I am writing like a motherfucker. Finished the Defoe essay, 2200 words. Bloody hell this is good. One more little excerpt, then it's on to the next. (Also, funny how presumptive some people are about your political beliefs; always smacks of hubris to me when someone automatically believes that because they believe something, you must. It is that hubris that is going to be the driver in the next election, and what I think is the obvious and inevitable result.) While finishing this essay I pitched a Dylan thing, so we'll see if anything comes of that; if it did, that's another essay I'd have to write today.
In short, humans freak each out, humans rub each other out. Plague is, of course, a mother of a problem, but so is human nature as human nature devolves, which it can do in time of a pandemic, and also the time of cultural rot. The sharper-eyed critics were right to term the work a romance, by which they didn’t mean a love story, as we might think of a romance, but an undertaking freighted with one person’s point of view. I’m reminded in reading A Journal of the Plague Year of Dziga Vertov’s 1929 experimental film Man with a Movie Camera, of the sense of ambulating and the all-seeing eye. People panic, H.F. reports, and in their panic they lose more of themselves, they become increasingly ravening and diminishingly cognitive. They want their needs tended to, not those of others. In the plague of 1665, this entailed the murderous scenes cited above; in our age, we are talking a form of myopia that spreads as much with the click of the mouse as contagion once did three and half centuries ago through the bites of fleas.
Defoe’s response to what he experienced and, by extension, his uncle as well, and, further extension, what he experienced in experiencing his uncle’s experiences, was to venture to the wellspring within, to create, to illuminate. Plague Year is remarkably level-headed, given its subject, but still a work of unstinting, involving, emotionalism. Trainspotters will note that the more things change, well, you know how that goes. There are no horses in London, a strange sight, given their centrality in culture, every bit as visually shocking as our empty roads. Sports—a huge leisure component for the seventeenth century Londoner—are no more.
“That all plays, bear baitings, 88 games, singing of ballads, buckler play, 89 or such like causes of assemblies of people, be utterly prohibited, and the parties offending severely punished by every alderman in his ward.”
Doesn’t that remind you of the makeshift fences we see over the nets on our basketball courts and people with their phones calling the cops on people them deem in violation, as if the cops don’t have enough to deal with presently? Those phone calls are often about the person making them, not the civic good. Not everything can be policed, can be regulated, and when this is true, what we are tasked with doing is the right thing by ourselves and for others, while not neglecting growth and even sensing an opportunity for a new kind of growth. Think of Bob Dylan’s line about living outside the law—his emphasis on honesty isn’t about a person to person honesty, so much as an honesty with one’s self.
H.F. bemoans the inability of Londoners in this area, as I bemoan it with America now. He focuses regularly—it’s a theme—on the unseen agency of the plague. You can’t tell who carries it, same as with the coronavirus, until the symptoms manifest (plague, of course, being easier to detect given the graphic horrors of the symptoms). He’s not being repetitive. There is a bigger point being extolled and developed here, the idea that we are carriers of an impulse to propagate our own interests over anything else, while, ironically, failing to take care of our inner self and cultivate an impartial intellect that can better loosen the hold of feelings so as to get a better grip on truth. Powerful message in 2020 in this age of the “feelings rule all” culture, especially when those feelings—as with the need for attention, the need to out-scare, to out-shock, to out virtue-signal—compromises us in mental ways that I would argue go well beyond how our bodies are being compromised presently.
When the French film director Jean Renoir created his 1937 anti-war film, Grand Illusion, his hope was that when the world was tempted again to make war, the message of his film would forestall war. Naïve? I don’t necessarily think so—it’s stunning art, and I’ll always put what money I have on stunning art. It always seems to out-last everything else, just as Defoe’s art out-lasted the plague in his time and came to resonate with a pandemic in ours.