Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Journal

Laura and Sasha were talking about writing LOVE on the base of their plastic water bottles, using an indelible marker. The idea was to arouse positive feelings while you drank.

"On Mike's you'd have to write DRYDEN," Laura laughed.

It was true... After two weeks in the wild, the mere mention of the forgotten name sent a shock of joy through my body.

As I confessed to them, this time I had come away rather short of reading matter. Not in terms of quantity. I had reached Jacques Derrida in Mark Lilla's Reckless Thinkers (translated into Spanish), and the defence of Dresden in Scott's Life of Buonaparte. I had whizzed through Drew Milne's Go Figure a couple of times. And I still had my backstop, Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece.  But still, I felt something was missing.

"I might have a book for you," said Sasha. "Anna and Charlie left some with us."

She went to hunt in her van. "What about Defoe? A Journal of the Plague Year?"

I was stunned. Trying to articulate what was missing in all these generals and philosophers, I couldn't put it any better than that I wanted a book where men acted like men and not like chessmen. Defoe, of course, fitted the bill perfectly.


The great plague of 1665 turned out to be the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in the UK. Defoe couldn't know this. His 1722 book had, indeed, partly an eye to fears aroused by contemporary outbreaks in Europe.

Overall, such epidemics are in decline, especially in the west. But still, AIDS (or "sida" as they call it in Spain) is a recent and deadly plague. Among communities of gay men the scale of loss in the 1980s was at least comparable to what Defoe described in his docufaction.

Tom Crewe: "Here was a plague"...


By September, though, with the plague at its most ferocious, Defoe's imperturbable narrative recalls... Well, the only modern analogy I can think of is population-processors of the Einsatzgruppen type... (Though Death and his scythe would have been the natural image then.)

The confusion among the people, especially within the city, at that time, was inexpressible. The terror was so great at last that the courage of the people appointed to carry away the dead began to fail them; nay, several of them died, although they had the distemper before and were recovered, and some of them dropped down when they have been carrying the bodies even at the pit side, and just ready to throw them in; and this confusion was greater in the city because they had flattered themselves with hopes of escaping, and thought the bitterness of death was past. One cart, they told us, going up Shoreditch was forsaken of the drivers, or being left to one man to drive, he died in the street; and the horses going on overthrew the cart, and left the bodies, some thrown out here, some there, in a dismal manner. Another cart was, it seems, found in the great pit in Finsbury Fields, the driver being dead, or having been gone and abandoned it, and the horses running too near it, the cart fell in and drew the horses in also. It was suggested that the driver was thrown in with it and that the cart fell upon him, by reason his whip was seen to be in the pit among the bodies; but that, I suppose, could not be certain.
In our parish of Aldgate the dead-carts were several times, as I have heard, found standing at the churchyard gate full of dead bodies, but neither bellman or driver or any one else with it; neither in these or many other cases did they know what bodies they had in their cart, for sometimes they were let down with ropes out of balconies and out of windows, and sometimes the bearers brought them to the cart, sometimes other people; nor, as the men themselves said, did they trouble themselves to keep any account of the numbers.


By this stage Defoe has so accustomed us to inhabiting his plague city that we feel only a slight crescendo of horror. The numbers numb. We are ready to assent to universal destruction, and can only wonder that any are left to witness it.

But new waves of the destitute keep stepping up to man the deathcarts , though no longer to quarantine the infected houses; what was the point, when the whole street had died?


And yet, as even this extract shows, there is a certain resistance to apocalypse in its sturdy placenames. Defoe's book is about a living city, though pictured in its extremity.

We know from the start that the book's narrator survives his close brush with Death. So he curiously recalls Robinson Crusoe, but relocated from a desert island to a world that is simultaneously peopled and empty. So do the three heroes of the inset narrative, who set up their tents and shelters in Epping forest, and parley with initially hostile natives. 


Every reading of the book ends up talking about the plague. For Defoe's age this "visitation" had been a malign wonder, but a wonder nonetheless: just the sort of thing that had preoccupied Aubrey.

Discussing wonders was an early way of starting to write about normality: Defoe's book is one of the first to convey an idea of the normal life of a great city. Defoe began from a very different though equally religious basis, compared to Dryden's Annus Mirabilis. Different too from Shakespeare's timeless London in the Henry IV plays. In Shakespeare's time, too, the plague was not a wonder. Shutting up the infected in their houses began in 1603, but it's Defoe who discusses this at length. You might say, he chats about it; sometimes on one side of the question, sometimes the other. Like the voice of a crowd, he can never rest easy on the formula, "private evil but public good". Walter Allen points out that Defoe's "novels" are all unconfessed fictions, they genuinely attempted to pass themselves off as true autobiographies. New fields fell open to this fraudulent perspective.



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