Since late January Albert Camus’ La Peste (The Plague) – first published in 1947 – has become a global sensation, being sold with an unprecedented record, making publishers rush out reprints. Although it has often been read as an allegory for fascism, due to its relevant theme to our present situation, the story strikes people today in a more literal light, and thus the infectious disease (=plague) no longer stands for us metaphorically for the Nazi occupation of France, but is rather understood in the literal sense of the word: an infectious disease; Covid-19. We can relate to the story since we see our own dramatic situation reflected in it: a city being suddenly stricken by a lethal epidemic.
Those who read the novel literally are fully justified to do so, but it is my strong conviction that Camus’s intention was not story-telling, and that he has used this literary medium in order to imply a much deeper message. He is talking about a disease that lies in the fabric of human society; “that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it”. We spread the plague, the moment we are witness to an instance of injustice – however trivial it might be – taking place in front of our very eyes, and when turn away in cold blood. We afflict others with the disease, the moment we empty our hearts of any affection and love, and think egoistically of our own personal progress and well-being. We are plagued, when we turn deaf and blind to the environmental catastrophes we bring about to the world, due to our unmindful modern life style. We are contributing to the spread of the plague in the world, if we don’t question the unjust status quo – simply because we are its direct or indirect beneficiaries. Such easy is being plague-stricken and plague-distributer. We have the plague in us and keep spreading it, without even being aware of it. And the experience with Covid-19 showed us, how dramatically well it can work – to be a medium of a disease without knowing it.
However, the situation is not that
desperate. We still have a way out of this vicious circle. The path taken by
the members of the plague-fighting squad in the novel: first realizing and
admitting the fact (acceptance) that we are plagued, and then rally all our
forced against it. Our sole weapon in this fight is “love and compassion for
others”, while taking responsibility and action. However absurd the situation
might be – due partly to our inherent ignorance as humans and partly to
immensity and lethality of the disease – we must keep fighting. In spite of its
absurdity, we fight! To give in to this absurdity, is to fail being human. What
is interesting in Camus’ position is his emphasis on “love” – a central religious
concept – as the sole way to our survival as humans, in our fight against this lethal
human disease. Both
the plague and the love come from the human being; the source of the ailment
and the cure both lie in the human being. And, it is completely upon us to
choose either of them: “All I
maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and
it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences”.
 All the quotations are from Camus’ novel.
„Only Lovers Left Alive“ is the titel of a 2013 film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch.
Saida Mirsadri ist Doktorandin am Zentrum für Komparative Theologie und Kulturwissenschaften in Paderborn.