The revolution, and reversal of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death

So all of America is under house arrest and each day sobers me more to the reality that 2020 is not going to just be any old year. For most of my life I’ve been eerily fascinated with momentous historical upheavals like the French Revolution, World War I, or the fall of the Soviet Union. A lot of time while working on my research I’ve felt like I live in such boring times.

But this is it. This looks like it could be the calm before a revolution in the United States–and really, in the whole world. We have 330 million people who have been forced by their government to cease and desist from doing everything that makes their lives livable, because they have been told that a virus poses an imminent threat.

American history has a long trail of epidemics. In colonial times, according to Charles Mann, author of 1493, the arrival of malaria may have played a role in inflicting African slavery and its long shadow of consequences on North America. The vast majority of people in West Africa were immune to the diseases spread by mosquitoes (“vivax malaria”), while the vast majority of Indians and white indentured servants were not immune. The ugly profit motive led plantation owners over the course of the seventeenth century to opt for black slaves since they weathered malaria epidemics far better than Indians or whites. Tragically, America’s tortured racial history can be blamed, at least in part, on a reversal of Darwinian assumptions. The fittest humans were black and their inherited immunity to a deadly malaria did not bring them power and success but servitude and suffering.

During the Revolutionary War, when you read the letters between John and Abigail Adams, you’ll find it interesting that a lot of Abigail’s letters talk about an infection that had inflamed her eyes, as well as various kinds of choleric afflictions among people in their community. You can feel the frustration caused to Abigail’s community because the British roadblocks and control over people’s movements made it hard for people to see doctors. It also made it so difficult to carry out basic errands that people’s general frustration experienced illness as an added catalyst. To understand why people in America fought a revolution and overthrew King George, you won’t find the clearest picture by reading the Declaration or Common Sense. These are philosophical treatises far above the heads of ordinary Americans like the kind that Abigail deals with, in her letters. The British were running things in a way that made people’s lives unbearable, in large part because illnesses introduced complications that British magistrates didn’t seem to account for.

In studying the Mexican-American War you can also find the role of disease in warfare. The United States conducted its first “urban ops” in Monterey, when they had to go house-to-house to clear a city and root out Mexican soldiers–this tactic would appear in the Civil War, whose generals largely fought in the Mexican American War (like Lee, Grant, McClellan, and many others). In the battle of Vera Cruz, also the US military had its first experience with an amphibious landing. They landed warships miles down the coast from Vera Cruz, then marched to besiege them from land. The yellow fever rampaged through Mexico during that time, and the shrewd American generals watched to see the progression of the disease. They realized they could let the yellow fever fight some of their battle for them, weakening Mexican communities so they would surrender quickly when besieged.

In the Civil War, more soldiers died from disease than from combat wounds.

And then let’s not forget the Spanish Flu in 1918, the polio epidemic of the mid-twentieth century, and the twin sexual afflictions of herpes and HIV in the 1980s. Ironically, for a brief period herpes was all over the news as a scary incurable disease, but it was swept off the front pages when HIV arrived and terrified people.

All of this goes to say that America has a history of dealing with diseases. America has a long history of grappling with the harms caused by sickness: not just the death of loved ones but also the lasting scars both physical and emotional, which result from the trauma. Epidemics produce survivor guilt. They can induce soul-searching. They can make people want to improve society or show greater charity to others. They can also lead to a dog-eat-dog nastiness.

In our present situation, a lot of this is unprecedented, even when compared to America’s plagues-ridden past. And I fear we may be living in either the last days before the second coming of Christ, or just the early days of a revolution that will get extremely ugly, very fast.

The demands placed on citizens by the government have surpassed anything that we’ve seen: people warned by governors to remain inside the confines of their homes, essential businesses like restaurants told that they cannot conduct business, churches banned from holding services with their congregations, and most chillingly, encouragement to report our neighbors to authorities if we see ten or more people in one place.

The scale of these orders seems like something that can’t be held together. I am not a virologist so feel free to scoff at whatever I say on the topic. But it seems to me, looking at past epidemics, which had enormous death tolls, that illnesses can’t really be halted by simply controlling every single person’s movement to prevent any human interactions that might exchange pathogens. Viruses and bacteria are tiny microbes. To kill off every molecule of their dangerous nucleotides, we would have to release toxic agents that would kill normal flora that live with us and which have adapted into a beneficial relationship. And in the end, you can’t keep 330 million people locked in their homes wondering how the heck they are going to make a living if all the businesses, jobs, goods, and services have shut down while people die of COVID-19 anyway.

In an ideal world, everyone would agree to sacrifice everything about their way of life to defeat a virus and prevent deaths. But one thing should be clear; this is not an ideal world. People are going to break with protocol once they can’t take this stress anymore. And the situation right now is starting to look a lot like the social dynamics that existed just before major revolutions. Look at the French, Bolshevik, and Cuban revolutions, for instance, when there was massive discontent that people in power couldn’t grasp. Upheavals like that always come as a surprise.

But with all this talk about people having to stay locked in their homes, I could not help but pick up my yellowed copy of Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.” In that story a prince rules over a kingdom that’s been overrun by some kind of terrible plague. The disease causes deformities and disfiguration to people’s faces. The prince decides to hold a masquerade ball inside the safe confines of a palace, where he invites well-to-do revelers to come and be merry while the vast population dies outside the walls.

But in the end, one guest came dressed in poor taste. He came dressed up as a corpse and caused all the guests to recoil in shock and disgust. Prince Prospero takes such offense at this trick that he chases after the guest with a dagger, only to fall dead before him. The guest was, it appears, Death himself.

Poe imagined the vast, dangerous world outside as the plains of death, while he pictured the interior space of a wealthy home as the place where heartless and callous people would congregate, indifferent to the suffering outside. Now, of course, everything is the reverse of Poe’s story. People are all getting the virus in the cloistered loneliness of their quarantined homes or semi-sanitized hospitals and nursing homes with nobody to visit them.

The underlying lesson of Poe’s story is still worth noting here. To separate from the ill in order to attempt to avoid getting the illness might, in the end, be the very thing that allows the illness to kill all of us. It might be that as we retreat into our homes, waiting for the sickness to pass, the microbes will get into our houses somehow. And when we fall ill, there will be no taxis to take us to the hospital, no gas stations to fill our cars with gas to drive ourselves, no buses running, no food anywhere. We might just sit staring like pale ghosts at windows, watching empty streets with nobody on them. And because we aren’t able to connect and join forces to help each other, we might end up giving the virus more lethal power than it would have had, had we dealt with it the way we dealt with other diseases.

Like many Americans, I have had to ask myself what would happen if I caught the virus and died. I’ve walked through that horrible dreamscape.

But I think people won’t endure such a tragedy quietly and patiently. I fear that Americans will turn to unrest when they figure out that they can’t beat the virus.

A Tracy Chapman song comes to mind: