AIDSspeak: A Plague of Words
“Epidemics have often been more influential than statesmen and soldiers in shaping the course of political history, and diseases may also color the moods of civilizations… [Yet] their role is rarely emphasized by historians.” So wrote René and Jean Dubos in their landmark study of tuberculosis, The White Plague (1952). They might as well have included novelists among the oblivious. With the notable exception of TB, whose association with creativity inspired reams of inspirational verse and fiction, some of our favorite operas, and one certified literary masterpiece (The Magic Mountain), the literature of epidemics is as scant — or at least scantly remembered — as those tomes on phrenology that once graced transcendentalist coffee tables.
Do we need a Visitation Lit? In the current crisis, it hardly seems like a priority: Give us a vaccine, a cure; give us condoms that work and laws that protect. But our failure to devise an effective response to AIDS is partly a product of the silence of our culture. We are raised to regard epidemics as relics of distant lands and ancient eras; when an outbreak does occur, it seems unprecedented, unnatural. We cast about for a strategy, ceding the task to medicine and politics (though we don’t really trust either profession), because we have no alternative. There is no cultural tradition that gives meaning and order to the chaos of an epidemic. There is only religion, with its mechanisms of suppression and control. Art has abdicated its authority to counsel us in time of plague. And this absence of an aesthetic is part of our helplessness.
Why are there so many novels about World War I and so few about the influenza epidemic that followed it, killing many more people? Why doesn’t plague inspire literature the way war does? Perhaps because, at least until the specter of nuclear annihilation, combat never threatened our hegemony over the environment. War is something men declare, but epidemics are a force of nature, and until we unravel their codes and learn how to repel them, they subject us to assault on their own, inhuman, terms. War is politics by other means, but epidemics have no purpose or intention; they happen, often as an unintended consequence of social mobility, sometimes by chance. War is, in some sense, as deliberate as fiction. But plague is accidental history.
The Grim Reaper notwithstanding, epidemics are hard to personify. An invisible enemy versus a small band of crusaders, reeking more of disinfectant than manly sweat, is hardly the stuff of heroic fantasy. War is butch; it is the strange fruit of masculinity. To die in combat is a confirmation of gender, but epidemics are androgynous, and the loss of control they induce is usually represented as emasculating. Men who fall victim to disease are champions brought low, given to heroic speechifying; women just lie there in paler and paler makeup. They are the ones who whisper about love and memory; men weep over their loss of mastery. (Think of Sly Stallone as the leukemia victim in Love Story.) And real men die of some inner defect, not an infectious disease. Long before AIDS, we believed that epidemics strike — indeed, signify — the effete. Thomas Mann’s social critique proceeds from this assumption, and his apprehension about sexuality finds a ready emblem in diseases like cholera and tuberculosis. Aschenbach and even Hans Castorp enter into the state of illness almost by consent, as a logical expression of character. Susceptibility is fate.
Mann’s message takes a Nietzschean twist in America, where health is your own business and you’d better take care of yourself. The self-help cults that have arisen in response to AIDS reflect our assumption that illness is a character flaw made manifest, and usually preventable by good behavior. The process of “freeing ourselves from the bonds of karma, disease, problem relationships” (as an ad for those New Age nabobs, the Ascended Masters, puts it) suggests that not just desire, but nature itself, can be consciously controlled. The Eastern jargon is purely decorative; this view of the environment as a “peaceable kingdom” is central to American culture, and it persists — partly because literature has failed to deconstruct it — in direct denial of our actual history.
Pestilence may have an old-world ring, but epidemics were, until quite recently, a recurring feature of urban life in America, as well as a force in such emblematic events as the Civil War and the great westward trek. Congress could not be convened in 1793 until George Washington rode through the streets of Philadelphia to assure himself that an outbreak of yellow fever, which had decimated the city, was under control. As J.H. Powell’s riveting account of that outbreak, Bring Out Your Dead, reveals, the barbaric responses we associate with AIDS were commonplace in 1793: Refugees were stoned, shot, or left to starve as they wandered the countryside; newspapers from the capital were boiled in vinegar before anyone would read them; and the task of caring for the afflicted and burying the dead fell largely to impoverished blacks. This is an America you will not read about in fiction. There are no epics about the epidemics that struck New Orleans with such regularity that the death rate in that city remained higher than the birthrate for the entire 19th century; no chronicles of the devastation that disease wrought upon the ’49ers as they headed west. You can read all about cannibalism on the Donner Pass, but not about diarrhea.
When we aren’t discreet about the subject, we leave it to the likes of Bette Davis to set the tone of American rhetoric about epidemics — turgid and romantic. In Jezebel, she plays the ultimate coquette, all taffeta and eyelashes, who’s brought to her senses by a bout of “yellowjack” that strikes her jilted beau. The film ends with the essential American image of vanity chastened by pestilence: Davis on a crowded wagon, rolling through the shuttered streets of Charleston, nursing her love in quarantine. There’s a similar epiphany in Arrowsmith; when the young doctor’s wife dies during a Caribbean outbreak of the same disease, and he breaks the rules of his profession by providing experimental serum to the natives without a control group. Though Sinclair Lewis meant his novel to be both a critique of scientism and a testament to its rigors, in the movie, such ambiguities are lost to the epidemic as otherworldly spectacle, complete with darkies chanting among the fronds.
The fabricator of pestilential rhetoric in America is Poe, whose interest in the subject confirms its disreputability. “The Masque of the Red Death” is a paradigm of the dread epidemics arouse in us: Their terrible swift sword seems aimed directly at our hubris and hedonism — two sins Americans simultaneously celebrate and excoriate each other for. If the Red Death resembles any known disease, it is influenza of the sort that killed 20 million people in 1918. But in Poe, it comes on preternaturally, with profuse bleeding from every pore that kills in half an hour. What better setting for this Visitation than a primordial kingdom with a party-hearty sensibility too splendid to survive? When plague strikes, the royals retreat in a vain attempt to banish death. He enters anyway, dressed like the rogue in The Desert Song. “And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel.” In other words, the party’s over.
Poe’s maunderings could only have meaning in a culture so phobic about disease that the subject must be addressed in terms of retribution. We get the fate we deserve for living like Vincent Price. At the core of Poe’s masque are guilt and denial, the very evasiveness our literature stands accused of displaying toward love and death. An epidemic calls up the same response, since it forces us to confront both the intensity of human need and the fragility of all relationships. As a culture whose optimism is its most enduring trait, we cannot bear to look directly at this experience, except through the lurid refracting lens of moral causality.
Compare Poe’s Red Death with the description of influenza that opens Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. It occupies less than a page, yet this account, as seen through a child’s eyes, says more about the grotesque incongruity of an epidemic than any allegory. Traveling from Seattle to Minneapolis in a closed compartment, the entire family was stricken as the train proceeded east.
We children did not understand whether the chattering of our teeth and Mama’s lying torpid in the berth were not somehow a part of the trip… and we began to be sure that it was all an adventure when we saw our father draw a revolver on the conductor who was trying to put us off the train at a small wooden station in the middle of the North Dakota prairie. On the platform at Minneapolis, there were stretchers, a wheel chair, redcaps distraught officials, and, beyond them, in the crowd, my grandfather’s rosy face, cigar and cane, my grandmother’s feathered hat, imparting an air of festivity to this strange and confused picture, making us children certain that our illness was the beginning of a delightful holiday.
McCarthy’s perspective belongs to another, far more naturalistic, tradition of Visitation Lit. It is not to be found in fiction, but in the less hallowed venues of journalism and memoir. From Pepys, we get the sense of pestilence as an ordinary experience — one of life’s elemental indignities. From Defoe, we get the larger picture of a social organism convulsing under bacterial siege. A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) is the first example of that paradoxical form we now call the nonfiction novel: It is “reported” as fact, but constructed as fiction, and all the more potent for its formal confusion. Defoe invented the “plot” we still impose on epidemics, and he intended it not just to convey but also to shape reality as a tangible expression of his ideology.
As a Dissenter, Defoe was subject to professional and personal harassment by the Anglican authorities. The stance of a rebellious rationalist informs his tone, perhaps even his choice of subject matter. The extremis of plague gave Defoe a chance to rail at irrational “tradition” — in everything from quack cures to the futile quarantining of whole families when one member took sick. And nothing revealed the sanctimoniousness of his peers like the high, theocentric prose in which epidemics were customarily described: “Now Death rides triumphantly on his pale horse through our streets,” read one typical account of the bubonic plague that ravaged London in 1665. “Now people fall as thick as the leaves in autumn, when they are shaken by a mighty wind.” Defoe, in contrast, is blunt, sensory, reportorial: “It came at last to such violence that people sat still looking at one another, and seemed quite abandoned to despair; whole streets seemed to be desolated… windows stood shattering with the wind in empty houses for want of people to shut them.”
What comes handed down to us as “objectivity” was actually a rhetoric of rebellion against the political and religious institutions that put Defoe at personal risk. His response must have seemed like the proverbial shoe-that-fits to Albert Camus, the Communist/resister who set out in 1947 to construct a metaphor for the German occupation and all it evoked in the French. Camus intended plague to universalize the circumstances of his own oppression, but so did Defoe. From the old Dissenter, Camus borrowed not just the specter of a city stricken by bubonic disease, but the perspective of a rationalist in extremis, the anti-literary style, and the very form of The Plague. The subject attracts the alienated, perhaps because they sense the power of an epidemic to shatter social orthodoxy.
Both Defoe and Camus set out to instruct us about life beyond the boundaries of personal control. Both call up the impotence and isolation — even in fellowship — of those who must inhabit “a victim world secluded and apart,” as Camus describes Oran under quarantine. Camus could not have constructed his deliberately modern paradigm of “death in a happy city” without Defoe’s radical vision of plague as a landscape where virtue and survival do not follow as the night the day. And though their subject is bubonic plague, with its ancient rhythm of explosive death, the dry rage and mordant irony Camus and Defoe share, their abiding sense of life’s precariousness, are the personality traits of an AIDS survivor.
There was no plague in Oran during the years Camus wrote, and as far as is known, he never actually experienced an epidemic. Rather, he assembled his description from secondary sources — as did Defoe, a child of five when the outbreak he describes took place. So the “plot” these journalists impose on epidemics is a fictional contrivance. More to the point, it is a contrivance that we inherit as reality. We still trot out Defoe and Camus to class up think pieces about AIDS because we trust their reporting, even though its authenticity is an illusion. The model they created gives meaning to the meaningless; it shapes an event that is terrifying precisely because it seems chaotic. Can anyone who has never experienced an epidemic imagine, in purely naturalistic terms, the terror of an invisible entity, not to mention the ghastly, often abrupt, changes an afflicted body undergoes? In a literary work, no matter how grim, there is order, progression, response; when you add journalism’s claim to objectivity, and its obsession with good and bad behavior, an epidemic can be fitted with a tangible structure of cause and effect. This — and not just verisimilitude — is the power of reportage.
As for the plot: It is a tale without a protagonist. The “hero” is a collective — the suffering multitudes, called up in a thousand images of mortification of the flesh. At first, they refuse to acknowledge anything out of the ordinary, and the narrative feeds on this denial (we know why the rats are dying). But there comes a moment when, as Defoe describes it, “the aspect of the city itself was frightful.” Denial gives way to terror, and the suspense is not just who will live and die, but whether society will endure. Pestilence brings the collective into high relief. It must protect the uninfected, care for the stricken, and dispose of the dead. That it does function is — for both Camus and Defoe — a source of chastened optimism. Plague, the despoiler of civilization, has become an agent of social cohesion.
This existential saga is the shape we still give to epidemics. And in America, where the subject is seldom approached straight-on, it is also the point of countless horror movies, in which the monster is like a scourge raining death out of Camus’s indifferent blue sky. The first victim is always an emblem of normality — a carefree bather yanked under the waves, or a baby-sitter ambushed by something in the closet. Then comes the warning — “They’re here!” — but to no avail. It’s too weird to be credible, and anyway, no one wants to frighten the citizenry. Finally, the system is brought to its senses — in the nick of time.
The horror movies of my youth in the ’50s were a plug for scientific progressivism, and a none-too-subtle plea for civic vigilance. But in recent years, the fatalism that underlies those tales of transformation we inherited from Europe has crept back into horror-consciousness. In The Fly and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to mention two post-modern remakes, the alien intrudes almost like a bacterium out of Mann, with the victim’s tacit consent; and the afflicted pass through all of Kübler-Ross’s stages, from denial to rage to resignation. In The Andromeda Strain, the denial stage becomes a premise: Can the doctors stop an alien organism before it kills so many people that the government will have to acknowledge its existence? In Jaws, an implacable force of nature has “vetoed pleasure” in Amity, just as it did in Camus’s Oran. Except for the rugged individualist (a/k/a crusty old shark hunter) who holds the key to survival, it is easy to imagine the author of The Plague set those on his terrain.
Randy Shilts’s history of the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On, draws its power from precisely this tradition: It is a journalistic work with a fictional form. Its plot, as constructed by Defoe, renovated by Camus, and apotheosized by journalistic thrillmongers like Robin Cook and Stephen King, is the unexpected appearance of a deadly microbe; its stealthy progression, fostered by obliviousness and indifference; and the gradual emergence of a collective response. Shilts writes of death and denial with all the lurid energy of the Old Dissenter. His alienation from (gay and straight) orthodoxy is entirely true to form, and so is his judgment on all the players — from government to media, from the afflicted to the immune. The journalist shapes the event — has done so ever since Defoe.
Of course, the model of Visitation Lit doesn’t entirely fit the reality of AIDS. Shilts’s fiercest rage is directed at the breakdown of community when pestilence strikes. In Camus and Defoe, everyone is equally at risk, and therefore everyone must overcome indifference. But in Shilts, the collective that emerges consists of isolated groups — the infected and their doctors. The larger society is insulated by contempt for the afflicted and an illusion of immunity. The pariah experience that AIDS creates cannot be found in Visitation Lit (except perhaps in a didactic potboiler like The Nun’s Story, with its doting on leprosy as a test of godliness). There are ample accounts of shunning those who show the “tokens” of bubonic plague or yellow fever, but AIDS is a lifelong condition that leaves no visible mark until it becomes activated; shunning is decreed by the technology of diagnosis and, often, by the presumption of belonging to a group at risk. We can monitor the development of AIDS in both the afflicted and the infected, but we cannot improve their prognosis. The psychic and social bind generated by our helpless efficiency is also an unprecedented product of this disease.
The precedent for AIDS in our culture is the “slow plague” of tuberculosis, which has shifted in its iconography from a disease of the artistic to a scourge of the impoverished. In the late 19th century, as word of its contagiousness spread (and before there was conclusive evidence that exposure does not usually result in infection), the image of the afflicted changed as well. Once they had been held in such esteem that the problem for epidemiologists was convincing the families of consumptives to stay away. But by the turn of the century, TB patients were thought to be dissolute, if not degenerate; later still, Mann’s elegant mountaintop retreat became a state-run sanatorium to which they could be committed against their will. The parallels with AIDS are striking but not exact. Sexually transmitted diseases carry a distinct stigma, and so do homosexuals and intravenous drug users, the main groups at risk for AIDS. In the culture at large, there is no gay or junkie equivalent of the virtuous poor.
The AIDS epidemic, which is a highly literary event (the death of people in their prime always is), cannot be written about in traditional literary terms; because it shatters the social contract, it forces us to break with form. Those who live through this Visitation will have to invent not only their own communitas but a new system of representation to make that process meaningful. So far, only the rudiments of such a system are in place. The AIDS plays that drew so much attention to the epidemic are all traditional in form: Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart leans heavily on Ibsen’s ideology of the heroic outsider (“The strongest man … is he who stands most alone”); William Hoffman’s As Is make a comforting melange of, Maxwell Anderson and William Inge; even Jerker, the controversial (because it is homoerotic) series of blackouts by Robert Chesley, veers toward the familiar modernism of Ionesco via Menotti. Only Beirut attempts to project AIDS into the dreamlife of our culture, but unfortunately it achieves its nightmare edge by misrepresenting the transmissibility of the disease.
In fiction, it was mostly the gay presses that produced the first responses to AIDS. But these novels, like the plays, have been either didactic tracts or domestic dramas. Both are important themes — the danger of social violence is real enough, and the bond of love between men is rare enough, in or outside the context of sexuality, to be worth expressing. But, so far, these good intentions don’t achieve the power and range of literature, in part because the subject (homosexuality) is still so culturally arcane, and in part because it takes more than a season — or five — for the best authors to transform trauma into art.
Epitaphs for the Plague Dead, a small volume of formal, traditional verse, is a semi-breakthrough. Robert Boucheron has turned to Tennyson for a formal framework that is both strikingly antique and oddly abstract — giving his subject matter, the histories of gay men dead of AIDS, a timeless, entombed air. The content is often trite, sometimes clumsy; but these epitaphs, in a colloquial discourse rendered stately by iambics and rhyme, have the effect of ennobling not just the ordinary but the shunned. This is form in the service of a new idea, something the literature of any epidemic must achieve if it is to matter in the long run.
It may be too much to hope for parody as a weapon in the fight against AIDS, although the satiric edge in Boucheron’s poetry, Shilts’s journalism, and Kramer’s play is what most sets these gay writers apart from other chroniclers of plague. It is almost as if the rich vein of camp has been tempered into a mordant comedy of manners. What this promises for the future of both gay culture and Visitation Lit is anyone’s guess, but the spirit of Thackeray (not to mention Mann) must hover at the shoulder of any reasonably acute homosexual who thinks about AIDS. It certainly informs the picaresque fiction of Armistead Maupin, whose work is a model of what the epidemic has done to gay sensibility. By the latest installment, Significant Others, AIDS has become a recurring motif that grounds the narrative. The characters we’ve been following through volume after volume haven’t so much changed their ways as their perspective — on each other, on mortality. And Maupin’s tone has grown softer and fuller, as if to acknowledge the “feminine” emotions that gay rage suppresses right now.
Melancholy is the literary legacy of AIDS, for all of us. It informs the texture of more and more popular fiction, if only in its fascination with pathology. A glance through Publishers Weekly reveals these plot premises, all from books due out this fall: A woman engaged to be married discovers that she is a carrier of’ Tay-Sachs disease, raising painful questions about her true paternity and changing her life … A crotchety old truck driver, watching his wife die of cancer, reverts to wetting his bed. His anguish is heightened when she reveals the details of an extramarital affair that spawned their late son, a teenage victim of meningitis … A young cancer patient, withdrawn from chemotherapy by his mother, is placed in a halfway house for “roomers with tumors.” But when the boy’s estranged father tries to put him back in chemo, mom, son, and a handsome hospice worker run away to a hideaway in the redwoods, where …
Then there is Leslie Horvitz’s The Dying, a just-published novel of “biological horror” (actually another of those pesky Poe-like flus that kill in the flip of a page) complete with a dust jacket admonition that THE PLAGUE YEARS ARE HERE. And Sharon Mayes’s Immune, whose protagonist, “at once a highly professional doctor and researcher, and a wild, erotic woman, addicted to cocaine,” must confront the threat of AIDS. That it “leads her to a rediscovery of responsibility and a nostalgia for a more stable and structured past” makes Immune “a tragedy of our time.” Or so the blurb insists.
As a culture, we are losing our sense of immunity to disease and our confidence in sexuality as a route to self-discovery. These may have been constructions in the first place, but they were crucial to my generation, and now they have been shattered. The assumption that AIDS will compel us to remake the libido in more “mature” terms is as cockeyed as any belief in human perfectibility, as utopian as the sexual revolution we are now exhorted to forsake. Only in a TV movie will this epidemic teach heterosexuals to value commitment and homosexuals to find their identity in rodeos and Proust. More likely, we will pull the wool over each other’s eyes in erotic masques of safety and salubrity. The gap between public morality and private behavior will promote the very passions it suppresses. Those who can’t or won’t be locked in place will exude a faint aroma of mortality whenever they have sex. And if the epidemic is not contained, we will come to inhabit a landscape where death and desire go hand in hand.
This is a very ancient landscape, but also the thoroughly modem setting of Valerie Martin’s novel A Recent Martyr, which takes place in a contemporary New Orleans mired in corruption, civil chaos, and a burgeoning epidemic of bubonic disease. Sainthood and sexual obsession vie for women’s souls, while men hover, in their passion, between brutality and helplessness. It has nothing to do with the current health crisis, but a great deal to do with the emotional climate AIDS is generating. Martin’s model suggests that any epidemic — whether or not the disease is sexually transmitted — affects the libido, if only because it places ecstasy and imminent death on the same chaotic primal plain.
“The plague continues, neither in nor out of control,” Martin writes at the conclusion of her reverie, “but we have been promised a vaccine that will solve all our problems. We go on without it, and life is not intolerable. Our city is an island, physically and psychologically; we are tied to the rest of the country only by our own endeavor … The future holds a simple promise. We are well below sea level, and inundation is inevitable. We are content, for now, to have our heads above water.”
This is the looking glass fiction can fabricate. Gazing into it, we confront what journalism cannot imagine: the possibilities. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 14, 2020