This piece first appeared in the June 2020 edition of Good Reading magazine. It's about the various ways plague and disease have featured in writing over the last several hundred years.
Disease never affects thousands, millions; it never leaves a ‘swathe of destruction’; it hardly ever destroys a way of living, whole industries, institutions. It never marks a generation or cripples anyone, upsets delicate mental states. It only ever affects people, or more correctly, a person. It takes away his or her reason to get up in the morning, shower, catch a bus, stop for a coffee; it dims aspirations, ambitions, and deconstructs dreams like some anti-IKEA plan for non-living. It dissolves the pillars of education, the teachers’ speeches, the essays, what-I-did-in-my-summer-holidays; it takes the book you’ve just written and rips it into small pieces, and it (the Contagion) doesn’t care. It sits outside your window, every night, on a ledge, or up a tree, watching you, enjoying your reactions. It feeds off your fear, and insecurity, and concern for others, mostly the people you love. It has no morality, no sense, no plan, no justification, no fairness. It just wants to find a healthy cell, invade it, use it to make more pimped DNA.
So it’s just us, coping, looking for reference points. We could do the whole Blitz thing, sleep in the subway, sing Vera Lynn (as is happening in London and Spain and Italy). We could say, ‘Well, I didn’t really like that job anyway.’ Or, ‘Maybe when this is over we’ll move to Wodonga and grow artichokes.’ Big, life-knocked-off-its-axis revelations. We could. We could spend our locked-down days reading The Tree of Man, listening to Ravel and asking ourselves existential questions. And through all of this, we might find answers, solutions to our patched-up lives.
Or maybe the opposite? We could become miserable, competitive, revert to our knuckle-dragging origins, racing through Coles with a trolley full of sardines, hurry up, out of my way, time for a new mask? We could conveniently forget our decency, tolerance, ability to think and act beyond ourselves. We could forget we’re social beings. God knows recent governments have done their best to convince us it’s all about me, me, me, work harder, more hours, better pay, nicer house, posher school, screw you (insert name).
Not that we’re the first to wake up with a sore throat (or buboes). And maybe our best chance of understanding these days is in the words of those who have been there, written about it. Maybe Gustav von Aschenbach (Thomas Mann), watching fourteen year old Tadzio (Władysław Moes) in the dining room of Venice’s Grand Hôtel des Bains. Later, on the beach, a moment of unresolved ecstasy before Aschenbach sinks back into his chair and dies, victim of a cholera epidemic. Or Albert Camus describing the pestilence that attacked the Algerian city of Oran in 1849 in The Plague. An existential take on the game of Life and Death (or was it a plague of Nazis?). ‘… there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.’ Newark, New Jersey, 1944, a community sweltering through a hot summer, living in fear of polio, as it claims the locals kids in Philip Roth’s Nemesis. The Plague genre, perhaps? Geraldine Brooks’ 2001 Year of Wonders, or all the way back to Boccaccio’s The Decameron, ten young men and women escaping the Black Death, hunkered down in a villa outside Florence, telling each other stories to pass the time. A hundred yarns over fourteen nights, although for us, a billion tweets, home-concerts, Instagram-art, live-streamed albums, poems. The urge persisting over the centuries.
And what about the people we can safely dismiss? Thomas Vincent’s God’s Terrible Voice in the City! sets out to show the real reasons for the 1665 Plague and the 1666 Fire of London. Bad things always come in threes, and Vincent’s 1667 tome completes the trifecta. The Plague was, of course, our fault. ‘When God speaks by ordinary diseases and is not heard, then sometimes he sends a plague.’ And if not that, then Fire, because ‘he has other judgements in readiness – sword, famine and the like!’ Vincent lists a few areas needing improvement, including the usual lying, gluttony, fornication, drunkenness, pride, envy and lust. Given that, things will improve. I mean, he did include proof: ‘My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness ... My loved ones and friends stay away, fearing my disease’ (Psalms 38:5). Giving Vincent the Twitteresque high ground: ‘Now Death rides triumphantly on his pale horse through our streets.’
But the great fear, still, is the unknown. How quickly, how widely will our virus spread? The final death count? Will it come again? After all, technology, science and medicine are only ever attempts to ward off the darkness. Bells tolling for thee (as Donne and Hemingway describe their own plagues). A reminder that none of us will live forever.
And talking of reminders, let’s move on to Nathaniel Hodges’ ‘Loimologia: or an Historical Account of the Plague in London in 1665’. Hodges gives us a more objective account. Minus the science, still, but with some sense of compassion, objectivity, sanity. Telling us how it started, just like Wuhan: ‘… for at that season [December 1664] two or three Persons died suddenly in one Family at Westminster.’ Two others with similar symptoms were moved into the City of London by well-meaning neighbours (you know the type) and the rest is history: ‘Whereby that Disease which was before in its infancy, in a Family or two, suddenly got Strength and spread Abroad its fatal Poisons.’ The rest sounds familiar. Social isolation: ‘An Order was immediately issued out to shut up all the infected Houses, that neither Relations nor Acquaintance might unwarily receive it from them …’ Fourteen-day lockdowns: (after some sort of Bondi or St Kilda moment): ‘the Sick in the mean time to be removed to convenient Apartments provided on Purpose for them’. Doctors who were ‘too much loaded with the spoils of the Enemy.’ Officials ordered in to ‘[mark] the houses of infected Persons with a Red Cross.’ To stand guard, and to ‘restrain them from coming Abroad for Forty Days after their Recovery’.
Years later, Daniel Defoe (of Robinson Crusoe fame) wrote about the Great Plague. Although he was only five years old in 1665 his ‘journal’ was written as an eyewitness account. A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) drew heavily on the memories of Defoe’s uncle, Henry Foe. Due to its accuracy, and detail, the book was initially treated as non-fiction, but within sixty years it was seen as a work of fiction. The argument has raged ever since. Defoe’s writing is objective, but shocking when it needs to be. He describes a London ‘all in tears’. He transcends the numbers, the chronology and defines the plague in human terms: ‘Everyone looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger.’ Writing two generations after the plague, he concludes: ‘A near View of Death would soon reconcile Men of good Principles one to another … a close conversing with Death, or the Diseases that threaten Death, would scum off the Gall from our Tempers, remove the Animosities among us …’
Not what I’m seeing in Coles, but maybe these are early days. Maybe this is our first response; maybe time will temper, and the images of Grace, of people handing strangers money, of others singing anthems from their balconies (whole neighbours united for the first time in decades), will define a New Age of Neoliberalism-rejected, backyard veggie patches planted.
Defoe recorded what we need to know, now. The importance of staying home (‘the necessity of going out of our houses to buy provisions was in a great measure the ruin of the whole city’); of sticking together, acting responsibly (‘the strange temper of the people of London at that time contributed extremely to their own destruction’); of hibernating (‘from that hour all trade, except such as related to immediate subsistence, was, as it were, at a full stop’); of seeing the world, for a while, for now, as a different place (‘upholsterers, joiners, cabinet-makers, looking-glass makers … stopped their work, dismissed their journeymen and workmen and all their dependents’). Message being, it won’t be easy, but you, people of three hundred years hence, are not the first, and won’t be the last. Defoe said, ‘The face of London was now indeed strangely altered.’ The empty shopping malls, the boarded-up shops, the theatres and hotels, the places that background our lives. As we sit at home and say, ‘I don’t believe it was only three weeks ago when …’ Defoe imagined the same thing: ‘…all plays, bear baitings, 88 games, singing of ballads, buckler play, 89 or such like causes of assembly of people, [were] utterly prohibited, and the parties offending severely punished by every alderman in his ward.’
But the good news was, and is, that darkness is balanced with light (eventually). ‘The Houses which before were full of the Dead, were now again inhabited by the Living; and the Shops that had been most Part of the Year shut up, were again opened, and the People again cheerfully went about their wonted Affairs …’
The past is always trying to warn us, to help us. These ghosts, leaving their mark in books, songs, treatises, like they were, and are, scared we might have to repeat history. Especially problematic in our Reader’s Digest world of sound bites, social media and thirty second attentions spans. Our belief that we are somehow unique. Maybe this is why there’s been a resurgence of interest in buying and reading (I hope) the ‘Classics’? So maybe, as Defoe explains, it doesn’t matter ‘from whence it came’. Maybe we just need to settle in with a good book, accept our isolation, like Crusoe, and Friday. Maybe imagine we’re the last man (or woman) in the world. Omega people. For now, ‘the minds of the people [are] agitated, with other things, and a kind of sadness and horror at these things.’ Even though Defoe was never there, he knew that ‘Death was before their eyes, and everybody began to think of their graves, not of mirth and diversions.’
Good news is, in the end (Defoe explains), ‘a new City suddenly arose out of the Ashes of the old, much better able to stand the like Flame another time.’
Welcome to Datsunland! This is a second hand car yard of the speeches I've given, the columns I've written, the essays, microgrammes, micro-fiction and micro-thoughts that have passed through my small, shy brain. Also, stuff so strange no newspapers, websites or publishers want them.