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20 May 2020updated 22 May 2020 1:32pm

Infected by ideas

For writers from Daniel Defoe to Susan Sontag, plagues offer a window on to a rapidly changing world.

By Leo Robson

Is language a pestilence? Are bad ideas contagious? Is there safety in numbers? Are emotions dangerous? Or will they keep us going? Is the species frail? Is the species resilient and brave? Are we driven by prejudice and suspicion? Or can we put aside our grievances? Is love a disease? Is love the only cure? If you believe the successive claims advanced by the writing on infectious disease, the answer to all of the above questions is: yes. “You ne understand allegory,” a young woman chides her cousin, Pogge, in James Meek’s recent novel To Calais, in Ordinary Time, set in the 1340s, during the Black Death. Well, if that’s the case, Pogge would be hideously ill-equipped to confront the work of Meek and dozens of forerunners going back millennia.

At the start of the Iliad, the founding work of the Western tradition, the narrator commands the Muse to sing of the anger – “menis” – that emanated from the Greek warrior Achilles, killing countless men. Why did his anger have this impact? The direct reason pertains to military strategy – you don’t want a hothead for a leader – but Homer also aligns anger with deadly infection, and not just metaphorically.

Agamemnon, who angered Achilles, aroused the same emotion in the god Apollo, who vented his anger by cursing Agamemnon’s soldiers with a plague. By line 75 of the poem, anger has been thoroughly established as something that spreads and kills. (It’s believed that Apollo’s chosen vector was mice.) Acts of rage originate in other acts of rage, the airborne transmission of negative emotion being bolstered and abetted by real-life biological warfare.

The literary epic migrated to Latin by a process of contagion called “imitatio” or “aemulatio” or, later, “tradition” (handing-on) and “influence” (flowing-in). Homer’s most notable successor, Virgil, didn’t concern himself with epidemics – he was too busy with the line of genetic descent that culminated in imperial Rome. But scholars still scratch their heads over the multifarious symptoms and effects of the livestock plague he depicted in the Georgics, applying scientific thinking to a form of writing that was more concerned with symbolism. When the academic Eric Langley calls Troilus and Cressida “one of Shakespeare’s most notably plaguey plays” in his book Contagious Sympathies, he doesn’t mean that it concerns an epidemic but that its portrayal of gossip and slander channelled prevailing fears about communities being sites of contamination. In Langley’s account, Troilus and Cressida bristles with a mixture of real and figurative threats: “Atomic activity, invisible bullets, insinuating verbal volleys, objectifying gazes.”

Langley invokes the idea that the rise of individualism is linked to the rise of infectious diseases. Following the Black Death in the 14th century, outbreaks recurred throughout Europe and the Mediterranean for centuries. The spectre of plague was significant not just in the history of medicine and society but of subjectivity – how we see ourselves and especially one another. Self-reliance became indistinguishable from self-protection. The whole Renaissance period, Langley explains, performs “a philosophical flinch” – away from community and solidarity towards “self-quarantined”. The network by which a virus spreads is built on the same principle as intimacy. And so intimacy – or at any rate proximity – must go. Shakespeare, somewhat inevitably, was in two minds about the validity of this position, understanding the neurosis while emphasising the allure of human engagement.

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The bubonic plague that raged in London in 1665, almost exactly 50 years after Shakespeare’s death, exerted an inevitable effect on literature, and especially the new form that had emerged to reflect the rise of individualism. You might think that Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel A Journal of the Plague Year, being set in London, would offer a noisy, urban contrast to his island story Robinson Crusoe (1719). But introduce the plague into a teeming metropolis and you’re soon left with silence. Folk memory of what had beset Defoe’s home town when he was a small child enabled him to compose another portrait of isolation and estrangement.

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A Journal of the Plague Year begins with an account of “word of mouth”: the news that the plague “was returned again in Holland”, brought there, “they say”, from Italy, or the Levant, or Candia, or Cyprus. Testimonies vary. Voices conflict. The narrator, HF, composing his history at a later date, is looking back at a period where there were no newspapers to “spread” rumours and reports; it was letters from abroad that germinated gossip at home. Though he is an eyewitness to a historical event and trying to construct an official record, the writing heaves with metaphors that suggest Defoe’s intentions are not purely documentary. “It was a very ill time to be sick in,” he recalls. Sometimes the figurative and literal are divided by a mere semicolon: “The face of things, I say, was much altered; sorrow and sadness sat upon every face.”

A century after Defoe, Mary Shelley wrote, in The Last Man (1826), perhaps the first speculative thriller about a plague – a tradition that exists to this day and seems to have been unusually boisterous around 40 years ago, with Stephen King’s The Stand (1978), Dean Koontz’s The Eyes of Darkness (1981) and, at a lower level of cultural impact, Stanley Johnson’s The Marburg Virus (1982), which is being reissued this summer under the more putatively resonant title The Virus. But mass pestilence became rare in western Europe, and there was no plague novel that built on the innovations in realist storytelling developed by Defoe and his contemporaries.


Writers were keen to invoke plague as a by-no-means dormant threat, or – more often – mine the subject for symbolism. Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment (1866), imagines a pandemic that has no symptoms beyond human estrangement. In Middlemarch (1871), contagion is present in the realm of human thinking. Mrs Cadwallader realises that her opinion of Dorothea Brooke had been “infected” with her husband’s “weak charitableness”. Members of the Vincy family exhibit an immunity to the evangelical mindset that treated “the few amusements which survived in the provinces” as being akin to “plague-infection”.

In Charles Dickens’s work, the phenomenon that he called, in A Child’s History of England (1851), “that terrible disease, the Plague” is a source of imagery for collective fevers. Bleak House (1852) begins with a single-word sentence that identifies both the setting and the theme: “London.” And what typifies Londonness? First, the deepening mud through which pedestrians jostle one another’s umbrellas “in a general infection of ill temper”. Then, the fog, which spreads up and down the Thames, catching in the “eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners”. In the chapter of Little Dorritt (1855) entitled “The Progress of an Epidemic”, Dickens writes that a moral infection, like a physical one, can spread with the malignity and rapidity of the plague, and will lay hold on people in the soundest health and develop in the most unlikely constitutions. Human creatures, he reminds us, “breathe an atmosphere”, and it would be a blessing on mankind if the tainted were confined or even “summarily smothered” before their poison can be “communicable”.

It’s that old word of mouth again. The epidemic in question is talk of the remarkable financial return offered by the investor Mr Merdle. Where or from whom did the amiable and gullible Mr Pancks contract this prevalent disease? It would be no easier to say, Dickens asserts, than if he had taken a fever. Social epidemics, he says, originate with wicked men but soon reach good ones. When Pancks begins to hold forth with infectious enthusiasm about Merdle’s offer, Dickens explains that it “is the manner of communicating these diseases; it is the subtle way in which they go about”. Even when Dickens was approaching the Great Plague as a historian, he wrote that it was urgent to cut off the dead from “communication” with the living. As metaphors impinge on real life, so reality becomes a tissue of metaphors.

In Defoe’s third Robinson Crusoe book, Serious Reflections (1720), the narrator defends symbolic allegory as being akin to all fiction-making. He claims that “it is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not”. If we’re allowed to make up things from scratch, then surely we are allowed to substitute a bed for an island, or represent confinement with shipwreck, in order to portray the feeling of loneliness. The next canonical novel devoted to portraying the onset of a disease – this time, a rat-borne epidemic in an Algerian town – was Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947), which takes Robinson’s creed as its epigraph.

It is striking that Camus felt as inspired by Defoe’s allegorical method, pursued and examined in the Crusoe books, as he was by another novel by the same writer on his exact subject. (Like Defoe’s HF, Camus’s narrator is an amateur historian working from documents and testimonies.) But then one of the things mobilised by plague is thought. The novel of contagion is always a novel of ideas. “This was where fear began,” Camus’s narrator writes after the citizens of Oran begin dying, “and with it, serious reflection.” Camus was using the subject to reflect on the impact of fascism – the “brown plague” that had so recently infected France – and also the compound of ideology and action known as colonialism.

Philip Roth restored the plague novel to the literal plane in his wonderfully intricate final novel, Nemesis, replacing the “194-” setting of Camus’s novel with a vividly realised 1944, in which a polio outbreak claims dozens of children in New Jersey. But even here, in a book immersed in a time and place and a real set of fears, analogies of contamination soon pile up: fascism, American anti-Semitism, the pervasive impact of the Second World War, and endemic flaws in human beings.

Roth’s title could be translated as “anger”, from the Greek goddess of revenge, bringing us back to the Homeric vision of the force that – with the help of gods and mice – lays waste to humanity. (“Nemein”, in Latin, means “I spread”.) Roth explores the question of what brings us down. This isn’t just polio or even European fascism. It’s the impossible decisions wrought by infection. Bucky Cantor, a Newark teacher, decides to make a run for it and seclude himself in the Pocono Mountains, but we later learn that he had already contracted polio. As in Camus’s novel, a first-person narrator emerges from the community voice in the final section of Nemesis, to suggest the porousness of borders between the individual and the collective emphasised by plague-logic. During the half-century between The Plague and Nemesis, a whole sub-genre developed and to some degree faded out: fiction about Aids.


John Guare’s 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation is a plangent comedy about the proximity of everyone on the planet that employs a narrative method based on gossiping: one character laments that she and her circle of friends have “become these human jukeboxes”. So it’s an ironic touch that Guare’s hustler character manages not to contract the illness despite multiple acts of unprotected sex in 1980s Boston and New York. “I do not have it,” the hustler Paul tells his victim-cum-mentor Ouisa. “It’s a miracle. But I don’t.”

Spread the word: John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation is a plangent comedy that employs a narrative method based on gossiping. Credit: Craig Schwartz​

Aids posed a challenge to writers. How – as, say, a gay novelist writing in the 1980s – could you possibly avoid it? Alan Hollinghurst did so in his 1988 novel The Swimming-Pool Library, by portraying the “last summer” (1983) before homosexuals were wholly aware of Aids, relying on hindsight to cast a dark hue over his portrait of hedonism. And how to confront it? In the introduction to his book of stories about the virus, Monopolies of Loss (1992), Adam Mars-Jones proposed “a customized form of the novel” – perhaps a footnote that interrupts and swamps the story. Susan Sontag took a more conventional – though still powerful – route in her 1986 short story about the beginnings of the Aids crisis, “The Way We Live Now”, portraying Chinese whispers pin-balling around New York:

At first he was just losing weight, he felt only a little ill, Max said to Ellen, and he didn’t call for an appointment with his doctor, according to Greg, because he was managing to keep on working at more or less the same rhythm, but he did stop smoking, Tanya pointed out, which suggests he was frightened, but also that he wanted, even more than he knew, to be healthy, or healthier, or maybe just to gain back a few pounds, said Orson…

“The Way We Live Now” is constructed almost entirely from telephone calls – gossip is being conducted not, as in the work of Defoe and Dickens, in cafés or on street corners, but by people in different living rooms. “I’ve never spent so many hours at a time on the phone,” one character, Stephen, complains, while Lewis says that “when the phone rings I’m scared to answer because I think it will be someone telling me someone else is ill”.

But while technology offers a parallel to disease in the speed and ease of connection – as a useful allegorical tool when telling a story about transmission – what it enables in reality is distanced, “self-isolated” living. So the route by which a virus spreads might be roughly akin to a network, but that’s as far as it goes. Sometimes a metaphor is really just a metaphor. 

This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show