Like Albert Camus, Zelenskyy has learned to resist the plague of the absurd
When the novel coronavirus claimed the world’s attention in 2020, so too did a novel by Albert Camus. With the quickening of the pandemic, “The Plague” became an item almost as essential as toilet paper and facemasks on both sides of the Atlantic. In France, 1,700 copies of “La Peste” were sold in January 2020 — three times more than were sold during the same month in 2019 — while Penguin cleared its entire stock of its English translation.
“The Plague” is an account of a small group of men who find themselves — and, more important, find one another — in the French Algerian city of Oran when it is struck by the bubonic plague. Narrated by one of its principal characters, a doctor named Bernard Rieux, the story captures how an extraordinary event — the absurdity of the bubonic plague again occurring in our time — quickly becomes all too ordinary.
Rieux reflects on the great changes wrought by the plague: how the feelings of astonishment and incredulity give way to those of alienation and isolation, how the norms of society, once thought impervious to change, now change beyond recognition. He notes the initial resistance of political leaders to recognize the reality of plague and everyone’s initial insistence that this was not supposed to happen to them. While plagues are a recurrent feature of the human condition, Rieux notes, we nevertheless “find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.”
Most important, Rieux offers not just a description of the disease’s impact on the body politic, but also a prescription for combating it. We must, he notes, “lucidly recognize what had to be recognized.” For one of Rieux’s fellow resisters, Jean Tarrou, this lucidity boils down to the recognition that “there are scourges and victims on this earth, and that we must, as much as possible, refuse to be on the side of the scourge.”
Today — a full 75 years after the book’s publication — our plague, unlike the one in the novel, refuses to fully disappear. But that is no longer headline news. Just a month ago, the world was whipsawed from natural to man-made catastrophe, from the activity of COVID-19 to the activity of the Kremlin. With Vladimir Putin’s absurd decision to invade their country, Ukrainians now find themselves in the same position as Camus did three-quarters of a century ago.
The plague of war has not spurred the same interest in Camus’s novel as did the plague of disease. This is odd if only because “The Plague” is not really about the bubonic plague. When the book was published in 1947, readers rightly understood it as symbolizing the experience from which they were just liberated: life under what they called la peste brune, or “brown plague” of Nazi Germany. While Camus believed the novel could be read at “several levels,” its ground floor level was decidedly the destruction of war and devastation of occupation.
Once the book was published, however, several intellectuals knocked it. How absurd, they declared, to refuse to see the difference between bombs and bacilli. “Quel con! What a fool!” Jean-Paul Sartre laughed. “The German invasion was an invasion of men and it was eventually defeated by men.”
Camus understood, of course, that men made the war and that men (and women) unmade it. Unlike Sartre, who spent the occupation at the Café des Flores, Camus spent the last year of war in the Resistance. A life-long pacifist, Camus had come only reluctantly around to war. In fact, for several months during the occupation, he lived not far from Chambon-sur-Lignon. The town’s Protestant population, following the principles of non-violent resistance, was busy hiding thousands of Jewish refugees from the French and German authorities.
As references in “The Plague” suggest, Camus must have known about this activity. Yet while he deeply admired it, he also knew it alone was not enough to resist the Nazis. As he later told his critics, “violence is necessary — the years of the Occupation taught me as much. But I have a horror of comfortable violence; I have a horror of those whose words exceed their actions.”
We must watch our words, Camus warned, just as we must watch what we do because of words. If we use abstractions that are detached from reality, that same reality — and those who inhabit it — will pay a catastrophic price. “The idea might seem laughable,” Rieux admits, “but the only way to fight the plague is with honesty.”
Such honesty is exacting, yet essential. Resisting an oppressor, Camus believed, means resisting the temptation to turn him or her into something less than human. Upon joining the resistance, he warned the Germans that “despite yourselves, I shall still apply to you the name of man. In order to keep faith with ourselves, we are obliged to respect in you what you do not respect in others.”
Much has been made of the way in which Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has mined the speeches of Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, even Ronald Reagan to urge the world to keep faith with Ukraine. The speeches have galvanized not just his foreign audiences, but also his domestic audience. In their individual acts of resistance, Ukrainians have discovered — as Camus wrote in “The Rebel” — that they are a people.
In fact, it is as if the Jewish Ukrainian leader is minding the words of the French Algerian thinker. Shortly before Putin ordered his army’s invasion, Zelenskyy posted a video to the Russian people. He spoke in Russian, but the tone was Camusian. “The Ukraine on your news and Ukraine in real life are two completely different countries — and the main difference is ours is real.”
Warning that Ukraine would defend itself against any attempt “to take away our country, our freedom, our lives,” Zelenskyy reminded them of their common humanity. “Who will suffer the most? People. Who doesn’t want that the most? People. Who could not allow that? People.”
Though he was once a comedian, Zelenskyy finds nothing laughable in the idea of honesty or, for that matter, in the notion of the absurd. Like Camus, Zelenskyy has learned that the absurd — at least when embodied in the invasion of one’s country by a totalitarian power — must be resisted not just with arms, but with words that convey, in lucidity and honesty, the significance of that resistance.
A professor at the University of Houston, Zaretsky is also a culture columnist at the Forward. His new book, “Victories Never Last: Caregiving and Reading in a Time of Plague” will be published in April by University of Chicago Press.