We may not like who we are about to become

Crisis chronicles: The great plague literature shows that pandemics can kill compassion too.

What do the classics teach us? As we enter the dark tunnel of the 2020 pandemic, we will face hard questions. Take comfort that some of our greatest writers have struggled with them before.

La Peste by Albert Camus. The characters include doctors, tourists, and residents trying to cope in an atmosphere of panic.

Blindness by José Saramago. A doctor and his wife gather around them a small group of people who help each other survive in anarchic conditions, until the plague vanishes as quickly as it arrived.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys. He left an invaluable record of seismic events in the UK’s history, including the Restoration of the monarchy, the plague which devastated the country in 1665, and the Great Fire of London in following year.

Journal of a Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. He discusses the efforts to stop the plague spreading, including parts of the country self-quarantining, and the superstitious response to it by many people, as well as the villainy of quack doctors.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter. She drew on her experience of Spanish flu in writing this tragic love story.

The Last Man by Mary Shelley. At the end, just one man is left alive, with a sheepdog as his only companion.

What do these classics teach us?

Lessons of history

As the columnist David Brooks has written in the New York Times: “Some disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes, can bring people together, but if history is any judge, pandemics generally drive them apart. These are crises in which social distancing is a virtue. Dread overwhelms the normal bonds of human affection.”

But there are hopeful lessons too. There is one exception to this sad litany: health care workers. In every pandemic there are doctors and nurses who respond with unbelievable heroism and compassion. That’s happening today. Maybe this time, we’ll learn from their example – and realise that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take steps to fight the moral disease that accompanies the physical one.

You Decide

  1. What is the best book you have read about a historical event?

Activities

  1. Write a one-page story in which you are a sheepdog meeting the only human you have ever seen.

Some People Say...

“Somebody who only reads newspapers and, at best, books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses.”

Albert Einstein (1879-1955), German-born scientist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Many great books about historical events do not appear until long afterwards. Charles Dickens wrote his novel about the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, 60 years after it happened; Leo Tolstoy wrote his masterpiece War and Peace at a similar distance from the war between Russia and France that it describes. Samuel Pepys’s diary is a contemporary account of the plague, but was never intended for publication: it was written in code and not deciphered until the early 19th Century.
What do we not know?
Whether Pepys would be keeping a diary about the present pandemic if he were alive today. We now have so many ways of recording things, from video clips to newspaper articles, that writing down your own version of events might not seem very important. On the other hand, a diary is a good way of ordering your thoughts about important developments.

Word Watch

Seismic
Of enormous size or effect.
Restoration of the monarchy
The process by which Charles became king after the years of parliamentary rule.
Villainy
Wicked or criminal behaviour.
Quack doctors
Unqualified people who claim medical knowledge or skills.
Pandemics
Disease epidemics that spread across a large region, for instance several continents, or worldwide.
Litany
Here, a long list of unpleasant things.

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