“The prospect of being hanged,” said Dr. Johnson, “concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully.” Living in a time of pestilence similarly strips away everything but essentials.
Perhaps a remedy will soon be found, but for now, anyway, even the most naturally phlegmatic are being compelled to consider big questions behind the tedious practicalities.
"Self-examination can be healthy, especially if it helps us think of ways we can build better afterwards. But in the meantime, we dwell on dark history, and wonder if we can possibly match the courage and toughness of those who lived through the 1340s, 1640s, or 1940s."
For pandemics, like wars, bring out the real nature of things. They expose society’s superficiality and vulnerability when faced with inconveniences and shortages, let alone the possibility of lethal contamination by a disease we can’t see, and don’t understand. We are individuals armed with judgement and reason, but we are also herd animals, prone to magical thinking and stampeding. We can be wonderfully brave and generous—and appallingly cowardly and selfish. “Being ill is never agreeable” Albert Camus reflected in The Plague “but there are towns that stand by you, so to speak, when you are sick.” Will twenty-first century Britain, or America, stand by its sick?
Self-examination can be healthy, especially if it helps us think of ways we can build better afterwards. But in the meantime, we dwell on dark history, and wonder if we can possibly match the courage and toughness of those who lived through the 1340s, 1640s, or 1940s. We fret about families, and friends—beloved, unique individuals, but now also possible vectors.
We hear Thomas Tomkin’s Sad Pavan for These Distracted Times, and see in our imagination Dürer’s Four Horsemen—or Salvator Rosa’s Humana Fragilitas, painted in plague-smitten 1650s Naples, where a terrible winged skeleton offers a newborn a contract with death, acknowledging that human life is shadowed and short. We sit with Sir Thomas Browne as he meditates on the Roman cinerary urns he has unearthed in Norwich, and compares the last days of Roman Britain with the last days of Charles I. We soar above the English countryside with Eric Ravilious in the summer when it looked as though the Germans might come, and seem to see the South Downs in the clearest possible light, like the last rally of a dying patient.
We brood on the things we haven’t done, and may now never manage: the missed goals, the things we never even attempted, the places we’ve never been to, the books we never finished, the things we should, or shouldn’t, have said, the relationships we failed to develop or sustain.
But whatever happens over the next few months, however sad some news will be, however squalid some actions, there will also be moments of great brilliance. There will be stories of strangers caring for each other, victims winning against odds, social bonds holding under stress—under skies cleared briefly of planes and pollution, and birdsong resounding in the gardens of spring. And one day, after the winnowing, there will come a cure.
People are reading Daniel Defoe’s grim fiction A Journal of the Plague Year as a prophecy, but Gabriel García Marquez reminds us there can also be Love In the Time of Cholera, moments when “the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good,” moments which will help us endure, and in the end win through.