Friday, September 4, 2009


Taking Woodstock is now in theaters. Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control envisions a more sinister spectacle—Swinestock. Swine Flu has definitely returned from summer vacation (New York Times, Sept. 4), and comparisons to the recent avian flu scares and the legendary influenza epidemic of 1918 have created a level of apprehension that recalls Stephen King’s novel The Stand.

Back in the spring, Mexico City was closed down by fears of an epidemic, and there are already a number of people who refuse to take public transportation unless they are wearing surgical masks. As the fall progresses, there will undoubtedly be cautious folk who refuse to make out with their lovers.

Depictions of the fears of plague and epidemic have a long a venerable history in art and literature, from Brueghel’s “The Triumph of Death” to Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, in which consumption and spiritual sickness are equated.

Richard Dawkins notwithstanding, what compounds the fear in these outbreaks is the residue of irrationalism and superstition that is part of the landscape of human consciousness. Catastrophic thinking is an aspect of imagination, and there is an element of the pathetic fallacy in the hysteria that accompanies the flu epidemic. Is nature mirroring an inner state of corruption?

As if credit default swaps and sub-prime mortgages weren’t punishment enough, nature wreaks its vengeance against human frailty with plagues and epidemics. Maybe the first-born will be spared this time around, but the ferocity of our disasters, both real and conjured, seems to be directly proportional to the conspicuous consumption that characterized the boom years.

Shock and sympathy are the first responses when someone is diagnosed with a cancer, followed inevitably with blame. He or she was too stressed out, didn’t eat well, didn’t exercise. It’s hard to accept the impartiality and indifference of the cosmos. If only ailments were the just punishments for crimes. Then there’d be a cure.

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