What Our Contagion Fables Are Really About

PG apologizes for not posting anything earlier. No contagion around Casa PG, however.

From The New Yorker:

When the plague came to London in 1665, Londoners lost their wits. They consulted astrologers, quacks, the Bible. They searched their bodies for signs, tokens of the disease: lumps, blisters, black spots. They begged for prophecies; they paid for predictions; they prayed; they yowled. They closed their eyes; they covered their ears. They wept in the street. They read alarming almanacs: “Certain it is, books frighted them terribly.” The government, keen to contain the panic, attempted “to suppress the Printing of such Books as terrify’d the People,” according to Daniel Defoe, in “A Journal of the Plague Year,” a history that he wrote in tandem with an advice manual called “Due Preparations for the Plague,” in 1722, a year when people feared that the disease might leap across the English Channel again, after having journeyed from the Middle East to Marseille and points north on a merchant ship. Defoe hoped that his books would be useful “both to us and to posterity, though we should be spared from that portion of this bitter cup.” That bitter cup has come out of its cupboard.

In 1665, the skittish fled to the country, and alike the wise, and those who tarried had reason for remorse: by the time they decided to leave, “there was hardly a Horse to be bought or hired in the whole City,” Defoe recounted, and, in the event, the gates had been shut, and all were trapped. Everyone behaved badly, though the rich behaved the worst: having failed to heed warnings to provision, they sent their poor servants out for supplies. “This Necessity of going out of our Houses to buy Provisions, was in a great Measure the Ruin of the whole City,” Defoe wrote. One in five Londoners died, notwithstanding the precautions taken by merchants. The butcher refused to hand the cook a cut of meat; she had to take it off the hook herself. And he wouldn’t touch her money; she had to drop her coins into a bucket of vinegar. Bear that in mind when you run out of Purell.

“Sorrow and sadness sat upon every Face,” Defoe wrote. The government’s stricture on the publication of terrifying books proved pointless, there being plenty of terror to be read on the streets. You could read the weekly bills of mortality, or count the bodies as they piled up in the lanes. You could read the orders published by the mayor: “If any Person shall have visited any Man known to be infected of the Plague, or entered willingly into any known infected House, being not allowed: The House wherein he inhabiteth shall be shut up.” And you could read the signs on the doors of those infected houses, guarded by watchmen, each door marked by a foot-long red cross, above which was to be printed, in letters big enough to be read at a distance, “Lord, Have Mercy Upon Us.”

Reading is an infection, a burrowing into the brain: books contaminate, metaphorically, and even microbiologically. In the eighteenth century, ships’ captains arriving at port pledged that they had disinfected their ships by swearing on Bibles that had been dipped in seawater. During tuberculosis scares, public libraries fumigated books by sealing them in steel vats filled with formaldehyde gas. These days, you can find out how to disinfect books on a librarians’ thread on Reddit. Your best bet appears to be either denatured-alcohol swipes or kitchen disinfectant in a mist-spray bottle, although if you stick books in a little oven and heat them to a hundred and sixty degrees Fahrenheit there’s a bonus: you also kill bedbugs. (“Doesn’t harm the books!”) Or, as has happened during the coronavirus closures, libraries can shut their doors, and bookstores, too.

But, of course, books are also a salve and a consolation. In the long centuries during which the plague ravaged Europe, the quarantined, if they were lucky enough to have books, read them. If not, and if they were well enough, they told stories. In Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, from the fourteenth century, seven women and three men take turns telling stories for ten days while hiding from the Black Death—that “last Pestilentiall mortality universally hurtfull to all that beheld it”—a plague so infamous that Boccaccio begged his readers not to put down his book as too hideous to hold: “I desire it may not be so dreadfull to you, to hinder your further proceeding in reading.”

The literature of contagion is vile. A plague is like a lobotomy. It cuts away the higher realms, the loftiest capacities of humanity, and leaves only the animal. “Farewell to the giant powers of man,” Mary Shelley wrote in “The Last Man,” in 1826, after a disease has ravaged the world. “Farewell to the arts,—to eloquence.” Every story of epidemic is a story of illiteracy, language made powerless, man made brute.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

3 thoughts on “What Our Contagion Fables Are Really About”

  1. Every story of epidemic is a story of … man made brute

    A little over pessimistic or anyway a little one sided. Back in 1665 about which Defoe was writing (though much later and possibly being a tad sensationalist to help sales) the inhabitants of Eyam in Derbyshire voluntarily quarantined the village for some 14 months and prevented the plague spreading to the rest of the county (though hundreds in the village died). Hardly man, or woman, made brute.

    And today there are tens of thousands of health service workers – and others – unflinchingly risking infection to care for others, so pandemic can bring the best out of people as well as the worst.

    • Agreed, Mike.

      I don’t qualify as a New Yorker, but the people living near me have adopted a strong practice of helping one another during the current plague.

      Some of them are doctors, who are working hard and long, but most are just ordinary women and men with no medical qualifications who know how to watch out for their neighbors as well as themselves.

  2. Every story of epidemic is a story of illiteracy, language made powerless, man made brute.

    Is this an epidemic? If so, what is the story of illiteracy, how is language powerless, and who is the brute?

Comments are closed.