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The Plague



When the world today is struggling with the pandemic of Covid-19, Albert Camus’s novel The Plague can offer some stimulating lessons. When a plague breaks out in the city of Oran, initially the political authorities fail to deal with it as a serious problem. The ordinary people also don’t view it as an epidemic that requires public action rather than as individual annoyances. The people of Oran are obsessed with their personal sufferings and inconveniences. Finally the authorities are forced to put Oran in quarantine. Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest, delivers a sermon declaring the epidemic as God’s punishment for Oran’s sins.

Months of suffering make people rise above their selfish notions and obsessions and join anti-plague efforts being carried out by people like Dr Rieux. Dr Rieux is an atheist but committed to service of humanity. He questions Father Paneloux’s religious views when a small boy is killed by the epidemic. The priest delivers another sermon on the necessity of accepting all or nothing: if you believe in God you either accept all that comes as coming from God or you don’t believe in God at all.

It is the same with any other belief too. That is what Camus tries to show in the novel. Dr Rieux is an atheist. But he puts his trust in what Camus calls intellectual honesty elsewhere. Life is absurd. Death is its irrational and ultimate end. Everything is rendered meaningless by death. Except the meaning you create for your life.

Dr Rieux creates a meaning for himself: he believes that each person is responsible not just for himself but for all of mankind. Each one of us is the world’s redeemer. Our actions can make us the saviours of the world. It is not through religious rituals that we become saviours of the world. Sunday’s prayers cannot excuse Saturday’s hates. Man should do the job that he has so far assigned to God. Man should heal mankind by loving, by being compassionate, by being good. Just as you surrender yourself totally to God, you need to surrender yourself totally to this conviction. Once you accept these certainties (compassion, etc), you must sacrifice everything else to them.

Father Paneloux falls ill the day after his second sermon. He soon dies clutching a crucifix. He had told the young priest that “if a priest consults a physician, there is a contradiction.” If you believe that your God is all-powerful, then your God should heal you. Otherwise your faith is feeble, far from absolute. Dr Rieux’s faith in his rational faculty is absolute. The irony here is that the atheist’s faith is better-founded than the priest’s.

Father Paneloux refuses medical assistance. He dies. Dr Rieux doesn’t find symptoms of the plague in the priest. How did he then die? Did the horrendous vacuum between his faith and his life lead to his death? Did he choose a final surrender to his faith? Or did he realise the hollowness of his faith?

Today the world is passing through a critical period because of Covid-19, a pandemic akin to the plague that beset Camus’s Oran. There are thousands of religions and millions of religious leaders and billions of believers in this world. Curiously their silence has become deafening. The world has chosen to put its trust in medical science. We are fortunate to have medical personnel who, like Dr Rieux, believe: “I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”

When the plague is finally eradicated from Oran, Dr Rieux knows that the fight is never really over. The “plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good,” he says. It can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves. The fight against it will be continued “by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.”

All of us can be healers if we dare, if we wish. That’s real religion. That’s what Camus teaches us.


PS. This is part of a series being written for the #BlogchatterA2Z Challenge. The previous parts are:
14. No Exit

Comments

  1. What an apt time to share Camus' plague. But I feel when it is over, those who believe in their God will still be willing to give it to Him rather than to science. For them, as for the priest, it will be God's way of punishing mankind or they will have a hundred reasons to convince themselves. Because ultimately you only hear what you want to.
    It is also true that a pandemic redeems us only if we are willing to be redeemed. While there are several cases of man rising above his own selfish motives in such times, past epidemics have also shown how distant and self centred man can become. The present scenario is no different. We couldn't have been more indifferent than we are now...Most of us.
    Forgive me for being the cynic but my understanding says that human nature changes little. At least on an average.

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    1. I'm totally with you, Sonia, in this. I have to go out of my way to restrain my own cynicism. One reason why hope struggles to dominate my thinking is that this pandemic has affected the whole world, not just one nation or two. Everywhere, the different religions and different gods have fallen helplessly silent. No culture, no race is safe. So maybe people will begin to see something new. I don't know, but I hope.

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    2. To all those interested, religion is not the answer, the answer is in the person of Jesus Christ. Sadly, even many who call themselves as "Christians" do not know Him. As space is short I am not going on a long answer. Please visit truthforlife.org or reasons.org or rzim.org to get rational answers. Blessings to all.

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  2. The trouble with religious faith is it does not lend itself to reason. It is said that religion is the opium of the masses. No matter how many pandemics plague us or how many people we lose to war and poverty man can never be cured of irrational and unfounded religious faith. Because this drug called religion has eaten into our souls and contaminated us so deeply.

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    Replies
    1. Absolutely, Jai. So many cataclysms happened in the past and man never learnt. Yet, as I answered Sonia above, I dare to hope. Do we have a choice here? What is life without hope?

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  3. I respect religion when it helps people believe in love and humanity, and when it gives them strength to face dire times. But from my experience, there have been too many instances that show how it is dangerous. For instance, the religious gatherings during the pandemic wherein they believe that god will protect them since it is for a religious cause. There was a meme being circulated about the scientists hoping that when they finally develop the vaccine, that people don't thank god for it.
    Picking this book up next, anyway. Thanks for sharing :)

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    1. I too respect religion whenever it does anything good. But more often than not, religions have wreaked havoc. That's why i advocate humanism.

      I'm sure you'll love Camus. I'm going to bring one more book of his in this series: The Rebel.

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  4. Pandemic or no pandemic, i don't think people changes. Our biases are so deeprooted, we know how to find logic to fit new information to our already held belief systems.

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    1. That's a more practical way of assessing people. I'm an incorrigible romantic.

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  5. This is a book that seems to speak the story of current scenario, and as if it has come alive in today's times. It all sounds so familiar and relatable. The skeptical end is scary. Hope humanity doesn't have to face the fate and fear as depicted here.
    Well put!

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    1. The end need not be scary if people learn lessons from calamities. But people don't learn. So the virus will keep returning.

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    2. True, people have hardly learnt in the past and there are dim chances they will learn now or ever! God and Science protect us!

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  6. A lot of similarities with the current situation. I hope in the end we come out victorious. Well written post.
    -- rightpurchasing.com

    In addition, we at rightpurchasing are having an open day on Monday along with the "Q" post. We will be open to any of your queries regarding Blog monetization or if you need any suggestions. Hope to see you there.

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  7. Oh my God! The Plague seems to be the story of today written way back by the visionary. Or is it that the history always repeats itself and we the mankind have not learnt from it?

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  8. I don't know when will the human race learn from their mistakes and start taking things seriously.

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  9. Wonderful reference. Loved reading it.

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  10. Good reference..you are right..we are looking at science for cure..as for religion..i think its the blind adherence to rituals that leads to mayhem..

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    Replies
    1. I feel religion has outlived its purpose. We live in an era in which algorithms are going to surpass human intelligence and creativity.

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  11. Apt for the times. History repeats itself, hope we learn a few lessons from the crisis.

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    1. Do you think people really learn the required lessons? Most probably, as soon as this is over, the miracle workers will emerge with all sorts of claims and their followers will fall prostrate...

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  12. The image at the last says it all :)

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    Replies
    1. I created it to focus on the message. Glad you took note.

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  13. The Plague seems like a story of our current time. History truly repeats itself but wonder if we will learn the lessons!?!

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    Replies
    1. A lot of readers ask the same question which implies a desire to learn. So maybe we will. I hope.

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