- Literature too will never be the same again
Even now, even though the covid-19 pandemic has yet to run its course, there is already much speculation on what the world will look like after it is over. One area where it is safe to say there will be changes will be in literature. Already, there has been some relief sought in narration, as literature consists of smaller sets of text than narration. Literature’s guardians have tried to achieve some relevance, as was seen by the Swedish Academy’s award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to US musician Bob Dylan for his lyrics. It must also be accepted that film scripts have taken the place of play scripts, just as films have become much more popular than plays. Then there are the new media, which are often spin-offs from books and movies, mostly in the form of videogames, which are in themselves an appropriate means of passing time in the lockdown era, being computer-based and thus solitary, even if online there is an entire community playing.
The reader might notice the dominance of the USA in the existing narrations relevant to the era. This reflects the cultural dominance of the USA, especially in the visual arts. It has a certain appropriateness, as the USA is presently leading the world in the number of cases (over 2.7 million as of yesterday morning) and deaths (over 130,000 by the same time). Additionally, it seems that the USA had the most recent material available, especially in the form of movies.
Yet these are not merely fiction, they are science fiction, being set in a future, usually a near future. One of the most interesting movies on this theme has been World War Z (released in 2013), an obviously pre-epidemic movie about the spreading of an illness that converts people into zombies. This is meant as an explanation for how the Zombie Apocalypse, a common trope of horror films, might arrive. That is the movie which most clearly postulates that the Zombie Apocalypse is caused by a virus, with the mode of transmission being bitten by a zombie.
Closer to actual events of illnesses are depictions of the plague. Daniel Defoe is most famous as the author of Robinson Crusoe, and thus one of the founders of the novel in English, but he also wrote the Journal of the Plague Year. Published in 1722, it was about 1666, when London was struck by the plague, as well as the Great Fire. But it was not covid-19, but the bubonic plague. That era, and that plague, left us a nursery rhyme: Ring-a-ring-a-roses/ A pocketful of posies/ A-tishoo, a-tishoo/ We all fall down.
The great literature of the world was all created with this somewhere at the back of the writer’s mind. Readers also had this as part of their mental furniture. If Camus made the plague a methaphor for the Nazis, his audience knew what a plague was. Thus literature, that lens through which men have grown used to look at themselves, has already been changed forever. But it still has to be written, films to be made and videogames to be created
The roses and the posies were a reference to the only prescription the doctors of that era had: something to freshen up the air. But then came the sneezing as buboes developed in the lungs and windpipe, and ‘we all fall down.’
It may have been bacterial, but the bubonic plague, like covid-19, came from China and attacked the respiratory system. If it caught the imagination of Defoe, it affected at least two French writers, chronologically far apart. In 1585, the essayist Michel de Montaigne, was Mayor of Bordeaux, the French port, when it saw an outbreak of the plague as his tenure ended. The harrowing episode stayed with him, and informed his essays, which preceded those of Francis Bacon, much more familiar to the English-speaking world.
Then there was Albert Camus, whose La Peste (The Plague) describes an attack of bubonic plague in Oran, a port in French Algeria. It was both a description of one of the last outbreaks of plague in recent times, and also taken as a parable for the Nazi Occupation of Europe.
But while the bubonic plague was the most dramatic, there were other diseases which could be epidemic. One of the most common was cholera, which was caused by a pollution of the water supply. India suffered from it greatly, and one such epidemic is the springboard for Deputy Nazir Ahmad’s Taubatun Nasuh, published in 1877. It begins with Nasuh and his father getting up for the fajr prayer, having dined on rice the night before. The description is brief, but it gives an impression of the time: both fall sick, but Nasuh’s father dies almost at once. That was characteristic of previous plagues; death was very sudden. There is the trope, made familiar both by Defoe, and by Samuel Pepys, whose diary includes life under the plague in London, of the death-carts, with the carters shouting out the demand for corpses. Even the, plague victims’ bodies were avoided, and were buried in mass graves.
Another book with cholera as the epidemic disease was Love in the Time of Cholera, published in 1986, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s first book after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. Dealing with Latin America, and the travails of doctor combatting cholera, it shows what happens when a disease is endemic. There are outbreaks in the shape of epidemics.
That is what is being predicted for covid-19: that it will become endemic, in that it will not afflict many people most of the time, but there will be occasional epidemics, when the virus comes into contact with a population which lacks immunity to it.
One epidemiologist has said that the world will go back to an era resembling World War II, a world before antibiotics. Antibiotics were a really big deal, ending both the bubonic plague and cholera, both of which are bacterial diseases. Neither has been completely wiped out, though neither assumes the proportions of an epidemic. (Though there is a report of a cholera epidemic in Yemen, caused by the breakdown of both safe water supply and medical services, due to the civil war.)
It is unfortunately true that viral diseases (such as smallpox, polio, AIDS and yes, covid-19) found no medicine, and all so-called antivirals are palliatives rather than cures. However, before antibiotics, people would go about their lives with the knowledge at the back of their minds that they could fall sick and die at any minute. Life becomes uncertain, but so does economics. What if a business partner fails to turn up? Or an employee? Because they fell ill suddenly in the night. And are now dead.
The great literature of the world was all created with this somewhere at the back of the writer’s mind. Readers also had this as part of their mental furniture. If Camus made the plague a metaphor for the Nazis, his audience knew what a plague was. Thus literature, that lens through which men have grown used to looking at themselves, has already been changed forever. But it still has to be written, films to be made and videogames to be created.