“There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people by surprise.”
— Albert Camus, The Plague
Just as “there have been as many plagues as wars in history,” there have been many interpretations of Albert Camus’ novel The Plaque and its place in literary history. Observing the official reaction to the outbreak of the plague within the borders of Oran in the novel shows a situation analogous to how most governments tend to treat extreme situations: primarily with ignorance, denial, and outright foolishness.
As much as is said of man’s inability to learn from history, that maxim seems to apply exponentially to governments.
Although Camus presents his readers with a variety of officials, perhaps none represents the typical administrator more than Joseph Grand, clerk of the Municipal Office. The name itself connotes someone larger than life, yet Grand is hardly so. He uses clichés and stock phrases for every situation. When the reader first encounters him, his conversation is peppered with platitudes such as “never put off to tomorrow,” “lost in dreams,” and “pretty as a picture.”
Grand officially represents the people but manages to fail miserably as a distinct individual. However, Camus seems to understand that part of the problem is one of environment: once under the influence of a bureaucracy, the best of us succumb to it. Even the book’s narrator, Dr. Rieux, falls into this trap when he tells a journalist, “I know it’s an absurd situation, but we’re all involved in it, and we’ve got to accept it as it is.”
How fitting this is at a time when we have seen governments gloss over and actually deny real danger.
Consider 1983 when the Chernobyl reactor exploded, spitting out a cloud of deadly radioactive material. The Soviet government insisted there was no danger to its citizens and then proceeded to endanger the rest of the world by failing to notify other nations of the situation. Its excuse was to the effect that, because the incident occurred on a weekend, officials “assumed” that nobody would be answering the telephone.
Another means governments utilize when confronted with a less-than-desirable situation is the manipulation of the media, whether that manipulation is followed willingly or not. As the plague worsens, Camus notes that “the newspapers, needless to say, complied with the instructions given them: optimism at all costs.” One of the more interesting twists of irony occurs when, after the city is sealed up to prevent any spread of the plague, “newspapers published new regulations reiterating the orders against attempting to leave the town and warning those who infringed upon them that they were liable to long terms of imprisonment.”
How interesting: the government threatens people who attempt to leave imprisonment with further imprisonment.
This manipulation of language through both public and private channels demonstrates government’s fundamental desire to either avoid confronting reality or to create its own expedient one. Even when the city officials deal with the problem, they begin by instituting “rigorous prophylactic measures.” Here is a wonderful example of the oxymoronic mentality inherent in the bureaucratic mind. By definition, a prophylactic prevents or protects. How can a measure be protective when it is being instituted after the disease has established itself among the population?
Of course, it cannot, but it is the weight of the word that matters in this case.
When the plague first arises, city officials refuse to admit the problem, referring to it as “this fever everybody’s talking of.” This is another tactic governments employ in the hope of eradicating the awareness of a situation by refusing to acknowledge it. Camus notes that once “this ‘temporary’ state of things had gone on and on,” the government concedes to the facts but not to the reality.
An incident reminiscent of this situation occurred in New York City over four decades ago. During Ed Koch’s second mayoral term, people repeatedly complained of a growing rat infestation in Manhattan. After months of denying such a situation existed, the city finally began exterminating efforts. After a few weeks of spraying and posting warnings, Koch held a press conference one morning to publicly announce that the city’s rat problem had been attended to and summarily taken care of. That very afternoon, a woman was attacked by a rat on the street—right in front of City Hall.
Apparently the rats had not been informed of their own demise.
In Part II of the novel, governmental impositions begin. The city gates are shut, and not long after the Prefect’s office imposes restrictions, criticisms from both the people and the press start. The official reaction is a daily supply of statistical—mostly useless—information.
Here we see an exhibit of another instrument utilized by governments when its representatives have no answers but want to appear as if they are actually doing something. In the face of futility, official representatives seek to numb people with an unending parade of statistics and series of numbers.
Later in the book, when the frustration of the situation really sinks in, Oran’s government resorts to another quick-fix, that of assembling in a panel of experts to study the problem. Many of these named “experts” are little more than politically-motivated puppets willing to go along with whatever they are told or what they perceive to be the desired official orthodoxy.
Finally, as in most cases, the crisis passes, much to the relief of both those suffering and the government that spent so much time attempting to deny the problem or divert attention from it. After nearly a year of plague, once the number of sufferers shows a marked decline, “the authorities announced that the epidemic could be regarded as definitely stemmed.”
Politicians and bureaucrats are all-too-happy to proclaim this news as if it were somehow responsible for stemming the tide of the plague. One character, seeing through the clutter of mendacity, notes “that obviously a mere official announcement couldn’t stop an epidemic.”
The end of any bad situation is, however, always welcome, and as Camus points out, “Such were the consequences of the epidemic at its culminating point. Happily, it grew no worse, for otherwise, it may well be believed, the resourcefulness of our administration, the competence of our officials, not to mention the burning-capacity of our crematorium would have proved unequal to their tasks.”
Camus was one of the 20th century’s most significant authors. He takes many opportunities throughout The Plague to point out that, in the case of government and its response to emergency situations, “What they’re short on is imagination. Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic. And the remedial measures they think up are hardly adequate for a common cold,” let alone a pandemic of grand proportions.