Two things are clear from the current viral onslaught: the first is that we too are paralyzed by an unshakeable sense of terror; and the second is that, while such prime emotion feels new and untamable, it is as old as humankind.
We fear what we cannot control: the collapse of routine; being among the unlucky who die; the wrath of natural is upon us. In Henry VI, Shakespeare says: “Of all based passions, fear is the most accursed.” It is an animalistic reaction in the face of danger. Our heart beats at a faster pace. We feel anxious, trapped, and we doubt our capacity to reason.
On the surface, it might not appear do us any good that literature is filled with retorts to calamities. Yet literature is the catalogue, factual and imaginative, we have built to understand what others before us have done while in a state of desperation. Floods, famine, and destruction abound in the Bible; and, of course, the Bible is always used as bouncing board to explain the present. The prophets of doom are saying now, as they did when Sodom and Gomora were annihilated, that COVID-19 is punishment for collective reckless. The same goes for the twin brothers who are the protagonists of Popol Vuh, the K’iche book of creation; they are overtaken by disasters macabrely ordered on them by the evil lords of Xibalba.
More matter-of-fact depictions of widespread chaos generated by pestilence appear in Decameron as Florence, like Venice today, is left deserted by the Black Death, and in Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, which gives a minute-by-minute CNN-like report of London in 1665 as it is ravished by the bubonic fever. And in Michael Crichton’s techno-thriller The Andromeda Strain, which undoubtedly feels closer to our dystopian present (ironically, I watched the 1971 movie adaptation not long ago and these days I can’t get it out of my dreams), an out-of-space microbe decimates the population of Arizona.
But fear is also a creative stimulant. According to Spinoza, who in the 17th century made, in his book Ethics, the best, most complete list of our emotions, with explanations on how they function, is a compliment of fear. There is no hope unmingled with fear and vice versa, he proclaimed. Through ingenuity, we imagine ourselves out of despair.
A small group of characters in Blindness are caught in an asylum in which they have been quarantined as they escape into the apocalyptic world outside, led by the doctor’s wife (Saramago masterfully refers to his characters not by name but by their prime social role) in search of shelter. By the end of the novel, they have built a commune when the absence of sight in the general population vanishes as mysteriously as it appeared. What we readers are left with isn’t sheer doom; instead, we are invited to recognize the stunning human capacity to metastasize fear into hope.
And in One Hundred Years of Solitude, José Arcadio Buendía, the family patriarch, understanding the impact insomnia is likely to have on everyone, realizes forgetfulness will soon strike like thunder and lightning on people because to remember our mind needs sleep. Resourceful as he is — part scientist, part mystic — , he imposes a strategy so that reality doesn’t collapse altogether: he and others put signs on objects, the word “caw” attached to a cow, so that the Macondinos remember what it is. But the illness is so inclement in its sweep, José Arcadio decides to attach descriptions to objects: a cow is milked twice a day; the milk is used to drink; it is particularly nutritive for children; and so on. To the degree possible, this approach allows life to feel anchored.
Although it is being repeated to exhaustion, nothing currently affecting us is truly unprecedented. Plagues are a sine qua non of civilizations. Scores will die; the majority will survive, although not unscathed. Each epoch, each culture displays different answers. Some might become more religious. Others may break out into song. Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague in England; Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz, the best poet Latin America ever produced, fell silent, for a variety of reasons, as the plague hit her Mexico convent. The two, it is fair to say, were irrevocably touched by their circumstance.
Everything will be different on the morning after the virus. It is clear already that our reality has been irremediably fractured. The prolonged fear we are currently experiencing will likely change us in unforeseen, profound ways: the young might be less egotistical and the old more optimistic. Although there will be intense sadness, we will be desperate for physical contact. A simple smile a few inches away will feel like the raising sun.
We are just like our ancestors, neither better nor worse. Leaving a record like the Macondinos of what we think right now, what our dreams are, is essential — for ourselves and for those who come after us.
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the author, most recently, of The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (Pitt).