Antique writers descriptions of plague epidemics became the basis of a long tradition which also Albert Camus with his novel The Plague belongs to. The painting is 'Plauge in an ancient city' by Michiel Sweerts from 1653
Antique writers descriptions of plague epidemics became the basis of a long tradition which also Albert Camus with his novel The Plague belongs to. The painting is 'Plauge in an ancient city' by Michiel Sweerts from 1653

A Story about the Plague

SHARE YOUR SCIENCE: A classic which is perennially up-to-date all of a sudden became urgently topical.

It is now a little over three years ago that I was asked to make a new Norwegian translation of Albert Camus’ novel La Peste (English: The Plague). Both the publisher (Solum forlag) and I myself had a lot to do. We agreed that a classic of this kind was perennially up-to-date, and that there was no hurry about the translation. The Plague is a book everyone wants to read. It tops the bestselling list in many countries in the world (including South Korea). But that which is perennially up-to-date has suddenly become urgently topical.

The Plague was published in French in 1947. It is one of the most important books by Albert Camus (1913‒1960) and contributed to the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. It was soon translated into a number of languages; the Norwegian translation by Johannes Schanke Martens appeared in 1949. The novel was read as an allegory of Nazism and its mass exterminations, although Camus himself stated emphatically in an interview that “it is clear that the novel is about the European resistance to Nazism, but I wanted The Plague to be able to be read on many different levels.”

The novel is the story of how a completely ordinary, somewhat boring modern market town, Oran in Algeria, was struck by the plague. The city was shut down, and the book follows a handful of men through the plague time. Some of them die, some survive. The protagonist is Rieux, a doctor, who is not only an omniscient observer of human wretchedness, but also the one who voices the novel’s sober conclusion: “For when he heard the cries of joy that rose up out of the city, Rieux remembered that this joyfulness was always threatened. For he knew what this joyful crowd did not know – something that one can read in the books – namely, that the plague bacillus does not die, nor does it ever disappear. It can remain for dozens of years asleep in the furniture and the bedclothes, and it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, suitcases, and paper bags. And perhaps the day will come, bringing woe and instruction to human beings, when it awakens its rats and sends them out to die in a happy city.” [Trans.: B.McN.]

The plague epidemic that Camus allows to attack the modern, well-functioning city of Oran is somewhat similar to the coronavirus. He describes a plague of boils that begins among the rats and infects everything and everyone. He writes about the devastations caused by the plague bacteria, and this throws up large philosophical questions about wickedness and righteousness, solidarity and fear. The plague is described as something local: its specific quality is that it destroys one single city that is completely shut off from the surrounding world, quite unlike the pandemic and global scenario we are now witnessing.

Nevertheless, Camus’ novel becomes suddenly relevant. It is about shutting people in and about how they act when they are placed without warning in a situation where everything that made up their safe daily life is suddenly transformed and replaced by an omnipresent sickness and fear of death.

Camus chose the plague as his framework for investigating evil and human society. The novel describes what happens to a number of individuals, but they are all linked in one way or another to Rieux’ affirmation that people cannot get by without other people. The novel can be read allegorically and on many levels; but it can also be read as a historical continuation of ancient historians like Thucydides and Lucretius, who described the onslaught of the plague in the heart of culture and civilization.

The first to write about this kind of urban plague was Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, where he describes the plague in Athens in 430 BCE as follows: “The dead lay as they had died, one upon another, while others hardly alive wallowed in the streets and crawled about every fountain craving for water” (2.52, trans. Benjamin Jowett). His clinical accounts of the course of the sickness are comprehensive and thorough. The fact that he himself was one of the lucky ones who recovered their health after being infected makes the details even more worthy of credit: many “were seized with violent heats in the head and with redness and inflammation of the eyes. Internally the throat and the tongue were quickly suffused with blood, and the breath became unnatural and fetid.” This was followed by vomiting, bile, wounds, diarrhea, and an unbearable thirst and inner burning. But there was also a violent unrest, a loss of memory, and mental confusion. And all this in the city, in the democratic, well ordered Athens, the city that Pericles in earlier chapters had praised as “a school for Hellas”! In Thucydides’ history, Pericles’ celebrated funeral oration over fallen Athenians, where he taught how noble and laudable it was to sacrifice one’s life for Athens and the Athenian ideals, is followed by a travesty: the utterly unlovely and destructive plague.

Thucydides, who otherwise is a sober historian, cannot suppress his feelings when he relates how the plague destroys the city, with the result that strictly regulated customs such as burials are abandoned: “When one man had raised a funeral pyre, others would come […] when some other corpse was already burning, before they could be stopped, they would throw their own dead upon it and depart.” He also describes how the city attacked by the plague saw the abandonment of norms and was full of lawlessness. The rich were infected just as brutally as the poor; money and property unexpectedly changed hands, and no one could be bothered to make any effort to get hold of something that he could lose the next day. Fundamental Athenian virtues such as temperance and self-control were undermined: “They reflected that riches and life alike were transitory, and they resolved to enjoy themselves while they could, and to think only of pleasure.”

Unlike the boil and lung plague that Camus has ravage in Oran, the sickness that Thucydides describes was not a plague in the “modern” sense of the world. Witness accounts do not speak of boils or rats. Among the many theories about what kind of sickness killed a third of Athens’ population, we find influenza, measles, Ebola, or (most probably) typhus. But irrespective of the kind of illness involved, historians describe it as destructive of a carefully constructed society. The plague represented an irrational and destructive counterpart to all societal order, and this became even clearer when a densely populated town was attacked. Capitals and large cities were places where many people came together, nodal points for politics and trade. And this meant that precisely these towns were exceptionally exposed to epidemic infection.

The Roman poet Lucretius (96‒55 BCE) concludes his great poem On the Nature of Things with an elaborate description of the plague in Athens. The poem is influenced by Epicurean philosophy and by what we today would call the criticism of religion. It describes the fluidity of all things, down to the tiniest atom. Lucretius’ starting point is Thucydides’ account, but he adds some extra layers: “Ah, everywhere among / The open places of the populace, / And along the highways, / O Thou mightiest see / Of many a half-dead body the sagged limbs, / Rough with squalor, wrapped around with rags” (6.1247ff.; trans. William Ellery Leonard).

When Albert Camus wrote The Plague, these ancient historians were his model. He wanted to give a report as sober and clinical as theirs. Not least, he wanted to describe the relationship between a peaceful urban life and an unpredictable plague epidemic. This is why he made the Algerian market town Oran a microcosm where human coexistence was put to the test by a plague of ancient dimensions.

[English translation: Brian McNeil]

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