Moral contagion | The Indian Express


Written by Nirupama Subramanian

Updated: May 5, 2020 04:51:43 am

Moral contagion The plague of Albert Camus, published in 1947, concerns an epidemic of bubonic plague in a small town in French Algeria. (Source: Getty / Thinkstock)
As we fall on a pandemic for which there is no cure yet, we tell ourselves that it will also pass and that we will resume life as before, while knowing inside everything that is lost and cannot never be found, it’s hardly believable there. was someone over 70 years ago who wrote about the human condition as it is today – so accurately and in such detail that it seems he is here now, to look, to see and talk to us.

The plague of Albert Camus, published in 1947, concerns an epidemic of bubonic plague in a small town in French Algeria. But the story is also read as an allegory of the occupation of France by Nazi Germany during the Second World War and the Vichy’s regime’s collaboration with it.

Reading it today is like driving down both sides of a two-way street at once. The allegory must be read literally for the astonishing accuracy with which it describes the world at that time, although the coronavirus is much less deadly than the plague, while the underlying history of human conduct in wartime in France we hold a mirror to the moral diseases of our time – relentless “alteration”, the search for someone to blame, enemies inside and out, community estrangement, false equivalences and the appalling shortage of a human quality called empathy.

Oran is the Algerian seaside town in which Camus told this story. When dead rats start to appear in the city, there is, in Oran, first a perplexity, then a denial, a bravado and finally, the moment to find yourself face to face with the truth. Hospitals overflow, schools and stadium have been taken over. People are protesting against their quarantine, and the police must accompany doctors in their house-to-house search for infected people. No ship stops at Oran and none leaves France. There is the wait for a vaccine and a lock that weighs heavily on the city because it sucks the lives of city dwellers. Some feed from desk to desk for a rare exit permit, although reception at the other end is uncertain. Others are shot dead as they try to break through the doors and flee.

There is hunger. “Poor families. found themselves in a very difficult situation, when the rich lacked practically nothing … in fact, it increased the feeling of injustice in the hearts of men. They had the unreasonable feeling that they should have been allowed to leave. “

There are bodies and rules for their disposal – after no land is left to bury people, they must be cremated. “The victims died far from their families and ritual surveillance of the dead was prohibited.” There are doctors on the front line and others who are getting into the fight against the disease because being a spectator is not an option; there are unlikely heroes and unlovable profiteers. Even the timing is strangely similar. Winter turns into spring, spring gives way to summer, summer to fall. There is even a doctor who places his hopes in the cold to bring better news.

In real life, Oran, today the second largest city in Algeria, has never experienced an epidemic. During the war, it was a Franco-German Vichy outpost that the Allies captured in 1942.

When Penguin Books published a new translation of The Plague in 2001, historian Tony Judt, who wrote the introduction, said in a November 2001 essay in The New York Review of Books that The Plague “takes on new meaning and a touching immediacy ”. He was referring to the September 11 bombing of the twin towers. Judt wrote that “Camus’ unwavering understanding of the difference between good and evil, despite his compassion for skeptics and compromises, for the motives and mistakes of an imperfect humanity”, appeared “in a short time flattering… the relativizers and the trimmers of our time. “.

The plague is a deeply reflective work on the human condition. It was criticized at the time of its publication for not being political enough, or downright on what should be condemned. There is no mention in The Plague of the Nazis or the Vichy regime, or even of the year in which it takes place, although it is widely accepted that it was in the early 1940s and the fictitious closure of Oran as a prison in France had become under Nazi occupation. If he had been more explicit, Judt wonders if he would have had the same resonance around the world, read at different times over the past 70 years to draw parallels with several moral contagions that have plagued us.

In 2020, in India, where an already resurgent community virus caught on the coronavirus the way a heat-seeking missile locks onto its target, when the blame for a biological contagion that did not differentiate religion , race or caste is sought. to be pinned on a religious community, when social distancing becomes the new untouchability against Muslims or against the poor – at that time, what can we learn from this work by a French writer from another era whose work does echo on so many levels with our current situation?

Aside from the remarkable similarities between colonial France and present-day India, down to the Infodoc department which publishes the number of infected people daily, what stands out is the firm conviction – the moral of the story – that it is vital to “Call the disease by its proper name” so that you can deal with it in the right way, and then do everything to resist it even if such efforts may prove in vain; this victory, if it is won, cannot bring any satisfactory solution. “All I’m saying is that on this earth there are plagues and there are victims – and as far as possible, you must refuse to be on the side of the plague”, explains Tarrou, l one of the main characters in the book.

While the plague recedes a year after its start, as “inexplicable” as it had appeared, and Oran returns to normal and its inhabitants start to smile and laugh again, the novel leaves us with a final sinister prophecy, literally or otherwise. ” [T]The plague bacillus never dies or disappears entirely. he can lie dormant for decades in furniture or clothing… he waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and waste paper, and perhaps the day will come when for instruction or the misfortune of humanity, the plague will wake up its rats and send them to die in a very happy city ”.

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