Albert Camus: The Plague and an Ethic of Nonviolence
Delivered as part of the Charles Lecture Series
Earlham College 1998
1998 All Rights Reserved.
Earlham students and staff may print out one copy of this lecture for their own use,
but other duplications require the author's permission
.

If you have questions or comments about this essay, send Tony a message.
II. Exile and Suffering: On Being Stronger Than Our Solitude.

As I promised at the conclusion of my first lecture, I want to begin my second talk by looking at The Plague in some detail, examining its "certitudes" of love, exile and suffering as these certitudes, which we all share, can contribute towards developing an ethic of nonviolence. Before looking today at exile and suffering, I want to say a few words about linking the secular humanist, Albert Camus, with thinkers like Thomas Merton and Walter Wink, who are unashamedly Christian in their understanding of the spiritual basis of nonviolence. I may seem to be forcing Camus into strange company. Yet there is more to connect Camus with Merton and Wink than to separate him- despite his disavowal of both pacifism and religious belief. I have mentioned Merton’s fascination with Camus, which, if we had more time to explore it, would lead us into the dark places in Merton’s own soul, though even in these dark places Merton found God present. As he stated (I am) "a lover of the dark Cloud in which God is found by love." Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr. also knew of Camus’ dark places. The night before he was assassinated, Dr. King told his audience in Memphis: "But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars."

However, it is also true that Camus was fascinated by Christianity, and many times spoke with regret that Christianity appeared to have abandoned its original revolt against the world in which it found itself. Camus spoke approvingly of Jesus as an archetypal rebel, in revolt against the principalities and powers controlling his world. Camus saved his criticism for the Church that since the times of Constantine has made allegiance with these principalities and powers, serving the state when it ought to have been building the beloved community. For Camus, organized religion had not attacked evil at its source, but had connived with it.

"When a Spanish bishop blesses political executions," Camus writes in The Unbeliever and Christians, "he ceases to be a bishop or a Christian or even a man; he is a dog, just like the one who, backed by an ideology, orders that execution without doing the dirty work himself." (Camus, Resistance, Rebellion and Death, pp.71-72)

Camus acknowledges that Christians express a revulsion to evil that coincides with his own, yet he accuses Christians of being like Father Paneloux in The Plague, resigning themselves to living in a fallen world, content to love what they cannot understand. Camus tells the Dominican Friars who were his audience in The Unbeliever and Christians, that he may not have a grasp of any absolute truth,

"But it is true that I, and a few others, know what must be done, if not to reduce evil, at least not to add to it. Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children."

He goes on to ask his audience,

"And if you don’t help us, who else in the world can help us do this?"(Resistance, Rebellion and Death, p.73)

Camus sensed the need to work hand in hand with those who are serious about their Christianity- "the world of today needs Christians who remain Christians," (p.70) and who keep "all the virtue of revolt and indignation that belonged to it long ago." (p.74), Camus, had he lived longer, would have found common cause with clergy like the Berrigans, Romero, Merton, as well as with all radical Christians who flocked to their sides. Such solidarity he expressed at the conclusion of his speech to the Dominicans:

"And what I know- which sometimes creates a deep longing in me- is that if Christians made up their minds to it, millions of voices- millions, I say- throughout the world- would be added to the appeal of isolated individuals who, without any sort of affiliation, today intercede almost everywhere and ceaselessly for children and for men." (Resistance, Rebellion and Death, p.74)

What I am suggesting is that if you want to take the ethic implicit in The Plague seriously, you should realize that there is room in the sanitary squads for those, whatever their background and whatever their religious beliefs, who are committed to fighting the plague and working for the kingdom, even in the midst of their exile.

Camus would have had great sympathy for the pacifist Russian Doukhobors, who, as recounted by Jane Addams in Newer Ideals for Peace, refused to join the Russian Imperial army and who answered the Judge’s address to them-

"Quite right you are, from the point of abstract virtue, but the time has not yet come to put into practice the literal sayings of Christ" with the reply - "The time may not have come for you, your Honor, but the time has come for us." (Cited in Lynd, pp.xxiii-xxiv)

With this possible convergence of secular and religious interests in mind, it is time for us to move to The Plague. If one looks at the city of Oran at the opening of The Plague, it is hard to believe that the time has come for anything. Oran in the 1940’s is a place characterized by monotony, where people have lapsed into patterns of habitual boredom, measuring out their time by shifting dried peas between two empty pots, going through the motions of life like automatons, including the motions of loving one another- the ‘act of love’ is rapidly consummated and married life is made banal in its "mild habit of conjugality." (Plague, p.5). The people, like the city itself, turn their backs on the sea of life. This apathy makes it hard for them to know when there is a change in their condition, and their mechanical lives don’t immediately give them the resources to resist what they so slowly come to accept and understand. It is, in short, a moral paralysis that has gripped the city that leaves it unprepared to deal with the appearance of plague, which, as Germaine Bree describes it

"organizes all that is bad in human life into a coherent and independent system, pain, death, separation, fear and solitude. And it disorganizes and destroys all that is good: freedom, hope, and most particularly love. The people of Oran are easily led to accept the plague as the very form of reality. It does not develop as would any living organism, it spreads, monotonous, rigid, inhuman, occupying a city which, because of its lack of awareness, is already conquered." (Bree, p.118)

Note the similarity between this description and Merton’s analysis of his times:

"The awful problem of our times is not so much the dreams, the monsters, which may take shape and consume us, but the moral paralysis in our own souls which leaves us immobile, inert, passive, tongue-tied, ready and even willing to succumb. The real tragedy is in the cold, silent waters of moral death, which climb imperceptibly within us, blinding conscience, drowning compassion, suffocating faith and extinguishing the Spirit. A progressive deadening of conscience, of judgment and of compassion is the inexorable work of the cold war." (Merton, Passion for Peace, p.81)

As I remarked in my opening lecture, I believe we have inherited this same legacy from the cold war, and this should give added importance to our 1998 reading of The Plague.

The story of The Plague can be briefly told before we examine further its symbolic significance. Part One of the book (the book has five parts, like the classic five act structure of a tragedy) introduces us to the major characters and recounts how the plague makes its appearance. The main characters are Rieux, the doctor who sees almost at once that Oran has been invaded by the plague and who tries to convince others to shake off their torpor and unreflectiveness to face the reality of their situation; Tarrou, a mysterious sojourner who seems comfortable to find Oran so intrinsically ugly and boring; Grand, an obscure functionary in the municipality, who has trouble expressing himself and who suffers from a constricted heart; Cottard, a shadowy criminal who has unsuccessfully attempted suicide as the novel opens and who is found by Grand and examined by Rieux. Rambert, a French journalist trapped in Oran by the plague, and Paneloux, a scholar-priest who looks for a religious explanation for the appearance of the plague, make their appearances early in Part Two. All these men, except for Cottard, come to form the sanitary squads that seek to halt the spread of plague. Other minor characters, important to the meaning of the novel, include Mme. Rieux, Dr. Rieux’s mother who comes to take care of his home when his wife is sent to a TB sanitorium; Dr. Castel, a researcher who tests various serums during the novel in a desperate effort to check the plague; and M. Othon, a magistrate who represents the conventional values of the loveless world of Oran, and who has the habit of visiting the same restaurant, wearing the same black suit, saying the same "politely spiteful remarks" to his wife as he "bluntly tells his kids what he thinks of them." (Plague, p.28).

Through the anonymous narrator and from Tarrou’s journals, to which the narrator has access, we learn more and more about the characters as the plague gradually reaches epidemic proportions and the city is cut off from the rest of the world. Despite all efforts of resistance and of attempts to find a successful serum, the plague spreads, killing indiscriminately. In the course of the novel Paneloux, Tarrou, Othon and his son die, as well as Dr. Rieux’ wife. Even though Dr. Castel’s experiments appear to be partially successful, the plague leaves as mysteriously as it appeared. We know the plague has simply retreated because in the midst of all the jubilation when Oran is liberated and rejoins the world by reuniting those separated by the quarantine, the narrator, revealed in the last pages as Dr. Rieux, tells us that "the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good," and that sooner or later it will reappear and "rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city." (Plague, p.308)

This, in brief, is the "story" of the plague, but as I said earlier, this book is as much about the fight of plague as Moby Dick is a novel about whale hunting or King Lear is a fairy tale about a man who gave away his kingdom to two wicked daughters after neglecting the virtues of a third. That is to say, while the story is gripping, its deeper meaning is to be found in its symbolic dimensions. Like Moby Dick and King Lear, The Plague at its deepest level is an exploration of the nature of evil and of the human values that are defined and born in contact with that evil. There is, as I stated before, much to be learned from this exploration, for indeed the plague that lies "dormant for years and years, in furniture and linen -chests,...in bedrooms cellars, trunks and bookshelves," (Plague, p.308) continues and will continue to "rouse up its rats again." After fifty years The Plague's moral tale of resistance will serve us well as we search, after a century of defeat, to secure a victory for the human spirit over the violence in our world and in ourselves.

To understand what that victory would entail, let us begin a detailed examination of the three certitudes Rieux tells us his fellow citizens have in common- "love, exile and suffering," and show how each of these occur in the lives of the major characters. In my final lecture I’ll analyze what is to be learned and remembered from the struggle with the plague, and attempt to draw a connection between knowledge, memory and hope.

Exile

"Thus the first thing the plague brought to our town was exile." (Plague, p.71) With these words the narrator announces the assault on connectedness that the plague, the system of violence, the phenomenon of wars- has made on the Twentieth Century. The plague separates people from one another, and at a more fundamental level, from themselves. We learn on p.119 that "the Plague attacked most virulently those who lived in groups," and on p.170,

"disrupted at the same time long established communities and sent men out to live, as individuals, in relative isolation."

This atomization that characterizes the human condition in our century, pitting nations and humans against one another, has attempted, like the plague, to kill off love and friendship. (The Plague, p.182) It is within this plague-stricken world that Martin Luther King, Jr. and other nonviolent activists have tried to establish a "beloved community," inspired by a vision of love that is seen by The Plague as a threat to its sovereignty. This is what Huxley had in mind in writing that Good creates unity and Evil creates separation. The separation and isolation of persons in the time of plague creates for the narrator, "that sensation of a void within which never left us." (Plague, p.71)

Most of the major characters in the book experience this separation and exile. Rieux has sent his wife to a TB sanitorium outside of Oran, and she cannot return once the gates of the city are closed. Rambert’s sweetheart remains in Paris, and he struggles through much of the novel to find a way to escape from Oran. But separation and exile were present even before this particular epidemic hit Oran. Grand’s wife had deserted him long ago, and Tarrou has been in exile much of his adult life.

"Let me begin by saying," he tells Rieux on p.245, "that I had the plague already, long before I came to this town and encountered it here. Which is tantamount to saying I’m like everybody else."

Tarrou thus reminds us of the symbolic meaning of the plague, which is that its violence and death-dealing extend far beyond the 1940’s, and that the separateness, isolation and loneliness may be more generally seen as the condition of most human beings in the Twentieth Century. It is almost a cosmic solitude, where humans feel stranded and alone, abandoned by a silent and perhaps non-existent God. In his early writings Camus called this feeling that of the Absurd, when humans realize that their desire to understand the universe is condemned to failure, and that there will always be a gap between what we want to know about the universe and what that universe will reveal to us. That gap creates a sense of anguish and a terrible loneliness, when we not only fail to receive answers to our deepest questions but also fail to find a sustaining community, a redemptive sense of justice. This world without connectedness and purpose is a world without happiness and love. It is a world that is incomprehensible, and therefore the first certitude we share is exile, but, as we shall see, it is not necessarily therefore meaningless.

Part Three of our novel, lying at the center of the five-part structure, is a meditation on exile. It is a section of darkness, a section of voicelessness.

"In lifeless squares and avenues these tawdry idols lorded it under the lowering sky; stolid monsters that might have personified the rule of immobility imposed on us, or, anyhow, its final aspect, that of a defunct city in which plague, stone, and darkness had effectively silenced every voice." (Plague, p.172)

"For, characteristically, the sound that rose toward the terraces still bathed in the last glow of daylight, now that the noises of vehicles and motors- the sole voice of cities in ordinary times- had ceased, was but one vast rumor of low voices and incessant footfalls, the drumming of innumerable soles timed to the eerie whistling of the plague in the sultry air above, the sound of a huge concourse of people marking time, a never ending, stifling drone that, gradually swelling, filled the town from end to end, and evening after evening gave its truest, mournfulest expression to the blind endurance that had ousted love from all our hearts."(Plague, p.185)

Tarrou, who tells us of his past life only fifty pages from the end of the novel, is our best witness to the fact that we live in a plague-filled century. Oran for him, at least at the beginning of the novel, is the end of his journey, a perfect place in which to exile himself from the struggles and hopes of his past. His notebooks reveal his satisfaction with finding a town so intrinsically ugly, with people engaged in such meaningless activity as spitting on cats. He is fascinated by the soulless and commercial character of a town devoted to business. He sees this place as one in which his struggles to find meaning in his life are over. "The only thing I’m interested in, is acquiring peace of mind" and his experience of Oran elicits the appreciative comment, "At last." (Plague, p.26)

Why he is so satisfied at the beginning of our novel is not explained till much later. He then describes his early life as one of innocence, marked by a loving family, a successful academic career, etc.

"I brought off everything I set my hand to. I moved at ease in the field of intellect, I got on excellently with women, and if I had occasional qualms, they passed by as lightly as they came." (Plague, p.245)

It was at this point that he encountered the absurd, and his innocence proved to be pseudo-innocence, because it was not able to stand up to his awareness of the reality of evil. This moment came when he realized that his father, ostensibly a magistrate and dispenser of justice, a man on the side of life, was in actually someone who condemned men to death. His father took the same mechanical interest in watching their executions, as in winding his alarm clock, or in studying train schedules. Tarrou realized that he lived in a world, "based on the death sentence", (p.254) one based on violence and murder, to which ordinary men and women gave their unthinking allegiance. As soon as he realized this, his whole world was shattered. He left his family and became a revolutionary, fighting all over Europe in struggles against oppressive regimes. But as a revolutionary he was not a true rebel, for he fought against an unjust system without bringing a just one into existence. This discovery came to him when he realized that when he, too, justified executions performed by revolutionary forces, he was simply replacing one death-based, violent system with another. Dooming himself to an exile that never ends, he effectively believed his life was over when he came to Oran. As we shall see, there is more to Tarrou than his knowledge of the absurd and the knowledge of his exile and of his plague-stricken condition, but let us turn to another character who as the novel opens also has been exiled from what has meant the most to him. This man is Joseph Grand, the man our narrator calls the true hero of the novel.

Grand’s isolation and loneliness is as great as any other’s in the novel, though there is a difference in the quality of it, since his loneliness comes from a lost love. The most important thing that Grand encountered in his life was not the inescapability of the death penalty nor the intimation of the absurd, but the presence of his wife Jeanne, whom he had married while still in his teens. This marriage forced him to give up his studies and to accept the job as a municipal worker, a job he still holds as our story begins. This job reflected the habitual boredom and pointlessness of Oran existence and drained Joseph’s energy and passion.

"An overworked husband, poverty, the gradual loss of hope in a better future, silent evenings at home- what chance had any passion of surviving such conditions?" (Plague, p.82)

Grand’s wife left him, and from that moment he continued to lead an obscure, solitary existence, remarkable only for the effort he put into writing a novel, which, we soon learn, has never gotten beyond the first sentence. This at first may make him as grotesque as the cat-spitter or the pea-shifter, but there is more to his solitude than to theirs, as we shall see when we examine the certitude of love.

Indeed, it is not the solitude alone that matters, nor the suffering and anguish that accompany it. That is part of what it means to be human in the world of Camus. As we shall soon observe, what matters is how we respond to our condition. Cottard, for example, is just as isolated and unhappy as any character in the novel. The only time he ever invites anyone to his rooms is when he writes a note and affixes it to his door- "Come on in, I’ve hanged myself." When the external plague comes to Oran, Cottard is quick to embrace it, since it corresponds so much to the plague he carries within. If anything, The Plague is not destructive enough for Cottard. In answer to Rieux’ question to a child in the early stages of the plague,

"And what do we need here?" "Abruptly Cottard gripped the door of the car and, as he turned to go, almost shouted in a rageful, passionate voice: an earthquake. A big one." (Plague, p.59)

Cottard becomes a successful black-market capitalist as he collaborates with the plague. After acknowledging his, (p.141), affinity with the plague, he is resourceless when it makes its disappearance at the close of the novel. His only response to the end of the plague is a response we see too often in our own plague-ridden world- he holes up in his room and shoots indiscriminately any living thing that comes within his gun sights.

Suffering

Suffering is as unavoidable as exile, and seems woven into the fabric of human existence. Those who attempt to explain suffering and also those who would not make that attempt, lead less meaningful lives than those who seek not to explain suffering but to alleviate it. Suffering is unavoidable, but there may be a redemptive side to it. It may even be necessary for human growth. As Toni Morrison says on p.78 of Beloved, "Can’t nothing heal without pain, you know." Similarly, when Tarrou, (Plague, p.128) amazed at Rieux’s knowledge of reality, he asks him "Who taught you all this, Doctor?" he receives the reply "Suffering." The possible redemptive side of suffering is still no reason for seeking it, but suffering offers us the same sort of paradox as exile. You have to know exile before you know what might be home, you have to know solitude before you can understand solidarity, you have to know suffering before you understand healing. However, stating this paradox in this fashion is still too simple, because you can’t replace one term with another. That is, exile, solitude, and suffering do not go away once home, solidarity and healing are found. The terms have a symbiotic relationship with one another, each term making the other meaningful, each term depending on the other’s existence. Thus Rieux at the end of the novel, painfully aware of his solitude as he has lost his wife and best friend, can yet rejoice in the solidarity he shares with other human beings who have won a measure of victory over the plague. Solidarity and solitude go hand in hand. In French there is only one letter difference between "solidaire" and "solitaire."

It is time to look at Father Paneloux. We first come across him as The Plague begins its second month. As a conclusion to a Week of Prayer organized by the ecclesiastical authorities, Paneloux delivers a sermon to a packed church. In this sermon he attempts to explain the plague. The plague has come because the people have deserved it. God could have prevented it, but He allowed it because people need to be punished for their sins. Paneloux goes on to say that knowing the plague was God’s will should be a comfort to the people who could acknowledge their sins and seek eternal life, offering up a "prayer of love" and leaving everything up to God. Since the plague offered humans this opportunity, it could be said to be providential.

For Camus, Paneloux was not wrong in saying that the plague might have its positive aspects, but what Paneloux recommended for humans was to resign themselves to the will of God. The heroes of Camus reject resignation in favor of rebellion. Paneloux offered nonresistance to evil, not nonviolent resistance to evil, and in the end only strengthened the grip of the plague. Furthermore, his constant use of the pronoun "you" in his first sermon reveals that he did not associate himself with those to whom he was preaching.

However, Paneloux, like all the main characters in the novel, is a complex person. Despite preaching resignation he joins the sanitary squads to fight the plague. "That’s good, the doctor said, I’m glad to know he’s better than his sermon." (p.150) It seems that he is led to join the squad by his heart alone, because he remains fixed in his belief system, even when he watches the agony of M. Othon’s dying son.

This scene, one in which all of the major characters are present, is excruciatingly painful. The scene raises one of the great tragic questions- why should the innocent suffer? The child has been given the latest serum, but all it seems to accomplish is to prolong his agony. The reality of the undeserved death of an innocent child is revealed to all these men as a "grotesque parody of crucifixion" (p.215) in the face of which they all feel their impotence. The child’s long, incessant scream

"filling the ward with a fierce, indignant protest, so childish that it seemed like a collective voice issuing from all the sufferers there" (Plague, p.216)

symbolizes the undeserved suffering of all mankind facing implacable evil. Faced with this reality Paneloux retreats into his abstractions. When Rieux tells him,

"there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt,"

Paneloux replies

"That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand." (Plague, p.218)

The hollowness of these words is not really lost on Paneloux himself. In a second sermon he gives after the child’s death Paneloux seems more humane, less judgmental, using "we" rather than "you" as he realized his earlier words had "lacked charity" (p.223). Yet he had not changed his intellectual position about God’s will. In fact, the suffering of the innocent becomes for Paneloux a test of his faith, either to "believe everything or deny everything," and in accepting All as God’s will he advises following a course of, "active fatalism." (p.226) Paneloux, in creating this either/or, seems cut off from realizing that there is a third way, a way of resisting suffering without knowing whether or not it is the will of God. Paneloux’ logic leads him to believe that it is illogical for a priest to call a doctor, that is, if he were to get the plague, his belief in God should cause him to submit to it. That is in fact what happens. He becomes ill, refuses to see a doctor and dies passively without letting go of his crucifix. There are two important features of his death that reveal Camus’ criticism of this choice. He died alone, refusing Rieux’ offer to stay with him- "Thanks, but priests can have no friends," (p.233) and he died without showing any of the characteristic symptoms of either bubonic or pneumonic plague. He might have not had the plague and might even have been cured. His death was recorded as a "doubtful case," but what gives "doubtful" its full significance is that Paneloux was trapped by his world view and rather than admit its error died rather than having to face his doubt.

In his death Paneloux also denied the human bond he had created with Rieux as a worker in the sanitary squads. He was not a true rebel since for Camus the act of rebellion against creation as we find it, (p.127) establishes connectedness, solidarity. "Je revolte, donc nous sommes." "I rebel therefore we are," is the cry of the genuine rebel, one who says no, but at the same time is saying yes, just as the nonviolent activist says no to hatred and yes to love. As he states in The Rebel,

"the affirmation implicit in every act of rebellion is extended to something that transcends the individual in so far as it withdraws him from his supposed solitude and provides him with a reason to act." (Camus, The Rebel, p.16)

and

"When he rebels a man identifies himself with other men and so surpasses himself, and from this point of view, human solidarity is metaphysical." (Rebel, p.17)

and

"Rebellion, though apparently profoundly negative, since it creates nothing, is profoundly positive in that it reveals the part of man which must always be defended." (Rebel, p.19)

So the answer to both exile and suffering may be the affirmation of human values that can be discovered in moments of connectedness and solidarity. These moments form the most beautiful parts of the novel. Sometimes the importance of gesture rather than words is significant as when Rieux, as unconvinced by Paneloux as Paneloux is by him, remains in physical contact with Paneloux in the presence of the dead boy,

"'What does it matter? What I hate is death and disease, as you well know. And whether you wish it or not, we’re allies, facing them and fighting them together' Rieux was still holding Paneloux’ hand." (Plague, p.219)

Another moment is when Rieux comes across Grand looking into a shop window whose decorations recall that Christmas long ago when with a squeeze of her wrist Grant committed himself to Jeanne,

"Tears were steadily flowing from down the old fellow’s cheeks, and they wrung the doctor’s heart, for he could understand them and he felt his own tears welling up in sympathy." (Plague, p.261)

Or the swim Rieux and Tarrou take together, trying to match their swimming strokes to the oneness they felt for one another as they were temporarily isolated from the reality of the plague,

"They dressed and started back. Neither had said a word, but they were conscious of being perfectly at one, and the memory of this night would be cherished by them both." (Plague, p.257)

We should note, especially as we seek what The Plague can teach us about the art of living, that these moments of solidarity come only after the heroes of the novel had committed themselves to the sanitary squads. Without active resistance to what threatens life, nothing of value is born.

Other passages in the novel try to put words to the meaning of the gestures. This is true of many of the conversations between Rieux and Tarrou. Let’s examine two of them. The first occurs just after the plague was becoming pneumonic, (pp.123-30), when the decision is made to enroll a team of workers to combat the plague. The conversation thus in one way explains the reasons for resisting as well as exemplifying the values that are born and revealed in resistance. This is the moment when Tarrou and Rieux’ shared view of the world makes them friends. It is also the moment when Tarrou apparently realizes that Oran is not just the place of his final exile but also the place where he will once again have the opportunity to assert the value of life over death. Like Paneloux, Tarrou is often better than his words, and quickly rouses himself to active combat. As he tells Rieux, (p.127), he wants free men in the sanitary squads rather than conscripted prisoners, because "I loathe men’s being condemned to death." At that point Rieux looks Tarrou in the eyes. Tarrou goes on to ask Rieux about Paneloux’ first sermon and whether Rieux sees a good side to the plague, as Paneloux apparently does. This is a question that Rieux is impatient with,

"So does every ill that flesh is heir to. What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you’d need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague." (Plague, p.125-126)

These words elicit on Tarrou’s part "A slight gesture as if to calm him." Rieux admits that he is, "fumbling in the dark, struggling to make something out," (p.126) which we have seen is the condition of all those confronted by a universe that doesn't make sense to them, but he goes on to state that because he does not believe in an all-powerful God who would cure the sick and spare the innocent if he so chose, Rieux continues to want to cure the sick and relieve human suffering, "fighting against creation as he found it."(p.127) Both Tarrou and Rieux sense they have a great deal in common-- each never managing to get used to seeing people die, each refusing to accept without resistance that the order of the world is shaped by death, each acknowledging that what knowledge has come to him has come from suffering. As if to acknowledge this solidarity of understanding, Rieux introduces Tarrou, whom he has known but a short while, to his mother as "a friend of mine." (p.129)

There follows an interesting scene when Tarrou leaves Rieux. The doctor attempts to turn on a light in the stairway to guide Tarrou on his way out, but the stairs remain in darkness. Tarrou confidently says that he has "little left to learn" (p.129) in life. At that moment Rieux pauses in the darkness, and Tarrou, who is descending behind him, slips and has to steady himself by gripping the doctor’s shoulder. This gesture of the need humans have for one another as they struggle to find their way through the darkness is one of the shining moments in the novel, and, as I stated earlier, comes just the evening before Tarrou sets out to enroll the first team of sanitary workers. The gesture also reveals that Tarrou perhaps has a little more to learn.

The other dialogue comes just after Tarrou has told Rieux the story of his life. It is a story that as we have seen explains the reasons for his exile as well as reveals his determination to fight the order of death, the death penalty we all live under, by finding a path, a right track, that will give a measure of meaning to his life.

"I know, I have no place in the world of today; once I‘d definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end." (Plague, p.253)

That is, he, unlike the nonviolent activist who also refuses to kill and who also is willing to accept whatever suffering that follows from that decision, has no hope that he will ever find a home, a community, in this exile. In a somewhat resigned fashion, in that he expects no answer to his metaphysical questions about the origin of evil, he utters words that I must share with you have been a sort of credo by which I have tried to live my own life- "All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences. This may sound simple to the point of childishness: I can’t judge if it’s simple, but I know it’s true." Tarrou’s world is made up of victims and victimizers. He acknowledge that there is a third category, that of healers, but he does not believe himself to be one of them

"That is why, I say there are pestilences and there are victims; no more than that. If, by making that statement, I, too, become a carrier of the plague-germ, at least I don’t do it willfully. I try, in short, to be an innocent murderer. you see, I’ve no great ambitions."

"I grant we should add a third category; that of the true healers. But it’s a fact one doesn’t come across many of them, and anyhow it must be a hard vocation. That’s why I decided to take, in every predicament, the victim’ side, so as to reduce the damage done. Among them I can at least try to discover how one attains to the third category; in other words, to peace." (Plague, p.254),

At this point Rieux joins the conversation and asks Tarrou if he had an idea of the path to follow for attaining peace. Tarrou’s answer is the reason for these lectures and my most important advice to you who are at Earlham seeking to create an ethic for yourselves that will bring meaning and value to your lives. Tarrou’s answer is, "yes....the path of sympathy." (p.254) Tarrou, sadly, believes himself unable to draw enough strength from that path to counter his knowledge that the plague was

"never over, and there would be more victims, because that was in the order of things."

"Perhaps, the doctor answered. But you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with the saints. heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man." "Yes," says Tarrou, "we’re both after the same thing, but I’m less ambitious." (Plague, p.255)

As we shall see in the final lecture, Tarrou sells himself short. He is someone who has experienced the full weight of exile and suffering, but also has moved from his solitude into solidarity with others. When he dies, it is as a man, not a saint, a man with unbelievable courage, sustained by the final human certitude we still must explore more deeply in my final lecture- the certitude of human love.

October 7, 1998

If you have questions or comments about this essay, send Tony a message.
Go to the third lecture.
Return to Earlham's home page.