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Literature and science converge in a pandemic


“Tedious were it to recount, how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbours was scarce found any that shewed fellow-feeling for another, how kinsfolk held aloof, and never met,” wrote Giovanni Boccaccio in the Decameron ca. 1349, having retreated to a villa outside of Florence amid the “great dying” of the bubonic plague (1). More than three centuries later, Daniel Defoe recounted similarly trying times in A Journal of the Plague Year: “When every one’s private Safety lay so near them, that they had no Room to pity the Distresses of others…The Danger of immediate Death to ourselves, took away all Bonds of Love, all Concern for one another” (2).

Our lives are overturned by such “emergent occasions,” as John Donne reported in 1624 in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions: “We study Health, and we deliberate upon our meats, and drink, and ayre, and exercises, and we hew, and we polish every stone, that goes to that building; and so our Health is a long and a regular work; But in a minute a Canon batters all, overthrowes all, demolishes all; a Sicknes unprevented for all our diligence, unsuspected for all our curiositie…summons us, seizes us, possesses us, destroyes us in an instant” (3).

What written consolations might we turn to in this time of COVID-19? For those searching for meaning in the midst of plague, history and literature have long offered tinctures against terror.

A body is burdened with a sickness, as Susan Sontag well understood, but it is the body politic that suffers in a pandemic, as our social life changes irrevocably. “Well, everybody is worried about everybody now,” she wrote in a work of fiction in the New Yorker in 1986, during the burgeoning AIDS crisis. “[T]hat seems to be the way we live, the way we live now…the end of bravado, the end of folly, the end of trusting life, the end of taking life for granted” (4).

Even echoes of an earlier generation’s atomic anxieties and apocalypses register differently when read in this moment. Nevil Shute’s 1957 postapocalyptic novel On the Beach, for example, now seems to eerily presage our own tallying of 2-week quarantines in cities not yet abandoned but already rewilding: “‘It’s horrible,’ she said vehemently. ‘Everything shut up, and dirty, and stinking. It’s as if the end of the world had come already.’ ‘It’s pretty close, you know,’ he said…‘How far off is it, Peter?’ ‘About a fortnight,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t happen with a click, you know. People start getting ill, but not all on the same day. Some people are more resistant than others.’ …‘But everybody gets it, don’t they?’ she asked in a low tone. ‘I mean, in the end.’ He nodded. ‘Everybody gets it, in the end.’ …‘It’s possible to get it slightly and get over it,’ he said. ‘But then you get it again ten days or a fortnight later.’ …He nodded. ‘That’s the way it is. We’ve just got to take it as it comes. After all, it’s what we’ve always had to face, only we’ve never faced it, because we’re young’” (5).

In an effort to understand our present predicament, we turn not only to earlier fears but also to speculative futures, whether in the form of scientific models or science fiction novels. Although it was terrestrial microbes that ended H. G. Wells’s 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, fictional fears of cosmic pandemics—like those Michael Crichton described in The Andromeda Strain in 1969—are not new to the world of science. On the day after the famed 1975 Asilomar Conference addressing the potential biohazards of recombinant DNA research, the Boston Globe trumpeted on its front page: “Scientists to Resume Risky Work on Genes: Danger of ‘Andromeda Strain’ Posed” (6). And in the years that followed, narratives about alien-induced pandemics repeatedly intruded into conversations on Capitol Hill about appropriate laboratory biocontainment strategies for newly engineered organisms.

While many might (and did) deride such references to intergalactic fiction as mere sensationalism, these sorts of invocations—framing legislative responses within not only the language of science but also that of science fiction—suggest that we would do well to seek to understand the unexpected and sometimes unruly cultural narratives in which science is always situated.

“Plague came to Whileaway in P.C. 17 (Preceding Catastrophe) and ended in A.C. 03, with half the population dead,” wrote Joanna Russ in 1975 in The Female Man, a brilliant feminist novel that deploys plague and tinctures of time as part of a larger critique of gender essentialism (7). The plague “started so slowly that no one knew about it until it was too late. It attacked males only.” But what need is there of such fictions of plague when the future itself is terrifying enough?

Climate change will bring about new plagues, asserted David Wallace-Wells in 2019 in The Uninhabitable Earth. “[T]here are the plagues that climate change will confront us with for the very first time—a whole new universe of diseases humans have never before known to even worry about. ‘New universe’ is not hyperbole. Scientists guess the planet could harbor more than a million yet-to-be-discovered viruses” (8). The effects of even one of these viruses run amok could be dire, he envisioned (as we are now experiencing). In the face of climate change, Wallace-Wells predicts “the global halving of economic resources would be permanent…a brutally cruel normal against which we might measure tiny burps of decimal-point growth as the breath of a new prosperity…in economic terms, a Great Dying.” Another great dying, except this time, a villa in Tuscany offers no refuge.

As unprotected heroes head into hospitals and supermarkets, many of the rest of us pass unending challenging days at home, echoing the weary, entrapped, plague-addled world of Samuel Delany’s 1975 novel Dhalgren: “You do know how terrible it is to live inside here…with everything slipping away?…This has got to stop, you know! Management must be having all sorts of difficulty while we’re going through this crisis. I understand that. I make allowances. But it’s not as though a bomb had fallen, or anything. If a bomb had fallen, we’d be dead. This is something perfectly natural. And we have to make do, don’t we, until the situation is rectified?” (9).

“The existential inconvenience of coronavirus,” as Geoff Dyer described our moment in the New Yorker in March (10), alludes to Jean-Paul Sartre’s truth that in a time of existential crisis, “hell is other people” (11). But our ability to physically distance while remaining socially connected through social media has also brought forth playful parallels offering poignant critique: “We all have Schrödinger’s virus now,” wrote one Mat Krahn, now enjoying his 15 minutes of Facebook fame. “Because we cannot get tested, we can’t know whether we have the virus or not. We have to act as if we have the virus so that we don’t spread it to others. We have to act as if we’ve never had the virus because if we didn’t have it, we’re not immune. Therefore, we both have and don’t have the virus. Thus, Schrödinger’s virus” (12).

Historians tell us that there is a rhythm to life and death, not only for individuals but also for societies. “Epidemics start at a moment in time, proceed on a stage limited in space and duration, follow a plot line of increasing and revelatory tension, move to a crisis of individual and collective character, then drift toward closure,” the historian of medicine Charles Rosenberg has written (13). As laboratory workers pursue promising leads, and the battle between “freedom from” and “freedom to” plays out in countries around the world, we might even turn to Emily Dickinson, who—in the tiniest tincture of all—queries whether our political leaders will finally recognize the urgencies of the moment: “FAITH is a fine invention / For Gentlemen who see! / But Microscopes are prudent / In an Emergency!” (14).

References and Notes:
1. G. Boccaccio, Decameron (ca. 1349).
2. D. Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).
3. J. Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624).
4. S. Sontag, “The way we live now,” New Yorker, 24 November 1986.
5. N. Shute, On the Beach (Heinemann, 1957).
6. Boston Globe, 28 February 1975, p. 1.
7. J. Russ, The Female Man (Bantam Books, 1975).
8. D. Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth (Tim Duggan Books, 2019).
9. S. Delany, Dhalgren (Bantam Books, 1975).
10. G. Dyer, “The existential inconvenience of coronavirus,” New Yorker, 23 March 2020.
11. J.-P. Sartre, No Exit (Huis Clos) (1944).
12. Mat Krahn, Facebook, 30 March 2020;
13. C. Rosenberg, Daedalus 118, 1 (1989).
14. E. Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Little, Brown, 1924).

About the author

The reviewer is secretary of the History of Science Society and regents’ lecturer in the Department of History, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131, USA.