What Can We Learn From the Art of Pandemics Past?

Often it’s the unseen terrors that provoke the imagination. The invisibility of the virus (under a microscope, it resembles a malevolent cat toy) leads one to think about the many perils of our late capitalist age that were initially invisible to us, from the nuclear contamination of Fukushima to the tainted water in Flint, Mich., but also things like apathy and oppression, perversity and regressive fear, the kinds of things it inevitably falls to the teachers and artists and journalists to try, often futilely, to make us see and react to. Art, like clean water and access to quality health care, is a marker of civilized society, which is maybe why, of all the doomsday imagery playing in my head right now, it’s a scene from Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film “Children of Men,” adapted from the 1992 P. D. James novel, that’s the most vivid. It is 2027, infertility is the medical scourge of the day, and society is in chaos. Clive Owen’s character visits his cousin, an art-hoarding cultural minister, in the quiet chill of his guarded London home: Michelangelo’s “David,” missing its lower leg, stands in his entryway; Picasso’s “Guernica” hangs over the dining table. Decontextualized, the art is meaningless, the grossest of status markers. “I just don’t think about it,” the bureaucrat says, asked what he gets from surrounding himself with such works, given that no one will live to see them.

Susan Sontag warned us off thinking about and describing illness metaphorically, first in her landmark 1978 essay “Illness as Metaphor,” inspired by her own experience with cancer, then in its 1989 follow-up, “AIDS and Its Metaphors.” In both, she addresses the punitive charge we bring to the language we use to describe certain sicknesses and how we ascribe a moral laxity to those who suffer from them (for Sontag, the very word “plague” is a distortion suggesting a kind of biblical judgment on society). Illness, she explains, comes to stand for the fears of the day — in the case of AIDS, which killed 18,000 people in the United States alone, it was the fear of sex, particularly homosexuality. The early days of Covid-19 — “the Chinese virus,” as our hapless, xenophobic president has called it — dovetailed neatly with one of Trump’s favorite tropes, a fear of immigrants and foreigners. Metaphors have a way of depersonalizing, dehumanizing. And yet, metaphors help us to envision abstract ideas. Albert Camus (“The Plague,” 1947), José Saramago (“Blindness,” 1995) and, more recently, Ling Ma (“Severance,” 2018) have all used contagion as a metaphor for the irrevocable infectiousness of repressive groupthink. For those of us finding it hard not to think of Covid-19 as a judgment on American arrogance, it’s a metaphorical readymade.

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