With the arrival of the pandemic, there has been renewed interest in Albert Camus’ 1947 novel, The Plague. It tells the story of an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the Algerian town of Oran. Many read it as an allegory of Nazi-occupied France in the second World War, but it also serves as an exploration of Camus’ existentialist philosophy. It is not particularly optimistic, neither does it serve well as entertainment or pleasant distraction. It contains little joy, only resolve in the face of suffering and exhaustion. Is there wisdom to be found in its pages? Perhaps. It exhorts us to shoulder our burdens and to look for the good where it may be found. What it may do best, however, is hold up for us people of empathy and moral humility, firm in their resistance to evil and suffering.
The novel’s lone Christian representative is not one of these people. We meet Father Paneloux early, just as the disease is beginning to claim its first victims. He seems to welcome its arrival. Later, when the situation becomes dire and the town’s gates are locked, we are given to understand why. He ascends his pulpit and begins a sermon with the following words: “My brethren, a calamity has befallen you; my brethren, you have deserved it.” Paneloux, it seems, has been waiting to be the voice of judgment. Suffering, he tells his congregants, is tied to sin and the only way out from under the plague is collective repentance.
But even the preacher is judged. At the height of the plague, a young boy is infected and dies a slow, terrible death. In anger, Dr. Rieux exclaims, “[N]ow that one, at least, was innocent, as you very well know!” Paneloux withdraws, humbled. His next sermon reveals just how much the boy’s death has undercut him. “We have to accept what is outrageous,” he says, “because we have to choose to hate God or love Him.” Paneloux chooses to love God, but the damage has been done. He falls ill, refuses medical treatment, and dies. His symptoms, the narrator tells us, are ambiguous, and we are left to pity him, suspecting that the plague killed him by shattering his worldview.
In holding up Paneloux as its representative, The Plague does not recommend Christianity to its reader and today’s Christian may well be chafed by the association. This does not mean, however, that the novel contains nothing of value. Indeed, the opposite is true, and we can find something worth praising in the character of Tarrou.
Tarrou is a steadfast companion to Dr. Rieux in his work, but his character remains mysterious till near the end when he and Rieux spend a quiet evening together. Tarrou recounts how, as a young man, he witnessed his father, a public prosecutor, argue for a defendant to be put to death. Tarrou is horrified and becomes an activist, devoting his life to fighting the death penalty. But he and his fellow activists also took a side in the Spanish Civil War, and so they too have blood on their hands. Now Tarrou shuns militant activism. He relates his reason for joining Rieux in the fight against the plague.
[N]ow I accept being what I am. I have learned modesty. All I can say is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims—and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence…. If in saying this I become a pestilence myself, at least I am not a consenting one. I am trying to be an innocent murderer. You see, it’s not a high ambition. Of course, there should be [another] category, that of true healers, but it’s a fact that one does not meet many of those, because it must be hard to achieve.
Tarrou has come to know that efforts to achieve the good, no matter the intention, are often stained by collateral damage. We are all murderers, he implies. The best we can hope is to be wrongdoers who don’t intend the wrong.
Tarrou’s injunction never to be on the side of pestilence is one we can all embrace, and our world contains no shortage of pestilences. But more than that, the Christian has reason to share Tarrou’s realism and humility. Those of us who still pray from the Book of Common Prayer are familiar with a line in the general confession: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.” Modern prayer books remove the last clause, yet it would do us all good to include it in our prayers. Sure, taken as an absolute, even the theologian demurs—we are, after all, created by God and so there must be some good in us—but the sentiment certainly applies. There is corruption, much of it, and it has penetrated deeply.
Precious little we do is unqualifiedly good. Motivations are seldom pure. Wittingly or unwittingly, we pursue one good at the expense of another or introduce one evil in the fight against another. Sometimes the corruption is in us. Sometimes it is in the world. Christians ought to be particularly attuned to this dynamic. We ought to know at least as well as Tarrou that, in refusing to stand on the side of one pestilence, it is all too easy to take up residence on the side of another.
Recently a preacher in our parish drew attention to what he called “the epidemic of outrage.” Our social discourse, enabled by social media, is dominated by our proclivity to mount the steps of our Facebook pulpits and preach. Everyone is keen to plant a flag and let others know which pestilences they refuse to be on the side of. Paneloux wanted to be the voice of judgment, as do many of us, and from some angles, these public statements feel a lot like the moral grandstanding of the Pharisee who prayed “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” What person today, weary of our public discourse, does not feel that its tone, and some of its motivations, are a pestilence unto themselves?
Of course, what has been said here in this space is itself subject to the same interrogation. What are its motives and might it also be tinged with moral superiority? Alas, we have all been corrupted. Tarrou again, “[W]e must constantly keep a watch on ourselves to avoid being distracted for a moment and find ourselves breathing in another person’s face and infecting him.”
Lowell Friesen works as a part-time choir director at Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church. He also teaches philosophy at Booth University College and at a number of other post-secondary institutions in Winnipeg.