The first response to a virus terror is a fairy tale

The first response to a virus terror is a fairy tale

Citing important examples of the plague in cinema and TV, Showtime says that our fear of obliteration returns us summarily to the spirit of the herd

Diseases are misnomered more often than not. Malaria and cholera and typhoid all owe their names thus to ignorance, or to guesswork about their origins, rather than to a chain of cause and effect. In that sense, the word plague is different, in that the name, or its origin, continues to be relevant.

Derived from a Greek word meaning ‘to strike’ or ‘wound’, the term plague is a succinct presentation of symptoms, such as the buboes or open sores that marked sufferers, and carries a small flight into metaphor. Its other meaning, to strike, is a blunt reminder of the crippling consequences that such outbreaks have on human civilisation.

Plagues, after all, have the power to dissolve all our secessions from the social into the individual, and to return us summarily to the spirit of the herd. Our fears of obliteration drive us in this direction, perhaps. 

The immediate response to the terror that this can evoke is the fairy tale finish. This is the compulsory arc that the disaster genre traverses, as if to suggest that it is enough to draw close to some abyss, and then back away. In ‘The Last Ship’, a TV series starring Eric Dane and Rhona Mitra, a pandemic begins to rage as the USS Nathan James sets off on a secret mission to locate the original strain of the virus in the Arctic snows. After a gripping beginning, the series dwindles into a specific version of the fairy-tale finish. The apocalypse is global, but is real only because it is about the end of America. While the rest of the world must wander around being bit-players, the fairy tale is about how America, like Superman, cannot die but must crawl back to greatness because any other destiny is impossible.

‘The Last Ship’ is thus a five-season stretcher that eventually becomes impossible to watch. It has its moment—in that the sailors discover over the first six episodes that their ship is the United States—but that is about it.

Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film ‘Contagion’ is a much more compressed version of this version of the apocalypse. A bunch of familiar faces flit past us—Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, and Marion Cotillard among others, but the relentless cascade of the narrative reduces them to flickers of semi-recognition. This primary conceit of forcing a star-studded cast through a narrative of unsettling grasshopper leaps is fascinating in that it performs the primary terror of apocalypse sotto voce. The return to herd is orchestrated by a visual sameness—people wearing the same anonymising clothes, and wandering through worlds unified by squalor and garbage bags.

Miraculously, there is time for ambiguity about globalisation in ‘Contagion’. Salvation is eventually American in origin, but the backstory is a cautionary tale. Human greed drives bats off palm trees, and that is the butterfly effect which generates the film.

Aashiq Abu’s ‘Virus’ follows a similar trajectory but positions this ambiguity about globalisation and apocalypse in a far more interesting way. A pernickety capacity for being local and individual is offered as both reason for outbreak, and reason for resolution. The director’s capacity to dwell on this paradox may have something to do with the fact that the Nipah virus, in the best tradition of the plagues of the past, arises and subsides in mysterious ways.

In this season of coronations, the republic of the arts can perhaps offer us something more provocative than mere happy endings. There is no magic bullet that can help us take out the Apocalypse in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. It’s not going away in the film, but its characters can find a sort of salvation through sundry acts of selflessness that free them just enough to assert a humanity. Even if it must inevitably fall to the bending sickle. This sense that the world is already shit, and that the challenge is a series of questions about how to persist with being human also finds play in an underrated Belgian TV series from 2014 titled ‘Cordon’. A virus runs amok in Antwerp, and shipping containers are lifted into place to sequester the zone of infection. The salvation of vaccines and cures are not possible, and what is left are the moral ambiguities of work, and who we work for, and whether we may ever satisfactorily resolve the tension between the fact that we report to those with power over us, and our need to be persons of conscience.

Film and television can seem like the more pliable media for rendering such provocations, but fiction has always gotten there faster. Bocaccio’s ‘Decameron’ takes the experience of hiding out from the plague as the constraint despite which stories must be told. The ten people in refuge respond with verbal sparkle, and bawdiness, and anarchic fun, and this means that they ask on our behalf the question we would be otherwise unable to ask — O Death, where is thy sting? Defoe’s genre-bending ‘Journal of the Plague Year’ offers us similar illumination, albeit by a somewhat more understated modus operandi.

The work that we must read again and again as we lurch from terror to terror is Albert Camus’s The Plague. Oran in North Africa is laid low by the bubonic plague and the teetering basic systems set up by a colonising state have already been on the verge of collapse. Those who wield power are governed by the exigencies that come with power, and must debate thus about how to name the situation, and how to control damage. In the absence of an ethically governed state, it is the unspoken decencies which small, otherwise powerless individuals like Dr. Rieux are able to commit to that begins to carry the day. Camus offers us a clear invitation in the book to cross over from the metaphor of the plague to the everyday politics that it represents. When I read the book for the first time, Dr. Rieux, perhaps because he was a doctor, or perhaps just by accident, began to take the form and appearance of a real-life person famous for wearing a blue suit.

(The writer heads the department of English Literature at St Joseph’s College, Bengaluru)

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