Affects of the Viral
In the final section of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, one of the book's three leading characters, Florentino Ariza, visits one of the other leading characters, Fermina Daza, at her home - but quickly has to exit the premises, claiming he is only paying a visit to arrange a day when they could see each other properly. This is a woman he has been waiting to spend time with for many, many years. They are both now old but she is the great love of his life who rejected his affections many years earlier, after showing initial enthusiasm, and went on to marry the third main character in the book, the doctor, Juvenal Urbino, "a physician with family and fortune, educated in Europe and with an extraordinary reputation for a man of his years..." Returning to the Caribbean a man of the world, Juvenal Urbino possesses the confidence and class that poor Florentino Ariza can offer in letters but not in person. When Fermina Daza's cousin Hildebranda first sees Florentino Ariza she witnesses "an invisible clerk with his air of a whipped dog, whose clothing, [was] worthy of a rabbi in disgrace, and whose solemn manner could not perturb anyone's heart." Yet as she says, "he is ugly and sad...but he is all love." On this day, in the present, he can't stay for a simple reason that would demand a complex explanation. In various other places in the book, Garcia Marquez had informed us of Florentino Ariza's terrible constipation, and the flipside of it is the occasional sudden need to evacuate. "He knew himself well: despite his congenital constipation, his belly had betrayed him in public three or four times in the course of his many years, and those three or four times he had been obliged to give in." This is another of those occasions and so Florentino Ariza retreats, gets into his carriage and can no longer hold back. He...closed his eyes, relaxed his muscles, and surrendered to the will of his body. It was like being reborn." After opening the carriage door, the driver understandably wonders if Florentino Ariza has cholera but no, just a terribly unreliable bowel.
Throughout the book, cholera is present rather as Florentino Ariza's bowels happen to be: present but far from omnipresent. The operative word in the book is love not cholera and our purpose here is to look at three books concerned with contagious disease from a perspective that puts the medical in the background and the thematic in the foreground. Looking at Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, and Camus' The Plague, what we wish to explore isn't the specifics of the infection (cholera in Garcia Marquez's novel and Mann's novella; the plague in Camus's book, but how they utilise disease to explore something else: the romantic in Love in the Time of Cholera, the aesthetic in Mann's Death in Venice and the existential in Camus's The Plague. Though there are several moments in Garcia Marquez's book that make clear cholera isn't irrelevant it functions as a narrative backdrop, the sort of thing that happens elsewhere and to other people, even if Juvenal Urbino's father succumbs to the disease, Juvenal Urbino proves central to its minimisation, and the book ends on Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza lost at sea unable to berth the boat in fear that they will spread the epidemic. However, when in the last lines of the book, the third character on the boat, the captain, says, "and how long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming and going?", Florentino Ariza muses over how long he has sustained his love for Fermina Daza, and says "forever", calculating the time he has been waiting for her: fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights."
In Death in Venice we don't even know for sure if Aschenbach dies from cholera or from a heart attack as he sits in a deckchair on the beach. What is important is less the intricacies of the illness than the subtlety of his feelings. He becomes infatuated with a teenage boy who is the epitome of beauty in the flesh, with Aschenbach determined to see in the youth's looks all that is beautiful in myth and art. At one moment he compares Tadzio to a statue: "no one had ever dared to cut short his beautiful hair; like that of the Boy Extracting a Thorn it fell in curls over his forehead, over his ears, and still lower over his neck."
In The Plague, the book is far more detailed in its account of illness, but what interests Camus thematically is the existential, the importance of a lucid consciouness, evident when the narrator says: "the evil that is in the world always comes out of ignorance and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding." For Camus, the plague that visits Oran, allows people to see human existence constantly faced by death, demanding of its citizens an awareness of mortality that isn't an abstraction but a concrete ongoing threat. It would be a simplification of Martin Heidegger to say that what defines our existence is the death that awaits us, but a very important dimension of existential thinking is lucidity in the context of our demise. When Sartre says, "...to die is to be condemned no matter what ephemeral victory one has won over the Other; even if one has made use of the Other to "sculpture one's own statue", to die is to exist only through the Other, and to owe to him one's meaning and the very meaning of one's victory" (Being and Nothingness), it is to show the importance of the presence of death for philosophical consciousness. Death is what we are faced with, that defines us even if we will never know it because the death of someone else is their death and ours cannot be known by us since we will no longer be alive to experience it. As Heidegger says, "the greater the phenomenal appropriateness with which we take the no-longer-Dasein of the deceased, the more plainly is it shown that in such Being-with the dead, the authentic Being-come-to-an-end of the deceased is precisely the sort of thing which we do not experience." Death, Heidegger believes, "does indeed reveal itself as a loss, but a loss such as is experienced by those who remain. In suffering this loss, however, we have no way of access to the loss-of-Being as such which the dying man 'suffers'. The dying of Others is not something which we experience in a genuine sense; at most we are always just 'there alongside'. (Being and Time)
Our purpose isn't to attend to the intricacies of existential philosophy in addressing Camus' novel, just as it isn't too important to dwell on romantic and aesthetic theory to comprehend Garcia Marquez's and Mann's books, especially when we are using romantic in a colloquial, rather than an historic sense, in the context of Garcia Marquez. It is not Garcia Marquez's links to the Romantic tradition that especially interests us even though there are elements of Goethe's young Werther in the young Florentino Ariza. But rather than dying young, Garcia Marquez is often interested in loving in old age, with Love in the Time in Cholera finally much more concerned with love's slow-burning possibility rather than its hasty conflagration. As in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, for example, the Colombian novelist is fascinated by love's longevity; how someone might hold in their heart a feeling that doesn't fade with time but gains a property of desire that is almost beyond the physical. In Chronicle of a Death Foretold, a woman falls for the man she married only after he rejects her (when he discovers she isn't a virgin on her wedding night). She writes to him every day for seventeen years without a reply until finally, he turns up at her door. The letters seem to have created the possibility of love and forgiveness. In Love in the Time of Cholera, when Florentino Ariza sees Fermina Daza naked, he isn't surprised by the looseness of her flesh and has to acknowledge the flaccidity of his member. Love is in the air one might say, rather than in the body: there is no doubt that Florentino Ariza still desires immensely Fermina Daza, but much of this desire always contained a dimension beyond the physical that it is apt rather than ironic when he initially fails to perform. If in Love in the Time of Cholera, Garcia Marquez suggests that love is only tangentially physical rather than fundamentally so, it can come as an absurd surprise, partly because here is a man who has been waiting fifty years to consummate a love affair. His love is predicated on Eros but is even more, come the end of that obsessive emotional journey, Philia: affection is more important than attraction. The narrator says, thinking of the night of failed love, "...despite the disappointments each of them felt, despite his regret for his clumsiness and her remorse for the madness of the anisette, they were not apart for a moment in the days that followed."
In Death in Venice, there is no suggestion that Aschenbach seeks Eros through the boy Tadzio but there is more than a hint of Thanatos. The beauty of the youth constantly makes Aschenbach aware of his own decline but the cholera makes Gustav aware too that mortality is a constant threat at any age. To say that Aschenbach idealises Tadzio is obvious; it is the nature of that idealisation that is interesting. Eros might rear its head but the head belongs to Tadzio and all Aschenbach can do is admire it. "It was the head of Eros, with the creamy lustre of Parian marble, the brows fine-drawn and serious, the temples and ear darkly and softly covered by the right-angled growth of the curling hair." The constant references to mythology and aesthetics might just be the problem of Tantalus facing Narcissus: that Aschenbach can never hope to get his hands on the teenager, so better he claims, instead of failure, a higher aspiration. Yet he isn't at all like the Fox in Aesop's fable, where the grapes must be sour since he cannot reach them. Instead, Tadzio could be seen as closer to the disinterested grapes of a sculptor, grapes which can never be eaten.
Yet this is where Aschenbach's idealization meets the reality of cholera. For all the talk of Beauty, Tadzio is as capable of getting the disease as anybody. Aschenbach may see him as possessing "the smile of Narcissus as he bows his head over the mirroring water, that profound, fascinated, protracted smile with which he reaches out his arms towards the reflection of his own beauty", but Tadzio is literally no God and cholera is a disease where water presents dangers indeed. In the myth, Narcissus cannot separate himself from his reflection as he falls in love with his image in the water. In Death in Venice, the water is a very different type of threat; less a reflecting surface than death at work. Venice is in this sense the great city of Neptune but always threatening to be the city of Thanatos, with water ready to turn bad. In turn, Tadzio can turn bad too as he and his family remain in the city long after most people have left. If neither Death in Venice nor Love in the Time of Cholera pay that much attention to the diseases they rely upon, at the same time we wouldn't say that any illness could have replaced them in the narrative. Water and trade are vital to the spread of the virus, with Venice suggesting a city ripe for a cholera epidemic and the unnamed town in Marquez's work a river port on the coast.
Writing on cholera through history, Neil Singh says, port cities, crucial to trade, were affected particularly badly." (Guardian) Mann might pay little attention to the malady for much of the novella, seeing its significance chiefly as a metaphor for his own preoccupations, evident when the narrator says, "Aschenbach felt an obscure sense of satisfaction at what was going on in the dirty alleyways of Venice, cloaked in official secrecy this guilty secret of the city, which merged with his own innermost secret and which it was also so much in his own interest to protect." But ten pages later, Aschenbach speaks to an English clerk at a travel agency who informs him about the disease in detail. "Originating in the sultry morasses of the Ganges delta, rising with the mephitic exhalations of that wilderness of rank useless luxuriance...the pestilence had raged with unusual and prolonged virulence all over northern India; it had struck eastward into China, westward into Afghanistan and Persia, and following the main caravan routes it had borne its terrors to Astrakhan and even to Moscow." The clerk says that it found its way into several Mediterranean ports and also now Venice.
The disease will never become as important to the book as Aschenbach's aestheticising of Tadzio, just as the same virus will never gain a prominent place next to the love affair explored in Love in the Time of Cholera. Nevertheless, Juvenal Urbino is a doctor, and his father, a doctor before him, died of the malady as his effort to counter the disease was more charitable than scientific. The son had perhaps the advantages of burgeoning scientific insight of the sort that Singh mentions in his article but, with the father doing his best, the city was nevertheless devastated. "The epidemic of cholera morbus, whose first victims were struck down in the standing water of the market, had, in eleven weeks, been responsible for the greatest death toll in our history...After the first two weeks of the cholera epidemic, the cemetery was overflowing and there was no room left in the churches despite the fact that they had dispatched the decayed remains of many nameless civic heroes to the communal ossuary." Thus the virus isn't central but it isn't replaceable either.
In contrast to Mann and Marquez, Camus in The Plague opens with the disease of its title and the entire book takes place within the very categorical presence of the malady. Yet ironically, it is Camus' novel that is read as the most allegorical. Tony Judt says, "The Plague, an allegory of the German occupation of France and an attack on dogma and cowardice, established the reputation of Albert Camus." The clause seems to suggest there is no room for argument. Samuel Earle says, "published in the aftermath of the Second World War, The Plague - or La Peste - has typically been read as an allegory for fascism." (New Statesman) But Earle's 2020 article adds, "now the story strikes us in a more literal light: the infectious disease no longer represents the Nazi occupation of France, as it did for many of its first readers, but simply another infectious disease - Covid-19." There is the danger here that Earle has moved from the allegorical to the fashionable but few reading the book today will see abstract comparisons with the occupation over tangible similarities with Coronavirus. This doesn't mean the book ought to be read as a detailed account of plague, but it is always best to see what is in front of us rather than what might be sitting in an author's mind. Camus was drawn to the subject for different reasons than an epidemiologist but nevertheless wishes to find his preoccupations in the immediate reality of a doctor's occupation. Though the book appears to be narrated neutrally, with Dr Bernard Rieux our central character, before the end of the novel, the narrator tells us that the chronicle we have been reading has been written by the doctor himself. "This chronicle is drawing to an end, and this seems to be the moment for Dr Bernard Rieux to confess that he is the narrator." It gives to the book a focalised position and at the same a removed perspective. As the narrator says, the doctor was "well-placed for giving a true account of all he saw and heard. But in so doing he has tried to keep within the limits that seemed desirable." These limits mean we neither go too far inside the doctor's head nor get to assume what is going on in anybody else's. Written five years after Camus' The Outsider, which offered a dispassionate style despite a first person narration, based on a hardly dispassionate subject (a man about to be executed), Camus retains here the dispassion but offers a different technique. Yet in both instances, the books emphasize the immediacy of death without the emotional morality of a demise. Camus may well have seen the death penalty as an atrocious thing and of course wrote a famous essay 'Reflections on the Guillotine'. However, in both books, execution, and disease need to be conveyed remorselessly, as a given fact of existence. An ethos rests less on how we react abstractly to death than how one faces its presence immediately.
All the moral hand-wringing will not save Meursault's life; he must himself confront his imminent appointment with the grim reaper. It is one thing, in the context of a plague, to insist that the government needs to do more, that sanitary conditions should never allow for such a virus to take hold, and if more money had been spent on infrastructure and hygiene rather than tax cuts and needless luxuries, we wouldn't be where we are. But all these wouldn't be very existentially pertinent. What happens to be, is how one faces death, a point made by one of the other main characters in the book, Tarrou, who discusses an early and ongoing horror and fascination with the reality of a person's demise, and the abstract notion of punishment. His father was Director of Public Prosecutions and the son realises one day the reality of his father's position when he sentences a man to die. Tarrou didn't doubt the man was guilty but he couldn't get the reality of his dying out of his mind. As the man is condemned to death, all Tarrou can think about is the terrified defendant. "I hardly knew what was being said; I only knew that they were set on killing that living man and an uprush of some elemental instinct, like a wave, had swept me to his side." A while later Tarrou leaves home and never really returns, a constant traveller involving himself in various people's struggles. He then talks about the plague metaphorically, saying "...I, anyhow, had the plague through all these long years in which, paradoxically enough, I'd believed with all my soul that I was fighting it. I learned that I had had an indirect hand in the deaths of thousands of people; that I'd even brought about their deaths by approving of acts and principles which could only end that way."
What Tarrou sees is that the plague isn't only a disease they are suffering under in the city of Oran, a disease with its own manifest determination to kill, but that man is himself a plague and the pestilence just an instance of it that leads people to kill others when they come into close contact. The disease may be passed from one person to the next with no aggression intended, but aggression there will be as the virus passes from one victim to another from one person whose biology will set out to destroy another person's biology. This is ostensibly very different from the type of killing his father legally sanctioned and that Tarrou has been involved in while fighting for people's freedom but the results are the same: one man comes into contact with another and death results. The plague is just its extreme manifestation.
Fellow existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre, described hell as other people, but The Plague indicates that, while we might wish that to be a potentially existential perspective (as Sartre brilliantly explores in Being and Nothingness, even if the phrase comes from No Exit), nobody will deny that it becomes a fact when potentially anyone is carrying a contagious disease. Camus explores it more like a seed in the brain than a microbe in the body. What the disease does is show how from a certain point of view that for all the talk of the human as social animal, there is a drive towards the demise of others that is constantly present. At the end of the novel, Rieux reflects that "such joy is always imperilled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it roused up its rates again and sent them forth to die in a happy city."
Camus clearly wanted the novel to express more than the specifics of the plague but that needn't lead us to assume inevitably that the story should be read as allegory. Judt shows how it can be read that way but also often justifies the reading less through the text than through Camus' life. "Camus was thenceforth separated not just from his homeland but also from his mother and his wife, and would not see them again until the Germans had been defeated. Illness, exile and separation were thus present in Camus's life as in his novel, and his reflections upon them form a vital counterpoint to the allegory." An allegory of an event is in danger of offering the very abstraction that Camus appears so keen to avoid. It isn't so much that Camus' novel is an allegory of Vichy France but that, if a writer gets close enough to first principles, it can serve to illustrate situations that go beyond its immediate narrative. To read into the book what is abstractly present rather than concretely evident seems a little perverse, since Camus is interested in the existential presence of things and that, of the three books under discussion, The Plague is the one that attends most to the virus itself.
What seems reasonable is to suggest that any writer interested in the fictional possibilities of disease is going to be drawn to the illness for reasons other than the medical and the documentative. Why this disease over another; why disease at all? When Susan Sontag writes about illness she understands that diseases have cultural as well as medical histories, noting "Leprosy in its heyday aroused a similarly disproportionate sense of horror [as cancer]. In the Middle Ages the leper was a social text in which corruption was made visible; an exemplum, an emblem of decay. Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaningthat meaning being invariably a moralistic one." (New York Review of Books) In Illness as Metaphor she says, "my subject is not physical illness itself but the uses of illness as a figure or metaphor. My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illnessand the healthiest way of being illis one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking." As she takes issue with various cliches like being at war with cancer and so on, she points out their detrimental effect on a patient who is held responsible for a disease that they must attack. But focusing on fiction writers and disease, the novelist can see in various illnesses a narrative need that other illnesses do not offer, thus leaving some relatively under-represented in literature, even illness, in general, under-represented. As Virginia Woolf noted: "Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light . . . it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature." (The Essays of Virginia Woolf)
Life and literature though may not be the same thing. When a writer such as Alain Robbe-Grillet admires Camus it isn't for any notion of verisimilitude he finds in his work but for the gap Camus creates between the world and the fiction he produces. Robbe-Grillet's position is more extreme than most but he is simply opening up a space that readers tend to underestimate and that Woolf is pointing out, the sort of spaces Gilbert Durand proposes when, as Ross Chambers says: between the idea of experience or Erfahrung and that of a store of imaginary resources there is no real incompatibility if one takes into account the fact that the
audience of a narrative event is invited by the narrator to imagine what they may not themselves have actually experienced (say, the collective knowledge of a group, or the product of an individual's enterprise). Images, in this understanding, are the means available for making the narrator's experience imaginable by the audience the narrative addresses. ('Narrative and the Imaginary: A Review of Gilbert Durand's The Anthropological Structures of the Imaginary') Megan O'Rourke quotes Woolf's essay, and reckons we still have few novels and poems of "typhoid and feverlet alone of what are coming to be known as "invisible illness" such as autoimmune disease (which affect women disproportionately). To have an invisible illness is to remain marginalized by indifferencepolitical, social, and yes, even literary." (Lit Hub) Yet this seems to be misconstruing the purposes of literature and falling into a too fashionable 21st-century idea that the arts are there to represent life rather than to re-imagine its possibilities. There is a reason writers like Durand propose the anthropological structures of the imaginary and why Robbe-Grillet can say "I am certain that a novelist is someone who attributes a different reality-value to the characters and events of his story than to those of 'real' life. A novelist is someone who confuses his own life with that of his characters." (Paris Review)
The writer's purpose is to feed the imagination not represent life. If some diseases all but go unmentioned, the answer doesn't lie in then insistently representing them, but wondering why some diseases seem conducive to literature and others not. Out of such an examination, all sorts of cliches and prejudices might appear but maybe they won't. By analogy, some sports are more aesthetic than others; some play easily into one writer's imagination and other sports don't. Many writers including Hemingway, John Gardner, Joyce Carol Oates and Norman Mailer have been drawn to boxing, a sport that seems to possess the tension and tragedy that serves well creativity, probably much more so than ice hockey or American football. Rather than saying we need more books about American football or ice-hockey, better first to understand why boxing is so appealing.
Equally, why might cholera or the plague be more 'literary' than auto-immune disease or cancer? In Mrs Dalloway, the disease hovering over the book is the influenza pandemic after WWI, a 'useful' disease that weaves through the background of Woolf's novel as it historically helps capture the immediate post-war years but can also suggest a permeative quality that the book itself possesses. Woolf moves from character to character as though refusing to respect the usual divisions between people that classical narration demands. By the same reckoning, the disease passes between people with an equal fluidity so that the stream of consciousness Woolf adopts is matched by the bacterial freedom of the contagion. Not any disease would do and Woolf's utilisation of influenza is as much a literary conceit as it is a realistic detail. Woolf says, "more practically speaking, the public would say that a novel devoted to influenza lacked plot; they would complain that there was no love in itwrongly however, for illness often takes on the disguise of love, and plays the same odd tricks, investing certain faces with divinity, setting us to wait, hour after hour, with pricked ears for the creaking of a stair, and wreathing the faces of the absent (plain enough in health, Heaven knows) with a new significance, while the mind concocts a thousand legends and romances about them for which it has neither time nor liberty in health." ('On Illness')
Yet what Woolf shows is that it is the way it fits into her narrative that matters not the disease. What is interesting about the way Woolf uses influenza in Mrs Dalloway is that she gives it very low plot value but a great thematic and conceptual purpose. While Woolf might feel literature has been neglectful of illness, nevertheless people have been dying from illnesses throughout literary history. There is Beth's scarlet fever in Little Women, the titular character's malaria in Daisy Miller, tuberculosis in such different books as The Magic Mountain and The Jungle, or smallpox in Bleak House. Concerning the latter, Afton Lorraine Woodward says, "in the critical body of work on Charles Dickens's Bleak House, a certain synecdoche has long been accepted: the city of London is analogous to the human bodies that live within it. The corruption that infects the city's financial, legal, and class-based institutions clearly manifests itself in the bodily infections suffered by several characters, notably the fever that afflicts Jo, Charley, and Esther, generally thought to be smallpox." ("'His blood is infected': Transmission of Disease and Wealth in Dickens's Bleak House.')
The question might be less whether or not illness has a place in literature but what diseases are literary and which are not. While many a critic will concern themselves with the moral aspect of a disease, we might ask instead what is its perceptual usefulness, taking into account Camus' comment in The Myth of Sisyphus when speaking of phenomenology. "The rose petal, the milestone, or the human hand are as important as love, desire, or the laws of gravity. Thinking ceases to be unifying or making a semblance familiar in the guise of a major principle. Thinking is learning all over again to see, to be attentive, to focus consciousness; it is turning every idea and every image, in the manner of Proust, into a privileged moment. What justifies thought is its extreme consciousness." Journalist Constance Grady can facetiously say, after quoting Woolf's claim about the paucity of illness in literature, she "clearly did not read very much moralizing sentimental literature, in which illness induced either by excessive goodness or excessive wickedness is a grand and pervasive theme. Illness is a time-honored arbiter of moral rectitude: Those who are too good for this world die angelically, with a single pathetic cough; those who are too wicked die with much tortured groaning." (Vox) Nevertheless, it does seem Woolf wanted from ill-health what Camus wanted from phenomenology: to go beyond the reason of health and towards the sensation of illness. As she says: "when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries...are then disclosed." ('On Illness')
There are many interesting questions that could be opened up here and one of them might be that if cancer is not very useful for fiction why has it been so successful as memoir? From the philosophically inclined, the familially concerned, to the personally preoccupied, the cancer memoir almost now represents a genre itself. Whether originating in journalistic form as it maps the disease, an account published posthumously, or a memoir of recovery, one can think of works by Gillian Rose, Ruth Picardie, John Diamond, Jenny Diski and celebrity memoirs by singer Olivia Newton-John and cricketer Yuvraj Singh. There have been important literary works on cancer of course, and perhaps none more so than Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, but does it lack the capacity to invoke the literary imagination and finds itself chiefly as a diaristic disorder? Clearly, if we see in Death in Venice, Love in the Time of Cholera, and The Plague, the aesthetic, the romantic and the existential, then what is important rests on a disease's capacity to generate a mood, an atmosphere and a thematic. Death in Venice, Love in the Time of Cholera and The Plague are all books that find in viruses a thematic necessity. It makes sense that Camus' book would be the one most focused on the condition itself since he wants the existential/phenomenalist specificity that proposes the characters are in a new world that they must see afresh. Mann merely wants from cholera the deathly atmosphere that Aschenbach is already permeated by. Aschenbach doesn't quite go to Venice to die but there is no surprise that he does die. Mann's title gives away the book's ending. Even though Venice entertains many deaths as the cholera strikes, Mann is only interested in Aschenbach's, in the contrast between Tadzio's health and beauty and the older man's incipient decrepitude. The disease isn't there as a medical or even a social phenomenon but as a personal slight. "Indeed, he had several times, on the beach, in the hotel foyer and the Piazzo San Marco, been frozen with alarm to notice that Tadzio was being called away if he was near him, that they were taking care to keep them apart and although his pride writhed in torments it had never known under the appalling insult that this implied, he could not in conscience deny its justice." In Love in the Time of Cholera, Marquez utilises the titular malady at the end of the book for the opposite effect: if the disease keeps Tadzio at arms length, Marquez allows Florentino Ariza to keep Fermina Daza in his arms forever. The yellow cholera flag the captain puts up for convenience now leaves them unable to berth at any port but that doesn't bother Florentino Ariza who has all he needs on board the woman he has been waiting many years to spend the rest of his days with after decades ("for over half a century") without her. Mann points up the aesthetic desire to look rather than touch and cholera exacerbates that wish. In Love in the Time of Cholera, Florentino Ariza wants never to let Fermina Daza go and the cholera epidemic allows that hope to come true. These are the two radical poles of the contagious disease: most of the world become strangers we can never touch and a very small number, perhaps no more than a lover or one's family, become those with a passport to tactility. Everybody else must keep their distance and you must keep yours from everyone beyond that tiny principality called the isolating unit. Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza live in that same kingdom on the boat and thus can enjoy the romantic dream of remaining forever exiled from the rest of the world; Aschenbach is in exile from his aesthetic ideal only a few metres away.
In The Plague, the existential in the context of love manifests itself as the stoical. The sudden decision to close Oran off from the rest of the world, leaves central character Bernard Rieux's wife in a sanatorium elsewhere, while Raymond Rambert is a journalist caught in the town who initially wishes to return to his girlfriend in Paris. Over time, both men accept their situation, and the most important relationship in the book is between Rieux and Jean Tarrou. Near the end of the novel, after Tarrou has died from the disease, Rieux thinks "he had lived at Tarrou's side and Tarrou had died this evening without their friendship's having had time to enter fully into the life of either. Tarrou had 'lost the match' but what had Rieux won?" Rieux reckons: "no more than the experience of having known plague and remembering it, of knowing affection and being destined one day to remember it." The victory is small but incremental, stoical victories are all one can hope for when so many are losing their lives and where even with unequivocal loves one's feeling is sparsely expressed. Speaking of his relationship with his mother, Rieux says, "at that moment he knew what his mother was thinking, and that she loved him. But he knew, too, that to love someone means relatively little, or rather, to love is never strong enough to find the words befitting it."
In each instance, Mann, Garcia Marquez and Camus use contagion for their own ends, to explore a preoccupation through a medical condition. The degree of expertise isn't what matters, though Camus "immersed himself in history books about the plague before writing his novel, and his account is so convincing that, in 'What is an epidemic? Aids in historical perspective', an influential article published in 1989, the social historian Charles Rosenberg used the plot of The Plague to lay out the 'archetypal pattern' of epidemics." (New Statesman) What matters much more is how a disease that has a particularity as a disease, takes on a new particularity in a fictional work. As Dylan Daniel says, "perhaps the most absurd observation I can make from my reading of the book, is the sense in which for the city the plague is in fact the cure. That is to say, although it kills too many and causes too much grief, the cholera outbreak also breaks down the immoral conditions in which the inhabitants of the town lived before it struck. It brings solidarity, community and meaning back into focus in their lives." (Philosophy Now) Camus emphasizes very strongly that Oran is a city of commerce and close-mindedness before the epidemic, saying "the whole population, sitting in cafes, is discussing shipments, bills of lading, discounts!...Treeless, glamourless, soulless..." If the disease has a singularity that can be discussed medically that needn't be a writer's concern. "The Y. pestis species contains both genotypically and phenotypically different variants. Strains of the main subspecies, Y. pestis subsp. pestis, belonging to biovars antiqua, medievalis, orientalis, and intermedium are virulent for humans and guinea pigs. Three plague pandemics are believed to have been caused by strains of each of the first three biovars." This comes from a medical paper in Acta Naturae and yet a writer and in turn a reader needn't delve too deeply into the science of disease but instead see in it not the disease's singularity but its creative usefulness. If we have chosen to view in the three works under discussion the aesthetic, the romantic and the existential, it is because what interests the three writers is the potentiality in viruses to express a specific problematic, one that coincides with the disease but needn't be exclusive to it. During the early moments of Covid-19 and the search for a vaccine, we wouldn't have expected scientists to read any of the three novels to find help in accessing a cure, but one may have indeed done so to try and understand how we might live in a contagious world. A virologist will have nothing to say about the virtualisation that has come out of people's need to self-quarantine but writers and thinkers might.
Will Self proposes in an essay that we have been living through 'mandatory virtuality', while also utilising a JG Ballard story that anticipates our relationship with recent technology, even though the story was written more than forty years ago. In the 'Intensive Care Unit', Ballard explores how the children were created using in vitro methods and the parents have until the story begins never met. The sense of scale and expectation are set by the virtual and not the actual: "Neither of us was wearing make-up. Without its cosmetic mask Margaret's face seemed pasty and unhealthy, and the movements of her white hands were nervous and unsettled. I was struck by her advanced age and, above all, by her small size. For years I had known Margaret as a huge close-up on one or other of the large television screens in the house." Self quotes this passage, seeing perhaps in an extended period of virtualisation a fear that, as in Plato's allegory, we mistake, the shadows for the world. Someone writing, fictionally, on the recent pandemic, may know very little at all about how the disease passed virally through our body but might feel obliged to say much more about how the viral nature of a digitised world has left us safe in our homes but insecure in our minds, sceptical about tech that is no longer a useful secondary means by which to communicate, but the primary means of contact. What we suspect, and what Ballard's story alludes to, and Self's article meditates upon, is that it will require a very different vision to understand Covid than those offered by Mann, Garcia Marquez and Camus, even if their preoccupations won't have at all gone away. If the epidemiologist is interested in the viral effects on the body; the literary writer will be interested in the more general affects of the viral.
© Tony McKibbin