La Peste, or How to Converse About God With Your Partner
I recently finished reading one of Camus’ signature works, The Plague (La Peste in French). I loved it and promised myself to write about it, but the comparison between the resurgence of the bubonic plague in colonial Oran Camus describes and the current Covid-19 pandemic appeared to me — although quite relevant and interesting — would inevitably be a rehash of what plenty of others had written about the last few months (for instance: here, or here, or here for more academically-inclined readers). I still highly encourage everybody to read the haunting parallels between the enclosed city of Oran in the Algerian coast whose citizens are dying en masse and our current news cycles, but I will talk about something else here in relation to La Peste: the fact that literature shows up in my life when I don’t expect it and provides me with tools to think about all kinds of subjects. As a scholar and lifelong lover of books, I have never doubted the power of literature to explain life and bond with others, but I realize that casual readers might often wonder why read fiction written by people who we have perhaps little in common with. It’s a fair question — we have so many hours in a day that we end up being selective about our media consumption. In our current neoliberal world where time is money and money is survival, reading classical literature comes off as a non-essential endeavor, an activity for the lucky few who have plenty of free time and specialized knowledge to do so. Nonetheless, engaging with someone else’s ideas and seeing them color everyday moments in unexpected ways is highly rewarding.
The plot of La Peste is rather straightforward: a doctor writes an account detailing how an unremarkable city in the Algerian coast became a hotspot for the bubonic plague and how its inhabitants had to deal with enclosure for over a year. The text is quite rich and lends itself well to analyses involving economics, public health and medicine, critiques of the (colonial) state, and larger philosophical questions. It is this latter category that concerns me in this text. A deadly pandemic, as we’ve all witnessed the past months, certainly pauses people’s traditional routines and makes them ask themselves complex questions that most times don’t have definite answers. In La Peste, Camus describes how a child fought against disease for hours after given an experimental vaccine and died in front of men who expected him to survive. The scene is very disturbing to the men who witnessed it, especially to Father Paneloux, a Catholic priest whose exposure to the disease has made him question aspects of his faith recently. After much thinking about why a benevolent omnipotent God would allow for a child to suffer, he decided that we might never understand it but that God’s actions are logical and that people’s love and respect for him must remain in spite of tragedy. No one, he says, wants to or can explain the suffering of a child, but that says more about humankind’s limited capabilities to understand the divine than about the divine itself.
Shortly after this event, Father Paneloux drafts a sermon that he plans to transform into a treaty. In it he eloquently asks his audience to understand the death brought by the plague as an event that ought to reinforce our faith rather than destroy it, and that while we might lack the means to understand the suffering of a child, we must still preserve our devotion to God intact. Doctor Rieux, the writer of the account presented in La Peste and the doctor who gave the experimental treatment to the child, attends this sermon but doesn’t comment on it in order to preserve the neutrality of what he wants to be a historical account. Nonetheless, he is respectful (if unsure) of Father Paneloux’s devotion to God. After all, in times of pain and uncertainty it is unfair and difficult to judge others for how they explain the tragedy unfolding around them. However, although Rieux refrains from judging Paneloux strongly, the fact that he dies of the plague shortly after his sermon because he refused medical treatment could perhaps be Camus’ way of quietly disagreeing with this blind devotion. Like many of his contemporaries, Camus was drawn to existentialist philosophy that established that there is no such thing as a universal meaning of life and that each individual was free to choose their purpose in life. One could hypothesize that Rieux respects Paneloux’s choice to center God in his life even if it led to his death.
This morning, my partner and I were talking about God. Neither of us is religious in spite of our Christian upbringings, but we come back frequently to the topic of divinity. My partner’s experience with psychedelics have convinced him that although Christianity’s fashioning of a singular entity in control of the totality of things is unlikely, he still believes there is a higher presence existing in a realm above ours. I couldn’t agree nor disagree with this notion, but I noted that I agreed in regards to what Catholic priests had told me all my life about this entity’s status as omnipotent and benevolent. I cited the problem of evil as why I gravitated away from my parents’ religion. My partner played devil’s advocate and responded that free will might account for the suffering on Earth, including the suffering of children like the one Father Paneloux saw convulsing before their violent death. I responded that an omnipotent God would have to know how to account for the suffering of innocent people regardless. I forget where the conversation went after that, but I don’t think my opinion changed much after this last comment. All of this still remains unanswerable in spite of my efforts, my partner’s and Camus’. This doesn’t frustrate me. On the contrary, it fills me with joy to be able to engage with topics such as these with humility. I would like to thank Camus for being a vehicle for me to think about what it means to exist and to let me bond with my partner and other people who also like to think about why we’re here.