“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality
Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see …”
And see there is a deadly plague in town.
Feasts, songs, staycations at Italian villas, stories, Netflix, and even pornography*. These are all things people have used to escape from the reality of a pandemic – the first two in Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, the second two in Boccacio’s Decameron, and the last two in our world during Covid-19. These things divert people’s attention and help them catch a breath amid the overwhelming pandemic that’s in every nook and cranny of their lives.
The theme of escapism is especially prominent in Pushkin’s play A Feast During the Plague. The play begins with the chairman Mr. Walsingham urging everyone to celebrate the living instead of grieving for the dead. Together, they feast, toast to their dead friend, and sing songs describing the plague in action. It’s not that they are unaware of the deadliness of the plague. As we can see (or hear) from Mary’s song, they are aware that “the dead are carried out / To burials that never cease, / The living pray in fear and trembling.” Also, unlike the young men and women in Decameron who are almost unaffected by the plague and go on their trip to the villa as if it’s a spring outing, the people at Pushkin’s feasting table have suffered personal losses to various extents: they lost their friend Jackson; Mr. Walsingham lost his wife and his mother; Mary seems to have lost her parents, …
All these pitiful people gather at the feasting table for an escape from the horrid reality of the plague and the grave consequences that have befallen them, as Mr. Walsingham tells us: “I am bound here / By despair, by terrible remembrance, by the knowledge of my lawlessness, and by horror of that dead emptiness which greets me now in my own house.” Notice the word “bound.” He seems to suggest that he is not feasting by choice but rather compelled to be there because there is nothing else he can do without directly confronting the tragedy in his house.
Reading about their gathering, we wonder if they are afraid of contracting the plague themselves. One answer to this question is that they are afraid of the contagion, but they have moved beyond the state of fear to a state of irrationality. This reminds us of the Covid-19 parties in Alabama when organizers purposefully invited guests that have tested positive. Granted, our feasters in the play may be slightly more rational (and perhaps more intelligent) than these party-goers in Alabama. But a similar form of irrational escapism is found in both: when there’s too much plague-ness in their life, people do irrational things like these under the slogan “youth loves gaiety” to shun the scary or saddening thoughts they are tired of having.
Coupled with irrationality, there’s also a sense of fatalism in their escape from reality. In Mr. Walsingham’s song, he sings “All, all that threatens to destroy / Fills mortal hearts with secret joy / Beyond our power to explain – / Perhaps it bodes eternal life! And blest is he who can attain / That ecstasy in storm and strife!” It almost seems like he desires to contract the plague and die, but at the same time he is calling the plague “a queen of dread” (We will come back to this personification later).
With all of these said about escapism, we would like to invite you to think about the following questions:
Should we attempt to escape from reality when it’s too much for us to handle? If so, for how long? The duration of a feast? Or perhaps a few weeks of staying at Boccacio’s Italian villa?
Aside from the theme of escapism, we would also like to bring your attention to a few other questions that intrigued us:
First, how does each character depict and react to the plague? Does how we think of and react to the plague have any consequences?
The dialogues in this play, especially Mary’s and Mr. Walsingham’s songs, are filled with imagery, analogy, and personification of the plague that reflected people’s reactions to the plague.
One interesting point is how Mr. Walsingham personifies the plague to be “the queen of dread.” This use of female personification to describe something as horrible as the plague is very different from how we tend to use female personification today: we mainly use female personification to describe things that are beautiful or bountiful, such as the earth. Related to this use of personification, is the overall contrast between males and females in this play. Men, such as the chairman, have leadership positions and the song they sing are “bold and lively;” on the other hand, women are quarreling or having fainting fits, and the song they sing is “sad and haunting.”
A variety of responses to the plague are displayed in this play. Mary’s song is a melancholic reminiscence of the past in the face of the vivid cruelty of the present. Louisa’s personification of the plague as the “hideous demon, black all over, with white eyes” shows her fear of death during the feast. In striking contrast, the chairman’s song is a declaration of war against their enemy, the plague, that confronts and celebrates death (A great conveners’ post from last year’s class that also touches upon this analogy to war can be found here.). These descriptions, although different, all evoke powerful emotions that repeatedly shift the mood of the feast. The chairman’s speech at the end even prompted the crowd to drive out the priest because of his attempt to dismiss the feast.
The spread of emotional responses to the plague is also present in A Journal of the Plague Year by Defoe. The city of London was filled with fear, panic, and hysteria. People are in no way capable of controlling their emotions and responses in these situations, but stabilizing public reaction plays a crucial factor in minimizing the damage of a pandemic. What’s worse in today’s society is that the usage of social media in our daily life polarizes the information we receive about the pandemic, even more so during quarantine when the internet is our only source of news, and this adds a further challenge (or opportunity?) to controlling public reaction during pandemics.
So how should we treat and respond to detrimental shocks like the plague? Is there a proper timeline or principle to moderate this shock to prevent mass hysteria and misinformation? A Feast During the Plague, especially through the emotional conflicts of the chairman and the priest, raises questions of much weight do our words, with the use of literary devices, truly hold in affecting the public?
(Interesting side note: today, climate activists treat climate change as “the war of humankind”. The idea of fighting against a phenomenon parallels the chairman’s speech in the reading. Would you say it is an effective way of appealing to emotions and motivating people with a sense of urgency? Or is it creating an opposite effect?)
Second, is it really morally shameful to pursue selfish personal enjoyment during a pandemic, or can it be justified as a redemption of the human spirit in the face of darkness?
Contagious diseases like Covid and the plague create a challenging dilemma for all of us, humans, to reevaluate our relationships with each other. Humans are like hedgehogs, it is inescapable that we stay together for warmth, but if we are too close, too connected, we hurt each other. We are all involved in a community, but we also survive as individuals. Pandemics pose a challenge for us to reconstruct the interdependent relationship between ourselves and our community. Our safety and happiness can no longer be obtained in a group setting, what should we do?
In both A Journal of the Plague Year and A Feast During the Plague, society very quickly created a new moral construct to regulate people’s actions in order to maintain the fulfillment of a common goal – combating the plague. People are then bound – morally and sometimes legally – by this new social construct. Even nowadays on our campus, we shame those who host parties and prioritize their personal enjoyment over our community’s safety. These new moral constructs ask us to downplay our personal interests, quarantine, struggle with mental health, and be responsible for the interest of a larger community. But to what extent can we sacrifice ourselves? Moreover, How do we balance our personal interest with heroism and responsibility to the world? A Feast During the Plague presents us with this challenge through the conflict between Mr. Walsingham and the priest. Is it really shameful, like the priest says, to pursue selfish personal enjoyment during a pandemic, or is it justified during the days of darkness?
With that, we leave you here. Hope you enjoyed Pushkin’s play and our blog post.
– Amna, Chi-Ting, Sophia, Vivi
*See here for an interesting study done on pornography consumption during Covid-19.
Thank you for a truly insightful post! I enjoyed how you introduced the topic with a song (and the cute metaphors you have inserted in between the lines 🦔).
In an attempt to answer the questions you presented, I would say that personal health should definitely be prioritized. However, I would also have to argue that the pursuits of personal health should not compromise the wellbeing of the community. This scenario reminds me of tragedy of the commons theory, in which everyone has access to a desirable resource. When everyone is motivated to maximize their happiness, it will result in the depletion of the resource. Similarly, in the context of a pandemic, when everyone acts in their self-interests, the virus becomes widespread and extremely difficult to contain. Thus, while it is important and arguably necessary to defend your personal enjoyment, I would say your actions should not impose a cost on the overall wellbeing of the society. That being said, it is still extremely difficult (perhaps impossible) to draw the lines between what is allowed and what is not since it also depends on cultural, social,, and economic factors of each country. For instance, quarantine is enforced in some countries, while in other places it is perceived as a violation of personal rights. The question that arises, then, is whether it is possible to define universal guidelines for what should be allowed? I look forward to continuing this discussion in class! Perhaps in the meantime, we should all act as hedgehogs and prevent as much group contact as possible.
I think you’ve hit something here, Jenn: So much of the discourse in the last two years has been not just about public health — what will be most effective in containing the pandemic — but on discussions of ethics and rights. Political ideology seems to be as crucial as medical understanding — or maybe even more — to the approach countries take. Someone like Defoe embraces this reality by trying to write persuasively to get people to behave in certain ways. Pushkin seems less interested in persuading people to act in certain ways — but makes Walsingham’s paralysis at the end seem somewhat understandable. At least that’s how I’m taking it.
This blog post was incredibly perceptive and brought up questions I hadn’t quite considered before, so thank you for putting together such a comprehensive piece!
A concept that was touched upon that I would like to comment on is the idea of a new social standard during times of apocalyptic events such as the Plague. How do we, as a group, determine what is okay to shame others for doing? Do we actually agree with what we shame others for doing, or do we just shame them publicly because we don’t want to be shamed ourselves? The post mentioned that we generally shame people for doing actions that would risk the well-being of the greater community, but at the end of the day, do we truly care about the interest of the community? How many of us would actually still wear masks in public now if there was no social shaming done to those who did not wear them? I am inclined to believe that humans care more about being shunned by society than the actual health and well-being of the community. There’s a sort of herd mentality that revealed itself during the pandemic, and also shows itself through the works that we read over the course of the class so far. It makes me question how genuine peoples’ arguments for extreme measures for the health of the general health public are.
I like two things about this comment, Afraah: You pick up on the emotions thread that was running through our Defoe discussion as well. I would like us to return to the idea of the affective dimensions of viral information. But this should also remind us that we’re dealing with social contagions as well — the spread of imitative behavior. Like you asked, what’s motivating us to follow the crowd and maintain social norms? A desire to belong? To be right? To keep others safe? A fear of being called out or shamed? It would be interesting to see if public health advisories from around the world take these issues into consideration or whether they simply default to medical or scientific information.
This was such an amazing blog post! Thank you for sharing it.
I’ve thought a-lot about the second question your group posed,
“is it really morally shameful to pursue selfish personal enjoyment during a pandemic, or can it be justified as a redemption of the human spirit in the face of darkness?”
I think throughout the works we’ve read so far, there has been a constant lingering reminder that a person can’t have fun during a pandemic. However, many of the works presented also have loopholes to these informal rules. For example, i think that in Defoe’s work, the narrator finds an escape from the pandemic through documenting and journaling his experience, while this is much more subtle than the feasters in Pushkin’s work.
Especially I think back to the comment a classmate made in class about how personal enjoyment, in contemporary times, has been called “self-care” and is encouraged. So I think if I were to formally answer the question posed above, I’d say that there is almost always a moral justification for enjoying one-self without inflicting direct harm on anyone else – feasting, documenting, getting high (Candace & co).
On a final note, I’m very curious to see how the motif of personal enjoyment throughout a pandemic may change as the works become more modern/contemporary.
I love this emerging self-care vs selfishness conversation!