Absurd Plague: Camus and the COVID-19 Pandemic
"Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”
- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
We all know that feeling. That sense of listlessness and boredom which seems to permeate life under lockdown. Algerian novelist and philosopher Albert Camus had a name for this sensation — the “absurd”. It has been almost 80 years since his groundbreaking essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, first explored the philosophy of the absurd but — in a world ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic — his ideas have never been more pertinent.
Camus was born to a poor French family living in Colonial Algeria on November 7, 1913. He never met his father, who died a year after his birth in WW1. Despite not being able to afford even basic possessions growing up, he was awarded a scholarship to study at a prestigious secondary school near Algiers, where he first became interested in Nietzsche and Ancient Greek philosophy. During his time at the University of Algeria (from 1930 to 1936), he became actively involved in revolutionary socialist groups such as the Algerian Communist Party (PCA) to fight against inequality between Europeans and local Algerians. It was during this period that he started his writing career, organising a group of leftist intellectuals known as the Worker’s Theatre. Unfortunately for Camus, he would later be expelled from the PCA due to his opposition to USSR Chancellor Joseph Stalin.
Camus at a rehearsal for “The State of Siege”
“Art and revolt will die only with the last man.”
- Albert Camus, The Rebel
In 1940, Camus moved to Paris, where he would write a great many of his early works including the aforementioned The Myth of Sisyphus, the novella The Outsider, and the play Caligula. After the outbreak of WW2, he played an active part in the underground resistance, writing for the banned newspaper Combat. After the war, Camus became renowned for his work and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, being the second youngest person ever to receive the reward. He would die three years later after his publisher accidentally crashed into a tree on the way back from a New Year's celebration in the south of France.
Camus’ life deeply influenced his philosophy. He grew up surrounded by violence and bloodshed: the death of his father, the conflict between Arabs, Berbers, and the colonising Europeans in Algeria, reporting on the devastation caused by the Nazis during WW1, etc. To him, the idea that life could have any inherent meaning was unfathomable, but this conclusion left a conundrum. In a world devoid of higher purpose, could our lives have any individual meaning? Many other philosophers had grappled with this problem before, namely existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, and Søren Kierkegaard who thought of humans as blank slates which had to create their own meaning. Camus however disagreed with this interpretation and instead believed that there is a human nature, one that is encapsulated by the existence of the absurd.
So what exactly is this absurd? For Camus, it was the fundamental contradiction between what we want from the world (be it meaning, fairness, or good grades) and the silent reply of a chaotic universe. Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. An old man berates his dog but cries when it is lost.
A useful exercise to demonstrate the absurd is to go to the root of want. You work hard to get good grades. Why? To get into a good university. What does that matter? To get a degree. To what end? To get a well-paying job and m0ney. Why do you need a lot of money? To buy fun things. Why do you need fun things? Because they make me happy. Why is being happy preferable to being sad? At this point, there really isn’t any satisfactory response. Everything ends in abstraction. Everything is, at the end of the day, essentially pointless and absurd.
“I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end.”
- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus is primarily occupied with how the absurd relates to meaning. To this end, he sets the stage with the titular myth. Sisyphus was an Ancient Greek king who imprisoned Death, stopping humans from ever dying. In retribution, the god Zeus devised a cruel torment, forcing him to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity. Whenever he gets to the top, the rock rolls all the way to the bottom and he has to start all over again. In Camus’ metaphor, the rock symbolises reality opposing the human tendency to seek value whilst Sisyphus himself embodies the human condition: enduring a seemingly hopeless struggle with no meaning to cling onto in sight.
The City of Oran
“The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes themselves to cultivating habits.”
- Albert Camus, The Plague
So what does this have to do with COVID-19? As the pandemic trudges onward, the absurd has become more and more difficult to ignore. It seems our world is held together merely by duct tape. During the early days, the ringing alarm bells of pestilence were quieted for the sake of stopping panic. Yet now, two years later, the Coronavirus still hasn’t let up. Camus wrote too on this phenomenon, most famously in his novel The Plague, set in the port city of Oran.
“Pestilence is in fact very common, but we find it hard to believe in pestilence when it descends upon us. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise”
- Albert Camus, The Plague
Disease is, by its nature, absurd. It is impossible to understand. It kills without regard for the innocent. As Camus points out, “A pestilence does not have human dimensions so people tell themselves that it is unreal, that it is a bad dream which will end”. When COVID-19 first entered the discourse, many concerns were rebuked as stupid. It was likened to the common cold, seen as nothing but an unwelcome visitor momentarily stopping by.
By now, that notion has been proven firmly wrong. Over 5 million people are dead. There can be no doubt that this pestilence, in particular, has deeply affected everyone’s lives, from students in Thailand to doctors in Algeria. A small encounter with the absurd, as was experienced in lesser outbreaks of diseases, such as SARS, is somewhat easy to brush aside. It seems only to be a short blip in an otherwise rational and controlled world. However, every day a new article is published on how post-Coronavirus life is going to be different. For many people, their outlook on the world has been permanently and profoundly shifted. They can’t negate their feelings of the absurd, can’t ‘return to the chain’ (that is, they can’t return to their prior activities nor value systems in the same manner as before). The soul-crushing isolation of quarantine, the death of loved ones, the void which encompasses the last two years of our lives: nothing is or will be the same.
After the Earthquake, Sophie Anderson
“If only it had been an earthquake! A good shake and that’s it… One counts the dead, one counts the living and the whole thing’s over and done with. But this rotten bastard of a disease! Even those who don’t have it, carry it in their hearts!”
- Albert Camus, The Plague
The Plague is more of a chronicle than a novel. Camus sought to portray life under disease (or military occupation, for which it was an allegory) as accurately as possible. Prior to the arrival of bubonic plague, life in Oran was soulless, materialistic, and mechanistic. Citizens went around wasting their lives for the sole purpose of making money, romance left for weekends. It was a difficult place to die, the constant bustle of business and oppressive weather suited only for those who were well. When everything seems lively, there’s simply no time to be ill.
As the disease sets its eyes on the town, everything changes. When Dr Rieux, the protagonist/narrator of the book, first describes the disease as “plague”, even he is shocked. How could a town as bustling as Oran suffer from such a disease? Inhabitants of the city too decry their epidemic as nothing more than a momentary visitor. They too struggle with accepting their predicament. As Camus states, “why should they have thought about the plague, which negates the future, negates journeys and debate?” Eventually, however, despair sets in. Not just those afflicted with the disease, but also those who must stay in the city under lockdown, the burden of isolation becoming the burden of all.
However, the town doesn’t just roll over and give up. Instead, the Oranians fight back. Just like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill, health teams led by Rieux’s friend Jean Tarrou combat the plague despite their hopeless conditions. They understand many of them will die — perhaps without even making a difference — and yet they persist.
Camus with his good friend and publisher Michel Gallimard
“[The absurd man] stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him. He experiences the "divine irresponsibility" of the condemned man."
- Jean-Paul Sartre, An Explication of The Stranger
Albert Camus loved life. He had a penchant for art, heavy drinking, and smoking, and was infamous for his countless affairs. This idea of life seeming meaningless may appear depressing, but for Camus, it was the most freeing feeling of all. When one is under no obligation to a higher power, a higher meaning, there’s nothing to stop them from living life to the fullest. It is here that we find Camus’ solution to the absurd — the absurd hero.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus observes three ways to deal with the absurd: philosophical suicide, self-obliteration, and acceptance. The first refers to flat-out denying the absurd, often through a denial of the fact that we live just to die. This can take the form of many things, from religion to chasing after money. Camus saw this as untenable: the transcendent quality of philosophical suicide, particularly in religion, essentially being tantamount to death-worship (in his essays, he particularly calls out existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, who believed we should take a leap of faith — something intellectually dishonest for Camus). By binding us to certain plans (being virtuous to get into heaven, living life for the sole purpose of getting richer), it necessarily limits our freedom. The second is similar. Although it can be viewed as the most radical acceptance of the absurd, suicide for Camus also signifies surrender to it. Rather than resolving the conflict, it instead simply adds to it.
Drawing of Danish Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard
“Kierkegaard wants to be cured. To be cured is his frenzied wish, and it runs throughout his whole journal. The entire effort of his intelligence is to escape the antinomy of the human condition.”
- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
This leaves only acceptance. One must accept that the world is beyond our understanding, particularly in terms of meaning, but then rebel against it. This is what Camus sees as the only solution, which he describes in terms of an absurd hero.
Philosophical suicide denies the absurd, physical suicide bolsters it. Acceptance, on the other hand, faces it head-on. The absurd hero recognises the absurdity of the world around them, yet doesn’t remain complacent. Instead, they create their own meaning. However, they are under no illusions about the nature of said meaning — it's all well and good to have some sort of purpose to live for, but once it crosses into the realm of the transcendent, it becomes identical to philosophical suicide. On the contrary, they are constantly aware of their own mortality: every day, every minute, every moment a rebellion against both death and the absurd. It is thus that absurdism frees, rather than shackles.
An interesting caveat on the absurd hero is Camus’ disdain for hope. Central to this idea of acceptance is living in the moment, something that is impossible through the application of hope. By its nature, hope requires us to live in the future, a trap that many of us have undoubtedly fallen into during these last couple of years. By hoping for a better world (in our case, one free of COVID) we will invariably fall victim to the consequences of longing for a world that won’t ever come.
Instead, we should harness the present to make a difference. The plague teams of Oran may have been self-destructive in the risks they took, but at least they tried. Rather than remain prisoners of the future, they took their lives into their own hands.
Sisyphus rolling a Coronavirus
“So if you only have one chance you oughta try your best to live as you like, one day you're going to die!”
- Will Wood, Memento Mori: the most important thing in the world
It’s in that same vein of thought that Camus writes “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” At first, that may seem bizarre. Sisyphus was punished with eternal damnation, a pointless task for all of time, how on Earth could be happy? Yet, once the original feelings of hope and later despair abate, he realises how pointless his situation is and rebels against it. He is the perfect exemplar of an absurd hero. Instead of living in the future, instead of hoping for a day when he would eventually be free from his torment, he enjoys himself in the present by rolling his boulder regardless of the absurdity of it all. He is conscious and that’s all that matters.
Returning back to COVID-19, it's been a hard time for us all. Although that omnipresent looming threat of death that hung over us all during the days of quarantine has — for the most part — disappeared, it would be impossible, disingenuous even, to suggest that our perceived place in the universe hasn’t been irreversibly altered. Recently put in contact with our own mortality, it is imperative that we all become absurd heroes, all live life to the fullest. It has become patently clear that there is no promise tomorrow will come, and we must face that fact. To conclude, the final warning from The Plague:
And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learnt from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; 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.