Plague as Art: Over the Centuries, Many Kinds of Stories

    03 April 2020

    Lauren Beukes is a writer who likes to tells stories about power between men and women. Her new book "Afterland," will tell the story of a disease that kills almost the entire male population.

    "I wanted to explore what a world without men would look like and how it wouldn't necessarily be a better place," says Beukes. She began her book years before the coronavirus outbreak.

    Lawrence Wright is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. He says he got the idea for his new book from the filmmaker Ridley Scott. Scott asked him years ago after reading Cormac McCarthy's dystopian "The Road": "How could social order break down so much after a disaster?" His upcoming novel, "The End of October," describes an international outbreak that begins in Asia.

    This combination of photos shows, from left,
    This combination of photos shows, from left, "The End of October," by Lawrence Wright, "The Red Lotus," by Chris Bohjalian and "Afterland" by Lauren Beukes. (Knopf, from left, Doubleday, Mulholland Books via AP)

    He says people have become so worried about terrorism that they have forgotten the power of natural disasters.

    Plagues have been with us for at least as long as people have been able to write about them. But among artists and writers, their meaning has changed a lot based on the writer and the period.

    Once an outbreak was believed to be a punishment from God. People were punished for sinning in some way. However, outbreaks also allow us to see that there is good and bad in all humans.

    For the Greek historian Thucydides, the plague that nearly destroyed Athens proved to him that praying made little difference, and men could easily break the law or become violent during a crisis.

    Edgar Allan Poe showed the arrogance of trying to defy disease in "The Masque of the Red Death."

    Stephen Soderbergh made the movie "Contagion" about ten years ago to show how easily society can come apart.

    Many artists found a voice painting the Black Plague of the Middle Ages. They showed frightening deaths as well as images of Saint Sebastian and Saint Roch whose presences were meant to comfort the families of the dead.

    "Saint Sebastian had survived being shot with arrows, and Saint Roch was believed to have survived...the plague, so you often see them appearing in art," says C. Griffith Mann. He is head of the Department of Medieval Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    Also during the Middle Ages, the writer Bocaccio wrote "The Decameron," that describes how young women and young men flee from the plague. Alone in a great house, they tell each other stories to pass the time.

    Boccaccio knew "what we would/could do in the time of the plague: We need to escape from our 'real' world," says Wayne A. Rebhorn. He is the head of the English department at the University of Texas at Austin.

    "If the plague shows just how desperate and fragile human life can be, stories offer a way to cope with that desperation," he says.

    Plague books can be a way of looking at the way societies change. The 1665 plague in London was the subject for Daniel Defoe's "A Journal of the Plague Year." It was published many years after the plague struck. Auburn University professor Paula Backscheider says Defoe's book came out at a time when the Renaissance was changing the way people looked at religion. They asked the question: Why do human beings suffer?

    Defoe was trying to decide if the plague came from God, or if it came from science, Backscheider explained. He wanted to know, if it came from science, how could people protect themselves, she added.

    In the 20th century, Albert Camus' "The Plague" was widely seen as a parable for the Nazi occupation of France and as a statement about the uncertainty of life.

    I'm Jill Robbins.

    The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    dystopian - adj. a world in which society is repressive

    plague - n. a disease that affects many people at one time

    arrogance - n. the belief that one person is better than another

    sin - n. an evil act

    medieval - adj. the time period between the dark ages and the renaissance

    fragile - adj. easily breakable

    cope - v. to be able to deal with something

    Renaissance - n. a time of rebirth, specifically in Europe

    parable - n. a simple story used to illustrate a spiritual lesson.