Reanimating the plague

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  • 1 Birkbeck, University of London, UK
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The idea of ‘plague’ has returned to public consciousness with the arrival of COVID-19. An anachronistic and extremely problematic concept for thinking about biopolitical catastrophe, plague nevertheless offers an enormous historical range and a potentially highly generative metaphorical framework for psychosocial studies to engage with, for example, through Albert Camus’ () The Plague and Sophocles’ () Oedipus The King. It is, moreover, a word that is likely to remain firmly within the remit of public consciousness as we move further into the Anthropocene, to face further pandemics and the spectre of antibiotic resistance. A return to plague also opens up the question of a return to psychoanalysis, which Freud is often cited as having described as a ‘plague’. Psychoanalysis is, like plague, a troubling and problematic discourse for psychosocial studies, but, like plague, it may also help us to work through the disorders and dis-eases of COVID times. In fact, if the recent pandemic has reanimated the notion of plague, the plague metaphor may in turn help to reanimate psychoanalysis, and in this article we suggest some of the analogical, even genealogical, resonances of such an implication.

Abstract

The idea of ‘plague’ has returned to public consciousness with the arrival of COVID-19. An anachronistic and extremely problematic concept for thinking about biopolitical catastrophe, plague nevertheless offers an enormous historical range and a potentially highly generative metaphorical framework for psychosocial studies to engage with, for example, through Albert Camus’ (2013) The Plague and Sophocles’ (2015) Oedipus The King. It is, moreover, a word that is likely to remain firmly within the remit of public consciousness as we move further into the Anthropocene, to face further pandemics and the spectre of antibiotic resistance. A return to plague also opens up the question of a return to psychoanalysis, which Freud is often cited as having described as a ‘plague’. Psychoanalysis is, like plague, a troubling and problematic discourse for psychosocial studies, but, like plague, it may also help us to work through the disorders and dis-eases of COVID times. In fact, if the recent pandemic has reanimated the notion of plague, the plague metaphor may in turn help to reanimate psychoanalysis, and in this article we suggest some of the analogical, even genealogical, resonances of such an implication.

The emergence of COVID-19, its chaordic spread across continents and the public health response to its violence, fractured the flow of time, interrupting our projects and plans, disorienting our habitus and rendering the world suddenly unknown and unheimlich. Since the 19th century, historians of medicine have often celebrated human progress against a range of deadly diseases: bubonic plague, smallpox, syphilis, measles and polio (for example, Wootton, 2006). For most of the time in which human civilisation has existed, pestilence has extinguished far more lives than famine and violence combined (Kenny, 2021). But over the past two centuries, many of the most malignant diseases of our common past have indeed been either eliminated or effectively contained through such invaluable innovations as sewer systems, sterilisation, vaccination and antibiotics. ‘[T]here is something to appreciate’, writes Charles Kenny (2021) in The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease, ‘in the fact that average life expectancy at birth has climbed from below thirty in the 1870s to above seventy today’. Yet infectious diseases – such as tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, malaria, influenza and diarrhoeal diseases – remain a leading cause of death worldwide, particularly in low-income countries, and COVID-19 is a grim reminder that the long struggle against infectious disease is in fact ‘unending’ (Kenny, 2021). At the time of writing, more than 128,000 people in the UK have died from COVID-19, and more than four million people worldwide. Many of these deaths could have been avoided. But it would be a mistake to attribute the damage caused by the novel coronavirus solely to the overwhelming incompetence of our governments. ‘Like all pandemics, COVID-19 is not an accidental or random event’, writes Frank Snowden (2020: ix); rather, ‘COVID-19 flared up and spread because it is suited to the society we have made’: one in which ecological devastation, factory farming, human overpopulation and new forms of global connectedness render us prey to microbial threats latent in the furthest reaches of the biosphere. How can psychosocial studies help us to address this ‘moment of thinking anew’, in which our thoughts and feelings have been so confused, and in which ‘the only question is how we might learn to see what is happening before our eyes’ (Das, 2020)?

In this article, we would like to contend that this activity of ‘thinking anew’ entails a renewed remembering of the past, which is precisely a re-remembering of our sense of historical continuity in the face of contemporary upheavals. In particular, we would like to reflect on the way in which time has been folded backward by the return of infectious disease to the forefront of public consciousness, even as we move forward into the Anthropocene. For Ernest Becker (1997: xvii), the idea of death ‘haunts the human animal like nothing else’, and in the 21st century we are relearning the lesson, as Albert Camus (2013: 195) puts it near the end of The Plague, that ‘[w]hat is natural is the microbe’. We face the spectre not only of future zoonotic (animal to human) diseases, but also of antibiotic resistance, which, as the World Health Organization (2020) claims, ‘is putting the achievements … of modern medicine at risk’. Plague, we suggest, has returned to haunt the modern mind. And rather than trying to escape this backward movement – to reject the idea of plague as an obsolete or anachronistic relic of a superstitious past – we wish to explore the ways in which an embarrassing and problematic concept such as plague can actually help us to frame contemporary upheavals. Rather than producing new concepts to think through COVID-19, we will focus on the repetition of existing ones, and the possible ways in which these might be incorporated into psychosocial studies. We will do so with the help of two prominent literary texts – Albert Camus’ (2013) The Plague and Sophocles’ (2015) Oedipus the King – and by turning to another discursive embarrassment: psychoanalysis. We employ psychoanalysis, first, as a potentially generative framework for thinking about the return of plague to public and scholarly attention, and second, and not unrelatedly, as a discourse in which the plague metaphor is itself implicated. Psychoanalysis has been described as a plague at least once before, and we aim to thicken the analogical, even genealogical, resonances of such an implication.

Remembering the plague

In her article ‘Temporal drag’, Lisa Baraitser (2015: 226) shows how psychosocial studies, as a transdisciplinary practice, ‘proceeds by gathering up “dead” or outmoded concepts and reading them with and through other more contemporary concepts’. Drawing on the work of Michel Serres, and his figurative elucidation of processes of ‘temporal folding’ through which unexpected confluences of thought between past and present can emerge, Baraitser (2015: 215) invites us to consider ‘the ways that earlier, and in some senses obsolete, ideas and concepts might become contemporary, how they might make trouble in the form of an embarrassment, and how they might address the particular kinds of social concerns about which psychosocial studies might want to speak’. One of Serres’ figurations entails the crumpling and folding of a handkerchief – an appropriate analogy for COVID times – through which two separate locations on the handkerchief become suddenly superimposed. COVID-19 has involved such a temporal folding, precipitating the embarrassing return to public awareness of an obsolete idea: plague.

It is noteworthy that the language of plague has not figured prominently in official public discourse about COVID-19, which has generally focused on the terms ‘epidemic’ and ‘pandemic’ instead. It is a justifiable elision: plague, which derives from the Latin plaga, meaning a blow or wound, carries an implication of agency – the ‘blow’ of a hostile agent – which more neutral terms such as ‘epidemic’ and ‘pandemic’ do not (Williams, 2017). ‘There is a real difference’, writes Rowan Williams (2017: 196), ‘between describing a public health crisis as an epidemic and calling it a plague. As far back as we can go in the European tradition, words associated with ‘plague’ carry an extra charge; they connote something more than accident and bring into the account we give of medical disaster the suggestion of some kind of personal agency.’ Plague as a metaphor, as a way of reading the human experience of catastrophic biopolitical anomalies, is embedded in a systematically moralised picture of the natural world: from the very beginning of the European tradition, there is a strong template for reading plague as a matter of divine punishment, and for seeing the possibilities of healing as bound up with an appropriate symbolisation of guilt. ‘What god drove them to fight with such a fury?’ asks Homer (1998) at the beginning of the Iliad: ‘Apollo … incensed at the king / he swept a fatal plague through the army – men were dying / and all because Agamemnon spurned Apollo’s priest’ (1.9–12). The interpretation of infectious disease is here bound up with the origins of Western literature, and the plague metaphor is used to set in train an investigative and narrative process about the grief and overwhelming rage of men and gods alike. The plague metaphor is emotionally charged in a way that the more straightforwardly descriptive terms pandemic and epidemic are not.

Yet if we follow Williams in his identification of plague as a metaphorical structure embedded in a European literary and religious tradition of thinking about biopolitical catastrophe – rather than, for example, as a discourse in the Foucauldian sense – it is also immediately important, as Nükhet Varlık (2020: 291) notes, ‘to recognize how holding on to some of these older narratives can be harmful’. Indeed, given the horrific role of infectious diseases in the history of European colonialism – it is estimated that in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, somewhere between 80 and 95% of the native population were killed within the first 100 to 150 years of contact with Europeans (Newson, 2003: 167) – it is ironic that plague narratives have been inflected by the myths of ‘epidemiological Orientalism’ and European exceptionalism since at least the 18th century. ‘Plague comes to us from Asia’, write Diderot and d’Alembert in their Encyclopédie, ‘and for two thousand years all the plagues that have appeared in Europe have been transmitted through the communication of the Saracens, Arabs, Moors or Turks with us, and none of our plagues had any other source’ (quoted in Varlık, 2020). In Membranes, Laura Otis (1999: 5) illustrates the affinity between political and biological thinking in the 19th century, as Europeans ‘became horrified when the cultures, peoples, and diseases they had engulfed began diffusing, through their now permeable membranes, back toward their imperial cell bodies’. As Varlık contends, the tendency to imagine disease as a foreign entity has been deeply entrenched in the public imagination, and racist tropes reappeared in the early months of 2020: on 26 January 2020, for example, Courrier picard, a local newspaper in France, printed the headline ‘Alerte Jaune’ next to an image of a Chinese woman wearing a face mask. Plague language, used in premodern times to offset the human sense of powerlessness in the face of natural disaster, involves a social appeal to normativity, and has not infrequently led to the scapegoating of minorities, even as recently as the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Plague, then, is certainly an embarrassing idea for contemporary theory. In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag (1979) argues that discourse about disease should actually be disentangled from metaphor, to remove elements of fate and victim-blaming from the way we speak about illness. But what Williams (2017) identifies as ‘the metaphorisation of plague’ is not necessarily entwined only with problematic or paralysing perspectives, and a range of modern writers have used plague to ‘think with’: for example Albert Camus (2013) in The Plague and Gabriel García Marquez (2007) in Love in the Time of Cholera. Both writers show not only that it is hard to disentangle disease from metaphor, but also that disease can act as a potent metaphor for other kinds of disorder in the moral world. They open out questions, for example, about the ‘infection’ of political will, and are interested not so much in the study of literal disease, as the ‘infection’ of social and individual honesty (Williams, 2017). Camus in particular is critical of the traditional template of guilt and punishment, building instead on the idea that external catastrophe requires internal examination. The plague in Camus’ novel is not a metaphor for divine agency, but for the afflictions of human agency, and the question is not who is to blame for provoking divine wrath, but what can be done – for the sake of ‘common decency’ – to help stem the spread of destructiveness.

In March 2020, the British publisher of The Plague, Penguin Classics, admitted that it was struggling to keep up with orders for the book, which, as Camus’ notebooks make clear, uses a fictional plague as a metaphor for the experience of resistance in Nazi-occupied France. ‘I want to express by means of the plague’, Camus (1970) writes, ‘the suffocation from which we all suffered.’ The novel is set in the French Algerian town of Oran, and although Camus was ‘such an astute critic of colonialism and in terms ahead of his time’, the virtual absence of the Arabs of Oran from The Plague is, as Jacqueline Rose (2020a) notes, now seen as its most significant failing. Nevertheless, the novel is an enormously rich literary engagement with the plague metaphor, and was established as a classic of world literature even before Camus’ death in 1960. In his afterword to the Penguin Classics edition, Tony Judt (2013: 243) identifies the heart of the novel’s moral message in Tarrou’s confession to Dr Rieux towards the end of the book, in which Camus provides a more developed account of his moral thinking. For Tarrou, the plague had come as no surprise: ‘I was already suffering from the plague’, he begins, ‘long before I knew this town and this epidemic. All that means is that I am like everybody else’ (Camus, 2013: 189). Tarrou reveals that he had left home at the age of 18 in disgust over his father’s support of the death penalty as a prosecuting counsel. ‘I learned that I had indirectly supported the deaths of thousands of men’, says Tarrou, ‘that I had even caused their deaths by approving the actions and principles that inevitably led to them’ (Camus, 2013: 193). ‘For a long time I have been ashamed, mortally ashamed,’ he says, ‘of having been … a murderer in my turn’ (Camus, 2013: 194). For Tarrou, we cannot live or move in the modern world without ‘taking the risk of bringing death’ since ‘we are all in the plague’, by which he means acquiescence in ‘everything that, directly or indirectly, makes people die or justifies others in making them die’ (Camus, 2013: 194–5). ‘[E]veryone has it inside himself, this plague,’ he continues, ‘because no one in the world, no one, is immune. And I know that we must constantly keep a watch on ourselves to avoid being distracted for a moment and find ourselves breathing in another person’s face and infecting him’ (Camus, 2013: 195). Tarrou, as Rose (2020a) comments, has here ‘taken the principle of social distancing and run it into the epicentre of state power’. Indeed for Camus, the plague metaphor functions as a way of insisting that we see ourselves as agents as well as victims of political destructiveness. With his work in mind, we may return with more confidence, yet still with caution, to the question: if psychosocial studies is, as Baraitser (2015: 210) contends, ‘an opportunity for anachronistic concepts … to be reanimated’, might it be worthwhile in COVID times to consider ‘reanimating’ the plague?

The plague cycle and psychoanalysis

In his ‘Thoughts for the time on war and death’, Freud (1915) warns against thinking of one’s own historical period as any worse than any previous period of history we have not experienced ourselves. It is a suitable caution given the conservative tendency of much of Freud’s thinking, with its emphasis on the notion that everything returns, and in the context of infectious disease, it certainly rings true. While from the linear perspective associated with triumphalist narratives of scientific progress, the present is always conceived of as at the cutting edge, ‘the plague cycle’ returns us to the past: ‘The major themes governing our susceptibility to infectious diseases today’, as Ron Barrett and George Armelagos (2013: 109–11) note, ‘are essentially the same as those of our ancient past: they are merely intensified by our massive populations, our cities, and technologies now at our disposal … modern humans are essentially “stone agers living in the fast lane”’. The plague bacillus ‘never dies or vanishes entirely’, writes Camus (2013: 237) at the end of The Plague, and Birkbeck is a good place to reflect on this spatiotemporal preservation of plague close to the troubled breathing of our own era. In London, as in many cities throughout the world, ‘plague’ is indeed not merely an inheritance of our language, but also a distinctly material remainder. As the angel of death winks at us through the folds of our handkerchiefs, Freud’s archaeological metaphor is uncannily literalised through the proximity we have always held towards the plague-dead: just a ten-minute walk from Birkbeck library lies the cemetery of St Giles-in-the-Fields, one of many ‘plague pits’ in London where thousands were buried during the catastrophic visitation of 1665, the most terrible outbreak of bubonic plague in the history of the British Isles, which killed between a quarter and a third of London’s population, as many as 100,000 people. ‘The confusion among the people, especially within the city, at that time, was inexpressible’, as Daniel Defoe (2001: 135) remembers in his Journal of the Plague Year.

Dr David Jenkins (2020), a consultant in medical microbiology and virology at University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust, introduced the July 2020 edition of The Bulletin of the Royal College of Pathologists as ‘a valuable record of a new plague year’, citing a few lines from Defoe. More recently, in January 2021, conditions in the city of Manaus, where the Brazilian variant of COVID-19 is believed to have originated, was described as like a ‘medieval plague’ with thousands of people suffocating in hospital beds with inadequate supplies of oxygen (Ramsay, 2021). So while the word ‘plague’ has generally been eschewed by most public health officials and political leaders, it has nonetheless enjoyed a limited revival as human subjects struggle to make sense of their pandemic world. And already before 2020, plague was in the process of a return to consciousness: according to Google Books Ngram Viewer, use of the noun ‘plague’ in English-language books more than doubled between 1980 and 2019, reversing a long-term pattern of decline since 1900. HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS, Alzheimer’s disease, antibiotic resistance, the Zika virus and COVID-19: there is an element of nemesis in the plague metaphor, and Jonathan L. Heeney and Sven Friedemann (2017) wonder if plagues are ‘the manifestation of nature’s checks and balances’ at a time in which climate change and human overpopulation threaten the delicate balance of ecosystems. Yet the allure of such a naturalising metaphor risks occluding political responsibility for the extent to which diseases such as COVID-19 exacerbate existing inequalities: if it is possible to speak of the ‘human plague’, it is also possible to speak, for example, of the ‘neoliberal plague’ or the ‘racist plague’.

In an article for the London Review of Books published in November 2020, Jacqueline Rose (2020b) remarks that, due to COVID-19, she found herself ‘newly alert to the wretchedness of the hour as it closed around Freud’s family in Vienna’. ‘I became acutely aware’, she writes, ‘of the way the disasters of history penetrate and are repudiated by the mind – including my own since, during a lifelong preoccupation with Freud, I had not fully grasped the scope of this reality before.’ Freud lost his favourite daughter, Sophie Halberstadt-Freud, to ‘Spanish flu’ in January 1920, a pandemic that may have killed as many as the two world wars combined, yet which until the late 1990s, as Laura Spinney (2018) notes, had been effectively excised from the historical record. In psychoanalysis, a return to the historical past is a necessary part of the process of treatment. The importance of this process of remembering lies not only in the archaeological excavation of forgotten ideas and experiences, which may shed light on the nature of the suffering, but also in facilitating a process that Freud (1914) calls ‘working through’. Struggling with unwanted thoughts or feelings, a patient may make progress by continuing the work of association. By working through unwanted material, instead of rejecting or repressing it again, a patient may move forward to a new understanding, and even a new experience of her situation. Plague is certainly a troubling, perhaps even unwanted, idea for the present, but as the foregoing discussion of Camus’ The Plague has suggested, it may also provide a useful metaphorical structure with which to think through the rise of different forms of ‘dis-ease’ in recent years. Working through the history and meaning of the plague metaphor may in this sense be a way of working through the experience of COVID-19 – and psychoanalysis may indeed provide a generative framework for thinking about this process.

The idea of plague as a metaphorical device concerned with the connections between individual and corporate agency, and internal and external worlds, should already alert us to the affinities that the plague metaphor shares with psychoanalysis and psychosocial studies more broadly. Rose’s (2020a) reflections on Camus’ novel are entwined with her reflections on psychoanalysis, and it is not difficult to find an abundance of psychoanalytic implications in The Plague, including Camus’ interest in questions of memory and forgetfulness, and in the way in which human subjects are constituted as both objects and agents of power, who can either resist death and destructiveness or collaborate with the plague by imagining it as irresistible or normal. To know one’s susceptibility to plague is akin to the tragic framework for ethics entailed in Freud’s notion of the death drive. ‘No position against violence can afford to be naïve’, as Judith Butler (2020: 86) writes, ‘it has to take seriously the destructive potential that is constitutive of social relations.’ Camus, like Hannah Arendt, saw the problem of evil as the central question of post-war intellectual life in Europe.

If the plague metaphor is traditionally enmeshed in a scapegoating framework associated with superstitions about divine agency, it also straddles the distinction Freud (1911) makes between thinking and phantasying. With the introduction of the ‘reality principle’, our thought activity is divided, with one form of thought process – phantasying – ‘kept free from reality-testing and … subordinated to the pleasure principle alone’. Thinking – which involves the capacity to tolerate tensions of unpleasure and uncertainty – is always in danger of slipping into phantasying, and there is certainly something seductive about a moralised account of mass illness, as the Jesuit Fr Paneloux demonstrates in his first sermon in The Plague. ‘My brethren, a calamity has befallen you’, he begins, ‘my brethren, you have deserved it’ (Camus, 2013 p 73). Camus’ notebooks show that he had collected biblical verses depicting plague as judgement, and here Paneloux presents the plague as a vivid instance of divine chastisement, counselling the faithful to move ‘towards the silence of God’ (p 76). Yet as the novel progresses, and the horrors of the plague accumulate, Paneloux ceases to offer explanation, instead in his second sermon embracing an active fatalism with all the vigour of a Pascalian wager, he says: ‘We must accept what is outrageous because we have to choose to hate God or to love Him. And who would choose hatred of God?’ (p 176). As Paneloux swings uneasily from one position to the other, Camus seems to suggest that thinking in times of plague is a tightrope walk between explanation and the refusal of explanation, in which what counts is the consistent commitment to an embodied activity of care. For Dr Rieux, resisting the plague was not a matter of epic heroism: ‘It may seem a ridiculous idea’, he says, ‘but the only way to fight the plague is with decency’ (p 125). Resisting the pull of illusion and resignation alike, Rieux is committed to his practical task as a doctor and to ‘the language of the facts’ (p 68). The plague is a terrible ‘abstraction’, and ‘[t]o struggle against abstraction,’ reflects Rieux, when his mother is pained by the empty look he gives her, ‘one must come to resemble it a little’ (p 71).

In times of COVID-19, perhaps the most immediate question facing so many of us has been the question of mourning, a subject closely linked to the activity of thinking, and on which psychoanalysis has had much to say. For Freud (1917), the work of mourning is a way of processing unbearable emotions. It is based on the recognition of loss, and entails a piecemeal separation of the libido from the lost object, a process by which each individual memory and expectation relating to that object is hyper-cathected and adjusted, so that the object can be released. The work of mourning is a conscious thought activity, and in order for it to succeed it is necessary to identify what has been lost. In relation to COVID-19, the list of what has been lost is extensive, and in many ways frighteningly obvious. Yet while a purely private form of mourning is possible, our societies – predicated on the achievements of modern science – are not well practised at collectively mourning pandemic illness. As Laura Spinney (2018: 4) notes, there is ‘no cenotaph, no monument in London, Moscow or Washington DC’ dedicated to victims of the Spanish flu, which ‘is remembered personally, not collectively. Not as a historical disaster, but as millions of discrete, private tragedies.’ ‘Memory’, she notes, ‘is an active process. Details have to be rehearsed to be retained, but who wants to rehearse the details of a pandemic?’ (Spinney, 2018: 292). World Cat lists fewer than 600 books on the Spanish flu, but more than 600,000 on the First World War. Is this a kind of modern melancholia, a sign of our un-mourned susceptibility to infectious disease? Our politicians have certainly tried to wedge COVID-19 into the more familiar, more comforting narratives of war, as they grapple to compensate for their botched and grossly underprepared response to the pandemic. Yet the war metaphor is deeply unsatisfying, not only because of the fraudulent and mystifying appeal to national solidarity it involves, but also because there will quite clearly be no final ‘victory’ over the virus. ‘A war has a victor’, as Spinney (2018: 292) notes, ‘but a pandemic has only vanquished.’ Science may have given us a vaccine, but it cannot deliver ‘zero COVID’, or provide unambiguous answers to complex policy problems. Judith Butler (2020: 103) suggests that ‘psychoanalysis helps us to see how phantasms can function as uncritical dimensions of moral deliberations that claim to be rational’. In an interview in April 2020, she claimed that, given the crisis of values we face, and the lack of any public mourning rituals, ‘[i]t is no wonder that people are turning to poetry and song, writing and visual art, history and theory to make sense of their pandemic world, to reflect upon the question: When the world as we know it falls apart, what then?’ (Truthout, 2020). The plague metaphor may help us to clarify our sense of loss in the midst of our pandemic world, and to open out a set of questions about our personal and collective responsibility for – even complicity with – the COVID-19 pandemic, and other biopolitical ‘plagues’ of the present.

Plague in Oedipus the King

Psychoanalysis and the plague metaphor converge most powerfully in Sophocles’ (2015) Oedipus the King, one of the Ur-texts of psychoanalysis, which famously begins with a plague scene: ‘My children,’ asks Oedipus, ‘youngest generation from this ancient land of Thebes, why have you hurried here with suppliant branches? Why is the city thick with incense smoke, and chants of Paean mixed with cries of pain?’ (1–5). ‘Great Oedipus’ answers the priest who leads the procession: ‘our city’s foundering, and can no longer keep its head above the bloody surf of death … Detested Plague, the god who lights the fever-fires, has pounced upon our town, and drains the homes of Thebes to empty husks’ (15–29). We have suggested that psychoanalysis can function as an effective framework for thinking in the service of a contemporary articulation of the plague metaphor, but what if that is at least in part because there is already a deep implication between psychoanalysis and plague narratives? In what follows we would like to revisit the dramatic appearance of plague in Oedipus the King, in order to refocus our awareness of the analogical, even genealogical, relationship between psychoanalysis and what we have identified as the concept metaphor of ‘plague’.

We are used to thinking of the image of plague (loimos rather than plege) in Oedipus the King as symbolising the diseased common conscience of the city, with Oedipus as its unwitting accomplice. Most would in fact regard Sophocles’ Theban trilogy as the paradigmatic plague narrative of guilty agency punished by divine aggression (Williams, 2017). ‘It’s blood which blasts this land’, as Creon reports the message he has received from the oracle at the beginning of the play, ‘and so we must eject the guilt, or else repay the death with further death’ (99–101). Although Oedipus presents himself as a thinker, a solver of riddles, who swiftly vows to do the will of the god, he is able to heal the city only when he realises his complicity in the suffering of his people. ‘Plague as metaphor for social corruption’, writes Rowan Williams (2017: 199), ‘begins to be healed when those most reluctant to acknowledge their complicity are forced to see themselves clearly at last.’

But when Oidipous Tyrannos was first performed in Athens, most likely in the early 420s BCE, the plague that permeated the entire atmosphere of Sophocles’ play would not have been regarded as an arbitrary metaphor of nemesis (Tracy, 2009: 120). In 431 BCE, the Peloponnesian Wars began, and a devastating disease epidemic arrived on the heels of military devastation and urban overcrowding the following summer, killing around a quarter of all Athenians, perhaps as many as 75,000 to 100,000 people. Sophocles’ (2015) chorus describes Ares to the audience as the ‘fatal fever-god, spurned by every other god’ (lines 213–4), the ‘war god, god of death, [who] flays me with his fiery breath’ (lines 190–1). While the Spartans could be held at bay by the Athenians’ long walls, the ‘fatal fever-god’ could not be so easily restrained. By the end of 429 BCE, the Athenian statesman Pericles – to whom Oedipus has often been compared – would himself be counted among the plague-dead. ‘It appears inescapable’, writes Stephen Tracy (2009: 120), ‘that the play’s fictional plague will have recalled the historical plague that struck Athens at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War and had ended not long before the tragedy was produced.’

From soon after its first performance, Oedipus the King has been regarded as an archetypal Greek tragedy, with Oedipus’ abrupt transition from ‘old prosperity in days gone by’ to ‘lament, disaster, death, disgrace’, as the Messenger puts it towards the end of the play (lines 1282–4), epitomising the tragic fall. Over the centuries there have been very many attempts to describe the lessons Oedipus the King supposedly teaches about the human condition, including the familiar Freudian interpretation, and all the various interpretations agree that Oedipus is a kind of ‘Everyman’. Yet it is worth recalling that Greek tragedy did not emerge as a timeless meditation on the human condition, but as a public institution. Tragic drama, performed as part of the festival of Dionysus, was, as Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet (1990: 33) comment, a question of ‘the city … [turning] itself into a theatre’. What follows if we foreground the Athenian plague of 430–429 BCE, and approach Oedipus the King in this light as a work of public mourning? ‘The historical plague’, as Tracy (2009: 124) reminds us, ‘affected nearly every Athenian household; most Athenians in fact lost immediate family members to it.’

There is already a familiar relationship between mourning and tragic theatre: for Aristotle, in his Poetics, the supremacy of Oedipus the King lay in the way that it aroused the proper tragic response – catharsis – in those who watched or read it: ‘he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place’. Yet we can go further. For Albert Camus (1970: 199), tragedy was born at a time of transition ‘between a sacred society and a society built around humanity’. To put it in the terms of Oedipus the King, we might say that while mythical Thebes could rely on the oracle at Delphi for illumination, fifth-century Athens could rely on Sophocles. As a dramatist, Sophocles faces the task, as Oedipus puts it to the oracle, of working out ‘what I should do or speak to make this city safe’ (line 72) – and here we should do well to remember the classical analogy between the city (polis) and the individual soul.

In the play, Oedipus is not innocent, but he is not presented by Sophocles as wholly guilty of any heinous fault either. ‘Tyrannos’, as Oliver Taplin (2015: 3) notes in the introduction to his translation of the text for Oxford World’s Classics cited above, did not carry the pejorative connotations it does today and was most probably added as a subtitle some time after Sophocles’ death, to distinguish the play from his later Oedipus ‘at Colonus’. The tragedy, as Taplin writes, ‘is not driven by Fate or the gods, and … is not a story of crime and punishment either’. Instead, Oedipus ‘epitomizes the random vulnerability of human fortune, the fragility of assumptions that make life prosper’ (Taplin, 2015: 9). Tragedy of this kind could happen to anyone: ‘The assumption of good health’, writes Taplin, ‘might, to take the least uncommon example, turn out to be unjustified’ (Taplin, 2015: 10). For Albert Camus, the sudden arrival of plague was concomitant with the ‘absurdity’ of the human condition, and as a drama attempting to make sense of a pandemic world, Oedipus the King reacquaints us with the truth that our fundamental condition is one of risk or danger. As in Camus, this is not simply a danger of literally succumbing to the plague, but a danger of being intellectually or socially complicit with the ‘fatal fever-god’. Plague and war, divine and human violence, are juxtaposed in these texts, and the plague is pushed back only when its source is located in the heart of the self: if Oedipus is a scapegoat, he is also an Everyman.

Reanimating the plague

In a famous anecdote concerning Freud’s trip to the United States in 1909, Jung apparently spotted Freud gazing at the New York skyline as their boat entered the harbour, and said something to him. To Jung’s surprise, Freud responded: ‘[D]on’t they know that we’re bringing them the plague!’ Other versions of the story suggest Freud had only said something like: ‘They will be quite surprised at what we will have to say to them!’ (Falzeder, 2012: 98–9). But whether or not Freud himself made the connection, the analogy between psychoanalysis and plague is an interesting one. As an interpreter of Oedipus the King, Freud revealed the inescapability of plague by situating it at the heart of the human condition. ‘His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours’, as Freud (1900: 262) wrote in ‘The interpretation of dreams’, ‘because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him.’ It is even possible to see psychoanalysis as a sign of this pestilence, since the treatment of plague is inseparable from its revelation. ‘The action of the play consists in nothing other than the process of revealing’, wrote Freud (1900: 261–2), ‘with cunning delays and ever-mounting excitement—a process that can be likened to the work of a psychoanalysis—that Oedipus himself is the murderer of Laïus, but further that he is the son of the murdered man and of Jocasta.’ As an interpreter of dreams, Freud is an oracular voice, extending the Sophoclean imagery of plague into the recesses of the inner life, and with it the image of our complicity.

When deliberating the English title of what would become Civilization and its Discontents in 1930, Ernest Jones thought that Freud’s original German title might best be conveyed as the ‘Dis-ease of civilization’ (Overy, 2010: 161). It would have been an interesting choice, anticipating the political metaphorisation of infectious disease in Camus’ The Plague, and certainly suggesting possible routes of travel for contemporary psychoanalytic scholars and practitioners. But as the foregoing discussion of Oedipus the King has indicated, the relationship between psychoanalysis and the plague metaphor is not merely analogical – in the sense that psychoanalysis has sometimes been described as a plague, or has used the plague metaphor to elaborate its understanding of psychic and societal afflictions – but also genealogical, given the fundamental importance of Oedipus the King in the history of psychoanalysis. Sophocles’ play, as Taplin (2015: 5) notes, ‘is in several ways untypical of Greek tragedy. To begin with, no other tragedy is so obsessed with reconstructing the past. Most are set at the catastrophic turn of events, whereas in [Oedipus the King] the events have already happened long before.’ It is in response to the invasion of plague that Oedipus embarks on his quest to unveil knowledge, a quest that takes him into his own past. Like the psychoanalytic symptoms of Freud’s hysterical patients, plague emerges to haunt the body politic from an unseen daemonic realm – a hidden dimension of reality – and the shattering sense of uncertainty and powerlessness that result from this exposure prompts a radical reconstruction of the past. The psychoanalytic symptom thereby functions in some sense as a personalisation of the plague metaphor in Oedipus the King, and indeed if psychoanalysis is well suited to think through COVID-19 today, it is perhaps precisely because it is predicated on a text of plague-mourning.

For Stephen Frosh (2013: 3), perhaps the only honest reaction one can ever have to psychoanalysis is to ‘hate it’ since it ‘intentionally stirs up demons’ and ‘insists on talking about the things we would much rather hide away or lay to rest’. But there are, of course, plenty of reasons for psychosocial studies to be suspicious of psychoanalysis beyond its commitment to what it conceives of as inconvenient truths. As Frosh (2018: 5–6) notes elsewhere, ‘psychoanalysis, despite its huge contribution to, and innumerable provocations within, social theory and cultural studies, has been regularly under fire from its more radical critics for its political, gender and social normativeness; its colonialist and racialised practical and theoretical frameworks; and its continued adoption of a psychologically reductionist vision in what has become a radically decentred world’. Yet psychoanalysis, he continues, also remains ‘an important resource for studies of the intersection of the human subject, culture and society’. A concluding thought, then: could the plague metaphor help psychosocial studies to conceptualise its relationship to psychoanalysis, or vice versa? In the terms of Sophocles’ (2015) Oedipus the King, could we read Freud both, like the oracle, as a revelatory voice, and, like Oedipus, as an unwitting accomplice to violence? If a resurgent pandemic of psychoanalysis is unlikely, it may at least, like the plague metaphor itself, help psychosocial studies to think about the pandemics of the present, as well as those that lie ahead.

Funding

This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council under Award Number ES/P000592/1.

Acknowledgements

The recommendations of the anonymous reviewers helped us to clarify and develop our thinking in this article. We would also like to thank the guest editors, Stephen Frosh and Silvia Posocco, for their consistent encouragement.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Barrett, R. and Armelagos, G. (2013) An Unnatural History of Emerging Infections, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Becker, E. (1997) The Denial of Death, New York: Free Press.

  • Butler, J. (2020) The Force of Non-Violence: An Ethico-Political Bind, London: Verso.

  • Camus, A. (1970) Selected Essays and Notebooks, P. Thody (trans), Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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  • Das, V. (2020) Facing COVID-19: my land of neither hope nor despair, American Ethnological Society website, https://americanethnologist.org/features/collections/covid-19-and-student-focused-concerns-threats-and-possibilities/facing-covid-19-my-land-of-neither-hope-nor-despair.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Defoe, D. (2001) Journal of the Plague Year, New York: Dover Publications.

  • Falzeder, E. (2012) ‘A fat wad of dirty pieces of paper’: Freud on America, Freud in America, Freud and America, in J.C. Burnham (ed) After Freud Left: A Century of Psychoanalysis in America, London: University of Chicago Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Freud, S. (1900) The interpretation of dreams, in The Standard Edition, vol 4, pp ix627.

  • Freud, S. (1911) Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning, in The Standard Edition, vol 7, pp 21326.

  • Freud, S. (1914) Remembering, repeating and working-through (further recommendations on the technique of psycho-analysis II), in The Standard Edition, vol 7, pp 14556.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Freud, S. (1915) Thoughts for the times on war and death, in The Standard Edition, vol 14, pp 273300.

  • Freud, S. (1917) Mourning and melancholia, in The Standard Edition, vol 14, pp 23758.

  • Frosh, S. (2013) Hauntings: Psychoanalysis and Ghostly Transmissions, London: Palgrave.

  • Frosh, S. (2018) Rethinking psychoanalysis in the psychosocial, Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society, 23(1): 514. doi: 10.1057/s41282-018-0072-5

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • García Marquez, G. (2007) Love in the Time of Cholera, E. Grossman (trans), London: Penguin.

  • Heeney, J. and Friedemann, S. (2017) Foreword, in Plagues, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 196212.

  • Homer (1998) The Iliad, R. Fagles (trans), London: Penguin.

  • Jenkins, D. (2020) COVID-19 – a new plague year, https://www.rcpath.org/profession/publications/college-bulletin/july-2020/covid-19-a-new-plague-year.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Judt, T. (2013) Afterword, in A. Camus, The Plague, London: Penguin Classics, pp 23949.

  • Kenny, C. (2021) The Plague Cycle: The Unending War between Humanity and Infectious Disease, New York: Scribner.

  • Newson, L. (2003) Pathogens, places and peoples: geographical variations in the impact of disease in early Spanish America and the Phillipines, in G. Raudzens (ed) Technology, Disease, and Colonial Conquests, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries: Essays Reappraising the Guns and Germs Theories, Leiden: Brill Academic.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Otis, L. (1999) Membranes: Metaphors of Invasion in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Science, and Politics, London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Overy, R. (2010) The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilization 1919–1939, London: Penguin.

  • Ramsay, S. (2021) COVID-19: Brazil crisis like ‘medieval plague’ as patients suffocate without oxygen, https://news.sky.com/story/covid-19-brazil-crisis-like-medieval-plague-as-patients-suffocate-without-oxygen-12198178.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rose, J. (2020a) Pointing the finger, https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n09/jacqueline-rose/pointing-the-finger.

  • Rose, J. (2020b) To die one’s own death, www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n22/jacqueline-rose/to-die-one-s-own-death.

  • Snowden, F. (2020) Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, London: Yale University Press.

  • Sontag, S. (1979) Illness as Metaphor, New York: Farrar, Strauss.

  • Sophocles (2015) Oedipus the King, in Oedipus the King and Other Tragedies, O. Taplin (trans), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Spinney, L. (2018) Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, London: Penguin.

  • Taplin, O. (2015) Introduction to Oedipus the King, in Oedipus the King and Other Tragedies, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Tracy, S.V. (2009) Pericles: A Sourcebook and Reader, ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com.

  • Truthout (2020) Mourning is a political act amid the pandemic and its disparities, https://truthout.org/articles/judith-butler-mourning-is-a-political-act-amid-the-pandemic-and-its-disparities/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Varlık, N. (2020) Rethinking the history of plague in the time of COVID‐19, Centaurus, 62(2): 28593.

  • Vernant, J.P. and Vidal-Naquet, P. (1990) Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, J. Lloyd (trans), New York: Zone Books

  • Williams, R. (2017) Plague as metaphor, in J. Heeney and S. Friedemann (eds) Plagues, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 196212.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wootton, D. (2006) Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm since Hippocrates, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • World Health Organization (2020) Antibiotic resistance, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/antibiotic-resistance.

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