Pale Horse, Pale Rider–in 1918 and Now

Gustave Doré, Death on a Pale Horse


Reader William McKeachie has alerted me to a Katharine Anne Porter novella about the 1918 flu pandemic that killed 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in America. Reading Pale Horse, Pale Rider, I got a glimpse of what we Americans may be facing very soon.

Protagonist Miranda is a city reporter in the waning days of World War I who begins dating Adam, a soldier about to depart for the front. They both assume he will die there, which makes their few days together particularly precious.

She liked him, she liked him, and there was more than this but it was no good even imagining, because he was not for her nor for any woman, being beyond experience already, committed without any knowledge or act of his own to death.

One doesn’t have to go to the front to encounter death, however.  Adam’s leave has been extended because the flu has broken out on his army base, and Adam and Miranda see evidence of the outbreak as they walk through New York and witness one funeral procession after another. With the same bravado that he talks about his upcoming war service, Adam discusses the flu:

“I wonder,” said Miranda. “How did you manage to get an extension of leave?”

“They just gave it,” said Adam, “for no reason. The men are dying like flies out there, anyway. This funny new disease. Simply knocks you into a cocked hat.”

“It seems to be a plague,” said Miranda, “something out of the Middle Ages. Did you ever see so many funerals, ever?”

“Never did. Well, let’s be strong minded and not have any of it. I’ve got four days more straight from the blue and not a blade of grass must grow under our feet.

It so happens that Miranda has the flu, but she refuses to admit it to herself or Adam, wanting to make the most of their remaining time.

“There’s something terribly wrong,” she told Adam. “I feel too rotten. It can’t just be the weather, and the war.”

“The weather is perfect,” said Adam, “and the war is simply too good to be true. But since when? You were all right yesterday.”

“I don’t know,” she said slowly, her voice sounding small and thin. They stopped as always at the open door before the flight of littered steps leading up to the newspaper loft. Miranda listened for a moment to the rattle of typewriters above, the steady rumble of presses below.

“I wish we were going to spend the whole afternoon on a park bench,” she said, “or drive to the mountains.”

When she collapses, Adam nurses her all that he can. In a situation that may be our future as well, she must stay in her apartment (much to the concern of her landlady) because all the hospitals are full.

“Adam,” she said, “I’ve just thought of something. Maybe they forgot St. Luke’s Hospital. Call the sisters there and ask them not to be so selfish with their silly old rooms. Tell them I only want a very small dark ugly one for three days, or less. Do try them, Adam.”

He believed, apparently, that she was still more or less in her right mind, for she heard him at the telephone explaining in his deliberate voice. He was back again almost at once, saying, “This seems to be my day for getting mixed up with peevish old maids. The sister said that even if they had a room you couldn’t have it without doctor’s orders. But they didn’t have one, anyway. She was pretty sour about it.”

“Well,” said Miranda in a thick voice, “I think that’s abominably rude and mean, don’t you?” She sat up with a wide gesture of both arms, and began to retch again, violently.

Miranda miraculously survives after being given up for dead and is conscious enough to hear Armistice celebrations outside her window. Adam, however, has himself contracted the flu and is not so fortunate. The dying does not end with the war.

More than the plot and the setting, I was pulled in by the novella’s hallucinatory atmosphere, which captures my own sense of dread. The story opens with a haunting dream of trying to outride death:

Come now, Graylie [her horse], she said, taking his bridle, we must outrun Death and the Devil. You are no good for it, she told the other horses standing saddled before the stable gate, among them the horse of the stranger, gray also, with tarnished nose and ears. The stranger swung into his saddle beside her, leaned far towards her and regarded her without meaning, the blank still stare of mindless malice that makes no threats and can bide its time. She drew Graylie around sharply, urged him to run. He leaped the low rose hedge and the narrow ditch beyond, and the dust of the lane flew heavily under his beating hoofs. The stranger rode beside her, easily, lightly, his reins loose in his half-closed hand, straight and elegant in dark shabby garments that flapped upon his bones; his pale face smiled in an evil trance, he did not glance at her. Ah, I have seen this fellow before, I know this man if I could place him. He is no stranger to me.

She pulled Graylie up, rose in her stirrups and shouted, I’m not going with you this time— ride on! Without pausing or turning his head the stranger rode on. Gray lie’s ribs heaved under her, her own ribs rose and fell. Oh, why am I so tired, I must wake up.

If one imagines the dream accompanied by the negro spiritual mentioned later in the novella—“Pale horse, pale rider, done take my lover away”—it becomes even darker.

Equally nightmarish is Porter’s description of Miranda’s descent to the edge of death. How many will experience something like what the author describes?

The road to death is a long march beset with all evils, and the heart fails little by little at each new terror, the bones rebel at each step, the mind sets up its own bitter resistance and to what end? The barriers sink one by one, and no covering of the eyes shuts out the landscape of disaster, nor the sight of crimes committed there.

In Miranda’s case, however, the “stubborn will to live” also asserts itself and in the end triumphs. It occurs when she surrenders to her fate:

Death is death, said Miranda, and for the dead it has no attributes. Silenced she sank easily through deeps under deeps of darkness until she lay like a stone at the farthest bottom of life, knowing herself to be blind, deaf, speechless, no longer aware of the members of her own body, entirely withdrawn from all human concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence; all notions of the mind, the reasonable inquiries of doubt, all ties of blood and the desires of the heart, dissolved and fell away from her, and there remained of her only a minute fiercely burning particle of being that knew itself alone, that relied upon nothing beyond itself for its strength; not susceptible to any appeal or inducement, being itself composed entirely of one single motive, the stubborn will to live. This fiery motionless particle set itself unaided to resist destruction, to survive and to be in its own madness of being, motiveless and planless beyond that one essential end. Trust me, the hard unwinking angry point of light said. Trust me. I stay.

Miranda goes on to witness unparalleled beauty,  

a deep clear landscape of sea and sand, of soft meadow and sky, freshly washed and glistening with transparencies of blue. Why, of course, of course, said Miranda, without surprise but with serene rapture as if some promise made to her had been kept long after she had ceased to hope for it.


With “an amazement of joy” she sees “faces transfigured” of all the people she has known that are still alive, “each in its own beauty, beyond what she remembered of them, their eyes were clear and untroubled as good weather, and they cast no shadows.”

But because she does not see Adam among the living—instinctively she must know that he is dead—she is then plunged into despair:

A thought struggled at the back of her mind, came clearly as a voice in her ear. Where are the dead? We have forgotten the dead, oh, the dead, where are they? At once as if a curtain had fallen, the bright landscape faded, she was alone in a strange stony place of bitter cold, picking her way along a steep path of slippery snow, calling out. Oh, I must go back! But in what direction? Pain returned, a terrible compelling pain running through her veins like heavy fire, the stench of corruption filled her nostrils, the sweetish sickening smell of rotting flesh and pus; she opened her eyes and saw pale light through a coarse white cloth over her face, knew that the smell of death was in her own body, and struggled to lift her hand.

America, like those other countries with our transmission rate (China, Italy, Spain), will be experiencing such highs and lows in the coming weeks and months. Then, at some point, the world will develop herd immunity and vaccines, and we will be facing the future that Miranda faces in the novella’s concluding paragraph:

No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything.

Right now we must focus on our grim present. Looking ahead will come later.

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Not Poe’s Red Death but Still Dangerous


I am devoting this week to plague literature because America is still not taking COVID-19 seriously enough. Although some have awakened to the threat it poses, the fact that only a few are taking radical measures is an indictment of Donald J. Trump. If he were to tell entire country to “go home and stay home”—to whatever extent that is possible, of course—then every state in the union would be taking action.

Instead, while Washington, New York, Maryland, New Jersey, the San Francisco area, and others have started ordering universal closures, my home state of Tennessee is one of eight states taking no policy action and providing no guidance. Lack of national leadership means that far too many jurisdictions are winging it.

What we have is a “Masque of the Red Death” situation. Harold Bloom once wrote that Edgar Allan Poe dreamt America’s nightmares, and he certainly dreamed our present nightmare in his famous plague story. Just as Trump’s first impulse, in the face of contagion, was to institute travel bans, Prince Prospero’s is to build a wall:

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 madness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress, and termination of the disease, were incidents of half an hour.

But Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his crenellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts.

I’m still stunned that there were massive light-hearted parties in cities all across America this past weekend, that certain Republican legislators were still pooh-poohing strong measures, and that Trump was still downplaying the threat. Granted, COVID-19 is not as deadly as the red death, but given our lack of testing and strong measures, it will overwhelm American hospitals. We know, from the examples of Italy, Spain, and now France, that this is an inevitability. It will happen!

And yet, because we are “amply provisioned,” far too many Americans think they “might bid defiance to contagion”:

The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death.”

 There comes a reckoning, of course. As many have pointed out, epidemics don’t pay attention to walls or boundaries. Who knows which of the revelers brought the Red Death to Prince Prospero’s party. In any event, he is a presence so imposing that even the wildest stand still and pay attention:

At first, as [Prince Prospero] spoke, there was a slight rushing movement of this group in the direction of the intruder, who, at the moment was also near at hand, and now, with deliberate and stately step, made closer approach to the speaker. But from a certain nameless awe with which the mad assumptions of the mummer had inspired the whole party, there were found none who put forth a hand to seize him; so that, unimpeded, he passed within a yard of the prince’s person; and while the vast assembly, as with one impulse, shrank from the centers of the rooms to the walls, he made his way uninterruptedly, but with the same solemn and measured step which had distinguished him from the first…

Poe’s story horrifies, of course, because the fatality rate upon contact with the red death appears to be 100%, not the estimated 3.5% of COVID-19. Because I am living with a 94-year-old mother for whom one slip could be fatal, however, that is small consolation. (For that matter, I myself am 68 and therefore in the danger zone.) If drastic measures—which should have been enacted weeks ago—are not put in place soon, we will have our own version of Poe’s finale. Not as dark, to be sure, but dark all the same:

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

Stop your frantic avoidance dancing, America! Prince Prospero’s travel bans will not save you.

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To Understand COVID-19, Read Camus


Liesl Schillinger of Literary Hub has applied Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947) to the COVID-19 outbreak and found it only too relevant, even though the coronavirus is far less deadly.

She notes that, as an existential parable, Plague can refer to either biological epidemics or a political ones (like the fascism that Camus had just watched wash over Europe). Let’s go with the biological one.

Just as Donald Trump, worried about political fallout, ordered administrators to ignore early warning signs, so signs are missed in the novel. Here too a hoax is suspected:

The first to encounter [rats dying in batches] is a local doctor named Rieux, who summons his concierge, Michel, to deal with the nuisance, and is startled when Michel is “outraged,” rather than disgusted. Michel is convinced that young “scallywags” must have planted the vermin in his hallway as a prank. Like Michel, most of Oran’s citizens misinterpret the early “bewildering portents,” missing their broader significance. For a time, the only action they take is denouncing the local sanitation department and complaining about the authorities. “In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves,” the narrator reflects. “They were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences.” Camus shows how easy it is to mistake an epidemic for an annoyance.

Even when the plague begins claiming human victims, people find ways to minimize what they are witnessing:

But then Michel falls sick and dies. As Rieux treats him, he recognizes the telltale signs of plague, but at first persuades himself that, “The public mustn’t be alarmed, that wouldn’t do at all.” Oran’s bureaucrats agree. The Prefect (like a mayor or governor, in colonial Algeria) “personally is convinced that it’s a false alarm.” A low-level bureaucrat, Richard, insists the disease must not be identified officially as plague, but should be referred to merely as “a special type of fever.” But as the pace and number of deaths increases, Rieux rejects the euphemism, and the town’s leaders are forced to take action.

Authorities are liable to minimize the threat of an epidemic, Camus suggests, until the evidence becomes undeniable that underreaction is more dangerous than overreaction. Most people share that tendency, he writes, it’s a universal human frailty: “Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.”

 This helps explain why Trump, who’s good as diagnosing what (certain) people want, is still underplaying the epidemic. He’s telling them what they want to believe, and they are all too willing to follow his lead. In my very red state of Tennessee, polls tell me that 40% of Republicans still do not take COVID-19 seriously.

Schillinger points out an observation also made by Boccaccio (who witnessed the Black Death up close) that epidemics can lead to excessive partying. This is one way to think of the St. Patrick’s Day pub parties we saw this past week in such cities as New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and Nashville. Schillinger writes of

the “hectic exaltation” of the ordinary people trapped in the epidemic’s bubble, who fought their sense of isolation by dressing up, strolling aimlessly along Oran’s boulevards; and splashing out at restaurants, poised to flee should a fellow diner fall ill, caught up in “the frantic desire for life that thrives in the heart of every great calamity…”

In other words, some panicked instinct for life and fellowship can take over at such moments, even by people who outwardly believe the sickness will pass them by. Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” gets at the same psychological reality. At some level, this is recognized even by those 40% who are grateful to Trump for making them feel better.

Schillinger also points out a grim but predictable reality: whatever we learn from one epidemic may be ignored come the next one. Trump taking apart the Pandemic Response Apparatus that Barack Obama set up following the Ebola outbreak could have been foreseen. As Camus writes,

There have been as many plagues as wars in history. Yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

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The Plague Full Swift Goes By

Unknown artist, Triumph of Death (1446)

Spiritual Sunday

As the world grapples with the rapid spread of the coronavirus, I share a poem written during a 16th century London plague.  Such plagues regularly swept through London, and a later one may actually have carried off the author Thomas Nashe, who died at 34.

In “Litany in Time of Plague,” Nashe at first takes a stoic attitude towards death, observing that “this world uncertain is” and that “life’s lustful joys” are “but toys.” He’s almost matter of fact when he writes, “Beauty is but a flower/ Which wrinkles will devour.” Helen of Troy and Hector, the most beautiful of women and the most valiant of warriors, both end up as food for worms.

The poem also offers us the Christian consolation: “Heaven is our heritage,/ Earth but a player’s stage.”

Yet however consoling these sentiments, by ending each stanza with “I am sick, I must die” and then a prayer (litany) to God, we see that no amount of stoic reasoning or even Christian reassurance can make our terror vanish. All we can do is hand our lives over to a greater power.

COVID-19 is not the Bubonic plague. It’s still a killer, however.

Litany in Time of Plague
By Thomas Nashe

Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
          Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
            Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
            Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave;
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds ope her gate.
‘Come, come!’ the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
            Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
            Lord, have mercy on us!

Haste, therefore, each degree,
To welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
            Lord, have mercy on us!

A note on the painting: The fresco, by an unknown artist, was painted a century after the Black Plague. Too many Americans are like the people in the upper half of the picture, walking their dogs and congregating in social spaces, even as death rides its horse. It’s too late for those in the lower half, who have been caught unawares.

One other thought: In Monday’s post (see link below), I quoted Boccaccio observing people, during the Black Plague, carousing in bars. As I write this, bars are filled in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere with partiers celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. Some will be spreading the virus. Lord, have mercy on us.

Here’s the passage:

Others…carouse and make merry and go about singing and frolicking and satisfy the appetite in everything possible and laugh and scoff at whatsoever befell was a very certain remedy for such an ill. That which they said they put in practice as best they might, going about day and night, now to this tavern, now to that, drinking without stint or measure…

Previous posts on the coronavirus

Boccaccio: What to Do When Quarantined
Lady Macbeth: Hand Washing and the Coronavirus
Stephen King on How Pandemics Spread

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Curl Up with a Good Book

Petrus van Schendel, Reading by Candlelight

For some comic relief in these dark times, here’s a poem by my father about an introverted candle who chooses (contra Jesus’s instructions) to hide his light under a bushel. What is more enticing, after all, than curling up with a good book.

If COVID-19 is prompting you to avoid society and if you’re frustrated that sports have vanished from the air waves, look to reading. Amazing worlds await your discovery.

The Retiring Candle
By Scott Bates

A Candle
Burned under
A bushel

He did not let his light shine forth
Among Men
He did not even let his light shine forth
Among Potatoes
The bushel was empty
(Being upside down)
And somewhat stuffy besides

They all called down to him
To come up on deck
And get some air
They wanted him to be the life of the party
To shine
Illuminate eternal verities
Set the world on fire

But no
He politely declined
He didn’t want to set the world on fire
All he wanted to do was stay down in the hold
And smoke
And curl up with a good book

Which he did

He smoked and curled up with
The poems of Yevtushenko
The Theory of the Leisure Class
Perrault the Duc de la Rochefoucauld
Erewhon and Through the Looking Glass
Also assorted Elizabethan sonnets

When he had finished
He put himself out
And went to sleep
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Biden vs. Bernie, Aeneas vs. Turnus

Giordano, Aeneas Defeats Turnus


Probably it was because I had just taught the Aeneid earlier in the day, but as I watched the Democratic primary results roll in Tuesday evening, I couldn’t help but think of Joe Biden as Aeneas and Bernie Sanders as Turnus. In the battle-to-the-death that ends Virgil’s epic, Aeneas wins the day but Turnus, although he is killed, receives a substantial consolation prize.

Here’s the plot background you need to know. The omens tell King Latinus he should give his daughter to a stranger about to show up on his shores (Aeneas) rather than to hometown boy Turnus, a charismatic but volatile warrior. Turnus, needless to say, objects, as does the queen, and the result is six books of bloody warfare. By the epic’s final book, however, Latinus wants to return to his original plan. There’s been enough fighting, he points out to Turnus, and there’s enough land and wealth for everyone to live contentedly.

Turnus insists on the solitary combat, however, which for us may sound like Sunday’s upcoming debate between Biden and Sanders. A solemn pact is sworn by both sides to abide by the outcome. The Latins, however, lose confidence in Turnus, which leads them to breach the pact. Fighting breaks out again, Aeneas is hit with an arrow, and Turnus, sensing that the moment could be his, goes charging into the fray rather than attempting to hold his troops back. As a result, many more men die, the last one being Turnus himself.

If I were living in the Age of Dryden or the Age of Pope, it would not be a stretch to apply The Aeneid to modern politics. Allusions to Virgil’s epic are scattered throughout Mac Flecknoe, Rape of the Lock, and other poems, adding to the dense texture of the works.  Readers raised on the classics would recognize and appreciate the references.

Pretend, then, that you are in the British 17th or 18th century as you draw the parallels. King Latinus is the Democratic electorate (Bernie Sanders calls it the Democratic Establishment) that wants a peaceful resolution to the conflict. He could be South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn, who said after Biden’s convincing Michigan win, “I think it is time for us to shut this primary down, it is time for us to cancel the rest of these debates…” 

Latinus makes a similar case to Turnus, telling him he’d rather see him comprising and alive than principled and dead:

Since then, Turnus, 
you see what assaults, what crises dog my steps,
what labors you have shouldered, you, first of all.
Beaten twice in major battles, our city walls
can scarcely harbor Italy’s future hopes.
The rushing Tiber still steams with our blood,
the endless fields still glisten with our bones.
Why do I shrink from my decision? What insanity
shifts my fixed resolve? If, with Turnus dead,
I am ready to take the Trojans on as allies,
why not stop the war while he is still alive?

Turnus, however, insists on his one-on-one battle. The situation would still be similar to the one the Democratic Party is hoping for, however: whoever wins will get the hand of Lavinia whereas whoever loses will withdraw his claim, with Aeneas returning to a Trojan encampment in Sicily. If he wins, however, he will be magnanimous, opening his arms to the Latins as Biden on Wednesday opened his arms to Bernie supporters:

I call on the springs and streams, the gods enthroned 
in the arching sky and gods of the deep blue sea!
If by chance the victory goes to the Latin, Turnus,
we agree the defeated will depart to Evander’s city,
Iulus will leave this land. Nor will Aeneas’ Trojans
ever revert in times to come, take up arms again
and threaten to put this kingdom to the sword.
But if Victory grants our force-in-arms the day,
as I think she may—may the gods decree it so—
I shall not command Italians to bow to Trojans,
nor do I seek the scepter for myself.
May both nations, undefeated, under equal laws,
march together toward an eternal pact of peace.
I shall bestow the gods and their sacred rites.
My father-in-law Latinus will retain his armies,
my father-in-law, his power, his rightful rule.
The men of Troy will erect a city for me—
Lavinia will give its walls her name.

Turnus accedes to the rules—let’s call them the rules to be followed at the Democratic Convention—and all looks promising. Then Turnus’s followers begin acting up.

There is some concern that Sanders will not be able to bring along some of his own followers, just as he failed to bring along everyone in the 2016 election. To cite one instance, African American surrogate and Sanders delegate Cornel West voted for the Green Party’s Jill Stein in the general election. Will Bernie’s troops rebel again this time if their leader calls it quits, just as Turnus’s troops do when they begin losing confidence in him. Turnus, like Bernie, may want to end the hostilities with one last glorious combat, but that’s small consolation to his followers if he loses. Here they are being urged to violate the peace pact:

Aren’t you ashamed, Rutulians, putting at risk 
the life of one to save us all? Don’t we match them
in numbers, power? Look, these are all they’ve got—
Trojans, Arcadians, and all the Etruscan forces,
slaves to Fate—to battle Turnus in arms! Why,
if only half of us went to war, each soldier
could hardly find a foe. But Turnus, think,
he’ll rise on the wings of fame to meet the gods,
gods on whose altars he has offered up his life:
he will live forever, sung on the lips of men!
But we, if we lose our land, will bow to the yoke,
enslaved by our new high lords and masters—
we who idle on amid our fields!”

Stinging taunts
inflame the will of the fighters all the more
till a low growing murmur steals along the lines.

Much bloodshed follows. I noted that both Turnus and Bernie, however, get consolation prizes. While Jupiter allows Aeneas to triumph, he promises the disappointed Juno that the hero’s future empire won’t be named after the Trojans. Instead, Turnus’s Latins will get that honor:

Smiling down, 
the creator of man and the wide world returned:
“Now there’s my sister. Saturn’s second child—
such tides of rage go churning through your heart.
Come, relax your anger. It started all for nothing.
I grant your wish. I surrender. Freely, gladly too.
Latium’s sons will retain their fathers’ words and ways.
Their name till now is the name that shall endure.
Mingling in stock alone, the Trojans will subside.
And I will add the rites and the forms of worship,
and make them Latins all, who speak one Latin tongue.
Mixed with Ausonian blood, one race will spring from them,
and you will see them outstrip all men, outstrip all gods
in reverence. No nation on earth will match the honors
they shower down on you.”

Sanders’s consolation is to have pulled the entire Democratic Party in a more progressive direction. Political John Stoehr of the Editorial Board explains that it only seems like the moderates have won:

Exit polls show Democratic voters want things like universal health care, higher wages, affordable housing and the rest. They want, in other words, what Bernie Sanders was selling them. They just don’t want to buy it from Sanders. 

These progressive policies, he predicts, will continue in a Biden administration:

[Biden is] less candidate than vessel into which the party will pour its ambitions. I think legendary broadcaster Dan Rather was right when he said: “Joe Biden is being characterized as a ‘moderate,’ but if elected I think it might turn out that he ends up presiding over one of the most progressive administrations in American history. It’s where his party is going, and on many issues where the country is going as well.”

Some scholars believe that Turnus is a sacrifice that ensures the ultimate triumph of the Latins. Could Bernie be such a sacrifice as well, a leftwing version of Barry Goldwater, who paved the way for Ronald Reagan? Could this be a case of losing the battle but winning the war?

Of course, all this is predicated on Biden becoming first the nominee and then the president.

Further thought: In some ways, Virgil is in the same position as Chair of the National Democratic Committee Tom Perez, knowing that the Trojans and the Latins must one day reunite in common cause and hoping that not too much damage occurs before then. The following passage sums up the fears and the hopes of both men:

Now what god can unfold for me so many terrors?
Who can make a song of slaughter in all its forms—
the deaths of captains down the entire field,
dealt now by Turnus, now by Aeneas, kill for kill?
Did it please you so, great Jove, to see the world at war,
the peoples clash that would later live in everlasting peace?

Granted, equating “the world at war” with the Democratic primaries is hyperbolic, but you get the point.

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“The Farewell’s” Oscar Wilde Ending

Zhao, Awkwafina in The Farewell


As I was watching the lovely film Farewell this past week [warning: major spoiler alert], a passage from The Importance of Being Earnest came to mind. The startling premise of the film matches up with a very funny Oscar Wilde interchange.

The film is about the apparently common Chinese custom of hiding from cancer patients their actual condition. While the granddaughter and her parents claim to be returning to the homeland to attend a family wedding, they have really shown up because doctors have predicted the grandmother will die in a few months. The wedding itself has been moved forward to give them a plausible reason for their presence.

The drama lies in whether they can hide the real reason from the grandmother, who is quite sharp.

As an uncle explains to the skeptical Chinese-American protagonist, her belief in transparency and individualism gets trumped in China by a family’s belief that they should carry the expected death of a relative on their own shoulders. The grandmother shouldn’t have to worry about such a thing.

The doctors’ falsehood, however, turns out to be true. We think we’re seeing the grandmother’s final days as the family leaves to go back to America, only to be informed during the credits that she’s still alive four years later. (The film claims to be based on a true story—or as it puts it, a real lie.) In other words, she lives up to what her doctors publicly proclaim.

In Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon suddenly finds himself forced to account for the absence of his imaginary invalid friend Bunbury when his aunt unexpectedly shows up. He bumbles his way to an excuse:

Lady Bracknell.  May I ask if it is in this house that your invalid friend Mr. Bunbury resides?
Algernon.  [Stammering.]  Oh!  No!  Bunbury doesn’t live here.  Bunbury is somewhere else at present.  In fact, Bunbury is dead.
Lady Bracknell.  Dead!  When did Mr. Bunbury die?  His death must have been extremely sudden.
Algernon.  [Airily.]  Oh!  I killed Bunbury this afternoon.  I mean poor Bunbury died this afternoon.
Lady Bracknell.  What did he die of?
Algernon.  Bunbury?  Oh, he was quite exploded.
Lady Bracknell.  Exploded!  Was he the victim of a revolutionary outrage?  I was not aware that Mr. Bunbury was interested in social legislation.  If so, he is well punished for his morbidity.
Algernon.  My dear Aunt Augusta, I mean he was found out!  The doctors found out that Bunbury could not live, that is what I mean—so Bunbury died.
Lady Bracknell.  He seems to have had great confidence in the opinion of his physicians.  I am glad, however, that he made up his mind at the last to some definite course of action, and acted under proper medical advice.  

The grandmother in The Farewell also has great confidence in the opinion of her physicians. Under proper medical advice–at least by Chinese standards–she shoulders on.

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What to Do When Quarantined

Waterhouse, A Tale from the Decameron


Washington Post humorist Alexandra Petri yesterday tweeted out the following message about coronavirus in the news, leading to today’s post:

I’ve had enough of this news! time to read some escapist literature, maybe a classic I’ve been putting off for a long time now to take a big sip of coffee and open this copy of the Decameron

Decameron (1353) is about a group of young men and women who retreat to a rural villa to escape from the Black Plague, which in 1347-51 wiped out a third of Europe’s population. To while away the time, they tell ten stories a day for ten days before returning to Florence. Decameron was the major inspiration for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which appeared at the end of the century.

The Black Plague, of course, was far, far worse than COVID-19, but there are similarities in how people respond. On the one hand, Boccaccio describes those who isolate themselves entirely from the rest of society:

Some there were who conceived that to live moderately and keep oneself from all excess was the best defense against such a danger; wherefore, making up their company, they lived removed from every other and shut themselves up in those houses where none had been sick and where living was best; and there, using very temperately of the most delicate viands and the finest wines and eschewing all incontinence, they abode with music and such other diversions as they might have, never suffering themselves to speak with any nor choosing to hear any news from without of death or sick folk.

Of course, not everyone can afford this option, but the mentality describes those who withdraw in panic.

Then there are those who go about convincing themselves that all is well:

Others…carouse and make merry and go about singing and frolicking and satisfy the appetite in everything possible and laugh and scoff at whatsoever befell was a very certain remedy for such an ill. That which they said they put in practice as best they might, going about day and night, now to this tavern, now to that, drinking without stint or measure…

Boccaccio recommends “a middle course,” which involves using common sense but being careful:

Many others held a middle course between the two aforesaid, not straitening themselves so exactly in the matter of diet as the first neither allowing themselves such license in drinking and other debauchery as the second, but using things in sufficiency, according to their appetites; nor did they seclude themselves, but went about, carrying in their hands, some flowers, some odoriferous herbs and other some4 divers kinds of spiceries, which they set often to their noses, accounting it an excellent thing to fortify the brain with such odours, more by token that the air seemed all heavy and attainted with the stench of the dead bodies and that of the sick and of the remedies used.

To be sure, we no longer think that carrying flowers will work. (People used to think that the plague was conveyed through unpleasant smells.) But we can think of such a measure as the equivalent of washing our hands, not touching our faces, and avoiding large crowds.

One other detail from the introduction caught my eye as it suggests a reverse swine flu (a previous pandemic). If that one was passed from birds to humans through swine, Boccaccio describes an instance of swine infected by humans:

[N]ot only did it pass from man to man, but this, which is much more, it many times visibly did;—to wit, a thing which had pertained to a man sick or dead of the aforesaid sickness, being touched by an animal foreign to the human species, not only3 infected this latter with the plague, but in a very brief space of time killed it. Of this mine own eyes (as hath a little before been said) had one day, among others, experience on this wise; to wit, that the rags of a poor man, who had died of the plague, being cast out into the public way, two hogs came up to them and having first, after their wont, rooted amain among them with their snouts, took them in their mouths and tossed them about their jaws; then, in a little while, after turning round and round, they both, as if they had taken poison, fell down dead upon the rags with which they had in an ill hour intermeddled.

The young lords and ladies who retire to the villa model for us a healthy response: if the virus drives us into quarantine, we can use the found time to cultivate our minds and feed our souls. Picking up Decameron is not a bad option after all.

Previous posts on the coronavirus

Lady Macbeth: Hand Washing and the Coronavirus
Stephen King on How Pandemics Spread

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Homer’s Use of the Agamemnon Story

Guerin, Clytemnestra Prepares to Kill Agamemnon


People hear in a story what they want to hear. That’s what my student Rin Carroll discovered when she compared the different versions of the Agamemnon-Clytemnestra-Orestes story that appear in The Odyssey. Of the five different characters who recount the tale, each has a different take.

The Agamemnon story is important, Rin noted, because it works as a foil to Odysseus’s story. He too could suffer Agamemnon’s fate if Penelope were to be unfaithful and a lover murderous. Warriors absent for long periods may well have suffered such anxieties. Odysseus allays their fears with its happy ending.

In the first book, law-and-order Zeus alludes to Agamemnon’s murder. In his eyes, Aegisthus has ignored heavenly instruction, conveyed through messenger-of-the-god Hermes, “not to murder Agamemnon or court his wife.” As a result, divine justice is administered:

Aegesthus would not hear that
good advice.
But now his death has paid all debts.
(trans. Emily Wilson)

Agamemnon’s marital relations don’t show up in Zeus’s account. That would be Hera’s domain.

Zeus’s observations prompt Athena to point out that Odysseus cannot fulfill his own divinely-mandated duties because he is stuck on Calypso’s island. Zeus consequently instructs Hermes to tell the island enchantress to let Odysseus go. Seen psychologically, Odysseus—unlike Aegesthus—hears the inner call of duty. He launches out upon the uncertain sea to fulfill it.

We next hear of Agamemnon when Athena, taking the form of the wise counselor Mentes, talks with Telemachus. Here, however, the emphasis is all on Orestes—which makes sense, since Mentes is urging Telemachus to step into manhood:

You must not stick to childhood;
you are no longer just a little boy.
You surely heard how everybody praised
Orestes when he killed the man who killed
his famous father--devious Aegisthus.

As Rin points out, Mentes/Athena doesn’t mention Orestes killing his mother since that part of the story doesn’t match up. Unlike Clytemnestra, Penelope remains faithful.

When he travels to see Nestor and Menelaus, Telemachus hears the Agamemnon story two more times. Nestor, like Mentes, is interested in seeing Telemachus grow up and so also focuses on Orestes:

         How fortunate the dead man [Agamemnon]
had left a son to take revenge upon
the wicked, scheming killer, that Aegisthus,
who killed Orestes’ father. My dear boy,
I see that you are tall and strong. Be brave,
so you will be remembered

Telemachus acknowledges the parallel:

         Your majesty,
King Nestor, yes. Orestes took revenge.
The Greeks will make him famous through the world
and into future times. I wish the gods
would grant me that much power against those men
who threaten and insult me—those cruel suitors!

Rin notes that Menelaus, by contrast, is far more focused on the pathos of the act. He describes Agamemnon’s joy of stepping foot in his country–he “touched and kissed the earth of his dear home” and “wept hot floods of tears, from happiness”–and the tells how Aegisthus, tipped off by his spy, springs his trap. Military-minded as he is, Menelaus mentions the battle and how many were killed. Clytemnestra is never mentioned.

She takes center stage in Agamemnon’s account, told to Odysseus in the underworld. (Aegisthus, meanwhile, barely shows up.) It makes sense that this would be a husband’s major focus. Agamemnon also mentions Cassandra, whom he has brought home to be his mistress and who is absent from the other accounts:

       I heard the desperate voice
of Priam’s daughter, poor Cassandra, whom
deceitful Clytemnestra killed beside me.
As I lay dying, struck through by the sword,
I tried to lift my arms up from the ground.
That she-dog turned away. I went to Hades.
She did not even shut my eyes or close
my mouth. There is no more disgusting act
than when a wife betrays a man like that.
That woman formed a plot to murder me!
Her husband! When I got back home, I thought
I would be welcomed, at least by my slaves
and children. She has such an evil mind
that she has poured down shame on her own head
and on all other women, even good ones.

As I interpret the underworld scene, it is Odysseus’s internal struggle about whether to stay with Circe or to head home. Agamemnon’s fate argues for the first option, but the king then reassures Odysseus:

                  But your wife
will not kill you, Odysseus. The wise
Penelope is much too sensible
to do such things.

Despite such faith, Odysseus will take one piece of Agamemnon’s advice when he returns home, hiding his identity from Penelope until after he has killed the suitors. Agamemnon has advised,

So you must never treat your wife
too well.
Do not let her know everything you know.
Tell her some things, hide others.

We see Agamemnon one last time in the last book when the suitors stream into Hades, his reappearance accentuating the contrast between the two stories. Once again, Agamemnon is focused on wives, never once mentioning Aegisthus or Orestes:

             Lucky you,
cunning Odysseus: you got yourself
a wife of virtue—great Penelope.
How principled she was…

Just as different characters in The Odyssey take away what they need from the story, so Homer’s readers have been doing so with The Odyssey itself. I’ve written how Sophocles and Euripides have a mostly negative view of Odysseus, as has Dante, while Tennyson is ambivalent (but leaning positive). Nikos Kazantzakis and C.P. Cavafy are positive, Margaret Atwood is ambivalent (but leaning negative), and my students are all over the map. One writes that Odysseus is “a jerk,” one is put off by his lying, one regards him as an oppressive patriarch, one likes how he works in concert with his wife, one is impressed that he resists going over to the dark side.

And so a rich story is interpreted and reinterpreted countless times, with each reader and each generation of readers focusing on the themes that serve them. The works are constantly renewed in the process.

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