Dennis Cutchins on Literature & Disease

Illness has been recorded in art for much of human history.

In the fall of 2017, my colleague Brian Poole and I co-taught an Honors 220: Unexpected Connections course we titled “Literature and Disease.” The class was Brian’s idea. He’s a microbiologist in the College of Life Sciences, a virologist, and an expert on the human immune system. 

Our class focused on the ways that disease and human culture, including literature, have been intertwined for as long as people have been writing things down. We taught the class four times between that fall and the winter semester of 2019, and at least once a week I walked out of the lecture hall afraid of touching the banister as I descended the stairs in the Maeser Building. I didn’t know which was worse, contracting some awful disease or taking a tumble. 

Many of the texts our class read offered lessons I have thought about a great deal during our current COVID-19 pandemic. Disease, particularly pandemic disease, tends to peel away our façades and reveal more about what is inside of us than we are typically comfortable exposing. Brian and I began that first semester by reading a chapter of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, written in 431 BCE. In book II, chapter 7, Thucydides describes the plague of Athens, which may have killed as many as 100,000 Athenians and which nearly destroyed Athenian society. Thucydides notes that the plague caused a sharp decline in civility in that great center of Western civilization. When “it was so uncertain whether they would be spared,” the ancient historian laments, many came to believe that “present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honourable and useful. Fear of gods or law of man, there was none to restrain them.”1 This image of a world without the rule of law is probably more frightening, for me at least, than the disease that led to it.  

To Thucydides, we added a number of historical and fictional texts that documented or imagined the effects of pandemic. Two of my favorites are Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, and W. E. B. Du Bois’s “The Comet,” a 1920 short story. Matheson’s novel follows a slow-motion apocalypse in which a flu-like disease, spawned by bats and spread by the wind, overwhelms the world, turning those it infects into vampire-zombies who sleep during the day and wander the streets at night. Robert Neville, the last “normal” man in Los Angeles, begins a single-handed crusade both to find a cure and to exterminate the living dead. Students are usually quick to recognize the paradox in Neville’s motives. This is a point Matheson drives home at the end of the novel as Neville comes to realize that some of the infected humans have established a new, post-infection culture in which he is, in effect, the boogeyman. Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, and Will Smith have all appeared on the big screen as Neville, and in each film adaptation, as well as in the novel, the lesson that Neville learns only when it is too late is that his own prejudice, his inability to see the “other” as anything but monstrous, is as problematic as the disease that has devastated the planet.2  

A surprisingly similar idea is expressed in “The Comet.” Here Du Bois—and, yes, that’s the same Du Bois who graduated from Harvard, helped found the NAACP, wrote one of the first texts in the nascent discipline of sociology, and publically feuded with Booker T. Washington—imagines a poisonous, space-borne gas in the tail of a comet. As the comet passes close to the earth, the gas kills almost all human life in a matter of minutes. Jim, a black bank employee, is accidentally locked in a vault when the deadly comet passes and thus survives the catastrophe. When he leaves the vault and realizes what has happened, he begins a cross-town trek to find his family. On the way, however, he hears the cries of Julia, a white woman who had been locked in her darkroom when the comet passed. Finding no other sign of life, these two people from different races and different social classes begin to see each other in a new light. Du Bois writes that Julia “was no mere woman. She was neither high nor low, white nor black, rich nor poor. She was primal woman; mighty mother of all men to come and Bride of Life.” And in her eyes Jim became “glorified. He was no longer a thing apart, a creature below, a strange outcast of another clime and blood, but her Brother Humanity incarnate, Son of God and great All-Father of the race to be.” For Du Bois the end of society also meant the end of unjust laws, of race and racism alike. There is a glimpse in “The Comet” of a new world, free of the kind of prejudice that was very much a part of 1920s America. But it is only a glimpse. Readers soon learn that the effects of the gas are localized, and at the end of the story Julia’s father and a mob of armed white men show up and threaten to lynch Jim. The restoration of normality, with all of its racist baggage, feels tragic in this tale.3 

This is not the case, however, in what is perhaps my favorite novel in this genre, one we didn’t read in class, Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 Station Eleven. Set in America twenty years after a flu has killed most of the earth’s population, Station Eleven imagines a world in which the electrical power grid is largely inoperative, and thus most modern forms of entertainment have disappeared. In their place, troupes of musicians and actors performing Shakespeare and Beethoven travel to remote communities and are welcomed by survivors starved not for food, but for culture—as one character notes, “People want what was best about the world.”4 Ethnocentrism aside, I love the idea that twenty years into the apocalypse what we might miss the most is music and drama. 

On Thursday, March 12, the day after campus was closed, I found myself at 9 p.m. in the Harold B. Lee Library. I confess that I was in a panic, but I wasn’t desperately seeking toilet paper or bottled water; I wanted books, and I was suddenly afraid that the library might close before I got them. I didn’t want to survive the quarantine on the thin gruel of Netflix. I wanted at least a little of what is best about the world. 

I wish we could have avoided this pandemic. I don’t think we have any idea what the final cost will be, but as I write these words it looks like we might have dodged the worst-case scenario. Nevertheless, COVID-19 has forced me to reevaluate my life a little. Along with Thucydides, Matheson, Du Bois, and Mandel, I’m pretty sure that there are things about my “normal” that need to change.  

Dennis Cutchins is a professor in the Department of English. For more faculty perspectives about the intersections of illness and art, visit https:// humanities.byu.edu/coping-with-covid/.

 

1. Du Bois, W. E. B. “The Comet.” Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1920, Gutenberg.org, 2005. www.gutenberg.org/files/15210/15210-h/15210-h.htm. Accessed 16 April 2020.

2. Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Richard Crawley, Gutenberg.org, 2009, www.gutenberg.org/ files/7142/7142-h/7142-h.htm. Accessed 16 April 2020.

3. Mandel, Emily St. John. Station Eleven. Vintage Books, 2014.

4. Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. Tor Books, 1995.