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Columns

The Plague According to Camus

By Serena G. Pellegrino, Contributing Opinion Writer
Serena G. Pellegrino ’23 is a resident of Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.” In his 1947 novel, “The Plague,” Albert Camus reaches the philosophical conclusion that life is random and absurd. And today, this sentiment resonates more than ever. Plagues have ravaged humanity for all of history, yet, it’s hard for us to believe that we are actually living through one of them.

Our behavior has changed because of the pandemic — or maybe our true natures have simply been exposed. Young people are acting out, and very often we don’t abide by the rules. It’s happening on our very own campus. Students are being dismissed for hosting indoor parties while others are congregating along the Charles River maskless. Beyond Cambridge, Instagram and Snapchat stories regularly document gatherings that are far too large. And in places like Kentucky and Alabama, people are abandoning responsibility completely, hosting “coronavirus parties.” It seems like we are acting careless to the point of illogical.

But Camus rationalizes our behavior and holds up a mirror to our society. He shows us that there’s more to our psychology than simple recklessness. He articulates feelings we might not even consciously recognize – that we are “impatient of the present and cheated of the future.” Amid rules and restrictions, we have been deprived of our normal lives, so we rebel. The pandemic feels unfair, inexplicable, and overwhelming. Our freedom has been compromised. The liberty to do ‘what we want, when we want’ has been revoked, and out of dread and denial, we rebel to exercise what little agency we have left.

Ultimately, however, Camus contends this kind of rebellion is futile. In the town of Oran, where the novel takes place, the citizens’ display of luxury, lavish spending, and gluttony provides only short term gratification. There’s a “frantic desire for life that thrives in the heart of every great calamity” and this strong desire is in our lives, too. We’re a generation accustomed to extreme accessibility. With just a smartphone app, we can access anything from pizza to a potential love interest. Accustomed to instant gratification provided by the machines in our pockets, we are reluctant to tolerate life any other way or lose our control over pleasure.

But rebellion out of stubbornness and selfishness is useless to us and harmful to those around us. The reality is that this behavior doesn’t allow us to reclaim old liberties. Rather, it perpetuates a vicious cycle in which we try to make ourselves feel better by doing things that ultimately make us feel worse and which are potentially fatal for others. We are fighting the wrong fight.

For Camus, nevertheless, the fight in itself isn’t worthless. “It may be shameful to be happy by oneself,” he admits. Young people shouldn’t rebel to satisfy personal desires or to demand pre-COVID life. Instead, Camus proposes a different kind of rebellion that provides true liberation: the revolt against human suffering and the fight for life. Dr. Rieux, the novel’s central character, is the epitome of this ethos. He works tirelessly to remedy his patients from the plague, often with little success. However, he persists. In a most symbolic moment, Dr. Rieux tends to an ill boy despite his knowledge that it’s a “losing fight” purely for the sake of the boy’s born right to live. He demonstrates that the fight itself may be lost, but in an absurd life, one that feels random and unfair, living for the struggle to end oppression and protect life is the most we can do to create meaning within meaninglessness. And philosophical theories aside, Dr. Rieux’s deeds most concretely provoke us to remember how grateful we should be for the real nurses and doctors who thanklessly fight for patients’ lives daily. Undoubtedly, their fight is one worth revering.

Certainly, young people are feeling powerless in the face of COVID. I acknowledge it isn’t easy to discard our desires in the name of some huge, lofty cause. It isn’t easy to be like Dr. Rieux. But we need to remember that the fight — the right fight to help others who are more at risk than us — must go on. We can’t defy the virus, but if we are diligent, we can fight for our humanity. However inconsequential our fight may seem, our efforts are crucial. However restricted we may feel, we do have freedom of choice. We can choose to make decisions that positively impact our futures.

“Plague? Just life, no more than that.” An old patient of Rieux’s tells us the struggle against plague is a struggle like any other. We should remember this in times of pandemic and otherwise because pestilences are all around us. Our world is plagued with conflict: racial injustice, gender inequality, class conflict and environmental degradation just to name a few. It can all feel so overwhelmingly unfair.

But Camus’s notion that all this suffering is just life — while it seems at first a resignation to a futile fight — is actually a source of possibility and even hope. If we look through Camus’s absurdist eyes, life lacks any inherent meaning. However, our revolt proves to us that we are in fact free to make decisions and from these choices, we can derive the meaning we seek and which is necessary to persist. We have the privilege to fight for human rights. We can take a stand, vote, change our behaviors — resist.

If we act more like Dr. Rieux and less like the citizens of Oran, we will create a freer world for everyone, ourselves included. But of course, by the end of his novel, Camus doesn’t leave us with an Oran completely healed. Often that’s not how life works. “The plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good,” nor should we expect it to. As philosopher Alain de Botton affirms, “life is a hospice, never a hospital.” Our world will never completely recover — it will never be entirely healthy. Life might never feel completely fair. All we can do, then, is take heart in knowing it’s the struggle that counts, and if we fight for life, just maybe this will be relief enough from any plague.

Serena G. Pellegrino ’23 is a resident of Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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