What do you read during a pandemic? First, the news. Anxiously, obsessively. You watch the numbers climb. You read the stories of overwhelmed, inadequately protected health care workers; of disparities between the death rates of Black and white Americans; of people struggling to pay for food. You read about the president blaming everybody for everything. You read about virtual funerals.
But what I’ve been hungering for is a sense of perspective — not some instantaneous response to what we’re living through, but some wiser understanding of what a pandemic is and what it does to people. I have found it in two utterly different but oddly complementary books: William H. McNeill’s “Plagues and Peoples” and Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.”
McNeill’s book, published in 1976, is groundbreaking: a history of the world as seen through the lens of disease. Beginning with the emergence of the human species and continuing into the 20th century, he traces the shifting, uneasy relationship between germs and people. History is biology. Certain infectious organisms — viruses, bacteria, parasites — habitually live in human host populations, and it’s no big deal. The organism can’t afford to kill the host, depriving itself of a home and a place to replicate; it prefers a long-term symbiotic relationship with the host, a kind of lazy, congenial live-and-let-live arrangement.
The problem comes when humans do something that abruptly disturbs the balance — technological change, migration, invasion — exposing a new population to an unfamiliar set of germs. The two greatest examples are the Black Death, which plagued Europe and Asia in the 14th century, and the array of European diseases that devastated the Native American population beginning around 1500. In his last chapter, McNeill describes how modern medicine has brought many formerly catastrophic diseases under control.
But he warns that respiratory viruses are still our greatest threat.
Until now, the most famous respiratory disease pandemic was the influenza of 1918-19. And that’s the setting of fiction writer Katherine Anne Porter’s long story “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” published in 1939. Porter’s main character, Miranda, is a young woman working at a newspaper in an unnamed American city. She is thinking about the war, about being pressured at work to buy a Liberty Bond even though her paycheck barely covers rent and food, and most of all about Adam, the man with whom she’s falling in love. He’s about to be sent overseas to fight, and they go around the city shadowed by their shared sense of hectic doom. Several times they have to stop to let a funeral pass by, but they barely notice. Nor does Miranda really register that she has a headache, that she’s tired, that she’s lost her sense of smell, that she has an intermittent but powerful premonition that “something terrible is going to happen to me.” She’s dragging around all the elements of awareness, but she can’t put them together; she doesn’t know what she knows.
When Miranda does fall sick, Porter — herself a survivor of the 1918-19 flu — describes the illness in hallucinatory prose. Miranda is raving; Adam is caring for her; she is taken to a hospital, where she has to wait for a bed; Adam is gone. By the time she comes fully back to consciousness, weeks have gone by. She is different; the world is different. Earlier, she had thought that Adam, about to go to war, was on the brink of irreversible damage: “He looked so clear and fresh, and he had never had a pain in his life. She had seen them when they had been there and back and they never looked like this again.” But by the story’s end, it is Miranda for whom life will never be the same.
On vastly different scales — big picture and acutely observed small picture — “Plagues and Peoples” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” offer the same revelatory insight: A pandemic is, at its heart, a loss of innocence. McNeill chronicles, again and again, what happens when an unfamiliar organism finds its way to a biologically innocent, and therefore entirely vulnerable, population. “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” is about the loss of psychological and spiritual innocence, focusing on a single individual whose unexpected struggle with death reflects the stories of millions.
We are learning right now in a new and terrible way that the things that have happened throughout human history can happen again, this time to us. These two writers from the past are superb illuminators of the present.
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.
Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index” and “The News from Spain.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.