Plague as a Metaphor for War

by Will on September 21, 2010

My friend Anna recently informed me that Justice Breyer is a big fan of Albert Camus, and specifically of his novel The Plague. He says that it influences his judicial thinking. Good for him!

I’ve never read any literary criticism of the Plague, but I assume that Camus wrote it at least partially as a metaphor for war. The two phenomena share many features: both tend either to displace people or to physically trap them, both tear lovers and families apart, and both, crucially, result in a lot of people dying out of the blue. The end of the book is this disturbing passage:

And indeed, as he listened to these cries of joy erupting from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned in books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for 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 the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats and send them forth to die in a happy city.

To those who know the horror of war and have it fresh in their minds, it seems self-evidently obvious why war should be avoided and not sought after. But everybody is quite content to forget what is unpleasant. And when demagogs come forth once more to say that we must invade some place far away, and promise that the violence will be scarce and of short duration, people just go along. But when you start a war, or enter one, you really don’t know how bad it will be. Wars are too unpredictable. They make people behave in strange ways.

In general, when somebody says: “I don’t like the leader of countries X, Y, and Z, so we ought to bomb them and kill those leaders,” it is best to imagine them saying: “I don’t like the leaders of these countries, so lets unleash the bubonic plague on their capitals so the leaders will die off from it.” The first statement is no less crazy and inhuman than the second one.

If fewer teens would read Ayn Rand, and more would read Camus (other than The Stranger, which young people tend to get all wrong), the world would be a better place.

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