I had just returned from a very short run around the neighborhood. I was frustrated by the bandana mask on my face that proved both too loose to adequately cover my nose and too tight to allow me to breathe freely. A neighbor popped her head outside as I was stretching against our family car.
“I don’t want to interrupt your solitude,” she said. “I just wanted to say hi. I really needed to say hi to someone. How are you?”
Her question felt like a tipping point for my emotions. I burst into tears, then looked away, embarrassed.
“I’m just so angry,” I told her.
She looked uncomfortable. We were friendly, but we hadn’t shared tears before. She stayed engaged though.
“Me too. You can probably hear me screaming at my family.”
“Not above the sound of my own screaming!” I replied.
She made a face that said that cannot possibly be true. I wasn’t sure if she meant it couldn’t be true that I hadn’t heard her or that it couldn’t be true that I’d been screaming.
She continued, “Every day I tell myself I’m not going to get upset, and then every day I hear myself yelling again.”
“Me too!” I exclaimed.
We wished each other strength to get through one more day, both hoping for less screaming in our homes. And, as a strange result, our little conversation jogged my memory and set me off on a project.
You see, with the libraries closed, I have been considering reading all of those books on my shelf. You know the ones. They seemed so good, so deserving when I first bought them. Now I can’t remember where I acquired most of them. But one title came to mind.
Yes. This is quite relevant. Disaster movies are trending right now. When my husband and I watched Outbreak a few weeks ago, Netflix ranked it #5 and then recommended Contagion and a series called Pandemic. Then, a woman in my writing class shared that she and her partner were revisiting plague literature -- Edgar Allen Poe, Daniel Defoe, Albert Camus, Gabriel Garcia Marquez…
Why was this? Was this akin to our instinct to gape at a car wreck?
Weinstein suggests that “literature..makes it possible for us to understand, even to hear our feelings. The scream that goes through the house is the heartbeat that makes audible, at last, who we are, how resonant we are, how connected we are.” (XII)
“For too long we have been encouraged to see culture as an affair of intellect, and reading as a solitary exercise. But the truth is different: literature and art are pathways of feeling, and our encounter with them is social, inscribing us in a larger community...Through art we discover that we are not alone.” (IX)
It’s a buzz phrase these days: You are not alone. In this time of isolation, when it can often feel like we are alone -- or alone with our families -- we turn to reading about the shared experience.
In his chapter on plague literature, Weinstein walks through plague texts by Sophocles (Oedipus the King), Daniel Defoe (A Journal of the Plague Year), Charles Dickens (Bleak House), Albert Camus (The Plague), Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal - film) and Tony Kushner (Angels in America).
Weinstein defines plague text as “a story of epidemiological disease, a story of mysterious transmission, a story of community responses and resources,” and, in these examples, he posits that as plague texts uncover secrets and reveal what is hidden in individual characters’ lives, they begin to move past the puzzle of bacterial transmission to “the deeper riddles of human connection and social fears.” (p. 213, 215) He dissects these texts to explain how plague literature causes society’s “mask to fall” so we can see “who we are, what our values are, and how we behave in the face of both sickness and death.” (p. 228, 274)
Given what it can teach, Weinstein argues that “we stand to learn more about plague and the actual dimensionality of infectious diseases by consulting literature, rather than medical history…The plague text intrigues because it broadcasts an entire web of congruences and patterns of causality that mystify our scientific logic, that seem to adumbrate a networked universe that, far from being chaotic, may actually be cogent beyond our capacity to explain, my be “rhymed and reasoned” in ways that beggar our rational thinking.” (p. 213-4)
In other words, he stresses that we are intricately connected. The problem is that this realization can breed paranoia, “that the folks across the water, across the border, across the street, have brought the miasma into our midst.” (p. 228) Or, for the hyper-conscientious among us, the realization can stoke the fear that we might unknowingly transmit the disease to others.
So we practice social distancing, like my neighbor standing greater than six feet away from me after my morning run, not leaving her porch in a small attempt to make us each feel a little more comfortable.
Plague brings a separation, akin to “a feeling normally as individual as the ache of separation from those one loves suddenly became a feeling in which all shared alike and -- together with fear -- the greatest affliction of the long period of exile that lay ahead.” (Camus, The Plague, p. 67)
We don’t want isolation. Humans weren’t created to be alone. So how do we make the leap from being suspicious of our neighbor to being generous and caring?
Weinstein suggests that the best response to quarantine might come from Defoe’s characters, the joiner, the baker and the sailor, who exercise “human freedom and creativity, even the making of community.” (p. 240)
Dickens echoes the message that we are not alone and that our individual pursuits aren’t even possible without our connections to others, “that connection is prior to individuation, that the simple acts of living and breathing are in truth versions of incessant traffic, that no human subject -- especially no subject living in a metropolis like London -- can claim immunity or think himself or herself safe behind the walls of stone, class, or flesh.” (p. 249)
So we try to continue with our work, our relationships and our pursuits -- over Zoom or at a safe distance. We continue, because the awful truth just might be that in the end, “plague cannot be exterminated.” (p. 260) Weinstein’s conclusion following a review of the final passage of Camus feels particularly poignant as we anticipate another viral surge and lockdown next winter, if it is ever safe enough to emerge from this lockdown. The germs will still be around, invisibly present.
The question is, will our human connections remain as well?
This week, my neighbor announced that she is moving her family back home at the end of the summer. I can already feel the loss. I have to remember that it was following the loss of the previous family in that house that I even got to meet her in the first place. Both neighbors provided comfort and support during various trials -- frustrations with children, death of a dog, and yes, one global pandemic.
Many of us will have the urge to move during or following this experience, but I hope that wherever we end up, that we stay connected -- whether through literature, or across a driveway -- and that we hold onto what makes us human.
5/1/2020 06:18:55 pm
This is fascinating! This totally led me down the rabbit hole of plague lit--looking up these medieval authors and what they had to say. It's uncanny how similar things were in the 1500's, save for the death tolls, which were so much higher. Thanks for sharing this.
5/3/2020 05:54:36 pm
Thanks for reading, Laura, and going through the mental exercise with me!!
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