What Literature Tells Us about the Pandemic: An Interview with Frederick Aldama
Keywords:Pandemic, Reality, Literature, Dystopian literature, Science Fiction
Literature can play an important role in shaping our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. It can offer us significant insights into how individuals treated the trauma of pandemics in the past, and how to survive in a situation beyond our control.
Considering the changes and challenges that the coronavirus might bring for us, we should know that the world we are living in today is shaped by the biological crisis of the past. This understanding can help us deal with the challenges in the current pandemic situation. Literature can show us how the crisis has affected the lives of infected individuals.
By exploring the theme of disease and pandemic, which is consistent and well-established in literature (Cooke, 2009), we come across a number of literary works dealing with plagues, epidemics and other forms of biological crises. Among the prominent examples of pandemic literature is Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947), narrating the story of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran. The novel illustrates the powerlessness of individuals to affect their destinies. Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912) is another story depicting the spread of the Red Death, an uncontrollable epidemic that depopulated and nearly destroyed the world. The book is considered as prophetic of the coronavirus pandemic, especially given London wrote it at a time when the world was not as quickly connected by travel as it is today (Matthews, 2020). Furthermore, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (1842) is a short story on the metaphorical element of the plague. Through the personification of the plague, represented by a mysterious figure as a Red Death victim, the author contemplates on the inevitability of death; the issue is not that people die from the plague, but that people are plagued by death (Steel, 1981). Moreover, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) is another apocalyptic novel, depicting a future which is ravaged by a plague. Shelley illustrates the concept of immunization in this fiction showing her understanding about the nature of contagion.
Pandemic is also depicted in medieval writings, such as Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales illustrating human behaviour: the fear of infection increased sins such as greed, lust and corruption, which paradoxically led to infection and consequently to both moral and physical death (Grigsby, 2008).
In ancient literature, Homer’s Iliad opens with a plague visited upon the Greek camp at Troy to punish the Greeks for Agamemnon’s enslavement of Chryseis. Plague and epidemic were rather frequent catastrophes in
ancient world. When plague spread, no medicine could help, and no one could stop it from striking; the only way to escape was to avoid contact with infected persons and contaminated objects (Tognotti. 2013).
Certainly, COVID-19 has shaken up our economic systems and affected all aspects of our living. In this respect, literature can give us the opportunity to think through how similar crises were dealt with previously, and how we might structure our societies more equitably in their aftermath. Thus, in order to explore what literature tells us about the pandemic, the following interview is conducted with Frederick Aldama, a Distinguished Professor of English at the Ohio State University.