Can 'virus fiction' offer comfort now that the Covid-19 crisis is heading at its height?
The deeply human fear of infection is widespread in literature, films, and popular television series. But can 'virus fiction' offer comfort now that the Covid-19 crisis is heading at its height?
Dear reader, a leaflet: this piece contains dramatized descriptions of contamination, illness, and death. For some, this may have an appalling effect at this juncture. Yet that is the point: I want to find out what is the use of our imagination when hard reality insists on decisive action.
The first story that comes to mind now that we in Europe are dealing with the coronavirus, is The Masque of the Red Death (1842) by Edgar Allan Poe.
The "Red Death" had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal — the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding…
As you read this, the same all-encompassing chaos and fear that's hanging over the story like a haze of mystery slowly penetrates your head.
An outbreak of the plague decimates the inhabitants of the country. To provide a safe haven, prince Prospero invites the wealthy in his castle. The doors are locked - they are quarantined. Boring it is anything but. The prince ensures that the wealthy could party day and night. The guests have a great time: they dress up for a masked ball and party from room to room, seven in total, all decorated in different colors.
The last room is completely black. Then, exactly at midnight, a figure appears among the partygoers, shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. Even worse: he looks like the 'Red Death'.
His vesture was dabbled in blood -- and his broad brow, with all the features of his face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror
As the figure moves from room to room, Prince Prospero's anger rises. Suddenly the prince attacks the figure with a dagger. But it is Prospero who drops dead. When the crowd threw themselves on the figure, it turns out that under the red robe ... there is nothing. Then the revelers realize that the Red Death is in their midst, and they die one by one.
I read the famous end sentence of the story: "And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."
With this, Poe laid the foundation for countless films and series that respond to the deeply human fear of infection. He was not the first; Already in the Iliad, Apollo shoots infected arrows at the Greeks, after which the plague breaks out. Since then, the fear of a lethal virus has spread like wildfire in our cultural consciousness, from series (The Walking Dead, anything about zombies, Chernobyl, The Hot Zone) to Hollywood films (The Andromeda Strain, Outbreak, Planet of the Apes, and so on).
But the film that is now in everyone's mind is Contagion (2011) by Steven Soderbergh. I can dispense with a description - who follows the news about the coronavirus has seen the movie. Precisely this one-to-one relationship between film and reality has meant that Contagion is watched en masse in recent weeks.
The New York Times featured an article titled For Me, Rewatching 'Contagion' Was Fun, Until It Wasn't. Well, that about covers it: it seems that fiction, when it reflects reality too accurately, is counterproductive. It offers no solace, no 'outlet' for our collective fears. It's only making it worse.
Perhaps, I thought as I read that story in The Times, it is a blessing to be in Belgium these days. At the time of writing, we are in a "what if" scenario. What if we can no longer control the outbreak, but have to contain it? What if, like in China and Italy, we have to lock down the country to get things under control?
It is five to twelve. There are great challenges ahead for us but let us not beguile ourselves about that. We stick to reality: we take appropriate measures and then proceed to the day-to-day affairs. We are certainly not going to read intellectual analyzes of virus fiction, in which we let the imagination run wild, as in the case of the article in The Times. After all, we have to live. Relativize. Being practical. Using our common sense. That saves lives.
Strangely enough, that is exactly what I take from Poe and the whole corpus of 'virus fiction' and that is why I wouldn't want to miss it in these times. If you are able to walk across your fear of the appalling, these stories will teach you valuable lessons. In Poe: irony and detachment are useless when it comes to the essential human, what really defines us:
Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made.