By Debarati Sanyal, guest contributor for Bunker Bloggers
In this time of coronavirus, Albert Camus’s classic The Plague (1947) has shot to the top of literary charts. Set in Oran, a city in formerly French Algeria, the postwar novel opens on a swarm of rats emerging from their lairs to die in the streets, harbingers of the mass epidemic of bubonic and pulmonary plague that decimates the city’s population over the course of a year. An allegory of Fascism, The Plague remains a vivid epidemiology in its portrayal of the rhythms of daily life under quarantine: the breakdown of medical care, the emergence of black markets and profiteering, the requisitioning of hotels and stadiums for isolation, if not encampment, spineless leaders and an inefficient bureaucracy driving citizens to risk their life to combat the virus… Sound familiar?
For decades I’ve read and taught The Plague in light of its status as an allegory of every historical violence under the sun, from the Holocaust to colonialism (it was even mobilized by the Bush administration’s “war on terror”). Today, as we confront an actual pandemic in this politically virulent time, it is the biographical, the literal and epidemiological dimensions of The Plague that haunt me. As we all move towards social distancing, sheltering in place, lockdown, quarantine or hospitals, I think of how Camus’s tuberculosis and its symptomatology–shortness of breath, fever, cough–found its way into Oran’s suffocating atmosphere, how the various characters’ faint vertigo before the epidemic’s scale is mirrored in our incapacity to fathom its death toll (23,620 as of March 25, 2020). When the narrator of The Plague tries to wrap his mind around the cumulative human costs of the epidemic throughout history, from Constantinople to Canton, he concludes that “a hundred million corpses sown through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination.” How can we apprehend the scale of a plague, its lived consequences across the globe, with what Camus termed “the eyes of the body”?
We know all too well that imagination is as much the province of epidemiology and politics as of literature. Camus denounced Oran’s administration and its lack of preparation for the plague as a “failure of imagination.” An administration’s imagination or lack thereof is “never scaled up to epidemics,” as we know given the current shortage of masks, respirators and tests. As the Algerian city’s healthcare system and quarantine management breaks down under a virus that “brought to its daily murders the precision and regularity of a good functionary,” a small group of citizens and a “foreigner” use their imagination to form voluntary sanitary squads, risking their lives to combat the virus. Camus does not cast this resistance as heroic or spectacular, but as natural. “There’s a plague, we have to defend ourselves, that much is clear!” exclaims an elderly overworked volunteer, “Ah if only everything else were as simple.”
But what does it mean to defend ourselves? In Camus, resistance entailed performing the task at hand to the best of one’s ability: developing a vaccine, checking on the vulnerable, quarantining and managing the sick, writing a good sentence, counting the dead, disposing of their bodies, using clear language, taking a moment for friendship. But as Camus’s experience of Nazi occupation taught him, resistance could also swerve into complicity, for “to fight against (the plague’s) abstraction, we sometimes have to resemble it.” For some reason, I think of our so-called smartphones in light of this doubleness, both as conduits to the world and those we love, but also as vectors of surveillance and control that continue to erode our civil liberties (monitoring social distancing, for instance). The Plague stages the convergence of cure and security, immunity and autoimmunity, when the doctor is accompanied by the military to force unwilling families to surrender their sick. In Camus’s parable, we are all carriers of the plague (nous sommes tous pestiférés), condemned to the exposure and aggression of relationality itself: “What is natural is the virus,” everything else is a matter of will. This solidarity/complicity, this virality/vulnerability, is the tie that binds us today.
Compare Camus’s reflection to the US president’s references to COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan flu,” xenophobic rhetoric that further imperils the lives of pathologized, racialized “others.” Never one to let a crisis go to waste, after delaying on crucial public health measures, Trump stoked the flames of racism, while pandering to his electorate, by calling again for a wall “to keep the infection and those carrying the infection from entering our country.” Let us recall that the origins of Camus’s epidemic are as mysterious as the timing of its eventual return. “The bacillus of the plague never dies,” whether in its epidemiological or political forms. The Plague will continue to speak to us as we move through this pandemic. Its pages on the ache of exile and separation, the obligation to keep physical distance while maintaining social contact, the necessity of mutual aid networks at every scale, can inspire us from solitude to solidarity (or from solitaire to solidaire) as we face an indefinite time of isolation, uncertainty, risk, and loss.
Debarati Sanyal is Professor of French at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Remembrance (Fordham, 2015) and The Violence of Modernity: Baudelaire, Irony and the Politics of Form (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). She is completing a manuscript on aesthetic representations of the refugee “crisis” in Europe.