Journal of the Plague Year

Max Von Sydow died last week at age 90. Movie audiences knew the tall Swede as a European character actor of suspicious mien—the elegant hitman in Three Days of the Condor, the compromised mastermind of Minority Report. Or as the uptight artist/intellectual in Hannah and Her Sisters. The priest in The Exorcist.

But of course, Von Sydow will be remembered in the long run—if there is one—for his work with the towering directors of his homeland, Jan Troell and Ingmar Bergman. For Bergman lovers, he is simply Max, forever part of the master’s stock company, along with Bibi (Andersson), Erland (Josephson), Harriet (Andersson), and of course, Liv (Ullmann), with whom Von Sydow starred in two of Bergman’s great sixties pictures, Shame and The Passion of Anna.

Von Sydow appears eleven times in Bergman’s cinema, but despite showing great range across Ingmar’s oeuvre, his indelible performance is that of the Knight returning from the crusades in The Seventh Seal (1957). That film ensured Bergman’s international reputation as not only an important filmmaker but as an artist whose ambition easily equaled that of serious writers. Its evocation of the disease-ridden Middle Ages plays as a lost documentary of knights and squires, witch burnings, and flagellants, filmed and then forgotten for several hundred years and rediscovered in the morally tattered atomic age. And of all Von Sydow’s performances, those performances reduced to Bergman films, the Bergman films to one film, the film to one scene, the scene standing in for our own predicament, the image of the Knight playing chess for his life with Death itself endures. We instantly understand the Knight’s impulse—surely he can outwit Death just a little longer. He is too young to die. He has already seen too much suffering. He has finally returned home and what he finds there is only more dying due to the plague.

Today I begin teaching all of my university classes online because of the coronavirus that is shaking up the world. In an attempt to “flatten the curve,” or halt the rate of infection, in the United States, schools, colleges and universities, and in some locales restaurants, gyms and other public places, are being closed down. Sporting and cultural events are postponed or cancelled. The Centers for Disease Control has issued a recommendation against any gathering of ten or more people for the next eight weeks. We have not, by any stretch, reached a crisis on the scale of the bubonic plague (the “Black Death”) of the fourteenth century, in which a third of Europe’s population died. The influenza epidemic of 1918-19 killed unknown millions around the world after infecting an estimated 27 percent of the population. We do not yet see signs of disasters of this magnitude, but it is sobering to think that we are taking precautions to avoid even a fraction of those outcomes.

Meanwhile, one may walk mostly empty streets or drive lightly attended freeways. College campuses lack their energy and  vivacity without their student populations. I already miss seeing the children walk by our residence on their way to elementary school down the street. I miss them because unlike regularly scheduled breaks, no one knows for sure when they will be back. I will miss seeing my own students in person even more. And I will miss meeting and traveling with them this summer, my study abroad program to Rome having been cancelled.

The planet is getting a break from the economic downturn, seemingly the only positive outcome so far.

How we respond to such crises has been a subject of fascination for a long time. Perhaps the best-known literary treatment is Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a collection of tales completed in 1353 at the end of the recent plague. As bawdy, witty, romantic, moralistic, and acerbic as the various tales can be, and as much as they represent a variety of attitudes toward not the crisis of death but the living of life, all are framed, dominated, by Boccaccio’s memorable conceit: the tale-spinners, seven women and three men, are on the lamb from plague-ridden Florence, waiting it out in a villa outside the city. A line from Joan Didion comes to mind: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) has one of those great, elongated eighteenth-century titles meant to advertise fiction as fact to increase sales: A Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations or Memorials, Of the most Remarkable Occurrences, As well Publick as Private, Which happened in London during the last Great Visitation in 1665. Written by a Citizen who continued all the while in London. Never made Publick before. Defoe used a variety of sources to make a story of an event he would have witnessed at age five. Like The Seventh Seal, Defoe succeeds in creating a fictional documentary that rings true much later than the time of the event portrayed. Whole streets full of households die. The carts of bodies wending through the streets provide employment to the destitute. A man loses his whole family, brings himself and his few goods in a cart to a new neighborhood, and is refused residence. “Whether this poor Man liv’ed or dy’d I cannot tell,” Defoe’s narrator says, “but it was reported that he had the Plague upon him at that time; and perhaps the People might report that to justify their Usage of him . . .”

Other than Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, there are few well-known literary evocations of the 1918 influenza pandemic. It may be because the crisis came as a kind of exclamation point at the end of four years’ carnage in the Great War of 1914-18. Another is William Maxwell’s lyrical They Came Like Swallows (1937), based in part on his own family’s experience. The story concerns an eight-year old boy’s love for his mother Elizabeth and the deadly impact of the flu in 1918. “What happened to him had happened before,” his father James recalls of his own hospital stay. “And it would happen again, more than once. Probably some one would lie awake all night in that very same hospital feeling his lungs contract and expand, contract and expand–until the whole of him was limited to the one effort of breathing for somebody else . . . . But it would not be Elizabeth who was dying of pneumonia two rooms down the hall.”

After World War II, we see the existentialist commitment of Dr. Rieux in The Plague, the 1947 Albert Camus novel set in Oran, Algeria, and more recently, Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, his 1992 meditation on the AIDS crisis. In all these works, the drama is found in the ways humans respond to an unseen, deadly force for which there is no cure. Mortality is a fact of our lives—imagine what would happen if no one died and people kept on being born. But a plague or epidemic brings our lives up short. There is the possible premature end, but there is also the waiting and the not knowing.

In The Seventh Seal, Max Von Sydow’s Knight has met a couple and their one-year old son—stand-ins for the Holy Family—traveling players in as much mortal danger as everyone else. He shares a simple repast with them, some wild strawberries and milk. “I shall remember this hour of peace,” he says, his blue eyes radiant even in Bergman’s black and white, “these strawberries, this bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk . . . I’ll try to remember what we spoke of, and I’ll hold this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl brimming with fresh milk. [Drinks milk.] And it will be a sign for me, and a source of great content.”

As Death says, “There is no escape,” and yet the Knight plays the game well enough that he buys some time for others. The game we play is called social distancing.

As we consider how to respond to this strange time, we should try, along with Von Sydow’s Knight, to hold close such simple pleasures, appreciate those we live with even as cabin fever sets in, and act in ways that acknowledge our interconnectedness. Those ties, of course, are what makes the virus, well, viral, but if there is any hope for a safer and more just world, we must come back together after we spend our weeks and months apart. Teach better, learn more, think and act with broader interests in mind, including those of the people who are suffering the most.

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