When eventually we are able to look back on the coronavirus pandemic, the images of Italian army trucks transporting coffins away from Bergamo’s overburdened morgues will surely be among the most indelible. As of this writing, more than 2,200 people have died in the northern Italian city, their names and faces stretching the obituaries of the local newspaper, L’eco di Bergamo, to as many as ten pages a day. Red Cross workers go from door to door caring for the sick and dying. A social worker has described the tolling of the city’s ancient bells as “our sad soundtrack.”
I’ve never been to Bergamo, but the city occupies a small yet crucial role in my imagination. In 1882, the little-known Danish novelist Jens Peter Jacobsen, about whom I’ve written a biography, published a short story titled “The Plague in Bergamo,” which immediately became the talk of Copenhagen’s literary circles for its blasphemy, pessimism, and depiction of religious masochism. The mild-mannered Jacobsen, an avowed atheist, had previously incurred the outrage of Denmark’s reading public both for his translations of Darwin and his eroticized portrayal of a Danish noblewoman in his novel Marie Grubbe (1876)—achievements that also won him devoted readers among Scandinavia’s literati. Upon reading “The Plague in Bergamo,” the Norwegian novelist Alexander Kielland called it “the most exceptional thing I’ve ever read in Danish.”
“The Plague in Bergamo” reads like a religious fable, describing an outbreak of the plague in what is known as Città Alta, or “Upper City,” the fortified old core of Bergamo. At the first sign of plague, the city’s people come together “in unity and harmony,” taking care to bury corpses properly and distribute juniper berries and vinegar to the poor. They go to church at all hours, tolling the bells and filling the air with their prayers. They even proclaim the Holy Virgin to be the Podesta, or Mayor, of Bergamo for all eternity.
But when nothing comes of these efforts, the people begin to realize that “Heaven either would not or could not help.” They respond to this realization, not by bonding closer together in human solidarity, but by defiantly indulging every sinful behavior under the sun, from demon worship to necrophilia: “The air was full of blasphemy and ungodliness, of the moans of gluttons and the howls of drunkards, and their wildest night was no blacker with iniquity than were their days.”
11 weeks after the outbreak, a procession of gaunt, robe-clad monks carrying huge black crosses approaches the town. They are initially greeted with scorn and ridicule: The inhabitants of Bergamo “felt sobered before the solemnity of these people, and they knew full well that these shoemakers and tailors had come here to convert them, to pray for them, and to speak the words they did not want to hear.” And yet, out of a sense of curiosity, they follow the procession into a large church, where the monks begin to sing and lash themselves with knots of rope in a frenzy of flagellation. The people of Bergamo are stunned into an embarrassed silence by this sight, for “there was a tiny spot of insanity in their brains that understood this madness.”
Then, toward the end of the story, a young monk rises to speak. He preaches fearfully about Golgotha, the sight of Jesus’s crucifixion in Jerusalem, and describes in detail the derision and mockery the Son of God endured at the hands of the people of Jerusalem. Then the monk arrives at the shocking conclusion to his sermon:
Then God’s high-born son grew angry and saw that they were not worth saving, those masses that filled the earth, and he ripped his feet off the head of the nail, and he clenched his hands around the nail heads and yanked them out so that the arms of the cross curved like a bow, and he leapt down to earth and snatched his robe so the dice rattled down the slope of Golgotha, and he slung it around him with the fury of a king and rose up to Heaven. And the cross stood there empty and the great work of atonement was never completed. There is no mediator between God and ourselves; there is no Jesus dead on the cross for us, there is no Jesus dead on the cross for us, there is no Jesus dead on the cross for us.
The people of Bergamo are terrified by the sermon. Someone bewilderingly asks the monk if he means for them to crucify Jesus again, to which the crowd roars out in panic: “Yes, yes, crucify him, crucify him!” But the monk merely smiles, spreads his arms toward heaven, and laughs derisively. Then he rejoins the procession and leaves Bergamo.
A few weeks ago, I got up at 4:30 AM to discuss “The Plague in Bergamo” live on Danish national radio. I called in from my apartment in Brooklyn, standing in the pitch-dark with a cup of coffee before suddenly being connected to the radio host, who asked me, among other things, what Jacobsen’s story could tell us about the current pandemic. I sighed and paused, not really sure what to say, and then offered that I didn’t think the story was particularly uplifting. Jacobsen clearly relishes both the heresy of the monk’s sermon and the obscene and depraved behavior of the people of Bergamo. Reading it, one can’t help get the impression that the author, whose adult life was invalided by tuberculosis, was indulging himself a little.
And yet, fumbling for something to say other than, “This story is very depressing,” I pointed to some minor detail or other before suddenly realizing that, if there is anything life-affirming in the story at all, then surely it is in the details, in Jacobsen’s prose, in his secular commitment to the physical world. Before he turned to writing, Jacobsen was a trained botanist whose dissertation on a species of Danish algae won the University of Copenhagen’s prestigious gold medal. In his novels and stories, he took care to painstakingly evoke the physical world he loved so dearly; his pages blossom with the fragrances of flowers and the contours of trees. In a single page in his novel Niels Lyhne (1880), Jacobsen describes hyacinths, gentians, anemones, dandelions, and “the gentle periwinkle, Rousseau’s favorite flower, sky-blue the way no sky is ever blue.” He was even known to stand gazing at buildings in Copenhagen to observe the way the light changed their color.
I went on to point out the obvious comparison to Albert Camus, whose novel The Plague (1947) Jacobsen’s story clearly anticipates, and with whom he had so much in common. (In the novel Niels Lyhne, Jacobsen’s titular hero, a young atheist who is a kind of precursor to Camus’s absurd man, invokes the myth of Sisyphus to describe his own existential condition). Both Jacobsen and Camus were committed atheists who struggled with the paradoxes of their unbelief. They were also, crucially, sufferers from tuberculosis; both contracted the disease in their youth, Jacobsen at 26 and Camus at 17.
Above all, they were writers who were secularly devoted to the physical world. In his early, lyrical essays, Camus beautifully evokes the sun and sea of his native Algeria, while Jacobsen, in his fiction, gives life to the flora and fauna of the colder, darker north. Yet their love of the physical world was darkened by its finitude, by the fragility of life. Both writers were acutely aware of what the narrator of The Plague calls “our blind human faith in the near future”—the expectation that things will continue to go on as they always have. In truth, of course, such faith is happily irrational, a benign delusion we share in to ward off our fear of the unpredictable and the unknown. We cannot know that we will be alive in a week or a month or a year, yet most of us live as if we will. If we didn’t, we would risk succumbing to nihilism or despair.
Both Jacobsen and Camus were thus very sensitive to suffering, to the pain and loss that living necessarily entails. They understood and accepted life’s tragic contingencies, the awful fact that many of us find it difficult to bear for very long: that on a day not of our choosing, and to the grief of our friends and family, our lives will end. We will die our difficult death. The world will go on, but we will not be there to see it. As Camus writes in The Myth of Sisyphus, “I know simply that the sky will last longer than I .”
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made it painfully clear just how blind our faith in the future truly is. Understandably, the desire to make sense of what is happening becomes suddenly urgent. What does it mean to live in a world where these things happen for no discernible reason? Where a stricken grandmother is stretchered away into isolation, knowing she will die without ever seeing her children or grandchildren again? Where so many lives can be so suddenly changed in such a short amount of time?
In his Easter Sunday column in the New York Times, Ross Douthat emphasized the “need for narrative . . . for some story about what the pain and anguish meant.” He encourages his readers to discern purpose in their lives and even participate in the discernment of purpose in the lives of others. In doing so, he turns the burden of theodicy (what theologians diplomatically call the problem of evil), back on believers themselves. Why does the God who apparently loves us subject us to so much pain? How can we justify his providence in the midst of so much suffering? Alas, there are no clear answers to these questions. All we can know with certainty, Douthat claims, is that “meaningless suffering is the goal of the devil, and bringing meaning out of suffering is the saving work of God.”
Thus meaning is equated with salvation. But the salvation of what? Of whom? According to the monk’s sermon in “The Plague of Bergamo,” Jesus’s decision not to sacrifice himself for humankind means that “the great work of atonement was never completed.” Because Jesus is the mediator between God and humanity, our access to the divine is disrupted. But might that not be a liberation rather than a condemnation? In other words, might there be a way of reading “The Plague in Bergamo” defiantly, against the monk’s sermon? So what if there is no Jesus dead on the cross for us? Let him turn away from us that we may go on with this earthly life. We would be spared the notion of humanity’s sinfulness, which too often in Christianity is used to justify our suffering. (Kierkegaard, in The Sickness Unto Death, writes that Christianity “begins with the doctrine of sin.”)
The Bible tells us we suffer because we have disobeyed God. Theologically, therefore, it makes sense for evangelicals to say that the current pandemic is God punishing us for our sins. (Just last month, Robert Jeffress, the Trump-supporting pastor of the Dallas First Baptist Church, claimed that “all natural disasters can ultimately be traced to sin” during an online sermon watched by some 90,000 viewers). Of course, this sounds very Old Testament, but you can see how some version of this view exists even outside its religious context—among those tempted to interpret COVID-19 as a secular punishment for capitalism, technological hubris, or climate change, say. In both cases, a large-scale solipsism is at work, one that ascribes human meaning to random, meaningless events. What did we do to deserve this?
We flatter ourselves to think us so important. In reality, diseases, even the very worst, are not instruments of punishment, divine or secular. International air travel or global commerce might help spread a disease, but that doesn’t answer the question of why there is a disease to begin with—a question to which I fear there is no answer, at least not in human terms.
But perhaps there doesn’t need to be an answer. Perhaps we don’t need saving because we didn’t need punishing in the first place. As the philosopher Philip Kitcher puts it in his excellent little book, Life After Faith, “we should be committed to salvage, not salvation.” Therefore let the good now being done by people in the medical field, from the most seasoned doctor to the youngest volunteer, speak for itself. As for the rest of us, those not on the frontlines of the pandemic, pacing our homes as we wonder about the meaning of all this, we could do worse than to read our Jacobsen and our Camus. In their deep despair and appetite for beauty, we might find some morsel of the courage needed to deal with life’s tragic contingencies.
At the end of “The Plague in Bergamo,” the monk’s procession trudges back down the mountain, along a steep road that is “hazy with light from the sun.” Eventually, they disappear from view. What happens to the people of Bergamo? Presumably some will continue to die, while others will go on living.
All the more reason to commit ourselves to this life while we still can—to the sun, the earth, the ancient sea “where all cries are hushed.”