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The year of the plague … what literature tells us about epidemics

For a long time before the spread of the Corona virus, the topic of the epidemic was a literary tradition spread in literary history, and a number of novelists and poets dealt with human stories ranging from familiarity and separation and feelings of those who lost their beloved by the epidemic, as well as those trapped in quarantine or afraid of infection or fleeing death.

And in the time of the Corona pandemic, we learned that the scientific diagnosis of the epidemic is more difficult than we thought, and we were overwhelmed by uncertainty, so we began to question everything from the symptoms of infection with the virus, through how it was diagnosed, to the reliability of the diagnosis.

Away from politics and medicine, professor of literature Arnold Weinstein – in his report published in the American Foreign Affairs magazine – showed how literature can provide a longitudinal picture of epidemics and how societies respond to them.

Novels of the plague

The writer mentioned that most of the books with Western literary reference dealt with this kind of issues, such as the book “The Decameron” by the Italian poet Giovanni Bocaccio, and his novels that talked about the time of the Black Plague in the 14th century, or the play “Oedipus King” by the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles, which mainly center About uncertainty, Oedipus does not know that the old man who killed him is his father or that the woman who shares his bed with him is his mother.

As his city plunges into drought, cattle decimation and the death of children, his people see him as their only hope. But at the end of the play, Oedipus realizes that he is a curse in and of itself, and his sins and transgressions are the reason behind the spread of the plague.

The writer considers that Sophocles – who died in 405 BC – is a shrewd political analyst.

The writer pointed out that literary analysis shows us that mass death leads to usual political responses, such as using certain people or groups to be scapegoats. This explains the names given to diseases such as syphilis that swept Europe in the late 15th century, as American critic and director Susan Sontag says that she used to call it “French smallpox” in England, “Germanicus disease” in Paris, and Naples disease in Florence, the Chinese disease in Japan. “

The same applies to the Corona pandemic, which US President Donald Trump and his allies have called the “China virus.”

Love and death

And during a pandemic, communication that is considered a basic human act can destroy us. Since the spread of the new Corona virus depends on the rapprochement between people, the goal of preventive measures – such as social distancing and lockdown measures – is to reduce the frequency of infection. Undoubtedly, writers have highlighted such issues in their works.

In his book “Memoirs of the Year of the Plague” published in 1722, the English writer Daniel Defoe describes the obsessive behavior of Londoners in a desperate attempt to survive a devastating epidemic that appeared in 1665, by adopting methods not different from what we are doing today: they wore gloves and cleaned everything with vinegar and did not touch anyone .

Defoe also highlighted the horrors of quarantine, describing the situation of mothers who are keen to protect their children by constantly searching for the distinctive signs of disease on their bodies, but they ultimately cause them to become ill due to physical proximity, so that love will cause the death of entire families.

Dismal home

The writer referred to Charles Dickens’ novel “The Bleak House” issued in 1853 about smallpox.

In the novel, the homeless boy Joe dies of this disease, and Esther suffers it himself and her face becomes disfigured after caring for the homeless boy Joe.

The reader notes that the distancing itself is nothing but an illusion, as the poor neighborhoods – whether in the novel or in London – continue to bring death and disease.

For his part, Dickens knew that filth and mold were ubiquitous and could not be contained, and his fictional plot always reveals ties and connections of political proportions: arrogant aristocrats who believe they are safe behind the walls of their palaces know deep down that even for high-ranking people, immunity remains. Just an illusion. Even if the body is saved, the mind and heart cannot be protected from the diseases that could kill them.

In difficult times such as the one we are experiencing today, where direct communication with others is dangerous, it is useful to resort to literature as a method of communication according to the writer, as literature teaches us that we do not enjoy immunity against others, or rather we do not want it.

In Faulkner’s words, literature sheds a special light on the “dark corridor of our earthly dwelling,” and in this way, it gives us a reading of our life affairs that no scientific test is likely to match.




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