In dark times, we turn to stories in which history might be turned back. But it’s poetry and farce that will lead us through despair.
Plagues don’t come explicitly for one tribe or another; they don’t smite a population because it’s gone astray; they’re neither divine punishment nor a sign of the Rapture.
Pandemics are inexorable—and the canon of plague literature is a chronicle of nature’s senselessness and its indomitability. “There was no ostensible cause,” wrote Thucydides in 431 BC, about the Plague of Athens, an epidemic of typhus, likely, that laid the city to waste. “Strong and weak constitutions proved equally incapable of resistance, all alike being swept away.”
Boccaccio also begins The Decameron, his masterful collection of tales (c. 1353) told by young adults fleeing Florence for the countryside, with the shock of plague—and subsequent plot twists, whether slapstick or tragic, unfold as if ordained. Anything goes. “Because of the chaos of the present age, the judges have deserted the courts, the laws of God and man are in abeyance, and everyone is given ample license to preserve his life as best he may,” says Dioneo on Day Six. Earlier, on Day Three, Dioneo launches into ecstatic smut, in which a penis is a devil and a vagina is hell. And on Day Four, Lisabetta buries her lover’s head in a pot of basil. In context, that makes perfect sense.
But even as plague years generate twisty new fables, each time a novel pathogen gets on a global tear, existing human narratives are shattered. The old life is reached for, again and again, like a phantom limb. During outbreaks of infectious diseases, including smallpox, Spanish flu, and the current coronavirus, we live by stories of alternate universes in which history might be turned back, the sick healed, the dead brought back, normalcy restored. If only the federal government had made Covid-19 test kits available sooner. If China had acted with greater transparency and dispatch. If we had avoided that spring break party.
All this storytelling can give the agitated mind something to churn on, but obsessing over conditionals can also add to the moment-to-moment burden of preventing sickness and death, and tending to the sick and dying.
Thus, the literature of plagues confronts inevitability along with reeling what-ifs. Published around 550, Procopius of Caesarea’s account of the so-called Plague of Justinian, which devastated the Eastern Roman Empire in 542, warns that any attempt to extenuate plagues is folly: “It is quite impossible either to express in words or to conceive in thought.” Plagues don’t come for one tribe or another; they don’t smite a population because it’s gone astray; they’re neither divine punishment nor a sign of the Rapture.
And as tempting as it is to try to discern why one human gets sick and another is spared, this is not just inhumane, in Procopius’ view, it’s a lie. Being Chinese or a pagan or a New Yorker makes no difference. Neither does eating junk food or cycling competitively. Procopius: “For much as men differ with regard to places in which they live, or in the law of their daily life, or in natural bent, or in active pursuits, or in whatever else man differs from man, in the case of this disease alone the difference availed naught.”
Plagues are leveling in the extreme, making a rich joke of nearly every human endeavor. In response the plague literature exploits that joke, and often partakes of tropes from a late-Medieval French painting style, danse macabre, in which ominously merry skeletons dance people to their graves. (The dance metaphor has, improbably, resurfaced lately in descriptions of how a population that’s been disoriented by an epidemic can lurch between prioritizing health care and prioritizing its economy.)
These danse macabre images spoof human vanity, especially that of the rich, noble, and religious, who believe they’re above the vulnerabilities of the body. In Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” Prince Prospero finds “his dominions … half depopulated” by a vicious plague, and so summons a thousand nobles to lock down with him in his well-provisioned and thoroughly sealed abbey. “With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion.” But contagions can’t be defied, it turns out, no matter how many ballerinas and casks of wine are at hand. Ultimately, “Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
The famous beginning to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a piece of post-plague literature likely modeled on The Decameron, shows how nature can’t be stopped. “When April with its sweet-smelling showers has pierced the drought of March to the root … then folks long to go on pilgrimages.” The pilgrims (having, in this case, survived seasonal viruses) light out to Canterbury nominally to visit the shrine of the saint they believe healed them. In fact, as the prologue indicates, they undertake their pilgrimage simply because it’s what one does in spring.
That premise allows Chaucer to launch into 24 barstool stories of farcical misadventures—heavy on the sex, satire, and fart jokes—that the reader comes to understand are also merely … what one does. Pathogens do what they do, and the damage they cause can’t be helped, very like the damage done by Nicholas in the “Miller’s Tale,” when he “let fly a fart as loud as it had been a thunder-clap.” (It “well nigh blinded Absalom, poor chap.”)
Oran, the disease-beset Algerian town at the center of Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947), might benefit from such a thunder-clap breach of decorum. For Camus, it’s conformity that leads to death. “The truth is,” he writes of the town, “everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits. Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich.” They have not even an “intimation” that another life exists, and they’ve been so panicked at the thought of halting commerce that they’ve contracted and spread the plague. To a cape-swirling midcentury French mind bent on liberation, a human comes to life only when he forfeits the daily commercial grind in favor of more ecstatic ways of living.
But back to Procopius in the sixth century, when he eventually rejected his own observation that viruses can’t be explained. He couldn’t resist. He ended up laying blame for the virus at the feet of his former employer, the emperor Justinian, in a vindictive, pornographic work that claims Justinian may be a demon, and caused the plague.
If it’s hypocritical of Procopius to pin the plague on the emperor, it’s also understandable. Blaming Trump for Covid-19 has been a reflex of many who rightly observe that he didn’t act fast enough to subdue the novel coronavirus earlier this year. Still, no leader in history has ever responded “well” to a plague—and many, including Pericles and the Roman emperor Hostilian, have died of them.
But how’s this for a twist in the millennia-long farrago of human plagues? Just last year, having examined a spread of data from pollen samples to papyri to coins and mortuary archeology, scientists and historians concluded that Procopius had exaggerated the damage done by the Justinian Plague. Modern scholars have argued that the plague is what razed the Roman Empire; the paper, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says no, and even suggests the contagion might have been “inconsequential,” causing far fewer deaths than the tens of millions once attributed to it.
Could tall tales of that plague have been a political play by Procopius to destroy Justinian’s reputation? We’ll never know. The best-laid plans of microbes and man often go awry. Which is why, in plague years or not, we need less propaganda and more poetry.
A kindly thing it is to have compassion of the afflicted. That’s how Boccaccio begins his Decameron, and that medieval aphorism is still the most lucid insight into plagues we may ever have.
All Rights Reserved for Virginia Heffernan