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When Plague Is Not a Metaphor

Homer’s Iliad — what some consider the origin of European literature — begins with a plague. In the epic, which I was teaching as part of an upper-level Greek course just months ago, the destructive power of disease parallels that of war itself: Apollo, lord of the silver bow, sheds arrows of pestilence throughout the Greek camp, “laying low” countless soldiers “thick and fast." The anonymity of the dead and dying sets a pallid backdrop for a battle that, within the poem’s narrative, has not even begun.

As countless interpretations have stressed, Homer’s plague exists in a metaphorical relationship with the war — the siege of Troy — that is the subject of the poem. The epidemic afflicting the unnamed soldiers serves to highlight the disease of discord infecting the “best” of the Greeks, the military commanders. As infirmity wrecks the human bodies of soldiers, we are prompted to reflect on dysfunction within the body politic of the loosely construed Greek alliance. (Does this sound eerily familiar?)

Early in the spring-2020 semester, I had planned to say quite a bit about Homer’s figurative use of disease and the literary tradition it initiated. But as we concluded February in exhausted anticipation of spring break, Covid-19 made the artistry of that metaphor abruptly beside the point. It seemed — and still seems — futile to talk about what plague means in the history of human discourse when plague quite literally is the current defining condition of homo sapiens.

What more could I, the plague specialist, say? As the arrows of pestilence once again rain down on humanity, what could I have to offer? Mine was not just a case of a literary scholar being burnt out with a research topic. I was experiencing the kind of paralysis that comes when, without much warning, the stuff of literary fantasy jumps into the realm of brutal reality: If Apollo himself, striding swift as the night from Mount Olympus, had approached my suburban split-level ranch house, I would not have been more dumbstruck.

When I began my inquiries into Latin plague narratives in the early 2010s, I was driven by what felt like an urgent relevance to the topic as many tales of killer viruses and accounts of a zombie apocalypse continued to populate page and screen: The Hot Zone (1994); Spillover (2012); Outbreak (1995); Contagion (2011); The Andromeda Strain (1969, 1971, 2008); etc. I felt compelled to trace these contagion narratives back to what appeared to me to be a common source, the Roman epic — and, of course, to write a book about it and get promoted in the process. The outbreak of Ebola in 2014, which traumatized West Africa and made a brief appearance on U.S. soil, seemed to intensify the relevance of my work while also keeping me at a safe distance from the hazardous wilds of non-literary reality.

By spring of 2020, less than a year after the publication of my book, Covid-19 was here. This should be “my moment,” my chance to abandon the ivory tower, to address some (admittedly ill-defined) public and make them aware of a long-inherited tradition of disease discourse that I have studied in great detail. On paper, all my training has led to this. But this pandemic is unscripted, unbound by the covers of any book, and for these past two months I’ve found myself … speechless. Even now, I struggle to find the right words, and I’m left questioning the nature of my work as a literary critic as well as the comfortable boundaries I’ve always relied upon to carry it out.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education