--2 Lee on Literature: Social Plagues
Sept. 23, 2017

Lee on Literature: Social Plagues

What The Plague can teach us about ISIS, Gaza and Ferguson

September 24, 2014, 4:35 pm
By LeeMiller

“There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”

Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus wrote these lines in the classic story, The Plague (1947), Camus’ philosophical response to World War II, to the absurdity of life, and to human suffering in a grander sense. Camus asserts that a sense of “togetherness,” a collective destiny above individual destiny, is an antidote to human suffering and senseless killing. The Ferguson protesters, ISIS fighters, and Gaza Strip citizenry—the greatest social “problems” of 2014—all possess elements of the complex spirit articulated by Camus.

Set in Oran, Algeria, The Plague begins with a mysterious rash of rat deaths. Everywhere in this port city, emaciated and disoriented rats crawl out of nooks to die in the streets. A ship’s captain notes that rats are the first to leave a sinking ship. Like a canary in a coal mine, rats warn of disastrous plague. Rats are also symbolic of the lowest socio-economic class of Oran, the same class of modern day ISIS fighters, Gaza Strip citizens and Ferguson rioters. These groups, having already faced intense marginalization, are most sensitive to any further deprivation. The “rats” are literally the first to die when social collapse begins.

In The Plague, people begin to perish in significant numbers. City leaders and successful merchants, highly regarded in the previous social order, become increasingly impotent as the epidemic flourishes. They finally decide to close the gates of Oran. No one is allowed in or out and the port ceases to function, as the city is placed under full quarantine to contain the outbreak. Many are separated from loved ones. Consumption restricts, especially food consumption, as the economy slows tremendously—a “snow day” effect. Folks are left idle with their sullen memories, taking long afternoon walks, sitting in cafés or tending to the sick. Life’s energy shifts focus from economic concerns toward human challenges, a new spiritual calculus. The journalist character Rambert notes, “It’s more reasonable to believe that I wasn’t brought into the world to write newspaper articles, rather to be with a woman.” Father Paneloux, the priest, adds “it is “a bleak enlightenment.”

As the plague intensifies, “togetherness” develops in society as the citizenry fights futilely to contain disease and bury the dead. Shared feelings forge a collective destiny; collective perspective replaces individual ambition. Fear of death is no longer faced alone. This same shared suffering unites modern day ISIS rebels, Gaza strip citizens, and Ferguson protesters against lethal oppression. The powerful wish to “clean up” or “contain” these groups by “degrading” their capabilities and/or destroying them. Often, those wishing to improve social order are the most insidious murderers of the world. The rebel groups, certainly no angels themselves, respond with even greater viciousness as conflicts escalate. A devolving cycle of retributive violence never ends. In The Plague, Camus notes that “the most incorrigible vice is an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murder is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.”

Intelligence points toward togetherness, the solution to endless class violence in the Middle East and the United States. Physical and spiritual integration is fundamental to ending these longstanding conflicts. If a “tipping point” number of rebels could access viable economic alternatives, hold reasonable stakes in their societies, and integrate physically and spiritually with higher socio-economic classes, peace would follow. In short, the fat cats of the world need to incorporate more and “degrade” less, engage rather than destroy. The latter is a futile strategy, especially absurd when fat cats inadvertently arm the “rats.”

In The Plague, focus upon separation and eradication of disease was a fruitless tack, a strategy that exacerbated rather than mollified terror. The citizens of Oran learned this lesson when all of their attempts to control the outbreak failed. In the end, the plague receded as mysteriously as it arrived, leaving townsfolk overjoyed when rats returned to the streets. The experience left them with “clear-sightedness”—a recognition of their togetherness—an understanding vital to any future peace in the Middle East and America. According to Albert Camus, “A loveless world is a dead world.”

Lee Miller graduated from Cornell University and has taught writing for over ten years at the secondary and post-secondary levels.  He has published three books, including the historical /spiritual novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), about a Calcutta family conquering 20th Century India’s greatest challenges.



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