Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I have long held a somewhat morbid fascination with plague narratives. Now, with the new coronavirus, it seems that the whole world is collectively living through one.
As a genre, stories of epidemics or pandemics cut across the categories that we normally impose on texts: fiction and nonfiction, highbrow and lowbrow, literature and film and even video games. And they span history from some of the earliest human efforts at storytelling to recent Hollywood blockbusters.
Here’s a distinctly incomplete list: the biblical plague that God sent against Egypt in Exodus; the plague of Athens in History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides; the plague of Justinian as described by Procopius; the Black Death in Italy as told in the framing chapter of Boccaccio’s Decameron; Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year; Samuel Pepys’s diary describing the same plague in 17th century London; Camus’s philosophical novel Le Peste; Blindness by Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago; sleek Hollywood productions like Soderbergh’s “Contagion” and entries in the sub-genre of zombie stories like “World War Z,” “The Walking Dead,” and many others. I’m sure that a book or film with a title like “The Year of the Coronavirus” will be out before we know it.
Plague narratives are more elemental than other story types like the spy thriller or the marriage plot, which explains their enduring appeal as well as our inability to stop watching news now coming out of China. One Danish scholar has noted that, almost like archetypical Jungian myths, plague narratives generally check a series of boxes, something that our news reports are doing even as I write.
And it seems to me that each of these aspects speaks to something fundamental about what it means to be human. First, naturally enough, these stories always describe the symptoms of the epidemic in question. But descriptions of, say, pustules in the case of the Bubonic Plague also serve to engage our disgust response. Fear and disgust are among the most ancient emotions that we can feel, belonging to the amygdala, the part of our brain that we share with reptiles. Evolutionarily, they help us stay away from things that can hurt us. Today, unhelpfully, the coronavirus is said to cause symptoms all too similar to the common flu.
Animals often play a role and are often thought to be the true origin of the disease. In “Contagion,” the origin of the virus is revealed to be bats and pigs, and rats have long been known to carry the bacterium for the Bubonic Plague.
Modern science explains how pathogens that jump species are often the cause of new epidemics. But I would also attribute this element to our conflicted relationship with animals — we are a part of the animal kingdom but also apart from it. Homo sapiens are just one species of one genus of the vast variety of animal life on earth, and yet we are also unique in such ways as to have obtained dominion over our siblings. Human philosophy has often held that the human soul is divine, belonging with God, but the human body, which shares DNA with rhesus monkeys, is corruptible and cursed. The pains of disease give lie to our lofty aspirations and force us down to our Adamic bodies. Thus epidemics humiliate our arrogance by reminding us that we belong in the same category as bats and pigs, not gods. Today, we are told that the coronavirus may be traceable to a wildlife market.
Outside of the Bible, a plague narrative also always contains a geographical attribution of the source of the plague, typically a foreign country. This dovetails with a fear of other people, particularly travelers from abroad. Defoe’s book opens with a neat encapsulation of this tendency to attribute epidemics to the foreign. The London plague was believed to have come from the Netherlands, Defoe wrote, “whither, they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus.” Today, many countries are rushing to impose travel bans on travelers from China.
It is a short leap from this fear of foreign travelers to racism, which we are also seeing. Italy, which I visited just a couple of months ago, is particularly bad about this. The director of a famed musical conservatory in Rome has demanded that all Asian students (not just Chinese and regardless of whether they have traveled to China recently) stop coming to class. Italians are boycotting Chinese restaurants, and parents in areas where Chinese immigrants are common are keeping their children out of school.
But isn’t racism also an elemental response connected to the amygdala? Not being an evolutionary biologist, I understand that the jury is still out on explaining racism with evolutionary biology. But the idea has always made sense to me: Early humans, without the benefit of antibiotics and vaccines, would do well to stay away from anyone outside of their own tribe for fear that the outsiders might carry some pathogen against which their bodies had no defense. Racial prejudice could have evolved as a survival mechanism.
In fact, research shows a connection between the fear of epidemics and “build the wall” conservatism. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 led to irrational fears of outsiders in the United States and contributed to the election results in 2016.
On the other hand, communities that welcomed outsiders also gained an advantage: outsiders brought genetic diversity, new information about geography and resources, and technological innovations. The “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:35) type of liberalism can therefore also trace its roots to the survival strategies of early humans. Humans must have only been able to develop beyond hunter-gatherer societies by at least sometimes accepting the risk of infectious diseases for the sake of commerce and exchange. Venice grew from some houses on a swamp into an empire by serving as the entrepôt of the Mediterranean. In the process, facing the risk of unknown pathogens, the Venetians invented the quarantine: “quarantine,” from Italian “quaranta,” meaning “forty,” referring to the Venetian practice of making newcomers wait for forty days before allowing them to dock.
So plague narratives also address the profound question that arose only when human societies grew more complex: how ought we to govern ourselves? A common thread across these stories is how governments respond to outbreaks. As Federalist 51 observed, men are not angels, and yet governments must be staffed by fallible individuals. And so government responses are perpetually inadequate in plague stories. In Le Peste, the authorities’ collection of plague-carrying rats helps to spread the disease. In “Contagion,” the CDC’s inability to quickly create a vaccine leads to panic, riots, and looting, which the government in turn struggles to stop. The pressure that the epidemic places upon the machinery of state sometimes brings about the total breakdown of state and society. In the zombie sub-genre, this always happens before the end of act one.
Right on cue, this week we saw the PRC government come under international scrutiny for inadequacies in its response to the coronavirus, particularly its suppression of information. But at the same time, we saw another example of the breakdown of the machinery of government, this one taking place on the floor of the United States Senate. The latter case occurred without requiring any help from an epidemic.
One function that plague narratives and particularly zombie stories serve is to underscore the fragility of civilization. Only a very thin line divides even the most sophisticated societies from barbarism. In reality, we don’t even need the catalyst of disease to cross that line. All it takes is fear emanating from the reptilian brain.
Dread and disgust for death and disease are elemental. Madisonian constitutionalism is not. The former belong to our corruptible, animalistic bodies. The latter belongs in the realm of ideas inhabited only by our lofty soul. The story of being human is the story of endeavoring to turn away from our baser instincts toward our higher aspirations, failing, and trying again.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."