From Sa'di to Boccaccio: The literary legacy of pandemics

Literature can help us survive this pandemic with a healthy constellation of our mental, moral, and critical faculties.

by
    A protester holds up a replica of Boccaccio's book The Decameron during an anti-government protest in Rome, Italy on November 25, 2010 [Max Rossi/Reuters]
    A protester holds up a replica of Boccaccio's book The Decameron during an anti-government protest in Rome, Italy on November 25, 2010 [Max Rossi/Reuters]

    As the cases and casualties of COVID-19 increase globally, medical professionals are deeply concerned not just about the virus itself, but also about the increasing anxiety and sheer fear people are experiencing as they try to deal with the pandemic.    

    As people around the globe are asked to self-isolate, practice social distancing, and altogether lead a hermetic life to help "flatten the curve" of human catastrophe, there is no doubt something in the very texture and disposition of the global village is changing, and changing rapidly.

    A key question today is how to survive not just the pandemic itself, but to do so with a healthy and robust constellation of our mental, moral, creative and critical faculties. 

    Humanity has been here before  

    Recently I read a delightful piece by Andre Spicer in the New Statesman about Giovanni Boccaccio's 14th-century book The Decameron and how it can show us how to survive coronavirus. 

    Boccaccio wrote The Decameron in the wake of the plague outbreak in Florence in 1348 to guide fellow Italians on "how to maintain mental wellbeing in times of epidemics and isolation".  The racy stories in the book are allusions to the power of storytelling to maintain robust mental health in a time of overwhelming anxieties.   

    "That meant protecting yourself with stories," Spicer tells us, "Boccaccio suggested you could save yourself by fleeing towns, surrounding yourself with pleasant company and telling amusing stories to keep spirits up. Through a mixture of social isolation and pleasant activities, it was possible to survive the worst days of an epidemic." That sounds like a perfect recipe these days, too.  

    Boccaccio's novel has served other purposes in more recent years. The 1971 film The Decameron, based on Boccaccio's 14th-century masterpiece, was the first movie of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini's Trilogy of Life, which also included The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights. In his rendering, Pasolini remained fixated on the plight of humanity in the course of fascism and all its pathologies of power.

    Later, in another deeply disturbing masterpiece, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Pasolini carried the same fears to their even more degenerate ends. Fascism and plague, or fascism as a plague, equally resonates with our age of xenophobic racism exemplified by United States President Donald Trump referring to COVID-19 as the "Chinese virus".  

    Even before Pasolini, similar themes preoccupied Albert Camus in his enduring 1947 masterpiece The Plague, where the Algerian city of Oran becomes the setting of his existential reflections on the effects of an allegorical pandemic on the human soul.  

    Camus brought together two disparate events, the cholera epidemic in Algeria in 1849 and the rise of European fascism, to reflect on the fragility of our lived experiences in times of collective frenzy. As a compelling allegory of the Nazi occupation of France and beyond, Camus used references to mass burials as an allusion to the concentration and extermination camps in Nazi Germany. There was, and there remains a powerful allegorical potency to the very idea of a plague.  

    Even earlier, in 1882, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen also explored similar sentiments in his play An Enemy of the People. Something in the power of storytelling or staging at one and the same time alerts and frightens and yet paradoxically comforts and reassures. Were such temptations not behind Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 1985 novel Love in the Time of Cholera, too?   

    In the time of Covid-19, all such metaphors have morphed into reality. Films such as Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak (1995) and Steven Soderbergh's Contagion (2011) have now become prophetic if not apocalyptic.

    A famine in Damascus many moons past  

    But more than Pasolini taking Bocaccio's The Decameron to fascist ends, or Camus or Ibsen, it was to a poem of Sa'di Shirazi coming about a century before Boccaccio that the piece in New Statesman drew my mind. 

    Every Iranian schoolchild of my generation knows these powerful opening lines of this major poem by heart: 

    A famine of such devastation one year happened in Damascus 

    That lovers forget all about love . . .  

    The rest of the poem describes in exquisite detail the calamity that had befallen Syria where it had not rained for a long time, gushing springs had all dried out, no kitchen emitted any smoke of cooking, old widows were in despair, surrounding hills were dried of all vegetation, orchards bore no fruits, the locusts were eating the crops and people were eating the locusts.  

    The poetic persona of Sa'di then comes across a friend who has lost much weight. He asks him why is he so weak, as he is a wealthy man and should have weathered the famine much better. Then comes the most memorable punchline of the poem:

    The wise man looked at me visibly hurt, 

    With the look of a wise man upon an ignoramus:   

    I am not weak because I don't have food to eat,

    I am saddened because of the sufferings of the poor!

    We read this poem of Sa'di today with two immediate feelings: first the beauty and elegance of his poetic diction, the power of his imageries, the brevity with which he conveys so much across generations and worlds, and second, the towering moral voice that he sustains about the social duties of the mighty and powerful.  

    Empty shelves, fear of fear itself  

    I whisper this poem of Sa'di to myself as I venture out to do a bit of shopping for my family in New York, where we are asked to self-isolate as much as possible, facing row after row of empty shelves, looted by a frightened and cruel population that lacks the slightest sense of civic duty towards their elders and more vulnerable neighbours, let alone able to fathom the vision and the wisdom of a "democratic socialism" that Bernie Sanders is offering them.  

    But how precisely are we to survive this pandemic with a sense of common decency? Long before this pandemic began, in 2012, Jonathan Jones wrote a cogent piece for The Guardian, Brush with the Black Death: how artists painted through the plague, in which he explains how "from 1347 to the late 17th century, Europe was stalked by the Black Death, yet art not only survived, it flourished." Towards the end of his essay, Jones concludes:

    "Human beings have a shocking resilience. They also have the power to rise above self-pity. If that does not seem obvious today, just consider St Paul's, serene in the London sky, a message to us from an age of everyday heroism."

    But do we? One silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic our planet faces today is that all the dividing lines of East and West, South and North, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, are erased. Donald Trump is today as scared of a handshake as those brave physicians at the front line of fighting the virus are vulnerable. And physicians are not even the only heroes of this human tragedy. Even more courageous than them all is a single mother in New York whose child's public school has been closed down and who has to send her beloved baby to the wilderness of the infested subways and streets to collect a bag of lunch if they are not to starve to death before coronavirus gets them.

    Surviving this pandemic is urgent but not sufficient, surviving it with a sense of common decency, collective reasoning, and public purpose is equally important.  

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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