Wednesday, 1 April 2020

No 100 - Pestilence and words

I was set to devote my 100th blog-post to the most recent wave of Zimbabwean fiction, but now that the bookstores are closed… I guess I’ll just have to write cheerfully about pestilences, plagues and pandemics.

"After the pandemic?" (c) Dan Wylie

My first impulse in all worldly matters is to consult the resources of history and literature. (After all, isn’t literature itself a kind of pandemic, saturating our global lives and changing our consciousness in invisible ways, albeit not often fatal?) The literature of plagues and contagions is vast, dating back at least as far as Homer’s Iliad. A minute or two on the internet of course turned up several lists of Covid-containment reading, as if that’s all we’d want to do in our lockdowns. One interesting list includes a couple I’ve read – Margaret Atwood’s unavoidable Oryx and Crake and José Saramago’s brilliant Blindness – and a whole bunch I’d never even heard of.  Scratching around in my own bookshelves, I emerge with some random thoughts.

I happen to be reading David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth (2019), a journalistic barrage of fast-breathing and alarming factoids and figures about our probably bleak global future. In his short, patchy chapter on plagues (written before Covid-19 struck), he focuses on those that might be released from ancient tundras by global warming. One needn’t look so far: epidemiologists have already recorded over 300 zoonotic viruses – that is, contracted by humans from animals whose territories and isolation they have increasingly invaded. SARS, avian flu, swine fevers, ebola and more have already rattled our collective complacency. There are still one or two people alive who experienced the last great flu pandemic of 1918, which killed anything between 50 and 100 million people (and one particularly tragic case of an ancient lady who survived 1918 but has succumbed to Covid-19).

The other historical touchstone of course is the bubonic Black Death of the 1340s, which carried off an even greater proportion of the population.  Wallace-Wells wrongly says it was largely confined to Europe. In fact – as I discover from revisiting my battered copy of historian Barbara Tuchman’s marvellous history of the Middle Ages, A Distant Mirror (1978) – it was blamed on China, where it was said to have begun. Then as now, that picture turned out to be simplistic: the world was already globally interconnected, albeit in slower fashion back then.  Still, China and India suffered massive loss of life before Europe did. Then as now, rumours, crackpot theories and misinformation swarmed and compromised efforts to combat the disease. In the absence of an understanding of the microbial and the viral, most in mediaeval Europe attributed it to humours, alignments of planets, or a punitive God. You’d think we would know better but even now, religious fervour has ignored all historical precedent, believers gathering in large numbers to pray and lament – in South Korea, New Delhi, Dallas and Bloemfontein - thereby only making it worse. To their credit, both Pope Clement VI then, and Francis today, ‘saw the light’ and curbed such congregations. Then as now, people looked to place the blame or project bemused anger: in mediaeval Europe the Jews were targeted, here the foreign and the poor are already being harassed. Then as now, inequalities are crucial to the disease’s distribution and impact. The impoverished always get it most badly, though in the end no class is spared; back then, princes and nobles – the Boris Johnsons of their day – also sickened and died. Then as now, many were by necessity abandoned to their fate, dying without their loved ones around, buried without due ceremony. Then as now, courageous and selfless charitable helpers themselves succumbed in disproportionate numbers, and the crisis brought out both the best and the worst in people.

Tuchman’s thesis is that the Middle Ages provides an illuminating ‘distant mirror’ to our own century; even she might not have anticipated so close a parallel to this crisis. She mentions the First World War as a comparable upheaval but not, oddly, the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed even more people than the war. And of course, there are significant differences: today’s numbers, technologies, communications networks and medical understanding will make our responses qualitatively different, and likely far more effective. The Black Death waned after a couple of years, apparently of its own accord; so will Covid-19, and we are unlikely to see the kind of toll the Black Death took – fully half of Paris’s population of 100,000, for example (it was a major world city then, but hardly bigger than Grahamstown today!).

That none are immune to such a scourge or its aftershocks is the burden of Edgar Allan Poe’s symbolic story, “The Masque of the Red Death”, published in 1842. It was possibly sparked by Boccaccio’s observation of Florentine’s notables during the Black Death. Poe’s lushly wrought parabolic tale opens with a description that parallels the terrible buboes and irruptions of the mediaeval bubonic plague:

No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal – the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.

(Covid-19 may be less dramatically visible, but is hardly less terrible, drowning you from the inside.) In Poe’s story, Prince Prospero (doubtless an allusion to the mage of Shakespeare’s The Tempest) sequesters himself in a castle with his coterie, building impenetrable walls and welding the gates closed with great bolts, while the Red Plague mows down the hoi-polloi outside. Within, a great party ensues, with masques and dances reeling through numerous brightly coloured rooms – the nobility fiddling while the world burns. But in the background a clock tolls forbiddingly – then a deathly hooded, rotting figure appears, mistaken at first as just another masquerade, someone’s macabre hoax, until someone dares to rip at the clothes, to find nothing beneath but the Red Death itself. Self-serving delusions of grandeur and immunity, Mr Trump, will eventually be exposed.

My internet browsing also turned up an essay about another prescient story, this one a novella by Jack London, he of White Fang fame. Clearly indebted to Poe’s psycho-fantasy, The Scarlet Plague (1915) is an astonishing forecast of subsequent pandemics. It imagines San Francisco in 2073, and depicts the aftermath of a pandemic that has erupted there in 2013 (a century in the future when London published the book, but eerily the very year in which the bird flu scare would in fact occur). The story is largely related by old ‘Granser’ Smith, an erstwhile English professor (go, Prof!) who survives a mass die-off, the burning of the city, a futile attempt to self-isolate in his university’s Chemistry building, and years of solitary wandering, eventually to rejoin one of the tribelets who remain. (In this it’s not unlike my own The Wisdom of Adders, though I envisaged a more complicated catastrophe unfolding over a further century.) London extends Poe’s motifs of the scarlet rash and “dissolution”: his pestilence kills swiftly and the corpses disintegrate, releasing yet more germs, killing indiscriminately, without justice, even the bacteriologists in their laboratories. Supplies of gas run out, airships disappear, chaos and heartlessness reign, communications collapse altogether. Wild nature takes over again.

New York City and Chicago were in chaos. And what happened with them was happening in all the large cities. A third of the New York police were dead. Their chief was also dead, likewise the mayor. All law and order had ceased. The bodies were lying in the streets un-buried. All railroads and vessels carrying food and such things into the great city had ceased running and mobs of the hungry poor were pillaging the stores and warehouses. Murder and robbery and drunkenness were everywhere. Already the people had fled from the city by millions—at first the rich, in their private motor-cars and dirigibles, and then the great mass of the population, on foot, carrying the plague with them...

In short, “Ten thousand years of culture and civilization passed in the twinkling of an eye, 'lapsed like foam.'

Simplistic and dramatised, perhaps, and we've taken the opposite tack - lockdown - but the depiction of pandemic fear feels psychologically true. As so many people are now belatedly trumpeting, we can hardly say we weren’t warned.  It’s a mystery – or a significant illumination of human myopia – that despite everything, the world still seems woefully ill-prepared for this calamity.

Even more uncertain, naturally, is how the future will look. Little or no fiction explores economics, the new demigods of the "market" that now dominate our lives. There are pessimistic and optimistic projections (well laid out by Peter C Baker).  Humanity will surely survive, as it has before, but in what mode? Will we be jolted into becoming somehow a better, more compassionate, more environmentally caring species than before? History is not too encouraging. Tuchman has an arresting paragraph:

Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings.

Covid-19, whatever its scale and duration turn out to be, looks set to be the convulsion to loose the moorings of our particular lifetimes. History does seem to indicate that we too will find ourselves “neither destroyed nor improved”. Old bad habits will die hard, forgetfulness of trauma sets in remarkably quickly, the good and the beautiful will still – as imagined by 1001 sci-fi novels and movies – struggle to prove the greater force.

"Sunset" (c) Dan Wylie


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  1. I marvel at how you manage to turn up so much analysis and interpretation and ideas almost in an instant. This is as relevant and thoroughgoing as it is thought provoking. I am left with much to chew upon and explore. Thank you Dan.

  2. Will the philosopher of Stones Hill outlive the plaguey people of Makanda Town?

    Keep your distance residents --- an artist and poet at work

  3. Thanks for yet another inspiring blog, Dan! Just a corrections and some notes. The Black Death was not a once-off event but recurred several times during the following decades and centuries but increasingly infrequently and with ever-diminishing impact. The last major outbreak of the black Death occurred between 1665-6. I think it essential to mention Boccaccio's Decameron (1348) as a key plague text. Other significant plague texts include Daniel Defoe's Journal of a Plague Year(1722) and Mary Shelley (she of Frankenstein fame), The Last Man (1826). Thanks, again, and take care!

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