THE 1918–’19 influenza pandemic, which infected a third of the world’s population and killed at least 50 million, directly inspired almost no major works of literature. Katherine Anne Porter’s triad of elegant novellas, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, is the most significant, and yet it remains little read and frequently misread.
Rebecca Onion of Slate called it “a good pandemic story to soothe your coronavirus anxieties,” and Michael Agresta suggested in Texas Monthly that it might bring “catharsis” and “consolation” to the COVID-19 crisis. But Porter’s story does not comfort. Long before the era of virtual connectivity, she observed the power of disease to expose our preexisting alienations.
The title novella, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, is based closely on Porter’s own experience contracting the Spanish flu while working as a reporter in Denver, but it is decidedly not a survival romance. The experience turned her jet-black curls white, and decades later, she recalled being psychologically “altered.” The crisis “simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready.”
The story, not published until 1939, more than 20 years after the sickness, demonstrates with devastating subtlety the horror of returning to a life bereft of meaningful connections and estranged from community.
Porter’s autobiographical proxy, Miranda Gay, becomes aware of her flu symptoms during a brief romance with a soldier who also becomes ill but does not survive. No social distancing here: the couple brazenly hold hands, they go dancing. People are dying, and funerals are happening all around them, but the “funny new disease” affects them less than the encroaching front. Adam is about to ship out, and Miranda is already mourning him.
As a journalist, Porter’s protagonist inhabits a world where people incessantly speak and write yet fail spectacularly to communicate. The disconnect becomes as plain to Miranda as the virus: in a world filled with words, “we are speechless animals letting ourselves be destroyed, and why? Does anybody here believe the things we say to each other?”
Presented with the opportunity for real intimacy, “[s]he wanted to say, ‘Adam, come out of your dream and listen to me. […] I am in pain all over, and you are in such danger as I can’t bear to think about, and why can we not save each other?’” Instead, they simply touch and smile, “as though they had found a new language.” It is a cliché as old as humanity: physical contact is the language that serves when none other will.
The threat of infection merely magnifies the cruel hoax of physical intimacy as a “pale rider” to the failure of human connection in the face of disaster. Touch breeds infection; in literature, it can expose how badly we both require and ruin prospects for intimacy. It is clear that Adam, had he survived, would not have saved her: Miranda had already fled another lover and her family in Louisiana, whom she remembers as a tangle of “badly cast fishing lines,” and recoils serially from the friction of familiarity. With her lover, “every step they took towards each other seemed perilous, drawing them apart instead of together.” It is not just war or flu that dooms them but, seemingly, humanity.
Channels for communication have exploded since Porter’s day, yet the revelation of social distancing has been how little connectivity we have actually achieved. Surges in social media usage and screen time affirm that most Americans dove headlong into their preferred platforms to remain attached even under isolation. As tech journalist Natt Garun wrote optimistically during her own self-quarantine, “We’re a generation built for this kind of alonement.” Likewise, Jan-Werner Müller reminded us that “our feeling of individualism is illusory” when a “common affliction” strikes, and instruments like Twitter and Instagram would seem to intensify those bonds.
But even at peak data consumption, our entanglements in such communities can feel increasingly shallow. As journalist Laura Pezzino confessed, while sequestered solo in Milan’s total lockdown: “I need people more than I thought,” and she means bodies, not screens. With physical contact expressly discouraged beyond our immediate home environments, obstetrician-gynecologist Jenn Gunter puts it bluntly, “These are not sexy times.”
Exceptions may exist for those trapped home with a spouse, although some predict that an extended quarantine is likely to yield just as many divorces as pregnancies. “People who sleep in the same bed can still be socially distant,” reminds Reverend Tony Lee, pastor of a predominantly black church in Marlow Heights, Maryland. For those waiting it out alone, the adult entertainment industry has been one of few US businesses to enjoy appreciable growth (strikingly, firearms and ammunitions sales have also gone up).
The real wonder in all this is not that our practiced “alonement” is failing us, but that we might be surprised by both its deficiency and tyranny. We already know that social media has, ironically, made us less social; we could be realizing rather than repressing that knowledge now. These are extraordinary times, to be sure, but they are not, as we are fond of saying, unprecedented. If past is prologue, we haven’t simply skipped those pages; they have barely been written. What Porter has bequeathed us is both rare and prescient.
Porter’s narrative closes: “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.” Many have read this final line as expectant, but by that point, “everything” is code for rude redundancy, and Miranda views her survival as an “intolerable cheat.”
For Porter, the plague indeed became a career-long metaphor for the “grotesque dislocations” of modernity, a period she described as a sickness that left the world “heaving.” It should not take a pandemic to alert us to the fact that we exist in the long shadow of Porter’s own world. The moment of this story’s publication in the late ’30s was riddled with wars, depression, racism, and xenophobia — nations and individuals rocked steadily apart by the mounting horrors of modernity. We are, like Porter’s characters, still speechless animals straining for companionship in the midst of everyday apocalypse.