“Because Survival is Insufficient”
As we enter the seventh month of the global COVID-19 pandemic, I, like everyone, have been sifting through the mountainous heaps of good and bad information, left to determine for myself what is right and true. So far, it seems, the one thing we know for sure about this novel coronavirus is that we don’t yet know enough. Scientists are learning about it every day, but they can’t make us the guarantees we prefer in our on-demand society. This lack of definite knowledge creates uncertainty, and another thing we know for sure is that we humans are not well-equipped for uncertainty. We are used to relying on the expertise of certain authorities to guide us through unfamiliar situations. But in this case, our best authorities are telling us that they still have a lot to learn and that the best we can do in the meantime is to wait and to stay safe by self-isolating while we wait.
One of my favorite things to do while I am waiting is to read. And during this pandemic, I have found some relevant fiction that has helped me think about and process all the uncertainty — and sheer insanity — going on out there in the world. Since the beginning of the lockdowns — I use the plural because there has been no nationally, let alone globally, coordinated response — I have heard and read several people state, in one form or another, that the pandemic is a reminder of just how much is out of our control. This is obviously true. But I think we also need to look at the outbreak, and our failure to contain it, as a reminder of just how much is in our control. We are in control of taking basic precautions like wearing a mask and washing our hands. We are also in control of how we treat other people, and whether we choose to think of ourselves as part of a greater humanity.
Among many other things, the pandemic has become a lens through which to see just how impactful our individual actions and reactions can be. This coronavirus will not allow us to act as though our personal actions are insignificant. One person’s careless activity can affect their entire community, which then affects the global community. Small gestures by each of us can collectively add up to a global solution. This simple recognition has the power, not only to keep us physically healthy, but to lessen the emotional impact of isolation and societal change. Over the course of my pandemic reading, I have come across some books and articles that can help keep this awareness of humanity front and center in the mind.
In a recent essay for the New Yorker entitled, “Don’t Come Any Closer,” (March 30, 2020) Jill Lepore outlines the history of what she calls the “literature of contagion,” covering a range of texts from Boccaccio’s The Decameron to José Saramago’s Blindness. She begins with a description of Londoners reacting to the plague of 1665, as reported by Daniel Defoe in his A Journal of the Plague Year: “Everyone behaved badly, though the rich behaved worst: having failed to heed warnings to provision, they sent their poor servants out for supplies.” (We are lucky; nowadays we don’t even have to be rich to send someone else out into the pandemic to deliver us non-essential goods!) The consistent theme of all plague stories, according to Lepore, is that when people start getting sick, the first thing we lose is not our physical health, but our humanity, turning on our community in order to protect our individual self. The loss of humanity can come in the form of failing to empathize with the sick, or in becoming sick and then getting ostracized by society. Often it can happen in both ways to the same person. Implicit in this analysis is the fact that, for most of us, pandemics arrive first as a rumor and then later as a disease. How we react to the news of pandemic affects how much of our humanity we can preserve. If we heed the warning in other people’s suffering, we prevent our own suffering, and other people’s. It seems a simple concept, but recent months have shown us how difficult it can be to recognize in the moments that count.
Aside from this basic human truth about empathy, Lepore traces another important theme in the literature of plagues. In times of plague, we are literally cut off from information, often as a result of best practices meant to keep us safe. Think about all the schools and libraries that are closed in the effort to maintain social distancing. Think of all the spontaneous office collaboration that has been lost as we retreat to the safety of our home wi-fi connection. To be clear: I am not suggesting that these measures are a bad thing, only that they come with a very real cost. Lepore puts it best: “A plague is like a lobotomy. It cuts away the higher realms, the loftiest capacities of humanity, and leaves only the animal.”
As Lepore describes this operation of the plague on society, she also tracks a parallel theme in the literature. This theme is a metaphor, that of knowledge as a virus. “Reading is an infection, a burrowing into the brain: books contaminate, metaphorically…But then, the existence of books, no matter how grim the tale, is itself a sign, evidence that humanity endures, in the very contagion of reading. Reading may be an infection, the mind of the writer seeping, unstoppable, into the mind of the reader. And yet it is also — in its bidden intimacy, an intimacy in all other ways banned in times of plague — an antidote, proven, unfailing, and exquisite.” This idea has been popularized in how we think of the internet — everyone has seen a meme or a tweet that has gone ‘viral.’ In plague novels, historically, the spread of knowledge is destroyed by the spread of a pathogen. Just about every novel that Lepore studies laments the loss of human knowledge in the destruction of civilization. A lone survivor then leaves behind a written record, hoping to infect some future race with knowledge of past achievements.
The Movement of Mountains, a 1987 science fiction classic by Michael Blumlein, takes this idea to the extreme while also inverting it. Dr. Jules Ebert, an obese physician, leaves behind a decadent life on earth to follow his less-privileged girlfriend, Jessica, to the distant planet of Eridis. Their relationship has been rocky, mostly because Jules is from the wealthy city of Ringhaven, which boasts opulent material wealth and security, while Jessica is from the slums on the outskirts of Ringhaven, which do not share the fruits of technology and are physically cut off by — and from — the security apparatus that protects the wealthy. Understandably — though not to Jules — she desires a change. She informs him that she is accepting a job on Eridis.
Eridis is home to a special fungus, called Mutacillin, that can cure all bacterial infections. A corporation called Manus has set up a colony there to harvest the fungus, which only grows in freezing temperatures deep underground. In order to harvest this hard-to-reach panacea, Manus has developed a race of genetically engineered giants, called Domers, to do all the work. Domers are specifically engineered to withstand the cold temperatures and to mine the heavy stones under which Mutacillin likes to grow. Jessica has been hired to study Mutacillin and find a way to grow it in a lab; Dr. Ebert reluctantly follows her, taking a job as physician to the Domers. Most of the other colonizers on Eridis view the Domers as slaves, or even as automatons, that do not merit empathy or consideration. But Jessica, and then Dr. Ebert, begin to recognize humanity in the Domers. For Jessica, this is a natural personality trait. But for Jules, who has shown throughout his narration — like most other humans in the story — that he lacks basic empathy, the discovery of this human impulse is not so simple.
Before he left earth, Jules had been tracking a new disease that seemed to spread like a virus and caused strange alterations in personal behavior. He was also concerned that Jessica, and therefore also he, had been exposed to this contagion. About a year into their time on Eridis, Jessica begins exhibiting symptoms of the disease. Jules requests a second opinion from Earth and receives a report updating him on what has been learned about the disease since his departure:
What was initially thought to be a kind of schizophrenia, with delusional behavior and disturbances of affect, has been identified as something else entirely. The mind of the patient remains intact, and into it, as though by graft, is introduced the mind of another. Another’s thoughts, experiences, memories: these are somehow transmitted by the virus. How it does so is the subject of debate: the plethora of proposed mechanisms is evidence of our continued ignorance. (Blumlein, 235.)
Soon, Jules notices that he, too, is exhibiting symptoms of the disease. Indeed, Jessica’s mind seems to be inside his own. This experience, at first jarring, becomes an awakening for him, forcing the experience of empathy upon him. It turns out that the Domers have also been infected with the virus. The experience of human minds within their own frees them from the brainwashing they have been subjected to by their human masters. The Domers learn to conceive of themselves within the context of human history, and ultimately begin fighting for their freedom. Having helped them, Jules returns to earth with a plan to continue spreading the virus, thereby spreading the empathy that he has learned. Here knowledge is literally a virus. Jules, though it goes against his every instinct as a physician, chooses to spread it.
The humanistic metaphor in The Movement of Mountains is complicated by the fact that the fictional virus is transmitted sexually. The Domers only receive their external human knowledge through exposure to a sexually transmitted virus. This exposure is the result of Jessica’s initiation of one of the Domers, Kylis Umbo. She insists that the initiation was consensual, as compared with Guysin Hoke, the station manager and villain of the story, who has been raping Domers, apparently for some time. However good Jessica’s intentions may be, it is not clear how consent could be possible for a genetically engineered being who has no concept of sex, consensual or otherwise. Similarly, Jules’ decision to begin spreading the virus back on earth is made possible only by his embrace of anonymous sex and his willingness to engage in sex with his own patients. It is impossible to separate this part of the novel from the historical context in which it was published. In 1987 the specter of AIDS was unavoidable, and it strikes me as being incredibly risky, in a time when people needed good science and institutional trust in healthcare providers, (especially when you consider that the author, Blumlein, is a physician,) to write a novel that recommends the spread of infection through casual sex and the blurring of the patient-doctor boundary. Still, it is only a novel, and intelligent readers of fiction have a responsibility to parse out instructive metaphors from real-world recommendations. One can just as easily argue that, in 1987, it was vitally important to spread a message about free love; fear of AIDS was causing a backlash against homosexuality and it was good to provide an example of people having healthy, happy sex without the weight of social fear. Blumlein’s fictional virus literally infects people with external perspectives. One of the first changes Jules recognizes to indicate that he is infected is his sudden awareness of homosexual impulses. He is no longer able to ‘other’ alternative sexualities.
Lepore discusses how governments have often tried to curb the spread of knowledge in times of pandemic. In London in 1665, according to Defoe, the authorities, instead of trying to contain the disease, attempted “to suppress the Printing of Books such as terrify’d the People.” Sadly, we, too, have seen members of governments around the world seek to downplay the dangers of the virus. In this model, the government essentially provides for the spread of contagion to prevent panic. In The Movement of Mountains, conversely, the government, realizing the potential power of the virus to alter society, chooses to play up the dangers of the virus, (Jules later learns that the mortality rate is actually extremely low,) risking panic in order to stop the spread.
The metaphor of knowledge as infection has obvious limits. For one thing, the idea contains a paradox that can be confusing. We want people to take seriously ideas about stopping the spread of the virus. And yet we want those ideas to spread like a virus. This paradox is exemplified by problems with Dr. Ebert’s behavior in The Movement of Mountains. We also live in a time of so-called “alternative facts,’ reminding us that it is not only true information that can spread like a virus. The viral spread of misinformation is part of the general problem that caused our failure to contain this virus.
That said, I do still think there is value in the metaphor, and it lies in the idea of metaphor itself as a timeless tool of the humanities. During a pandemic, it can be hard to remember that there are other forms of societal ills. These past several months, so much of our informational energy has been spent focusing on the coronavirus, that many people seem to have forgotten that, prior to 2020, American culture was already suffering from several other pandemics, including, but not limited to, suicide and opiate addiction. Increasingly we understand that institutional racism and systemic poverty are not separate social categories, but symptomatic presentations inextricably linked with public health. The human casualties of these interconnected crises have often been referred to collectively as “deaths of despair.” Undoubtedly, official statistics will track casualties of the coronavirus separately from these deaths of despair, but should they? Is our failure to act as a community with the common goal of containing a deadly virus not part of the same collective illness that has been killing those on the periphery for decades? Asking the question is itself therapeutic. Repeating it is subversive but also a matter of public health. In this time of crisis remember that your words, your own voice, have the power to infect others with knowledge. The type of knowledge you transmit is of grave consequence and it is fully in your control.
Like a vaccine, a metaphor is a tool that can teach us about a thing by resembling it. In the same way that a vaccine takes a facsimile of the virus itself to build up immunity in the body, we can also mimic its methods of replication to build up resilience in our society. Our very capacity for understanding metaphor is one of the things that makes us human. We can distinguish between a microbe that has the power to kill us and the infective mechanisms of knowledge that can help us prevent being killed by the microbe. What we need to get better at is distinguishing between knowledge that reflects the truth, and knowledge that spreads lies. If we stop thinking of knowledge as an absolute substance in itself and begin seeing it as a plasma through which truth can be transmitted, we might begin to do better as a community at slowing the spread of insidious cultural ailments like racism, despair, and addiction.
Another plague novel I recently reread covers the aftermath of a pandemic. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven tells the stories of a group of survivors of an avian flu that has wiped out ninety-nine percent of the world population. A band of survivors travel the ruins of the North American landscape performing Shakespeare and classical music for the small communities of survivors they encounter on the road. The troop call themselves the Traveling Symphony. Most members are known only by the name of the instrument they play. The symphony is composed of a caravan of three wagons, the third of which is emblazoned with the slogan: “Because Survival is Insufficient.” The phrase reminds us of the toll of a lost civilization, even — maybe especially — on those who survive it. Covid-19 should be an awakening to a consciousness of just how fragile our system is, and what, exactly, is at stake. People who indulge in zombie-apocalypse survivalist fantasies should consider just what it would feel like if almost everyone you know was dead. Gun-wielding, self-reliant heroes of the apocalypse may make great movie protagonists, but we should not aspire to that lifestyle. The actors in Mandel’s novel do not relish their survival. But they do relish the survival of Shakespeare. Their act of performance evinces the power of storytelling to ease our journey through difficult times. Their dedication to the old plays and songs is a deliberate refusal to let the cost of pandemic include the treasures of our human legacy.
Lepore’s catalog of plague novels was a helpful reminder, to me, early in my experience of the pandemic, that the realm of fiction always carries lessons for the challenges of the present day. We have already seen some of our greatest contemporary creative minds begin to document the current plague for our own posterity. This artistic documentation is vital, but it can only do so much to alleviate the suffering of the currently sick, or the soon-to-become sick. We need to believe in the humanities AND science at the same time. The two used to be closely linked, and their separation in the last hundred years has led us to a moment in which we have forgotten how to care for each other.
As a society, we have always struggled to actualize a system where we treat all humans equally. In this respect, we can learn something from the coronavirus, which will treat us all the same. (It will affect some communities worse than others, but that has to do with other preventable social ills, not any biological differences between us.) Only by collectively recognizing that this microbe will see us all as equally suitable habitats will we be able to stop its spread. Let that idea infect you and replicate. Spread it like wildfire.