With the eruption of the novel coronavirus into our lives, we have increasingly turned to Albert Camus’ novel The Plague. Not only does it still rank as the top-selling work of French literature on Amazon—Penguin rushed to reprint its edition after running out of stock in early March—but it has also been called on by countless commentators trying to make sense of the plague that continues to perplex us.
When it was published in 1947, Camus’ fictional account of a small band of men who confront a plague in the Algerian city of Oran also became a best seller. By the end of that year, the novel had sold more than 100,000 copies—a remarkable feat in a war-battered country where printing paper was as precious as paper money. Camus’ friend Nicola Chiaramonte, an Italian writer and resistance fighter, captured the reasons for the novel’s success. The public, he wrote in Partisan Review, hungered for words of “ordinary humanity and good sense.”
These were the same qualities that Camus—who went underground in 1942 and became the editor of the resistance paper Combat—saw in the men and women who risked and often lost their lives in their struggle against the German occupation. In their resistance against the inhuman force of the plague, the novel’s “ordinary” characters—doctors and drifters, clerks and correspondents—anticipate the resistance of the “ordinary” men and women we admire and applaud today. Then as now, as well, these same qualities seem anything but ordinary when those who hold extraordinary power wield it with such insouciance, indifference, or sheer inhumanity.
But as the time for resistance gives way to the time for rebuilding, Camus still remains one of our best guides. Remarkably, the very organization of his writings helps to organize our own world before, during, and after the pandemic. By the time of France’s liberation, Camus decided that the novel, essay, and play he had published during the Occupation, The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and Caligula—formed a “cycle of the absurd.” These works confronted the reality of a world “shorn of light and illusion,” a world that, despite our demand for meaning, remained resolutely silent. This silence only deepened when an entire people, believing their tomorrow would be like their yesterday, discovered under the press of Panzers and Stukas that no belief could be more absurd. The “stage set,” as Camus drily remarked, “had collapsed.”
During the Occupation, however, Camus saw that it was not enough to diagnose the absurd state of the world. As he makes clear in his second cycle, the only path to meaning is through revolt (though, crucially, not revolution). From his novel The Plague through his essay The Rebel to his play The Just Assassins, Camus returns time and again to his conviction that rebellion or resistance, which begins as an individual act, deepens with meaning when it is done for and with others. As he declared in his famous tweak of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, “I resist, therefore we are.”
Two cycles, though, were not enough. By the mid-1950s, troubled by what he believed was his unmerited fame, tormented by what he knew was the unacknowledged—at least on the left—danger of communism, and torn over what he saw as a never-ending spiral of violence in his native Algeria, Camus began to draft a third cycle. On January 4, 1960, when the car in which he was a passenger swerved off a road, slammed into a tree and killed him, he was carrying the unfinished manuscript for a novel, given the title The First Man when it was published several years later. It was Camus’ last word on the theme of the third cycle: l’amour.
When we talk of love in talking of Camus, it probably has to do with the many women he loved in and out of marriage. Love is not a quality, however, that most of us would associate with existentialism. Alienation, anxiety, aloneness—yes. But what’s love got to do with it? Or, for that matter, Camus?
Quite a bit, it turns out. In The First Man, the protagonist Jacques Cormery visits the tomb of his father, called to arms from his farm in Algeria and killed in the Battle of the Marne when his son was still an infant. Staring at the inscription’s dates, Cormery realizes with a jolt that “the man buried under that slab, who had been his father, was younger than he.” This Proustian moment leads to Cormery’s search not just for the father he never knew, but also the mother to whom he never could express his love.
Cutting to the autobiographical bone in this novel, Camus recreates his childhood in a poor working-class neighborhood of Algiers. Like Cormery’s, his family was one “where they spoke little, where no one read or wrote.” The grandmother, mother, and uncle, who all lived under the same narrow roof, were illiterate. Moreover, his mother, who worked as a housecleaner, was largely mute, while his uncle was also mostly dumb and very deaf. It was a household where words were few and feelings—apart from the brutal beatings given to Camus by the grandmother—were furtive.
Yet Camus, like Cormery, holds fast to a desperate love for his mother. In the notes found with the manuscript at the accident site—the briefcase was flung from the car at the moment of impact—Camus wrote: “And what he wanted most in the world, which was for his mother to read everything that was his life and his being, that was impossible. His love, his only love, would forever be speechless.”
This love for his silent mother also encompasses others who are silent, though not because they, like her, have lost the faculty of speech. They are, instead, the Europeans and Arabs, young and old, workers and peasants of French Algeria whom Camus calls Les Muets, or Speechless Ones.Vast political, social, and economic forces have rendered these men and women miserable and mute. The writer’s task—duty, really—is to give them their voices and work for justice. In another note, Camus exclaims: “Ah! That is what love is—love for all.”
Crucially, this love saves us from both absurdity and ourselves. In the revolt against the world’s absurd injustices and inequities, rebels can become blinded to the humanity of their oppressors and eventually forget the humanity of those they defend. This seems to be what Camus was groping toward when, shortly before the publication of The Plague, he made an enigmatic entry in his journal: “From the starting point of the absurd, it is impossible to live as a rebel without somehow finding a love that has yet to be defined.”
By the end of his short life, Camus had defined that love. It was the four-letter word for justice. In his 1957 Nobel Prize address, he declared that the writer must defend others not because of who they are, but what they are: fully human. The writer, in short, “pleads for the love of one’s neighbor.” As we shift from our resistance against this plague to our restarting of our economic and political life, Camus’s discovery is, not at all absurdly, more relevant than ever.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.