The Plague in Literature and Life

According to Rene Girard, plague is an omnipresent theme in literature. It features prominently in the stories of the great bards of history: Homer, Sophocles, Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, and Camus to name but a few. It spans the whole spectrum of literary genres: epic, tragedy, short story, sonnet, novels, history, science fiction, and science. In actuality, though, plague stories are much older than literature itself since they are a feature of both myth and ritual.

One common feature found in nearly all plague literature, is the “reciprocal resemblance” between the plague as a medical event, and as a metaphorical episode. In nearly all the aforementioned types of literature, the medical and the metaphorical are virtually interchangeable. To speak of one is to speak of the other and vice versa.

Indeed, as Girard reminds us, historians still can’t agree “if the Black Death was the cause or consequence of the social upheavals in the fourteenth century.” This reciprocal relationship means that the medical and social aspects of plague cannot really be treated separately. Each envelope the other. Yet, the social plague is most often portrayed as worse than the medical event. Girard provides several examples to illustrate this point, but perhaps the most instructive for our purposes is Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Those familiar with the story will remember that towards the end of the story, the protagonist Raskolnikov, remembers a dream he had when he was sick with fever and laid up in the prison infirmary.

Apparently, during his illness he had multiple dreams. But one was particularly troublesome and seeped back into his consciousness. He dreamt of a worldwide plague. The plague had come to Europe from the depths of Asia.

A new microbe was attacking the bodies of men. However, these were no ordinary microbes. They were endowed with both intelligence and will. The infected became mad and furious, but not in the usual way.

Rather, each of the infected began to think of themselves as intellectually and morally superior to all others. They alone were completely in possession of the truth. They viewed their own decisions, scientific conclusions, and moral convictions as infallible.

In a short time, whole villages and towns went mad from the infection, and each infected person thought that he alone had the truth. They didn’t know how to judge, and could not agree about what was good or what was evil. They were wholly incapable of knowing whom to blame or whom to justify. The result was a complete societal collapse which erupted in a kind of “Hobbesian war of all against all.”

There is much in this short passage that applies directly to our present situation. We have come to think of ourselves as intellectually and morally superior to others. We seem certain about the infallibility of our own decisions, scientific conclusions, and moral convictions. We are losing our ability to judge, and we can no longer agree on what is good or evil. We are becoming incapable of knowing whom to blame or whom to justify. All of this seems obvious and hardly needs enumeration.

Yet, what is not so apparent in Dostoyevsky’s depiction of the plague is the absence of what we might call a medical description. Dostoyevsky makes no mention of the biological and physiological effects of the plague. He is mainly concerned about the sociological breakdown and interaction between human beings that results in senseless and needless violence.

Dostoyevsky was certainly not alone in focusing almost exclusively on the metaphorical and social aspects of the plague. It is a common feature of nearly all plague literature. Even in the early modern period, when scientific investigation was coming into its own, the pattern is the same. Although physicians from that period certainly make a distinction between the medical and the social aspects of the plague, they routinely portray the social and cultural decay as the real, and even more dangerous, plague. In this respect, it is considered “more of a plague than the disease itself.”

There is another, even more disturbing discovery by Girard in his survey of the plague literature. Not only did the medical aspects of the plague play a rather minor role in the background of the narrative, but they served mainly as a disguise for a far more terrible threat—a complete sociological breakdown, and a “certain pervasive violence in our relationships.”

In contrast, the main driver of the Covid-19 narrative is the medical description. The sociological has remained in the background. This is despite the many indications that multiple social ills are spreading as rapidly as the disease itself. Unemployment, domestic violence, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, loneliness, suicide, are all spreading like the virus. There are seismic effects on education, economics, and politics as well.

Up until now, the medical plague has overshadowed the social plague as the story is being told primarily by the journalists. Nevertheless, this is nothing short of a great reversal overturning the trend of the entire body of plague literature throughout history.

The great bards of tomorrow will no doubt add to the present corpus of plague literature, and the pandemic of 2020 may provide a proper backdrop for such a story. If a serious body of literature does emerge from the ashes of the present pandemic, we can expect the same pattern just described. The medical aspects will actually play a minor role in the background, and serve as a disguise for what literature has almost always considered the real plague.

The transition is already taking place on the ground, and it’s just a matter of time before the literature catches up. This means that the plague literature of tomorrow will likely tell an entirely different story than the one we are being told today.

Jim Fitzgerald is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and a missionary with Equipping Pastors International.

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