Monday, June 01, 2020

Albert Camus' La Peste / The Plague and enduring pandemics

Albert Camus (1913-1960), the French Algerian philosopher, writer, journalist and playwright, had his book La Peste / The Plague published in 1947 (French version). It is set in Oran, a Mediterranean port city in northwest Algeria.

Oran as a port city has a history of plague outbreaks with the last incidence of bubonic plague (see below) in 2003.

Camus' second wife, Francine Faure, was from Oran and they returned from France to the city in early 1941.

This is a pdf version of the novel in English.

In early 1942 a recurrence of tuberculosis, which was first diagnosed at the age of 17, forced Camus to move to his in-law's farm near the mainly Huguenot/ Protestant town of Le Chambon- sur- Lignon, a commune in the mountainous Haute-Loire department, 88 km south-west of Lyon. The remote town had been a refuge for thousands of French and foreign Jews.

Camus would continue writing La Peste at the farm but soon he would become a journalist for La Résistance.

The main character of the novel is Dr Bernard Rieux who first stumbles on a dead rat on the landing of his surgery. The number in the city would soon be in the thousands.

"I was in China for a good part of my career, and I saw some cases in Paris twenty years ago. Only no one dared to call them by their name on that occasion," an older colleague of Rieux says. "The usual taboo, of course; the public mustn't be alarmed, that wouldn't do at all. And then, as one of my colleagues said, 'It's unthinkable. Everyone knows it's ceased to appear in western Europe.' Yes, everyone knew that, except the dead men."

The narrator says:

The word "plague" had just been uttered for the first time. At this stage of the narrative, with Dr. Bernard Rieux standing at his window, the narrator may, perhaps, be allowed to justify the doctor's uncertainty and surprise, since, with very slight differences, his reaction was the same as that of the great majority of our townsfolk. Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in 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.

In fact, like our fellow citizens, Rieux was caught off his guard, and we should understand his hesitations in the light of this fact; and similarly understand how he was torn between conflicting fears and confidence. 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 much wrapped up in ourselves. In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences...Indeed, even after Dr. Rieux had admitted in his friend's company that a handful of persons, scattered about the town, had without warning died of plague, the danger still remained fantastically unreal.

In an exchange with Rambert, a journalist, Rieux says "there's one thing I must tell you: there's no question of heroism in all this. It's a matter of common decency. That's an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of righting a plague is common decency."

As for being an allegory for Nazi tyranny, Albert Camus explained that his world view was wider than the catastrophe of the Second World War, “I want to express by means of the plague the suffocation from which we all suffered and the atmosphere of threat and exile in which we lived. At the same time, I want to extend this interpretation to the notion of existence in general.”

Robert Zaretsky, author of 'A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning,' noted that "Paying particular attention to Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, he settled on the plague as his novel’s symbol and title."

The ancient Greek plague was transmitted through the port at Piraeus soon after the beginning of the Second Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) between Athens and Sparta.

According to Zaretsky, "Beyond the dozens of land and sea battles, sieges and pillages that extended across the quarter-century of war, it was the plague, Thucydides declared at the start of his work, that caused the greatest suffering. This remarkable assessment deeply impressed Camus. He adopted not just the stages of the event described by the Athenian historian but adapted Thucydides’s austere and ostensibly objective style as well. Most striking in Thucydides’s account of the plague is the speed and force with which it flattened Athenian law and tradition. The institutions of history’s greatest democracy, given such eloquent expression by Pericles in his Funeral Oration, collapsed almost immediately under the weight of this unexpected and unprecedented event.

Within days, the elaborate stage machinery of Athenian civil and political life seized up, leaving the stage to chaos. Bodies were thrown heedlessly into mass graves, families ignored the pleas of sickened relatives, temples already filled with corpses were still overrun by men and women seeking divine help, and citizens who had concluded that they had been abandoned by the gods now engaged in the most shocking and criminal forms of behaviour. In a word, anomia, or lawlessness, reigned in Athens an ancient rendition of the moral and intellectual void that so closely resembles the absurdity of our cosmos."

Thucydides on the Plague of Athens: Text & Commentary

From abject poverty to Nobel Laureate

Albert Camus is the second-youngest person to win Nobel Prize in Literature — Camus had the honour in 1957 at the age of 44, and Rudyard Kipling won in 1907 at the age of 41.

Nobel Prize speech

Camus was a French Algerian and he was 11 months old when his father, an agricultural worker, died a month after being wounded at the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914. His family moved from the coastal city of Mondavi (later renamed Dréan), near the Tunisian border, to Algiers.

Days after receiving the telegram from Stockholm, Camus wrote to his primary school teacher, "when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened." A copy of the original letter was included in the posthumous publication of Camus' unfinished autobiographical novel, Le Premier homme/ The First Man.

Camus grew up in abject poverty on rue de Lyon, Belcourt — a slum area of Algiers. His mother Catherine Hélène was partially deaf and illiterate as were most of his adult relatives. They were pied-noirs — the people of black feet, a slang term that originated in French North Africa for French and other Europeans who were born in Africa. The Camus family lived with the indigenous peoples but there was little contact between them. Catherine's parents had been Spanish immigrants and she worked as a domestic cleaner.

The expectation was that Albert and his older brother Lucien would finish their schooling at the primary level but Louis Germain, the teacher, persuaded Albert's grandmother to allow him to participate in a group of 4 children that got extra tuition to prepare them for a scholarship examination for entry to the lycée (secondary school). Camus would later study philosophy at the University of Algiers.

Camus had tried to enlist in the French Army in 1939 but was rejected because of TB and in 1940 he worked in Paris at the Paris-Soir newspaper while finishing the first draft of his novel L'Étranger/ The Stranger / The Outsider in England, in a drab hotel room in Montmartre.

In Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic by Alice Kaplan, the Yale academic noted that at the Hôtel du Poirier on the rue Ravignan, from Camus' writing table in the hotel he observed all kinds of lives, ordinary and tragic. There was drama: a woman on the floor above him threw herself out the window, onto the back courtyard. "Camus noted her dying word: 'Finally.'”

As the Germans were advancing on Paris for the second invasion in 70 years, Camus and his newspaper colleagues fled the capital city in early June. He became disillusioned with the French and their collaborationist government in the town of Vichy with 84-year old Marshal Philippe Pétain as prime minister. In a letter, he called some of his colleagues "cowards" for supporting anti-Semitic measures by the Vichy government, as servants of the Nazi regime.

It took 50 years for a French president to acknowledge without any equivocation the extent of the French state and citizens' complicity in collaboration with the Nazis in deporting some 76,000 French and foreign Jews.

“France, the homeland of the Enlightenment and of the rights of man, a land of welcome and asylum, on that day committed the irreparable,” President Jacques Chirac said on July 16, 1995, on the roundup in the Paris area of some 13,000 Jewish men, women and children, on July 16, 1942. “Breaking its word, it handed those who were under its protection over to their executioners.” France owes the victims “an everlasting debt.”

Chirac's predecessor, François Mitterrand (1916-1996) — socialist president in 1981-1995, who had been a right-wing extremist as a student — had worked for the Vichy government and he was so devoted to its chief, Marshal Pétain, that he was awarded a high decoration attesting to his loyalty.

Camus became a father of twins, Catherine and Jean, in 1945 and he praised English "heroism" during the war. "We cannot forget that not for one minute was the idea of capitulation [to the Nazis] accepted by a single Englishman."

Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) were close friends for a time and they both had several women friends. They were both leftists but Sartre was an admirer of Stalin while Camus rejected violence.

L'Étranger/ The Stranger had been published in 1942 as was Camus' philosophical essay, Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus).

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus suggests that the absurdity of man's life is similar to that of Sisyphus, a ruler in Greek mythology who was condemned by angry gods to repeat forever the same empty task of pushing a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll down again.

The essay begins: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy."

It has been argued that Camus was seeking a way of overcoming nihilism, and La Peste/ The Plague "is a symbolical account of the fight against an epidemic in Oran by characters whose importance lies less in the (doubtful) success with which they oppose the epidemic than in their determined assertion of human dignity and fraternity."

In 1951 the book-length essay L'Homme révolté / The Rebel was published and Sartre was disgusted.

Camus failed to broker peace between France and Algeria and in early January 1960 he had return tickets for a train trip with his family back to Paris after Christmas in Provence.

In the 1950s he had written in a notebook, "Even my death will be contested. And yet what I desire most today is a quiet death, which would bring peace to those whom I love."

The family travelled to Paris on the train and Michel Gallimard, the nephew of Camus' publisher, asked him to accompany him and his family back to Paris by car.

Camus was riding in the front passenger seat and in the small town of Villeblevin, just over 105km outside Paris, Gallimard lost control of the car and it hit a tree. Camus was instantly killed while Gallimard died later. Gallimard's wife and daughter survived.

Camus often wrote on the absurdity of life and he may have said that dying in a car accident would be the height of the Absurd.


Pandemics have become rare in modern times while epidemics have been generally ignored beyond the regions that they impact.

Bubonic plague is transmitted between animals and humans by the bites of infected fleas and it's said to have reached Europe from Asia in October 1347 when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. According to the National Geographic "People meeting the ships were horrified to see most of the sailors either dead or dying from a mysterious ailment. Most were covered in black boils oozing blood, thus giving the disease the name, the 'Black Death.' The ships were ordered back to sea, but it was too late."

The disease had arrived in China, India, Persia and Egypt five or so years earlier, but because communication was so slow, there were only rumours about it in Europe in 1347. When the plague entered Europe’s teeming population, it ultimately killed one-third of its people.

The estimated deaths of 50m in Europe and millions more elsewhere were believed to have been mainly caused by transmission from rats.

"It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,/And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;" poet John Donne, the English poet, wrote in the 17th century.

There is some recent research suggesting that human to the human transmission may have been a big factor.

Millions of the natives of the Americas died from smallpox plague after the arrival of the Europeans.

Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel has said:

"It turns out that most of the nasty, infectious diseases of human history came to us from domestic animals. Thirteen of the fourteen herd domestic animals were Eurasian species. The only herd domestic animal of the New World was the llama, but the llama didn't live in really big herds. So we didn't get diseases from llamas, but we did get diseases from pigs and sheep. And Eurasian people in general got exposed to these diseases at childhood and therefore developed an immune system. In the New World, smallpox arrives and nobody is exposed to it, so it's hitting everybody, including adults."

In 1849 people in Oran, Algeria were infected by cholera from a ship from Marseilles and according to statistics compiled by the French ministry of war, there were 11,500 deaths in two years. However, casualties among the indigenous people wouldn't have been logged.

European population in the then 3 provinces of Algeria

In 1849 Queen Victoria, monarch of Great Britain and Ireland, arrived in Cork City in the third year of the devastating Potato Famine that killed about 1m Irish people. There was an outbreak of cholera in the city and the queen who had been scheduled to officially open the new Queen's College university engaged in social distancing and from her carriage on Western Road she witnessed her statue being hoisted on the highest gable of the main building (my alma mater replaced the 1849 statue with one of Finbarr, Cork's patron saint, in 1934 and the queen's statue remained buried for decades in the president's garden!).

While it was a time of cholera in many countries, the number of Cork City deaths of 1,329 only related to hospital admissions. The disease spread via water and food that had been contaminated by human feces. It was assumed to have been carried by Irish emigrants to the United States. According to a Harvard database "this epidemic was part of the second cholera pandemic (1848-1850), during which more than 45,698 cases and 19,325 deaths were reported to Ireland’s Central Board of Health."

Spanish Flu: a warning from history- Cambridge University: "100 years ago, celebrations marking the end of the First World War were cut short by the onslaught of a devastating disease - the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. Its early origins and initial geographical starting point still remain a mystery but in the Summer of 1918, there was a second wave of a far more virulent form of the influenza virus than anyone could have anticipated. Soon dubbed ‘Spanish Flu’ after its effects were reported in the country’s newspapers, the virus rapidly spread across much of the globe to become one of the worst natural disasters in human history. To mark the centenary and to highlight vital scientific research, the University of Cambridge has made a new film exploring what we have learnt about Spanish Flu, the urgent threat posed by influenza today, and how scientists are preparing for future pandemics."


Stephen Spender's 1948 review of The Plague in the New York Times

Pandemics: Forgotten vaccine hero saved millions of lives