Literature
12:03 pm
Sat August 2, 2014

Albert Camus And The Search For Meaning In The Midst Of Ebola

Originally published on Mon August 25, 2014 11:54 am

For months now the Ebola virus has been wreaking havoc in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. More than 700 people have died, and it seems that doctors are near-powerless to help. With the threat of the disease tearing communities apart, it's hard not to think of a legendary novel from almost 70 years ago.

Albert Camus' The Plague is set on the Algerian coast. The novel follows Bernard Rieux, a doctor in the city of Oran, who becomes alarmed when he notices an increasing number of rats dying in the town streets. It's not long before the mysterious disease has spread to humans, killing a hundreds of people a week and causing some residents to try to leave the city in a panic.

The Plague doesn't have a happy ending, of course, though it's not quite as hopeless as you might think. Initially, Dr. Rieux is a little resigned to the disease that's threatening his city: "One hardly knows what a dead man is, after a while," Camus writes. "And since a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead, a hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination."

But it is, perhaps, a human instinct to search for meaning in every tragedy. Whether it's a civilian airplane shot down by a missile, a seemingly neverending war or a deadly virus that shows no sign of abating, we can't help but ask "Why?" even if we know there's no answer. Eventually Dr. Rieux concludes, "It has no importance whether such things have or have not a meaning; all we need consider is the answer given to men's hope."

Of course, the answer isn't always the one we want. But if Camus teaches us anything, it's that even when tragedy is inevitable we have no choice but to look for that meaning and to find it in one another.

Just when it looks like the plague will destroy the entire city of Oran, it recedes, though not before it's killed countless residents. Dr. Rieux manages to live through it; several of his friends aren't so lucky. As Dr. Rieux says, of the plague's survivors, "For some time, anyhow, they would be happy. They knew now that if there is one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From time to time, we turn to literature for a different perspective on the news. We've been following the horrifying story of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. More than 900 people have died. So Michael Schaub has this recommendation of a novel he hasn't been able to stop thinking about since the outbreak began. It's "The Plague" by Albert Camus.

MICHAEL SCHAUB: The plague is set in the city of Oran on the Algerian coast. And the story begins with Doctor Bernard Rieux, who starts to notice rats dying in the city streets. Soon the disease has spread to humans and is killing hundreds of people a week. This isn't a happy story. It's difficult to process so much death. One hardly knows what a dead man is after a while, Camus writes. A hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination. But of course it's human instinct to search for meaning in every tragedy, whether it's a civilian airplane shot down by a missile, a never-ending war or a virus. We always ask why, even if we know there's no answer. Eventually the doctor concludes it has no importance whether such things have or have not a meaning. All we need to consider is the answer given to man's hope. If Camus teaches us anything, it's that even when tragedy is inevitable, we have no choice but to work with one another. The disease kills several of the doctor's friends. But just when it looks like the whole city will be destroyed, the plague recedes. The doctor lives and so do many others. For some time anyhow they would be happy, Camus tells us. They knew now that if there's one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love.

CORNISH: The book is "The Plague" by Albert Camus. That recommendation came from book critic Michael Schaub. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.