Albert Camus: An appeal to doctors fighting the plague

Moving from the practical to the ineffable, Albert Camus offers advice to doctors fighting epidemics and acknowledges the terrible strain they are under in this essay.

Albert Camus
Albert Camus. Image: Gina Manns / Getty

The narrator is perfectly aware how unfortunate it is that he cannot here describe something truly spectacular, for example some reassuring hero or an impressive action … The dreadful days of the plague do not seem like vast flames, cruel and magnificent, but rather like an endless trampling that flattens everything in its path. 

- Albert Camus

Since the start of lockdown in March, one book has emerged as an indispensable companion to our strange times: Albert Camus’ classic 1947 novel The Plague. The novel charts the progress of an epidemic in the Algerian city of Oran, its arrival heralded by a proliferation of dead rats. Officials dither initially, but eventually the city locks down and its inhabitants either resign themselves to their fate or attempt to fight against it in various ways.

Reading the book in 2020 is an uncanny experience. Almost every page contains some jolting insight that speaks precisely to our situation today. In cool, dispassionate prose, Camus’s narrator analyses the psychology of citizens under quarantine, the behaviour of bureaucrats, the monotony of "aimless days and sterile memories", and the despair of grieving families.

Reading the book in 2020 is an uncanny experience

It’s also a book about heroism, even while it argues that there can be no "reassuring hero or impressive action" in an epidemic. The book’s real heroes are the ordinary citizens – the doctors and other frontline health workers – who continue visiting the sick and tending to the dying, despite their own fears and grief. As with all his writing, Camus’s belief in everyday humanity burnishes every page of the novel.

A few years earlier, when The Plague was still germinating in Camus’s mind, he wrote an imaginative essay that prefigured his great novel, and which is translated into English for the first time below. Moving from the practical to the ineffable, the essay offers advice to doctors fighting epidemics and acknowledges the terrible strain they are under – a strain that may eventually become unbearable. When that day comes, Camus says, he will have no more words or insights to offer, but only his compassion. It’s a sentiment that speaks movingly across the years to our own time.

Jessica Harrison

Albert Camus
Albert Camus. Image: Gina Manns / Getty

An appeal to doctors fighting the plague

Good writers do not know whether the plague is contagious. But they have their suspicions. That is why they advise you to open the bedroom windows when you visit a sick person. But we must simply remember that the plague might also be in the streets, and can infect you in the same way, whether the windows are open or not.

The same writers also advise you to wear a face mask and eye covering, and to place a piece of cloth soaked in vinegar beneath your nose. Also, keep with you a sachet containing certain extracts recommended in books: lemon balm, marjoram, mint, sage, rosemary, orange blossom, basil, thyme, wild thyme, lavender, bay leaf, lemon peel and quince peel. It would also be desirable to be entirely dressed in a protective covering of protective material. But these measures could be modified. However, there are no compromises over the conditions that both good and bad writers agree on. The first is that you doctors must not take the pulse of a sick person without having first soaked your fingers in vinegar. You can guess the reason for this. But the best thing would perhaps be for you not take the pulse at all. Because if the sick person has the plague, that ritual won’t make it go away. And if he were immune to the plague, he wouldn’t have called for you. In times of an epidemic, we take care of ourselves by ourselves, to make sure there are no mistakes.

The second condition is that you must never place your face opposite the face of a sick person, so you are not in the direct line of the patient’s breath. In the same way, if you have opened the window, despite the uncertainty we have about the usefulness of doing so, it would be better not to stand in the direction of the wind, which risks carrying the dying gasps of the sick person directly to you.

And don’t visit patients before you have eaten. You would catch the disease. But don’t eat too much either. You’d also be more likely to get it. And if, despite all these precautions, something poisonous manages to get in your mouth, there is no remedy for that, except to not swallow your saliva throughout the entire time of your visit. But that would be the most difficult thing to do.

'The most important thing is that you never be afraid'

When all of these recommendations have more or less been followed, you mustn’t think you are safe. For there are other conditions, and very necessary ones, for the safety of your body, even though they relate more to the tendencies of your soul. “No person,” said an old author, “can allow themselves to touch anything that has been contaminated in a country where there is a plague.” This is good advice. And we must purify every portion of ourselves, even the most secretive place in our hearts, so we can grasp the few chances left to us. This is especially true for you, the doctors, who more likely come closer to the illness, and which makes you potentially contagious. You must, therefore, become exemplary models.

The most important thing is that you never be afraid. We have seen people carry out their profession as soldiers very well, despite being afraid of cannons. Yet the cannonball kills both the courageous and the fearful. Luck is a part of war, while there is very little luck with the plague. Fear taints the blood and inflames the spirit – all the books say so. Fear therefore disposes us to accept the impact of the disease, and, for the body to triumph over the infection, it is necessary to have a strong soul. Now, since pain is temporary, there is no fear greater than the fear of death. So you, the doctors fighting the plague, must stand strong in facing the idea of death and reconcile yourselves to it, before entering the kingdom prepared by the plague. If you are victorious in this respect, you will be victorious everywhere, and you will be seen to smile in the midst of this terror. The conclusion: you need a belief system.

You also need to be restrained in all things, which does not at all mean you must be chaste, which would be a different kind of excess. Cultivate reasonable joyfulness to prevent sadness from disrupting the flow of your blood, leaving it vulnerable to decay. To do this, there is nothing better than to drink a reasonable amount of wine, to lessen, somewhat, the dismay that will engulf you when facing the city in the grips of the plague. In a general way, maintain the equilibrium that is the prime enemy of the plague, and the natural law of humankind.

'The plague is born of excess. It is excess itself, and has no limits.'

Nemesis was not at all the goddess of vengeance, despite what you were told in school, but rather the goddess of equilibrium. And her terrible blows only struck people when they threw themselves into disorder and instability. The plague is born of excess. It is excess itself, and has no limits. You must know this if you want to fight it with clear-sightedness. Do not prove Thucydides right, who, when speaking of the plague in Athens, said that the doctors were of no help at all because, in principle, they were trying to cure the disease without knowing what it was. The plague loves to hide away in secret lairs. Shed the light of intelligence and fairness in them. That will be easier, you’ll see with time, than trying not to swallow your saliva.

Finally, you must become your own masters. And, for example, know how to respect the laws that you will have chosen, like the ones pertaining to blockades and quarantine. A historiographer of Provence said that in the past, if anyone confined escaped, they had their face smashed in. You do not want that to happen. But you mustn’t forget what is for the general good either. You will allow no exceptions to the rules, as long as they are useful, even if your heart urges you to. You are being asked to forget what you are, somewhat, without ever forgetting what you owe to yourself. That is the law of peaceful honour.

Armed with these remedies and virtues, all you must then do is fight your exhaustion and keep your imagination alert. You must not, you must never, get used to seeing people die like flies in our streets, the way they are now, and the way they have always done ever since the plague received its name in Athens. You will never cease to be filled with dismay by the black throats Thucydides described, throats producing a flow of blood and a hoarse cough that barely produces any phlegm, thin, salty and the colour of saffron. You will never get used to the cadavers that even birds of prey flee from to avoid getting infected. And you will continue to fight against the terrible confusion in which those who refuse to care for others die in solitude while those who make the sacrifice die in great numbers. The kind of confusion that means that pleasure no longer brings its natural consequences, where merit has no place, where people dance beside gravestones, where we push our lovers away so as not to pass on the disease, where the weight of a crime is never carried by the criminal, but by the scapegoat chosen blindly during the confusion of a terrifying moment.

'The day will come when you will want to shout out your disgust in the face of everyone’s pain and fear'

The soul remains the strongest when it has been soothed. You doctors will remain strong in the face of this strange tyranny. You will not serve that religion that is as old as the most ancient sects. That was what killed Pericles, when he wanted no glory other than to not have brought mourning to any citizen, and it has not ceased since that famous murder until the day when it came to strike our innocent city, to slaughter people and demand we sacrifice our children. And if that religion came to us from heaven, we must then say that heaven is unjust. If you reach that conclusion, you will not, however, find any pride in it. On the contrary: you will often think about your ignorance, so you are sure to maintain an equilibrium, which is the only way to become the master over any plague.

The fact remains that none of this is easy. Despite your masks and sachets, the vinegar and the protective clothing, despite the calmness of your courage and tireless effort, the day will come when you can no longer bear this city of dying people, the crowd that turns in circles along its dusty, scorching hot streets, their cries, their terror that knows no future. The day will come when you will want to shout out your disgust in the face of everyone’s pain and fear. When that day comes, there will no longer be any solution I can offer, other than compassion, which is the sister of ignorance.

© Les Cahiers de la Pléiade, 1947; Œuvres Complètes, II. Éditions Gallimard, 2006.  Translated by Sandra Smith. 


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