Camus on the plague, and de Botton gets the vector wrong

March 19, 2020 • 12:30 pm

Ah, we have’t heard from Alain de Botton for a while, and I haven’t missed him (see all my posts on him here). He was always a faitheist, an atheist-butter, and an arduous advocate for atheist churches, which I don’t particularly object to but also don’t feel we need. de Botton is also patronizing: the kind of guy who thinks he sees some great truths about the universe that others have missed—and lets us know that (see here).  Now, after a six-year hiatus from the man, he’s back on my site, not because his new New York Times op-ed has anything particularly interesting to say, but because, when writing about Camus’s great Novel The Plague, seems to get the infectious microbe wrong.

La Peste is in vogue again these days because of the coronavirus pandemic, as people read it trying to discern if there any lessons for the present peril.

And so de Botton tries to give us some lessons. His point appears to be that the “absurdity of life” on view in the novel is not that our lives are intrinsically absurd, but that we are susceptible to the vagaries of fate, which supposedly makes our lives meaningless. Here, I think, is de Botton’s gist:

For Camus, when it comes to dying, there is no progress in history, there is no escape from our frailty. Being alive always was and will always remain an emergency; it is truly an inescapable “underlying condition.” Plague or no plague, there is always, as it were, the plague, if what we mean by that is a susceptibility to sudden death, an event that can render our lives instantaneously meaningless.

This is what Camus meant when he talked about the “absurdity” of life. Recognizing this absurdity should lead us not to despair but to a tragicomic redemption, a softening of the heart, a turning away from judgment and moralizing to joy and gratitude.

“The Plague” isn’t trying to panic us, because panic suggests a response to a dangerous but short-term condition from which we can eventually find safety. But there can never be safety — and that is why, for Camus, we need to love our fellow damned humans and work without hope or despair for the amelioration of suffering. Life is a hospice, never a hospital.

At the height of the contagion, when 500 people a week are dying, a Catholic priest called Paneloux gives a sermon that explains the plague as God’s punishment for depravity. But Dr. Rieux has watched a child die and knows better: Suffering is randomly distributed, it makes no sense, it is simply absurd, and that is the kindest thing one can say of it.

Well, I am not a Camus expert, though I have read the novel, but I can’t speak to whether Camus’s view of life’s absurdity is simply that we all die and can never know when.  Whether that makes our lives “instantaneously meaningless” is debatable, because, in the long view, life can be seen as meaningless regardless of whether it ends instantly or in a drawn-out process.  Yes, Camus is right that there’s no sign of God in the depredations of infectious disease, but that’s Camus’s point, not de Botton’s.

In fact, after reading de Botton’s piece twice, I still can’t see why he felt it worth writing, or why the NYT found it worth publishing. I suppose that if you’re out of bogroll in these parlous times, you could use his essay.

What interested me, though, was de Botton’s first paragraph (my emphasis):

In January 1941, Albert Camus began work on a story about a virus that spreads uncontrollably from animals to humans and ends up destroying half the population of “an ordinary town” called Oran, on the Algerian coast. “The Plague,” published in 1947, is frequently described as the greatest European novel of the postwar period.

VIRUS???? If you remember the story, the vector is carried by rats, and although I don’t know if the disease is named as bubonic plague, it’s very clear that Camus was writing about bubonic plague. And bubonic plague is carried not by a virus, but by a bacterium, Yersina pestis. Indeed, in the quote below, Camus explicitly refers to the cause as a bacillus (bacterium).

Some judicious fact-checking by both the author and the NYT would have been useful here. But that’s not the Times‘s forte these days, what with their claim that the American Revolution was fought to defend slavery.

In the meantime, here’s the great ending of Camus’s novel (originally written in French, of course):

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled.

He knew what those jubilant crowds did no know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

I don’t know who the translator was, but he rendered Camus’s words into wonderful English: I love the alliteration of “rouse up its rats” and “bide”, “bedrooms”, “bookshelves” and “bane”, and the bittersweet last sentence. This is great writing and great translating. de Botton is not great writing.

32 thoughts on “Camus on the plague, and de Botton gets the vector wrong

    1. The error is priceless. Think of the imagery of the plague lying dormant “in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves”. Things we touch. The book you are now holding in your hands…

  1. The Plague is one of my favorite novels, and Rieux and Tarrou two of my favorite characters in fiction. That last paragraph always gives me goosebumps. I read it when I was 19 or so, and though I was already an atheist, the novel bolstered my atheism, and made me forever realize the fleeting beauty that is living as a human being, and how easy and unexpected tragedy can strike.

    As an aside, I believe historians now believe the plague’s main vector were bedbugs moving from humans to humans, not fleas moving from rats to humans. Has anyone else been made aware of this or know if it’s true?

    1. I forgot to mention that Botton made an embarrassing mistake, though I can somewhat forgive him since everyone’s got “virus” on the mind.

      1. Mark: reference? It’s 50 years on from my Medical Entomology course, but there was no doubt among entomologists then that the only significant vectors for the bubonic phase of Y. pestis were fleas, mostly but not always rodent fleas that leave their dying host. Among other things, the bacteria are adapted to multiply and clog the flea’s gut, causing reflux and direct injection. This seems to be a fairly specific adaptation by Yersinia.

        Bedbugs were generally described as the only hematophagous arthropods that significantly affect humans and are not disease vectors. Exceptions always, and there is of course human-to-human transmission, on in recent years a number of human cases from handling or butchering infected small mammals.

        And speaking of dead rats, I should check my back patio. Sierra generally piles the corpses there, by my favorite chair.

      2. Self-styled philosopher’s bringing their own subject into disrepute hardly need help from de Botton.

    2. ‘Gerbils replace rats as main cause of Black Death
      There is a link in this BBC article to the original PNAS paper, which suggests that the black rat population in Europe could not
      sustain a sufficiest reservoir of Yserinia pestis to bring about plague epidemics, and that weather patterns in Europe at those time were not
      conducive either to high rat or flea populations.

  2. Unfortunately, de Botton’s piece won’t work as TP for me since it would appear on my iPad screen. Unpleasant to even imagine.

    1. Re TP :
      I cannot remember the author, but his communication to a reviewer:
      I am seated in the smallest room of the house.
      I have your review before me.
      Soon it will be behind me.

  3. I’ve also been dabbling in Mann’s Death in Venice, and soon will have some quiet time with Britten’s opera on the headphones; one of my favorite operas, oddly enough, even in “normal” times. Cholera, not virus.

    1. Also the Visconti film of Death in Venice–unusual since usually films ‘of’ literature, e.g. War and Peace, Dr. Zhivago, even Hawaii (literature or pulp?), pale in comparison to their source–is great, with the music, Mahler’s 5th his least serious slow movement perhaps, but gorgeous.

  4. Even after decades of understanding the difference, the virus vs. bacterium distinction seems to be lost on a lot of laypeople. AIUI, one reason for our overuse of antibiotics is that people demand it for simple (i.e. no additional opportunistic infections expected) viral infections.

    1. Even when people do not demand them, surveys showed that many physicians do prescribe them (at least here in Belgium; but I cannot imagine US doctors doing better).

  5. I would also recommend Camus’ friend Arthur Koestler. Dialogue With Death, his diary written in prison in Spain, having been sentenced to death by Franco, is only about 120 pages, and is utterly engrossing. It formed part of the basis for his great anti-totalitarian novel Darkness at Noon.

    1. Absolutely! All of Koestler’s autobiography, and many of his essays (especially “the Yogi and the Commissar”) are essential reading for
      understanding the 20th century—a subject
      which seems to be falling down the memory hole. One is also struck by the precision and eloquence of Koestler’s writing in English, his 3rd or 5th language. [At least until he went bonkers late in life, and got into parapsychology and woo.]

    2. I remember reading in the local newspaper, when I was a college sophomore, in the spring of 1975 about Franco’s death and the ascension of his son, Juan Carlos. I had absolutely no knowledge of the Spanish Civil War. World history was offered in high school but American history was required, and my interests lay in science. And I took American history in college as a path of lesser resistance to World history. Looking back I am appalled at my then horse-blindered perspective. Since then I have striven to read history (rejoicing that I don’t have to take someones bloody test).

  6. I read somewhere recently that Camus himself said that his novel was partly based on the reign of Nazism, which gives an entirely different meaning to the last paragraph. Like all great novels, you can’t pin it down to only one meaning.

    As Botton’s take on the absurd, well, I think Jerry got it about right in his criticism. Best way to learn more would be to read Le mythe de Sisyphe, the last paragraph (Camus was good at last paragraphs.) of which is the preface to Monod’s Le hasard et la nécessité.

  7. de Botton is also patronizing: the kind of guy who thinks he sees some great truths about the universe that others have missed—and lets us know that …

    Yeah, sometimes de Botton is da bottom of da barrel.

  8. What an idiot I have been. For years I’ve interpreted The Plague as a metaphor for nazism and the effects it had on French society. Such narrow thinking! I’ve now realised Animal Farm is a discourse on animal husbandry, and it has profound implications in this era of corporate farming. Please keep me informed when ADB has more deep thoughts. I await with bated breath.

  9. Notable that comments are disabled on de Botton’s essay at NYT. So no opportunities for readers to point out his misunderstanding of the biology or his misunderstanding of the metaphor (cf. kpspong @ 19).

  10. It is a surprising mistake, in particular since there has been so much fascinating work on Yersinia pestis genomes, both recent and ancient, by Johannes Krause and others.

    There’s a typo in the Yersinia pestis link. And I’m confused about the use of the term vector here: Isn’t it normally used in this context to refer to the agent (e.g. the flea) that transmits the pathogen, and not to refer to the pathogen itself? So when I saw your headline I thought this would be about the debate mentioned by Mark R. above, concerning which kind of flea or louse is largely responsible for transmitting the disease to humans.

  11. Very beautiful last paragraph. I just re-read it in French.

    If La peste is an allegory of nazism then indeed the rats are back in the happy city (Europe).

  12. For those who read in French, there is a beautiful book about the life of Alexandre Yersin, the discoverer of Yersinia pestis: Patrick Deville, Peste et choléra, Editions du Seuil, Paris.

    Yersin had a very interesting life: born and raised in Switzerland, studied in Germany, worked in Paris with Pasteur, worked many years in Southeast Asia, especially in Vietnam, where he died and where he is still well known today.

  13. Belated correction (or attempt thereof): Yersinia pestis is the causative agent of bubonic and pneumonic plague. The vector would be the host species that carries and spreads the causative agent to other species.

Leave a Reply