When Plague Is Not a Metaphor
I was supposed to be the expert. But when Covid-19 hit, I didn’t know what to say.
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As countless interpretations have stressed, Homer’s plague exists in a metaphorical relationship with the war — the siege of Troy — that is the subject of the poem. The epidemic afflicting the unnamed soldiers serves to highlight the disease of discord infecting the “best” of the Greeks, the military commanders. As infirmity wrecks the human bodies of soldiers, we are prompted to reflect on dysfunction within the body politic of the loosely construed Greek alliance. (Does this sound eerily familiar?)
Early in the spring-2020 semester, I had planned to say quite a bit about Homer’s figurative use of disease and the literary tradition it initiated. But as we concluded February in exhausted anticipation of spring break, Covid-19 made the artistry of that metaphor abruptly beside the point. It seemed — and still seems — futile to talk about what plague “means” in the history of human discourse when plague quite literally is the current defining condition of homo sapiens.
What more could I, the plague specialist, say? As the arrows of pestilence once again rain down on humanity, what could I have to offer? Mine was not just a case of a literary scholar being burnt out with a research topic. I was experiencing the kind of paralysis that comes when, without much warning, the stuff of literary fantasy jumps into the realm of brutal reality: If Apollo himself, striding swift as the night from Mount Olympus, had approached my suburban split-level ranch house, I would not have been more dumbstruck.
I was experiencing the kind of paralysis that comes when, without much warning, the stuff of literary fantasy jumps into the realm of brutal reality.
When I began my inquiries into Latin plague narratives in the early 2010s, I was driven by what felt like an urgent relevance to the topic as many tales of killer viruses and accounts of a zombie apocalypse continued to populate page and screen: The Hot Zone (1994); Spillover (2012); Outbreak (1995); Contagion (2011); The Andromeda Strain (1969, 1971, 2008); etc. I felt compelled to trace these contagion narratives back to what appeared to me to be a common source, the Roman epic — and, of course, to write a book about it and get promoted in the process. The outbreak of Ebola in 2014, which traumatized West Africa and made a brief appearance on U.S. soil, seemed to intensify the relevance of my work while also keeping me at a safe distance from the hazardous wilds of non-literary reality.
By spring of 2020, less than a year after the publication of my book, Covid-19 was here. This should be “my moment,” my chance to abandon the ivory tower, to address some (admittedly ill-defined) “public” and make them aware of a long-inherited tradition of disease discourse that I have studied in great detail. On paper, all my training has led to this. But this pandemic is unscripted, unbound by the covers of any book, and for these past two months I’ve found myself … speechless. Even now, I struggle to find the “right” words, and I’m left questioning the nature of my work as a literary critic as well as the comfortable boundaries I’ve always relied upon to carry it out.
As a literary device, plague is one ruthlessly efficient route to the end of the world as we know it; as a worn-out culture, we often fetishize that catastrophic end as an end to the tedium, stress, and meaninglessness of life in a digital age. Isn’t there some part of us that secretly desires to see it all fall apart so that the burdens of being human will be lifted? Or so that we can wipe the slate clean? What sort of world would we replace this one with?
“The taste for worst-case scenarios reflects the need to master fear of what is felt to be uncontrollable,” as Susan Sontag observed of the discourse surrounding the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. “It also expresses an imaginative complicity with disaster. The sense of cultural distress or failure gives rise to the desire for a clean sweep, a tabula rasa. No one wants a plague, of course. But, yes, it would be a chance to begin again. And beginning again — that is very modern, very American, too.”
While the desire for a clean sweep may fuel our production of fantastical plagues, it does not fully explain our response to a real one. Now, as the world threatens to unravel in painful, prolonged suffering, such fantasies are far from seductive: Covid-19 is claiming our loved ones, removing the routines that have anchored us in the world and replacing them with the toil of social distancing — the opposite of what the philosopher Michel Foucault once described as plague’s “fantasy of lawlessness.” In place of that fantasy we now have the torturous but necessary imposition of law into every aspect of our existence: Shelter-in-place ordinances, masks, temperature checks, travel restrictions, and social-distancing guidelines all contribute to the feeling that we’re living in a dystopic, hyper-regulated world.
As universities closed their doors and life as we knew it came to a stumbling halt, friends, family, and colleagues, whom I’d previously wearied with discussions of plague discourse, asked with polite but genuine interest what I, the expert on figurative epidemics, thought of the present crisis. I stammered, demurred, redirected, and grew silent. University personnel, dutifully contacting local authorities to help shed light on our collective experience, asked for my input, and I, in turn (after many deep breaths and a stiff drink), rehearsed the argument of my recent monograph, tacking on the relevance of pestilence in ancient Rome to Covid-19 in whatever places I could find it.
When discussion of course offerings for the fall arose, I queried professors at other universities who planned to offer seminars on plague literature. Some considered such courses a “brilliant” move, a way to boost enrollments in a struggling comparative-literature program; others likened such courses to “war profiteering.” My own impulse was that it’s just “too soon.” I even felt the need to apologize for my interest in plague. It struck me as callous to attempt to increase enrollments through exploitation of the very real suffering of individuals within the community. Didn’t upholding representations of plague as art somehow trivialize the experience of those suffering it? I was unsettled by the idea of making art out of tragedy, or of admiring how others had made art out of tragedy.
I’ve always imagined myself committed to interdisciplinarity, but as a classicist I still relied on boundaries — between the ancient world and the present, between my field of literature and those of the “hard” sciences — to define a space in which I could operate and view my objects of study from a distance. As much as I saw my work as “relevant” — at least to contemporary discourses of contagion — I also viewed it as comfortably situated in the purview of classics, relying implicitly on Stanley Fish’s pragmatic view that those of us trained in a specific field were best suited to keep playing in that field, and not others, throughout our professional lives.
I could selectively cull material from other disciplines (anthropology, gender studies, history, etc.), while drawing a solid temporal boundary between past and present, as well as honoring a distinction between fictive plagues and real ones, despite a dutifully academic recognition that all reality is textually constructed. Then came Covid-19, utterly decimating the boundaries defining the field. No longer was there “real plague versus literary plague”; there was just plague.
No longer was there “real plague versus literary plague”; there was just plague.
As my shock has succumbed to a blend of melancholy and constant uncertainty, I have once again tried to find something useful to tell myself and my community. If this experience has made me realize how comfortably quarantined my academic life has been, it has also made me realize the social and psychological toll such a quarantine can have in the context of the university. I concede that there might be some virtue in teaching a course on the tradition of plague narratives. But if and when I teach such a course again, I will approach the topic with admittedly less objectivity and (I would hope) more humanity than I did when I taught it in the days before this pandemic, trying to participate in a discussion over what our accounts of the current plague have to tell us about the world we live in and the impact of disease on human lives — how that impact might reveal other vulnerabilities, injustices, and dysfunctions within the body politic.
Which brings us back to the Iliad. As it turns out, the prophet Calchas correctly identifies the king Agamemnon’s selfish actions and offense against Apollo as the source of the plague. On the one hand, believing that I could cast myself as the Calchas in this drama confirms the problematically privileged status of the literary critic; on the other hand, it reminds us that as “interpreters” we do have a responsibility to annoy Agamemnon, to point out the meanings of things, or at least rehearse the history of meanings for others.
We should use the knowledge we’ve been allowed to cultivate in order to verify, refine, or resist narratives about Covid-19, whether they are scripted in mainstream-media outlets or by our own troubled leadership in the White House. The narratives we choose to believe and retell will reflect and affirm what we value as a species — a daunting task, but also an empowering one. I can only hope that the privilege of the ivory tower, the temporary distance it has afforded to me and my students, will allow us to put our knowledge to work as we collectively fight the high-stakes battle of shaping our own tale of pestilence — and of deciding where (and how) we want this story to end.