Pandemics in Literature – The New Indian Express

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The seemingly endless misery caused by the pandemic might remind us of the despair of the German philosopher Theodor Adorno who, after the Holocaust, declared that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz”, and added that “writing poetry poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. But the disasters are not over and literature has not ceased to struggle with them.

Two books often cited in the context of the current pandemic are The Plague (1947/48) by Albert Camus and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985/1988) by Gabriel García Márquez. But literature’s “rendezvous” with pandemics has a much longer history. Geoffrey Chaucer, one of the first writers in English, wrote The Canterbury Tales in the 14th century. A tale included in it, titled “The Pardoner’s Tale”, is not only set in the time of the plague, but Chaucer uses the plague to symbolically represent moral death. The Canterbury Tales themselves may have been influenced by Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353) which deals more directly with the physical, psychological and spiritual effects of the plague on the people of Florence. Then in the 18th century, Daniel Defoe published A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). But it’s not just the “classics” who have engaged in natural or man-made disasters. The familiar nursery rhyme, “Ring-a-ring o’ roses” has many versions and many interpretations. But more recently the rhyme is understood as a description of the Great Plague of 1665 in England:

Ring-a-ring o’ roses, (a pink rash, a symptom of the plague)
A pocket full of bouquets, (herbs worn for protection and to ward off the smell)
A-tishoo! A-tishoo! (sneeze, cough) OR Ashes! Ashes! (cremation, burning of houses)
We all fall (dead)

The current COVID-19 pandemic is often compared to the flu pandemic of a century ago, the Spanish flu of 1918-19, which killed millions of people, especially young people, all over the world. What made it worse was that it broke out soon after World War I, which had already caused unprecedented destruction and death. One of the people who caught the flu during the pandemic was TS Eliot. He felt oppressed by the constant concern for his health, his family life and feared that his mind had been affected by the disease. Then, in The Waste Land (1922), he transformed these personal worries, the feeling of uncertainty and the constant fear of death into an atmosphere that captured the essence of the absurdity and absurdity of the post-war-post-pandemic era.

One of the horrors of the pandemic is that the enemy is invisible, the threat is all around us but we cannot see it. Everyone is suspicious and everything is a potential danger. The human body suddenly becomes totally vulnerable and porous. It is this feeling of dread from an unknown source that WB Yeats captures in his well-known poem, “The Second Coming” (1920). There are, of course, many sources of the chaos and horror the poem describes – war, revolution, Ireland’s political violence, etc. But the poem’s fear of a threat from an unknown and unseen source, and Yeats’ description of “mere anarchy” and “innocence drowned by a bloody tide”, have a personal aspect. Yeats composed the poem in the midst of the 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic after witnessing his pregnant wife’s battle with the virus and her close encounter with death during the pandemic. One of the reasons The Waste Land or “The Second Coming” is remembered long after the specific issues they addressed are no longer relevant, is the writers’ ability to turn the intimate into an experience. universal.

Amitav Ghosh recently said there will likely be “a huge wave of novels about the pandemic”. While fiction may follow, some novelists have readily responded with non-fiction. “The Pandemic is a Portal” by Arundhati Roy is an insightful essay on the current crisis facing the world. Another celebrated novelist, Zadie Smith’s series of essays in Intimations is deeply personal and deeply moving. Closer to home, surgeons Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed, writing together as “Kalpish Ratna”, combine science and history with a human story in Crown of Thorns: The Coronavirus and Us. Unsurprisingly, the poets seem to have grasped the spirit of the times much more intuitively. K Satchidanandan and Nishi Chawla have brought together over a hundred poets from around the world in their collection Singing in the Dark: A Global Anthology of Poetry Under Lockdown.

However, of course, it is not enough to write on a current topic, because, as Gertrude Stein told Ernest Hemingway, “remarks are not literature”. A writer must have the ability to transform an abstract phenomenon into a concrete and lived experience, and the art of making the reader see, in the words of William Blake, “a world in a grain of sand”. In his foreword (entitled “Certificate of Merit”) to Telugu poet Sri Sri’s magnum opus Mahaprasthanam (1950), writer-philosopher (Gudipati Venkata) Chalam contrasts the “romantic” poet Devulapalli Krishnasastri and the “revolutionary” poet Sri Sri: While the former could make the world feel his pain, the latter felt the suffering of the whole world as his own. It remains to be seen how many current and upcoming literary works on the pandemic will stand the test of time, and how many writers will have the art of turning a hot topic into a timeless classic.

(The author teaches literature at BITS Pilani, Hyderabad)

The seemingly endless misery caused by the pandemic might remind us of the despair of the German philosopher Theodor Adorno who, after the Holocaust, declared that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz”, and added that “writing poetry poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. But the disasters are not over and literature has not ceased to struggle with them. Two books often cited in the context of the current pandemic are The Plague (1947/48) by Albert Camus and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985/1988) by Gabriel García Márquez. But literature’s “rendezvous” with pandemics has a much longer history. Geoffrey Chaucer, one of the first writers in English, wrote The Canterbury Tales in the 14th century. A tale included in it, titled “The Pardoner’s Tale”, is not only set in the time of the plague, but Chaucer uses the plague to symbolically represent moral death. The Canterbury Tales themselves may have been influenced by Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353) which deals more directly with the physical, psychological and spiritual effects of the plague on the people of Florence. Then in the 18th century, Daniel Defoe published A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). But it’s not just the “classics” who have engaged in natural or man-made disasters. The familiar nursery rhyme, “Ring-a-ring o’ roses” has many versions and many interpretations. But more recently the rhyme is understood as a description of the Great Plague of 1665 in England: Ring-a-ring o’ roses, (a pink rash, a symptom of the plague) A pocket full of bouquets, (herbs carried as protection and to ward off odor) A-tishoo! A-tishoo! (sneeze, cough) OR Ashes! Ashes! (cremation, house burning) We all fall (dead) The current COVID-19 pandemic is often compared to the flu pandemic of a century ago, the Spanish flu of 1918-19, which killed millions of people, especially young people, all over the world. What made it worse was that it broke out soon after World War I, which had already caused unprecedented destruction and death. One of the people who caught the flu during the pandemic was TS Eliot. He felt oppressed by the constant concern for his health, his family life and feared that his mind had been affected by the disease. Then, in The Waste Land (1922), he transformed these personal worries, the feeling of uncertainty and the constant fear of death into an atmosphere that captured the essence of the absurdity and absurdity of the post-war-post-pandemic era. One of the horrors of the pandemic is that the enemy is invisible, the threat is all around us but we cannot see it. Everyone is suspicious and everything is a potential danger. The human body suddenly becomes totally vulnerable and porous. It is this feeling of dread from an unknown source that WB Yeats captures in his well-known poem, “The Second Coming” (1920). There are, of course, many sources of the chaos and horror the poem describes – war, revolution, Ireland’s political violence, etc. But the poem’s fear of a threat from an unknown and unseen source, and Yeats’ description of “mere anarchy” and “innocence drowned by a bloody tide”, have a personal aspect. Yeats composed the poem in the midst of the 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic after witnessing his pregnant wife’s battle with the virus and her close encounter with death during the pandemic. One of the reasons The Waste Land or “The Second Coming” is remembered long after the specific issues they addressed are no longer relevant, is the writers’ ability to turn the intimate into an experience. universal. Amitav Ghosh recently said there will likely be “a huge wave of novels about the pandemic”. While fiction may follow, some novelists have readily responded with non-fiction. “The Pandemic is a Portal” by Arundhati Roy is an insightful essay on the current crisis facing the world. Another celebrated novelist, Zadie Smith’s series of essays in Intimations is deeply personal and deeply moving. Closer to home, surgeons Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed, writing together as “Kalpish Ratna”, combine science and history with a human story in Crown of Thorns: The Coronavirus and Us. Unsurprisingly, the poets seem to have grasped the spirit of the times much more intuitively. K Satchidanandan and Nishi Chawla have brought together over a hundred poets from around the world in their collection Singing in the Dark: A Global Anthology of Poetry Under Lockdown. However, of course, it is not enough to write on a current topic, because, as Gertrude Stein told Ernest Hemingway, “remarks are not literature”. A writer must have the ability to transform an abstract phenomenon into a concrete and lived experience, and the art of making the reader see, in the words of William Blake, “a world in a grain of sand”. In his foreword (entitled “Certificate of Merit”) to Telugu poet Sri Sri’s magnum opus Mahaprasthanam (1950), writer-philosopher (Gudipati Venkata) Chalam contrasts the “romantic” poet Devulapalli Krishnasastri and the “revolutionary” poet Sri Sri: While the former could make the world feel his pain, the latter felt the suffering of the whole world as his own. It remains to be seen how many current and upcoming literary works on the pandemic will stand the test of time, and how many writers will have the art of turning a hot topic into a timeless classic. (The author teaches literature at BITS Pilani, Hyderabad)

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