Daniel Defoe was a prolific writer of fiction that the readers of his time—and many in the centuries since—wanted to believe was something else. He was, through no fault of his own, seen as a purveyor of false news, despite actually being a stickler for historical accuracy.
Even those who have not read Defoe’s 1719 volume Robinson Crusoe have doubtless seen film adaptations, or are generally familiar with the castaway marooned on an island and his most heathenistic—and useful—of adjutants in the invaluable Friday. During Defoe’s lifetime, the scuttlebutt was that all of this had actually happened. There was awe and admiration and a certain distance-keeping from this alleged memoir-penning author who had, as many believed, eaten a lot of clams and spent many a lonely day with skin cracking in the tropical sun. He just told you it was fiction, they said, because fiction sold. Just as 14th-century Italians had encountered Dante on the streets and regarded him as the man who had been to hell and back, so it went with Defoe and Robinson Crusoe’s island.
And so it went, too, with Defoe’s treatment of pandemics, a subject he knew quite a bit about, having witnessed one in his time that was exponentially more deadly than COVID-19.
That would be the Great Plague of London, one of those few disasters about which one can be literal in saying that it decimated a region, repeatedly. Before the plague had begun in England, the diarist Samuel Pepys would track its approach by monitoring the chatter in the coffee-houses on his regular beat, acquiring details from travelers and those who had received letters from kith and kin abroad. But in popular memory, the 1665 plague has mostly been associated with images of London—like the scarlet crosses painted on its doors, with guards outside them, so that none could leave or enter save the invisible agency of death. Remembered for posterity, too, are the infamous “plague pits”—bodies piled atop bodies, rats feasting, a sight which would likely have caused Dante, even if he had been to hell and back, to think that Hades had a timeshare on earth.
Defoe was five years old in the year of London’s subsuming blight. He would have seen much, but his uncle, Henry Foe, would have seen more. Those who witnessed the plague generally survived it in one of two ways: They either possessed enough money to leave the city and hunker down in some country estate; or they were damn lucky. There were amusingly macabre exceptions, as with the prisoners of the Tower of London, in essence quarantined via criminality. And while this plague was vastly deadlier than what we are experiencing, themes and patterns overlap.
To judge by social media, COVID-19 has engendered something of a death-battle for attention. People try to out-scare each other, sharing catastrophic scenarios on Facebook, or to virtue signal, with lachrymose accounts of going to Trader Joe’s and wanting to hug a tearful cashier. Now that they have time, people often seem incapable of occupying their own minds for the briefest intervals. They post endlessly, they brainstorm which programs to “binge” on Netflix, and for all of the talk of changing one’s diet, starting that novel, or revisiting Proust, this rarely happens. The result is a different form of plague, a kind of mental inertia that we would do well to guard against. COVID-19 can be instructive here, an opportunity to marshal the mental discipline—and the courage—to venture inward and stay there a spell, to apply some critical thinking not just to our prevailing modes of thinking, but also to ourselves.
Defoe was a gifted internalizer and a paragon of the concomitant honesty required of the effort. The gift ran in the family. Daniel’s Uncle Henry—keeper of that stalwart diary—was a saddler in the time of the plague, and he kept a running record of all he saw during this tragic time. That diary was handed down to Daniel, who could never un-see what he had seen, and who now saw with new eyes—and saw, too, novelistic possibility.
The plague, as a literary device, had a long incubation period for Daniel Defoe, but the novel he ultimately created and published in spring 1722 was unlike any novel before it. It was called A Journal of the Plague Year, and such was its verisimilitude that people were unwilling to accept it as fiction. Said verisimilitude comes from the utilization of Uncle Henry’s observations, the names of streets, shops, the dead themselves. Arguments have been made to cite Defoe more as editor than author, overseer rather than creator, but from Uncle Henry’s specificity, Defoe let his imagination range. The genius of the work wasn’t the historical veracity, but rather its depiction of an internal life, a narrative consciousness that Joyce must have pondered when he began to mull the possibilities of Ulysses. The narrator wanders across festering London, enmeshing us in a voice a historian wouldn’t use, though a teller of horror stories—à la M.R. James—might.
“We had at this time a great many frightful stories told us of nurses and watchmen who looked after the dying people (that is to say, hired nurses, who attended infected people), using them barbarously, starving them, smothering them, or by other wicked means hastening their end, that is to say, murdering of them,” relays the narrator—known only by the initials H.F., in a nod to Uncle Henry, but functioning as a kind of Everyman.
In short, humans freak each other out, and snuff each other out. Plague is a mother of a problem, only compounded by human nature as human nature devolves, which it tends to do in times of pandemic. The sharper-eyed critics were right to term the work a romance, by which they didn’t mean a love story, but an undertaking freighted with one person’s point of view. I’m reminded in reading A Journal of the Plague Year of Dziga Vertov’s 1929 experimental film Man with a Movie Camera, with its sense of an ambulating and all-seeing eye. People panic, H.F. reports, and in their panic they lose more of themselves, they become increasingly ravening and diminishingly cognitive. They want their needs tended to, not those of others. In the plague of 1665, this entailed the murderous scenes cited above; in our age, we are talking a form of myopia that spreads as much with the click of the mouse as contagion once did three and half centuries ago through the bites of fleas.
Defoe’s response to what he experienced, and, by extension, his uncle as well, was to venture to the wellspring within—to create, to illuminate. Plague Year is remarkably level-headed given its subject, but it’s still a work of unstinting, involving emotionalism. The details eerily reflect our own. There are no horses in London, for instance—a strange sight, given their centrality in culture, every bit as visually shocking as our empty roads. Sports—a huge leisure component for the 17th-century Londoner—are likewise no more. Defoe records the decree: “That all plays, bear baitings, games, singing of ballads, buckler play, or such like causes of assemblies of people, be utterly prohibited, and the parties offending severely punished by every alderman in his ward.”
Doesn’t that remind you of the makeshift fences we see over the nets on our basketball courts, and the people who call the cops on those in violation (as if police don’t have enough to deal with presently)? Not everything can be policed and regulated, and when this is true, we are tasked with doing the right thing by ourselves and for others—while not neglecting growth, including even a new kind of internal growth.
H.F. bemoans the inability of Londoners in this area, as I bemoan it with America now. He focuses regularly—it’s a theme—on the unseen agency of the plague. You can’t tell who carries it, much like the coronavirus, until the symptoms manifest. There is a bigger point extolled and developed here, the idea that we are carriers of an impulse to propagate our own interests over anything else, while, ironically, failing to take care of our inner self and cultivate an impartial intellect that can get a better grip on truth. It’s a powerful message in 2020 in this age of the “feelings rule all” culture, especially when those feelings—as with the need for attention, the need to out-scare, to out-shock, to out virtue-signal—compromise us mentally.
When the French film director Jean Renoir created his 1937 anti-war film Grand Illusion, his hope was that when the world was tempted again to make war, the message of his film would forestall war. Naïve? I don’t necessarily think so—it’s stunning art, which always seems to outlast everything else, just as Defoe’s art outlasted the plague in his time and came to resonate with a pandemic in ours. But like Renoir, Defoe miscalculated:
Another plague year would reconcile all these differences; a close conversing with death, or with diseases that threaten death, would scum off the gall from our tempers, remove the animosities among us, and bring us to see with differing eyes than those which we looked on things with before.
The future visitation of a different pandemic, H.F. is noting, will be more sensibly handled, but that’s not really the case, is it? There’s a paradox there, in that Defoe’s narrator was incorrect in his prediction, and yet absolutely nailed it in regard to our human failings, then and now. A pandemic has always been with us, in obvious and less obvious ways. Cure the disease within, and we go a long way to flattening the curve without, both during 1665 and the time of COVID-19.