They suggest that we can get through adversity, that things could always be worse. And sometimes, the best of these stories are genuinely full of love.
This isWander, Woman,a column by Gabrielle Bellot about books, the body, memory, and more.
In 1948, just a few years after the end of the Second World War, a novel about an ancient plague appeared. The Plague, which would become one of the Algerian writer Albert Camus’s best-known novels, featured a world slowly coming to an end, in which the bubonic plague—a disease that, under the evocative name of The Black Death, had killed millions between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries—visits Oran, a contemporary Algerian town. The book follows Dr. Rieux, a physician who tries to cure patients as the plague becomes more and more overwhelming. At first, the townspeople don’t want to believe anything is seriously wrong; some mock the idea that so notorious an old illness as the plague is at fault, despite the corpses being carted through streets and the dead rats—a signature of the bubonic plague—piling up everywhere. Soon, Oran is put under quarantine, and people’s lives are upended. Through it all, Dr. Rieux tries to remain calm; around him, people variously riot, turn to faith, renounce religion, try to escape, attempt to recreate a sense of normalcy by eating at fancy restaurants, or resign themselves to the societal trauma filling their streets like fog.
The brilliance of Camus’s novel is that it is a novel of landscapes, metropolitan and emotional, capturing both a city overrun by disease and a portrait of the shifting emotional worlds of its inhabitants. What is most haunting about Camus’s plague is that it comes seemingly out of nowhere; and at the end, when it seems to have left, Dr. Rieux is acutely, agonizingly aware that a disease like the plague “never dies or disappears for good,” but simply lies dormant, biding its time to later return “in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves.”
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of plague stories is how they capture the things that never change: the ways people react in the seventeenth century or our own. This is clear in Camus’s novel, but also in a genre-bending book The Plague contains echoes of: Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which purported to describe the Great Plague of 1665 in London. Defoe, who was five when the plague appeared in the city, stitched together historical accounts and his own fictionalization into a curious work that exists at the borderlands of fiction and nonfiction.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of plague stories is how they capture the things that never change.
What is certain is what Defoe captures about the plague that still holds true for outbreaks today. Early on, for instance, Defoe describes how the wealthy left London at the earliest signs of the plague in the city, as they had the means to escape; in the coronavirus outbreak now, many rich residents similarly fled New York City for summer homes in the Hamptons and Connecticut. It is a tale as old as time: Wealth is all too often an unfair inoculation against disease. If plagues are supposed to be the great equalizers, killing rich and poor alike, those without much income still lack even that equality.
Plagues fill the history of literature and film. In some cases, they are simply descriptions of a horrific reality; in others, they are metaphors; and, in most cases, the truth lies in between. In the tales of the Abrahamic religions, a vengeful deity afflicts Egypt with an array of suffering, including a “severe pestilence” that decimates the livestock, flies that fill homes, and even a pestiferous ash that, like bubonic plague, results in “boils that break out in sores on man and beast throughout all the land of Egypt.” As if these were not enough, the plagues end with no less than the angel of death taking the lives of firstborns. This remarkable series of sufferings is as much symbol as psychology, a metaphor for the supposed necessity of religious faith on the one hand and a characterization of the biblical god as a violent dictator who will make the unfaithful not simply perish, but perish in great pain.
In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fiction, disease is as commonplace as it is epic. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, a “lethal” plague of insomnia attacks the village of Macondo, preventing anyone from sleeping for so long that people begin to forget names and time alike. Memory loss, Garcia Marquez makes clear, is the true terror of the plague; one’s past, horrifically, slowly becomes “erased.” Macondo soon sinks “into a kind of idiocy that had no past,” with Garcia Marquez capturing the way that even something as commonplace as insomnia—which I also suffer from—can be as petrifying as any biblical affliction. His great novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, features cholera both as a literal disease and as a metaphor for the tortures of unrequited love. “Love is a disease,” José Arcado Buendía literally declares in One Hundred Years of Solitude.
More fantastical or surreal tales often invoke disease to critique something about humanity. Hayao Miyazaki’s grand story, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind—my favorite of his films, and an epic manga—uses pestilence as a metaphor for the costs of human pollution and warfare through a world in which—in the wake of an apocalyptic war—toxic plants fill great swathes of the world, the forests’ toxins reflecting the filth both of war and pollution.In Carmen Maria Machado’s short story “Inventory,” a lethal “virus” with no hope of a vaccine infects America, leaving the narrator in a curious fugue state where she shifts from remembering her lovers to fighting off male rapists who have become even more desperate and emboldened in an anarchic world. The true disease in Machado’s story is the violence these men believe they are justified in perpetrating on women’s bodies.
Why do we read plague stories? We turn to them for both horror and comfort. The ones with happy endings suggest that we can get through adversity, and in times of non-disease-related disaster, they show that things could always be worse. And sometimes, the best of these stories are genuinely full of love. This is partly why a wondrous wedding in Manhattan in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak used passages from Love in the Time of Cholera, which an officiant shouted from the social distance of an apartment window to the two women getting married in a street—in a time of horror, here was a moment of wild, silly, lovely beauty, literal love in the time of coronavirus.
We turn to plague stories for both horror and comfort.
But the horror is still there. “We take the dead from the morning to night, one after the other, constantly,” a funeral director in Italy recently claimed, evoking the carts of plague victims that, at the height of the Black Death, became an everyday sight. In the United States, which took too long to enact serious defenses against the outbreak, certain conservative pundits are so obsessed with restarting the economy—large parts of which are shuttered to help isolate people, thus slowing the virus’s spread—that they are literally willing to sacrifice lives. Glenn Beck claimed he would happily die to help businesses reopen; Dan Patrick, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, went so far as to declare that “lots of grandparents” were willing to potentially die if it helped younger people go back to work.
Is it possible to have less empathy, less love for loved ones than that?
We should be sacrificing liberties, not lives. Freedom is sacred, yes, but it is selfish to put it above the life of someone I cherish, or the lives of the people reckless actions will endanger. To fail to understand that is to fail to understand what the art of plagues tries to teach us: that we can—and must—fight for life even when the grave’s scent is all we can smell in the air.
As a child, I grew accustomed to the sounds of certain diseases in my mouth: dengue, malaria, Zika. They came with the mosquitoes, the insects that descended like Egyptian plagues after rainfall and that kept me up on warm nights with their whining like miniature helicopters; beware the ones with white bands on their legs, my mother instructed me, as these were the carriers of dengue and other such devilish infections. If the diseases seemed baroque in their larger-than-life lethality, their carriers were simply annoying, though the white stripes—the signature markings of Aedes aegypti—were curiously impressive.
At night, green mosquito coils burned in our home, the citronella that was supposed to repel the insects filled the air, and my aunties drew shut the vast white mosquito nets that covered their beds like drapes. I didn’t like to kill animals, but there was a curious satisfaction in using our yellow electric mosquito racket to fry them, burning them until their little bodies began to blacken and smoke.
Despite our precautions, mosquitoes were ubiquitous, and so I got dengue fever. For a week I can barely remember, I lay in bed, my body wracked with pain. I was covered in sweat, lost in the labyrinth of something I didn’t understand.
Yet when I got better, I returned to normal life quickly. I didn’t understand the severity of the disease until later; didn’t understand, really, that I could have died. I got sick often as a child, so I just thought of this as a bad flu for a time, until I learned that it could have gone very, very differently. I was young and naïve—and, above all, lucky. Many people with dengue go through far worse, if they survive at all.
I hadn’t understood the terrifying power of tiny things: the mosquito I never saw bite me, the plague flies, the particles we don’t even see that land on us when someone coughs or sneezes. The little things, in many ways, rule this world; the big things, like us, have evolved quite marvelously, yet we are lucky to still be here.
The literature of plagues is rarely solely, or even primarily, about disease. Instead, it examines how humans deal with disease, how our inner lives shift as our outer worlds do. It affirms how precarious our place on this planet is. We move, unceasingly, in a dance with Lady Death, her blue curls sweeping our cheeks, her perfume of necropolis grass and old flowers always near; if our life is always a danse macabre, the question is simply when she will take our hand in hers, blue and black nails against our skin, and bring us, with her curiously calm smile, into the sunless place beyond our life’s ballroom. Death, plague literature reminds us, is always, always with us.
The world is in flux; the rituals we cling to, like our coats of years, are moribund from the moment they appear. We walk, always, in time’s gentle quicksand. And yet, there are things that last even when disease decimates us. Love, Garcia Marquez knew, can feel like a terrible affliction when unrequited; love also keeps us going, peculiarly sweet as the liquor of bitter almonds. In times of great trauma, Rieux notes at the end of The Plague, we see “love, exile, and suffering” amongst the victims of disease and their loved ones—but that love is “humble yet formidable.”
The literature of plagues examines how humans deal with disease, how our inner lives shift as our outer worlds do. It affirms how precarious our place on this planet is.
The literature of disease reveals the ghostly ballet we live in, ever so close to the grave. But it shows, too, those surprising, serendipitous moments of joy, love, and beauty we can find during disasters, even just briefly.
I think, now, of the children I want to have one day. I fear bringing kids into a world that seems to hang on the edge of apocalypse, climate- or virus-related. But I want to be a mother so, so much, all the same. And I think there’s a deep love that allows us to imagine caring for someone even when the world is scary and uncertain—a complicated, difficult love. I want to take that plunge and love and love, horrors despite, because that is the life-music I hear and delight in.
It took awhile for the reality of coronavirus to hit me in New York City. Even after my workplace ordered its employees to work from home, I found myself doubting the severity of the outbreak, at least for someone not obviously at-risk. My partner, friends, and I wondered if things were really that serious, but also had an unsettling sense that something terrible was coming our way—like the way the canes in Dominica will be still, then bent back in the first winds, before a hurricane.
Like Camus’s townsfolk, my emotions seesawed in the early days. I got irritated as I felt cooped up in our Queens apartment and felt anxious as headline after headline suggested the horrors of the outbreak. Yet I found myself smiling in relief at the moments of relative normalcy I would see when I ventured out into Astoria: laughing faces on the sidewalk, the glow of familiar restaurants, people walking dogs swaddled in little sweaters and boots, children on pink scooters, the unfettered chaos of Steinway Street. These moments felt salvific; they reminded me that that life was still going on outside our apartment’s walls, contrary to the wartime alarm of our papers’ headlines. The little moments when I saw people, rather than empty streets, calmed me down. Maybe life could keep going on, I thought. It would be okay. The headlines were worse than reality.
Of course, I was naïve. It only took a few days for everything to change. Suddenly, seeing people outside, when we went to the grocery store or CVS, seemed alarming; smiles and laughter seemed disconcerting displays of people not taking the pandemic seriously. I finally came to understand the dangers to everyone, but most of all the immunocompromised and elderly, of being in crowds and catching the disease. The little moments of quotidian intimacy I had cherished before—seeing people playing basketball or in clusters in restaurants—now seemed like a gross dismissal of the distance we were supposed to keep between each other. Days before, I’d felt relief at seeing people still in bars and restaurants, at ordering the absurdist of cocktails, at people-watching with my partner; now, I felt distressed seeing pictures of crowded bars and restaurants in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Now, I’m terrified for my parents in Dominica, neither of whom is in great health. My father has had surgery after surgery for his heart and circulation in the last few years; he almost died after Hurricane Maria destroyed so much of Dominica in 2017. I don’t know that my parents can survive if the coronavirus—which has reached Dominica—gets to them. I don’t know how to deal with my fear of losing them, of losing my other family members. I don’t know what to do, seeing that death-dance beginning to speed up before my eyes. I just don’t know, and I hate it, feeling helpless and horrified all at once.
In a small, largely empty street between my building and a hill leading up to an Amtrak railroad, I still sometimes put on my roller skates. I try to skate without falling. (This is hard.) I go up and down the street, mainly; the point is to avoid people. My anxiety spikes, sometimes, when I do see a person, and I freeze. I get nervous when cars appear behind me, their lights flickering topaz in the dark; I try to avoid the twigs and trash on the road’s edge, which, though tiny, can topple me totally. I try to glide, to dance, forwards and backwards, alone or with my partner, but always alone, ultimately, because we do not want to endanger anyone.
Literature of disease reveals the ghostly ballet we live in, ever so close to the grave. But it shows, too, those surprising, serendipitous moments of joy, love, and beauty we can find during disasters.
I skate in these moments for the same reason we dance when we are flustered, frustrated, fearful. I want to keep these little memories of my world alive. It is a rain dance for normalcy, hoping the routines of the past will return.
Of course, normalcy is relative. Near the end of The Plague,Camus questioned whether or not societies could truly “return to normal” after such disasters. Things will both return to how they were before, one character proposes, and they will also be forever changed, as “the plague was bound to leave traces . . . in people’s hearts.”
Some people, of course, will try to scrub those traces, those painful memories, away. When the quarantine is finally over, Rieux watches certain townspeople so drunkenly elated that that they begin to deny it was ever as bad as it was; the seeming safety of the present is a Lethean river to dip one’s head into, and forget, trying to drown traumas in the oblivion of denial. Some of us will lie to ourselves to make the outbreak seem less bad than it was. It is a privilege to be able to engage in such revisions of history, such erasures of pain. Yet, as Rieux noted, those of us who have lost loved ones can’t forget so easily.
I do not know where we go from here, but I know I don’t want to forget the pain; I couldn’t really believe so much in the power of love in the time of crises if I did. Plagues, after all, will always return, whether or not we are ready. I still don’t know if I am.
So I cling, as I move down that empty street, to the good memories of the people I love. I cling to a commitment to hold my loves closer if we survive, not taking them for granted. They’re still here, for now. I hold onto that, hoping it is enough to keep me from falling under the deep gravity of fear.
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub and the Head Instructor at Catapult. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Cut, Gay Magazine, Tin House, Guernica, The Paris Review Daily, them, and many other places. Her essays have been anthologized in Indelible in the Hippocampus (2019), Can We All Be Feminists? (2018), and elsewhere. She holds both an MFA and PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She lives in Queens.