Archive for February, 2019

History vs Fiction

The comparison of Thucydides’ and Defoe’s accounts of the plague is reliant upon the type of literature that each one is created for. While one is seen as a fiction and another as an accurate description of the history of the plague, my opinion is that they are both more similar than they are different. I believe that both of these accounts are a fictional depiction of real life events, as they both tend to rely on history, as well as their own interpretation of what happened at the time, which to me is imagination. Whether it’s adding a few words to an existing historical fact, or creating a character that is suffering through the misery of being among the infected, both of these share the foundation of true events, with the addition of the writer’s own spin on the matter. My question is, what makes a human influenced writing piece different from a story? Aren’t they both dependent on the style of the writer to get the point across? How do we know that historical work over time has not been manipulated by the way that it has been written?

The Periwig Maker

Celebrated Stop Motion Short Film Inspired by Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year

“The Periwig-Maker”: A Cinematic Animated Film Featuring ...

The Periwig Maker is a short film directed by Steffen Schäffler that represents plague-ridden London in the 1700s. Produced by Ideal Standard film and released in 1999, it went on to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Animated Short Film category.

The 15-minute film chronicles the experiences of a wigmaker as he chooses to isolate himself from the diseased public spaces of his city by boarding himself at home. Through his window, he witnesses the death of his neighbour and the plight of her daughter as she is forcefully quarantined in their home in the days leading to her own demise. The wigmaker is then visited by the spirit of the young, bright red-haired girl, which prompts him to leave his home in search of her body. The film finishes with the man wearing a crimson red wig that he has fashioned from the stolen hair of the young girl’s still-warm corpse.

Schäffler short film is openly inspired by Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, and contributes a haunting gothic visual to the scenes described in the 18th century novel. Similarly to Defoe’s character of H.F., The Periwig Maker is singularly focused on the protagonist’s reflections on the plague. As narrators, they equally challenged by how best to protect themselves from the disease and question the reason for God condemnation.

The Periwig Maker is an excellent representation of a modern interpretation of Defoe’s historical novel and its success demonstrates how contagion narratives continue to be impactful to our reality.

Money Matters

Reading Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, I found it interesting to compare how Defoe and Boccaccio describe society differently, and even though it is noticeable that the texts are not only separated geographically (Defoe’s in London, Boccaccio’s in Florence) but temporally (by almost 400 years), there are some similarities and differences.

The general sense of a crisis is similar in both The Decameron and A Journal of the Plague Year, and the seeming vacuum of power and authority is present in both texts. However, this vacuum is portrayed differently in both texts, and the difference may be a sign of their times. Boccaccio is much more interested in moral and religious authority: people are either engaging in debauchery, trying to remain pious, some people have stopped going to church, those who do risk exposing themselves to the plague.

A Journal of the Plague Year seems more interested in how the presence of the plague affects all monetary relationships in the city. From the very beginning, we are shown how money and capitalism behave differently in a time of crisis. The first instance of this behaviour is in the protagonist, H. F., and his decision to stay in London. Though he explains it as “Intimations” from Heaven —supported by the sortes of the Bible— (15), a material reason for his decision to stay is that he has a business to run. H. F. says that “[he] had two important things before [him]; the one was the carrying on [his] Business and Shop […] and the other was the Preservation of [his] Life in so dismal a Calamity” (11). Apart from H. F.’s example, the book is interested in how money changes hands during the plague, taking a particular interest in the rise of quack doctors, bootleg medicines, and fortune tellers.

This profit in times of crisis reminds me of market reactions to recent hurricanes like Florence or Harvey, and how basic necessities like water and gasoline had their prices gouged to $20 USD for a gallon of gas, $8.50 for a bottle of water, or a 300% increase in the price of a hotel room. The market’s reaction to crisis cannot be humanitarian because crisis is an opportunity for profiting off the people who cannot afford to leave affected areas. And even though some economists are all for price gouging, it would seem that A Journal of the Plague Year has a problem with those who would make a profit out of people’s fears, as the text seems to condemn a particular “Quack-operator” who would “give Advice to the Poor for nothing” but then ask for their money to buy his fake medicine. A woman, tired of the Quack-operator, decided to “[tell] her Tale to all the People that came, till the Doctor finding she turn’d away his Customers” called her and gave her a box of the medicine “for nothing, which, perhaps too was good for nothing when she had it” (30-31, author’s emphasis). There is something, then, to be found in A Journal when looked at not only as a depiction of life and society in a crisis as big as the plague, but also as a description of capitalism’s behaviour and response to human crisis.

In the Eyes of Contemporaries: Documentation

Anne Frank’s diary documentation of living through World War II
Daniel Defoe’s title page of his novel

We mentioned today about what it means for Defoe’s piece of writing to be considered a journal, in all that it has encapsulated for us in terms of illustrating the events of the plague outbreak in London in 1665. A journal may be considered a medium of documentation of news and events in a personal nature: a diary, almost. To better explain how a journal may be perceived as a better medium for such writing of Defoe’s for the time of the outbreak, let’s take famous Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. It is a book of the regular writings of a young girl, Anne Frank, while she was in hiding with her family for two years during World War II in the Netherlands. The diary was received positively by many, it created a lost and unknown narrative into what it felt like to be in place during World War II. Her diary was a point of reference to many victims and casualties that had been targeted and died during the war, especially to those who survived till the end. Her journal created a voice to those who didn’t have it within themselves to explain or elaborate on such experiences, it created a voice for the dead; it was, you could say, crucial for their experiences to be known. Without the writings of this once 12 year-old girl, we wouldn’t have known exactly how one person, even if just a young girl, had felt during that exact time and moment of World War II. Putting this into Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, even while it is a piece of fiction factly present in the back of our minds, it is interesting to read this piece after all the background knowledge we have accumulated about contagion and contagion theory, and how people have responded to these kinds of outbreaks. Even while it is unreal and not presented by an actual eye witness of the time, we can feel, or at least imagine, how the people of London went through their lives during this devastating period in 1665. As people living through the 21st century, we cannot and will not be able to say we fully know what it felt like to be in their situation, in the situation of those who were suddenly subjected to such a tragedy that seems almost surreal for our own selves. Therefore, the fact that Defoe used such a structure of a journal and diary almost, creates the sudden change of perspective that we are able to directly see and live through a citizen’s eyes experiencing that specific time, even while we know the information being presented to us is fictional.

Public Crisis in the Modern Sense

One thing that stood out to me while reading the frame story of Decameron the backdrop of societal disintegration as well as public apathy to the sick and the dead that came along with the plague. As people abandoned their families, neglected corpses lying on the streets and fled the city or locked themselves up, Boccaccio made it clear that self-preservation ruled over collectivism in that era. And it seems to me that to live through the plague and accept the indifference, selfishness and indulgence of man kind revealed in such disasters, was equally, if not more, torturous than enduring the physical pain and dying of the disease. Using the words from Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year: “A plague is always a moral as well as biological crisis for a community. It allows no individuals; it makes all people a community and emphasizes human relationships.” (Preface)

Indeed, it seems that all artistic works involving catastrophic events end up portraying the people’s retreat to animal instincts and struggles with upholding moral principles, in front of uncontrollable disasters. It was then interesting when I ran across How to Survive a Disaster, which argued that during catastrophes, “groups of people are more likely to help each other than hinder.” Using examples such as the sinking of the cruise ship Oceanos off South Africa in 1991, the  suicide bombings on London’s transport system on 7 July 2005 and the 2001 Ghana football stadium crush, the article showed that in each incident, collective solidarity and group cooperation prevailed over selfishness. Admittedly, these incidents differ from the plague in Decameron in ways such as they were not disease outbreaks and probably more appropriately classified as unfortunate emergencies. However, I cannot ignore the common themes of imminent, indiscriminate death, lack of hope and effective solutions, and the recourse to human instincts, shared by these settings. Additionally, while absent of deadly germs, fear and anxiety are arguably more contagious and lethal, possibly leading to riots and group destructions under these scenarios. Without an apparent leader or authoritative figure, I wonder what underlying forces helped rein in them? What kept people together in these scenarios and alienated them in others? And as modern medicine and public health advance, we are arguably less likely to be exposed to such unchecked, raging plagues depicted in Decameron. Managing public expectations and stabilizing public emotions become more important and remain a relevant question that governors and public administrators grapple with.

Everyman – A morality play

While reading Boccaccio’s Decameron, I was reminded of a play I studied in my Foundations of Literature I class last semester. Boccaccio’s introduction stated “in the face of so much affliction and misery all respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken down and been extinguished in our city”, emphasising on the power of the plague to give every man the freedom to “behave as he pleased” (page 7-8).

It was upon reading this paragraph that I observed parallelism between a morality play, Everyman, and Boccaccio’s Decameron. One of the most interesting characters in the play is the dramatic character of Death, who utterly shocks Everyman as he is enjoying his freedom and thrusts him into a carousel of reflection and apprehension. The play elucidates the indiscriminate nature of death and how death will always catch you unaware and unprepared. In this way, the play resonates with Decameron where Boccaccio sheds light on the temporary, indefinite nature of life itself, and how many tend to be blinded by materials and worldly treasures only to have death grip them when they are in the midst of living luxuriously.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching and reading the play (Norton Drama page 294-319; copies available online) and would definitely recommend it to everyone.

Link to one performance of the play attached below:

Some topics to consider in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year

“Bring Out Your Dead.” A street during the Great Plague in London, 1665, with a death cart and mourners, by Edmund Evans, c. 1864. The Wellcome Library, London.
(From The Zombie Apocalypse of Daniel Defoe)

For the last few weeks, we have been reading plays, articles, novellas, historical accounts about the plague. All of them are either factual or fictional. However, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is an interesting merger of fact and fiction. Although the book is presented as a personal experience of the plague in London, accompanied by statistics and research, it is categorized as a novel because it includes a great deal of hearsay and urban myths. Therefore, it is important to identify ways in which Defoe made this work of fiction become so real. In other words, how did Defoe achieve “verisimilitude” (the appearance of being true or real)?

Then, what could be Defoe’s intention to write in that manner? Was he trying to make a historical account more gripping by including urban myths? Or was he trying to make fiction seem more relatable by supporting it with statistics? To this second question, it might be helpful to consider the argument made by Nicholas Seager in the article “Lies, Damned Lies, And Statistics: Epistemology And Fiction In Defoe’s A Journal Of The Plague Year”: “Defoe moves away from a literal and absolute version of truth towards a fictional and representative one. Improbability is irrelevant, because the story tells a greater truth, signifying beyond its particulars: it is indicative, representative of the actual experience of plague.” (650).

Moreover, a large part of the novel was devoted to the irreligious practices that went on during the plague. Defoe alludes to people seeing fortune tellers and consulting with astrologers to see what fate there was for them in the stars. They did this in order to have some insight into their fate and whether they would contract the plague. These practices show that people of the time were straying away from the Christian values and traditions that involved God into the spread and fatality of the plague. Therefore, the outlet that people chose to take, such as seeking out the future, supports Boccaccio’s statement in The Decameron that, due to the chaos the Plague brought upon the people, traditional customs were evolving to suit the desperate needs of the people infected and the people around them. So, this draws attention to the fact of how much power the plague had in the disturbance it caused to draw people from one supernatural causal point, such as God, to others in search from their own comfort. Did this do any good? Did it actually bring calm to the people or give people false hope with the ‘Quack’ doctors and fortune tellers?

Another point to note when discussing the Journal of the Plague Year is the recurring motif of human suffering in the face of the tragedy. This is important because it thematically links our previous readings together, most notably Sophocles’ Oedipus, Boccaccio’s Decameron and Stearns’ “New Directions in the Study of Religious Responses to the Black Death.” Defoe’s novel adds another perspective to our knowledge of human suffering in a plague in terms of the psychological impact of the plague. For example, he mentioned people wanting to bury themselves in burial grounds because of their loss of family members: “There was a Strict Order to prevent People coming to those Pits, and that was the only way to prevent Infection: But after some Time, that Order was more necessary, for People that were Infected, and near their End, and delirious also, would run to those Pits wrapt in Blankets, or Rugs, and throw themselves in, and as they said, bury themselves” (53).

The novel also raises the question of theodicy. For example, why does a good, omnipotent God allow the suffering of its people? Why do disease and death exist? To what extent can the plague be understood as a test of faith? Or is it punishment?

In summary, some topics that are worth looking into are the genre of the book, human suffering, the psychological impact, irreligious practices, and theodicy.

Immunity (As Boccaccio Describes It)

Today’s class discussion on The Decameron touched on a range of topics including fate, fortune, religion, and social hierarchy. However, one topic that could potentially diversify the conversation is that of “immunity.”

As discussed last class, immunity can take on several different forms, and The Decameron proposes an entirely new, and rather contemporary view on the subject matter. Pampinea’s idea to escape to the countryside was an attempt to be rid of the plague and all of its collateral damage, but it was also a mechanism for immunity. After their arrival to the estate, and their role distribution, Pampinea insists that her servants are not to bring “tidings of the world outside these walls unless they are tidings of happiness” (Boccaccio, 21). In the subsequent quote, it is evident that being physically far from the plague is not enough to be immune to it. In broader terms, the effects of the plague are more far-reaching than illness, they bring a type of misery to the body that can consume one’s thoughts, and that too can be all-consuming. Therefore, the idea of immunity in the first introductory story of The Decameron is one that encompasses thoughts, and not just physicality. Furthermore, this illusion of immunity seems to completely isolate sick thoughts, people and behavior from ideas, people, and behavior that is well.

Nevertheless, If the sick are victim to their bodily troubles, then the well are burdened by their guilt and fear-often perpetuated by their immediate surroundings. There is no option for an external force of immunization, but rather the conscious decision to be immune by separation and choice. Such a realization begs to ask certain questions about our modern understanding of immunity. What does it mean to be fully immune? On a more meta level; if one practices positive thoughts, actions, and is separated from extraneous circumstances, can they truly be “sick”?

In this regard, Boccaccio’s description of the plague is far from mystical, yet his remedy for it is quite far-fetched. Hope this expands the conversation we had in class today and poses a new lens for future readings. Thanks!

Reflecting on Decameron by Boccaccio

Miniature by Pierart dou Tielt illustrating the Tractatus quartus bu Gilles li Muisit (Tournai, c. 1353)

While the context of the Decameron is rather macabre, its story is rather uplifting and it revolves around the brigata made up of ten storytellers, predominantly women. We would like to bring to your attention the framing of this story: the contrast between the morbid plague and the peaceful garden, which brings to mind the question whether this was a form of escape or therapy for the brigata? The brigata secluded themselves in an almost utopian garden and embarked on several techniques to prevent bad humors from entering their body.

More importantly, we would like to ask what is the role of storytelling in Decameron? This question potentially links back to our last reading where Harrison argues that “the more important question, perhaps, is how these epidemics were understood by contemporaries” (58). Perhaps then the narrative framework provides us with a depiction of the public opinion at the time, which could really enhance our understanding of the plague as Harrison suggests.

Additionally, in class, we have discussed that at the time, many people believed that the plague was a form of punishment by God and hence appealed to religion to try to stop the plague. In the introduction to Decameron, the narrator mentions that “in the Face of so much affliction and misery, all respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken” (7). And we also learn that people abandoned their friends, neighbors or even refused to help their own children. In this setting where people died like animals, was the brigata spiritually blind? To answer this question we may want to consider the numerology and the belief system that the brigata agreed upon.

Building on the theme of religion, Decameron employs several themes, the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth) being some of which stand out. With a setting that is infested with disease and death, many have resorted to indulging in their urges and succumbing to worldly pleasures, almost as a way to avoid reality. It seems as though people have disregarded their religious beliefs and are unaware of the consequences of their actions in the afterlife.

Conversely, what would one make of the fact that the plague interrupted people’s religious rituals? Describing the decline in communal/familial burial rituals, the narrator says, “But as the ferocity of the plague began to mount, this practice all but disappeared entirely and was replaced by different customs” (10) (see header image in which people are buried in large numbers due to the amount of deaths). This example is one of many that illustrates the plague’s intrusion into people’s rituals. When people are robbed even of their rituals, are they to blame for abandoning everyone and everything and seeking happiness?

As we’ve seen in the various issues raised above, relevant themes to be raised include reality vs. escape, storytelling, religion, rituals, and spirituality, all of which link, somehow, to the socio-psychological effects of the plague on the people at the time.

A plague

In a convener’s post for Oedipus the King I wrote for Contagion 2012, way back during the first iteration of this course, I mentioned a strain of recent scholarship on Sophocles’ play that takes the plague setting seriously:

After all, the assumption on scholars’ parts has long been that Sophocles introduced an epidemic as the setting for his version of the Oedipus myth because Athens had so recently suffered from plague (as recounted in the brief excerpt you’ve read from Thucydides). With mass deaths so fresh on their minds, these critics ask, wouldn’t Sophocles and his audience have understood the plague to be an actual fact of life rather than a literary symbol? If this set of questions interests you, I’d point you in the direction of this recent book by Robin Mitchell-Boyask, a classicist at Temple University in Philadelphia. You might also want to check out an even more recent article, written by a team at the University of Athens Medical School. It appeared this year in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the Center for Disease Control in the United States, and “adopt[s] a critical approach to Oedipus Rex in analyzing the literary description of the disease, unraveling its clinical features” to conclude that “this epidemic was an actual event, possibly caused by Brucella abortus.”

My assumption, in that post, is that we’d be approaching the plague in Sophocles’s novel as either intended to represent medical situations Sophocles’s original audience would have recognized, or that the plague was being used metaphorically, for something sick about the community — or its leader. As I noted in that original post, we read this play at the start of this course not just to recognize how long the plague-as-metaphor idea has been around, but also to question whether the literal and figurative registers are as separate or opposed as we commonly take them. From your reading of the play, do you see compelling reasons to side one way or another on the issue? What would it mean to decide that “this epidemic was an actual event”? Does the plague become more or less powerful in the play’s world? And how might this set of questions force us to continue thinking even more carefully about the relationship between sickness or medicine and the language we use to describe it (and anything else)?

As may be apparent by the juxtaposition on the syllabus of Sophocles’ play against Thucydides’ description of the Plague of Athens, we’ll be talking over the next little while about the significance of genre here. Sophocles is writing a play; Thucydides is writing a history. How does the plague figure into each? How does each author represent it? And how might each work help us consider the question of whether it’s possible to write about disease in language that doesn’t trade in metaphor of some sort.