Tuesday, December 06, 2005


In Boccaccio’s Decameron, a group of Florentine libertines suddenly experienced the inversion of their entire world by the unexpected advent of ‘pestilenza,’ a plague which decimated the population and whose origins baffled the wisest of sages. “Some say that it descended upon the human race through the influence of the heavenly bodies, others that it was a punishment signifying God’s righteous anger at our iniquitous way of life.” While some fled, most wasted away miserably and others in their desperation gave up all semblance of adherence to social mores, indulging in the grossest of their bestial passions, our struthocamilic libertines ensconced themselves in a villa high up in the Tuscan hills, “di raccontare cento novella, o favole, o parabole, o istorie chie dire le vogliano, raccontate in diece giorni da una onesta brigata di sette donne e di tre giovani nel pistilenzioso tempo della passata mortalità fatta, e alcune canzonette dalle predette donne cantate al lor diletto.” (to tell a hundred tales, or fables, or parables or histories, call them what you will, told in ten days by a worthy group of seven ladies and three young men formed in the recent season of deadly pestilence, along with certain songs that were song by the ladies for their pleasure.)
The advent of the most recent manifestation of the plague, the Avian Flu H5N1, commonly known as the ‘bird flu,’ is thus not so unprecedented historically as first might appear. For if one searches the annals of history, one is disconcerted to discover that plague and pestilence have blighted mankind at the utmost level of its pride in its own civilization. At the zenith of its hubris, in the form of its smug security in the achievements of its own society, plagues have arrived as thieves in the night to lay men low and shatter the fundamental premises that define and restrict their own world view.
The Golden Age of Athens for example, where under Pericles’ inspired guidance, saw that city develop a vast colonial empire, lord it over the Greeks and pillage the treasury of the Delian league in order to construct that lasting temple to mathematical perfection and human aesthetic, the Acropolis and ‘perfect’ its political Constitution, was brought to a close by the arrival of a strange and highly contagious plague, «λιμός,» that humbled proud Athens at the height of its glory and ensured that it did not ever really achieve those heights ever again. After all, ύβρις according to the ancient Greek conception of religion, was a sin against the gods and as Greeks, the gods tended to cut down tall poppies with excessive glee.
It is pathetic and at the same time profoundly moving to read Thucydides’ account in his history of the Peloponnesian Wars, of the hapless Athenians flying high in April and dropping dead out of the sky, in May. Bewildered at how they, who had hitherto controlled their destinies with confidence and whose fanatic belief in the Athenian way of life and the triumph of the human will led them to defeat those agents of imperialism and enemies of democracy, the Persians, and to order the genocide of the Lesbioi and the forcible installation of ‘democratic’ government in Samos, were now powerless, their sense of identity was entirely annihilated. As Thucydides relates: «δεινότατον δε πατός ην του κακού η τε αθημία, οπότε τις αίσθητο κάμνων (προς γαρ το ανέλπιστον ευθύς τραπόμενοι τη γνώμη πολλώ μάλλον προίεντο σφας αυτούς και ουκ αντείχον) και ότι έτερος αφ’ ετέρου θεραπεία αναπιμπλάμενοι ώσπερ τα πρόβατα έθνησκην» (And the most dreadful thing about the whole malady was not only the despondency of the victims, when they once became aware that they were sick, for their minds straightaway yielded to despair and they gave themselves up for lost instead of resisting, but also that they became infected by nursing one another and died like sheep.)
It is evident in the literature that the plague is but a mere physical manifestation of a deeper pestilence, an illness of a society and the decay of one’s own soul. The greatest historical precedent for this is the Old Testament, where the Ten Plagues are visited upon the profligate inhabitants of Egypt as a result of Pharoah’s hardening of heart and it is within this tradition that Boccaccio placed the plague of the Decameron: «εγώ γαρ εσκλήρυνα αυτού την καρδίαν και των θεραπόντων αυτού, ίνα εξής επέλθη τα σημεία ταύτα επ’ αυτούς.»
In contrast, or maybe in parallel, Albert Camus, in his haunting allegory of Collaborationist France during World War II, ‘La Peste’ viewed the plague as an organic process. In Algerian Oran, the plague is heralded by the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of rats from the sewers, to die on the city’s streets. “It was as though the very soil on which our houses were built was purging itself of an excess of bile, that it was letting boils and abscesses rise to the surface, which up to then, had been devouring it inside.” The death of thousands, the imposition of quarantine, isolation and loneliness of the town followed, coupled with extreme paranoia.
Camus’ plague is hauntingly prophetic. All of a sudden, birds instead of rats are falling from the sky, infected by a disease that seems to be spreading throughout the globe, while governments accumulate stockpiles of antibodies and re-assure us that come what may, they will deliver us from evil and that our faith in the system which guarantees the enjoyment of our daily lives shall not flag, or fail.
Whether our plague is called the ‘War on Terror,’ extreme paranoia and totalitarian methods of enforcing political and social conformity through the spreading of fear and the isolation of the outsider, as our Athenian brothers attempted to visit upon Lesbos and Samos, whether it is famine, environmental degradation, abrogation of worker’s rights and the ‘necessary’ dispensation of human rights in order to safeguard our hallowed world-view, to which our total adherence is now uncompromisingly demanded, or whether indeed our plague merely is the ‘coldening of hearts,’ the total breakdown of moral conscience to the extent where right can no longer be distinguished from wrong, as prophesied by St John in the Apocalypse and demonstrated by the notorious abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, it does indeed seem as if, at the very moment where at the collapse of communism, the planetarchs lauded themselves for the triumph of their civilisation, they and indeed all us, are being punished for our hubris and complacency.
The earth is purging itself of its bile with horrifying and righteous inexorability. All the while, we exhibit behaviour that comes in striking parallel to the apprehensive Athenians of Thucydides, or the libertine Florentines of Boccaccio. We either listlessly await our fate, bewildered at how our best efforts to donate to World Vision have not helped to alleviate world poverty and our conscientious recycling of household waste has not stemmed environmental degradation, or ensconce ourselves within our own Tuscan world of pleasures, purchasing the latest mobile phone, seeking escape in a new car, or watching the latest episode of CSI, desperate for a fairytale where the system always triumphs over its enemies and praying to the god of shopping therapy to grant an hylic discourse to the disease-ridden, plastic narrative of our existence.
All the while, the millions afflicted and perishing as a result of our moral decay, are far removed from our Florentine eyes. They are in Iraq, Pakistan, the streets of New Orleans or some deserted, syringe-strewn St Kilda backstreet, only because they lacked the foresight, or the resources to take to the Tuscan hills in time and no amount of namby-pamby do-gooding by those who demand devotion to their conception of righteousness, without which there is only the gehenna of social isolation, or by listless Athenians wondering why ‘nursing’ does not bring about a cure, can arrest our terminal decline. As Camus’ Tarrou reveals in what constitutes La Peste’s essential moral message: “I thought that I was struggling against the plague. I learned that I had indirectly supported the deaths of thousands of men, that I had even caused their deaths by approving the actions and principles that inevitably led to them…”
Collective responsibility or guilt is an inordinately difficult concept to inculcate into generations that have been inoculated against it by antibodies of individualism and the Atheno-Nietzschean conviction in the triumph of the will. Suddenly, our purposes and tongues become confused, our computers crash, infected by a virus, we abandon Babel, despite the U.S’s assurance that NASA’s next space mission is nigh and the moon will soon be made safe for democracy, to the eternal gratitude of the emancipated moonakia and we wander about, mobile phones in hand, seeking respite from an affliction from which our blind adherence to the firmament should have precluded us from contracting in the first place.
Yet all is not lost. Plagues coma and go and Deucalion and Pyrrha always remain after the penultimate cleansing, to re-commence the cycle of re-construction/self-destruction. Maybe the solution truly lies in inoculation, against inoculation itself. Again we revert to Camus: “All I know is that one must do one’s best not to be a plague victim.. And this is why I have decided to reject everything that, directly or indirectly, makes people die or justifies others in making them die…” quite a feat when the signs of the times require suspect members of our society to vociferously proclaim their loyalty to the scared idol of the Ideal.
Camus’ idea of resisting the plague is essentially anti-heroic. For him, resistance to Oran’s plague was not about heroism at all, or it was, it was the heroism of goodness, attained in La Peste by a humble clerk: “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency… When you see the suffering it brings… you have to be mad, blind or a coward to resign yourself to the plague.”
Perhaps, as always, we shall manage to contain Hitchcock’s Birds, who carry the foulness of our hypocrisy and folly to us, as it to accuse us, and stem this bout of the perennial plague. We may even, as Sotiris Hatzimanolis quaintly suggests, manage to quarantine the ‘papakia’ (@) from our email addresses and exile them to the moon. Yet let us be vigilant. Fifty years after its first appearance, in an age of post-post-totalitarian satisfaction with our condition and prosperity, where intellectuals pronounce the End of History and politicians proffer globalisation as a universal palliative, the closing sentence of La Peste rings true in the midst of complacency and forgetting:
“The plague bacillis never dies or vanishes entirely. It can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing… it waits patiently in bedroom cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and… perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”
First published in NKEE on 5 December 2005