By: Mark Cummings, Editor and Publisher, Choice
Our friend and colleague Mark Cummings (editor and publisher at Choice) has coped with the pandemic by creating a podcast reading of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, an account of the great plague in London in 1665. When we asked him why he decided to do this, he replied:
“As I became aware of the growing COVID-19 pandemic in January and February of 2020, I remembered passages I had read long ago from A Journal of the Plague Year, and in conversations with friends and coworkers I sometimes found myself mentioning these passages as representing mostly spurious parallels with our own experiences. Since there seemed to be no relationship whatsoever between the two afflictions in terms of their severity, these references were usually delivered in half-humorous or even ironic tones. The experiences of well-fed, white, middle-class citizens of a modern technological state appeared to have no true analogue among those of a late medieval citizenry that lacked the foundations of modern public health and medicine, let alone Netflix or Zoom.
But by March, as social and economic structures worldwide began to fracture under the stress of the pandemic, I went back to the book with a renewed interest in seeing to what extent there might be genuine parallels, this time not in terms of prevention, clinical treatment, or mortality rates but rather in terms of social control and the psychological effects of a prolonged period of mass stress. And lo and behold, this approach yielded a much different appreciation of the text, for there are indeed parallels, and on the basis of this I thought to share this fascinating text with others both as an antidote to our uncertainty and a caution not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
As I note in the Postscript on the site, when people think of plague literature, they usually think first of Camus’ The Plague, and one of the questions that inevitably seems to follow concerns the relationship between that novel and Defoe’s. Certainly there are significant differences between the two, beginning with the fact that Defoe’s account is exactly what it claims to be, a journal, with not an allegorical bone in its body. Moreover, it has nothing like the character or narrative development that characterizes Camus’ work. Nonetheless, it takes its place as a founding member among a wider body of literature describing the breakdown of social and psychological order following some catastrophe, works like The Plague, José Saramago’s Blindness, or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Leaving all that aside for the moment, recording the episodes was great fun and a kind of therapy to counter weeks of living down the hall from one’s bedroom! Hope you enjoy it.”
The podcast, titled “The Visitation,” can be found at www.londonplague.com.