Looking for wisdom in these confusing times, I turned to my favorite philosopher the other day and cracked open — yes — “The Plague.”
If you’ve read Albert Camus’ great, short novel you’ll remember a gripping narrative about an outbreak of bubonic plague that strikes a small French Algerian city in the 1940s. Dead rats begin appearing in gutters and on staircases — first in ones and twos, then by the dozens. Soon people start dying — first in ones and twos, then by the dozens. Before long the town is quarantined: No one can enter, no one can leave.
Camus follows a handful of characters — a doctor, a priest, a journalist, a criminal — and examines the way their courage and moral principles are tested as they go about daily life in the hovering presence of death.
Back in college, I found their dilemmas a bit abstract. But suddenly, in our own plague moment, they became vivid and concrete.
I thought of the Costco shopper who pauses in the grocery aisle to consider: Clear this shelf, or leave some for others?
The small restaurateur who pauses in her kitchen to consider: Keep my employees on the payroll, or conserve cash to save my business?
I thought of Minnesota’s nurses and physicians who, like Camus’ Dr. Rieux, place their lives at risk by continuing to treat the ill.
I don’t say that Camus offers clear answers, and I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert on his work. But I do think he helps us understand our own responses, as a community and as individuals, in the face of extraordinary challenges.
The great scholar William Barrett notes that once upon a time, philosophers were public figures with wide followings. Socrates taught in the public square of Athens, and so aggravated the city’s leaders that they eventually put him to death; Niccolo Machiavelli was an accomplished diplomat and military leader in addition to advising monarchs; John Stuart Mill was a member of Parliament and a crusader for women’s suffrage.
But by the 20th century, Barrett says, philosophy had become a closeted and academic pursuit, its scholars pursuing arcane questions that most people find obscure and pointless.
Along came the existentialists, demanding that we confront the big, urgent questions: What makes life worth living? What makes me true to my values?
It’s no wonder that they also chose to write fiction. With “The Plague” and other works, Camus won the Nobel Prize and reached an audience of millions. (Though it must be said that he never accepted the label “existentialist.’’)
Sartre, Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and their peers were writing at a dispiriting time in the mid-20th century. Western Europe’s two great sources of social order and moral leadership were collapsing. World War I had shattered the public’s confidence in the competence and honesty of political leaders. Fewer and fewer people accepted the church as a source of moral instruction or social conscience.
In our own time of doubt and testing, many people are returning to traditional sources of solace. Many will find the church, more than ever, a source of hope and comfort. Many will take confidence from principled leaders like Gov. Tim Walz and Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.
But many others find themselves a bit rattled — “stripped naked” in Sartre’s term — shorn of the habits and conventions that normally guide day-to-day life. They’re asking: What’s important to me? How shall I spend my days?
Which may be why Camus chose plague as his metaphor: It separates his characters not just geographically but from their past and their future — the things that give structure and hope to our lives.
Minnesotans will understand today: It’s already hard to remember what daily life was like just a month ago. It’s impossible to know what it will be like a month from now — that is, how our story ends.
As it happens, Camus gave his novel a happy ending. Eventually, the plague subsides and life returns to normal. At the end of the book, Dr. Rieux stands on a rooftop terrace, watching the townspeople celebrate with fireworks and cheers.
He is not naive. He remembers that some people behaved nobly, others with cowardice and greed. He seems to agree with a patient who insists no one deserves a medal just for surviving the plague. But he concludes: “There are more things in people to admire than to despise.”
A sweet line.
Dr. Rieux also observes that disease is never fully defeated. Sooner or later the plague will return and we’ll have to fight this war all over again. Where we take solace is in knowing we will put our shoulders to the wheel and do our best.
Like Camus’ other great character, Sisyphus, Dr. Rieux finds meaning and dignity in his daily work. Even though the mythical character must push the boulder up the hill, again and again, day after day, Camus writes: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Dave Hage is a retired Star Tribune editor and writer.