Great Books From Different Traditions: France: Camus
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
It’s the quintessential portrait of the French intellectual: a philosopher sitting at a table in a sidewalk café on a Parisian boulevard, a cigarette hanging jauntily from his mouth. More than likely, he is discussing the absurdity of the universe with his friend. After World War II, these two philosophers might be named Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, whose philosophical and literary works provided both a scathing response to the horrors of the war just finished and a challenge to traditional views of the world that explained the prosperity of the postwar years in religious terms of punishment and reward. Sick of the indifference of the world to the forces unleashed by Nazism and other ideologies (including Christianity), Sartre and Camus sought a new way of thinking about human existence that overthrew older ways of thinking about human nature and its place in the world. Each writer argued that individuals have no essential human character—that is, we cannot define ourselves simply according to our past and the identity that we have been “given” by our families—by which their identity can be defined. The only way to live an authentic existence is to choose your own identity in the face of the inauthenticity of the world around you. Sartre and Camus came to be called existentialists because they believed that existence preceded essence; that is, the way you live your life and the choices you make in your moment-to-moment existence defines you in a fuller and more realistic way than the identity you have inherited and over which you have had no choice.
Although Sartre wrote memorable plays—his line, “Hell is other people” from No Exit, is one of the most oft-quoted slogans of existentialism—his most enduring book is his long philosophical treatise, Being and Nothingness, in which he examines the nature of being and the concept of freedom. Camus, on the other hand, wrote a series of essays on resistance (he himself was a part of the resistance movement in Algeria), rebellion, and death. His most eloquent statements of his positions, however, can be found not in his essays but in his novels such as The Stranger and The Plague. While each novel deals with the indifference of the world and an individual’s attempt to create an authentic existence in the face of such indifference, The Plague (1948) is one of the great books of the French tradition.
The novel is set in the Algerian port city of Oran, an ordinary town that is quite unexceptional. Like many other towns, it is a place where “you can get through the days there without trouble, once you have formed habits. And since habits are precisely what our town encourages, all is for the best.” Yet, soon enough, a mysterious pestilence makes its unannounced visit to the town. One evening the doctor, Rieux, ominously feels something soft under his foot and discovers that it is a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing. In a few moments he sees another rat, fur wet and blood spurting from its mouth, lurching unsteadily down the street. This ominous beginning establishes a contrast between the presence of a new and mysterious force and the dull and habitual lives of the citizens of Oran. During the course of the novel, various citizens of the town must choose how to explain and how to live in the midst of this plague.
The initial reaction to the advent of the plague is disbelief. How can such a disease come to our town? We are ordinary people, and we have nothing to deserve it. Only when the town is closed off by quarantine do the citizens realize the gravity of the situation, and even then some of them believe that the plague will be short-lived. Eventually, each person “had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.” Many finally realize that “it’s an absurd situation, but we’re all involved in it, and we’ve got to accept it as it is.” The novel focuses on a small group of the town’s citizens, including Dr. Rieux, who have banded together in “sanitary squads” to help out in the plague.
Why did the plague attack Oran? In a fiery sermon, the town priest, Father Paneloux, offers no comfort, only condemnation. He offers no sympathy for the plight of his fellow townspeople and instead preaches a hellfire and brimstone sermon that lays the existence of the plague squarely on the shoulders of the citizens. Why is the plague attacking them? God is punishing the citizens for their immorality; that’s why. Following the sermon, the citizens, hoping for a morsel of hope from their religious leader, leave the church spiritless and discouraged.
Dr. Rieux, who doesn’t believe in God, is Paneloux’s foil in the novel. In order to survive the plague, individuals must struggle together against the brutal indifference of the plague. The citizens can indeed choose to be for their fellow humans and against whatever reduces the town’s common humanity (in this case, the plague). “. . . since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?” When compared with Paneloux, who initially does not help out with the medical squad and instead waits for God to heal the town in a miraculous fashion, Rieux is heroic because he struggle s against the absurdity of the death the plague brings in solidarity with his fellow citizens. In addition, Rieux chooses moment-to-moment to exist in this absurd world, with all its risks, because it makes him free and not determined by a religious dogmatism that implies that God is punishing him for actions he did not commit and over which he has no control.
Ironically, of course, the priest Panleoux falls ill with the plague and almost dies. When he recovers, he preaches a second sermon in which he encourages solidarity against the disease. In this sermon, he includes himself as one of the afflicted. “A yet more noteworthy change was that instead of saying ‘you’ he now said ‘we’.”
Facile interpretations of Camus’s novel often try to turn in into an allegory of Nazism and its advent and attack on Europe. The plague becomes the Nazis, and the citizens of Oran become any ghetto of Jews who die in exile because of the indifference of the world around them. Yet, this is a too-easy and too-hasty reading of the novel. The plague simply represents the brutal and absurd indifference of the world against which humans must everyday fight. Any force that diminishes and humiliates humans is a plague against which individuals must struggle because many such forces are blind, ignorant, and indifferent and rob us of the possibilities for an authentic existence. Camus’ The Plague clearly stands out as one of the great books of the French tradition because of its tenacious articulation of a new philosophy and a new style.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at