Category: Medicine

Checking in: plague and social contract

I had hoped to share a quote this morning from a book I read when I first began plotting the syllabus for this course: Barbara Fass Leavy’s To Blight with Plague. Here she contrasts Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider and Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year on the subject of social contract. I think this discussion is useful also as we turn the corner to our consideration of Camus. Leavy writes:

In theory, the [social] contract is an antithesis to chaos and a reference point for civic duty, which is itself a possible antidote to a person’s alienating fear of others in the world. In times of plague … the tensions in the social contract emerge to disclose the separateness of human beings, fear of contagion … literalizing an essential antipathy toward others, or, at best, a drive toward self-preservation that under stress alienates even well-meaning individuals. But whereas works such as Defoe’s Journal affirm the viability of the social contract, Pale Horse, Pale Rider looks at it from the opposite point of view. The collective itself becomes a macroparasite against which the individual needs protection.

How and where can we see these issues playing out in Porter’s novella? And what do you make of the macroparasite analogy?

A Plague at Thebes

In a convener’s post for Oedipus the King I wrote for Contagion 2012, 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.”

As I noted in that post, part of the reason we read this play at the beginning of this course is to consider just how long the question of plague as metaphor has been around, but also to ask whether the literal and figurative registers are as separate or opposed as we commonly take them. Do you see compelling reasons to side one way or another on the issue? Are both views valid? And how might this set of questions force us to think even more carefully about the relationship between sickness or medicine and language in general?

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 further the question we raised during our initial discussion: whether it’s possible to write about disease in language that doesn’t trade in metaphor of some sort.

Image above taken from The Most Favoured by the Gods, a comics adaptation of Oedipus the King by Christopher Brawn.

The hepatitis song

I haven’t been able to track down video for the hepatitis PSA that played on Phoenix TV stations in the 1970s. But I did find a couple cover versions, both of which include the full verse. (I only sang the chorus this morning.)

Behold the powers of music as an educational tool:

And here’s this lovely family, including “baby” and everything:

Enjoy your winter break. It’s been a pleasure surviving the semester with all of you.

Poetry and Delirium

I felt there was a neat connection between some of the poems found here and the Second Part to Arthur Mervyn, (shades of Arthur Mervyn and his being shot)

“Doctors raving and disputing, death’s pale army still recruiting–

What a pother

One with t’other!

Some a-writing, some a-shooting.”

– Philip Freneau Philadelphia, 1793

however what is more revealing are the discrepancies between Arthur Mervyn and some of these works that illustrate a more intense scene of chaos and despair than in Arthur Mervyn where often plague takes a back seat to character conflict.

Hot, dry winds forever blowing,

Dead men to the grave-yards going:

Constant hearses,

Funeral verses;

Oh! what plagues—there is no knowing!

– Philip Freneau Philadelphia, 1793

Also, with an eye to the medical aspect of the plague and the passage where Arthur journeys to Baltimore, it is interesting to note the actual symptoms of yellow fever which include “brain dysfunction, including delirium, seizures and coma” but also that there are two distinct stages of the disease in between which there is a brief respite where all the symptoms all but disappear, a bizarre ‘eye of the storm’, if you like.


Black(s) Coffee

Here is a link to Historical Views on Contagion… in this case, Yellow Fever in Philadelphia.

It outlines some of the beliefs surrounding the disease at the time, for example Benjamin Rush thought that the origin of the disease was a pile of rotting coffee beans and that Blacks were immune to yellow fever… neither of these are true.


These breathed Death in every Place

As he pushes toward the conclusion of his narrative, H.F. reiterates his view that the plague is caused by personal contact with the infected:

Here also I ought to leave a further remark for the use of posterity, concerning the manner of people’s infecting one another; namely, that it was not the sick people only from whom the plague was immediately received by others that were sound, but the well. To explain myself: by the sick people I mean those who were known to be sick, had taken their beds, had been under cure, or had swellings and tumours upon them, and the like; these everybody could beware of; they were either in their beds or in such condition as could not be concealed.

By the well I mean such as had received the contagion, and had it really upon them, and in their blood, yet did not show the consequences of it in their countenances: nay, even were not sensible of it themselves, as many were not for several days. These breathed death in every place, and upon everybody who came near them; nay, their very clothes retained the infection, their hands would infect the things they touched, especially if they were warm and sweaty, and they were generally apt to sweat too. (150-51)

It’s worth noting that Defoe’s narrator is taking a hard medical line here, as he has elsewhere (see also 64 and 85, for instance), as a contagionist. That is, even though he often describes the plague as beyond human understanding, he’s pretty sure he knows how it’s being transmitted, and he doesn’t think it’s just somehow magically floating in the air (see 152). He’s rejecting an alternate theory to the person-to-person contagion model, that people contract the fever from polluted air, not from direct contact with the infected. Nor does he think the plague is simply an act of God without natural means attached, though he comes close to taking that position, also in the conclusion (191).

Among the other things this novel does, then, is make a medical argument about the origins and transmission of the plague. The literary critic Barbara Fass Leavy, whose 1992 book To Blight with Plague has been useful to me as I’ve prepared to teach this course, suggests that both theories — the contagionist view and the miasmatic view — are “morally charged. Miasma has to do with a world of widespread material corruption, and as such is easily translatable into a metaphor for the antithesis of civic virtue, which assumes the possibility for society to be organized for the well-being of its citizens.” Leavy argues further that “The idea of direct contagion serves [Defoe’s] purposes better than miasma” because it presents a more dramatic situation for his narrator, who believes contact with the sick is what spreads the disease, yet chooses to remain in the infected city. Thus his dilemma isn’t simply avoiding polluted urban areas, but having to negotiate contact with fellow human beings who may or may not be carrying seeds of infection in their very breath. And he has to do so without seeming to advocate what he calls “a Turkish predestinarianism.”

How do you understand the connection between H.F.’s beliefs and his actions, as he recounts them, in the face of the plague? And how might this question be related to this book’s place in the history of the novel as a genre? We’ll take up these questions on Tuesday.

P.S. Of course both the contagionist and the miasmatic positions were wrong. Bubonic plague was transmitted by fleas like the one pictured above.

7-Year-Old Colorado Girl Contracts “Black Death” Bubonic Plague

From yesterday:

(CBS/AP) DENVER – A 7-year-old girl is recovering in a Colorado hospital after being diagnosed with the Black Death, scientifically known as the bubonic plague.

The parents of 7-year-old Sierra Jane Downing thought she had the flu when she felt sick days after camping in southwest Colorado.

When she had a seizure, her father rushed her to the local hospital in Pagosa Springs. The emergency room doctor who saw Sierra Jane for the seizure and a 107-degree fever late Aug. 24 wasn’t sure what was wrong either, and called other hospitals before the girl was flown to Denver.

A pediatric doctor racing to save the girl’s life at Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children got the first inkling that she had bubonic plague. Dr. Jennifer Snow first suspected the rare disease after factoring in the girl’s symptoms, a history of where she’d been and an online journal’s article on a teen with similar symptoms.

“If she had stayed home, she could’ve easily died within 24 to 48 hours from the shock of infection,” Snow said.

Therapeutic reading

In addition to continuing with our discussion of Sophocles today we’ll likely turn the corner to a consideration of the frame narrative and First Day of Boccaccio’s Decameron: a quick leap over a thousand-plus years in time.

What remains consistent between or at least similar in the plague frameworks for these works? That’s one question we’ll ask. But I’m struck by generic differences as well, especially the shift from theater to novella. The Decameron is about storytelling, and the effects of storytelling, to be sure, but it’s also about reading stories about storytelling. Note that Boccaccio directly addresses a female reading public at the outset. This invocation — and the predominance of female characters — will give us a good inroad to discuss the role of gender and gendered bodies in the selections you’ve read.

A couple quick resources that may be useful to you: The best Boccaccio site I know of is the Decameron Web, a long-standing project of Brown University’s Italian Studies Department and Virtual Humanities Lab. In particular, pages devoted to the plague and to various literary contexts, medieval to postmodern, should be relevant to our discussions. Note the page devoted specifically to the narrative frame, which will take up much of our brief consideration of this work.

That material can be glossed quickly at your leisure. If you’d like a more specific and intensive engagement with recent criticism on The Decameron, you might want to look at recent special “Italian Issues” of the literary journal MLN. (You can view these search results from a secure NYU connection; almost all of the Italian issues have something re: Boccaccio.) Of special interest to us: Irene Albers, of the Freie Universität Berlin, writes about the specifically medical relationship between storytelling and the body in Boccaccio’s text. A few key excerpts should suggest why this would be an important topic for our consideration. She starts by focusing on two familiar approaches to the frame narrative: parallels between plague and other disorders (here, specifically, lovesickness), and the narrator’s claim that by beginning with the descriptions of plague, the pleasures brought by the hundred stories to follow will be heightened by contrast:

The analogy between Plague and lovesickness is also based on the fact that the emotions in Boccaccio’s work, according to premodern theories of emotion, are external instances and entities which “overcome” and “seize” the subject. They are not the result of “elezione,” but of the “appetito,” which does not obey the will.31 This is reflected by the use of common metaphors from the realm of nature, like the fire metaphors that often appear in passive constructions: “essendo acceso stato d’altissimo e nobile amore” (3); “in fiero furore accesa” (189); “dello amor di lui mi s’accese un fuoco nell’anima” (893); “di subita ira acceso.”32 In other cases, the passivity of the subjects is shown by verbs like “venire” and “cadere”: “ed andando gli venne un pensier molto pauroso nell’animo”; “cadde in un crudel pensiero” (165). The analogy between lovesickness and plague corresponds to the doubling of the frame: if the narrator in the “Proemio” offers his book to the women as a medicine for lovesickness and “malinconia,”33 the [End Page 34] “therapeutic fiction”34 of the frame means that the storytelling can offer protection from the Plague. Accordingly, one cannot understand the novellas as mere diversion from the catastrophe of the disease.

The final sentences there deserve our consideration in class this week: If we’re asking what purposes the plague frameworks serve, we have to ask whether storytelling here is merely a form of diversion from the plague’s devastation or if something bigger is at work. Albers argues that the characters themselves understand storytelling to have physiological, and potentially curative, effects on their bodies:

It is not in the novellas alone that characters react bodily and emotionally to what they see and hear. Such situations are also formed in the frame narrative, in the commentary following the individual novellas, in which the reactions of the brigata are conspicuously portrayed as bodily. This first occurs among the narrators: in the introduction to the tenth novella of the first day, Pampinea says that when a person wants to use storytelling to cause others to blush, he often ends up blushing himself.83 The same applies when one tells of others’ tears, “raccontar l’altrui lagrime” (354), the words with which Fiammetta announces the Ghismonda novella. The narrator of a novella also becomes moved himself—in rhetoric, this is a well-known requisite for the successful transfer of emotion to the audience.84 The occurrence of such a transfer is demonstrated by the many references to the audience’s blushing (63, 247, 560), sighing (392, 185), crying (159, 366, 763), “compassione” (159, 392, 418, 738), and above all, their at times uncontrollable and boisterous laughter (48, 71, 100, 142, 185, 479, 556, 575, 593, 644, 674, 681, 702, 710, 763, 802, 817, 842, 843). Often, multiple reactions occur simultaneously. After the Masetto novella (III.1) some of the women blush while the others laugh: “Essendo la [End Page 50] fine venuta della novella di Filostrato, della quale erano alcuna volta un poco le donne arrossate e alcuna altra se n’avean riso, piacque alla reina che Pampinea novellando seguisse” (247). Or the women blush first, only to break into laughter: “La novella da Dioneo raccontata prima con un poco di vergogna punse i cuori delle donne ascoltanti e con onesto rossore nel loro viso apparito ne diede segno; e poi quella, l’una l’altra guardando, appena del rider potendosi abstenere, soghignando ascoltarono” (63, cf. 560). The narrator of the Decameron apparently finds it important that speaking about passion and hearing novellas have direct bodily effects, causing, according to the medical assumptions of the epoch, either the expansion (in laughter) or the contraction (in weeping or sighing) of the heart. The humors are set into a motion that “cleans” the subject, or frees him from harmful emotions and humors.85

Is The Decameron holding up an early model for a talking cure? Let’s spend more time today and Thursday talking about the bodies in and the implied audiences for this week’s texts.