A Pandemic’s Effect on the Mind and Heart

Have you heard of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic? It killed more people than the first World War did, yet it is not widely remembered. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter is one of the few literary records of a traumatic event that killed between 20 million and 40 million people. This is Porter’s most autobiographical work as she nearly died of the plague herself when she was working for the Rocky Mountain Newspaper. According to a 1936 interview with Porter, 18 years had passed before she set down to write this fictional novella. This suggests she may have tried to forget the pandemic and was unable to repress her memories of it. Perhaps the act of writing this novella was her way of coming to terms with her personal experience of surviving the influenza pandemic of 1918, and suggesting that events like this should be remembered. In the 1936 interview, she recalls her experience as identity-shattering.

 “It simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, really. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I was really “alienated,” in the pure sense. It was, I think, the fact that I really had participated in death, that I knew what death was, and had almost experienced it. I had what the Christians call the “beatific vision,” and the Greeks called the “happy day,” the happy vision just before death. Now if you have had that, and survived it, come back from it, you are no longer like other people, and there’s no use deceiving yourself that you are. (“Interview” 85)”The Forgotten Apocalypse

Surviving a plague or a war is a life-changing event for an individual survivor and a community. Porter draws upon her own personal experience of alienation and disorientation after a plague when she describes Miranda’s painful and bitter recovery. It raises the question of what survives in a survivor after a plague? Or after a war? Even after the pandemic and the war (suggested by Miranda to be the root cause of her illness) are over, Miranda remains traumatized and is haunted by the ghost of Adam. Pandemic and war have irrevocably disrupted her sense of place, identity, time and the world. What kind of trauma, beyond physical, does a pandemic and war generate? Miranda, at one point suggests that the emotional and psychological trauma is much worse than the physical. “It’s what war does to the mind and the heart, Adam, and you can’t separate these two – what it does to them is worse than what it can do to the body” (177). Since the body cannot be separated from the mind, and vice versa, where do we draw the line between physical and psychological impacts of war?  How do survivors and a community remember this trauma and live with it? Perhaps this reflects Porter’s decision to tell the story from alternating third person and first person perspectives in a nonlinear and chaotic narrative. War and disease are so chaotic and disorienting they have disrupted the narration. It isn’t until the end of the novella that we realize Miranda has been dreaming the whole time.

Was Miranda ever really awake until the end of the story, when she is no longer sick and the war has ended?  What does it mean for Miranda to be awake or feel alive? When she ‘wakes’ up, she feels numb and like a zombie of herself, a ghost haunted by her past. In the final moments of her fevered dream, she achieved a sense of tranquility and enlightenment. She felt more alive close to death than she does when she wakes up. This irony reminded us of a scene in the animated film Corpse Bride, when the main character enters the underworld and finds that it is far more enchanting and lively than the living world.

Miranda has changed. She is haunted by the ghost of Adam who was “a ghost but more alive than she was, the last intolerable cheat of her heart..” (208). She still feels tied to the memory of the dead. Is she obligated to honor and remember Adam? Her post-traumatic identity is now cynical of more than just the “silly” and “filthy” war; she is now incredulous about being alive in general. At the end of the novella, it is only her memory of the past and the dead that remains after the war and the plague have ended. Is there any way for Miranda to preserve her former self through her memories as a survivor? What are the responsibilities of a survivor towards the dead?

-Sara, Shaikha, and Mira

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