The Covid-19 pandemic has been propitious to Albert Camus’s The Plague. Within weeks of the global crisis, the novel rose in the best-seller lists, and references to it multiplied in numerous publications. Despite the text’s limitations—for instance, the lack of substantive female characters, and the invisibility of Arabs in a novel that takes place in Algeria—this renewed popularity is arguably justified. The anguished struggle of Dr. Bernard Rieux and his friends against the disease, as they come to terms (or not) with the fact that, while plagues can never be defeated once and for all, to help alleviate the suffering of other beings always remains a momentous ethical imperative—these elements speak to our current collective loneliness and offer a compelling moral compass. The novel’s appeal was expressed with great eloquence by one of the many medical heroes of our crisis, the young doctor Alfredo Mena Lora from Chicago, who stated in an interview: “Early on in this crisis, I reread a book by Albert Camus, The Plague... And the doctor in that book is asked, how do you defeat a plague? And he says that you do so with decency. And I think the decency of my co-workers, my neighbors, our neighbors is really a big source of positive and of hope throughout all of this.”
Not much has been written in the last few horrid months about Camus’s other plague, State of Siege, the play that he composed in 1948, one year after publishing his novel. The play also deals with a city taken over by the plague, although it is not, as Camus indicates in his prologue, a dramatization of the novel. The novel’s dominant mode of expression is realist—a real plague is described, with dead rats, quarantines and the search for a vaccine, even as the disease and its effects acquire an allegorical dimension that points to the spread of fascism in Europe. The play—which in the original French is more accurately categorized as a “spectacle”—is explicitly allegorical and fantastic from the outset. After comets and other celestial portents, the city of Cadiz is visited by a grotesque man in semi-military apparel who solemnly declares that now the city belongs to him, as he announces his identity: he is the Plague. He is followed around by a secretary, later revealed to be Death itself, who carries a notebook with every citizen’s name in it: whenever she scratches off a name, that person dies. What follows is half farce, half Greek tragedy, as the Plague forcibly sets out to regiment and dominate every aspect of the city’s life. All signs of independent thinking and solidarity are brutally repressed through a state machinery that combines corrupt institutions (people are allowed to vote, but only votes for the Plague are counted) with sheer violence. Nada, the town’s drunkard, becomes an officer in the Plague’s dictatorship: as his name indicates—“nada,” nothing or nothingness in Spanish—he is a cynical nihilist whose lack of belief in anything makes him the perfect administrator of the Plague’s doublespeak. At the center of this chaos, we follow the story of two young star-crossed lovers: Victoria, the local judge’s daughter, and Diego, a young man of humble origin. They obtain Victoria’s father’s permission to get married only to see their happiness thwarted by the Plague: Diego contracts the disease while helping the sick and finds himself the unexpected leader of the resistance against the dictatorial regime.
State of Siege is both more specific and vaguer than The Plague as a critique of totalitarianism. Since the disease is not described realistically (at one point, Diego’s buboes magically disappear when he overcomes his fear of death, only to return later when he is punished by the tyrant), the Plague stands for any and every authoritarian regime. But the play also targets a specific case that was dear to Camus’s heart: Spain’s fate under the brutal rule of Francisco Franco, who seized power as a result of the country’s civil war, with military aid from the Nazis. Franco’s regime, officially neutral during the Second World War, survived the defeat of the Axis to become that most repugnant spawn of the cold war: a right-wing dictatorship amicably tolerated by western democracies because of its proclaimed anti-communism. In fact, the French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel took Camus to task for setting the play in Spain rather than in the Soviet Union or one its satellites. Camus’s answer, in an essay titled “Why Spain?,” acknowledged that Soviet authoritarianism was as unacceptable as the fascist one in Spain, but he fiercely condemned those who only become indignant when the victims of state violence share their own ideas or beliefs, while remaining indifferent—or tacitly supporting—the victimhood of those deemed ideological opponents.
The Plague’s apparent realism displays the ambiguity inherent in every allegory: the literal events in the narration occasionally get in the way of their presumed figurative meaning. This makes it an awkward allegory for the global pandemic, for the appropriate response to the spread of a germ may not always correspond to, or adequately represent, the appropriate response to political and social decay. In the novel, for example, the young journalist Lambert wants to escape from the quarantined city, so that he can return to the woman he loves and his normal life. If the plague stands for fascism, his escape may be cowardly, but also understandable. In the end, it may even put him in a position to help the city from the outside (in fact, he decides to stay and help Dr. Rieux). In an actual global pandemic, of course, there is no “outside.” If the plague is literal, Lambert’s escape to “normality” would be criminally irresponsible, since he would potentially carry the virus with him and contaminate others, including his loved ones. This is, of course, what some Americans have chosen to do in the current pandemic.
By anthropomorphizing the Plague as a callously cruel authoritarian ruler in State of Siege, Camus makes the disease more transparently (although not unproblematically) allegorical. But this, paradoxically, makes it particularly resonant for our current predicament. Our literal plague is also allegorical even if we do not always realize it: that is why its contours coincide to large extent with those of class inequality, racial prejudice, colonial legacies, exclusion, and oppression. Even real life doesn’t just happen—it also tells a tale, in this case one told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. If one were to perform State of Siege today, the most obvious directorial option would also be most likely resisted because of its obviousness: the Plague would be a huge, amorphous figure wearing a Donald Trump mask.
Is there anything that Camus’s play can tell us now that is significantly different from what his novel says? Of the two, the novel is clearly the major work, as the play’s multiple parts and styles do not always come together in a harmonious way, and its characters remain, even for a modern-day morality play, too schematic. But its relentless focus on the viciousness of unchecked power speaks eloquently to our own other plague: that of systemic violence against those that society has deemed disposable, that of vote suppression and self-serving accusations of rigged elections, that of federal armed forces kidnapping citizens and throwing them in unmarked vans. Indeed, the contemporary United States more closely resembles State of Siege’s Cadiz that The Plague’s Oran.
The Plague’s focus is not on conventional heroism but rather on basic “decency,” as Dr. Mena Lora highlights. State of Siege is about heroic resistance, or rather, about what that might look like in seemingly hopeless times. The play traces Diego’s gradual overcoming of his fear, which enables him to defeat the dictator. Although Camus was weary about the subordination of individual agencies to the ideological certitudes of mass movements, the play is an eloquent call for collective action. Nothing less will do. But collectives are made of individuals, and the play reaches its climax as it portrays Diego’s personal realization that fear gives tyranny its power, and as it shows his attempts to awaken the minds and hearts of his fellow citizens to this ultimately moral truth. Diego does engage in a heroic act of tragic sacrifice in the end, yet his most enduring action is to become an instigator, then an organizer, and ultimately a source of moral inspiration for collective action. Of course, this may not be too far from Dr. Rieux’s decency, which in the dire times of the plague may be a form of heroism. In our time, individuals such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, gently but stubbornly doing their job, have captured the collective imagination. However, in our plague Diego’s most likely counterparts are the anonymous persons in cities and communities who are leading through example, through direct action, through sheer willingness to do the right thing. And while doing the right thing in Camus’s play could include putting one’s life on the line in the face of police brutality, State of Siege’s feverish plot might easily accommodate an exalted celebration of the basic decency of wearing a mask in public as a gesture of resistance to the brutal, relentless state propaganda against so simple an act of human solidarity.
Not that Camus was naive about the fallibility of human beings, particularly those under the prolonged stress of injustice. One of the play’s most disturbing scenes occurs when the people manage to steal the Plague’s secretary’s notebook, where all their names are written. Isn’t that the ultimate victory—power over death itself? But then, what do they do with this power, even amid the Plague’s oppression? In a tragicomic scene, they steal the notebook from one another, pettily scratching out the names of their local enemies. It turns out the Plague has allowed this to happen, in order to weaken Diego’s faith in his fellow citizens. Diego’s faith does not falter, but this time-tested strategy of despots, to give half of their victims the power to harm the other half, also hits quite close to our present predicament. “Dress your free men in the uniform of my police force,” the Plague says, “and you’ll see what they become.”
Ultimately, State of Siege is about steadfastness and bravery in the face of hopelessness, even when it seems to make no difference. These are qualities Camus had already exalted in The Myth of Sisyphus and would further explore in The Rebel. It may seem obvious that Diego’s bravest moment comes when, in a bargain with the Plague, he willingly gives his life to save Victoria, who has contracted the disease. However, it could also be argued that Diego’s bravest moment comes a bit earlier in the play, when the Plague offers him to spare Victoria’s life if Diego gives up the city. Diego—not knowing yet that he can die in Victoria’s place—refuses to collaborate in the enslavement of the city, even if the price is the loss of Victoria. The importance of this moment lies in what Victoria (another problematically ambiguous allegorical figure) represents for Diego. She is an integral part of what he wants for his own life: his own private domestic bliss, a normal existence. To be sure, the play is not telling us that private contentment is inherently opposed to the common good. After Diego’s refusal to betray the city, the Plague confesses that he would have killed Victoria anyway, because despots must have it all, or nothing at all. But doggedly clinging to our private privilege at the expense of everyone else’s well-being is not a sustainable strategy, as it is bound to ultimately destroy our own happiness.
Toward the end of the play, the chorus makes a surprising statement: “No, there is no justice, but there are limits. Those who stand for no rules at all, no less than those who want to impose a rule for everything, equally overstep the limits.” These words may sound anticlimactic, but everything that has happened earlier in the play indicates that this call for “limits” is not a plea for that tepid kind of moderation that is often indistinguishable from apathy or accommodation. The last words of the play belong to a nameless fisherman who celebrates “the rebels” and insists that “the people will never yield.” Injustice, oppression, and abuse must be opposed, cannot be allowed to become normalized. The question about the response to the tyrant—Franco, Stalin, or Trump—is, in some ways, the easiest one to address: yes, they must be resisted, they must be dethroned. But Camus is interested in that contested territory where our willingness to freely impose limits on ourselves as individuals for the sake of living in society with our fellow beings meets the limits we must impose on our institutions out of the recognition that society is made of individuals with unique desires, needs, and aspirations. Camus speaks to us in moral, rather than strictly political terms, and in doing so, he underscores the often-uncomfortable inseparability of those two spheres. It is a stance that has irritated his critics, and one that he was not always able to fully apply in the real world, as his anguished ambivalence on the question of Algeria’s independence shows. In a revealing line from his introduction to the play in English, Camus writes: “State of Siege, with all its shortcomings, is, of all my writings, the one that most resembles me.”
The play’s challenge remains no less pressing because Camus was the first one to embody the difficulties of living up to its demands. The Plague must be defeated. What will we do the day after? Return to business as usual? It has become commonplace to refer to Donald Trump as a symptom, rather than the cause, of our societal collapse. It is a half-truth, for the damage done by his brutal disdain for basic lawfulness, not to mention decency and compassion, has been unmeasurable. But the half-truth holds: the systemic injustices that permeate our civilization, rooted in long colonial histories steeped in racism, sexism, economic oppression and ecocide, became ideal breeding grounds for our current global plague of resurfacing fascism. The Plague must be defeated, even as we remain aware that its germ always remains latent in human history. But after this specific Plague’s defeat, Diego’s challenge—Camus’s—will remain just as urgent: “What else should I struggle against in this world if not the injustice that has been done to us?”