Camus

I have just finished reading Albert Camus’s extraordinary book, The Plague (La Peste) as part of one of the courses I am taking at my learning-in-retirement “school.” Unfortunately, I cannot read it in his language, French, but have a masterful translation by Stuart Gilbert. I discovered a copy of the first US edition (1948) in our home library, still with a rather tattered dust jacket. Although I find that the book is complete understandable outside the flow of history, it is generally accepted that it is an allegory telling the tale of occupied France during World War II.

The heroes of this tale are very ordinary men who perform in extraordinary ways in the face of the unrelenting ravages of the plague in a place isolated from the world to prevent its spread beyond the city walls. There are many takeaways relevant to now, then, and all times to come. One is the power of love to restore human vitality when it has been decimated by extended forced separation. Another is a reference to the importance to always be on the right side of the good/evil battle. One of the central characters, Tarrou, caught by chance in the city when the gates were closed, says, “Other men will make history . . . All I can say is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims—and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence.”

Finally, Camus ends the book with a chilling, foreboding warning.

The plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely,…it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing,…it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and…perhaps the day will come when for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.

Which will it be for us, right now: instruction or misfortune? Think how closely this anticipates the banner being used by the Washington Post, “Democracy dies in darkness.”