Carlos Gamerro, "The Pleasures of Pestilence"

Carlos Gamerro has published the novels Las Islas (1998), El secreto y las voces (2002) and La aventura de los bustos de Eva (2004), among others; their English versions were translated by Ian Barnett in collaboration with the author. His literary criticism includes Ulises: claves de lectura (2008), Ficciones barrocas (2010), Facundo o Martín Fierro (2015) and Borges y los clásicos (2016). He has translated into Spanish Graham Greene, Harold Bloom, and some of Shakespeare plays. He lives in Buenos Aires.


The Pleasures of Pestilence

In the first chapter of The Theatre and Its Double, entitled ‘Theatre and the Plague,’ Antonin Artaud revives the old trope of the ‘liberating plague’ and celebrates the joyful, festive, orgiastic nature of the epidemic:

Once the plague is established in a city, normal social order collapses. [...] the virtuous and obedient son kills his father, the continent sodomized their kin. The lewd become chaste. [...] Neither the lack of sanctions nor the imminence of death are enough to explain such pointlessly absurd acts by people who did not believe death could end anything. And how are we to explain that upsurge of erotic fever among the recovered victims who, instead of escaping, stay behind, seeking out and snatching sinful pleasure from the dying or even the dead, half-crushed under the pile of corpses where chance had lodged them?

This carnival image of pestilence dates back – in the West at least – to the danses macabres of the Middle Ages, where death has two faces: that of the liberator summoning all to a last communal feast; and that of the great leveler reaching out to all as equals. Emperors, popes, peasants and artisans dance hand in hand towards their final fate. It’s there in Pieter Brueghel’s painting The Triumph of Death (c. 1562), in Hans Holbein the Younger’s engravings The Dance of Death (1538), at the end of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), in the plague victims’ outdoor banquet in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979). Michel Foucault encapsulates it in one of the best pages of Discipline and Punish:

A whole literary fiction of the festival grew up around the plague: suspended laws, lifted prohibitions, the frenzy of passing time, bodies mingling together without respect, individuals unmasked, abandoning their statutory identity and the figure under which they had been recognized, allowing a quite different truth to appear.

However attractive or fascinating the image of the epidemic as a feast may be, we should not forget that Foucault labeled it a ‘literary fiction.’ It appears in the first chronicle of a plague-stricken city, the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, who went through the great epidemic of 430 BCE in Athens – probably typhoid – and caught the disease himself:

In other respects, too, the plague was the beginning of increased lawlessness in the city. People were less inhibited in the indulgence of pleasures previously concealed when they saw the rapid changes of fortune — the prosperous suddenly dead, and the once indigent now possessing their fortune. As a result, they decided to look for satisfactions that were quick and pleasurable, reckoning that neither life nor wealth would last long. No one was prepared to persevere in what had once been thought the path of honor, as they could well be dead before that destination was reached. Immediate pleasure, and any means profitable to that end, became the new honor and the new value. No fear of god or human law was any constraint. Pious or impious made no difference in their view, when they could see all dying without distinction. As for offenses against the law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to justice and pay the penalty: they thought that a much heavier sentence had already been passed and was hanging over them, so they might as well have some enjoyment of life before it fell.

But nothing of this sort is found in the Diaries of Samuel Pepys documenting the Great Plague of London of 1665; nor in the novel A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, who lived through it as a small child, and researched archives and texts from the period; nor in Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed or the History of the Column of Infamy, well-informed versions of the plague of 1630 in Milan. And if we look closely at such actual danses macabres as those painted by Bernt Notke in the churches of Saint Nicholas’s in Tallinn or Saint Mary’s in Lübeck, it’s clear the only ones eager to take to the floor are the skeletons; the living always look like they’ve been dragged up to dance.

Camus devotes some pages of The Plague to the contrast between these ‘literary fictions’ and his characters’ lived experience:

[...] Plague. The word contained not only what science had seen fit to put in it, but a long succession of extraordinary images that had nothing to do with this gray and yellow town [that] almost effortlessly contradicted the old images of pestilence: Athens stricken, abandoned by its birds; Chinese towns full of people dying in silence [...] the carnival of masked doctors during the Black Death; the living copulating in the cemeteries in Milan; the carts of the dead in a London paralyzed with terror [...]. But common sense dispelled this dizzying vision. [...] What he must do was to acknowledge clearly what had to be acknowledged, drive away all needless shadows and take whatever measures were required. After that, the plague would cease, because plague was inconceivable, or because it was wrongly conceived. [my italics].

You need only read a few pages of The Plague to feel the gulf between such ‘extraordinary images’ and its own. It is a measured, slow-paced novel of quietly restrained prose that shuns the spectacular. Its theater is a city ‘happy in short, if it is possible to be happy and drab at one and the same time’. Its protagonists are ordinary men and women whom one would be tempted in other circumstances to describe as gray or average and whose heroism – if the word applies to them – lies in looking after the sick, or keeping detailed records, or their constant efforts not to infect their fellows. The plague, in Dr Rieux’s pithy phrase, ‘was a shrewdly designed and flawless system, which operated with great efficiency.’

Camus’s tone derives from the great plague novel – the benchmark for all others – Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) , which Camus quotes in the epigraph to his novel. There is no trace of orgiastic excess, release, or Dionysian dyscontrol in Defoe’s work: no carnival, no feast of fools, no fraternizing in the streets. A little madness does creep in, true, yet it’s anything but festive: naked prophets announcing the end of the world; raving plague sufferers throwing themselves into the river to escape the torment of their buboes; drunks congregating before mass graves to mock the piety of the bereaved and drink the health of the piles of corpses they are soon to join. But in neither novel is there any pleasure in pestilence. The plague encloses, isolates, depresses; the virtues it arouses are not heroic or superior but neighborly, civic-minded, perhaps rather boring. Far from releasing us from conventions and social ties, plague turns us into good citizens who obey the law and respect the authorities – as long as they appear to be discharging their duties. Neither novel deals with how the plague frees us, but rather how we can rid ourselves of it. Reading these two novels can provide us with some relief from the uneasy sense of being cheated that we’ve been carrying in recent months: disaster movies had promised us the frenzy of a zombie plague à la World War Z and what we’ve had to settle for is an endless virtual quarantine à la The Matrix.

Plague as liberation also crops up in Boccaccio’s Decameron, albeit with significant variations. The book’s structure is well-known: ten young people – three men and seven women – decide to take refuge from the plague devastating Florence in a country house. They spend their time eating, drinking and telling stories, one a day for ten days. The novel opens with and is framed by a description of the ravages of plague in Florence, which the author narrates in the first person:

Now with our city in such a sorry state, the laws of God and men had lost their authority and fallen into disrespect in the absence of magistrates to see them enforced, for they, like everyone else, had either succumbed to the plague or lay sick, or else had been deprived of their minions to the point where they were powerless. This left everyone free to do precisely as he pleased.

In his foundational study on the culture of laughter, feasting, and carnival, Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin sums up the role of plague in the conception of the novel:

[...] it grants the right to use other words, to have another approach to life and to the world. Not only have all conventions been dropped, but all laws “both human and divine” are silenced. Life has been lifted out of its routine, the web of conventions has been torn; all the official hierarchic limits have been swept away. The plague has created its own unique atmosphere that grants both outward and inward rights. Even the most respected man may now wear his ‘breeches for headgear.’

It’s also true, however, that this liberation doesn’t apply to those living in the midst of plague who have resigned themselves to death, but rather to those who have successfully kept out of its way. The Decameron isn’t exactly a free-for-all: its participants don’t stagger from one orgy to the next; the most risqué thing they do is tell racy stories. These ten young men and women’s frugal frolics smack less of Artaud’s apocalyptic images – or, in our own day, the dodgy news stories about the “‘contagion parties”’ being thrown in Berlin or Miami – than of judicious confinement in a gated community with all the creature comforts, while anyone beyond its walls can go to hell. No, this is Prince Prospero’s masque without the arrival of the Red Death when the clock strikes twelve.

One who does look to savor the full delights of plague – cholera in his case – is Gustav von Aschenbach, the hero of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912). It isn’t hard to understand: Aschenbach is a venerated writer weighed down by his success and, from the age of fifty, a title; a man who, as one of his friends sums up, has lived his whole life like a closed fist rather than a relaxed and open hand. He is sick of his writing routine, his reputation, himself, and decides to escape to Venice, where he falls in love with an adolescent Polish Adonis while a secret epidemic that seems to rise out of the reeking canals, corrupted air and sickly sun takes hold of the sinking city.

As his secret desire – which Aschenbach tries to dress up for himself as Platonic love for Tadzio’s ideal beauty – begins to loosen him inside (he loses interest in the book he’s writing, pursues his impossible love through the maze of Venetian backstreets, puts himself in the hands of a hairdresser, who dyes his hair, paints his lips and rouges his cheeks), his dignity, his stiffness, and his spiritual and aesthetic alibis begin to desert him, until his being explodes in a seething Dionysian dream, at once bestial and intellectual, whose images obviously spring not exclusively from some atavistic reservoir of the Teutonic soul but from the pages of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy as well):

It began with fear, fear and joy and a horrified curiosity about what was to come. It was night, and his senses were alert; for from far off a hubbub was approaching, an uproar, a compendium of noise […], a clangor and blare and dull thundering, yells of exultation and a particular howl with a long-drawn-out u at the end—all of it permeated and dominated by a terrible sweet sound of flute music: by deep-warbling, infamously persistent, shamelessly clinging tones that bewitched the innermost heart. Yet he was aware of a word, an obscure word, but one that gave a name to what was coming: “the stranger-god!”  [. . .] And in fragmented light, from wooded heights, between tree trunks and mossy boulders, it came tumbling and whirling down:  [. . .] Men with horns over their brows, hairy-skinned and girdled with pelts, bowed their necks and threw up their arms and thighs, clanging brazen cymbals and beating a furious tattoo on drums, while smooth-skinned boys prodded goats with leafy staves, clinging to their horns and yelling with delight as the leaping beasts dragged them along. [. . .]  Great was his loathing, great his fear, honorable his effort of will to defend to the last what was his  and protect it against the Stranger, against the enemy of the composed and dignified intellect. [. . .] But the dreamer now was with them and in them, he belonged to the Stranger-God.

In Illness as Metaphor (1975) Susan Sontag understands this ‘fall’ in the following terms:

In ‘Death in Venice,’ passion brings about the collapse of all that has made Gustav von Aschenbach singular – his reason, his inhibitions, his fastidiousness. And disease further reduces him. At the end of the story, Aschenbach is just another cholera victim, his last degradation being to succumb to the disease afflicting so many in Venice at that moment. When in The Magic Mountain Hans Castorp is discovered to have tuberculosis, it is a promotion. His illness will make Hans become more singular, will make him more intelligent than he was before. In one fiction, disease (cholera) is the penalty for a secret love; in the other, disease (TB) is its expression. Cholera is the kind of fatality that, in retrospect, has simplified a complex self, reducing it to sick environment. The disease that individualizes, that sets a person in relief against the environment, is tuberculosis.

Sontag’s focus in this paragraph lies in distinguishing spiritual or aesthetic diseases like tuberculosis from low or foul ones like cholera or cancer, and she does a thoroughly good job. What her reading doesn’t capture is Aschenbach’s happiness or relief (which are perhaps the same thing) at giving in to this secret passion, his profound truth. It overlooks the greediness with which he consumes the forbidden fruit: those soft, over-ripe strawberries where the vibrio lives; cholera is not the penalization for, but the realization of his secret love, a way of being with his darling Tadzio. (There is an analogy here in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1971) when Tchaikovsky deliberately drinks contaminated water in order to infect himself with cholera and join his mother, who died of the same ailment.) Cholera isn’t poison, it’s an antidote. This low disease – in both the social and bodily senses – is dark and shameful. It asserts the pre-eminence of gut over spirit, and it suits Gustav von Aschenbach, with his elevated but ultimately sterile spiritual aspirations and repression in his life and art not just of his homosexuality but of everything low, vulgar and instinctive, right down to the ground. Cholera is the laxative that his anal-retentive personality (to resort to period categories) needs: release for him is a loosening, a bowel movement. Far from plunging him into the anonymity of the epidemic, the disease helps him find himself. True, his is an individual and not necessarily representative case: he is no ‘ordinary Venetian’, one of the many who die of the disease. But it is still significant that Mann decided – or needed – to place Aschenbach’s release in the context of an epidemic. Without it, his release might have been unimaginable. He can fall more freely in the midst of collective collapse.

Such literary or cinematographic fictions about plague aren’t without their appeal, provided, of course, they’re confined to literature and cinema. But they can turn pretty dangerous when taken literally and proffered as a course of action and a way of life, as they seem to have been in the text on the current pandemic, ‘Disobedience, Because of You I Will Survive’, by Bolivian psychologist, artist and activist María Galindo, read out on radio on 26 March 2020 and subsequently published in the compilation Wuhan Soup:

Let death not catch us huddled in fear obeying idiotic orders, let it catch us kissing, let it catch us making love not war.
Let it catch us singing and hugging, because contagion is imminent.
Because contagion is like breathing.
Not being able to breathe is what the coronavirus condemns us to, not so much through the disease as through the seclusion, prohibition and obedience.
I’m reminded of Nosferatu, where in one unforgettable scene, when death is imminent and the plague in rats incarnate has invaded the whole town, all sit down at a long table in the square to share a collective feast of resistance. That’s how the coronavirus should find us: ready for contagion.

There can be no objection to Galindo’s highlighting of the impossibility in the Third World of imposing measures copied from the developed countries, particularly in the context of Bolivia’s recent coup d’état. But it’s one thing to posit that an illegitimate authoritarian government is taking advantage of the pandemic to wield its power (not so unlike what Camus portrays in his novel) and quite another to willfully confuse defiance of the epidemic with defiance of the government. You could say that, if taken at face value, Galindo’s proposal resembles not so much an act of popular resistance as the collective suicide of a sect. But as this isn’t a text about political or healthcare responses to the current pandemic, but rather about artistic ones, I’d rather focus on ‘the ‘unforgettable scene from Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979)--a memorable, and perhaps the most beautiful and disturbing scene of the film. The heroine, Lucy (a peerless Isabelle Adjani), who seems to have entered this world as food for vampires, crosses the square of the plague-ravaged city of Wismar: resigned to contagion and death, people dance around among the coffins, craftsmen and servants mingling with the good burghers to the sound of a French horn and a violin we never see; on the far side some well-to-do merchants are holding an open-air banquet and, with affecting urbanity, they invite Lucy to join them: ‘We all have the plague. For the first time we delight in every day we have left.’

But we don’t see Lucy eagerly accept their invitation: the film cuts brutally to a stack of coffins, then back to the table, empty now, save for the rats devouring the delicacies and swarming over the chairs. The music that looms over the entire sequence is the gloomy – but beautiful – Georgian folk song ‘Tsintskaro’ (which one anonymous YouTube comment-writer described as ‘The music I’d like to have at my funeral.’) And if Lucy doesn’t dance, if she doesn’t partake of the collective banquet, it’s because she has more important things to do: she has set herself the mission to dispose of the vampire – and the epidemic – at the expense of her own life. The relationship between vampires and plague, incidentally, comes not from Bram Stoker’s original novel, Dracula (1897), which stands as a metaphor of the fear of individual contagion (rabies, syphilis), but was contributed by Murnau in the first Nosferatu (1922). There are plenty who link this innovation with the devastating Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which left few direct traces in literature and film, perhaps because it had to compete with the more concentrated horrors of the Great War. Though Herzog’s sequence does beautify death, it doesn’t trivialize it: his banquet isn’t a banquet of resistance to authority but only of farewell. As if to put any doubts to rest, the film begins and ends – is framed – by an agonizingly slow tracking shot of the mummies of Guanajuato, victims of the cholera epidemic of 1833: the camera dwells on every expression of horror and agony; unlike The Decameron, this frame isn’t a fence that can be forced by its protagonists, but the impassable wall of a tomb.

Plague can become a metaphor for theater, as in Artaud, or an allegory of totalitarianism, as in Camus’s novel (more overtly in his play The State of Siege). These analogies work wonderfully well as long as the plague is far-removed. I have read and re-read Artaud’s text many times in the course of my life and always found it powerful and suggestive. But reading it again in the context of an epidemic, in the day-to-day reality of a plague and the monotony of endless quarantine, its celebratory exultation sounds rather childish, almost frivolous. It belongs not to the experience of plague but to the imagination of plague, built, like so many imaginary constructs, not from experience but from its opposite, everyday life, with all its submission to routine, morality, and law. "Would that a plague should come and free us from these chains," mutters the romantic, staring out of the window rather like the Romans in Cavafy’s poem, who crave the arrival of the Barbarians to put an end to all that decadence once and for all, never imagining that plague will only bring more submission, more repression, more tedium. All these visions belong to the dream of plague, the desire for plague, and such dreams and desires can only be uttered by those who never lived through one. Understandably: plague formed no part of either their experience or their expectations. Nor did it for us, until a few months ago.


An earlier version of this essay appeared in Revista Clarín (5/22/2020)

Ian Barnett from the Wirral, UK, has lived in Buenos Aires since 1991. He has translated many leading figures of River Plate literature, theatre, film, and the humanities; his translations of Carlos Gamerro’s novels have been published by And Other Stories and Pushkin Press. A translator for the 2010 Frankfurt Book Fair of an anthology of authors ‘disappeared’ during the Argentine dictatorship (1976–1983), he is currently embarked on a selection of texts by Argentinian authors in English for Frankfurt 2020.