Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1792
Of the main characters in The Plague, Tarrou is the only one who gives a long, first-person account of his life and the events that shaped his thinking. It is obvious that Camus attached great importance to Tarrou’s story, which occurs toward the end of part IV, in his conversation with Rieux. Tarrou is a central character in The Plague, because it is he who organizes the volunteer sanitary teams, which he does because he believes it to be his moral duty. Tarrou’s story of how his life had been shaped by his revulsion at the death penalty echoes Camus’s own passionate opposition to capital punishment. Much of what Tarrou says about capital punishment can also be found in greater detail in Camus’s essay, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” which he wrote in 1956 and published the following year. Camus’s essay, according to his biographer Olivier Todd, helped to create a climate that eventually led, several decades later in 1981, to the abolition of the death penalty by the French government. Today, the death penalty has been abolished by all member nations of the European Union but remains legal in the United States. Camus’s views on the issue, both in The Plague and in his later essay, are a fierce contribution to one side of the debate.
In The Plague, Tarrou tells Rieux of his father, who was a prosecuting attorney. When Tarrou was seventeen, his father asked him to come to court to hear him speak in a death penalty case. What Tarrou remembered most about the trial was the frightened defendant. Tarrou did not doubt the man’s guilt, but he was vividly impressed by the fact that the man was “a living human being” and that the whole purpose of the proceedings was to make arrangements to kill him. Instinctively, he took the side of the defendant.
Tarrou noticed also how his father’s demeanor was different in court from his demeanor at home. Normally, he was a kindly man, but in his role as prosecutor he was fierce in his denunciation of the accused and in his call for the “supreme penalty,” which Tarrou says should better be called “murder in its most despicable form.”
From that point on, Tarrou took a horrified interest in everything to do with the death penalty, and he realized that often his father rose early in order to witness the executions. It was Tarrou’s horror at this that forced him to leave home and begin campaigning against the death penalty. He came to believe that the entire social order was based on the death penalty and that this “supreme penalty” was being applied even in the name of the political causes he supported. He fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and admits that his side used the death penalty, but he was told that a few deaths were necessary for the creation of a new world in which murder would no longer happen. He reluctantly accepted this argument until in Hungary he witnessed an execution by firing squad. He tells Rieux that such an execution is far more grisly than the way it is usually imagined. The firing squad stands only a yard and a half from the condemned man, and the bullets blow a hole in his heart big enough to thrust a fist into. Since witnessing that execution, Tarrou has never been able to sleep well, and he has based his morality on the need to avoid becoming involved in anything that could lead directly or indirectly to the death penalty.
“Reflections on the Guillotine” expands on Tarrou’s arguments and also sheds light on some of his more esoteric points. Just as Tarrou told a story about his own revulsion at the death penalty, so also Camus begins with a personal story, although it is not about himself but was told to him about his father. His father supported the death penalty, but on the only occasion when he attended an execution, he returned home and was apparently so disgusted and nauseated by what he had witnessed that he vomited. Camus uses this story to point out (as he had Tarrou do) how the death penalty is deliberately spoken of in euphemisms, such as “paying a debt to society,” designed to conceal what really happens. Tarrou had said that all “our troubles spring from our failure to use plain, clean-cut language,” and Camus takes up this point in his essay, arguing that if the truth were told, ordinary people would realize the horror of the act of severing a man’s head from his body (the method of execution in France) and would no longer support it. According to Camus, society does not in fact believe what it proclaims about the death penalty setting an example for others, since, if it did, it would hold executions in public, show them on television, and publish eyewitness accounts and medical reports on what happens to a human body immediately after execution. (He quotes some accounts of actual executions that make for disturbing reading.)
Camus assembles more arguments against the death penalty, some of which will be easily recognized by those who are familiar with the contemporary debate over capital punishment in the United States. Camus claims, for example, that crime statistics show that the death penalty has no deterrent effect. Given this lack of correlation, Camus argues that the death penalty is merely an act of revenge, based on the primitive urge to retaliate, which, he says, is based on an emotion, not a principle. He also argues that the principle of equivalence (one death for another) does not operate either, for the punishment, since it is preceded by a period of confinement, is worse than the crime. For there to be equivalence, the state would have to
punish a criminal who has warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.
Camus also adopts the argument of the modern liberal, arguing that society is not entirely blameless for the crimes that individuals commit. He points to the link between crime and poor living conditions, and he also points out that many crimes are linked to the consumption of alcohol and that corporations make healthy profits from the sale of alcohol, some of which benefit members of parliament who have shares in those companies. In other words, the precise responsibility of the killer cannot be measured, since there are other factors involved.
This does not exhaust the arguments Camus marshals against the death penalty in his essay. He points to the possibility of error, which would involve the execution of the innocent, and to the arbitrary nature of the death sentence, since it can be influenced by irrelevant factors like the defendant’s appearance and demeanor. He also claims that no one can ever know for certain that a man is so depraved that he will never be able to make amends for what he has done.
Finally, Camus turns to the question of the death penalty as carried out for political reasons. This is what had such a deep effect on Tarrou in The Plague, who appears to believe that taking part in politics of whatever sort makes him an accomplice to murder, since the death penalty is a weapon commonly used by those who wish to impose a particular ideology on others. Tarrou tells Rieux that, given his opposition to anything that results in state-sanctioned murder, he has no place in the world: “[O]nce I’d definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end. I leave it to others to make history.”
This argument must be understood in the context of the times. During the 1930s and 1940s, Nazism, Fascism, and Soviet totalitarianism were committing atrocities, including mass executions, and justifying them in terms of the new society they claimed they were building. In “Reflections on the Guillotine,” written over a decade later, Camus’s argument remains essentially the same. He was writing shortly after the Soviet Union crushed a revolt in Hungary, at a time when Spain was ruled by the fascist dictatorship of General Franco; when the Soviets sent political dissidents to slave labor camps; and Algerian nationalists fighting French rule were subject to execution. Memories of Nazism were also still fresh in people’s minds. Against this background, Camus argues that the biggest practitioner of crimes against individuals is now the State and that it is the State that individuals must defend themselves against. The abolition of capital punishment would be one major step, he argues, in ending worship of the State as an embodiment of absolute values and reaffirming respect for the individual. It would be an acknowledgement that nothing authorizes the State to carry out a punishment of such severity and finality that it can never be reversed.
This aspect of Camus’s argument (which is the same argument he gives to Tarrou in The Plague) belongs very much to its time and place. Since the demise of communism throughout the world in the late 1980s and 1990s, few people in the West today are prepared to see the solution to society’s problems in terms of increasing the power of the state. But when Camus was writing, in the 1940s and 1950s, the defeat of totalitarian ideologies was not yet in sight, and his work was an attempt to grapple with real problems facing European societies. Curiously, it is in the United States, which historically has been the nation most wary of sacrificing individual freedom to the power of the state, that capital punishment has been retained and vigorously endorsed by politicians of all parties. But as far as Europe is concerned, Camus’s dream, as he expressed it in “Reflections on the Guillotine,” has come true: “in the unified Europe of the future the solemn abolition of the death penalty ought to be the first article of the European Code we all hope for.” Today, no nation that still retains the death penalty can be admitted to the European Union.
Of course, whether abolition of the death penalty in Western Europe has in fact contributed, as Camus’s character Tarrou desired, to the lessening of the “plague” in every human being—the tendency, under certain circumstances to do harm to another person—is another matter, less easily decided upon.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on The Plague, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003. Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature.
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In the summer of 1948 an English translation of Albert Camus’s The Plague was published, and George Orwell’s 1984 appeared several months later. During the half-century since, those two books have helped to shape the cultural landscape. Books were weapons and the stakes survival in the politics-soaked late forties, when seemingly every event was viewed through the prism of democracy and its virulent enemies. At a loyalty board hearing conducted at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1949, a sheet-metal worker was questioned about what book clubs he subscribed to (shades of Kenneth Starr!). “The Book Find Club,” he responded. “Does Dreiser contribute?” a board member queried. “Some of their writers adhere to the Communist Party line… They weave doctrine into a story.” The worker responded in the manner of someone trying to evade the Thought Police. “I ain’t that much of a genius. I read the words, not the weaving.”
Literary niceties didn’t matter overmuch in such a climate. Reviewers called The Plague a sermon and an allegory, and labeled 1984 a diatribe—characterizations delivered as praise, as if justifying the failure of the prose to do the usual work of fiction. So what if neither packed the punch of Raintree County or The Naked and the Dead, both of which, along with The Young Lions and The Big Fisherman, appeared on the 1948 bestseller list. Their messages matched the preoccupations of the time.
The Plague conjured in postwar readers’ minds the insidious spread of Nazism and underlined the moral authority of resistance. For such a deadly serious book, it was a surprising commercial success, and most reviewers genuflected to its apparent profundity. “The Plague is one of the few genuinely important works of art to come out of Europe since the war’s end,” Time trumpeted. “It makes most recent American war novels seem tinny and thin by comparison.”
1984 was published just as the Soviet Union was undergoing the fate of Orwell’s Eurasia, transformed almost overnight from ally to archenemy. Orwell was renowned as an honest witness to injustice across generations and continents, and his novel was a smash hit—170,000 sold in the first year, another 190,000 of the Book of the Month Club edition. Life ran an illustrated, Classic Comics-style version of the novel. “Have you read this book?” a New York shoeshine boy asked English critic Isaac Deutscher. “You must read it, sir. Then you will know why we must drop the atom bomb on the Bolshies!” Writing in The New York Times, Mark Schorer was hardly less boosterish. “No other work of this generation has made us desire freedom more earnestly or loathe tyranny with such fulness.”
The Zeitgeist shifts like a tectonic plate, and one generation’s manifesto often becomes another generation’s soporific. The Soviet Union that figures in 1984 ceased to merit its chief bogyman status years before its formal collapse, and the Nazism that informs The Plague has been no more than a political sideshow for generations. Still, these books shape our worldview. They keep selling; some 30,000 copies of The Plague and more than 100,000 copies of 1984 are sold each year in the United States. More than 10 million copies of 1984 have been sold, ranking it among the all-time U.S. bestsellers. In recent years each has been packaged as a movie, 1984 for a second time, and there is also a mock sequel, a conservative tract called Orwell’s Revenge.
That The Plague features prominently in discussions about AIDS is understandable, since Camus’s story centers on another plague. What’s surprising, though, is that the message of the novel creeps into analyses of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—where partisans on both sides have drawn comfort from the text—as well as Swiss money laundering during World War II. Half a century after 1984’s appearance, scarcely a week goes by without Big Brother, Newspeak or Thought Police turning up in public argument.
The morals of these morality plays turn out to be more capacious, the archetypes they represent more profound, than their creators could ever have anticipated. The imagery of 1984 and The Plague still produces the bile-in-the-throat feeling of utter panic that arises when we are pushed into confronting our absolute powerlessness. Dread nature rising up, the punishing Flood, the helpless individual who becomes the plaything of a malevolent fate: These are what our nightmares are made of.
Plagues and People
In 1948 memories of Nazi terror were vivid, and The Plague contains scenes that could have been lifted straight from those wartime memories: painful separations from loved ones, attempts to escape the war zone, the formation of isolation camps for the contaminated, the smell of dead and burning bodies. “There will be few readers,” a Herald Tribune reviewer contended, “who will not see in it a parable of the condition of all mankind, especially during the recent war.” Time relied on The Plague when analyzing the French Resistance: “To continue upholding one’s human obligations when there seems the least possibility of fulfilling them is, if not heroism, the best that men can do.” Camus once described himself as committed to “everyday life with the most possible light thrown upon it.” Long after the priest’s sermons on faith and fatalism have faded from our memory of the book, what remains are those everyday life moments: the journalist’s poignant decision to stay in a city where he has found himself by chance, rather than fleeing to his home and his fiancée; the death of the judge’s child; the nightly performances of a play brought to town by a troupe of thespians entrapped by the plague, a ritual that ends only when one of the actors falls dead on the stage. Even in times that are truly unspeakable, Camus insists, we constantly construct the normal or else we go mad. “The task is to favor freedom against the fatalities that close in upon it.”
The threat of a real plague had seemingly played itself out, medical science supposedly having triumphed over mass contagion, by the time the book appeared. Camus revives the image, and our sense of plague as threat now comes not from tales of medieval London but from his novel. The imagery has often been used to represent a fearsome intrusion, the uninvited guest at the garden party who smashes all the glasses. When a mad killer disrupts the “happy city” of Gainesville, Florida (the reference is to Oran), The Plague is summoned, as it is in the context of an outbreak of violence against the children of Bangor, terrorism in the Tokyo subways and arson in Laguna Beach. Even a baseball columnist drew inspiration from the novel: “Albert Camus, a heavy hitter in his own field, might have appreciated slumps as a symbol of random evil . . . . The malady speads, too. . . . But the struggle goes on for a cure.”
The literal plague—the slow progression of a deadly, contagious disease and the various attempts to combat it—went undiscussed until the summer of 1981, when a brief story in The New York Times brought news of a disease that was killing gay men. With that first press reference to AIDS, The Plague became invested with new meaning.
Never mind Susan Sontag’s plea, in Illness as Metaphor, that diseases be treated as signifying only themselves: Because AIDS especially menaced gay men, the epidemic became a breeding ground for metaphors that had less to do with the disease than the state of society. AIDS was God’s judgment on homosexuals, fundamentalist Christian preachers thundered, even as medical science was bent to support this point of view. “If AIDS is the Plague of the Eighties,” Michael Fumento insisted in The National Review, “then homosexuals are the rats.”
On the other side of this great cultural divide, the fight against this disease and the social judgments barnacled to it became the moral equivalent of war. For Randy Shilts, whose And the Band Played On is the J’Accuse for AIDS, the preachments of The Plague turned into whips to flagellate the AIDS-phobic. But while Camus concludes optimistically that “in a time of pestilence . . . there are more things to admire in men than to despise,” the trajectory of AIDS has been less cheering.
Despite all the God-doubting and personal angst that news of the plague evokes among the residents of Camus’s Oran, what was required to combat the epidemic was plain enough: universal reporting of infection, quarantine of the infected and the imposition of strict health measures on the healthy. Because the plague struck indiscriminately, maintaining the privacy of its victims was not a worry—indeed, respect for privacy would have meant more deaths.
Dr. Rieux, the main character, is portrayed as brave because of his decisiveness, while the unheroic fret about panicking the populace by acting too quickly. Ironically, during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the person whose behavior most resembled Rieux’s was Lyndon LaRouche, who demanded universal testing and quarantine for those with H.I.V. Those positions made him a hero only to the AIDS-phobic, for reasons that illuminate the difference between these epidemics. AIDS was a condition that initially could be neither diagnosed nor treated. To be infected with the virus was socially devastating, so the call for universal testing spread panic. (When former Georgia governor and segregationist die-hard Lester Maddox was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a form of cancer linked to AIDS, he was mortified; he’d much prefer to die from “straight cancer,” he said.) While in Oran the plague ran its course in less than a year, AIDS could conceivably last forever.
“No one was prepared for AIDS,” observed one of the first AIDS doctors. “It’s like Albert Camus said in The Plague: ‘Plagues and wars always afflict us but they always catch us by surprise.’” What resonates from the novel is how good people respond in terrible times—not by allowing themselves to be paralyzed or blaming the diseased for their affliction but by acting to contain the harm. “All who attend AIDS victims need to find the grace described in The Plague,” wrote a journalist in the Chicago Tribune who went on to quote a 1986 statement from the American Medical Association. “Though unable to be saints, [health professionals should] refuse to bow down to pestilences and strive to their utmost to be healers.”
That reading of The Plague sharpens the moral distinction. But the novel also invites the plague victim to contemplate the very different possibility that he has brought this condition upon himself, that the plague is our Flood. This understanding, which turns inward Fumento’s diatribe about AIDS patients as rats, resonates with many gay men who live not only with a fatal disease but also with deeply internalized homophobia.
At the end of The Plague, Dr. Rieux reveals that he is not just a character in the story but also the narrator, returned to “bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people, so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure.” In “When Plagues End,” a New York Times Magazine essay, former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan strikes a similar pose. In lieu of the dead rat in the hallway that is the harbinger of plague in Oran, Sullivan describes the suddenly darkened apartment of a stricken friend as signaling the advent of AIDS. He imagines he is seeing the end to this plague, marked by the development of new pharmaceutical regimes—hence the title of his article. But in this he is entirely premature. For AIDS, there is no happy ending, no Rieux on the train station platform, waiting for his wife and the chance to resume his ordinary life, only a disease that resists being domesticated by medical science and the persistent desire to find something, or someone, to blame. . . .
The Happy City
The imagery of 1984 may feel as tired and unimaginative today as the stale metaphors against which Orwell inveighs in “Politics and the English Language,” but it is this very familiarity that explains why these symbols endure. The vision of 1984, so startling half a century ago, has long since become ordinary, just as Freudian categories are taken-for-granted tools in our intellectual kitbag. Imagining a world without airbrushed history or a watchful eye, Big Brother or the computer databank is as hard as letting go of repression or sublimation. Fifty years on, 1984 lingers in the air. So too does The Plague, with its images of natural and insidious evil.
The idea that one might achieve utopia on earth, so tempting when these novels were published, has vanished except among the maddest of cults, a casualty of the many sins committed in the name of utopia. 1984 and The Plague urged against trusting the visionary, because we know that good times are never truly the best of times and worse times are likely lurking around the corner. Always there is the possibility of a clock waiting to strike thirteen or a plague that will “rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”
Source: David L. Kirp, Andrew Koehler, and Jaime Rossi, “Moral Rorschachs,” in the Nation, Vol. 266, No. 16, May 4, 1998, pp. 32–36.
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Even before his narrative begins, Albert Camus offers a cue on how to read The Plague. He positions a statement by Daniel Defoe as epigraph to the entire work. Any novelist writing about epidemics bears the legacy of A Journal of the Plague Year, the 1722 text in which Defoe recounts the collective story of one city, in his case London, under the impact of a plague, and uses a narrator so self-effacing that his only concession to personal identity is the placement of his initials, H.F., at the very end. Camus’s The Plague insists that it is the “chronicle” of an “honest witness” to what occurred in Oran, Algeria, a physician named Bernard Rieux who is so loath to impose his personality on the story that he conceals his identity until the final pages. Rieux claims the modest role of “chronicler of the troubled, rebellious hearts of our townspeople under the impact of the plague.”
The particular passage appropriated as epigraph to Camus’s novel comes from another book by Defoe, from the preface to volume III of Robinson Crusoe. And, for the reader of The Plague, it immediately raises questions of representation: “It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not.” Coming even before we have met the first infected rat in Oran, the Defoe quotation is an invitation to allegory, a tip that the fiction that follows signifies more than the story of a town in Algeria in a year, “194_,” deliberately kept indeterminate to encourage extrapolation. “I had plague already, long before I came to this town and encountered it here. Which is tantamount to saying I’m like everybody else,” says a healthy Jean Tarrou, by which he suggests that the pestilence that is the focus of the story is not primarily a medical phenomenon; nor is it, like Camus’s adversary, quarantined in one city during most of one year, from April 16 to the following February. “I know positively—yes, Rieux, I can say I know the world inside out, as you may see—that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it,” declares Tarrou. Camus’s novel invites its readers to recognize that they, too, are somehow infected, though the diagnosis seems more metaphysical than physical.
In 1941, a typhus outbreak near Oran resulted in more than 75,000 deaths. However, that epidemic was clearly a source not the subject for Camus’s novel. The Plague is one of the most critically and commercially successful novels ever published in France. It has managed to sell more than four million copies throughout the world and to inspire an army of exegetes. For the generation that grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, it was, like Catch-22, a book that was devoured although and because it was not assigned in school. But its appeal has not been as an accurate case study in epidemiology. Particularly in North America, where Oran seems as remote as Oz, readers have accepted Camus’s invitation to translate the text into allegory. The Plague offered a tonically despairing vision of an absurd cosmos in which human suffering is capricious and unintelligible. The lethal, excruciating disease strikes fictional Oran indiscriminately, and when it does recede it does so temporarily, oblivious to human efforts at prophylaxis. As in Camus’s philosophical treatise The Myth of Sisyphus, the health workers of Oran combat each case from scratch without ever being convinced that their labors accomplish anything.
In a famous letter addressed to Roland Barthes in 1955, Camus attempted to narrow the terms of interpretation. He insisted that his 1947 novel be read not as a study in abstract evil but as a story whose manifest reference is to the situation of France under the Nazi occupation:
The Plague, which I wanted to be read on a number of levels, nevertheless has as its obvious content the struggle of the European resistance movements against Nazism. The proof of this is that although the specific enemy is nowhere named, everyone in every European country recognized it. Let me add that a long extract from The Plague appeared during the Occupation, in a collection of underground texts, and that this fact alone would justify the transposition I made. In a sense, The Plague is more than a chronicle of the Resistance. But certainly it is nothing less. (Lyrical and Critical Essays . . . )
Long after the Liberation of France, readers, particularly those born after World War II, preferred to read The Plague as something more than a chronicle of the Resistance, as the embodiment of a more universal philosophical vision. The novel was, in fact, even more popular in the United States, which did not experience the Nazi Occupation, than in France, where Camus’s aversion to torture and violence made him politically suspect by both the left and the right. The absence of an immediate historical context encouraged younger Americans to read The Plague as a philosophical novel. So, too, did our inexperience with plagues. “Oh, happy posterity,” wrote Petrarch in the fourteenth century, when more than half the population of his native Florence perished in the bubonic plague, the Black Death, “who will not experience such abysmal woe and will look upon our testimony as a fable.”
Before 1980, The Plague was facilely read as a fable. Polio had been vanquished, and the smallpox virus survived only in a few laboratories. Aside from periodic visitations of influenza, usually more of a nuisance than a killer, epidemics, before the outbreak of cholera in Peru in 1991, had been as common in this hemisphere as flocks of auks. Those of us who first read The Plague during the era of the Salk and Sabin vaccines were hard put to imagine a distant world not yet domesticated by biotechnology, in which a lere bacillus could terrorize an entire city. We read The Plague not as the story of a plague, an atavistic nemesis that seemed unlikely to menace our own modern metropolises. The story was a pretext, an occasion for ethical speculation, in short an allegory without coordinates in space and time.
However, though published long before the first case of AIDS was diagnosed and thirty-five years before the acronym was even coined, The Plague assumed a new urgency during the 1980s, as it became apparent that epidemics were not obsolete occurrences or quaint events confined to distant regions. Not long after a 1981 article in The New England Journal of Medicine reported seven inexplicable cases of severe infection, AIDS became a global pandemic. In the United States alone, more than 160,000 have died from the disease, and another 80,000 have been diagnosed with the deadly disorder. Close to 2 million Americans have been infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, believed to be the precondition for AIDS. At first, AIDS seemed to target homosexual men, Haitians, and intravenous drug users, but, like Camus’s plague, it was soon striking capriciously, without any regard to the social status of its hundreds of thousands of helpless, hapless victims. As in The Plague, a panicked populace responded in a variety of ways but without any cure. It is no longer possible to read The Plague with the innocence of Existentialist aesthetes. Joseph Dewey suggests that, for a contemporary novelist in quest of a paradigmatic AIDS narrative, it is not profitable to read The Plague at all—“Camus’s use of contagion as an undeniable occasion of mortality that tests whether those quarantined in the Algerian port can find significance in life within an infected geography seems too metaphoric, a luxury when compared to what AIDS victims must confront: the indignities of a slow and grinding premature death.”
Laurel Brodsley, however, does not dismiss The Plague. She takes it seriously enough to try to demonstrate how Defoe provides a model for it and two other twentieth-century plague books: Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time, and Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On, both of them AIDS narratives. Yet it would be more accurate to say that Camus mediates between Shilts and Defoe—and even between Shilts and the contemporary pestilence whose first five years he recounts. Published in 1987, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic is a detailed report on the onset and spread of AIDS and of the spectrum of reactions to it. What, to a student of Camus, is remarkable about Shilts’s book—which, selected for the Book of the Month Club, was a bestseller in both hardcover and paperback—is how much it has in common with The Plague. Not only does Shilts document the same pattern of initial denial followed by acknowledgment, recrimination, terror, and occasional stoical heroism that Rieux recounts during the Oran ordeal. But it is clear that Shilts has read Camus and has adopted much of the style and structure of The Plague to tell his story of an actual plague. Where Camus appropriates Defoe for the epigraph to his novel, Shilts mines Camus’s The Plague for epigraphs to four of his book’s nine sections: Parts IV, V, VI, and VII. In Part II, describing baffling new developments among homosexual patients, Shilts echoes Camus’s absurdist Myth of Sisyphus when he states: “The fight against venereal diseases was proving a Sisyphean task.” That same Greek myth, for whom Camus is the modern bard, is alluded to two other times by Shilts—flippantly, in reference to AIDS victim Gary Walsh’s “Sisyphean task” of renovating his Castro District apartment and, more portentously, in reference to the “Sisyphean struggle” against AIDS directed by Donald Francis, a leading retrovirologist at the Centers for Disease Control. . . .
Early in The Plague its still anonymous narrator attempts to establish his credibility by assuming the humble role of historian. He insists on his distaste for rhetorical flamboyance and literary contrivance, assuring the reader that: “His business is only to say: ‘This is what happened,’ when it actually did happen, that it closely affected the life of a whole populace, and that there are thousands of eyewitnesses who can appraise in their hearts the truth of what he writes.” Rather than his own eccentric fabrication, what follows, he assures us, is an impartial account adhering scrupulously to reliable sources. “The present narrator,” says the present narrator, in an attempt at objective detachment even from himself, “has three kinds of data: first, what he saw himself; secondly, the accounts of other eyewitnesses (thanks to the part he played, he was enabled to learn their personal impressions from all those figuring in this chronicle); and, lastly, documents that subsequently came into his hands.” . . . .
Camus is of course writing fiction, and his artful prose aspires to the spare eloquence of the solitary sentence that Joseph Grand is forever honing into an economy of eloquence. Shilts’s massive book overwhelms his reader with the numbing evidence of actuality. Footnotes would have been an impertinence to The Plague, but they are essential to Shilts’s claim on the reader’s belief. Nevertheless, not every reader has honored that claim. Douglas Crimp reacted harshly to Shilts’s deployment of conventional novelistic technique, and James Miller, who contends that “Shilts has artfully mated Hard Times with Oliver Twist to produce a symphonic opus of public oppression and private suffering,” is enraged over the book’s Dickensian caricatures and emotional excesses. “I suspect that Shilts is making lots and lots of money out of his success de scandale,” rails Miller, “by feeding his straight and some of his gay readers exactly what they want: large dollops of guilt.” Readers often turn pages because they want to find solutions. And the Band Played On is, like The Plague, a whodunit, a book designed to arouse and shape our curiosity about causes. What are the origins of catastrophe? Judith Williamson in fact faults And the Band Played On for exploiting the conventions of detective fiction so effectively that it demonizes Gaetan Dugas, Patient Zero, as the primal culprit in the global drama: “While Shilts’s book is rationally geared to blame the entire governmental system for failing to fund research, educate the public and treat those infected, he nevertheless cannot entirely resist the wish for a source of contamination to be found, and then blamed.”
Whatever the sources of misfortune, Camus leaves us with his plague in temporary remission, but, in Shilts’s final pages, AIDS is merely gaining momentum. Neither disease is near a cure. Yet both epidemics and both books leave us enlightened about the limitations of human understanding but the need to act on what we know. William Styron spoke for many American admirers when he praised Camus for his tonic recognition of a bleak cosmos: “Camus was a great cleanser of my intellect, ridding me of countless sluggish ideas and, through some of the most unsettling pessimism I had ever encountered, causing me to be aroused anew by life’s enigmatic promise.” Stronger on enigma than promise, Shilts has nevertheless created a book designed to arouse.
Source: Steven G. Kellman, “From Oran to San Francisco: Shilts Appropriates Camus,” in College Literature, Vol. 24, No. 1, February 1997, pp. 202–12.