Plagues of the Past, Lessons for the Present

Image credit: John William Waterhouse’s The Decameron

What can we learn about COVID-19 from past stories about pandemics? In this episode of “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond,” Tyrus Miller, dean of the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, interviews Zina Giannopoulou, associate professor of classics, and Deanna Shemek, professor of Italian.

Tyrus Miller (0:06–0:27): Hi everyone. Thanks for tuning in to “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond.” I’m Tyrus Miller, dean of the UCI School of Humanities, and I’m pleased to be joined by Deanna Shemek, professor of Italian and European studies, and Zina Giannopoulou, professor of classics. So hi to the two of you.

Deanna Shemek (0:27–0:28): Hello.

Zina Giannopoulou (0:28–0:30): Hello, nice to be here. Thanks for inviting us.

Miller (0:32–0:52): We’re going to talk about pandemics and literature and the literature of the past and some of the significance for the present, and Deanna let’s start with you. You’re a professor of Italian. What of the literature that you are interested in, that you read, has resonance for us today in this pandemic situation?

Shemek (0:53–2:30): Well fortunately or not, Italy has a lot to offer in terms of plague literature and pandemic literature. Two of the greatest works in the entire canon of Italian literature are being discussed daily in Italy and in my field. One of them is Italy’s first historical novel, which is called The Betrothed or I promessi sposi. It was published in 1840, just prior to Italian unification basically, about a decade before that, but it’s set in 1630s and it has very moving accounts of the 1630 plague that devastated Italy and particularly Lombardi, which was exactly where the COVID-19 plague broke out and hit hardest in Italy. So that is an incredibly powerful description of social responses to the plague and also the medical symptoms. The thing that Manzoni also owes to is an earlier work in Italian literature and it’s the one that I really know best and that I’ll even be teaching in the fall and that’s Boccaccio’s Decameron which recounts, as its framing device for Boccaccio’s collection of 100 tales, it recounts the symptoms and the experience that Boccaccio himself lived through in the 1348 plague. Should I go on and talk about that or do you need me to…?

Miller (2:30–2:51): Why don’t you say a little bit about this? I mean, my understanding of the Decameron is it’s kind of passing the time with telling stories which really resonates with some of what we’ve already talked about of people, you know, binge-watching Netflix series and so forth as a way of coping with being confined under the situation of pandemic.

Shemek (2:51–5:56): I hadn’t thought about the Decameron as binge-watching, but you could definitely do that. The really striking thing is that Boccacio’s collection of tales is really world-famous. It’s much more famous than Manzoni’s novel because it’s much more fun and because you can break it apart into pieces. He frames this collection of 100 tales by establishing a group of narrators who were young students of, let’s say, high school to college age, who all take off to avoid, to get out of the city of Florence where death surrounds them at every turn. When they get out into the countryside, they start to set up a little society that is nice and orderly, kind of a reverse mirror image of everything that’s been lost in Florentine society in the plague period, and they tell stories for ten days, they tell a hundred stories, and the stories basically constitute a kind of revitalization. Storytelling figures in Boccaccio’s Decameron as healing and as a kind of creation as opposed to the destruction that’s going on in the city that they left behind. But that frame in which Boccacio talks about the plague is famous for a couple of reasons. One, because he describes the symptoms of the plague. The Bubonic swelling that happens, the fact that people died within three days usually, the fact of contagion which affected even animals so if an animal touched a piece of clothing or an object, if it sniffed a piece of clothing that someone had had on or had touched who had the plague, the animal would immediately begin to show symptoms and die.

These symptoms have been really interesting for basically the history of medicine, but then there is the social destruction and social disintegration as he describes people’s explanations, their struggles to explain, and their responses. They wonder if the plague is a punishment from God or whether it’s caused by planetary alignments. The responses include, first, efforts at sanitation and closure and prayer.

These symptoms have been really interesting for basically the history of medicine, but then there is the social destruction and social disintegration as he describes people’s explanations, their struggles to explain, and their responses. They wonder if the plague is a punishment from God or whether it’s caused by planetary alignments. The responses include, first, efforts at sanitation and closure and prayer, and then the symptoms keep coming on so people keep dying and they react by, he gives a kind of catalogue of how people reacted. Some people just ran away from the sick and avoided them entirely. Other people isolated into small groups, basically locked down and avoided all excess, tried to live as moderately as possible. Other people decided there may not be a tomorrow so let’s just carpe diem and let’s live it up. Let’s drink all the good wine, let’s eat, let’s party, let’s turn our houses into taverns and try to keep sick people away but let’s just, you know, live it up right now.

Miller (5:56–5:59): Let’s go out for the weekend.

Shemek (5:59–7:07): Let’s go out for the weekend, let’s go to the beach. No, they didn’t go to the beach in those days from Florence, but there follows on this a breakdown of all kinds of social institutions. So first of all, the burial of the dead falls apart because they there are not enough graves, there are not enough people to come and get bodies. Bodies are thrown out onto doorsteps to await being picked up. Boccaccio has very moving passages in which he says that there was no one to cry, there was no one to light candles, there was no one to perform the mourning rituals that women traditionally performed, so people were dying also just in the streets, falling dead and no one would come to pick them up. In the countryside the animals were turned loose because no one was available to feed them and to herd them and the crops were dying so we have this economy that’s falling apart.

Boccaccio has very moving passages in which he says that there was no one to cry, there was no one to light candles, there was no one to perform the mourning rituals that women traditionally performed, so people were dying also just in the streets, falling dead and no one would come to pick them up.

Maybe I’ll just stop right there and I think I’ve been talking for a while, so I’ll stop for a moment.

Miller (7:07–7:33): That’s what seems very contemporary and what we would describe as the late Middle Ages. Going even further back in history, Zina, you study the classics and that includes Greek mythology and classical literature and classical history. What does classical literature have to offer us as we think about our situation today?

Giannopoulou (7:33–14:13): We have three major accounts of epidemics. One sort of occurs in the foundational text of Western civilization; that is the Iliad, so the first book of Homer’s, whoever Homer was. Iliad begins with plague. Then, we move on to Sophocles who wrote the tragedy called Oedipus the King and there also, the play begins with plague and then on Thucydides, who in his second book of the History of the Peloponnesian War is giving us an account of the plague that occurred in Athens, so these are approached in very different ways.

Let me begin with the Iliad and Sophocles’ The King, which interestingly enough have interesting similarities. The first similarity is that the plague is sent by a god, so the Greeks had the god Apollo, who was both a destroyer and a healer, which I find very interesting — the conjunction of two very opposite directions of going about doing things and what provokes his wrath, so a plague is a result of divine wrath, is almost like a punishment you can say for humans, who are work against the god. What provokes his wrath in the Iliad was Agamemnon’s dishonoring of Chryseis, who is Apollo’s priest, who came to the Greeks, asking for his daughter who Agamemnon had received as a war prize and Agamemnon just refused to give her to him. Then Chryseis asked Apollo to punish the Greeks. Lo and behold there is a plague sent by Apollo and Homer gives us a very brief account of the plague, nothing exotic or interesting or detailed. Just the fact that Apollo has arrows, has a bow and arrows, and shoots from afar.

What is a very interesting idea of a plague occurs suddenly. It’s a sudden event out of nowhere literally and human beings are hit by the plague, by the arrow of the god, and so what humans need to do is to make amends.

So what is a very interesting idea of a plague occurs suddenly. It’s a sudden event out of nowhere literally and human beings are hit by the plague, by the arrow of the god, and so what humans need to do is to make amends. So what Chryseis needs to do is to return the daughter, which eventually he does, and to offer sacrifices to the gods so the same for Mutantes Mutantes, the same for Oedipus the King, where Oedipus being this kind of ignorant king of the city of Thebes, who killed his father and married his mother without knowing what he was doing.

He lives in Thebes and he conducts his business just fine until of course the plague hits the city because the killer of Laius has not been found, has not been apprehended, and that’s at the beginning of the play which is interesting to me; that’s how the play begins. It’s kind of like a catalyst for a change. Something needs to happen and Sophocles puts the plague there and the idea is that Oedipus starts the process of finding out who killed Laius with, of course, the aim of lifting the plague, so again the god is sending a plague because there is a crime that has not been punished. The main goal is to find the killer and punish the killer but of course the unintended goal is that Oedipus finds out that he is the killer of Laius and he punishes himself so what we have here are in both the Iliad and Oedipus the King are two, I call, round or neat accounts of plagues. We have a cause — divine wrath. We have symptoms of the plague very briefly described and then what can be done to heal the people, what can be done to lift the plague and there, essentially to make amends, however you do that. Usually, by means of sacrifice but in Oedipus’ case it’s a long and arduous process into self-knowledge.

Then we move on to Thucydides and there Deanna and I have a lot in common. Thucydides, in the second book of The Peloponnesian War, the second Peloponnesian War, second book of the second of Peloponnesian War, describes the great plague of Athens, happened between 429 and 426 and what we have there is Athens conducting a war against Sparta. Athens is a naval city and a naval empire. Sparta is a land empire. All of the Athenians, there is a long wall that has been created uniting the port with the city of Athens and all the Athenians, following the directives of the leader Pericles, are inside that wall, right? It’s essentially wedged between these two walls so they can’t go anywhere. What happens is that this plague that Thucydides says came probably from the east has ample time and very little space to affect everybody there. So people start dying en masse. Thucydides is very keen on describing the symptoms of the plague. He doesn’t say anything about the causes. He just says that the plague starts in Egypt and then comes somehow to Athens and starts infecting everything inside. People die. The burial collapses, doctors die — I haven’t seen anything like this, so very much like the coronavirus, it’s something unknown to them.

Scholars tend to think nowadays this is the typhoid fever but there are also all kinds of ideas there about the disease being measles or smallpox or typhus although the majority tends to think that it’s typhoid fever. Thucydides in just four pages of his account is giving us extraordinary detail about what happens to the human body, starting from essentially the head, headaches all the way down so that if you survive the plague you may end up with disfigured toes or genitals or fingers. Thucydides himself contracted the disease but survived it whereas Pericles contracted it and died and Thucydides is very interested in saying “I am giving you all the symptoms of the disease so that generations after me can actually know what happened.”

We don’t have this neat account or this round account that we have in Homer and in Sophocles. We have an open-ended account; the plague at some point four years later stops. The war continues; at the end of the war, of course, Athens loses to Sparta and so there is speculation that the plague contributed to the fall of Athens, but all of that is part of a speculation about what might have led there. And of course, the Athenians lost men so it is very possible that all the lost, the deaths and the loss of manpower contributed to the decline of the Athenian democracy.

Miller (14:13–15:53): Well I’m really struck in what both of you are saying about some of the, let’s say, almost constants we have. For instance, the fact of urban civilizations, Florence and Athens. We have the question of travel and the sort of merchants and other visitors and so forth you know coming in and out of the city and particularly in the classical instance of the experience of war as very closely related to the experience of the epidemic and I’m recalling from my own area of expertise in the 20th century, that it’s at least hypothesized that the Spanish flu, which has been very much discussed, may have started in the trenches in precisely the area that you’re also describing through Turkey and the Balkans and the Dardanelles and so forth. The warfare that was going on there really being part of this global pandemic phenomenon of 1918.

I’d like to ask you a little bit about what you see as the lessons of this literature and a reading of it today. What are some of the things that the authors that you’re talking about deriving? I was very interested in the idea of Thucydides kind of utilizing this as a warning as almost a sort of bequeath to future generations. Maybe we’ll start with Zina on this and go back to Deanna.

Giannopoulou (15:54–18:57): One of the interesting things to me in terms of narrative, because I do study narrative, is that all three accounts that I mentioned from the archaic to the classical times begin with plague. So plague seems to begin narratives but then the repercussions of those plagues are felt pages later or even centuries, years later depending on the plague. So that is fascinating to me, that we don’t have necessarily a framing device but we do have the plague at the beginning; somehow we need something really catastrophic, something really sudden and really drastic to begin this account. That has nothing to do with what Thucydides intended but that’s an observation of mine.

Something that Thucydides does say is that with plagues, when people are hit by a plague, they seem to be wanting to put the blame on someone. The first thought of the ancient Greek would be to blame the gods and of course, given that they do have a plague god, it makes perfect sense, I suppose, if they do that. But they also blame rodents; they blame animals. We have this human tendency to blame someone else, to assign the blame to a divine agency or even an animal agency but not to themselves; shift the blame on to someone else, which is an interesting psychological remark.

The other one is about hubris and that we do see a lot in Oedipus the King, sort of the idea that Oedipus was a, well, he thought he could do anything having solved the riddle of the Sphinx and having acquired the kingdom of Thebes through his own intelligence and ability. Suddenly, he finds himself to be responsible for the havoc in his own city so that checks his arrogance. I tell my students that Oedipus is an extremely intelligent guy so don’t think this is an average Joe here. Something happens to Oedipus that curbs his arrogance. It curbs his hubris. And that seems to be the plague here.

Finally for me, perhaps the most important thing is the transformative power that the plague has. It makes things happen. It is a catalyst for change, right? After a plague, there’s kind of like a pre-plague period and a post-plague period and things are not the same in the before and after. It’s as if a plague marks time.

Finally for me, perhaps the most important thing is the transformative power that the plague has. It makes things happen. It is a catalyst for change, right? After a plague, there’s kind of like a pre-plague period and a post-plague period and things are not the same in the before and after. It’s as if a plague marks time. Before time was kind of like this homogeneous, more or less, stuff. Now suddenly no, it’s what happened before, let’s say 429 for Thucydides, and after, okay? So there’s a very interesting barrier in time and the need to do something different, where are we, what have we lost through the plague, because of the plague. What we can do to make our lives better?

Miller (18:57–19:22): That’s really terrific and the idea of a kind of punctuation mark, in a large-scale way, is the idea of a disruption of tradition and of continuity. How about Deanna, from your examples of The Decameron and The Betrothed? What sorts of things do you see that are relevant for us today?

Shemek (19:23–22:07): Well, I have to agree with Zina. It’s really striking the degree to which human nature seems to reveal itself in these plague texts and these plague frames and narratives and it’s both heartening and disheartening to see the degree to which people kind of divide up into groups who want to either completely self-isolate and shun others or who want to ignore, deny. One of the things that really strikes me about The Decameron in particular — I just wanted to go back for a second if I may to your comment about war, Ty, too, because we want to remember that Manzoni’s text is set in the 1630s and the plague rises up in that period during the Thirty Years War, so this kind of reconfirmed something that both you and Zina were saying. I don’t have a big insight beyond that historic data and facts of human nature that Manzoni teaches us except the same one I guess that I see with The Decameron which is, and this brings us to the humanities, it’s striking that both of these authors wanted to depict these events in the histories of their locales and Boccaccio in particular didn’t need to frame this exuberant collection of tales with such a dreadful event and such dreadful descriptions as he did. He seems to be setting something up. First of all it’s very moving to me that the healing takes place and the restructuring of society takes place through young people and it’s young people who reassert structure, who find a way of surviving and of remaining vibrant, who do that through a creative process. And I can’t help but think that both Boccaccio and Manzoni as literary writers are reflecting in some way on the value of fiction making, on the value of creating out of annihilation or near annihilation, and on the value of storytelling that does depict humanity in all of its flawed reality and also in all of its exuberance.

Miller (22:08–23:40): That’s a point that I want to just pick up on a little bit. It seems to me one of the things that I’m hearing from both of you is that the plague is a kind of lens through which almost the whole of society and human nature can be looked at and partially in a critical way, either the sort of morality or the political order or the social order comes under a kind of diagnostic and critical lens but you’re also talking about narrating and performing as drama or recording as history, as historical stories, as narrative, these events. The Decameron is particularly striking because it’s full of bawdy tales and it’s very funny and so forth, so it stands as a clear consolation and distraction from these events, but it also seems to me true in the more somber modes of tragedy and epic, which is not always a very cheerful genre itself, and certainly history, that there seems to be something that’s just important for human beings in the face of these very difficult situations to tell stories and to place a literary order on events that may be experienced as chaotic or incomprehensible. I just wondered if you had any thoughts about that with respect to the authors that you’re talking about?

Giannopoulou (23:40–23:43): Yeah, I mean, can I go?

Miller (23:43–23:44): Yes.

Giannopoulou (23:46–25:28): Okay, yes, I was especially thinking of Oedipus because it is a literary account. Thucydides just purports to be a historical account so there are differences in the way each of them approach the material. So with Oedipus, what’s interesting here, and you’re right, is that Sophocles is using the plague, which is connected with darkness, right? I mean there’s a line I remember now in David Greene’s translation of the priest’s announcement of the plague of Oedipus at the beginning. David Greene says, “And black death is rich in groaning and lamentation.” So it’s a very grim account and a very sort of aural account as well of what was going on in the city of Thebes. I mean, all you hear was moaning and groaning and lamenting and mourning and dying and sort of the physical aspect of that is prevalent. So what’s happening is I think that it’s as if we need darkness. There’s a kind of dark context there, out of which some light maybe can be shined on people and Oedipus himself, who can, as we know, can physically see, at the end of the play he blinds himself. It’s as if the darkness, right, it’s physical but inside he is illuminated. He’s enlightened. So he has to go through this entire play living through and with the plague that he himself is causing to come at the end of the plague a new man, a man who can see and who can illuminate others as well as himself, so this is a very nice context, it seems to me, the plague, in the play, out of which the light can come.

Miller (25:29–25:35): Thank you. Deanna, do you want to make any comments about narrative?

Shemek (25:36–28:13): And structure? I think you were also saying? Yeah, well, I’m thinking in particular The Decameron here. Boccaccio provides a really elaborate structure for the whole Decameron because even preceding his description of the plague, there’s a little preface which is addressed to women in love who are lonely and can’t go out like men can when they’re lonely and in love. They can go fishing, he says, but women have to stay home and be isolated. Then comes the description of the plague that is his introduction in which he apologizes to the ladies and says if I could avoid telling you this terrible beginning to these stories that I’m presenting to you, to cheer you up, I would but there’s no way that I can. I have to give you this darkness effectively, to borrow Zina’s terms, but it’s also Boccaccio’s language, this darkness. And then throughout The Decameron, there are points where he pauses and reflects on his own activity as a narrator and then at the very end, there’s a defense of his activity as a narrator and he never really brings up the plague again. Even though it is surrounding, in this kind of unavoidable way, all those stories, which tend also themselves to highlight youth and to valorize love but particularly young love, he has managed to cast this shadow over the collection which is so highly structured and in which these young people also seek structure. They even devote themselves to very structured games like chess and an elaborate system for their storytelling that he does seem to posit structure as a kind of quality of civilization that plague undoes. It unstructures the society and literature becomes one of the ways in which that structure can be reacquired, literature as play, and the fact that these young people are playing a game and playing multiple games in the course of The Decameron is also really important. I see The Decameron in this light as a real valorization of the vital value of play and creativity in grounding our civilized behavior and in grounding our humanity in our community.

Miller (28:14–28:43): Well thank you Deanna and Zina. I take our conversation really as strong license for us to keep playing, to keep reading, and to keep immersing ourselves in the literature of the past and the present. So thank you for this really fascinating conversation. I want to thank our audience and ask you to tune in again for our next episode of “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond.” Thanks, Deanna and Zina.

Giannopoulou (28:43–28:44): Thanks so much.

Shemek (28:44–28:46): Thank you, thank you both.

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