Author: Adi

What Makes a Plague a Plague?

Albert Camus’ The Plague tells the story of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran, told from the point of view of a first-person narrator.

A central theme in Part 1 of Albert Camus’s The Plague is the significance of the naming of a plague as a “plague.” Labels hold a lot of weight, and the labeling of widespread disease and death as a plague is no exception. The narrator notes that plagues, like wars, have always existed amongst humans, but there is still a sense of shock and denial every time a new one arises. The people of Oran witness firsthand the disease’s spread throughout the rats, and then the transference of the disease to humans. The rats’ example can be taken as a clear instance of foreshadowing what fate awaited the people, yet they showed nowhere near as much concern for the disease spreading to humans–Dr. Castel tells Dr. Rieux that the government will avoid publishing anything about how rapidly the disease is spreading to humans to avoid inciting fear within the people. However, leaving the plague nameless poses an issue arguably worse than fear of the disease: a lack of concern for it. Despite seeing what happened to the rats, the people of Oran continue to go about their daily business. This is due largely to the fact that the plague is not being referred to as a plague at all, and the implications of the word are not getting through the peoples’ heads. A relevant example in today’s day and age would be the naming of the pandemic as a “pandemic.” While the word plague was not used, the heaviness associated with a term like “plague” is present in the term pandemic. People did not take COVID-19 as seriously until it began being labeled as a pandemic because the word provided larger and stronger implications than the word “coronavirus.” The peoples’ refusal to acknowledge the plague as a plague in The Plague says much about the significance of labeling and the avoidant tendencies humans utilize to reduce the seriousness of an issue in their minds, no matter how many signs say otherwise.

The motif of suffering is quite prevalent throughout Part 1 as well. In particular, we find that this work differs greatly from the other contagion works we’ve read in this class, in that Camus incorporates merciless gore-like details of the plague’s effects on both the rats and the humans. The motif of suffering in The Plague applies to both the infected rats and the infected humans, yet the difference is that with humans, there is the ability to divide the struggle amongst themselves. This is exemplified in the way doctors such as Rieux are selfless and work themselves to the bone in an attempt to save patients and minimize the struggle a human body has with the plague. Furthermore, the comparison “rats died in the streets, men in their homes” (Ch. 4), shows us that the only difference in how the plague affected men and rats was the place that each died. This leads us to consider the question of is there a dignified way to die if infected by the plague? Moreover, what does it mean to have a dignified death in a pandemic?

Part one of The Plague takes readers through the stages societies go through when dealing with the widespread and oftentimes unexplainable diseases. The first stage – initial observations – is marked by preliminary inspections of abnormalities around the community. In one peaceful evening, Dr Reiux noticed “a big rat … [with] its mouth slightly open and blood spurting from it” (5). The second stage, denial, takes place when different members in a society gather together to discuss these abnormalities. In most cases, if not all, they would deny these deviations, trusting that this phenomenon “is certainly queer…but it’ll pass” (8). As much as a society wants to maintain the status quo, however, these abnormal phenomenons continue to increase and intensify, taking us to the third stage – the spread of the plague (and rumors). The narrator noted that the number of rats that died on the streets of Oran has increased at an exponential rate. The situation has gotten so out of hand “it was as if the earth on which our houses stood were being purged of its secreted humours — thrusting up to the surface the abscesses and pus-clots that had been forming in its entrails” (13). This leads to the fourth stage – realization – in which members of the society slowly begin to acknowledge the existence of a widespread disease, but still try to carry out their daily activities. The fifth and final stage comes when the plague eventually escalates to a tipping point, often characterized by some form of government response. Thus, the end of part one marks the beginning of the fifth stage with a telegram announcement: “Proclaim a state of plague Stop close the town” (61).

The first chapter we’ve read tries to examine the way plague is perceived by different people. We have the views of the doctors, the authority, the common people of various occupations, etc. At this point, an attentive reader might wonder about the veracity of the novel – it is, after all, a work of fiction. We learn that Camus has done a remarkable job researching the epidemic of cholera in the city of Oran in 1849. But how much of the novel is true, or might have been true, if the plague really had visited Oran in the 194-? Fortunately (or maybe not really), we have an event to compare it to, and the striking similarities occur when we dive into the details.

It all starts with the wordings used during the Plague, such as “… a spirit of prudence that all would appreciate,…” (Ch. 5) in the book, which cognates the legendary phrase of an “abundance of caution,” that the NYUAD administration had used quite regularly. But it evidently goes beyond that – Camus analyzes the human ability to understand the Plague, and we come to the conclusion that it is simply incomprehensible when we stumble upon Rieux’s thoughts throughout the first chapter: “…what man knows ten thousand faces?…” or “… he couldn’t picture such eccentricities existing in a plague-stricken community…” (38).

But most importantly, we get to read about the counterintuitive nature of the Plague. In many human thoughts, Camus notes, “stupidity has a knack of getting its way” (37), and that the Plague is contrary to the life itself as we know it: “… everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible.” This rigid duality of our world was indeed observed during our time of the pandemic. I (and, I hope, many others in our class) remember clearly when the school said that it was “impossible” for them to quarantine people since NYUAD is not a hospital or any other kind of medical institution. But in a matter of days, A1 became a quarantining building on campus. And then, all of a sudden, every room on campus could be used for the quarantine measures. The plague destroys our notion of what is possible and impossible, because our systems of possibility rely on the simple, yet dangerous assumption that the plague is impossible.

Jenn, Afraah, Meera, Adi

The Code Breaker

Since I wasn’t in class on Monday, I am not sure whether you have discussed that or not, but Ghosts immediately reminded me about the debates over gene editing. One of the most prominent examples is the CRISPR technology, which is considered to be a panacea in some circles. However, the ethics of use are in question.

A little bit of a personal note – I have shared before that I have a chronic condition. I learned that there is “some genetic element to it,” and I was having a hard time dealing with this knowledge since then. One can imagine all the different thoughts, fears, and anxieties people might have upon learning such details. But no more to it, here are the links for the interesting videos:

Kurzgesagt video!
Here is a look at what Jennifer Doudna thinks about the ethics of her breakthrough. She recently won a Nobel Prize, and Walter Isaacson wrote her biography!

Cholera morbus

UPD: As I am writing this, the first malaria vaccine was approved by WHO. Sincere congratulations!

I want to add the context in which the play was written – it was the First Cholera Pandemic, and cholera at that time was almost unknown to Europeans. The disease is said to originate in the Bengal region, and although cholera was circulating there previously, in 1817 it came to prominence and spread to many countries in Asia and Europe. Here are the similarities I want to draw between the cholera epidemic and COVID-19:

  • It is suggested that it first spread through contaminated rice. Just like a “bat soup” theory for COVID. Why do we come to these conclusions? We know that the bat soup theory at this point is not evidence-based, yet it somehow became common knowledge for many people around the world.
  • The disease was not of great interest to Europeans until the British soldiers got infected.  We are still just reactionaries, and anyone who is warning people about the coming problems is regarded as an alarmist. I wonder what should change in us, in order to prevent a terrible future. 
  • Pushkin wrote the play in Boldino, and he actually finished other critically-acclaimed works there. In fact, he was so prolific during his stay at Boldino, his time there was named “Boldino autumn.” It is similar (and this links us back to Defoe) to Newton’s “Year of Wonders” in 1665-1666. It reminds me that many people during COVID encouraged each other to follow these examples, and try to stay productive during the quarantine. Unfortunately, not everyone has the privilege to stay productive. Bring in here the example of Ramanujan, who died from cholera-ish disease because of his health history when he was 32. I imagine that we, as humans, cannot comprehend the idea of a deadly disease, just as we cannot comprehend some scientific paradoxes. Diseases are much more brutal than we can imagine. 
Pushkin’s letter to Praskovya Osipova from 5(?) November 1830 with traces of disinfection punctures
Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House)

P.S. I will leave you with a link to a great website on culture and history. This one is an article about Pushkin’s letters during the Boldino period. Unfortunately, the website is mainly in Russian. But I think that Google Translation does a fair job.