Camus’s The Plague: Nazism and Metaphysical Evil (Susan Neiman)

A night watchman makes a brief appearance in Camus’s novel The Plague.

The man never failed to remind everyone he met that he’d foreseen what was happening. Tarrou agreed he’d predicted a disaster, but reminded him that the event predicted by him was an earthquake. To which the old fellow replied: “Ah, if only it had been an earthquake! Agood bad shock, and there you are! You count the dead and the living, and that’s the end of it. (Camus 3, 114)

Instead of clean-cut disaster Camus gave us something else: men filling mass graves with increasing speed and indifference, internment camps whose guards shoot to kill, the slow unendurable death of a child. Worse than these: the increasing isolation of victims from each other as tragedy saps emotional along with physical strength, the bleak unending struggle when all human desire congeals into the wish for more food. It’s the insidiousness of evil—its grim persistent refusal to achieve heroic dimensions, its unremitting ugliness—that marks contemporary consciousness. Fighting it is a matter of quiet heroism, without hope of final victory. It may involve nothing more than “bearing witness . . . so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done to them might endure” (Camus 3, 308).

We have heard this before, as Camus knew. The outrage he chose to witness was neither earthquake nor death camp but plague. Much controversy around his masterpiece was provoked by his choice. Prominent critics accused him of moral evasion. In focusing on a nameless natural enemy, The Plague, it was argued, taught readers to ignore history and human struggles. In response to Roland Barthes Camus wrote:

The Plague, which I wanted to be read on a number of levels, nevertheless has as its obvious content the struggle of the European resistance movements against Nazism. The proof is that although this enemy is nowhere named, everyone in every European country recognized him. I will add that a long extract from The Plague appeared under the Occupation, in a collection of resistance texts, and that this fact alone would justify the transposition I have made. The Plague is, in a sense, more than a chronicle of the resistance. But it is certainly not anything less. (Camus 5, 220)

For critics like Sartre this just begged the question. Why choose the brute blind plague to symbolize Nazism—unless you want to say that the Nazis’ crime was to act as accomplices to the blind forces of the universe? The plague can be used to symbolize Nazism only if Nazis themselves become symbols: for some vague and brutal destructive force that is part of the world and constantly threatens to overwhelm it. In that case what’s at issue are metaphysical conditions, not particular historical ones—which comes perilously close to absolving particular historical beings of responsibility. Sartre did not quite accuse Camus of this, or of making God responsible for human crimes. But he did say that Camus hated God more than he hated the Nazis, and complained that the latter never really counted in Camus’s world. Camus’s struggle in the resistance was a task he took on with reluctance, for it distracted him from the primary struggle against larger, more abstract evil (Sartre).

Sartre’s description was exact. As political analysis Camus’s metaphor borders on the willfully irresponsible. To fight particular evils effectively, you need to understand them. To view Nazism as comparable to microbes is to obscure understanding. Camus’s essays reveal even more of the truth in Sartre’s charges. Camus’s discussion of moral and natural evils was the result, however, not of conceptual confusion but of self-conscious assertion. Both moral and natural evils are special cases of something worse: the metaphysical evil built into the human condition. Camus rejected the description of metaphysical evil as abstract and harmless finitude. He thought that this was a coward’s attempt to reconcile us to our unacceptable fate. We are confronted with nothing so bland as a limit but with a death sentence imposed without mercy for a crime as universal as it is unspecified. So The Plague’s hero Tarrou, like Ivan Karamazov, hates the death penalty because it mirrors the human condition as a whole. All true rebellion is rebellion against the existence of death itself, for however it takes us, it is evil.

What drives us to rebel is not simple self-interest or the cowardly refusal to die; the rebel is less interested in life than in reasons for living. Like Platonism and Christianity, Camus would never be content with the temporal. His paeans to sensuality were always swan songs. At bottom he believed that what does not last cannot be significant. Thus he concluded that to fight against death is to insist that life has a meaning.

So The Myth of Sisyphus begins starkly:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards. (Camus 1, 3)

Camus held the metaphysical problem of evil to be as unyielding as it was when first raised. He thought it arose in the attempt to combine Greek and Christian worldviews.

Christ came to solve two major problems, evil and death, which are precisely the problems that preoccupy the rebel. His solution consisted, first, in experiencing them. The man-god suffers, too—with patience. Evil and death can no longer be entirely imputed to Him since He suffers and dies. (Camus 4, 32)

The Rebel argued that the Greeks found neither gods nor humans entirely innocent or guilty. Disasters were closer to error than crime. The experience of cosmic injustice provokes a sense of outrage thus lacking in Greek experience of suffering: there it was easier to submit to one’s fate. Belief in a personal God and a sense of mutual responsibility go hand in hand; it’s sometimes been called a covenant. The attempt to combine Greek ideas with Christian ones produced gnosticism. Camus thought that the large number of gnostic sects reflected desperation: gnostics sought to remove motives for rebellion by removing the unjust element of suffering. But real metaphysical rebellion, he argued, first appeared in the late eighteenth century. This is not the result of declining religion. For the metaphysical rebel is less atheist than blasphemer: he denounces God in the name of an order that is better than the one we know.

NEIMAN, Susan, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002.

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