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Chronicles of death foretold: What literature tells us about pandemics

We all fall down: Pieter van Halen’s oil depicting the plague of the Philistines at Ashdod (1661).   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

In this period of isolation, one turns to literature and art to come to terms with reality, and place it in the context of history. As I continue to stay indoors because of the pandemic, spring has given way to summer. I follow the turn of seasons with elation — I look out of my window and see flowers blooming and the changing shades of green on trees. Yet this tranquil radiance invites dark thoughts as scenes of pandemic recorded in literature — bodies piled sky-high waiting for burial, cries of pain searing through the London smog — crowd the mind.

This worldwide pandemic is certainly not the first. Nor will it be the last.

In denial

The work that comes most readily to mind is, of course, Camus’s ThePlague, that bleak parable illustrating the human condition. Like the French army marching into Algeria, the plague descends on the Algerian town of Oran, where one “never hear[s] the beat of the wings or the rustle of leaves.” The plague “rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views”. Although people “fancied themselves free”, the novel tells us that “no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”

But The Plague is not merely an allegory; it is also the tale of a devastating natural calamity. Dr. Bernard Rieux decides to stay back in Oran to tend to the sick, accepting a life of “exile and imprisonment” that is the inherent fallout of every pandemic. Camus writes at the beginning of the novel that “everybody knows... pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our head from a blue sky.”

Indeed, the initial response to any pandemic has always been denial, with the state machinery playing down the number of fatalities to conceal the seriousness of the situation. This happened in the early days of the Great Plague in London in 1664 — Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year testifies to the common practice of the state spreading misinformation and manipulating the media to suit its interests. From our own experience of the way some states round the world have reacted to the COVID-19 crisis, we know this all too well by now.

One can trace a few patterns: the U.S.’s recent denunciation of China echoes the efforts of the KGB to hold the U.S. responsible for the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Nearly two millennia ago, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius held the Christians culpable for the smallpox affliction in his empire. During successive plagues, Jews were accused of poisoning the wells of Europe. Defoe underscores the bigotry and xenophobia that underlie this tendency. Racist bias is apparent in the haunting figure of a hooded man surreptitiously contaminating public places.

Living to tell the tale

Pandemics spare no one, rich or poor. “The vast cities of America, the fertile plains of Hindostan, the crowded abodes of the Chinese, are menaced with utter ruin,” writes Mary Shelley in her dystopian sci-fi novel, The Last Man (1826). This is the story of the plague in Constantinople in 2092, lasting a year and returning in spring in a more virulent avatar. People rush to churches and mosques to appease the gods. While legislatures vacillate on taking suitable action, human achievements in the fields of arts, commerce and agriculture gradually decline. At the end, wandering in the ruins of Rome, the narrator comes across a manuscript in Italian and decides to write a book, The History of the Last Man, dedicated to the dead. It will have no readers.Modelling his plot on Mary Shelley’s, Jack London wrote the post apocalyptic novel, The Scarlet Plague, in 1912.

The protagonist here, a professor of English literature, is among the handful who live to tell the tale. Looking out across San Francisco, he says, “Where four million people disported themselves, the wild wolves roam to-day.” His grandsons have no idea what money is: he finds it difficult to explain to them how, as the plague arrived in the world run by capitalists, trains stopped, stores were looted, and huge swathes of population starved and died while the wealthy fled to their farms or islands.

If we come through this pandemic, many would perhaps be inspired to write about their personal tragedies and future fears. “All a man could win in the conflict between plague and life,” says Camus, “was knowledge and memories.” History repeats itself, with none growing wiser with experience. Only literature continues to fight for a more equitable world, where healthcare is a right not a privilege and transparency in governance is a justified expectation not a pipe dream.

The writer is Professor Emeritus and Fellow, Panjab University.

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Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 1:31:19 AM |

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