Now that society is struggling to deal with a devastating flu pandemic, I found the time ripe to give this subject some thoughts in a literary context.
The first plague writings emerged around 1665 and resulted in innovative dialogues on a long endured illness. While the collective memory of the plague as an affliction was long, interpreting pestilence during the times of the European Illumination required new ways to write about the illness and its spreading.
It was thought that the Plague could be a punishment for the suppression of religious figures. If one sought treatment by the wrong medical practitioner, the results could be dire, patients could read in medical pamphlets. Those pamphlets warned also against unjust rules and publications that were spurred by the outbreak of the disease, while distinguishing themselves as having protective and even preserving effects.
At that time some people believed that pamphlets not only had the capacity of spreading dangerous content, but could also physically spread pestilence. Writing in times of pestilence was thus a controversial act due to the belief that the disease could spread through the writing the text contained.
It’s also not astonishing to find out that medical and religious texts were among the most sought for during times of pestilence in order to stave off the disease or to provide counsel on it.
Until the plague bacteria could be visualized, the disease was surrounded with all kinds of literary and metaphorical explanations of why and how the disease struck, all united with a fixation upon mortality. Most of them describe the creepy borders that separate the healthy and well defined body versus the oozing, infected one.
A Litany in Time of Plague, a poem by Nashe (1567 – 1601), is a perfect example of his powerful imagery and the grim realism. In this poem, Thomas Nashe talks about the ground realities of life – death, the truest truth of all time, has the power to defy the momentary glories of life.
This subject is also covered in my own literary work were a section is dedicated to the Spanish Flu outbreak between 1918 and 1920. Although scientists can point to where and how the virus spread, the chaotic events and the strict censorship that surrounded the end of the First World War, made it impossible to identify patient zero or the initial source of the virus.
I thus took the artistic liberty to contribute the pandemic to a demon priest, who in a struggle was fatally burned by “black fire” and got admitted into the allied field hospital at Étaples (France). I give you a excerpt of this fragment, that appears into The Forest (p.298), the third book of my series the Maharajagar, that will be published by the end of this month:
… the priest of the Angra Mainju has set off a major flu epidemic that will turn into pandemic proportions. This will be triggered once the soldiers who’re treated at the field hospital in Étaples in France will return towards their units and, with the end of the war in sight, return to their homes. We estimate that 600 million people will get infected worldwide and that the dead toll will rise to reach a number between 50 to 100 million people. Especially young adults between the age of 20 and 40 will be affected. The primary forecasts indicate a positive effect of the epidemic on per capita income and economic growth. However, the business failures that will occur in the USA during the pandemic will be shocked forward to the late twenties and will eventually be a contributing factor to a looming recession.
3 thoughts on “Writing in Times of Pestilence”
“Devastating flu pandemic”. Just wondering what you base that on. I guess I’m wondering what qualifies as “devastating” to you, as the pandemic is obvious 😀
Devastating socio-economical impact. More info on all the major news outlets.
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Gotcha! I was just looking at straight numbers, not the ripple out effect. Personally, I put it down to panic more than a real threat.
The result is the same either way, but depending on which it really is, recovery time will be much quicker.
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