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‘Salvation is too big a word for me’

God Edition

The rival ideas at the heart of Albert Camus’ novel La Peste (The Plague) pit the humanist medical doctor Bernard Rieux against the Jesuit priest, Father Peneloux.

Raised in the French revolutionary tradition of republican anti-clericalism, Camus satirises the priest as indifferent to the physical suffering inflicted by a bubonic plague epidemic in the Algerian city of Oran.

In a sermon at the climax of a “Week of Prayer” for divine aid, he tells a packed cathedral that the ancient Christians of Abyssinia saw the illness as a “sure and God-sent means of winning eternal life”. 

“Those who were not yet stricken wrapped around them sheets in which men had died of plague, so as to make sure of their death.”

The zeal of the Abyssinians might be alien to modern enlightened spirits, Paneloux rhapsodises, but gives a glimpse of “the radiant eternal flame” that glows at the dark core of human misery and lights the shadowy path to deliverance.

The next time we encounter the Jesuit, he is less cocksure about the spiritual benefits of pestilence. With Rieux, at the bedside of the city magistrate’s dying son, he is pleading: “My God, spare this child …!”

Camus offers an unbearable description of the little boy’s death agony. “When, for the third time, the fiery wave broke on him … he curled himself up and shrank away to the edge of the bed …

“From behind the inflamed eyelids big tears welled up and trickled down the sunken, leaden-hued cheeks. When the spasm had passed, utterly exhausted, tensing his thin legs and arms … the child lay flat, racked on the tumbled bed in a grotesque parody of crucifixion.”

When, unable to bear the gale of sympathetic groans from other inmates, Rieux tries to leave, the Jesuit checks him at the doorway, murmuring “Come doctor …” Rieux turns on him fiercely: “Ah! That child, anyhow, was innocent — and you know it as well as I do!”

Outside, in the garden of the Auxiliary Hospital, Paneloux presses him about his anger, suggesting they feel alike and adding in a low voice: “That sort of thing is revolting because it passes understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.”

Rieux, seized by feelings of “mad revolt”, shoots back: “No Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.”

When Paneloux suggests that they are both working for “man’s salvation”, Rieux replies: “Salvation’s much too big a word for me. I don’t aim so high. I’m concerned with man’s health, and for me his health comes first.”

Later, the priest tries to revise his position, arguing in a near-heretical paper that the choice presented by a child’s death is between “All” (total self-surrender to the divine will) and “Nothing” (total rejection) — and “and who, I ask, would dare to deny everything?”

Weeks later he is dead from what the statistics term “a doubtful case” of plague, but which Camus almost presents as a case of spiritual self-extinction.

There is a second charged exchange in The Plague, between Rieux and Jean Tarrou, a visitor trapped in isolated Oran who becomes a central figure in the sanitary squads set up to mitigate the effects of the epidemic.

After witnessing his father, a red-robed judge, clamouring for the execution of a miserable, owl-eyed accused, Tarrou is filled with horror of both his and his parent’s “game of red robes” — support for actions and principles that result in murder.

They include his presence at an execution by firing-squad which left a first-sized hole in the victim’s chest.

Characterising his guilt as an inward plague, Tarrou says he now follows a near-Buddhist “path of sympathy” in a quest for a form of non-religious sainthood.

 “All I maintain is that on this Earth there are pestilences and victims, and it’s up to us, as far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”

Rieux, the practical humanist, refuses the temptation to dramatise himself. “Perhaps. But you know I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me. What interests me is being a man.”

In a brief escape from the horrors of the stricken city, the two men then dive and swim together in the sea.

It should be emphasised that at the beginning of the novel, he sends his sick wife on a train journey to an out-of-town sanitorium, where she dies before they are reunited. 

Among The Plague’s many layers of meaning is the powerful picture it offers of the psychology of epidemic and isolation, familiar in some ways to survivors of Covid-19. 

Its main effect is a deepening, grey lassitude — Christmas means “empty, unlighted shops, dummy sweets or empty boxes in the confectioners’ windows, trams laden with listless, dispirited passengers” — punctuated by periodic panics and attempts to break through the police barricades.

The solemn ritual of the burial goes through a number of permutations that include the recycling of scarce coffins, the exclusion of mourners, cremations and, ultimately, plague pits along mediaeval lines.

It has also been argued that for Camus, who joined the French resistance in 1943 and played an honourable role as editor of the clandestine anti-Nazi publication Combat, the plague is a metaphor for the German conquest and occupation of France in 1940.

The parallel seems particularly apt in his account of the rejoicing that follows the end of the pestilence and re-opening of the city, a time of “bells, guns, bands and deafening shouts”, experienced as a kind of homecoming.

Camus’ liberal democratic convictions shine through the pages of The Plague, which was published in 1947, and Combat. It is only towards his death in a car crash in 1960, at the height of the Algerian independence war, that he seemed to lose this philosophical compass.

A pied noir (“black foot” — slang for a French settler), he knew Algeria and used his writings to highlight the penury of indigenous people. But he was ambivalent about their struggle for independence, condemning the brutality of both sides as equally abhorrent and favouring the country’s retention as a département of metropolitan France.

In consequence, his works are hard to find in Algeria to this day.

This is a pity, because The Plague is an unforgettable novel, one of the most heavily freighted with meaning of the modern age.

Camus understood that there can be no final victory against the plague — as he points out, the bacillus never dies. But his wider point is that human catastrophe, and the need for men and women of good will to confront it, will always be with us. 

The Plague, the narrator writes, was “only the record of what had to be done again and again in the never-ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts … by those who, while unable to be saints, refuse to bow down to the pestilence and strive their utmost to be healers”.

Drew Forrest is a former political editor and deputy editor of the M&G.

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