And yet, for Camus, refusing to submit to indiscriminate numerical calculations also represents a form of creativity, a decision to imagine the world beyond the agonies of the hour. Doing otherwise risks replicating the merciless logic of the plague itself. The first real sign in the novel that the disease might be nearing its end comes when the numbers no longer add up or make sense: rising deaths on Mondays, while on Wednesdays, for some reason, hardly any at all; hundreds still dying in one district, other places where the plague seems to have quietly slipped away. The plague, Camus’s narrator remarks, was losing ‘its self-command, the ruthless almost mathematical efficiency that had been its trump card hitherto’. Mathematics flattens. It is a killing art. Counting humans, alive or dead, means you have entered a world of abstraction, the first sign that things have taken a desperate turn. Of course counting can also mean the exact opposite. If someone counts, they matter, with the further implication that they can be held answerable for their own deeds. Not to count, on the other hand, is to be overlooked or invisible, like the Arabs of Oran, whose virtual absence from Camus’s portrayal of the French Algerian town where the novel is set seems now to be its most significant failing; more than a hundred thousand were living in Oran at the time.
‘Counting’ might, then, be an example of what Freud called the ‘antithetical meaning of primal words’ characteristic of the most ancient Egyptian languages: words which simultaneously denote one thing and its opposite, and which also possess a kind of magic, since they release you into a world of contradiction and mystery. To use such words is always to take a risk. The meaning you least intend lies just below the surface, like the plague which, even after it has abated, Camus insists, has never gone away. Instead, it patiently bides its time in ‘bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, until the day comes when, for the misery and edification of mankind, it awakens its rats and sends them forth to die in a happy city’ (the last lines of the novel). In The Plague, the pestilence is at once blight and revelation. It brings the hidden truth of a corrupt world to the surface. This is hinted at very early on, when the soft corpses of dead rats are felt underfoot in the night, but before any humans have died:
It was as if the earth on which our houses were planted was being purged of its secreted humours, thrusting up to the surface the abscesses and pus-clots that, up till then, had been doing their work internally. Imagine the amazement of our little city, hitherto so tranquil and now shaken to its core in a matter of days, like a healthy man who all of a sudden feels a revolutionary surge in his thick blood.
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