We are all in the plague
Notes towards an abandoned essay.
In 1947, when he was thirty-three, Albert Camus published La peste, the story of a town struck by bubonic plague. He judged the book a failure, but in many ways it is his most successful work: translated into many languages, never out of print, read and taught all over the world.
In one sense it is a very simple story. Rats come out of cellars and sewers, spitting blood, and begin to die in the streets. Then people begin to die. The town is sealed off and we follow the experiences of a small band of characters as they battle the epidemic. Like a classical tragedy, the book is divided into five acts. In parts one and two, the death toll is rising; in part three it is at its height: ‘the plague had covered everything’. In parts four and five, the disease slowly retreats, and the town is liberated again.
The opening lines are at pains to stress the ordinariness of the setting, the French Algerian port of Oran where Camus arrived in 1941 for tuberculosis treatment, and where he began gathering material for the book:
Les curieux événements qui font le sujet de cette chronique se sont produits en 194., à Oran. De l’avis général, ils n’y étaient pas à leur place, sortant un peu de l’ordinaire. À première vue, Oran est, en effet, une ville ordinaire et rien de plus qu’une préfecture française de la côte algérienne.
The first English translation, by Stuart Gilbert in 1948, gives this as follows:
The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194…, at Oran. Everyone agreed that, considering their somewhat extraordinary character, they were out of place there. For its ordinariness is what strikes one first about the town of Oran, which is merely a large French port on the Algerian coast, headquarters of the Prefect of a French ‘Department’.
In Robin Buss’s 2001 version, which seems to be taking fewer liberties, we have:
The peculiar events that are the subject of this history occurred in 194–, in Oran. The general opinion was that they were misplaced there, since they deviated somewhat from the ordinary. At first sight, indeed, Oran is an ordinary town, nothing more that a French Prefecture on the coast of Algeria.
Three different versions and three different ways of transcribing the blank in nineteen-forty-something: a period, an ellipsis, a dash. This tiny but curious absence in the very first sentence begins the restless, damaging oscillation between the specific and the universal, the located and the placeless, the literal and the metaphoric, that will play across the whole work.
This short prelude introduces an ordinary town, in one sense an allegorical ‘everytown’, where the daily routines of money and love-making, sea-bathing and newspaper reading are charted in a cool, objective, transparent style: ‘the style of absence which is’, as Roland Barthes remarked of Camus’s prose, ‘almost an ideal absence of style’. Further down the page are the most quotable lines, which demonstrate his way with an aphorism: ‘A convenient way of getting to know a town is to find out how people work there, how they love and how they die.’ It goes on: ‘In our little town, perhaps because of the climate, all these things are done with the same frenzied and abstracted air’.
Like so much else in the book, the simplicity is deceptive. The words let on more, betray more, know more than their author ever intended. The ‘peculiar events’ of the novel, as we will see, are indeed ‘not in their place’; they are misplaced in a profound, painful and complicated sense, with major consequences for how one interprets the book, and whether the great humanist credo that it arrives at can be believed in: ‘pour dire simplement ce qu’on apprend au milieu des fléaux, qu’il y a dans les hommes plus de choses à admirer que de choses à mépriser’ : ‘to say simply what it is that one learns in the midst of such tribulations, namely that there is more in men to admire than to despise’.
The opening lines contain, in embryo, the whole problematic of a story that wants to be read as a kind of fable or allegory, but also stubbornly refuses to give up its allegiance to a particular place. Oran is a town not in Europe but in Africa; or perhaps, more accurately (at least in nineteen-forty something) a town no longer European but not yet African.
What is the exact nature of that typographic gesture, 194–, in any case? Is it an abbreviation or a concealment? A known unknown or an unknown unknown? The convention is more common for proper names in non-fiction, signifying someone or some place familiar to the author but lightly or partially disguised for the reader. But it is really Oran itself that the opening lines should have rendered as O–, O… or O. That, at least, would have avoided some difficulties. Because as soon as one tries to place the book – to situate it in its historical moment, to track its arc in actual time and real geography – The Plague becomes a deeply complex, contradictory work: one that that absorbs and reflects back as much complexity and difficulty as the reader is willing to bring to it. What follows is an attempt to track my thinking about Camus’s work across many years, and from a place, South Africa, that emerges as a kind of mirror image, or rather a negative image, in the photographic sense, of the north Africa in which the novel is set; or else just a confusing mirage.
I found myself teaching Albert Camus’s The Plague (and then resolving never to teach it again) at a time when a call for ‘free decolonised education’ was being made by students and staff throughout South African universities. But my attempt to situate this famous work in its time and place – the endgame of colonial French Algeria during the mid-20th century, a not-quite country slipping towards the Algerian Revolution that began in 1954 – this was, I found, just too difficult and unrewarding a task. Also, I sensed, it was unwanted, or out-of-step with its times. It left me with a sense of heaviness and unease, which I am trying to explore here. It is the heaviness and unease of a moment in which the past is both endlessly invoked and increasingly misunderstood, flattened out, misread or misused: when it offers no resistance to the desires and projections of the present.
To hear Camus’s work trying (and failing, but failing passionately) to make its meanings in the fullest sense – that ‘the plague’ is anything which causes or justifies the murder of innocent people; that we are all, to some extent, carriers or sufferer of the plague – this risked unsettling the binary of ‘native’ and ‘settler’ that a certain kind of paint-by-numbers discourse of decolonisation still wishes to operate within, a script that is both very current and also so out-dated. Over fifty years ago, the psychology of the native-settler dialectic was evolved and explored with great power by another major 20th-century figure formed in the crucible of the Algerian struggle, Frantz Fanon, at a time of brutal warfare, torture, atrocity and intense ideological polarisation.
But twenty five years into South African democracy and within a newly decolonised undergraduate curriculum, one is lucky if any students manage to get beyond a much more basic version of this dialectic: a binary of ‘goodies’ (freedom fighters, Arabs, Africans) and ‘baddies’ (settlers, colonialists, Europeans) as students studiously – or, perhaps, just tactically (or most likely, just indifferently) – try to replicate what they think their lecturers want to hear: that colonialism was a bad thing, and that any text that carries the stain of it is no good either. An aesthetic of recognition and reiteration, in other words; a desire for morally uncomplicated images of anti-colonial resistance; and a kind of postcolonial catechism in which the right responses are soon learned and reproduced.
In 1961, Nelson Mandela, the ‘Black Pimpernel’ who was banned and in hiding from the apartheid regime, travelled to Algeria to receive his first military training from the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN). As with the Setif massacres of 1945 (which began on VE Day), the events at Sharpeville in 1960 had made the ANC abandon its strategy of moderation and non-violent resistance: they were one of the last liberation movements in the world to do so. In his 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela remarked that ‘The situation in Algeria was the closest model to our own in that the rebels faced a large white settler community that ruled the indigenous majority’. After his release in 1990, Algeria was the first country Mandela visited; he never forgot the support that the FLN offered to the South African liberation struggle.
All of which is to say: at the back of my mind when teaching the book was the sense that the histories of Algeria and South Africa resemble each other in some ways, even as their paths out of colonialism and white minority rule were in another sense diametrically opposite. In one case a suspended revolution and negotiated settlement; in another an eight-year war of liberation, one of the most violent and brutal of all the decolonial conflicts, in which between 400 000 and 1,5 million people lost their lives.
In South Africa, a project of national reconciliation, based on the assumption that erstwhile victims and beneficiaries of apartheid were ‘condemned to live together’ (a phrase from Camus’s 1955 ‘Letter to an Algerian Militant’, Aziz Kessous). In north Africa, virtually the entire population of French Algerians was ejected from African soil by the FLN government which took power in 1962, and warned the pieds noirs that they could leave either by ‘la valise ou le cercueil’ (the suitcase or the coffin). The events of the war, one notorious for torture, atrocity, spiralling violence, reprisals and the targeting of civilians on both sides, had by that time made any notion of reconciliation unthinkable.
‘The extent and degree of atrocities on both sides, carried out on men, women and children alike, makes sickening reading’, writes Robert Young, translator of Fanon: ‘Violence, in many ways, is too clean and cerebral a word, too surrounded with the dignity of philosophical conceptualization, to describe the raging, sadistic and sickening butchery of what went on in Algeria’.
Car il savait ce que cette foule en joie ignorait, et qu’on peut lire dans les livres, que le bacilli de la peste ne meurt ni ne disparaît jamais, qu’il peut rester pendant des dizaines d’années endormi dans les meubles et le linge, qu’il attend patiement dans les chambres, les caves, les malles, les mouchoirs et les paperasses, et que, peut-être, le jour viendrait où, pour le malheur et l’enseignement des homes, la peste réveillerait ses rats et les enverrait mourir dans une cité heureuse.
He knew that this happy crowd was unaware of something that one can read in books, which is that the plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely, that it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing, that it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and that perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.
Albert Camus, La Peste (1947).
The Plague, Camus wrote in his notebooks, ‘may be read in three different ways’: ‘It is at the same time a tale about an epidemic; a symbol of Nazi occupation (and incidentally the prefiguration of any totalitarian regime, no matter where), and thirdly, the concrete illustration of a metaphysical problem, that of evil’ (cited in Todd, Camus 168).
‘It is not true that disorder is required in order to describe disorder; it is not true that chaos on the written page is the best symbol of the extreme chaos to which we are fated: I hold this to be a characteristic error of our insecure century.’
Primo Levi, ‘On Obscure Writing’. Quoted in Tony Judt, ‘The Elementary Truths of Primo Levi’, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008).
Camus’s Plague offers the most concentrated expression of this slippage, which emerges as a full-blown ideology when the Nazi historical project is represented through the content of that very different thing, a seething bacterial epidemic that intervenes in the web of private human destinies to terminate them in unjustifiable and properly absurd extinction. Indeed, this slippage between two distinct perspectives – the one proposing a political and historical analysis capable of energizing its spectators for change and praxis even in the most desperate historical circumstances; while the other perpetuates some ultimately complacent metaphysical vision of the meaninglessness of organic life, to which the response, at best, can only be some private ethical stoicism of a ‘myth of Sisyphus’ – the contamination of two incompatible languages has increasingly, in our own time, been identified as one dangerous source of depoliticization.
Fredric Jameson, ‘On Magical Realism in Film’, Critical Inquiry 12:2 (1986): 301-25.
‘The transparent form of speech, initiated by Camus’s Outsider, achieves a style of absence which is almost an ideal absence of style; writing is then reduced to a sort of negative mood in which the social or mythical characters of a language are abolished in favour of a neutral and inert state of form; thus thought remains wholly responsible, without being overlaid by a secondary commitment of form to a History not its own.’
Roland Barthes, ‘Writing and Silence’, Writing Degree Zero (1953).
‘Resumed reading Camus’s Carnets. I would be happy to spend the next ten years deepening my understanding and appreciation of this man’, Fugard writes in August 1963; and later in the year: ‘Impossible to describe the excitement, the total sympathy that exists for me with Camus’s thinking. In the harsh but lucid world of his writing I seem to have found, for the first time, my true climate’ (Notebooks 94, 105).
I received an email enquiring about the titling of the lectures on Camus and the French Algerian conflict (‘The well-intentioned coloniser’). I thought it might be helpful to share my reply.
The phrase ‘the well intentioned coloniser’, sometimes also translated as ‘the colonist of good will’, was coined by the Tunisian writer and anti-colonial theorist Albert Memmi as a critique of Albert Camus. It was written as a response to Camus receiving the Nobel Prize in 1957, and published as Camus ou le colonisateur de bonne volonté.
The exact attitude of Memmi (a fellow North African) towards Camus is a complex one: a mixture of exasperation, anger and grudging respect. But in the first instance the phrase is an ironic, even sarcastic one, implying something along the lines of: what use are good intentions within an unjust system? In the 1957 essay, Memmi also refers to Camus as being a ‘coloniser in denial’: i.e. not able to accept the full reality (and violence) of the system that he was born into. This is the frame in which I want to read The Plague: as a late colonial work ‘in denial’ of its immediate context, and so haunted by all the things that it leaves out and suppresses.
I will go into all of this in more detail within the remaining lectures.
With best wishes,
In Algeria and Angola, Europeans are massacred at sight. It is the moment of the boomerang; it is the third phase of violence; it comes back on us, it strikes us, and we do not realize any more than we did the other times that it’s we that have launched it. The ‘liberals’ are stupefied; they admit that we were not polite enough to the natives, that it would have been wiser and fairer to allow them certain rights in so far as this was possible; they ask nothing better than to admit them in batches and without sponsors to that very exclusive club, our species; and now this barbarous, mad outburst doesn’t spare them any more than the bad settlers.
They would do well to read Fanon; for he shows clearly that this irrepressible violence is neither sound and fury, nor the resurrection of savage instincts, nor even the effect of resentment: it is man re-creating himself. I think we understood this truth at one time, but we have forgotten it — that no gentleness can efface the marks of violence; only violence itself can destroy them. The native cures himself of colonial neurosis by thrusting out the settler through force of arms.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Preface to Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961).
The truth, unfortunately, is that one segment of French public opinion vaguely believes that the Arabs have somehow acquired the right to kill and mutilate, while another side it prepared to justify every excess. Each side thus justifies its own actions by pointing to the crimes of its adversaries. This is a casuistry of blood with which intellectuals should, I think, have nothing to do unless they are prepared to take up arms themselves. When violence answers violence in a mounting spiral, undermining the simple language of reason, the role of the intellectual cannot be to excuse the violence of one side and condemn that of the other, yet this is what we read every day. […]
On the right, we hear France’s honour repeatedly invoked to justify what is most damaging to that honour. On the left, we hear justice repeatedly cited as an excuse for affronts to any authentic idea of justice. The Right has thus ceded the moral response entirely to the Left, while the Left has ceded the patriotic response entirely to the right. France has suffered from both reactions. The country needed moralists less joyfully resigned to their country’s misfortune and patriots less willing to allow torturers to act in France’s name. Metropolitan France has apparently been unable to come up with any political solution other than to say to the French of Algeria, ‘Die, you have it coming to you!’ or ‘Kill them all, they’ve asked for it.’ Which makes for two different policies but one single surrender, because the real question is not how to die separately but how to live together.
Albert Camus, Preface to Algerian Chronicles (1958). Trans. Arthur Goldhammer (2013).