Literature in Quarantine: The Plague

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa*

Camus' plague and our daily plague: when reality surpasses allegory

“Each one carries the plague with him, because no one in the world is safe. You have to pay attention at all times so as not to be led, in a moment of distraction, to contracting the infection of someone breathing next to you. only the microbe is natural. The rest, health, integrity, purity, if you like, is the effect of the will and a will that must never give in. The honest man, who does not contaminate almost anyone, is the one who is practically not distracted. And what a will it takes not to be distracted! Yes, it is exhausting to be infected, but it is even more exhausting to fight not to be infected” (Albert Camus, The plague).

Behold, Oran – the city of the Mediterranean – expanded and took over the planet earth. Albert Camus, at the end of his 1947 book, already suspected that “the plague bacillus does not die and never disappears”, thinking that perhaps the day would come when “to the misfortune and learning of men, the plague would awaken again with its rats, sending them to die in a happy city” [1].

The day has arrived and the book, an allegory in the form of a pamphlet [2], has a lot to teach us. Like his anti-hero, the doctor Bernard Rieux – who reveals in the last pages that he is the author of the story –, I will be objective, sparing the reader of new spoilers. What follows is a kind of account of the account. As I am not a literary critic, I reserve the right to intersperse phrases and terms by Camus throughout the text, using quotation marks only when strictly necessary.

The stages of the plague

The plague always arrives by surprise. Its curious and extraordinary events do not spare even an ugly city, with its back to the sea, without doves, trees and gardens. A modern and ordinary city.

Suddenly, the rats appear dead by the thousands. The first one who sees them, the caretaker, believes it is a hoax. It's the 16th of April. On the 30th, he is dead. Then begins the parade of figures, narrated by the news agency. There are six thousand two hundred and thirty-one rats incinerated on the 25th alone. Then the plague takes up residence in humans. In the third week of the plague, there are already three hundred dead per week.

The authorities meet with the doctors. The “plague” is pronounced for the first time almost surreptitiously. You have to be careful with public opinion. Acting like the plague, but not mentioning the word terrible. For the doctor, the formula is indifferent. The problem is to prevent half the city from being killed. When the plague breaks out, the mayor panics. You need to ask the central government for guidance. The doctor is impatient: the enemy does not wait for orders. It requires imagination.

They are all humanists and stupid. The citizens of Oran do not believe in the plagues. The microbe doesn't measure up to you, it's unreal, a bad dream that passes. But the nightmare takes over and takes the humanists along with it. They, who still believe themselves to be free, continue their business, their travel plans, their petty discussions. In the first phase of the plague, people's reactions fluctuated between restlessness, associated with the darkest scenarios, soon discarded; and confidence, accompanied by a precise, albeit illusory, date for the surrender of the plague.

In the second phase, the plague sets in definitively. Individual separation becomes collective exile. All are prisoners and under siege. Condemned to live day after day in the service of the sun and the rain. Impatient with the eternal present, enemies of the past and deprived of the future. There are, however, the “privileged”. They are left with the healthy distraction of thinking about the loved one who lives far from the walls of the confined city: at least as long as memory endures and the other or the other does not lose their flesh consistency.

The plague is indifferent and monotonous especially for doctors and nurses. Pity tires when it proves to be useless. To fight abstraction, you have to look a little like the enemy. Ordinary city dwellers try to maintain their objectivity in the face of facts: “after all, this is not about me”. The escape valves are many, as in the priest's first sermon: the plague, sent by God, will take care of separating the bad from the righteous, the chaff from the wheat. Evil is others.

The city gradually surrenders to the invader. The whistle of the plague, carried by the wind, echoes over the world behind closed doors, while the moans and screams are drowned out by the night. The statistics of the dead skyrocket with the arrival of summer, which refers to sleep and rest. But there are no sea baths or pleasures of the flesh. The streets turn pale with dust and weariness, and the merciless sun gives way to the plague.

In the third stage, the plague becomes a way of life. There is no more rhetoric, just silence. Religion gives way to superstition or to unbridled pleasure. Morality bows to luxury, as if the eagerness to live reached its apex in the city of the dead. The plague has its own logistics. Smuggling brings new fortunes. And there is always a consolation as long as some are more prisoners than others. But the wind levels the city, spreading the plague from the peripheral to the central blocks.

The narrator asks permission to speak about burials, as this is an essential activity in a society of the dead, all of which adapt to a new standard of effectiveness. Infected citizens are isolated in hospitals and schools, while their families are kept in quarantine in hotels, in houses taken over by the public authorities and later in the municipal stadium. At the first sign of the plague, an immediate evacuation system is organized with ambulances traveling through the night with their sirens. The doctor is no longer the healer. He comes escorted by soldiers.

The dead are sent to cemeteries in coffins. Then the mass graves receive the mixed bodies, some for women, others for men. Until, finally, any decency is abolished in favor of the speed in the execution of the tasks. The next day, the family members sign the death certificate, as the administration has its controls. Something must differentiate humans from dogs. At the extreme of the epidemic, the cremation oven is integrated into the circuit of trams, which carry the dead swaying towards the sea. There are those who believe that the plague spreads along with the thick and nauseous vapor thrown into the sky and spread by the wind.

Great misfortunes do not bring with them spectacular images, but only a monotonous procession, ensured by the ingenuity of the administrative staff who impeccably govern the society of the dead. It remains for the living to keep the accounts. They learn from the plague, from its precision and regularity. With rising unemployment, a solution is found for less skilled workers. As misery overcomes fear, work becomes remunerated in inverse proportion to the risks. When life has no value, death is priced.

But the speculation around basic necessities is about putting inequality in its proper place. In turn, the natural equality provided by the plague ministry has no defenders. In October and November, the plague reigns. No big feelings. Tentative consent is replaced by everyday mediocrity. Living with despair naturalizes and mitigates it. The citizens of the infected society lose any vestige of personality: like sleepwalkers they don't look like anything and they all look like each other. The plague operates by massification.

In the fourth phase, the plague loses its mathematical and sovereign effectiveness. The numbers fluctuate, as do feelings of depression and excitement. Skepticism had locked up any hope. Slowly, the feeling of victory takes over. Evil abandons its positions. On January 25th, after an evaluation of the statistics, together with the medical commission, the city hall decrees the end of the epidemic. Liberation approaches.

The gates of the city are opened on a beautiful February morning. Mismatched feelings affect those (the living) who receive relatives and lovers who come from afar. As if happiness couldn't come so quickly, completely at odds with the long wait. The plague, as it came, is gone. It seems not to have left its mark on the hearts of survivors. Dances, laughter and screams make up the framework of a beautiful collective celebration.

The characters before the plague

The characters in Camus represent positions in front of the world. Each act indicates a concrete option. There is no truth, theory or culprits. There are those condemned by ignorance and weakness, those who do what needs to be done and those who are reluctant. Life is not made of noble feelings, but of attitudes.

I introduce the reader to four essential characters for the plot – without mentioning their names – leaving the two central characters for later, the doctor and the priest, as they star in the dialogue that ends the fate of the plague.

The low-ranking city official represents tenderness in the midst of the plague. After working hours, he joins the sanitary brigades, providing logistical support in managing the fight against the plague. He explains himself: "it's simple, in the face of the plague, you have to defend yourself".

Late at night, he devoted himself to his manuscript. She endlessly retouches the first paragraph of her literary work, changing adjectives, in search of perfection in the constructed image and in the sound of the words that mark her compass. The world of literati would hand you their hats in reverence. Our narrator despises the feeling of heroism. But if there is a hero, let it be this one: insignificant, bordering on the ridiculous and full of goodness in the heart.

The journalist symbolizes the search for personal happiness in love. He decides to flee at any cost from the besieged city to find his beloved. He is introduced to the world of illicit and high-paying activities that make up the plague business. His happiness finds a barrier in the (bureaucratic) abstraction of the plague, which does not recognize his status as a foreigner. He accompanies the sanitary brigades. He lives between two parallel worlds, that of escape and that of everyday struggle. He doesn't feel like dying for an idea. That's when the doctor replies: “human beings are not an idea”. After going back and forth, he retreats: “this story belongs to all of us”. He is “nationalized” by the plague. He is ashamed to be happy apart from the world. Fighting the plague is the only acceptable decision.

The third character appears out of nowhere. The narrator uses his diary to describe some (secondary) scenes of the plague. It is he who suggests to the doctor to abandon the official path and organize the brigades. He is in charge of recruiting new volunteers. One night the doctor and the leader of the brigades go up to the roof of a building. They can see the hills, the port and the horizon where the sky and the sea mix. It is then that he confesses: “I already suffered from the plague before”. As a child, he had seen his father, a judge, enact the death penalty, carried out by others. The spectacle seems abject to him. He enters politics, thirsting for justice, as he is taught that condemnation is the result of the social order. By fighting the system, he starts to kill. Therefore, the epidemic does not teach him anything else. He seeks only peace.

Finally, there is the small rentier. After committing a crime and feeling the anguish of isolation, he delights in the plague. Now there are no more culprits, they are all in the same situation. Here is his ingenious summary: “the only way to bring people together is to send them the plague”. The plague, pulling him out of solitude, turns him into its accomplice.

In addition to making a fortune off the plague, he despises the sanitary brigades. They cannot with the plague, magnificent, unbeatable. The plague retreat leaves your personality upset. It clings to the unforeseen, to a possible mathematical failure. When the plague withdraws from the scene, it is content with the mark it will leave imprinted on souls. The small rentier does not appear in the work as the villain of the story. He interacts all the time with the brigade members. The murderer's soul is blind and his heart ignorant because lonely.

The narrator, in addition to being objective, is pedagogical. He has no higher morals. If he exalted beautiful actions he would be suggesting their exceptionality. It would be a way of honoring the plague, paying tribute to indifference and selfishness.

The Doctor and the Priest

In the priest's first sermon, the plague appears as a form of punishment for sin, demanding resignation from Christians. Fighting the natural course of things is an act of heresy. Priests talk like that because they don't see the face of death. They speak in the name of "truth". Questioned about his belief, the doctor replies that if he believed in an almighty God he would not commit to healing. Maybe it's better to fight with all his strength, without looking up to heaven, while he is silent.

The plague advances and the priest enlists in the brigades. The priest and the doctor accompany the child, the judge's son, seized by excruciating pain, in a grotesque pose of a crucified person. The priest pleads with the doctor: “My God, save this child”. The doctor, at the limit of his strength, after the final sigh, explodes: “at least this one was innocent”. The priest replies: "perhaps we have to learn to love what we don't understand". And the doctor: “Father, I have another idea of ​​love”.

The priest now lives in hospitals and in places where the plague makes its home. He reveals to his new trench colleague that he writes a small treatise with the title “Can a priest consult with a doctor?”. It is then that he invites you to a second sermon. Addressing the faithful, the priest confesses: he can no longer take pleasure in imagining an eternity of delights in compensation for terror. How to accept the suffering of a child? – His voice echoes in the aisles of the church. He doesn't know anything anymore. Religion cannot be the same in times of plague. You have to believe in everything or deny everything. Who will dare to deny it? It is necessary to want the plague, because God sends it, to then show that it is unacceptable. “My brothers”, we need to be those who remain, fighting until the end.

The doctor experiences everyday fatigue under the sign of the silence of defeat. This is his job. The only way to fight the plague is to be honest. For a single, brief moment, he gets rid of the plague, during an unusual sea bath with his brigade partner. The disease forgets them, but awaits them, indefatigable. The plague leaves no legacy, there is no redemption in the afterlife. It offers only knowledge and memory. Doesn't look like much. But it's enough. History is made of those who remain and those who stay along the way. The doctor and the priest.

When indecision kills

The doctor knows pain and has enough imagination, provided by his profession, to know what death is. Historical figures, with their coffin of one hundred million dead, do not tickle the imagination. They lack concreteness. They don't carry the weight of a dead man to one who has seen him die, writhing in tears and pleading.

Let us think, for example, of the ten thousand dead in a single day of the plague in Constantinople. Let's imagine, for a moment, that this population is capable of filling five theaters. Let's hope people leave little by little and are led to the square to die in droves in front of us. Let's imagine now that they assume the faces of known people. But who knows ten thousand faces? There is imagination for those who have not seen a human die in front of them, a victim of the plague. The figures are deceiving. It's not with us.

Why are brigades formed? Because when the plague is a way of life, there's only one acceptable decision. Fight the plague. The brigadistas are driven by the objective satisfaction of preventing the greatest number of people from dying. Indecision becomes unacceptable. It means siding with the plague in its blind, murderous obstinacy.

The primary school teacher teaches that two plus two equals four. There are times in history when to hold that two plus two equals four is to sign the death warrant. Against the plague, the multiplication table is better. There is no reward and no punishment ahead. But what matters above all is that two plus two equals four.

When you have the plague, you first have to accept this fact and then decide whether to fight it. The primary school teacher would be indignant to learn that the new moralists, when they get down on their knees, preach that two plus two equals five.

It takes modesty in the face of the plague. Once the plague has taken over, you have to stand beside the victims. Since there are no heroes and saints, it remains to act like a human. No more, no less.

A libertarian literature and philosophy

Albert Camus uses the novel to think. His literature is philosophical, just as his philosophy is literary, structured not around concepts but existential situations. In his words, “I am not a philosopher, what matters is knowing how to behave in the world, when one does not believe in God or in reason” [3].

The writer rejects philosophy as a system of thought. He engages in the art of living on the edge of the cliff. Despite being classified as an existentialist, he always denied affiliation with the movement of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Due to suffering from tuberculosis, after graduating in philosophy in Algeria, Camus is prevented from taking the exam. aggregation to teach in the secondary system and continue their studies. Coming from a poor family in Blackfoot – as the inhabitants of Algeria of French descent are called –, his life resembles a pilgrimage in which the obstacles in front allow him to absorb the maximum of knowledge.

This explains his dislike of the pompous rhetoric of conventional philosophers. He conceives a simple prose without excesses. He wants to communicate only the essentials, what seems fair and true to him. He is the thinker of radical immanence, faithful to his origins. He tells, shows and describes, bringing with him the reader, whom he wants to awaken from his peaceful sleep. Surreptitiously, there is a heart that beats and bleeds, but without sentimentality.

Nietzsche is the great master of Camus. Like him, the writer wants to blend in with the world, saying yes to life. For that, he needs to live with the absurdity of the world. He seeks the opposite of life in his Mediterranean experience, made of sun and sea. Instead of dogmatic philosophy, “a philosophy of the dangerous 'maybe' at all costs” [4], full of experiments, shortcuts and detours. A libertarian and independent philosophy, without jargon.

There is nothing conformist about this positivity. Camus is driven by action and struggle and his utopia is made up of the here and now. At just over twenty years old, he joined the Algerian Communist Party, participated in the “Teatro do Trabalho” and wrote articles for newspapers about the misery of the “Kabila”, which he associated with colonial exploitation. The journey of this young man from the outskirts of Algiers to the celebration of the Nobel Prize in Sweden in 1957 is a long one.

In 1944, after having already published two works by the prestigious French publisher Gallimard, Camus entered the scene as an editorialist and editor of the Fighting, the newspaper of the French Resistance [5]. At this moment, he dedicates himself, with difficulty, to the manuscript of The plague, written and cut between 1941 and 1946. The context is the Second World War. The spread of fascism acts like a bacillus in the society of the living. But the book is also about occupation, collaboration, resistance and liberation in France. And the advance of Stalinism, conceived as a “crime of logic”, of murder in the name of history. The allegory – whatever reality it alludes to – invites the reader to fight against collective condemnation. But it is also a pamphlet, as “the revolted man” – the title of his philosophical work written in 1952 – says “no”.

The goal is to seek the humanity of those who are allies in the revolt. Selective indignation or distanced support is of no use. Nor is there any utopia beyond fighting the plague. Either you are for the plague or against it. If politics enters the historical scene with all its death drive, it is urgent to stop it. That simple.

Brazil and the plague

Any resemblance between Camus's novel and events taking place in Brazil and around the world is mere chance. Our country is a fiction apart. He has been infected since the grotesque captain pronounced the torturer's name on April 17, 2016. We then began to live under the sign of the plague.

The coronavirus is not an allegory. He is real and he kills. Nor is there an allegory of weak and ignorant beings, the militiamen who practice the death drive in power. That's what they are: their guts are open and their soul, if they have one, stinks. His contempt for science, workers and life is an affront to the primary school teacher who taught us that two plus two equals four.

The plague battalion is made up of infected of all ranks and creeds. They pray in groups and hand in hand, block the entrances to hospitals with their big cars and horns and shoot the right virus in their WhatsApp messages. The coup has already been dealt, it's there for anyone who wants to see it. In the face of the facts, there is only one acceptable decision: to fight our daily plague.

While the pestilent demon coughs, his slime is disputed by the maddened crowd, as in an Italian neorealist film. The stage is set up in front of the barracks filled with lead soldiers or the palace with curved lines designed by the communist poet Niemeyer. The green-and-yellow executioners – all in selfies, some of them pumped up, some of them with buttocks – transmit their hatred to the four corners of the beloved homeland called Brazil. “Go back to work”, “Brazil needs to work”.

One can also see the progress in methods. It is the progress of history. Instead of concentration camps, app workers, precarious self-employed workers and domestic workers are sent to die on the streets, in stores and on public transport. The bosses stay at home waiting for the coffin to pass by like in a carnival parade. They burst out laughing in their closed condominiums with their multitude of servants. They don't wear masks, they are the carriers of the plague.

Quite unlike the plague of Camus, silent and monotonous, bringing in its wake the terror, which the citizens of Oran hide as much as they can, to live, without fanfare, with the invader's domain. The narrator is sober in narrating the carnage. Here, carnage is celebrated based on chloroquine. The president of the Central Bank, instead of fulfilling his role and issuing money, develops his morbid philosophy: “this tradeoff, between saving lives or fighting the recession, is being considered”. Fiction in the form of patriotism, and gives it a national anthem, makes Camus's plague, so dry in the narrative of extraordinary facts, look like a fairy tale in black and white. His little rentier was just a fearful, ignorant man.

Our macabre show features a mediocre politician without votes, who even wears the SUS lab coat and poses as a hero; and an ex-judge, Minister of Justice, false moralist from a detective novel, faithful servant of the plague. Both are replaced as the plague progresses. The first, by a scarecrow who claims to be a doctor. He watches the numbers rise and analyzes, cadaverously, the curvature of the graph. He lacks conviction or imagination as he works on behalf of the plague. The new Minister of Justice salutes the prophet of the plague. It's the Holy Inquisition.

How does the infected-mor respond? "And? “Want me to do what?” “Everyone will die one day”. The deaths must be attributed to governors and mayors who followed WHO recommendations and decreed social isolation. The being – who came from the sewer of our society – continues: “they are not going to put deaths in my lap”. The primary teacher panics. He never taught that two plus two equals ten.

On the 1st. In May, a group of male and female nurses perform in Praça dos Três Poderes. A silent act. They carry crosses and are dressed in white, their work uniform, masks protecting their faces. His brigade mates died in the fight against the plague. An infected couple invades the act by ejaculating profanities. The man, a balding brute, claims he has three ranks. It is worth more than the “functional illiterates” who give their lives fighting the plague. The station wagon with botox says nurses don't shower, don't smell like French perfume. Your party is Brazil.

Who will be the narrator of this work in bad taste, without subtlety or allegory?

Never before in the history of this country did the cruelty of the ruling classes appear so clearly, live and in color, and with the fuss of an auditorium show. There is no more shamelessness. It is as if the country had turned into the opposite of Darcy's utopia.

Our greatest utopian thinker died believing in an original, neo-Latin and mixed-race civilization to flourish in our territory. There was “only” one obstacle: our ruling class, petty and mediocre [6]. For the Brazilian man of the ruling class is the result of a profound process of degradation of character. “He is sick with inequality” [7]. Darcy, I'm glad you're not here anymore!

In Camus' book, the plague goes away for no apparent reason. We don't know if it's because of the brigades, the vaccine or because the plague has its laws, unfathomable to humans. In the work of fiction in which we live, staged by infected people, whose author we do not know the whereabouts of, it will be different. Either we fight the plague or it will infect us all. Political science, economics and psychoanalysis cannot do more than the lesson taught by the primary school teacher: two and two always make four. We are not looking for a happy ending. It's time to fight the plague. That simple. When will we organize our brigades?

Behind the stage where the debacle of the murderous power and the megalomania of the big press play out, the brigadistas fight the plague against the backstage, not out of heroism, but because it's important to be on the right side, because there's nothing else to do. It is up to those who remain, fighting until the end, to show the opposite of this absurd and pestilent plot.

*Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa is a professor and researcher at IEB-USP and author of the book Formation of the Labor Market (Avenue).

Originally published on the website Opera Mundi.


[1] Albert Camus. Plague. Paris, Gallimard, p. 279 (

[2] ONFRAY, Michel. L'Ordre Libertaire: La Vie Philosophique de Albert Camus. Paris: Flammarion, p. 243-246 (

[3] ONFRAY, 2012, p. 207. This part of the article was written based on the work of this author. [4] [4] NIETZSCHE, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1992, 10-11, 32-33, 97. Nietzsche fought the “martyrdom” of the philosopher in the name of “morals” and “truth”, a veiled way of imposing himself through “evaluations -façada” and “herd-maximums”. The German philosopher recovers the power of impulses (desires and passions) and the “apparent world” as the basis of the will. Onfray (2012, p. 67-70) describes Camus as the “Nietzsche of the XNUMXth century” (

[5] ARONSON, Ronald. Camus and Sartre: the controversial end of a post-war friendship. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 2007, 66,67, 79- 80, 83 (

[6] RIBEIRO, Darcy. “Brazil – Brazils”, in: Utopia Brazil. São Paulo: Hedra, 2008, p. 36 (

[7] RIBEIRO, Darcy. The Brazilian people: the formation and meaning of Brazil. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1995, p. 216-217 (

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