27th February 1919: A woman wearing a flu mask during the flu epidemic.

27th February 1919: A girl sporting a flu masks throughout the flu epidemic. Topical Press Company/Getty

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When my mother was sick with the pancreatic most cancers that may take her life, she was annoyed with all of the rhetoric describing most cancers as a battle. She mentioned that staying alive didn’t really feel like an act of bravery. She had no alternative. She was simply making an attempt to outlive.

Probably the most painful issues about sickness, I realized, is that it has a particular manner of robbing us of our company. Sicknesses assault with a sluggish, humiliating violence. 

That’s partly why there are so few books, motion pictures, songs, and poems explicitly in regards to the 1918 flu pandemic, Elizabeth Outka explains in her new e book, Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature. Although the flu claimed 10 occasions as many American lives because the concurrent world conflict, it “was laborious, first, to characterize a well-recognized illness like influenza because the enemy,” she writes. “The conflict offered way more compelling enemies, ones that could possibly be seen and placed on posters and positioned in tales.” However the lack of apparent references led to a little bit of a fable: the dearth of flu artwork. 

Outka’s e book paperwork the ways in which the 1918 flu pandemic lurks in plenty of modernist literature. It’s simply that, just like the virus itself, the topic is hidden.

I talked to Outka over Zoom from her dwelling in Richmond, the place she teaches a course on 20th- and 21st-century Anglophone literature on the College of Richmond. Right here’s a flippantly edited transcript of that dialog.

Did you ever predict that this may come out throughout a pandemic?

No. I began engaged on this e book about 5 years in the past. I’m a scholar of modernism—finish of 19th century, early 20th century British literature, for probably the most half—and I’ve accomplished some work in trauma idea. I had by no means heard of the influenza pandemic. After I began to examine it, I believed, huh, that’s odd. It’s proper in my interval, 1918-1919. Fifty million to 100 million deaths. Which implies america misplaced extra lives within the pandemic than we misplaced in World Warfare I, World Warfare II, Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq mixed. I do know sufficient about trauma to know that you may’t kill off 100 million individuals and never have it have an effect on the artwork or the tradition.

Then I began to marvel why, in modernist research, we don’t examine this proper alongside the conflict, as two large mass demise occasions of the early 20th century?

We do quite a bit with World Warfare I, however nothing with the pandemic. It started with that thriller, after which I began to search out [the 1918 pandemic] in every single place.

What are a few of the examples? Any that folks might learn now? 

If you’re inquisitive about pandemic literature, there’s plenty of nice issues. I believe Katherine Anne Porter’s novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider is likely one of the finest items of literature we now have particularly on the 1918 pandemic. It’s completely terrific. William Maxwell’s They Got here Like Swallows is a brief, lovely, elegiac novel in regards to the 1918 pandemic. It’s fairly unhappy nevertheless it’s actually lovely. I believe studying issues like W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”—these are tough texts, however it is a second the place you possibly can see that they do match our temper.

You describe that temper, partly, as “spectral trauma.” You name flu “huge and ubiquitous” but in addition “diffuse.” So it’s in every single place, but in addition hidden. I used to be questioning when you might inform me a bit about these phrase decisions and what air they offer to the literature.

For the interval itself, it was spectral as a result of the conflict was what appeared like the actual story. Individuals had been combating the conflict for 4 and a half years. They knew the characters. They knew the plot. However the flu lurked as this spectral trauma that made the whole lot worse however didn’t solidify into its personal historic occasion in the way in which that the conflict did. 

Additionally, trauma is normally spectral in that it’s usually one thing that folks bear in mind in a roundabout way however diffusely. You may have sensory issues in your atmosphere that may set off it. Proper now, we’re all being primed for that to occur. I believe that you just’d be laborious pressed to search out anyone 10 years from now who gained’t see a face masks—or see the drained faces of medical doctors or nurses, or the beeping of those machines, or a respirator, or the scent of a Clorox wipe—and be introduced again to those moments. It turns into like a specter that’s in every single place within the mind and within the emotional life.

A part of the problem of illnesses, particularly as contagious infectious illness, is its invisibility. The best way that it spreads and the enemy is invisible. You can’t see it.

What could possibly be seen, or felt, that wasn’t invisible by individuals dwelling and writing in that interval?

I believe the visuals have been in all probability probably the most dramatic. This was a really specific type of flu, and it had very uncommon signs. It usually brought about floods or bleeding from the eyes and nostril and mouth. So visually that was very dramatic. It additionally turned individuals this darkish purple colour—it’s a heliotrope-cyanosis. That’s one thing that folks write quite a bit about.

One other [thing] that comes up within the letters in every single place is the sound of the bells. When any individual died, the church bells rang. In communities the place they did ring bells for flu deaths there have been so many that the bells have been ringing on a regular basis.

The physique throughout the flu gave off a reasonably distinct odor that was not an excellent one. Individuals misplaced their listening to, their hair turned white, their hearts have been broken. It might do harm to the nerves, to the organs, to the mind, the central nervous system. It was a illness that actually left lingering traces within the physique. And so when it comes to bodily sensations, it lived on in individuals in that manner as properly. 

I like that you just included Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Unwell.” I believe anybody who has been sick or has been caring for somebody with some type of lethal sickness is aware of that it’s all-encompassing, nevertheless it’s additionally boring. She speaks to that. You’re making an attempt to trace all these minuscule modifications within the physique, and the stakes are so excessive, however little or no is going on on a day-to-day foundation. How did that form writing about sickness? 

One of many issues that Virginia Woolf says in that essay is that sickness doesn’t have a plot. It may be, as you say, the identical factor day after day. I believe it’s why we like tales which have miracle cures or some kind of resiliency. There’s plenty of literature by survivors who say, Might we cease with the well being journey motif? It’s not like that, and it places an excessive amount of strain on individuals. Most of it’s this mundane making an attempt to get by.

I believe one of many nice issues that artwork does—each whenever you’re producing artwork in addition to whenever you’re taking it in—is that it grants a construction that wasn’t there earlier than. Sickness can include a good diploma of unreality, and artwork could make it into one thing that has a construction and a form. I believe that grief can also be considerably like that. There’s this horrible vertigo of loss, the place you’re type of scrambling to determine maintain onto one thing, when the very level of loss is that there’s nothing to carry onto. Artwork turns into a lot extra necessary. 

One other half that I believed was actually attention-grabbing was this effort to shift the blame onto one thing materials. And so that you discuss in regards to the rise of spiritualism and of zombies. Considering particularly about H.P. Lovecraft, you must type of marvel if a few of this try and shift blame contributed to the racism and nationalism and xenophobia that then we noticed give rise to World Warfare II. Is that one thing you’re involved about at the moment?

I’m very involved about it. You see this kind of medical language in every single place in Nazi rhetoric. This group is the “illness.”  We now have to chop it out like a most cancers, we now have to rid it, we now have to purify. It was all about “purification.” All of those illness metaphors used to those monstrous ends.

We see this with Lovecraft. He’s simply undeniably a racist author. In lots of his tales there’s plenty of racism. There’s plenty of homophobia. He was obsessive about Aryan bloodlines. He felt like immigration was tainting the bloodlines. The opposite factor that exhibits up in his writing in attention-grabbing methods is that this actual mistrust of medical doctors and an actual mistrust of undertakers. Whereas medical doctors and nurses have been hailed for all the issues they have been capable of do within the pandemic, there was additionally a type of undercurrent of anger that you just see with Lovecraft. As a result of there have been no therapies, there was nothing that they may do, and medical doctors inadvertently usually unfold it. They didn’t imply to, however they went home to accommodate.

So that you get this large horrible stew of racism and homophobia and concern of immigrants and anger towards medical doctors and from some mixture of that environment he give us these monsters. They’re proto-zombies. They’re not zombies as a result of Anglophone literature doesn’t have that time period till 1929. He has these proto-zombie figures which can be corpses that stand up from the useless. They lurch about, they assault individuals, they usually’re cannibalistic—plenty of the issues that we affiliate with zombies. However they’re shortly dispatched. Monsters at all times say quite a bit about what we concern. I do fear when we now have a monster determine and the best factor to do is to kill all of them, it may be a harmful mind-set in regards to the world. Monsters could be good after they give individuals a strategy to see their fears and confront them and defeat them. The issue is when it bleeds over into these a lot darker issues.

Are there any books you’d significantly suggest as many are caught at dwelling? 

It will depend on your style. It could be an excessive amount of proper now to learn pandemic literature. We don’t must saturate ourselves within the trauma we’re experiencing.

After a day of instructing modernism and World Warfare I and the pandemic, after I get dwelling I’m extra within the Jurassic Park angle. After 9/11, I discovered I obsessively learn Jane Austen as a result of I wanted to know the place I used to be within the story. I needed an omniscient narrator who was going to inform me what it was, the place we have been.

If you happen to do need pandemic literature, Emily St. John Mandel has a extremely improbable novel, Station Eleven, which is a couple of fictional flu that takes out 99 p.c of the inhabitants. It’s a lot worse than COVID, and it’s additionally simply an incredible novel. And there may be Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, the HBO sequence or the 2 performs, which is in regards to the HIV/AIDS disaster. It’s unbelievably highly effective.

However do take note of whether or not you want extra pandemic literature, or whether or not you need to use literature for one thing else. If you happen to want a extremely good story [I think she’s implying for distraction or escape or entertainment, but she didn’t say those words explicitly], take heed to that. 



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