Solomon Eagle, a Quaker who “prophesied evil tidings” during the Great Plague of London in 1665. Engraving from Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year.” Davenport after Cruikshank/SSPL, via Getty Images
What the Great Pandemic Novels Teach Us
People have always responded to epidemics by spreading rumor and false information, and portraying the disease as foreign and brought in with malicious intent.
By Orhan Pamuk
Mr. Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006.
April 23, 2020
ISTANBUL — For the past four years I have been writing a historical novel set in 1901 during what is known as the third plague pandemic, an outbreak of bubonic plague that killed millions of people in Asia but not very many in Europe. Over the last two months, friends and family, editors and journalists who know the subject of that novel, “Nights of Plague,” have been asking me a barrage of questions about pandemics.
They are most curious about similarities between the current coronavirus pandemic and the historical outbreaks of plague and cholera. There is an overabundance of similarities. Throughout human and literary history what makes pandemics alike is not mere commonality of germs and viruses but that our initial responses were always the same.
The initial response to the outbreak of a pandemic has always been denial. National and local governments have always been late to respond and have distorted facts and manipulated figures to deny the existence of the outbreak.
In the early pages of “A Journal of the Plague Year,” the single most illuminating work of literature ever written on contagion and human behavior, Daniel Defoe reports that in 1664, local authorities in some neighborhoods of London tried to make the number of plague deaths appear lower than it was by registering other, invented diseases as the recorded cause of death.
In the 1827 novel, “The Betrothed,” perhaps the most realist novel ever written about an outbreak of plague, the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni describes and supports the local population’s anger at the official response to the 1630 plague in Milan. In spite of the evidence, the governor of Milan ignores the threat posed by the disease and will not even cancel a local prince’s birthday celebrations. Manzoni showed that the plague spread rapidly because the restrictions introduced were insufficient, their enforcement was lax and his fellow citizens didn’t heed them.
Much of the literature of plague and contagious diseases presents the carelessness, incompetence and selfishness of those in power as the sole instigator of the fury of the masses. But the best writers, such as Defoe and Camus, allowed their readers a glimpse at something other than politics lying beneath the wave of popular fury, something intrinsic to the human condition.
Defoe’s novel shows us that behind the endless remonstrances and boundless rage there also lies an anger against fate, against a divine will that witnesses and perhaps even condones all this death and human suffering, and a rage against the institutions of organized religion that seem unsure how to deal with any of it.
Humanity’s other universal and seemingly unprompted response to pandemics has always been to create rumors and spread false information. During past pandemics, rumors were mainly fueled by misinformation and the impossibility of seeing the fuller picture.
Defoe and Manzoni wrote about people keeping their distance when they met each other on the streets during the plagues, but also asking each other for news and stories from their respective hometowns and neighborhoods, so that they might piece together a broader picture of the disease. Only through that wider view could they hope to escape death and find a safe place for shelter.
In a world without newspapers, radio, television or internet, the illiterate majority had only their imaginations with which to fathom where the danger lay, its severity and the extent of the torment it could cause. This reliance on imagination gave each person’s fear its own individual voice, and imbued it with a lyrical quality — localized, spiritual and mythical.
The most common rumors during outbreaks of plague were about who had brought the disease in, and where it had come from. Around mid-March, as panic and fear began to spread through Turkey, the manager of my bank in Cihangir, my neighborhood in Istanbul, told me with a knowing air that “this thing” was China’s economic retort to the United States and the rest of the world.
Like evil itself, plague was always portrayed as something that had come from outside. It had struck elsewhere before, and not enough had been done to contain it. In his account of the spread of plague in Athens, Thucydides began by noting that the outbreak had started far away, in Ethiopia and Egypt.
The disease is foreign, it comes from outside, it is brought in with malicious intent. Rumors about the supposed identity of its original carriers are always the most pervasive and popular.
In “The Betrothed,” Manzoni described a figure that has been a fixture of the popular imagination during outbreaks of plague since the Middle Ages: every day there would be a rumor about this malevolent, demonic presence who went about in the dark smearing plague-infected liquid on doorknobs and water fountains. Or perhaps a tired old man who had sat down to rest on the floor inside a church would be accused by a woman passing by of having rubbed his coat around to spread the disease. And soon a lynch mob would gather.
These unexpected and uncontrollable outbursts of violence, hearsay, panic and rebellion are common in accounts of plague epidemics from the Renaissance on. Marcus Aurelius blamed Christians in the Roman Empire for the Antonine smallpox plague, as they did not join the rituals to propitiate the Roman gods. And during subsequent plagues Jews were accused of poisoning the wells both in the Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe.
The history and literature of plagues shows us that the intensity of the suffering, of the fear of death, of the metaphysical dread, and of the sense of the uncanny experienced by the stricken populace will also determine the depth of their anger and political discontent.
As with those old plague pandemics, unfounded rumors and accusations based on nationalist, religious, ethnic and regionalist identity have had a significant effect on how events have unfolded during the coronavirus outbreak. The social media’s and right wing populist media’s penchant for amplifying lies has also played a part.
But today we have access to a dramatically greater volume of reliable information about the pandemic we are living through than people have ever had in any previous pandemic. That is also what makes the powerful and justifiable fear we are all feeling today so different. Our terror is fed less by rumors and based more on accurate information.
As we see the red dots on the maps of our countries and the world multiply, we realize there is nowhere left to escape to. We do not even need our imagination to start fearing the worst. We watch videos of convoys of big black army trucks carrying dead bodies from small Italian towns to nearby crematories as if we were watching our own funeral processions.
The terror we are feeling, however, excludes imagination and individuality, and it reveals how unexpectedly similar our fragile lives and shared humanity really are. Fear, like the thought of dying, makes us feel alone, but the recognition that we are all experiencing a similar anguish draws us out of our loneliness.
The knowledge that the whole of humanity, from Thailand to New York, shares our anxieties about how and where to use a face mask, the safest way to deal with the food we have bought from the grocer and whether to self-quarantine is a constant reminder that we are not alone. It begets a sense of solidarity. We are no longer mortified by our fear; we discover a humility in it that encourages mutual understanding.
When I watch the televised images of people waiting outside the world’s biggest hospitals, I can see that my terror is shared by the rest of the humanity, and I do not feel alone. In time I feel less ashamed of my fear, and increasingly come to see it as a perfectly sensible response. I am reminded of that adage about pandemics and plagues, that those who are afraid live longer.
Eventually I realize that fear elicits two distinct responses in me, and perhaps in all of us. Sometimes it causes me to withdraw into myself, toward solitude and silence. But other times it teaches me to be humble and to practice solidarity.
I first began to dream of writing a plague novel 30 years ago, and even at that early stage my focus was on the fear of death. In 1561, the writer Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq — who was the Hapsburg Empire’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent — escaped the plague in Istanbul by taking refuge six hours away on the island of Prinkipo, the largest of the Princes’ Islands southeast of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara. He noted the insufficiently strict quarantine laws introduced in Istanbul and declared that the Turks were “fatalists” because of their religion, Islam.
About a century and half later, even the wise Defoe wrote in his London plague novel, “Turks and Mahometans […] professed predestinating Notions, and of every Man’s End being predetermined.” My plague novel would help me think about Muslim ‘fatalism’ in the context of secularism and modernity.
Fatalist or otherwise, historically it had always been harder to convince Muslims to tolerate quarantine measures during a pandemic than Christians, especially in the Ottoman Empire. The commercially motivated protests that shopkeepers and rural folk of all faiths tended to raise when resisting quarantine were compounded, among Muslim communities, by issues around female modesty and domestic privacy. Muslim communities at the start of the 19th century demanded “Muslim doctors,” for at the time most doctors were Christians, even in the Ottoman Empire.
From the 1850s, as traveling with steamboats was getting cheaper, pilgrims traveling to the Muslim holy lands of Mecca and Medina became the world’s most prolific carriers and spreaders of infectious disease. At the turn of the 20th century, to control the flow of pilgrims to Mecca and Medina and back to their countries, the British set up one of the world’s leading quarantine offices in Alexandria, Egypt.
These historical developments were responsible for spreading not only the stereotypical notion of Muslim ‘fatalism,’ but also the preconception that they and the other peoples of Asia were both the originators and the sole carriers of contagious disease.
When at the end of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Raskolnikov, the protagonist of the novel, dreams of a plague, he is speaking within that same literary tradition: “He dreamed that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia.”
In maps from the 17th and 18th centuries, the political border of the Ottoman Empire, where the world beyond the West was considered to begin, was marked by the Danube. But the cultural and anthropological border between the two worlds was signaled by the plague, and the fact that the likelihood of catching it was much higher east of the Danube. All this reinforced not just the idea of the innate fatalism so often attributed to Eastern and Asian cultures, but also the preconceived notion that plagues and other epidemics always came from the darkest recesses of the East.
The picture we glean from numerous local historical accounts tells us that even during major plague pandemics, mosques in Istanbul still conducted funerals, mourners still visited one another to offer condolences and tearful embraces, and rather than worry about where the disease had come from and how it was spreading, people were more concerned about being adequately prepared for the next funeral.
Yet during the current coronavirus pandemic, the Turkish government has taken a secular approach, banning funerals for those who have died of the disease and making the unambiguous decision to shut mosques on Fridays when worshipers would ordinarily gather in large groups for the week’s most important prayer. Turks have not opposed these measures. As great as our fear is, it is also wise and forbearing.
For a better world to emerge after this pandemic, we must embrace and nourish the feelings of humility and solidarity engendered by the current moment.
Orhan Pamuk, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, is the author of the forthcoming novel “Nights of Plague.” This essay was translated by Ekin Oklap from the Turkish.
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Correction: April 23, 2020
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name given to an epidemic that struck the Roman Empire in the second century A.D. It is the Antonine plague, not the Antoine plague.