By Ananya Dutta Gupta
Analogy to Chiasmus
Early into the Covid-19 crisis, I was struck by several areas of nodal intersection informing our collective global response to the pandemic. My concern here is with the rhetoric of such responses, ranging from the popular to the niche, and the “habits of thought”[i] it reflects. Not only national and global leaders speaking on electronic media and social network but also common citizens conversing at the dinner table have been drawing an analogy between the pandemic and war in terms of the nature and scale of the campaign of prevention, treatment and cure.[ii] Eventually, if not simultaneously, as happens with “habits of thought”, the practical analogy based on situational and logistical similarities between an epidemiological crisis and a World War of sorts has made way for a sort of metaphorical substitution rather than comparison. The pandemic is no longer like a kind of war; pandemic is war. This presupposes an elision of the boundaries between these categories of experience in the collective imaginary.
It is in the nature of elisions to pass from a one-way to bilateral substitution of categories of experience, i.e. a chiasmus. In this case, it would entail reading not only pandemic as war, but war too as a pandemic, i.e. a virulent calamitous disease. We might retrospectively come to relate a future ongoing military emergency (God forbid!) to today’s Covid crisis. There is a general consensus currently that coronavirus will leave a lasting and indelible impact upon the global economy, political history and on the cultural imaginary. At least the viral proliferation of online polemical pronouncements affirm as much. One such online compendium of contemporary philosophical opinion cites Italian psychoanalyst Sergio Benvenuto commenting how “this generalized seclusion caused by the epidemic (or rather, by attempts to prevent it) will become our habitual way of life.”[iii]
The prolepsis above is founded upon my argument that there is perhaps nothing ‘novel’ about this tendency around the Novel Coronavirus to imagine and represent an epidemic or pandemic[iv] as a war. Insofar as all wars are a comprehensive trial – biological, technological, social and moral – for humanity, the Covid-19 is also projected as a moment of reckoning. It would have been no different with the Nepal earthquake and is notionally no different in the wake of Amphan in West Bengal. As I write this, The Guardian on Thursday, 21 May, reports the Chief Minister of West Bengal stating, “Area after area has been ruined. I have experienced a war-like situation today.” [v]
The representation of crises as trials lends itself to providentialist and fatalist readings alike, alternatively and alternately. This doubling – of natural or manmade calamity as trial – is an act of elision between objective, external occurrences and the interior theatre of responses generated by them. Such interiorisation co-exists with a converse, outward projection, in which actual or imagined actions of individuals and communities are indicted for causing the calamity, be it a war, a cyclone or a pandemic. How interesting that ‘crown’ or ‘corona’ should mean both the head and that which it wears as a token of sovereignty! Shakespeare’s King Lear, or Timon of Athens, may be cited in this connection for the ways in which the literature of early modern Europe enacts a simultaneity between mayhem in the physical environment and turmoil within the bodypolitik and its titular crown.
Albert Camus’s novel The Plague (La Peste),[vi] published two years after the end of Second World War, invites just such a chiastic reading. The plague in his work is, in part, a re-imagined war too, and explores human behavioural responses against the backdrop of a fictional pandemic representing the actual, ongoing war.
Plague and Siege: Early Modern Intertextuality
Camus’s work is not my focal text here, but it helps frame a key intersectionality I am exploring in this essay. An epidemic and/or pandemic does not just mirror any war, but the condition of being under invasion, under siege. Chiasmus is a mirroring figure, if you like. It reverses the likeness in order to escape being a tautology. My projections of an intersectionality between war and disease, and between catastrophe and trial persisting well into the future are somewhat informed by my knowledge of the compelling use made of such mirroring inversion in late sixteenth and early seventeenth century English plague and siege narratives.
Thomas Dekker’s The Wonderful Year, a sensationalist account of the 1603 plague outbreak, theatricalises the arrival of Death in the form of plague by drawing upon Tamburlaine, the Marlovian stage sensation of the 1580s. Dekker’s is a copybook description of a siege. Only that the besieger is Death personified (“like a Spanish Leagar, or rather like stalking Tamberlaine.” [vii] The vividness of the personification points to the “natural” ease with which early modern consciousness accommodated the un– or the preter-natural in their imaginary. A pre-modern magical realism of some sort. The rest of the passage itemises exactly those horrors of a successful “siege of the Citie” of “the capitall streets of Troynouant”, that narrators of military sieges detail: massacre of combatants and non-combatants alike, plunder, mindless destruction of civic architecture, sexual assault on virgins and matrons, in language that repeats almost verbatim narratives of sieges culminating in spoil.
The question of a two-way, chiastic substitution arises because siege narratives I have looked at accommodate discussions of an endemic outbreak of disease or a public health collapse either as a consequence of a siege situation and its privations, or as a parallel occurrence. Take the example of Thomas Nashe’s Christs Teares ouer Ierusalem (1594), an alarmist text written during the 1593-94 plague in London to whip up the memory of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Titus in 70 AD as narrated by Flavius Josephus in War of the Jews.[viii] In Christ’s lament, as Nashe represents it, war is just one part of a quartet of divine punishments – “Famine, the Sworde, and the Pestilence”[ix] – pummelling a community either simultaneously or in close succession.
One would imagine, from the potent fear prompting people worldwide early into the Covid-19 lockdown to hoard food-stock and amenities, that confinement and the cessation of production resulting from it automatically enhances the prospect of shortage and famine. Likewise, in early modern times, a siege would have prevented producers from within a garrison town from stepping out to cultivate the adjoining country land. A siege then or a lockdown naturally envisions food shortage, and in extreme cases, famine. So, the fourfold threat of war, famine, fire and pestilence was a ‘natural’ occurrence in early modern garrison towns and cities in an age where war and conflict was the norm rather than exception. It was easy therefore to connect this concurrence with seemingly prescient pronouncements from the Bible about the imminence of mortality. In this cultural imaginary, a certain collective Lacanian overlap of the real and the symbolic takes place, either induced or remembered or generated. So also with plague narratives.
In Thomas Middleton’s fictionalised Meeting of Gallants at an Ordinary (1604), an almost Aristophanian dark comedy, where War, Famine and Pestilence argue over their relative killing capacities.[x] What the conceptual interchangeability also suggests is the Old Testamental habit of thought – something shared, perhaps on account of historical contiguity, by the Greeks – namely, imputing calamity to external, retributive agency, while retaining for the individual and the community thus afflicted the moral culpability for having invited such a calamity. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is probably the most iconic Western text to have enacted this moral determinism in the tripartite nexus between humans, the physical environment and the imagined supra-natural. The plague itself as an exteriorised allegory of a toxic bodypolitik fettered to some endemic sin or crime leading to discord, unrest and civil war is the foundation of Sophocles’ play. This precedent of allegorising the sins of peace leading to disintegration of the moral and social fabric of a community seems to have remained latent across discrete cultural imaginaries.
Siege, Epidemiology and Urban Anxieties
In News from Gravesend, a pamphlet which Dekker collaborated with Thomas Middleton to produce in autumn 1603, plague retains its mantle of a formidable besieger defying the virtuous exertions of Physic, i.e. medicinal intervention, and eventually decimates, with suitably Biblical ruthlessness, the glory of Troynovant.[xi] The latter is the moniker used since medieval times to showcase London’s mythic link with the Troy of the Iliad and the Aeneid. Thomas Dekker compulsively invokes the glories of past cities as a warning for London on the verge of the plague in a kind of urban typology deployed by siege pamphleteers as well. Nashe weepingly reprimands London:
Now to London must I turne me, London that turneth from none of thy left-hand impieties. As great a desolation as Ierusalem, hath London deserued. (II 80) …
Coming back to our time, no doubt the case of Italy as one of the countries worst affected by novel coronavirus has shaken us, particularly because of its reputation as the cradle of European Renaissance, the legacy of which has come to occupy a powerful place in the cultural imaginary of erstwhile colonies too. One will recall the pictures of the great Italian tourist destinations, now only just beginning to crawl out of a desolating lockdown, or the images of the so-called Great Empty from across the cities of the world published on 23 March 2020. (Interestingly, these now carry a price tag at the New York Times online store).[xii] The powerful imprint left by the Mumbai Taj hotel terror incident on 26 November 2008 or of the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre of April 1919 or even of Black Hole incident of June 20, 1756, can be traced to this primal fear of being walled in.
In other words, the latent ambivalence around urbanity and its unstable ethical standard seems to lend itself to alarmism relating to both public health and martial vulnerability, parallelly or interchangeably. No wonder then that philosophers and intellectuals from Italy have been actively engaged in building up a discourse of reception around coronavirus. A deserted Rome or Florence or Venice with their towering monuments of antiquity and early modernity affords an evocative text in the continuities of collective urban trauma and the comfort sought in precedent. Nashe compares Jerusalem after the sack to “a naked plot of ground”, “a Corne-fielde, that was erst called Troy”. The city-writer Nashe’s picture of death, too, is fittingly urban – a necropolis where the dead form a heap, one on top of another, for want of space – “the clowde-climing slaughter-stack of thy dead carkases” (II 49). My readers will recall the stories of cemeteries operating beyond capacity, of mass graves, and visuals of corteges from around the world circulating in social media today.
Moral Geography and Urban Sensationalism around Pandemic and War
Tellingly, Dekker and Middleton’s News from Gravesend is subtitled ‘Sent to Nobody’, since nobody will heed the plea anyway. Both The Wonderful Year and News from Gravesend gloat over the damage the plague might do to the wealthy, even as the latter continue to guard their wealth zealously from needy penurious members of the gentry and populace. These pamphlets deliberately sensationalise the plague epidemic and its impact upon the new metropolis of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Some of the messages that have been reaching us as viral forwards via the social network today have acted upon similarly divisive polarisation by treating of the Covid-19 as an exposé of the vulnerabilities of the global North.
By way of an aside, this is just such sensationalism masquerading as “news” that has become our compulsive information network in a time when all news comes filtered through community sharing. Not only educated “gentlefolk”, like a Nashe or a Dekker, in this age of the social network, we have all become peddlers of “news”, sometimes compulsively, without pausing to verify and authenticate the source and content. It is crucial to understand the parallel between the early modern network of information and the coteries of circulation we inhabit digitally today, if we are to make sense of our responses to the virus.
Something similar happens in a time of war. The allegorized Prologue by Rumour, “painted full of tongues” in Shakespeare’s Henry the Eighth, Part 2, alerts us, appositely, now more than ever:
Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wavering multitude,
Can play upon it. (lines 15-20)[xiii]
I have often wondered why ‘mongering’ is the verb attached to war to describe acts of speech public or private that help ignite and spread the possibility of violence or war like fire. Mongering seems to have been derived from the word mangere connoting traffic or trafficking. The etymological note on Merriam Webster Dictionary online reads:
Middle English mongere, from Old English mangere, from Latin mangon-, mango, of Greek origin; akin to Greek manganon charm, philter[xiv]
Pandemic as ‘Text’
Apart from smacking of commercialization of a text or a word, not necessarily in the purely monetary sense, the way going viral is commercial without automatically being monetary, mongering has built into itself associations with circulation, with going viral. In other words, a text in that age of the proliferation of cheap printed books, such as the pamphlets, becomes capital, or textual currency.
Very interestingly, Dekker’s dedication of The Wonderful Year to the Water Bailiff of London offers a provocative metaphor of his book itself as a plague that the dedicatee can nevertheless not turn away from the door because of the love it bears. This textualisation of plague and, shall we say, figuration of a book as having a diseased corpus (aren’t we disinfecting books delivered at our doorstep on a no-contact basis?) affords another chiasmic elision. The book’s content, a description of the plague and its blight, is figurated as a condition or affliction of the book itself, i.e. the book is plagued by the plague it speaks of and the author prays that it should not be turned “out of doors” on grounds of “any vile imputation”. Vileness would suggest the mortal revulsion evoked by the sight of a plague victim as well as the imputation of such suffering to inner culpability.
I find yet another overlap with our times of the corona in that we too have textualised the virus. Those who check for the colour-coded daily statistics on worldometers.info/coronavirus would agree. The virus exists for us in statistical information conveyed through viral text messages. The virus is for us a viral text.
Plague and Siege Literature, Then and Now
A similar economy of informal borrowing and lending would have been in place in early modern literary culture. So that, siege narratives and plague pamphlets have a chiastic relationship in that these both constitute a porous genre that liberally borrows strategy and language from a range of contemporary literary genres. I would add that they are able to borrow so freely from this pool of stock ideas, tropes and sensationalist idiom, because their authors are ultimately forced by the privations of the plague to find a niche for themselves in the mainstream cheap book market, Saint Paul’s Cathedral being the hub of it, by pandering to mainstream taste for moral sensationalism. No wonder, then, that narratives of actual or imagined sieges and narratives of plagues are deeply conservative in their ethical and political conceptions.
If we fast forward to our time, a BBC article by David Robson, published on 2 April 2020, titled, “The fear of coronavirus is changing our psychology”, warns that we are in danger of precipating a similar entrenchment and reentrenchment of a reactionary, intolerant mindset, in which physical and moral cleanliness are being equated. Robson writes,
Fears of contagion lead us to become more conformist and less accepting of eccentricity. Our moral judgements become harsher and our sexual attitudes become more conservative.[xv]
My Methodology and Derrida’s Hauntology
Methodologically, the kind of leaps in time through which I am connecting texts and contexts suggests a process of historical excavation that Derrida would call the very point of ‘hauntology’, the necessary immanence of the future in the past and of the uncontrollable traffic of the past in the present. Taking cue from Hamlet’s father’s ghost and his steering of Denmark’s future through a return to its past. Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1993) perhaps affords a framework to gaze upon the spectre of past fears and traumas embodied in texts from the past (10). Of “the three things of the thing”, Derrida speaks of the compulsion to know the past and to ontologise and localise it in the present in order that past can be identified and fixed as past. Secondly, there is the necessity of bringing it into the domain of language, of verbalising it. And thirdly, the spectre embodies a certain functionality, a transformative capacity (45-46).[xvi]
Pandemics, Past and Present: Recognition of Fear and Trauma
Let me return to the recurrence in the global now of early modern elisions from war to pandemic and vice versa, and the epistemological struggle that I outlined above. Of course, one straightforward explanation for the recurrence of the war-pandemic substitution would be that most countries currently reeling from the Covid onslaught will have experienced such events and calamities in their respective histories, though perhaps not at the same historical moment. All peoples and cultures then have a reserve of apocalyptic trauma and fear built into their collective unconsciouses. Now, with the unprecedented worldwide explosion of the virus, these collective unconsciouses are also perhaps imploding simultaneously. Hence the coincidence of the same fears, anxieties and existential grappling in individuals and communities across swathes of cultural and geopolitical distance.
At another level, though, I am also concerned with the almost Jungian possibility that there are perhaps a core reserve of primal, archetypal elements of human behaviour, physical and psychological, say, that this pandemic has been able to tap into simultaneously across all the cultural spaces, leading to a regression into zones of engagement that mirror other collective traumatic events in other times and other spaces. There is perhaps something about war and disease that defies cultural specificity and acquires a certain timeless synchronicity across cultures. Fear seems to play a catalytic role in this collective regression.
Art and Literature in Curing the Traumatic Memory of Past Pandemics
When Covid itself is perceived as a war waged by an outside force, the latter is not a naturalist position. Such elisions in the early modern literary and cultural imaginary betray, again, habits of thought that are a revelation in terms of their continued, if less rabid prevalence today. The wonder, not unlike the ‘wonder’ in Dekker’s title, for me has been the discovery of this point of commonality. The wonder inevitably leads to a struggle to rationalise the fact that a millennial globe in the grip of Coronavirus should continue to imagine the pandemic in ways that mirror early modern habits of thought around epidemics mirroring in their turn earlier pandemics and epidemics, preserved in the vaults of the collective memory in the form of fragments of oral history, objects and architectural residues, and works of literature and art. In fact, this is emphatically our rationale for the webinar that occasioned this essay. Literature and art are repositories of cultural memory that we do turn to in times of personal and collective crises, to excavate the resources these offer as precedents for meaning-making, cathartic expression and strategisation of available resources for survival and sustenance. Parallelly, though, these also operate as reserves of the very trauma that we seek to escape: so that engaging with such works from the past becomes a necessary exercise in Aristotelian catharsis – a dialectical process of periodically raking up trauma in the bid to seek a route out of it. Not unlike the principle of similia similibus curentur. Like cures like. Trauma cures trauma. The manner in which antigens are injected into the human body so that it reacts by creating antibodies. In other words, retraumatisation of the consciousness mirrors the discourse around corona vaccine.
This fear is caught in a perennial dialectic of demanding rationalisation and then defying rationalisation. Something akin to the process of exorcism through conjuration postulated by Derrida in Spectres of Marx (59). Tellingly, Derrida does not exclude “analytic procedure and argumentative ratiocination” from this exorcism by conjuration. It is possible to think of this essay itself, as just such a “conjuring” exercise, a means of fixing, ‘containing’ our fears around the corona through collective engagement in the spoken or the written word. One could think of the dramatic re-birth of the Spanish Flu of 1918 as just such a text conjured back from collective oblivion in order that the current pandemic may be placed in historical perspective. And one needs go no further than that iconic early modern text, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, to recollect the textuality embedded in this process of conjuration for knowledge about the secrets of the past and the future. Mephistopheles is engendered out of the black book, as it were, in order that he might answer questions. Faustus is also seeking a kind of conversational companionship in this occult knowledge. So are we, as we seek out peers to dig out the past of pandemics.
Coronavirus and the Production of Fear
In an article published in The New York Times on 23 April 2020, titled “What the Great Pandemic Novels Teach Us”, Orhan Pamuk alerts us to this ‘fear’ syndrome.[xvii] Pamuk’s arrival at this human bonding in fear is decidedly antithetical to Giorgio Agamben’s critique in “The Invention of an Epidemic”, published on 26 February 2020 of what he sees as global states’ opportunistic intensification of repressive, totalitarian practices using the Covid crisis allegedly as a pretext for perpetuating or re-inforcing “the state of exception”. The point in this context is that even Agamben acknowledges “the state of fear”, even he explains it as being largely a production of the state apparatus. Rocco Ronchi too reminds us that “suddenly we feel we are being dragged by something that is overpowering, which grows in the silence of our organs, ignoring our will.” Citing Kant’s quotation that “it is frightfully sublime in part because of its obscurity”, another theorist, Shaj Mohan, goes on to end his essay “What Carries Us On?” by invoking the same fear factor:
Tonight we should rest a while in our shared solitude (the only kind of solitude as we can see) with the thought that the mystery is not that the world is, but that it is mysterious to us making of us the mystery, the obscure “mysterium tremendum”. In the words of the poet tonight we are “Alive in the Superunknown.”
Thus the virus has come to represent something like a Tamburlainesque scourge of God, even as it is emphatically corporeal, animal, human. Like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, who succumbs to a natural death by senescence, rather than in a war, this virus too is seemingly unconquerable without being non-living, so to speak. As the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy asserts in “A Much Too Human Virus”:
Indeed, the virus confirms the absence of the divine, since we know its biological nature. We are even discovering how much more complex and harder to define living beings are, than we had previously described them to be.[xviii]
I would content instead that the very invisibility of this virus, its infinitesimal dimensions, has only remystified it and catapulted it into the realms of the Burkian ‘sublime’. The fear of the virus stems precisely from the fact of its meta-physical presence. There has been so much speculation, for instance, about the colossal heights and breadths – anything between three feet and thirteen feet – to which the virus, once airborne, can remain suspended; so that the virus has taken on a spectral character. We open our entrance imagining it to be there without it being seen. It is interesting to note the grim pun by homely hospitality and contagious diseases in the dyad of words, “host” and “carrier”. Consider, for instance, the text of this abstract from an article titled “Yersinia pestis–etiologic agent of plague”, by RD Perry and JD Fetherston, published in Clinical Microbiology Review:
Studies characterizing virulence determinants of Y. pestis have identified novel mechanisms for overcoming host defenses. Regulatory systems controlling the expression of some of these virulence factors have proven quite complex. These areas of research have provided new insights into the host-parasite relationship….[xix]
The virus is an unwanted, potentially parasitical visitor that might overstay at the host’s home and plunder and colonise it, the way a formidable besieger spoils a city. Hence popular reception as a demonic entity, a monstrosity, people blew the conch shell and took out religious processions in Bolpur and perhaps in Kolkata and elsewhere to drive off the corona demon.
Coronavirus and the Freudian Uncanny
Coronavirus partakes of that peculiar duality Freud in his 1919 essay attributes to the German word for the homely – “heimlich” – which simultaneously means familiar and occult and cannot therefore be segregated unproblematically from the domain of the uncanny or “unheimlich”.[xx] The latter is, as it were, secretly embedded in the former. The virus dwells within the human body and yet remains occult, undiscoverable, and fugitive. Hence the attribution of the uncanny to its power and to its ability to induce a regression into our past, our collective unconsciouses, into a fathomless journey tracing and retracing our individual journeys and the journey of human civilisation on Earth.
The virus lends itself to allegorical imagining precisely because it is invisible. Its power and its eponymous crown as it were drawn upon its invisibility while its sphericity mirrors the globe it relentlessly marches about – like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, (Part I, IV.i.47-63, IV.ii.111-13, IV.iv.1-9), cited by Nashe in Christs Teares over Jerusalem, using colour-coding on his flags to communicate his inexorable intentions to cities and territories under his siege.[xxi]
People are talking about war on Covid, and of Covid as war; further, of Covid as an invasion, from within, placing our bodies and our bodypolitik, globally, under gherao, house-arrest, “lockdown”, i.e. siege.
Coronavirus as Benjamin’s Lawmaker
One is reminded of Walter Benjamin’s postulation of all violence having for its function the making and the preservation of law, rather than as law merely enlisting violence as an instrument.[xxii] He will add that “lawmaking is power-making, assumption of power, and to that extent an immediate manifestation of violence.” Covid has become a law unto itself for us and its stranglehold on us seems to stem from its ability to enforce this law upon us while remaining silent and invisible. So, more than lockdown measures, it is fear that keeps us home. Rocco Ronchi observes in his essay “The Virtues of the Virus”, that insofar as Covid-19 pandemic is an event, it cannot but generate trauma. There cannot be an event without trauma and vice versa.[xxiii]
Pandemic as War: ‘Moral Equivalent’
Rocco Ronchi’s exposition of “The Virtues of the Virus” is a superior version of many viral forwards we have been receiving and forwarding in turn, such as The Great Realisation video published by Probably Tomfoolery on 29 April 2020. The rhymed verse narrative of a stay-at-home father’s bedtime story telling session utopianises this moment of rupture in the anthropocene, projecting it as a momentous turnaround for Mother Earth.[xxiv] Such a Romanticist reorientation towards Nature and Mother Earth itself presupposes an existential crisis recalling Lear’s hysterical exclamations in the heath scene. It amounts to a symbolic un-maling and stripping of the aggressive, magisterial march of the Anthropocene that Bacon ushered in with Novum Organum (1620) and a notional return to quasi-maternal protection.
The terms in which Ronchi invites us to confront and embrace “the virtues of the virus”, brings me back to my postulation of wars and pandemics alike as quasi-Stoic trials of faith and character:
Last but not least, the virus signals our eternal human condition. In case we have forgotten that we are mortal, finite, contingent, lacking, ontological wanting, etc., the virus is here to remind us, forcing us to meditate and correct our distraction, that of compulsive consumers.[xxv]
William James makes a similar case for looking for “a moral equivalent” for war in a seminal 1906 lecture, saying “We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings.”[xxvi] One would imagine that Ronchi and the popular imagination seem to have dis-covered in the pandemic something of that moral equivalent.
I am reading a parallel between James’s insistence on taking cognizance of the human values fostered in war situations alongside the sacral violence and the way in which philosophers, elite and popular, and artists are urging us to give a conscientiously positive spin to the human tragedy unfolding around corona.
Sadly, then, in the dialectics of survival, return or renewal of terrestrial coexistence is made consequent upon a precondition of loss or price. Expendability entailed in mortality is projected at some level as a precondition for mass animal, botanical and ecological survival. It is not coincidence that Darwinian fitness should be evoked alongside speculations about “herd immunity”.[xxvii]
The Real Chiasmus: War is Peace, Pandemic is Cure
This is where the sacral justification of violence as sacrifice comes into play: a ritual evocation of elemental fury at human excesses and presumption looking for self-flagellating catharsis and exorcism in the prospect of vicarious mass sacrifice for appeasement. While the war on Covid is a naturalistic trope to describe the collective enterprise, akin to war, [xxviii] there is also, as above, a moral equivalence being posited between the opportunity for ethical progress and reorientation provided by Covid as wars do, as William James argues.
The point for me is the persistence of this rhetoric of external corrective or punitive agency. We are attributing it to Mother Earth and its hidden, occult schema for self-rejuvenation. We are utopianising and/or dystopianising the phenomenon in terms of conspiracy theories in which human and suprahuman agencies implicitly commingle. The event in itself is then conceived as a boon masked as bane, a system that will use destruction as a necessary mediated process for regeneration.
Similarly, a pre-war scenario is seen as more destructive in effect than in appearance, while actual destruction by war or disease or calamity is seen as potentially healing, cleansing, therapeutic intervention. As it is, the disease metaphor is often used to describe the endemic sociopolitical maladies within the community that then forces external medicinal intervention. In a truly apocalyptic experience, all four are subsumed under one overwhelmed catastrophe. Some of us have been implicitly clubbing the Vizag noxious gas leak and the locust infestation in Western India with the larger Covid crisis as part of a grand cosmic design of synchronized misfortunes.
The real chiasmus then is rooted in the perception that any external crisis is ultimately an exterior manifestation of an internal crisis. And that the moral, the physiological, the martial and the political cannot be segregated.
The Politics of Interpretation: Pandemic, War and the Public Intellectual
This elision is fundamental to the way social psychology operates as a political lever to attribute and proportion responsibility in times of crisis – it is used both as a divisive and cohesive strategy aimed at consolidating groups and communities along class, sect and national lines. In other words, faith can be co-opted overtly or covertly as a tool of disaster management and ostensibly communitarian realignment. The diffuseness and religiosised mystification of cause is used as a disciplining tool. And as Derrida maintains, religion aids and frames the spectral referencing of the past (208).
Such disciplining posits an Aristotelian binarisation between the educated empowered able to read portents and signs from natural phenomena and interpret them for the uneducated powerless. Everyone tries to grab this Mosaic, prophetic, mediatory role and posture of a “public intellectual”. We see many intellectuals and artists[xxix] taking on that role in a way that has been normalized and democratized, thanks to the electronic medium and access to the social network. So am I perhaps. Take, for instance, the street artist Emmalene Blake’s efforts to alert her city:
Such texts as Dekker’s or Nashe’s aspire to project their writers as public intellectuals. The Slovenian philosopher Žižek, as we know, has published a book on the Covid crisis.[xxx] It is as though crises unleash anxieties leading us to regress into a realm or stage that lends itself to such symbolic appropriation of unmeaning discrete realities or particles of the real. This happens just as much in the case of an individual, but when it comes to calamities affecting a vast majority, if not a whole city or country, it is possible for large sections of the affected community to seek meaning in this Symbolic misprision.
Pandemic and Culture: Unravelling Personal Memory
Let me digress just a little to watch myself unravel other habitual elisions informing my own, if not our globally shared psychology of the pandemic. You will recall that I was on the subject of Camus’s novel earlier, suddenly now back in discourse, alongside the Dustin Hoffman starrer Outbreak (1995) and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011). This seamless passage in my thought process, as that of others, from Covid-19 to a fictional plague itself marks a habit of association based less on medical conditions and symptoms than on management and administration entailing confinement, distancing, isolation, quarantine and containment. Underlying this passage is of course a further elision, from a current, actual occurrence into a piece of literature, i.e. from reality to fiction. Now for those of us who have been fortunate enough not to have witnessed epidemics and contagious outbreaks in our own pasts are likely to look for precedents in the domain of imagined or imaginative experience. Just as people of my generation look to connect with the great Famine of Bengal through Ray’s Ashani Sanket (1973).
Regression and Imaginative Reempowerment
An epidemic or a calamity offers a powerful impetus to imaginative engagement through such figurative associations. It does so by dispossessing subjects and communities progressively of agency and control, and, paradoxically, provides recompense in the form of imaginative freedom and alternative avenues of sustenance and empowerment. There is talk suddenly of Shakespeare having written King Lear in quarantine. The proliferation of artistic self-expression in the time of Covid would offer a parallel.[xxxi]
I would say that the proliferation of apocalyptic literature around epidemiological crises has its root in this collective regression. Such literature and art becomes both mode of cathartic venting and circulation of that synergy of anxiety and fear. So more this anxiety is shared, the more it is rationalized, legitimized and circulated.
Continuities in the War and Pandemic Chiasmus: Imagination versus Reason
My wonder at the possibility that sixteenth century habits of thought should have persisted not only across time within cultures but also transculturally is itself is challenge to verbal, academic rationalisation. Interestingly, I found a resonance for this crisis in Derrida’s observation of the fundamental breach between the scholarly stance and the kind of ontological challenge posed by the spectral presence of actual and imagined pestilences of the past overshadowing our struggle to make sense of the current pandemic. Derrida was analysing the ineffectuality of Horatio’s questioning of Hamlet’s father’s ghost. Yet Derrida ends his book with a call for the emergence of a more empathetic scholar:
He should learn to live by learning not how to make conversation with the ghost but how to talk with him, with her, how to let them speak or how to give them back speech, even if it is in oneself, in the other, in the other in oneself: they are always there, specters, even if they do not exist, even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet. (221)
Coronavirus and Empathy
Let us hope, as we scour knowledge, literature and the arts, past and present, in a bid to make sense of Covid-19, that the ghost in the mirror wields the magic wand of transformation in a way that preserves for posterity not only humanity and its deeds but earthly life in its totality. I end with a poem I wrote just before the lockdown commenced in India and illustrate it with an earlier doodle that seems to have anticipated my favourite YouTube channel, ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’ and its byline: “While our doors are temporarily closed, our hearts and minds are open online.”[xxxii]
[i] I am borrowing the phrase from the title of Deborah Shuger’s book – Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance: Religion, Politics, and the Dominant Culture (Univ. of Toronto Press, 2017).
[ii] Even without reference to war, one only needs to read World Health Organisation guidelines on ‘How to Protect Yourself’ (https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI_Mmhm_rT6QIVU6SWCh1hoQcoEAAYASAEEgJpn_D_BwE), accessed on 19 May 2020, alongside the kind of quasi-clinical advice meted out by Thomas Lodge in his A treatise of the plague (1603), particularly Chapters XVI and XVII, to note the shared preoccupation with hygiene as a defence mechanism. See Early English Books Online Text Creation partnership at University of Michigan, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A06182.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext. Accessed on 18 May 2020.
[iii] ‘Coronavirus and philosophers: M. Foucault, G. Agamben, J.L. Nancy, R. Esposito, S. Benvenuto, D. Dwivedi, S. Mohan, R. Ronchi, M. de Carolis’, European Journal of Psychology, https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers/. Accessed on 18 May 2020.
[iv] For a difference between pandemic and epidemic, see Britannica online at https://www.britannica.com/video/215272/Top-questions-answers-epidemic-versus-pandemic. Accessed on 19 May 2020.
[v] As I write this, The Guardian reports the Chief Minister of West Bengal stating, “Area after area has been ruined. I have experienced a war-like situation today.” See ‘Kolkata surveys damage after bearing brunt of Cyclone Amphan’, Hannah Ellis-Petersen and Shaikh Azizur Rahman in Kolkata. Thu 21 May 2020 17.24 BST. Last modified on Thu 21 May 2020 20.40 BST. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/21/kolkata-surveys-damage-after-bearing-brunt-of-cyclone-amphan. Accessed on 22 May 2020.
[vi] Ed Vulliamy, ‘Albert Camus’ The Plague: a story for our, and all, times’, The Guardian, Mon 5 January 2015.
“Nowadays, I think, La Peste can tell the story of a different kind of plague: that of a destructive, hyper-materialist, turbo-capitalism; and can do so as well as any applied contemporary commentary.” https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/jan/05/albert-camus-the-plague-fascist-death-ed-vulliamy
[vii] Renaissance Editions. Text was transcribed by Risa S. Bear, July 2000, from the Bodley Head Quarto text of 1924. http://www.luminarium.org/renascence-editions/yeare.html Accessed on 16 May 2020.
I understand Dekker and Middleton’s plague pamphlets have a chapter devoted to them in Rebecca Totaro and Ernest B. Gilman, Representing the Plague in Early Modern England (London: Routledge, 2012). I have not been able to access it though.
[viii] William Whiston, THE GENUINE WORKSOF FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS THE JEWISH HISTORIAN. Translated from the Original Greek, according to Havercamp’s accurate Edition. CONTAINING Twenty Books of the JEWISH Antiquities,WITH THE Appendix or Life of JOSEPHUS, written by himself:
Seven Books of the JEWISH WAR: AND Two Books against APION (1737). http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ Accessed on 24 May 2020.
[ix] See Thomas Nashe, The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. Ronald B. McKerrow (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1910), 5 vols, II, 22.
[xi] Text edited by Gary Taylor. Annotated and introduced by Robert Maslen. In Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino, Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), https://books.google.co.in/books?id=-Yj4yiUjx0IC&pg=PA128&lpg=PA128&dq=news+from+the+gravesend+dekker&source=bl&ots=0mOD0Jw9hj&sig=ACfU3U3TxfSJnd87VUjEHR1z-b3MfBDL5w&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjBsZ6_mdPpAhUMOisKHWi5DqwQ6AEwAnoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=news%20from%20the%20gravesend%20dekker&f=false. Accessed on 18 May 2020.
Peters discusses the hyper-consumerism around toilet papers rolls in Western countries in the early days of panic around the pandemic: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7190280/
[xvi] Translated from the French by Peggy Kamuf. With an introduction by Bernd Magnus and Stephen Cullenberg. New York: Routledge Classics, 2006.
[xvii] New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-orhan-pamuk.html. Accessed on 23 April 2020.
[xviii] Cited in ‘Coronavirus and philosophers: https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers/
[xix] Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 1997 Jan; 10(1): 35- 66, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC172914/. Accessed on 19 May 2020.
[xxi] Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine, ed. J. S. Cunningham, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1981, rpt. 1999.
[xxii] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 1, eds. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Belknap Press for Harvard University Press, 1996), 243.
[xxiii] ‘Coronavirus and Philosophers …’
[xxv] Not coincidentally, Amitav Ghosh, when asked by Srijana Mitra Das if the pandemic and the ravages of Amphan could be connected, responded thus: “…This period has been called the ‘Great Acceleration;, which is appropriate because it is the acceleration of consumption and production, and the resulting rise in greenhouse gas emissions, that lies behind all these crises, from the climate breakdown to the pandemic.” See “Over-consumption underlies Cyclone Amphan and Covid-19’, Times of India, May 22, 2020. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/75880597.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst Accessed on 24 May 2020.
[xxvi] This essay, based on a speech delivered at Stanford University in 1906, is the origin of the idea of organized national service.
https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/moral.html. Accessed on 19 May 2020.
[xxvii] Gypsy Amber D’Souza and David Dowdy, ‘What is Herd Immunity and How Can We Achieve It With COVID-19? Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, April, 10, 2020, https://www.jhsph.edu/covid-19/articles/achieving-herd-immunity-with-covid19.html. Accessed on 26 May 2020.
[xxviii] Žižek is quoted by Michael A. Peters as having compared the situation to a war: “We should treat this as a war. Some kind of European coordination. .. maybe even wartime mobilization.” See ‘Philosophy and Pandemic in the Postdigital Era: Foucault, Agamben, Žižek. Post-Digital Science and Education’, 2020 Apr 29: 1–6. doi: 10.1007/s42438-020-00117-4, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7190280/ Accessed on 19 May 2020.
[xxix] For instance, the street artist Emmalene Blake. See https://twitter.com/Listenary/status/1263768517154877443/photo/4. Accessed on 26 May 2020.
[xxx] Žižek compares the situation to Wells’ The War of the Worlds. John Lennox, Pandemic! by Slavoj Žižek; Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? by John Lennox – review. 3 Mary 2020.
[xxxi] I have myself sought meaning-making in poetry and digital doodles, which offer a kind of experiential collage of the pandemic. See Ananya Dutta Gupta, ‘Pandora Pandemica’, Rupkatha Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, eds. Tarun Tapas Mukherjee and Pragati Das, 14 April 2020. http://rupkatha.com/pandora-pandemica/
Ananya Dutta Gupta has been teaching at the Department of English & Other Modern European Languages, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, for over sixteen years now. In 1999, she was awarded a Felix Scholarship to pursue an M.Phil. in English Literature, 1500-1660 at the University of Oxford. She was awarded the degree of M.Phil., in part, for a dissertation on the philosophy of war and peace in Renaissance European and English Writings. In January 2014, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, awarded her a Ph.D. degree for her dissertation on Renaissance English representations of the city under siege. Her revised Orient Blackswan Annotated edition of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book I (2012) is currently in worldwide circulation and she has several other scholarly articles published in national and international journals to her credit. She was Charles Wallace India Trust Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Cambridge, in 2015. She has also published book reviews and translations of essays, poetry and short stories. Her poetry, creative non-fiction and travel writing may be found online at Cafe Dissensus, Rupkatha Journal on Studies in Interdisciplinary Humanities, Muse India, Pratilipi, Caesurae and Coldnoon Travel Poetics. She sings, writes poetry and does digital painting in her leisure.
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