by Laurent Gagnebin
translation Louise Thunin
This year the media have widely celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the death of Albert Camus (1913-1960). The Covid-19 pandemic has led many people to read or reread The Plague (1947). It reminds us closely of the Covid-19 tragedy: a pandemic of the same natural origin, indeed an ”inivisble calamity“ (“The plague bacilla doesn’t die or ever disappear ”), the same ” undeserved suffering“ (scientific, political, religious, philosophical), the same upset of certainties : (“They thought they were free, and no one will ever be free as long as there are calamities »).
The main character of this narrative is an atheist doctor, Dr. Rieux. He represents Camus’ thought. Another figure, his antithesis, is that of Father Paneloux, whose faith, more and more tormented, holds out, in spite of it all, till his death. Camus hesitated for some time to show this priest losing his faith, but wasn’t he right to give up that idea ?
Rieux declares that “if he believed in an all-powerful God, he would stop healing men and would leave that up to God. ” Moroever, he says : “(…) perhaps it is better for God that we don’t believe in him and that we struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes to heaven where he remains silent. “ Here, we find the everlasting problem of evil and the suffering of innocents, symbolized by the plague.
We read two sermons preached by Father Paneloux. In the first, he begins his sermon by speaking of a “ misfortune (…) well deserved” because of sin. He insists on its “punitive nature”. Haven’t some of us heard the same monstrous proclamation of faith in the face of the Covid pandemic ?
In the middle of The Plague, we read the terrible narrative of ”the agony of an innocent,” ending with the death of the child on whom a new serum is being experimented.
For Rieux, once again, suffering is a “scandal.” Is it not also, we must specify, more especially so for a Christian believer–particularly because of the tragedy of the cross ? After this event, Paneloux will preach another sermon in the cathedral. He has changed. He now defends a form of ”active fatalism“, in which one must “bow to the will of the divine, incomprehensible as it may be.” I would like to point out that there, for me, is no mystery, but rather a clear, revolting image of a cruel God. This being said, Rieux, aware that he and Paneloux are finally waging the same battle against the plague, declares to the priest : ”Now, God himself cannot separate us. “ In social Christianity, is it not an identical conviction that animates its workers and activistis ?
One of the most beautiful declarations of The Plague, on the last page, is Rieux’s thought that “There is more in men to admire than to scorn.” We too have expressed that by applauding the hospital personnel and the unknown faces struggling to combat the Corona virus. ”What interests me,” says Rieux, ”is being a man“ and not ”a saint“ or even “a hero”. Camus certainly does defend a certain humanism, but ever so humble, without the least homage paid to human beings. At the end of The Rebel (1951), he writes, ”Learn to live and to die, and, in order to be a man, refuse to be God.“
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