Under the current circumstances, which reading is more appropriate than that of La Peste by Albert Camus (The Plague. 1947) ? I come out of an old pocket book bought in 1970, the pages of which have given me the grace to remain stuck to this day. I immediately found Camus’ reactions to the coronavirus crisis: revolt, fatalism, indifference, heroism. In particular, the author insists on the suffering caused by the quarantine imposed on Oran, all the more painful since, in the forties, the means of communication were very inferior to ours. The media so present today hardly intervenes in La Peste.
However, there are still other differences in passing, such as the absence of women in the story. It even looks like Camus has moved them away. Doctor Rieux, the central figure, has by his side only his old mother who, like on chromo, watches silently, knitting by hand.
Another more surprising omission is that of ethnic Algerians. Oran, it seems, is only populated by French and a few Spaniards. The victims, however, should have been mainly indigenous . It is true that today in Europe, we are only interested in the fate of Europeans. Forgotten immigrants in camps, we barricade borders, we fight for the future ravages of the epidemic in Africa as we despised those who struck China. Western man still considers himself the navel of the world.
But let’s stick to the basics. The obvious difference between The Plague and our pandemic is in the questions raised by the disease. In The Plague, the question is of a philosophical nature: faced with the blind evil that prevails, what about the human condition? The debate picks up between the position of Rieux and Tarrou, his more intellectual friend, on the one hand, and that of Father Paneloux on the other.
For instance, in a first sermon at the cathedral, Paneloux interprets the plague as a warning from God to men who have turned away from Him. Subsequently, shaken by the atrocious death of a child who can only be innocent of all fault, he delivers a second sermon in which he affirms his choice to believe, however incomprehensible the reasons of God who allowed the scourge . Rieux and Tarrou oppose to him the well-known position of Camus, that of the man without God who combats evil simply because such is the dignity of the human being, even if his efforts, like those of Sisyphus would be condemned to failure.
Indeed in today’s crisis, we can see, in Europe at least, that the religious approach has practically disappeared. Churches, temples, synagogues remained closed. The authorities are almost silent. A TV debate between a Rieux and a Paneloux would be unimaginable. The Paneloux sermon would make the believers scream themselves. Since the time of the Plague, indeed, God, it seems, has stepped aside. No doubt he delegated the management of the world to humans by this contraction of his power that Jewish mysticism calls the “tsimtsoum” , the only way to justify his silence during the Shoah. He is no longer the cause of the pandemic and it is no longer He who will save us. God is also confined.
Incidentally, in any event, one might have imagined that the withdrawal of theologians would leave the field open to philosophers. Who do we see jostling at the media gate all day long? Medical specialists, statisticians, sociologists, psychologists, politicians. They give us figures of the epidemic, tell us what to do, think about the prospects for getting out of the doldrums and – promised, sworn! – announce fundamental economic reforms which will guarantee us against the return of such a calamity.
For the most part, in the public sphere, everything happens as if the pandemic was only a stone in the shoe of humanity, which it is necessary to get rid of as soon as possible, before resuming the march forward towards the goods of the world that we can enjoy again safely.
So where has philosophy gone? Where are the real questions, that of our condition as fragile and mortal beings, that of our place in nature and in the universe, that of the meaning of our brief appearance in the chain of life?
Without a doubt, these questions of The Plague, the pandemic undoubtedly poses them to us. But they took refuge with us in the few square meters and the few weeks of our retirement. Perhaps, overwhelmed by the difficulties of the moment, we will not have the strength to ask ourselves. We would be very sorry. But maybe we will think about it all the same, if only for a few moments, and we will come out of this crisis a little less blissful, a little more human.