An old pandemic is in the news again—bubonic plague, the Black Death. Scientists Boris V. Schmid et al. published a paper this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the plague that plagued Europe during the early modern era. The paper questions the conventional wisdom that plague bacteria lived in the black rat population of London throughout the era, causing periodic outbreaks. Their research suggests, instead, that the microbe was reintroduced to that black rat population multiple times. The plague bacterium, they propose, lived primarily in Asian rodent populations, including the great gerbil. When climate conditions were right, those Asian rodent populations boomed. And the disease would then boom too, arriving first in port cities like London and spreading from there.
The study quickly made headlines (and was butchered in the way that most science stories are butchered in the popular press, inspiring scientifically inaccurate but aesthetically forceful mental images of giant, sinister gerbils marching into medieval London). The Black Death still arrests our attention and compels our clicks. But why?
Over at Virginia Tech, digital humanities researchers are reviving another old pandemic: the 1918 “Spanish flu.” As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, a historian and a computer scientist at Virginia Tech are spearheading a project to analyze newspapers from 1918 in order to learn more about the disease’s spread and the patterns of reporting on the pandemic. Journalists in 1918 recommended that, to prevent the spread of flu, readers should kiss only through a handkerchief, wear gauze masks around sick people, and avoid “poorly ventilated” places like some theaters. These tactics seem at once quaint and eerily familiar. They remind me of global travelers waiting to board planes—all that recirculated air—during the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa. (Yes, it’s still happening, even though we in the US have mostly forgotten about it.)
Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a postapocalyptic novel about the aftermath of a flu pandemic that kills 99% of the world’s population, helps me to make sense of why past pandemics still grip our imaginations. Mandel identifies both the Black Death and the Spanish flu as touchstones for making sense of the future pandemic. Twenty years after the outbreak of the Georgia Flu, the survivors live in pre-modern villages dotting the Midwest. Borders, electricity, and hospitals are fading memories, and everyday life is pared down to the essentials. But a group of troubadours, the Traveling Symphony, keeps art alive, performing Shakespeare plays and Vivaldi concertos for the villagers.
Why Shakespeare? Partly for old-school humanistic reasons: “People want what was best about the old world,” as one character puts it. But also, partly, for a more mysterious reason. Shakespeare lived in a time of plagues, a time when it was common for even children to die. As Mandel writes, “Four of his siblings died young. His son, Hamnet, died at eleven and left behind a twin. Plague closed the theaters again and again, death flickering over the landscape.” This shadowy world of strange illnesses and dim, pre-electric lights imprints Shakespeare’s plays in subtle ways, making them speak across the centuries to the post-pandemic, post-electricity world of the Traveling Symphony.
The parallels with the early modern period’s experience of pandemic disease permeate Mandel’s novel, but the allusion to the 1918 flu is more fleeting. A Prophet has arisen in the post-flu world, one who declares that the pestilence was an act of God, intended to wipe out all but a chosen few. “There was the outbreak of 1918, my people,” says the Prophet; “the timing obvious, divine punishment for the waste and slaughter of the First World War.” So, too, was the Georgia Flu a divine punishment, a “culling of the impure.” The Prophet gains power and followers for a number of reasons, but chief among them is that the survivors want answers. Confronted with the vast meaninglessness of disease and death, they grasp for a meaning, and the Prophet provides them a ready-made one.
Critic Joshua Rothman argues that Station Eleven is a novel not just about the end of the world, but also about the end of genre. Itself a postapocalyptic novel that will remind readers of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and any number of zombie films (for all zombie stories are stories about disease at some level), Station Eleven also pays homage to the plays of Shakespeare, the television series Star Trek: Voyager, and the fictional comic book series Station Eleven, for which it is named. Despite the horrors of Mandel’s postapocalyptic vision, there is also an aesthetic attractiveness about, to quote Rothman, “a future in which art, shorn of the distractions of celebrity, pedigree, and class, might find a new equilibrium. The old distinctions could be forgotten; a comic book could be as influential as Shakespeare.”
Rothman attributes the existence of genre distinctions in the first place to the modernists. Sometime between the publishing boom of the nineteenth century and World War II, novels had become commercial. Whether it was the mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle, the scientific romances of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, or the realist tomes of Arnold Bennett, novel-writing had become a business, with certain conventions and formulas to ensure sales. The modernists (Woolf, Eliot, etc.), according to Rothman, reacted against this new manufacturing approach to novels; “they created a different kind of literature: one centered on inwardness, privacy, and incommunicability.” Against the backdrop of mass culture and conventionalized genres, literary fiction was born.
Rothman’s is only one possible master narrative of modernism, of course. Another is that modernism arose out of the trauma of World War I—and the influenza pandemic that followed in its wake, killing more people than the combat itself did. If the nineteenth century promised ongoing progress—social, technological, medical—such hopes were defeated by the massive spectacle of apparently meaningless death in the new century. The war was testament that humans had not truly become more humane during the modernization of the previous century; the flu, meanwhile, reminded people that, as modern as they had become, they had not yet learned to control nature. Modernist writers, this story goes, had to grapple with both of these traumas, and old forms like the Victorian marriage plot or the pastoral poem seemed insufficient to the task.
Today, pandemic fears find voice in genre fiction, whether meta-genre fiction like Station Eleven, zombie fiction like The Walking Dead, or science fiction like Junot Diaz’s “Monstro.” But what if we read genre back onto the literary literature of the modernists? I think Elizabeth Outka’s new article in Modernism/modernity is gesturing toward such a project. In “‘Wood for the Coffins Ran Out’: Modernism and the Shadowed Afterlife of the Influenza Pandemic,” Outka argues that the 1918 flu pandemic “weaves itself into the fabric of modernism” in “subtle ways,” even when modernist authors don’t overtly discuss the flu. (Full disclosure: I’ve written about the Spanish flu in literature too, and Outka cites me, which is pretty cool!)
For Outka, the pandemic’s influence on modernism is most evident in representations of the corpse. In works by Katherine Anne Porter, Thomas Wolfe, Virginia Woolf, and T.S. Eliot, corpses and living bodies sometimes become indistinguishable, reflecting “the unsettling threshold world of the postwar/post-pandemic moment, when the border between death and life was strangely blurred and the dead seemed to walk with the living.” Think, for example, of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” and the speaker who asks, “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”
What Outka does not say directly in this article, but seems to be pointing toward, is that the deathly bodies and reanimated corpses of modernism prefigure the zombies that are so popular in today’s fiction. In some sense, Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is a zombie poem, and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is a supernatural story. The tropes of ghostliness and the living dead that haunt post-pandemic modernist fiction have, perhaps, evolved into the zombie tropes we know so well today. They help us represent the senselessness of disease, and its implacability even in the face of modern society and modern medicine.
From the Black Death to the 1918 flu to the Georgia Flu of Station Eleven: pandemics usher in modernity, haunt modernity, and may one day end modernity. Like a shadow, pandemics stalk modernity, appropriating its ships and planes and hospitals to spread disease. It’s woven into our history, from the European explorers who brought smallpox and typhoid to North America, to the rats of Shakespeare’s day, who traded microbes as the sailors traded goods, to the soldiers of World War I, whose travels helped spread the flu virus across the globe.
Today, as Elizabeth Kolbert suggests, climate change makes us susceptible to new outbreaks and new diseases. “Rising temperatures may already be contributing to the spread of some diseases, like chikungunya, a mosquito-borne virus that, not long ago, was confined to Africa and Asia,” she reports:
Which brings us back to giant gerbils. If the new PNAS study is correct, then millions in Europe died because the climate conditions were sometimes favorable for these rodents a quarter of the way around the world. The indirect nature of the connection makes it hard to foresee what warming will mean for human health, which—in case you needed it—is another thing to worry about.
For reasons new and old—global travel, a rapidly warming climate, the limitations of medicine, the social and political constraints on public health efforts, a lack of will to combat diseases (at least until they begin affecting the rich, powerful, and white)—pandemic disease remains an ever-present threat.
It’s hard to choose a metaphor for the relationship between pandemics and modernity. They go hand in hand, yet also seem locked into an arms race, each trying to end the other. In the stories that best express our pandemic fears, genre tropes and literariness go hand in hand too, romance and realism, fastened together to remind us of the simultaneous intractability and fragility of both civilization and nature.