This is a technical piece for readers who have read Camus’ The Plague. I thought to share this now amidst the 2020 Global Pandemic. I wrote this after reading the book.
I explore how someone with religious sensibility responds to a plague, how the non-religious make sense of suffering, and how we should live knowing that the Plague never really ceases.
All or Nothing
The plague in Oran has disturbingly turned a classroom, a safe sanctuary for young children to learn and create, into an auxiliary where the only lullaby is the intolerable shriek of innocent lives. In the corner of the room, a small kid who was all too young to contemplate his own suffering was seen struggling for life- Jacques Othon. Jacques is the son of Monsieur Othon, a prominent figure in Oran. However, prominence bears no significance in the small town as the plague showed no favoritism for social class nor gender. And this is precisely the reason I found The Plague striking- it beautifully portrays the ugly truth of how indifferent evil can be in choosing its victim. Camus’ detailed narration of young Jacques’ struggle triggered a sense of anger and frustration in me which pushed me to explore a myriad of questions concerning justice and religion in the face of suffering.
The Problem of Religion
The problem of evil is the problem of religion.
When we talk of evil and injustice, it is necessary to call on the concept of religion as it supposedly acts as the absolute source of justice. The Plague perfectly encapsulates this problem as it portrays how the Plague targets even the most innocent of the citizens of Oran.
In the midst of this evil, why and how does it still make sense to believe in an All-Loving and All-Powerful God?
To grasp how the religious sensibility responds to this problem, there is no better character to analyze than Father Paneloux.
He is a Jesuit Priest in Oran and a champion of Christian doctrine at its purest and most precise. Prior to witnessing the boy’s suffering, Father Paneloux proclaimed that the plague is divine in origin and that its propagation was well deserved by the people of Oran.
“For plague is the flail of God and the world His threshing-floor, and implacably he will thresh out His harvest until the wheat is separated from the chaff. Now you are learning your lesson, the lesson that was learned by Cain and his offspring, by all that hardened their hearts against him.”
For God is a jealous God, Father Paneloux said, and He required longer and constant love. It was not enough for the people of Oran to merely visit the church on Sundays or undergo brief formalities. And because of the way they acted, the plague is God’s utmost punishment. Therefore, the world has to be imperfect because it is only in one where we can judge good and evil. The present world was not intended to be a paradise but a place for soul-making.
In the face of suffering, the people of Oran must not fret but rather, seek comfort. Father Paneloux said that the plague revealed the will of God in His transforming of evil to good. If we were to rely on our own human understanding, we would find no good reason to believe in a God as no loving God would inflict pain on the innocent. However, since he is an All-Powerful and All-Loving God, people must trust that there is meaning to all these sufferings. They must believe and understand that the pain ultimately serves as God’s good purpose.
However, as the plague worsened, questions on justice and religion complicate as well. Witnessing Jacques Othon’s suffering forced Father Paneloux to question his previous assertion that everyone in Oran deserved the plague. Jacques Othon is, after all, an innocent young boy who has not eaten from the fruit yet. His struggle to rise above water portrayed the sore reality of evil having no bias in choosing a victim. This served as a turning point for Father Paneloux.
“On the outside, he had lost nothing of his serenity, but the day on which he saw a child die, something seemed to change in him.
Is a Priest Justified in consulting a doctor?”
With difficulty in reconciling his abstract teachings and his actual encounter with suffering, Father Paneloux was forced to rethink his assertions. These changes in thought were reflected in his second sermon. He spoke in a gentler and more thoughtful manner. Instead of using You, he addressed the audience with We, connoting a sense of solidarity and understanding.
The message which strikes me the most in his second sermon was his declaration of All or Nothing. He said that it is either we believe in a God who brings evil for a purpose or we decline him.
“Thus today God has vouchsafed to His creatures an ordeal such that they must acquire and practice the greatest of all virtues, that of the All or Nothing. True, the agony of a child was humiliating to the heart and to the mind. But that was why we had to come to terms with it. Since it was God’s will, we too should will it. We must believe everything or deny everything. And who among you, I ask, would dare to deny everything?
The suffering of Jacques is unjustifiable and that is precisely the reason we have to choose a side- it’s either we trust in God’s good purpose or we agree that it is irrational and thus deny God. And throughout religious history, charismatic leaders had found ways to convince people that choosing the other option was a disgrace or was unacceptable. Father Paneloux’ use of the word “Dare” connoted this sense of threat to the audience- if you choose the other way and revolt against my teachings, you are all alone. For those swimming in the realm of uncertainty, this firm promise of a better future provided a sense of comfort and not to mention a sense of community. You may not understand but as long as you have faith, God will show His plan. Just have faith that Jacques will have a better life up there, just have faith that all those who suffered will find peace in heaven. Do not worry, you are not alone, the majority believes as well, you are not an outlier and you are safe with your decision of believing in God.
“But again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. The schoolteacher is well aware of this. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is one of knowing whether two and two do make four”
Camus, in his choice of Doctor Rieux as the protagonist, voiced out his personal thoughts on the problem of religion. Doctor Rieux stood on the other side of the spectrum and refused to believe that a certain god can exist in the face of this suffering. However, in a society where religion holds not just moral but also political power, do we dare go against it? We are taught to stop asking and to just believe, even when we clearly know that there can be no explanation for innocent children suffering.
Religious groups are precisely the propagators of philosophical suicide.
In The Plague, Doctor Rieux serves as our teacher and firm reminder that we can choose the alternative. When life does not make sense, we can choose to say that it really does not make sense. We no longer have to keep rationalizing to ourselves that suffering is completely justifiable just for the sake of not committing heresy. And for me, the thought of having this alternative is liberating.
Moving on, it is interesting to explore why Camus would use a doctor as his protagonist. We see Camus’ brilliance in using a doctor as his protagonist as the field of science and medicine is often viewed as man’s most powerful tool. Instead of trusting in divine intervention, we see that people readily listen to the prescriptions of doctors and without hesitation, acknowledge that they are the ones taking control of alleviating sickness in society. Rieux as a Doctor is Camus showing that in times of suffering and death, man is the one taking control.
“Salvation’s much too big a word for me. I don’t aim so high. I’m concerned with man’s health, and for me, his health comes first.”
It is also as a doctor where the feeling of absurdity thrives. Despite advances in the research of medicine, Doctor Rieux was still unable to release Jacques from his suffering.
“He would take the pulse of the kid, not because it would serve any purpose, but because it serves as an escape from his utter helplessness. …But linked for a few moments, the rhythms of their heartbeats soon fell apart, the child escaped him, and again he knew his impotence. ”
Doctor Rieux continued trying despite knowing that his efforts may not yield any positive results. He could potentially save the kid but there seemed to be an impenetrable barrier stopping him from doing so. And after hours of this constant internal and external struggle, he felt a sense of weariness and anger- one of mad revolt. Armed with human science and knowledge, Doctor Rieux came face to face with the world’s unreasonableness. But he never gave up. At this point, we can see that Doctor Rieux bannered the Absurd Hero in Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.
“As much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.”2
Doctor Rieux, much like Sisyphus, acknowledged the absurdity of the situation yet continued to struggle and fought for the life of Jacques. He persevered not because of some divine inspiration, but because it was his job and his role as a man.
And now from Doctor Rieux’s perspective, we beg the question what is the point of Jacques suffering? Camus showed the answer using imagery- Jacques laying flat in a grotesque parody of the crucifixion. The crucifixion served as a pillar of Christianity and epitomized the suffering of Jesus Christ. For the Christians, Jesus’ death was what washed away the sins of the people thereby giving rise to their salvation. There is meaning to Jesus’ death and up until today, his death is still held highly regarded. Translating this back to Jacques, we now question- what did he die for? As a young and innocent kid, he is not fighting for anyone or anything but for himself. Not only is he innocent, but his suffering is also unnecessary. There is nothing meaningful in Jacques’s suffering. As Levinas would say, innocent suffering is meaningless and for nothing.
“The justification of the neighbor’s pain is certainly the source of all immorality.”
We can step into the shoes of the religious and proclaim in an extreme way that his suffering served as an example for humanity to behave and learn a lesson. But isn’t this serving as an example a little bit too harsh for a child to bear? What kind of Loving and Powerful being allows for the suffering of the innocent young- is it for the mere purpose of flaunting the strengths of this God? For whatever purpose it may serve, it is an insult to our morality to say that Jacques’ suffering is completely justifiable. This parody of the crucifixion is Camus saying that this young kid’s suffering is senseless and meaningless. It is not just Jacques, but this is relevant to the thousands and millions of people who died for no reason. Today, not all are remembered, today, even though they suffered more than Jesus Christ, they are not praised nor worshipped.
Father Paneloux and Doctor Rieux
It is useless to attempt to influence a believer through rational means. As Father Paneloux had clearly portrayed, those with the religious sensibility had already taken on a non-apologetic approach in their belief in God.
Appearances notwithstanding, all trials, however cruel, worked together for good to the Christian. And indeed, what a Christian should always seek in his hour of trial was to discern that good, in what it consisted, and how best he could it to account.
Doctor Rieux understood this and said that beyond blasphemy and prayers, they are working side by side on something which united them and that is the only thing that mattered. For him, it doesn’t matter if you are religious or secular- saving lives is what is important and we as human beings should come together and solve the issue at hand instead of floating on the realm of abstractions. He ended the conversation with Father Paneloux with a short and conclusive statement- Even God can’t part us now.
If there is one thing which the Plague has brought to the town of Oran, it is that courage to rise up and fall again without seeking for meaning. At the end of the story, we can see that rats started to sprawl up again, hinting the coming of a new horror.
The plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.
The plague will never cease and evil will never end. We all have the plague and the moment we underestimate its strength, it will surprise us with its might. However, as one must imagine Sisyphus happy, we must also imagine that the people of Oran, despite the thought that graver plagues and bigger rats are coming their way, they are going to be happy as well. The cycle of fighting off evil, struggling, and succeeding is a constant one. Camus shows that in the face of this absurdity, instead of choosing to die, we should face it head-on and acknowledge that life is absurd. Take life day by day, year by year. This energy to thrive in absurdity is ironically most exemplified in the dying Jacques Othon. Unlike other patients who gave up on life, Jacques was the only one who, using his little might, continued to fight for his life.
Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Modern Library, 1948.
Camus, Albert. The Myth Of Sisyphus, And Other Essays. New York: Knopf, 1955.
Levinas, Emmanuel. “Useless Suffering.” In Entre Nous: Thinking of the Other, translated by Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Art Work: The Rehearsal, Edgar Degas (1877)