But unlike many of his contemporaries, Camus took the long view. The heroism of the Resistance was less important to him than how humanity could be restored after the war. In his speech “The Human Crisis,” delivered at Columbia University in 1946, he pushed for a postwar return to the human scale, calling hatred and indifference “symptoms” of this crisis. He refused to let his country off the hook for its role in spreading this illness: “And it’s too easy, on this point, simply to accuse Hitler and say that the snake has been destroyed, the venom gone. Because we know perfectly well that the venom is not gone, that each of us carries it in our own hearts.”
While he knew that people carried traces of hatred, he was also hoping those traces could be disarmed as cultural antibodies. In this same speech, he called for creating “communities of thought outside parties and governments to launch a dialogue across national boundaries; the members of these communities will affirm by their lives and their words that this world must cease to be the world of police, soldiers and money, and become the world of men and women, of fruitful work and thoughtful play.” In response to the symptoms of war, Camus saw shared consciousness as a healing force, becoming particularly interested in how people could develop a global collectivity that would protect them against nationalism and fascism. Writing “The Plague” in the form of a historical “chronicle” was a hopeful gesture, implying human continuity, a vessel to carry the memory of war as an inoculation against future armed conflicts.
This view met with some pushback. In 1970 Sartre said in an interview, “When I think of Camus claiming, years later, that the German invasion was like the plague — coming for no reason, leaving for no reason — quel con, what a fool!”
But while Camus was writing for the moment, he was also writing for the future. He was making art out of what happens between antibodies and germs, expanding metaphors from the molecular level. Though many rightly interpret “The Plague” as a novel about the collective spirit of resistance, there is also a deeper collectivity at work: our shared antibodies, the immunity of the herd.
The truth is, as a metaphor, translation is uncomfortably close to transmission. Translators move words across borders, we open gates between one language and the next. But it matters what is being transmitted. Throughout “The Plague,” old Dr. Castel is trying to develop a serum to share containing the antibodies of patients who have survived.