product of the human will of a vigilance that man must never falter.7”
2 Camus, Albert. The plague (p. 19). Kindle Edition.
3 Camus, Albert. The plague (pp. 18-19). Kindle Edition.
4 The Plague by Camus: Modern Library Edition ©1948 by Stuart Gilbert . p 229
7 The Plague by Camus: Modern Library Edition ©1948 by Stuart Gilbert . p 219