To Ascend into Secrets: Speaking the Pandemic
By Ian DreiblattAugust 22, 2020
— Will Alexander
Negation is at the heart of testimony.
— Jean-François Lyotard (translated by Georges Van Den Abbeele)
AROUND 80 DAYS after those of us who had the choice stopped leaving our homes, Larry Kramer died. It wasn’t of COVID-19, the shape-shifting malady that has spent 2020 with its foot on the throat of global humanity, but it was of pneumonia, that afflicted state in which COVID-19 finds its highest and most fatal expression. Kramer was a writer who’d gotten his break in 1969 adapting D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love for the movies. (Lawrence himself might have been alive to see it had he not died of tuberculosis decades earlier at 44.) But it was in fighting an epidemic that Kramer fully realized himself as an activist and artist.
There’s a scene in David France’s 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague that shows a 1991 meeting of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which Kramer co-founded. ACT UP, here four years into its struggle for a federal AIDS policy and access to experimental drugs, looks to be bobbing on the surface of chaos. Attendees, their faces frozen in a sadness that has survived the exhaustions of panic, call each other names, shout each other down. Suddenly, Kramer bolts upright and begins to holler. “Plague!” His voice booms and the room goes silent. “We are in the middle of a fucking plague. And you behave like this. Plague!”
Part of Kramer’s brilliance is that he understands — we see him, in this beleaguered and electric moment, understanding — the ancient power of that word. Plague. Few forces drive history by tarrying so intimately with us. Plague can hang in the air, root in our breath, run in our blood. For as strange as our lives have become, this experience, where a population hectically stays indoors to avoid a deadly illness, is in the long view a common one. We’re living a sliver of what many have lived. As others raced in a fog of confusion, we race in a fog of confusion. Now, as then, the smell of new bread wafts amid flourishing contagion.
Plague. The word comes from the Latin plaga, which can also mean “gash” or “misfortune.” Ultimately it’s from plangere, “to strike.” A Greek cognate means “sting”; in Russian, the same root becomes plakat’, “to cry.” Words are a little bit like viruses — they drift and settle and mutate, and when fed by the energy of something alive, they awaken and reproduce. “COVID-19” is a new word, and a stupid one. But “plague” knows to sting us in the soft nape of our history.
It’s not the only word that has trailed a ghostly freight of associations through our quarantine discourse. Take pandemic — “of all the people.” In ancient Greece, the goddess Aphrodite had two forms. Aphrodite Pandemos was the hot, terrestrial kind of love, and she contrasted with Aphrodite Urania, a more abstract, heavenly one. In Plato’s Symposium, Pausanias calls Aphrodite Pandemos “common and popular.” Commenting in the 15th century, Marsilio Ficino writes that she is “assigned to the World Soul […] for she proceeds from that power which is in the World Soul, and creates the power which produces all these inferior things and comes to rest in the matter of the world.”
The coincidence between the Greek name and the English word is apt. A pandemic changes the meaning of the space between people, the quality of being together or apart. Our profound connectedness is transmuted into the urgency of our staying separate, which makes some of our most powerful drives — love, affection, horniness — incoherent. Human beings don’t adjust to this easily. That’s Larry Kramer’s message as he dramatizes the strike of the plague: in a pandemic, we commingle uneasily with the matter of the world. To fight such a malady is to contest, on some level, the power of the World Soul.
At first, I had hoped this essay would be about the writing of Will Alexander. In March 2020, it was arresting to read:
my existence now condoned by contagion
extracted from stars
from lowered luminosity
from lowered ranges of fire
Alexander’s poetry pulses with a kind of combinatorial negativism. Over and over, he sets off explosions at the synapses between thoughts, illuminating the switchboard of the unsayable that lives just under signification. It’s like the music from a dream of infinite dissensus, a politics of living with the dead and toward the eternal. In his “pointless rural fragment” The Contemporary Mind, Alexander diagnoses our current state as one of being “suffused with basic distraction due to allegiance to its own negation. […] The resulting amount being a mislaid being, bubonic, laced by curious indifference.” But when I sat down to start writing about this, I found myself completely preoccupied with the novel coronavirus that had just hit New York City.
At first, there were two books everyone seemed suddenly to be reading. One was Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which 10 youths take a staycation just outside Florence to avoid a recent spike of bubonic plague. All between 18 and 28, they meet in town, at the church of Santa Maria Novella. As many spent late March observing, the story feels surprisingly contemporary. In the plague-struck city, Boccaccio describes “how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbors was scarce found any that showed fellow-feeling for another.” The youths, meanwhile, sound Instagram-ready — seven women of “gentle manners, and a modest sprightliness” and three “debonair and chivalrous” men. When they get to the house, they even make a chore wheel, and immediately saunter through the garden threading leaves into little crowns for themselves. It’s right out of Kinfolk.
The other book everyone seemed to be reading was Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Here, too, we find flickers of what sounds surprisingly like the present. Thanks partly to “astrological conjurations,” Defoe writes, people were “overcome with delusions” in the months before the outbreak, and “they had a notion of the approach of a visitation.” Like the internet after it, Defoe’s London swells with hucksters selling “charms, philtres, exorcisms, amulets, and I know not what preparations, to fortify the body with them against the plague.” (Not that Defoe knew firsthand — he was five during the outbreak the book dramatizes.)
Defoe’s Journal also, a few times, compares London with Biblical Jerusalem. It happens first in reference to another topic that’s all too present in our contemporary conversations: population density. Defoe speculates that London was especially crowded following the end of the Civil War, much like Jerusalem during the Passover pilgrimage when the Romans came for Jesus.
The Passover story details the Exodus, the pivotal event in the Jewish Bible. The very passingness of Defoe’s reference to it suggests its conceptual ubiquity — a primal scene for Jews of every tradition, and a controlling metaphor for much of Christianity. Modern rites of baptism reenact the ancient reenactments of it in the Jordan River; it’s the subject of Black American spirituals like “Wade in the Water” and “Go Down Moses”; in Cecil B. DeMille’s hands it offers the apotheosis of one strand in American cinema. It is, of course, also a plague narrative.
In the Biblical lore that precedes the Exodus, the Hebrews are a loose coalition of nomadic households who migrate to Egypt and become enslaved, enduring generations of servitude. Finally, a leader named Moses arises. While he’s of Hebrew descent, Moses is culturally Egyptian, as is his name — a word for “child” that occurs in other Egyptian names, like Ramesses and Thutmose. Fighting to liberate the Hebrews, Moses summons Ten Plagues in a narrative teeming with detail that takes on a stark verisimilitude in light of our present social withdrawal. Animals run wild through the streets. The weather makes people touchy. People look sick. People die. There’s blood and unrest.
Finally, the king is persuaded and the Hebrews are allowed to leave Egypt, emerging for the first time as a politically and ethnically distinct community, united by their worship of a single god named Yahweh. The first thing this god does is threaten them with more plague. He “will put none of these diseases upon you, which I have brought upon the Egyptians,” Yahweh tells his followers, only if “you will diligently hearken to the voice of your lord Yahweh, and will do that which is right in his sight.” Their god will “prove” them before finalizing the decision to spare them from plague. He then begins leading them through the desert, where, like the COVID-19 quarantees they seem to prefigure, they spend much of their time complaining about the food — for which their god punishes them with yet more plague.
In contemporary English, “manna from heaven” has a positive ring, but in the Bible, the Israelites hate it. The only thing they get to eat during their protracted escape, manna is a kind of whitish slime that settles on the ground each morning, and has to be painstakingly gathered, mixed with water, and cooked into little cakes, described variously as tasting like cream or honey. (At the start of the 19th century, the Swiss adventurer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt thought he’d found manna in western Sinai, when he learned that people gathered and ate what later turned out to be secretions from an insect called the tamarisk manna scale.) At one point in the Book of Numbers, the Israelites whine so loudly about missing the robust diet of the Egyptian toiling class that Yahweh promises to send them meat “until it come out at your nostrils and it be loathsome unto you.” But with “the flesh […] yet between their teeth,” Yahweh’s anger blazes forth, and he smacks the Hebrews with “a very great plague,” before renaming the place “Graves of Craving.” The Hebrew for “plague,” makah, like the Latin plaga, means literally “strike,” and plague is described as landing ba‘am, a compound word that has the same meaning as the Greek epidemios, “upon the people.”
The early Hebrews were surrounded on two sides by larger forces of political and cultural dominance: Mesopotamians to the east and Egyptians to the west. In considering the Akkadian-language writing left behind by ancient Mesopotamian cultures, the Assyriologist Moudhy Al-Rashid notes that “in line with a worldview where events in the human sphere are shaped by what we would call supernatural forces, Akkadian medical texts make use of verbs that denote physical contact (‘to strike,’ ‘to hit,’ ‘to touch’) in describing how an agent, like a god, infects a person with an illness.” The Akkadian liptum, for instance, meaning “outbreak,” springs from the same root as the verb lapātum, “to touch” or “to attack” — not so different from the Latin plaga or the Hebrew makah. Plagues are also referred to as qat ilim, “the hand of the god,” and ukulti ilim, “the god’s devouring.” The god likeliest to do this devouring was Erra, “Lord of Plague and Carnage.”
If the attribution of a spreading disease to a god’s hunger seems primitive, this mostly reflects our own hang-ups around monotheism and the permeable membrane between metaphor and description. From an ancient perspective, the gods are indistinguishable from the natural and social phenomena they represent. Ancient languages famously tend to lack any word for “religion.” Mesopotamia’s physicians were agents of a sophisticated intellectual culture; they preserved and circulated knowledge about medical treatments, and, through language, they situated disease, making it legible as a subject of scholarly contemplation. The conceptual frames they used are no more arbitrary than our own. One thing we’re all learning lately is that a pandemic has its own personality; so do Erra, Yahweh, and countless beings like them.
Of course, if the experience of plague put Mesopotamians in mind of devouring gods, they took plenty of empirically based precautions, too. The Mari King Zimri-Lim, a contemporary of Hammurabi, wrote his wife a letter in the 18th century BCE, saying of one of her courtiers, “I have heard Nanna has a simmum.” The word can mean “contagious disease” or “abscess.” He continues:
Since she is often at the palace, it will infect the many women who are with her. Now give strict orders: No one is to drink from the cup she uses; no one is to sit on the seat she takes; no one is to lie on the bed she uses, lest it infect the many women who are with her. This is a very contagious infection.
The people on the Hebrews’ other side were no strangers to pestilence either. The paleoecologist Eva Panagiotakopulu has suggested bubonic plague may have gotten its start in Egypt; Egyptologist Wolfgang Helck found evidence there as early as the 16th century BCE. Ample other plagues are evident, too. Recently researchers found that an ancient grave in Thebes, near modern Luxor, had been opened up, nearly a millennium after claiming its primary occupants, and filled with quarantined corpses during the third-century Plague of St. Cyprian, named for the African bishop who documented it. (Cyprian’s deacon, Pontius of Carthage, would later remember the people of that city “shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends…”)
No Egyptian plague is more fascinating than the one that followed the brief period of official monotheism established by the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV. Some scholars have speculated that this, too, may have been an early bubonic outbreak. Whatever it was, it followed one of the strangest developments in human intellectual history.
In the 14th century BCE, Amenhotep IV, a Theban king whose father had left big shoes, changed his name to Akhenaten and announced a slate of monumental reforms. He drastically altered the aesthetics of public art, abandoned his palace in Thebes to found a new desert capital called Akhetaten (near modern Amarna), and promulgated a new religion, monotheistically centered on the disk of the sun, named the Aten (the word originally means, simply, “disk”). In a radical shift that caused James Henry Breasted to declare him “the first individual in human history,” the king derived an entire religion from the sensory experience of the sun’s rays (“Your light makes eyes for everything that you create,” he wrote), jettisoning more than a thousand years of iconography and ritual. Everything we know suggests Akhenaten’s subjects experienced these reforms as a cataclysm. All that had been solid melted into air: priests defrocked, temples decommissioned, festivals — the central expressions of social and transcendent feeling in Egyptian communities — canceled. When Akhenaten died around 1336 BCE, the rollback of his reforms followed almost instantly. And as that was happening, a plague struck Egypt.
It’s possible that this pestilence represented the outbreak of a disease Akhenaten had been fighting to contain. His new religion pushed worship into open-air spaces, like unwalled platforms and roofless rooms. The Egyptologist Hans Goedicke speculated:
The departure from Thebes and the founding of a new capital at Amarna might very well be less an expression of religious zeal than of health protection. The spacious layout of Amarna, the limits of physical interaction, especially in the fancy quarters, can also be seen as a protective measure. The almost frantic desire for life and the somewhat morbid aestheticism, so dominant in the art of this period, fits well into this picture.
In his book Moses the Egyptian, Jan Assmann notes additionally the peculiar boundary markers of Akhenaten’s capital, which the king promises never to transgress, forming a kind of cordon sanitaire.
What is clear is that shortly after Akhenaten’s reign, an unchecked plague ravaged the entire region for two decades. It appears to have spread from Egyptian prisoners captured at a garrison in Mesopotamia by Hittite soldiers seeking vengeance for the disappearance of a prince named Zannanza. Egyptians called it “the Canaanite illness.” In fact the Egyptian word for Canaanite, ‘amu, may be borrowed from a Canaanite word for “people” — cousin to the Hebrew ‘am operative in the ba‘am (“upon the people”) of the Exodus passage above. In the incantations used to combat the plague, Egyptians seem to have made an effort to speak in terms the Canaanite deities afflicting them would understand. “Just as Seth fought against the sea,” one of the spells goes, “so will Seth fight against you, O Canaanite, so that you shall not enter into the son of such-and-such.” The Canaanite being addressed is, of course, not a person, but a maleficent spirit. The reference is to a legendary battle: on one side, the Canaanite god Ba’al, whom the Egyptians identified with their own chaos god Seth, and on other side Yam, the god of the sea.
In later years, when Canaan was the stronghold of another Semitic group, the Hebrews, it became commonplace to associate Yahweh with Seth. Assmann notes that, as late as the first century CE, the idea that Israelite belief constructed itself as a deliberate antipode to Egyptian paganism — a kind of negative syncretism — had grown so widely entrenched that the Roman historian Tacitus inaccurately believed Hebrews worshipped donkey statues “in ridicule of Amun,” the Egyptian god whom Akhenaten’s reforms had most violently displaced. This seems partly to reflect the frequent association of Seth, Egypt’s consummate antagonist, with donkeys. More to the point, Assmann argues, it testifies to the widespread sense that the two bodies of tradition were bound by a hostility so strong it seemed intrinsic, even definitive.
Assmann attempts to excavate the contours of the deep trauma wrought by the Canaanite illness in historical recollection. Egyptians continued to associate the entwined memories of monotheism and plague with horror and decimation, and sought to differentiate themselves sharply from their monotheist neighbors in Canaan. Noting Freud’s observation that repression is a tool by which painful memories are retained and stabilized, Assmann writes that Biblical monotheism builds “its crucial semantic elements” — which we continue to live among and fashion meaning out of today — “from a construction of the rejected other” that was Egyptian polytheism.
Paganism has a dialectical tendency to conceive of the world as a polyphonic interplay between the contrasting appetites of nature and sociality — a banquet cooked to the order of the gods’ various hungers. What prejudices may we have inherited from modes of thinking designed to stabilize and quarantine the memory of those grim feasts?
As I write this, about how history blossoms from a wound in communal thinking, how its material surfaces — accidental as a shirtsleeve, relevant as a brick — spread the mutating legacy of an otherwise vanished catastrophe, Americans have taken to the streets, in defiance of widespread rioting by police, to demand an end to the racism enthroned at the highest levels of official power in our country. We can add to these demonstrators’ courage their willing likely exposure to the virus we’ve all been working to starve.
Will Alexander writes later in The Contemporary Mind, after noting “the very shadow of colonized regression that hangs over the populace,” that “poetry by its very nature destabilizes these particular externalities by delving into the instantaneous through blinding salvo from the un-nameable.”
Jack D. Forbes has written about “the disease of aggression against other living things” partly in Ojibwe terms: “I call it cannibalism […] But whatever we call it, this disease, this wétiko (cannibal) psychosis, is the greatest epidemic sickness known to man.” Forbes foregrounds the concrete, literal reality of this traditional American diagnosis, demonstrating that the tendency to sequester its implications in the realm of metaphor is in fact a symptom of the disease itself. Only very sick people, he explains, would defend a way of life premised on the immiseration, the disposability, even the ingestion of so many others.
The liberation of metaphor seems to have been among Akhenaten’s crimes, too. Assmann shows in considerable detail that Akhenaten’s short-lived religion took rational perception as its starting point: “Mythical imagery is replaced by visible reality; the mythical concept of meaning is replaced by a physical concept of function and causality.”
If there is any cause for hope during the current quarantine — in which American elites have doubled down on their view of medical care as a luxury good to be purchased by the rich, and prominent reactionaries have rallied behind a caricature of viral containment as political cowardice — it may be in tracing the surprising, powerful change that can be driven by a crisis of human proximities.
In the news, President Symptom caterwauls about “the Chinese virus” and the need for soldiers to “dominate the streets.” What will be COVID-19’s Decameron, if we’re lucky enough to emerge with Decamerons? Will Alexander writes in A Cannibal Explains Himself to Himself, “Something eats us, something spontaneously de-ignites us and spirals us to the grave.” Later in the same piece, Alexander speaks of “a leakage only provisionally questioned at individual levels, and only once, within my reading recollection, remember having seen a few words that spoke of Egyptian national effort poised at transmuting the very nature of death.” Trapped as we are in a civilization that impels us to root for our own disposability, there can be no overstating the urgency of our finding another way to do language — one that seizes the power holding us at depraved angles from life and death, perhaps allowing us to “slip into the ellipsis of being in order to transmute forces so as to ascend into secrets that invigorate the beyond.”
Ian Dreiblatt is a poet, translator, and musician who lives in Brooklyn. His book forget thee is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse next year.
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