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Plague as art: Over the centuries, many kinds of stories

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Lauren Beukes, a script and fiction writer, is drawn to narratives that allow her to probe themes of gender and power. For her upcoming novel, “Afterland," she imagined a plot twist in which a disease wipes out virtually the entire male population.

“I wanted to explore what a world without men would look like and how it wouldn’t necessarily be a better place with everyone making friendship bracelets and growing communal gardens and walking at night,” says Beukes, who began her book years before the current coronavirus pandemic.

Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist, says his new novel was inspired by a question the filmmaker Ridley Scott asked him years ago after reading Cormac McCarthy's dystopian “The Road”: How could social order break down so completely when we're struck by sudden disaster? His upcoming thriller “The End of October” describes, uncannily, a global pandemic originating in Asia. He had meant his new book as a cautionary tale.

“Our society has grown blind about dealing with natural hazards because we were so worried about terrorism. Hurricane Harvey caused far more damage than a terrorist attack," says Wright, known for his nonfiction book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.”

Plagues have been with us for at least as long as people have been able to record them. But among those who create art, their meaning has changed profoundly according to the time and the teller.

Once regarded as divine punishment, they have served as parables of greed, tyranny and scientific hubris. They have underscored narratives of escapism, vulnerability and save-the-world heroism. They have been treated as catalysts for what we never imagined becoming — and for confirmation of what we were all along.

—For the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, the plague that devastated Athens affirmed his view that prayers were “useless” and his dire belief that laws and codes of honor were easily abandoned.

—Edgar Allan Poe condemned a heartless prince and his foolish belief that he was immune from disease in “The Masque of the Red Death."

—In Stephen King's “The Stand,” biowarfare and a careless military are central villains.

—Stephen Soderbergh rejected any political interpretation of his film “Contagion,” saying that the virus in it “was just a virus.” Yet he told The Guardian in 2011 that he did want to “convey the feeling” he sensed worldwide “that the fabric of society really is stretched thin.”

In some eras, little imagination was needed to picture the worst — and hope for the best. Tony Kushner's epic play “Angels in America” was a defining chronicle of the wreckage of AIDS. The Black Plague of the Middle Ages inspired both terrifying art of ravaged bodies and dancing skeletons and images of Saint Sebastian and Saint Roch intended to console.

"Saint Sebastian had survived being shot with arrows, and Saint Roch was believed to have survived an episode of the plague, so you often see them appearing in art,” says C. Griffith Mann, who curates the Department of Medieval Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A classic work of literature from the Middle Ages, Boccaccio's “The Decameron," reads in some ways as a guide to social distancing and self-isolation. Seven young women and three young men escape from the plague in Florence and live together in a villa, where they entertain each other by telling stories.

“I think Boccaccio anticipated what we would/could do in the time of the plague: We need to escape from our ‘real’ world in which our misery has no explicable cause, no identifiable beginning, and no end in sight," says Wayne A. Rebhorn, who chairs the English department at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Many of the stories include stories within them — stories used by characters to get out of jams, persuade others to do their bidding, and, at the simplest level, entertain those who read or listen to them. If the plague shows just how desperate and fragile human life can be, stories offer a way to cope with that desperation.”

Plague books can be a way of tracking other changes in society. The 1665 plague in London was the basis for Daniel Defoe's “A Journal of the Plague Year," which was published decades later and was noted for its detailed account of the city's ordeal. Defoe scholar and Auburn University professor Paula Backscheider notes that his book came out at a time when the Renaissance had challenged religious beliefs, and that for the author the London plague was a way of looking beyond religious reasons for human suffering.

“He is grippingly driven to try to decide if the plague is the will of God,” Backscheider says, “or if there are scientific explanations that would explain how it started and spread, how people could protect themselves from it, and how it might be treated humanely and effectively.”

In the 20th century, Albert Camus' “The Plague” was widely seen as a parable for the Nazi occupation of France and the eventual liberation — and as a statement on the randomness of fate. Katherine Anne Porter's “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” was inspired by the flu epidemic of 1918-1919 that killed millions at the same time that World War I, which killed millions more, was ending. She published the short novel in 1939, as a new world war began.

"Her illness is grounded in a real influenza pandemic, but because her illness is associated with the war (it ends with the Armistice), it symbolizes the spiritual malaise of the 20th century," says Dorothy Unrue, a Porter scholar who edited a volume of her work for the Library of America.

Chris Bohjalian's new novel, “The Red Lotus,” has just been published. The author looks for stories about “heartbreak and dread” and thought of a pandemic — an idea he developed after reading an article about mice carrying viruses resistant to treatment. In his book, rats are the carriers of diseases, although people are the real villains.

“I don’t view the possible pandemic in the novel as a metaphor," he says. “(But) a pathogen doesn’t attack a human with conscious malice. But humans? We are all too conscious of the carnage we can inflict on one another.”

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Follow AP National Writer Hillel Italie on Twitter at @hitalie.

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