Spring is seen by many as the coming of a period of renewal, restoration, and hopefulness. As people around the globe emerge from two years of life epitomized by various forms of quarantine, many warily so, beset by apprehension in the face of the most far-reaching and lethal pandemic of the twenty-first century, we wonder if life can ever be sane again? The sense of perpetual discomfort and agitation many feel is due, at least in part, to the span of time we have endured through a procession of surges in infections and new variants of an epidemic that many initially expected would run its course within a few months, and be fading by the Summer of 2020.
Perhaps, that’s because many of us have seen this story before, or thought we had. Depictions of societies caught in the grip of plagues have long been represented in diverse artistic forms through the lenses of painting, literature, film, music, and popular culture. Despite its horrific connotations, the specter of plague has often been used as fodder for humor as an age-old means of coping with trauma as in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), which hilariously reinscribed the macabre summons to the people of villages ravaged by the Black Death to “bring out your dead.” The Simpsons also employed the plague motif but with less nuance and irony in an episode featuring an epidemic with the cringe-worthy name of the “Osaka Flu” in 1993. The epidemic theme was again used in a subsequent episode from 2012 in which a fictional “Pandoravirus” becomes the object of another of Bart’s pranks, this time in the context of a ocean cruise. More recently, COVID-19 itself was featured in two extended special episodes of South Park.
Comedic examples aside, the use of plague motifs depicted in more dire circumstances are found such films as, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), Wolfgang Peterson’s Outbreak (1995), which is especially chilling as it is based on Richard Preston’s 1994 bestselling nonfiction book, The Hot Zone on the Ebola virus, and Steven Soderberg’s Contagion (2011). Among others, we can add to this list adaptations such as Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain (1971) and the 2018 TV miniseries, drawn from Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel; and a set TV miniseries based on Stephen King’s epic novel, The Stand (1978/1990) broadcast in 1994 and 2020-2021.
Extending on these literary examples are works including Boccaccio’s Decameron, an Italian collection of interlinked tales from the mid 14th-century told from the perspectives of a group of people fleeing the Black Death; Daniel Defoe’s historical fiction, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), which popularized the phrase Monty Python was to transform into comedy gold; Nobel Prize-winner, Albert Camus’ La Peste (1948), more commonly known as The Plague—a book I first encountered in a community college literature course (and thank you, too, Dr. Angel); and The Plague Dogs (1977) by Richard Douglas, adapted into an animated feature by Martin Rosen in 1982, while serving as the inspiration for Skinny Puppy’s track, “Testure” on their 1988 industrial release VIVIsectVI.
Representations of this theme are abundant in Western art, especially within the context of the Black Death and a world marked by the figure of the Plague Doctor, as detailed in famous paintings by the likes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. A concern for representation also extends into accounts of the devastating spread of smallpox and other European diseases among Native and Indigenous peoples in the aftermath of Columbus’ arrival in the Western Hemisphere. It is notable that this theme has even been taken up as a biting emblem of critique through the acerbic and socially-conscious vehicle of punk music by the Subhumans, and through the perspective of a germ itself.
As this historically diverse sampling suggests, the use of the plague as an artistic motif in such a wide array of forms ensured that such representations could reach people of practically all walks of life. One of the effects of this, it seems, is the way depictions of epidemics can cohere to serve as a powerful means of conditioning whereby viewers and readers may come to regard disasters as events of temporary significance—fleeting historic episodes to be resolved within the frames of a 22-minute TV slot, 90-minute cinematic triptych, or in a few hundred pages of crisply written prose.
The mode of narrativization utilized within the apocalyptic genre and the plague sub-genre propagates and reinforces a distinct plot structure that shares a set of common elements. Drawing on the texts noted, this assembly brings recognition to an uncanny motif that casts a pall on the story as a signifier of a nascent epidemic, which in different narrative circumstances might be viewed as ordinary. In Camus’ The Plague, set in Oran, Algeria within the era of French colonialism, this occurs with the main character, Rieux’s ominous encounter with a dead rat. The outbreak of plague proceeds from here through a methodical narrative build that pushes the people of Oran to the edge of hopelessness.
At the heights of nihilistic despair where the senses of dread and panic are most severe, the wave breaks and falls back. Readers and viewers are then lead to a redemptive conclusion made possible, especially in film, by the frenzied, and at times, contemplative, efforts of a group of main characters who bring the story to a somber, and often triumphal, ending. In such scenarios, the primary characters struggle against the plague’s effects as a reflection of the larger population, while the epidemic approaches ever closer, before receding back while the infection runs its course, as with Camus’ novel.
In these narratives the dénouement is achieved by the vanquishing of the epidemic, typically with the discovery of a cure and development of a vaccination through the intervention of scientists, or the epidemic is simply foiled by natural or developed immunity. In examples such as The Plague, which offer more pointed critiques of human agency, a more pessimistic approach is typically employed with the epidemic merely withdrawing back into the shadows according to its own internal logic to lie in wait until its next resurgence.
Within the pattern established in such narratives, viewers can breathe a bit easier as numerous extras and anonymous characters are condemned to what are often gruesome deaths in accordance with their predefined roles as victims within the broader frame of the story. This narrative structure functions to emphasize that the deadly situation portrayed is, indeed, a full-scale disaster—and not just an isolated or localized occurrence. Combine this with the sacrificial deaths of a few major supporting cast, such as two female characters in Contagion in Gwyneth Paltrow’s Beth Emhoff and Kate Winslet’s Dr. Erin Mears—this hardly seems coincidental—and these stories are made even more compelling and heartrending.
With expectations and emotions properly primed, aside from experimental films and the work of auteurs such as Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995) or Lars Von Trier’s Epidemic (1987), readers and viewers can expect that the main characters, whether with Camus’ Dr. Rieux, or the leads played by A-listers such as Dustin Hoffman, Lawrence Fishburne, Matt Damon, Renee Russo, and Morgan Freeman of Outbreak and Contagion, will escape the worst ravages of their respective epidemics. The actions such characters take to persevere through the afflictions that befall their worlds, and initially cast as inescapable, activate the familiar social critiques of corporate malfeasance and government incompetence, as well as broader messages on the power of fear and paranoia, the affects of social and cultural isolation, and the dangers of misinformation that are most emphatically articulated in such narratives.
All, while treatments and cures are desperately sought, and eventually found, through the tireless efforts of scientists who cast aside their own rivalries and capitalistic autonomy to accept the help of military officials and politicians who daringly confront entrenched forces of corruption and indifference.
Well, sure, I’m speaking of books and movies, but still, that could happen . . . right?
Beyond these surface functions, films and novels like these highlight and reinforce the ironic notion that it will mainly be the unknown and anonymous ‘others’ who must bear the brunt of the suffering in apocalyptic catastrophes. Populations that are almost always made up of the marginalized, the poor, and the non-Western—people who, it is important to acknowledge, live within a globalized modern world without the benefit of adequate medical care or even the access to such.
Looking back on more than two years of our own trials, and a feeling of “desperate weariness,” which Camus characterized “as a weariness from which nothing remains to set us free except death,” as we struggle to avoid the same fate as the anonymous victims of apocalyptic film and literature, we may realize that our challenge all along was to simply live through what Camus further calls “the prey of aimless days and sterile memories.” Out of what seemed like an interminable period of fevered sleep, we emerge into a new Spring like a seedlings bursting through the ground’s surface, alive on the other side, as Emile Zola wrote in a different context, ‘for the harvests of future ages.’
But not unscathed either, as very few will have made it to this point unaffected—with friends, family, and loved ones carried off in the countless eruptions of the pandemic’s cruel effects.
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Yet, this moment feels different from those encountered through fictional stories and cinematic representations of epidemics where the devastation fades neatly away with the rolling of the credits—the world restored to its previous equilibrium. With perceptions shaped by history, art, and experience, and unevenly so, a continuation of the “obscure, humdrum” lives we led “before the epidemic” have never seemed more exhilarating or tenuous.
This strange and unexpected apprehension seems to reflect the narrative distance of film and literature in relation to events defined by trauma and death. For the pandemic itself brought a visceral actuality in which we were forced to withdraw en masse or retreat into an interior landscape circumscribed within the bounds of an imposed isolation. A reality in which, as Slavoj Žižek paradoxically observes in Panic! COVID-19 Shakes the World (2020), “not to shake hands and isolate when needed IS today’s form of solidarity.” Thus, we were confined to an ephemeral space of exile in which so many became lost in a present-day twilight zone, where all sense of time and duration seemed to slip away in a chaotic stream of consciousness. Not unlike the hapless characters stuck in the worlds called into being by the likes of James Joyce or William Faulkner, where merely being outside can overcome one with trepidation and dread.
By a similar token, the lifting of COVID restrictions evokes a new and strange sense of liberation within what Camus termed “the rapture of escape.” It is a feeling that can seem more like recklessness, while now attaching itself to such mundane acts as attending school, dining out, or grocery shopping when done without wearing a mask, which for so long provided a feeling of security, while creating a new sense of identity out of anonymity.
These responses, of course, were primarily results that grew out of the rapid establishment and adoption of safety precautions and social distancing whereby the use of hand sanitizer, surface disinfectants, and, at first, whatever face coverings and masks we could find (*cough, bandanas), were instilled or ritualized as habitual responses to the spread of the coronavirus by large cross-sections of the public. We now find ourselves increasingly unfettered in the absence of mandates and the social pressures that resulted in the radical reshaping of public life.
Asked now to return to previous routines, we cling as if captives unwillingly pushed out of the safety of a fortress into the blinding sunlight (like the prisoners of Plato’s cave, perhaps). Thrust back into a world reshaped by the work-at-home model typified by enforced detachment and the mind-numbing monotony of virtual meetings in which the act of staring into video panels of strange angles and disembodied faces, with some merging in and out of virtual background images—not even to get into the politics of their selection—interspersed among a cascade of negating blank, silent screens that came to feel almost as an end in itself.
Necessary acts of contrition, supplication, or flagellation, one might say, so that we may be restored to the world of the real that thrives beyond our walls, while serving as a reminder that the spectre of apocalypse is not really about the survival of the world, but only the place of humans within it. A world that seems more ominous, threatening, and impenetrable than ever before.
In our attempts to restore a semblance of normalcy to a world deterritorialized, yet again, by the essentia of epidemics past, we are reminded that the traumas that rise from the past can never be kept confined there. The hesitations between memory and contemplation, while binding us in cycles of repetition defined by an inertia that creeps, affirms an urgency for the future that echoes as an admonition against the reconstruction of the past as a site for the eternal return of the same old cycles of regret, mourning, and nostalgia.
An acknowledgement, perhaps, of the vital essence of possibility that extends beyond the page and into the off-screen spaces of the cinematic image as a wellspring of knowledge, experience, and personal growth.
Together, the values and lessons of the past serve as much more than bulwarks for humanity’s mere and certain survival, as the vicious assault on Ukraine so graphically illustrates the horrors of war and the fragility of life. Yet, as Camus reminds us, as with war, “the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency.” With the continuation of life in human societies, which even the worlds of The Road Warrior (1981) Snowpiercer (1982, Trans. 2014) must include, and the return of a participation in the present, so too are we free to think about the possibilities and promise of the future.
This should not come easily or lightly, either, since as of April 16, 2022, the number of American deaths totaled 987,211 and 6,195,747 worldwide—human figures that are truly apocalyptic. The trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic has simultaneously been reflected in an erosion of the human capacities for kindness and compassion manifested over the last several years in the context of hyper-partisanship in politics and social life, the steady erosion of democratic ideals in the digital age, while adding fuel to an economic system drives deepening economic inequality. These are just some of the cumulative effects that are compounded by a corresponding rise of racist, nationalist, and authoritarian ideologies, which, taken altogether, have similarly provoked an explosion of renewed interest in dystopian literature and film.
The rekindling of public interest in speculative *gulp* dystopian and apocalyptic narratives via the social and historical issues at the core of those works, have also inspired wildly experimental and chilling new takes on dystopian and apocalyptic literature in novels such as Stephen Graham Jones' The Gospel of Z, Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius and Augustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh. In practically all the examples noted, viewers and readers can take comfort in stories that help make the incomprehensible familiar, and maybe even controllable and survivable, while serving as guides to understanding the recurrence of events that few would have even considered plausible before, as Camus usefully observes, “everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have always been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”
Extending from this passage it seems that Camus, although not naming it specifically, was positing the coronavirus pandemic as an historical inevitability. We may also contend that in its broader philosophic context, he anticipated the insight expressed by Slavoj Žižek, in his Living in the End Times, as a self-deceiving alternative to denial in which “an event first experienced as real but impossible (the prospect of a forthcoming catastrophe which, however probable it may be, is effectively dismissed as impossible) becomes real and no longer impossible (once the catastrophe occurs, it is ‘renormalized,’ perceived as part of the normal run of things, as always already having been possible).”
Stories focusing on plagues and contagion, along with the characters that are brought to their knees or laid low in them, offer important insights on how we might deal with the horrors unleashed by such events. Actions that can manifest, of course, in beneficial and harmful ways, serving to assist us in processing our thoughts, feelings, and experiences as aspects of our own struggles to balance our personal safety, and that of loved ones, within the broader context of society. Considerations that exist within the milieus of fear, disorientation, and turmoil, always seemingly working to disrupt, not just our lives, but our sense of connection to the world itself.
The stories presented in such works as The Plague, Outbreak, Contagion, and other books and films gain greater resonance, perhaps, when they can have the effect of redirecting our thoughts from “the scene of such grotesque happenings as the wholesale death” of the victims, and onto the question of what such narratives can teach us about the “traces” an epidemic is “bound to leave . . . in people’s hearts” as a source of reflection while we move cautiously into the future.
Just what lessons or knowledge stories of plagues and epidemics in literature, film, and popular culture may convey in not only the rebuilding of our lives, but in doing so within families, communities, nations, and the larger world, is for each of us to decide for ourselves. The very contemplation of our own sociality as an activity and an ongoing process can put us on the path towards restoring our trust and confidence in human nature, and maybe even social institutions reformed within the context of humanizing principles. Yes, quite utopian, I know.
In the end, it is just this kind of attentiveness to futurity that can help us reestablish an authentic sense of social cohesion out of the ruins of a catastrophic reality so that we might be prepared for the coming of a day “when, for the bane and the enlightening” of all people, another plague “would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”