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Fintan O’Toole: ‘The withering god of fever swoops on us’

Artists have always sought to find meaning in pandemics, plagues and mass infections

“The warm weather has brought sweating sickness to London, and the city is emptying. A few have gone down – and many more are imagining they have it, complaining of headaches and pains in their limbs. The gossip in the shops is all about pills and infusions, and friars in the streets are doing a lucrative trade in holy medals.

“This plague came to us in the year 1485, with the armies that brought us the first Henry Tudor. Now every few years it fills the graveyards. It kills in a day. Merry at breakfast, they say: dead by noon.”

This is a passage in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a meticulous recreation of the England of the 1520s. It is, as such passages always are in novels, ominous. Soon, the protagonist Thomas Cromwell will lose his wife, Liz, quite suddenly to the contagion. And then it will return for his two young daughters.

What makes Mantel’s evocation of the deadly infection so heart-breaking is Cromwell’s acceptance of his own abject powerlessness. This supreme power broker is impotent in the face of the implacability of the mysterious epidemic. He does not rail against it. There is no point.

And yet art cannot really abide pointlessness. The creative imagination has always sought to give epidemics some kind of meaning. One of the great sources of the modern western narrative tradition, Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, is framed as a series of stories told by young women and men who have fled to a secluded country villa to escape the plague in Florence in 1348.

In a sense, this is emblematic of much of western culture: the need to somehow exert imaginative control over the sheer nihilism of the epidemic stimulates the creative impulse.

The notion that epidemics have epic meanings is rightly disdained by science

At the beginning of the western dramatic tradition, almost 2,500 years ago, there is Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. It begins with a delegation of citizens to the royal palace of Thebes, expressing their despair that “the withering god of fever swoops on us”.

The rest of the play is about trying to make sense of the plague that is laying the city low. The cause, of course, turns out to be Oedipus himself – the epidemic reveals the dreadful truth that he has unknowingly killed his father and married his mother.

One of the most influential figures of 20th-century theatre, the French actor and director Antonin Artaud, imagined theatre itself as an attempt to induce this kind of pandemic fever in its audience: "The theatre, like the plague, is a delirium and is communicative . . . The theatre, like the plague is a crisis which is resolved by death or cure. And the plague is a superior disease because it is a total crisis after which nothing remains except death or an extreme purification."

There is something of this strange, feverish abandon in Thomas Mann’s novella of 1912, Death in Venice, and in Luchino Visconti’s great 1971 film version of it, set amid an outbreak of cholera.

This notion that epidemics have epic meanings, is rightly disdained by science. But it has a powerful grip on the imagination, not least because the experience of mass contagion seems to transcend history. Albeit in the worst possible way, it connects us to the past and erases time.

One of the great 17th-century paintings, Nicolas Poussin’s The Plague of Ashdod, visualises in the most vividly dramatic way the scourge that God sent to punish the Philistines for stealing the Ark of the Covenant from the Jews. It is, as perhaps every artistic depiction of an outbreak of deadly disease must be, both immediate and mythic. Poussin painted it in 1630, the year when bubonic plague returned to ravage much of Italy.

The very colour scheme of the painting is linked to the disease: the telltale darkening of the victim’s skin is seen in the sickly greenish-grey flesh of an old woman collapsed against a fallen column, of a dead mother and infant in the foreground, and of a male corpse being carried away in the background.

The stench is communicated to us by two men at the front of the painting holding their noses in disgust. Yet his visceral immediacy is also, as Poussin implies by his biblical setting, timeless. The pandemic erases history – it looks the same anywhere at any time.

Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague has returned to the bestseller lists in much of Europe because its depiction of a quarantined city in which the economy has shut down – “the gaunt, idle cranes on the wharves, tip-carts lying on their side, neglected heaps of sacks and barrels” – chimes with the images of deserted cities on today’s TV news.

But Camus in turn was both using an epidemic as a contemporary metaphor (for the spread of fascism) and self-consciously harking back to the traditions of Oedipus Rex and the biblical plagues that Poussin was drawing on.

Camus was also echoing one of the earliest novels in English, Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, which begins with the narrator’s listing of the possible origins of the pestilence: “It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia [Crete]; others from Cyprus.”

This is not just English paranoia about foreign contagion. Pandemics always come from far away. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel of 1866, Crime and Punishment, the anti-hero Raskolnikov has a nightmare during a grave illness. His fevered imagination conjures a global pandemic: “He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia . . . Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will.”

As Defoe’s “goods . . . brought home” on the fleet from Turkey remind us, though, this idea of mysterious plagues carried from foreign parts is also an image of global trade. Defoe’s narrator stays in a plague-stricken London at the risk of his life because his business must go on: “My trade was a saddler, and as my dealings were chiefly . . . among the merchants trading to the English colonies in America . . . I had a house, shop, and warehouses filled with goods; and, in short, to leave them all . . . had been to hazard the loss not only of my trade, but of my goods, and indeed of all I had in the world.”

Coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, is showing us in the starkest terms that the interconnectedness we take for granted in economic terms is also the openness that allows disease to spread.

But pandemics have long been metaphors for global capitalism. George Romero’s zombie movie, Dawn of the Dead, in which the zombie is a metaphor for pandemic contagion, is actually set in a shopping mall – the consumption of the living by the undead is a not too subtle metaphor for consumerism itself.

Romero didn’t pluck this imagery from nowhere. I am looking at an English print from 1803, depicting “Mr Influenzy”, or as we would say influenza. He looks, to our eyes, very like a zombie. His skin has a ghastly yellowish pallor.

His eyes glow red. He is half naked, so we see his bone-thin legs. His hand, reaching out to accept an address of thanks from the doctors he has made rich, is like a claw.

Mr Influenzy is an early depiction of the living dead, a forefather of the zombie hordes of modern cinema and TV. When Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968, creating the entire zombie genre, it provided a metaphoric and imaginative replacement in our time for the mediaeval Dance Macabre, in which the skeletal figure of Death gathers an ever growing band of followers, all dancing along towards the grave – an image given a great last outing at the end of Ingmar Bergman’s movie The Seventh Seal, set in a time of plague.

The idea that zombies function as embodiments of a pandemic is now so obvious that in 2011 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US launched a "Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse" website, using the invasion of the undead as a way to raise public awareness about a possible health emergency.

The zombie shares space in popular culture with another monstrous embodiment of the fear of contagion: the vampire. Vampires, of course, spread their evil infection through their spittle by biting their victims, who in turn join the undead. As a rule, vampires are less pandemic than zombies – the infection tends to be individualised and sexualised. But it is worth remembering that Bram Stoker, creator of Dracula, was influenced by horror stories of the cholera epidemic that his mother had lived through in Sligo in 1832.

The plague makes all accumulated knowledge and all categories of judgment invalid

A central theme in all of this art is the idea of the pandemic as a great leveller. This is there in the Dance Macabre: often the dancers in the medieval images include the prince and the pauper, the bishop and the whore, all being swept along towards the grave by a pestilence that cares nothing for social distinctions. But it is not just social hierarchies that break down – distinctions of every kind are blurred as societies and meanings collapse.

In a seminal essay, Plague in Literature and Myth, the French anthropologist René Girard noted that: “The plague will turn the honest man into a thief, the virtuous man into a lecher, the prostitute into a saint. Friends murder and enemies embrace. Wealthy men are made poor by the ruin of their business. Riches are showered upon paupers who inherit in a few days the fortunes of many distant relatives. Social hierarchies are first transgressed, then abolished. Political and religious authorities collapse.

“The plague makes all accumulated knowledge and all categories of judgment invalid. The distinctiveness of the plague is that it ultimately destroys all forms of distinctiveness. The plague overcomes all obstacles, disregards all frontiers. All life, finally, is turned into death, which is the supreme undifferentiation.”

Yet art resists this turning of differentiated life into undifferentiated death. Think of the astonishing vibrancy of the work of an artist such as the American painter Keith Haring. Its speed of execution, its electrifying urgency, its drive to communicate everything right here and now marks it as one of the great visual legacies of the 1980s.

But those very qualities are inextricable from a pandemic – the Aids crisis that shaped Haring’s life as a young gay man. Aids was, at the time, perhaps the nearest thing in the contemporary western world to the terrible inevitability of the Black Death or the sweating sickness of earlier centuries – before the drugs to control it were developed, it was a viral death sentence.

Yet when you look at Haring’s images now, their dominant note is not the rage or the fear that are so powerfully expressed. It is the life-giving joy of making one’s mark. They say, in the face of oblivion: I was here, my hand touched this blank surface and transformed it with line and colour. It made a meaning that is indelible.

I recently saw the last painting Haring completed before his death from Aids in 1990 at the age of 31. It almost hums with energy. Its dominant colours are yellow and red for the flesh and blood of the abstracted human figures who are raising their arms in triumph and defiance.

We are seeing inside their bodies and what is there is not a death-dealing virus. It is the irrational, defiant, indefatigable impulse of life.