[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review]
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[L.Q. cover, quotes, and images are from Lapham’s Quarterly Summer 2020: EPIDEMIC, except where noted.]
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[NEW to Lapham’s Quarterly? See the standard notes at the end of this review. After 50+ LQ summaries I jump right in.]
My previous musings on this issue are linked here: Epidemic.
RECOVERY is the last section in Voices In Time. Outbreak, Containment, then Recovery. Making the rounds.
Somewhat differently for L.Q., all three sections of this issue start with a contemporary extract. Karl Taro Greenfeld writes of the similarities between COVID-19 and 2003 SARS-CoV in China:
“The previous year, just to the north, a coronavirus had emerged that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. The virus, called SARS-CoV, had jumped the species barrier in a market, traveling from bats to civets to people. Its mortality rate was around 10 percent.
Initially, the Chinese government covered up the epidemic, threatening and silencing the physicians who issued warnings. Then, as the infection spread, it imposed a drastic crackdown on all social interaction.” (p. 143)
“For those who remember SARS firsthand, the unfolding of the current Covid-19 pandemic has been eerily familiar. The new coronavirus appears to have spilled over in Hubei province, a few hundred miles north of Guangdong province, where SARS emerged; China’s decisions—the initial cover-up, the cancellation of Lunar New Year celebrations, the rapid, gigantic mobilization—have echoed the past, too.” (p. 143-144)
“In retrospect it seems likely that several factors converged. We had all effectively self-quarantined (or in the case of my wife and daughters, actually departed). Schools had been closed for more than a month. Everyone in the city had been wearing surgical masks, without exception; on television even government officials appeared in scrubs and full protective gear.” (p. 146)
From notes on the author:
“The first reference to what would become known as SARS appeared in a January 3, 2003, article in the Heyuan Daily, a Communist Party–controlled newspaper in southern China, where the disease first emerged. “There is no epidemic in Heyuan,” assured the report. “There is no need for people to panic.”” (p. 147)
Prolific writer Voltaire writes, while exiled in 1728 England, of the practice of introducing mild exposure of smallpox into babies in order to build resistance to the disease. Shades of ‘herd immunity’! Free.
A brief story by Wyandot Indian Catherine Johnson relates the purposeful introduction of smallpox into the Indian population, and the use of skunk secretion to combat it. Free. Her own history is informative also.
Twentieth-century author and historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a historical novel of the 14th century, a portion therein about the post-plague effects on those times:
“The marriage rate undoubtedly rose, though not for love. So many adventurers took advantage of orphans to obtain rich dowries that the oligarchy of Siena forbade the marriage of female orphans without their kinsmen’s consent. In England, Piers Plowman deplored the many pairs “since the pestilence” who had married “for greed of goods and against natural feeling,” with result, according to him, in “guilt and grief…jealousy, joylessness, and jangling in private”—and no children.” (p. 153)
“The obvious and immediate result of the Black Death was, of course, a shrunken population, which, owing to wars, brigandage, and recurrence of the plague, declined even further by the end of the fourteenth century. The plague laid a curse on the century in the form of its own bacillus. Lodged in the vectors, it was to break out again six times over the next six decades in various localities at varying intervals of ten to fifteen years. After killing off most of those susceptible, with increasing mortality of children in the later phases, it eventually receded, leaving Europe with a population reduced by about 40 percent in 1380 and by nearly 50 percent at the end of the century.” (p. 155)
“As between landowner and peasant, the balance of impoverishment and enrichment caused by the plague on the whole favored the peasant, although what was true in one place often had an equal and opposite reaction somewhere else. The relative values of land and labor were turned upside down. Peasants found their rents reduced and even relinquished for one or more years by landowners desperate to keep their fields in cultivation. Better no revenue at all than that cleared land should be retaken by the wilderness. But with fewer hands to work, cultivated land necessarily shrank.
When death slowed production, goods became scarce and prices soared. In France the price of wheat increased fourfold by 1350. At the same time, the shortage of labor brought the plague’s greatest social disruption—a concerted demand for higher wages. Peasants as well as artisans, craftsmen, clerks, and priests discovered the lever of their own scarcity.” (p. 155-156)
“The plague accelerated discontent with the church at the very moment when people felt a greater need of spiritual reassurance. There had to be some meaning in the terrorizing experience God had inflicted. If the purpose had been to shake man from his sinful ways, it had failed.” (p. 156)
“Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent, the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.” (p. 157)
“An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world. When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity in 1914–18, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust. In creating a climate for pessimism, the Black Death was the equivalent of the First World War, although it took fifty years for the psychological effects to develop.” (p. 157) (Not free.)
This is certainly a gripping and intriguing analysis. During COVID-19 our global economies have been turned upside down, some people thriving, others destitute, seemingly like never before?
Controversial AIDS photographer David Wojnarowicz chronicles his own downward “Spiral” from the disease (to which he eventually succumbs):
“There are tiny colored lights wobbling through the red threads of dusk, and I’m trying to concentrate on them in order to avoid bending over suddenly and emptying out. I’ve been trying to fight the urge to throw up for the last two weeks. At first I thought it was food poisoning, but slowly realized it was civilization. Everything is stirring this feeling inside me, signs of physical distress, the evening news, all the flags in the streets and the zombie population going about its daily routines.” (p. 158)
“Fevers. I wake up these mornings feeling wet like something from my soul, my memory is seeping out the back of my head onto the cloth of the pillows. I woke up earlier with intense nausea and headache. I turned on the television to try and get some focus outside my illness. Every station was filled with half-hour commercials disguised as talk shows in which low-grade TV actors and actresses talk about how to whiten your teeth or raise your investment earnings or shake the extra pounds from your bones. I am convinced I am from another planet.”
“My friend on the bed is waking.” … “He opens his eyes too wide a couple of times, and I hand him a bunch of flowers. I see double, he says. Twice as many flowers, I say.” (p. 159)
Actress Gene Tierney is poignant on her accidental exposure to rubella during pregnancy, the subsequent birth of her severely handicapped child, and her own descent into mental difficulties:
“Little was known then about the connection between German measles in early pregnancy and the damage to an unborn child’s nervous system.
By the time my daughter was a year old, I knew there were troubling signs, but I was uncertain of their seriousness or permanence.” (p. 162)
“I would not, could not, accept the idea that Daria was retarded or had brain damage. I went through a period of convincing myself that she only had a hearing problem.
Daria never improved. She has never talked or seen clearly and has heard few sounds. We have never known the casual joy of sharing a letter or a mother-daughter phone call. But on my visits, she is always aware of my presence. She sniffs at my neck and hugs me.”
… “But when my breakdown came, when my illness stripped me of my reserve, I cried all the time. I cried for Daria, and for me, and I cried for hours, until I often didn’t know where the tears came from, or what had started them.”
“Daria’s birth had been the beginning of a darkening time for me. I wondered why God had punished me by afflicting my child. I felt guilt I could not explain and self-pity that I could not throw off. A mental illness may be set in motion by a series of factors, one or all of which awaken the sleeping flaw. This setback was the breeding ground, I now believe, of the emotional problems soon to come.”
“I have long since stopped blaming the lady marine, myself, God, or Hitler for what happened to us. But Daria was, of course, a war baby, born in 1943. I suppose it has always been true that in wartime the most innocent suffer, too.” (p. 163)
After Voices In Time two fine, full-length essays conclude this issue.
In ‘The Virus And The Martians’ Mike Jay explores perspectives of H.G. Wells, particularly his War Of The Worlds, in which aliens from Mars invade Earth and proceed to destroy mankind, until they are felled by the common cold, not unlike the devastation of indigenous peoples by the introduction, accidental or planned, of smallpox and the like.
“H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel The War of the Worlds has never lost its power to unsettle, but it has become peculiarly resonant with the arrival of Covid-19. When it was first published, in the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, it was a shocking riposte to the national chorus of celebration and self-congratulation. It punctured the image of a world-bestriding British Empire with a merciless depiction of how brittle such a civilization really was. Its opening chapter reminded the reader that indigenous Tasmanians had recently been “entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants” armed with weapons beyond anything they had ever seen or imagined, and asked pointedly, “Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”” (p. 195)
I presume Wells refers to, as recent, the Black War from the mid-1820s to 1832. Wikipedia is worth a side-investigation on this. An analysis of ethnic exterminations might someday merit an L.Q. issue of its own. I mentioned above the Voltaire piece, which refers to Circassia: “It is the homeland of the Circassian people. It was destroyed after the Russian-Circassian war(1763–1864) that started with the Russian occupation and 91% of the Circassian people were exiled from the region.” Wiki. Just a contemporary list would likely include Rohingya, Uighurs, Yazidi religious sects, ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the breakup of Yugoslavia, and on and on.
“The shock of the Covid-19 pandemic is not the same as that suffered by humanity in The War of the Worlds. It is closer to what the Martians— the humans of Wells’ future—faced when tiny organisms beneath their consideration toppled their technological edifice. Like them, we assumed that we had confined nature and subjected it to our designs, but we have not escaped our own biology. We remain vulnerable, as they were, to what the narrator calls the “germs of disease [that] have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things—taken toll of our pre-human ancestors since life began here.””
“This pandemic has shown us how, as we push ever further into nature’s domain and disturb the balance of its homeostatic systems, it will find new ways to invade ours. The pulse of life is slowly returning to our streets and our cities, but it seems mistaken to hail this as a victory. The metaphors of war, for which we reach so readily when discussing disease, are as misleading as talk about victory over the changing climate, and for the same reason. The War of the Worlds was indeed a war: a conflict to the death against a hostile alien invader. What we are engaged in is a struggle for equilibrium within the biosphere we share.” (p. 203)
It is quite a thought-provoking analysis, worthy of your perusal, and it is FREE.
The other essay is What Preparations Are Due? by Travis Chi Wing Lau. He discusses Daniel DeFoe’s 1722 non-fiction work Due Preparations for the Plague, as Well for Soul as Body.
“Both Due Preparations and A Journal of the Plague Year directly responded to the political and medical debates that had reached a high pitch by the 1720s. The British approach to plague tended to emphasize epidemic mitigation rather than prevention.” (p. 210)
“This moment in British history underscores how public the conversations about plague were; citizens regularly engaged with issues of public policy and science. As Parliament discovered in the wake of highly organized campaigns against quarantine legislation, public health was hardly as simple as following medical advice. The English government had to reckon with one of public health’s central tensions, between individual choice and the needs of the wider community. Though Parliament ultimately capitulated to the outcry, it acknowledged the pitfalls of remaining too loose with its pandemic response. Even if the government had to violate the rights of English citizens, it was doing so in order to prevent another disaster at the magnitude of the Great Plague of 1665. If the empire was to have a future, the health of the nation would have to take precedence.” (p. 214) Free.
Sound familiar? ‘I’m not wearing a mask! You’re violating my civil rights!’
Do you think, once vaccines are widely disseminated and we reach so-called herd immunity, that mass complacency will return? Will we be any better prepared for ‘the next one’?
Stay safe and be well my friends. Don’t forget:
DEMOCRACY is here!
“Democracy, the Fall 2020 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, explores the history of people joining together to form movements, governments, and communities from the ancient world through the present day.” (L.Q. email.)
See you there.
The standard notes:
1. Since L.Q.’s inception with the Winter 2008 issue its size is always 7″ x 10″ x 1/2-17/32″. It is white-covered, printed on high quality paper throughout, with richly printed reproductions of fine art from time immemorial, and 221 pages up to a page or two of addenda at the back.
2. Each issue contains extracts about the title topic from great authors and thinkers spanning all recorded history. It begins with an eloquent, to a fault, preamble/introduction by editor Lewis Lapham. The main body is called Voices In Time and contains 3 or 4 subcategories of the topic with about 25 extracts per section. Noteworthy sidebars, side quotes, and depictions of appropriate art from the ages are liberally distributed throughout. Several extended contemporary essays bring up the rear. There are several other small sections every issue (Among the Contributors, Conversations, Miscellany, ‘The Graphic’).
3. Per the L.Q. website:
“Lapham’s Quarterly embodies the belief that history is the root of all education, scientific and literary as well as political and economic. Each issue addresses a topic of current interest and concern—war, religion, money, medicine, nature, crime—by bringing up to the microphone of the present the advice and counsel of the past.”
4. I encourage all to subscribe to this fine publication. It is a rich supplement to anyone’s reading.