It is just over a century since the last global pandemic, the ‘Spanish’ Flu or Great Influenza of 1918-20. Since then, attitudes to some of the most basic human experiences have been changed by scientific understanding and revolutions in social and familial relations. For those of us with the privilege of access to modern medicine, there is a great gulf between our generation’s expectation of health, life and well being, and those of our great-grandparents. The experience of our bodies is very different to those who were or remain at the mercy of infection without antibiotics, cancer without chemotherapy, asthma without inhalers. The birth of a child is no longer ordinarily attended by the spectre of danger and death in much of the world.
Covid-19 is a terrible recurrence of the everyday experience of disease as a mysterious force which we struggle to contain on the basis of imperfect understanding, an experience that was once commonplace. We find ourselves almost overnight appreciating the ingenuity of those in the 19th century who painstakingly deduced the origins of contagions like cholera and typhus from their progress and locale, hoping contemporary scientists can quickly emulate the success of those who ever so slowly eliminated once devastating contagious diseases like smallpox and polio.
In this context, the literature of the past has insights as well as consolations to impart to us. Epidemics have brought out the worst in human nature: angry ignorance; the scapegoating of minorities; the neglect of the poor and institutionalised; selfishness and cruelty; a tendency above all to blame others, especially foreigners and outsiders. We see recurrences of these responses in our daily headlines and news bulletins across the world and in Ireland in 2020. This was not the universal response in the past, anymore than it is now, or no progress would ever have been made in the long, slow, tortuous campaign against infection and disease. Literature over the centuries has reflected on the extent to which intelligence and solidarity, extraordinary heroism and ordinary human kindness, have mitigated epidemics more frequent and more deadly than that which we currently endure.
Over the coming weeks, this blog will seek to post thought provoking content and analysis from the Contagion, Biopolitics and Cultural Memory project, as well as guest contributions and personal reflections. While I have been preparing the first entries, the newspaper headlines have made it increasingly clear that considerably more than half of all Covid 19 related deaths in Ireland to date occurred among the elderly and institutionalised. It seems appropriate then to begin with a reflection on a twenty first century novel set during the Great Influenza pandemic on another North Atlantic island, the Icelandic novelist Sjon’s haunting and lyrical Moonstone. The novel is much more effective than statistics and graphs in making us consider the ways in which new viruses shapes histories and societies, the consequences of the different age profiles of the victims, and the contribution of marginalised and sometimes despised groups to our survival.
Looking back to the mainstay of the Contagion project, further blog entries will feature discussions of typhus and public health measures in Jane Eyre, smallpox and self-isolation in Bleak House and broader trends in the representation of contagious disease in the British Library Nineteenth Century Corpus. Contributions from researchers in related areas are most welcome.
Gerardine Meaney is Professor of Cultural Theory in the UCD School of English, Drama and Film.