So what will be in the end? In the space between paralyzing fear and boundless imagination, many wonderful books predict the demise of mankind as we know it, the loneliness of the last person in the universe, or the lessons that will be learned by the survivors as they try to set up a better world for the few who remain. In the midst of ruins and corpses, as humans seek an explanation for a great, random and fateful mystery, it seems that every culture is in need of an apocalyptic story centered around a pandemic, especially now, with the eruption of the coronavirus.
Paris, January 1990, a sudden cold snap. Out of a taxi that stops near Place Vendome emerges a passenger who came from the warm volcanic island of Lanzarote, off the coast of Morocco. He is due to receive a literary award, yet another in an ever-lengthening list. He wears thick eyeglasses; his eyesight is fading and when he gets out of the taxi and into the chilly air, his glasses suddenly fog up. This frightens him.
“What would be if everyone were like this?” he asks himself in the split second it takes him to pull himself together. Thus was born “Blindness,” the 1995 novel by José Saramago.
Throughout the whole work the whiteness and milkiness of blindness is stressed, perhaps to preserve that brief moment of comfort that returns at the end of the novel. The plague ends as swiftly as it began, but what is the lesson that has been learned from it? Will it come back?
“The Plague” (1947) by Albert Camus, the bible of all novels about epidemics in the 20th century, ends with the recognition that such phenomena will continue to plague mankind and will destroy not just the residents of Oran in Algeria, but will recur repeatedly with the same frightening randomness. And they will demand that people look deeply within themselves to rediscover their consciences and morality, their solidarity and their altruism, which will be necessary to save their environment. Not everyone will succeed. The good people won’t necessarily survive. In modern literature the question of “Why did this plague happen,” will generally remain unanswered.
The Aztecs, the Egyptians and the Greeks, the Finnish and the Hindus – all created deities who were responsible for plagues and who would unleash them capriciously upon the world. From Pandora, who unleashed all the evils trapped in her box, to the son of Nigeria’s Yoruba people, who angers Sopona, the god of smallpox – many mythological tales are used as threats to spur man to improve his ways; if not, he is doomed to suffer from Ebola, pestilence, fever, Spanish flu and blisters.
The discovery of bacteria and viruses and the achievements of modern medicine have not eradicated the thinking that human beings have suffered from diseases or the deluge as justified punishment for their sins.
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In “MaddAddam” (2013), the third novel in the dystopian trilogy by Margaret Atwood, the predictable end of humanity is the result of scientific-technological-capitalistic hubris originating in the genetic engineering of human-like hybrid creatures both wonderful and terrifying, and continuing with a global catastrophe known as the “waterless flood.” Its nature is not known and isn’t even important in terms of the larger project at hand: warning man about his foolishness.
“The Last Man,” the 1826 work by Mary Shelley, author of “Frankenstein,” was among the first modern novels to predict (or invent) the scenario in which mankind is destroyed. It also has seminal, private significance: Shelley was seeking to memorialize her late husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, through creation of a wondrous figure who was both heroic and tragic – but who of course could not prevent the epidemic and witnessed the end of the world.
Until the 20th century, characters in fictional literature would at most distance themselves, sit in isolation or amuse themselves as the end of the world loomed. They did so in “The Decameron,” by Giovanni Boccaccio in the 14th century, which describes 10 people who flee Florence – which had been hit by the Black Death – to a deserted villa in the village of Fiesole in the mountains. During their time together, they exchange funny and scary stories, stories that are both uplifting and disgusting, replete with sexuality, passion and sarcasm. What else can one do to quell the fear? "The Canterbury Tales" by Geoffrey Chaucer, also from the 14th century, take place in a similar framework: People on a Crusade at the heart of a plague, quaking in fear, at the verge of hysteria, bolster one another with a story.
The first extensive, realistic description of a biological disaster written in the West, with the intention of documenting the disaster in the form of a memoir, was Daniel Defoe's “A Journal of the Plague Year,” which was published in 1722 and is devoted entirely to the bubonic plague that devastated London in 1665 and mercilessly mowed down its inhabitants. How and why the book was adapted for cinema in Mexico in 1979 is not clear. In any case, director Felipe Cazals hired the services of Gabriel Garcia Márquez as screenwriter.
Six years later, when the plague was still firing our imagination, Garcia Márquez published “Love in the Time of Cholera.” We were so enamored of the book that we forgot that in Spanish and Portuguese, cólera is both the name of the disease and the word for anger – a rage that is also capable of poisoning and exterminating our souls. As is clarified in the book, it may be easier to fight an external plague, one that kills masses of people, than to fight a plague within the soul. For Garcia Márquez, as with many other authors, love triumphs.
Books about biological disasters appear in every genre. Sometimes they are documentary works but written as thrillers – for example, Richard Preston’s 1994 book “The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story,” about the Ebola plague, which you can’t put down. Sometimes it is a tragic dirge, like Randy Shilts’ “And the Band Played On” (1987), which traces the history of AIDS. Sometimes they are scary, in order to horrify the readers and be profitable for the author, as in the case of “Sleeping Beauties,” written by Stephen King and his son Owen King three years ago, in which a mysterious sleeping sickness befalls women only.
Science-fiction literature is full of terrifying aliens, but the best books in the genre, such as Frank Herbert’s “The White Plague” (1982), blame human beings and their actions for the initial outbreak, and portray the hero who must survive with breathtaking descriptions of chaos.
“The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy is a extreme example of minimalist writing. In this post-apocalyptic novel, written in 2006, the nature of the cataclysm makes no difference, since in any case it spawns barbarism, to the point where human beings roast babies for eating while all the social institutions they established disintegrate – and the very minimal consolation in the end leaves the reader with profound and unfathomable sadness.
The same emotional effect is achieved in the 1956 sci-fi poem “Aniara” by Swedish Nobel Prize laureate Harry Martinson, in which the last human beings flee a polluted planet: “The iris of the eye is filled with mournful fires / a hunger-fire searching after fuel / for spiritual light, lest that light fail.”
In Camus' “The Plague,” the only one who understands the political significance of the catastrophe as presenting a tremendous challenge to both the individual and the collective is the doctor, Bernard Rieux. But “The Plague” is not the only political allegory written to warn of the domination of a dictatorial evil over a society where the culture, decency and progress it boasts of turn out to be a very thin coating for immanent human wickedness.
“The White Disease,” a play by Czech writer Karel Capek, was written in 1937 and tried to alert people to the rise of Nazism. In Palestine, the premiere of the play at the Habima National Theater took place in Tel Aviv on September 29, 1938. The next day the Munich Agreement was signed, enabling the German invasion of the Sudentenland in Czechoslovakia. When the Nazis arrived in Prague they looked for Capek in order to settle accounts with him. Capek died of pneumonia in 1938 and did not live to see the fulfillment of his doomsday prophecy.
In other literary epidemics in the 20th century the figure of the doctor appears repeatedly as someone who heralds progress, as the possible embodiment of humane behavior, solidarity and infinite goodness. Not only Camus’ Rieux, but also the ophthalmologist in “Blindness” who is going blind, and his wife. A good and benevolent doctor can also be found in “Life in the Time of Cholera,” and even in Capek's work.
So what ill will befall us in the end? Apparently Camus was right. We can reasonably assume that we won’t become extinct – neither in the microcosm of Oran nor in New York. At some point, the epidemic will be stopped. The afflicted and the frightened who survive will look around them in amazement and promise that it will never happen again, after grasping what is truly important for mankind.
Perhaps they will discover that it’s not only survival but protecting culture at its best, as in the wonderful “Station Eleven,” written in 2014 by Emily St. John Mandel. Because in literature, as opposed to the real world, it’s not important how many of us survive, but whether we will be better people and how we will live the day after.