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Epidemics and Literature – How literature can help us make sense of these uncertain times.

As I write this, 42 days into a nation-wide lockdown in India, I realise that almost anything I say about the absurdity of the pandemic is going to sound like a cliché. When the lockdown was first imposed, it seemed unreal that it would be possible to shut down a country, not to mention the world at large, for a period of even a few days. Now, with the prospect of the lockdown extending, this horrid reality has become a part of everyday life. We are living in the embodiment of the ‘reality is stranger than fiction’ version of our times. We are using all the tools at our disposal to make sense of this strange, surreal time, that we are collectively experiencing in isolation. For me, literature has been a place of solace and I realised that if we probed deeper, we could, with its help, find a blueprint of how to endure the virus. Since epidemics are a familiar trope in the literary world, through a literary lens, we may come to understand the evolution of an epidemic and learn how to come to terms with it. 

Homer’s Iliad written in the 8th century BC is one of the first descriptions of an epidemic in the Western canon. In the middle of the Trojan war, Agamemnon angers the gods by taking the priest’s daughter, Chryseis, as a captive. Despite the girl’s repeated cries for help and the priest begging for mercy, when Agamemnon refuses to let her go, the gods punish him by inflicting a plague upon the Greek army, which is to be lifted by Apollo only after Agamemnon has safely returned Chryseis to her father. Homeric literature was very big on its emphasis on pleasing the gods and not angering them. While we are unsure of what the plague was, we know that it was fast spreading, included symptoms of fever, fatigue, had a sudden onset, and was fatal. Its contagion was not necessarily due to the actions of the ailing, but due to the wrath of the gods. 

Jacopo Alessandro Calvi (Bologna 1740 – Bologna 1815). National Trust

If we fast forward to 1947 when Albert Camus wrote The Plague (La Peste), we find Camus arguing against the idea that epidemics are a punishment from the gods (thankfully!). In his novel, Camus describes Oran, a coastal town in Algeria. It is a modern town, where people’s lives are fast-paced and centred around the idea of earning money, barely noticing that they are alive. Suddenly, the town is overtaken by a plague caused by rats. The main protagonist, a surgeon called Dr Rieux, takes us through the unfolding of the epidemic. While the early signs, such as the increasing death of rats, are not taken seriously by the authorities, Dr Rieux nevertheless predicts the oncoming epidemic. The citizens of Oran, just like us, were initially unable to fathom that such a tragedy could befall upon them. They believed that the plague was a disease of the past and, given their advancement in medical science, it could never affect them. At its core, Camus’s novel makes us aware of our mortality and the fragility of the systems we rely on, a lesson that we are forced to learn the hard way, in current times. 

With our scientific and technological advancements, our inflated egos lead us to forget about our own mortality. With this comes an insensitivity towards the weak, an increased obsession with material possessions and status, as well as a lack of humility and gratitude, behaviours that Camus abhorred and thus heavily criticised. In his novel, the people of Oran continue to be in denial about the gravity of the plague. Despite the increasing number of deaths, they irrationally continue to believe that the plague would not affect them; a condition that we are able to witness in parts of the world where people are still protesting against lockdowns. Camus writes,  

“A pestilence does not have human dimensions, so people tell themselves that it is unreal, that it is a bad dream which will end. The people of our town were no more guilty than anyone else, they merely forgot to be modest and thought that everything was still possible for them, which implied that pestilence was impossible. They continued with business, with making arrangements for travel and holding opinions. Why should they have thought about the plague, which negates the future, negates journeys and debates? They considered themselves free and no one will ever be free as long as there is plague, pestilence and famine.”

Zooming in from the plague as a shared tragedy, Katherine Ann Porter, in her novella (a word she despised but unfortunately was stuck with!), Pale Horse, Pale Rider, writes about her own experience of recovering from influenza. Porter worked as a reporter and during the peak of her illness, her family had prepared her obituary ahead of time, which the newspaper she worked for was ready to publish. Porter’s novella is a story of two young lovers and their experience of living through the Spanish flu, set against the backdrop of the First World War. She encapsulates her personal suffering to tell the story of the tragedy of millions. 

Porter uses literature as a means of disseminating a shared traumatic memory whilst carving out and preserving a social identity. Through this, she is able to give individual experiences a collective meaning. She combines the elements of literature, history, and a personal narrative to connect the dead and the living, the ailing and the healthy, the medical workers and the patients. In her pursuit of acknowledging human mortality, she highlights its universality and, therefore, leaves the reader with an immortal narrative capable of transcending time and space. Through an account of her own suffering, she humanises her disease and implicates the reader in her painful recovery. She inoculates them against forgetting the tragedy whilst also alleviating the stigma faced by the ailing. 

An emergency hospital at Camp Funston, Kansas, 1918. (National Archives)

Porter writes about her experience of the virus housing inside her body imbricated with her feeling of being homeless and isolated in a hospital bed. She writes about the physical and the biological alienation she endured as the virus invaded her body and left her in a hallucinatory, dream-like state. When Porter’s protagonist Miranda fell unconscious because of influenza, her landlady asked her to vacate the house due to the fear of her being contagious. Porter writes that Miranda’s lover, Adam, nursed her on the street for 10 days till there was a vacant bed available in the hospital. She further elaborates this thought and writes about how she was estranged from her person as well as her surroundings as a result of the invasion of the virus. She writes, 

“She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. (…) what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?” 

If we move from Porter’s Miranda to Woolf’s Clarissa, we can understand the lasting impacts that the virus can have on the human body and our surroundings. Virginia Woolf also suffered from influenza and in her novel, Mrs Dalloway, the protagonist, Clarissa details her experience of recovering from the illness and her changed outlook towards her healing body, as well as her physical surroundings. Woolf’s novel begins with Clarissa walking around London, describing the noise, the hustle-bustle, and the movement, as she makes her way to buy flowers for a party she is hosting that evening. Like her body, which is still pale, weak, and recovering, she talks about how London is also healing from its bout of influenza. She remaps the city through the lens of the disease and shows how it alters our language and sense of reality. The once empty streets are now filled with life and divine vitality. Against the backdrop of this vivacity, she describes how the memory of the ailment is retained in one’s bones, one’s cells. She details the physical and mental exhaustion of recovery. Like the hustle-bustle on the streets of London, she also failingly tries to adapt to a post-epidemic existence; towards the end of the novel, she hosts a dinner party.  However, Woolf repeatedly highlights how the aftermath of the illness has changed her perception of reality. Clarissa describes how a brush with death made her come to terms with her own perishability and how the smells and sounds of the hospital, which are now forever recorded in her being, haunt her. Woolf writes that though the after-effects of the epidemic might seem hidden, they will always be felt in our bodies, in our minds, and on our streets; she describes the epidemic as a reverberation whose echo would be felt in the future. She writes,

“Can this be my face? Miranda asked her mirror. Are these my own hands? she asked (…) The body is a curious monster, no place to live in, how could anyone feel at home there? Is it possible I can ever accustom myself to this place? She asked herself. (…) Closing her eyes she would rest for a moment remembering that bliss which had repaid all the journey to reach it; opening them again she saw with a new anguish the dull world to which she was condemned, where the light seemed filmed over with cobwebs, all the bright surfaces corroded, the sharp planes melted and formless, all objects and beings meaningless, ah, dead and withered things that believed themselves alive!” 

Miniature by Pierart dou Tielt illustrating the Tractatus quartus bu Gilles li Muisit (Tournai, c. 1353). The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death. ms. 13076 – 13077 fol. 24v.

Apollo lifts the plague and frees the Greek army. The town of Oran is able to return to its pre-epidemic state and the people continue with their lives. After staying in the hospital for a few months, Miranda recovers and is able to go back home. Clarissa is able to buy the flowers herself and host her dinner party. In the same vein of thought, this pandemic will also end, and life will go back to a seeming normalcy. Like any well written thriller-suspense, this one will also finish and leave us with the piquant taste of its aftermath, of its casualties. Eventually, our bodies, our minds, our streets, our cities, our countries, will slowly start to heal. In five years, in ten years from now, someday, when you are stuck in traffic, entering a packed club, queuing at an airport security check, waiting for a table at a restaurant, navigating through an over-crowded shopping mall, the memories of this lockdown, of this pandemic, will flash before your eyes but you will hastily brush them aside as you continue to lead your busy life. Like waves erode pebbles and soften their edges, time will erode our memories and soften the piquancy. 

Adhishree Adulkar is a writer at Catharsis Magazine and has a background in comparative literature.


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