Florence, 1348. Despatches from the Black Death:
It was the common practice of most of the neighbours, moved no less by fear of contamination by the putrefying bodies than by charity towards the deceased, to drag the corpses out of the houses with their own hands, aided, perhaps, by a porter, if a porter was to be had, and to lay them in front of the doors, where any one who made the round might have seen, especially in the morning, more of them than he could count; afterwards they would have biers brought up or in default, planks, whereon they laid them. Nor was it once twice only that one and the same bier carried two or three corpses at once; but quite a considerable number of such cases occurred, one bier sufficing for husband and wife, two or three brothers, father and son, and so forth. And times without number it happened, that as two priests, bearing the cross, were on their way to perform the last office for some one, three or four biers were brought up by the porters in rear of them, so that, whereas the priests supposed that they had but one corpse to bury, they discovered that there were six or eight, or sometimes more. Nor, for all their number, were their obsequies honoured by either tears or lights or crowds of mourners rather, it was come to this, that a dead man was then of no more account than a dead goat would be today.Whilst the plague rages through the city, ten young people from well to do families repair to a country estate and decide to pass the time by telling each other stories. That in a nutshell is Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, considered by some the first novel, and a historical one at that. The stories themselves are, of course, pure joy to read: funny, dirty, ingenious, they drew on the already lively tradition of the novellieri, were enormously influential amongst European writers for centuries to come and remain the greatest single prose work in Italian literature. But it's always striking to reread that introduction, which undercuts from the outset the genteel escapism of the rest of the book, setting it against the sober description of the death of a city, with the attendant breakdown of the rules of society, of compassion, even of familial love.
Tedious were it to recount, how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbours was scarce found any that showed fellow-feeling for another, how kinsfolk held aloof, and never met, or but rarely; enough that this sore affliction entered so deep into the minds of men and women, that in the horror thereof brother was forsaken by brother nephew by uncle, brother by sister, and oftentimes husband by wife: nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate, as if they had been strangers.According to some accounts, the Black Death wiped out as much as half of the population of Europe at the time. It made landfall in 1347, in Sicily, where it travelled on board Genoese merchant ships arriving from Crimea, and in less than three years it reached the frozen northern extremities of the continent, bringing about what many saw as the end of days. Another witness, Agnolo da Tura from Siena, writes:
I […] buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed that it was the end of the world.Siena, until then a power on a par with Florence, would in fact never recover. The pestilence marked the beginning of its decline, and its population nowadays is a fraction of what it was in its late medieval heyday. It wasn’t the apocalypse, but it came pretty close.
Regular readers will know that I’m not fussed about being topical. 1348 is as good a year to discuss as any, as far as I’m concerned. But I am nonetheless struck about how distant in time, how staggeringly old news the swine flu outbreak already appears. Two weeks ago at eight o'clock on a Sunday morning I learned that such a thing existed from the radio bulletin. By eight o'clock that evening, the New Zealand Minister of Health was giving a press conference about the first all-but-confirmed cases in the country. This thing seemed to travel almost faster than news! There was little time to digest, understand, prepare, know what to think.
Initially I thought that the local media - bearing in mind we don’t watch much television - provided useful, measured coverage, heavy on the expert advice. A picture began to form, along the lines of: this may not be a pandemic, but it’s best to be prepared for the worst. Outside of Mexico, the strain seemed mild and responded to treatment. It was a matter of setting the appropriate systems in place and waiting to see how it would all pan out.
Waiting is not something that our media are very good at, as it turns out. Newscasters abhor a vacuum, and they quickly lost their nerve. Ben Goldacre started having to turn down offers to appear on shows to claim that the whole thing was a media beat-up. Somebody had to get the blame for the world not coming to an end, dammit! Or at least not coming to an end in orderly fashion, at the pace of the news cycle and in time for the six o’clock bulletin.
That’s how the media see the world, as a stopwatch. But the time of information is hardly linear: it skips and jumps, demands instantaneous, real-time access to what is current and at the same time is obsessed with forecasting what will happen tomorrow and the next day, be it in the stock market, on the weather front or inside your blood. It works forward as much as backwards, as Richard Grusin has been busy arguing for a while with his work on premediation. Recently he had this to say:
[M]edialogically we are already experiencing the pandemic. Our media experience in the run-up to a pandemic that might never occur is very much of a piece with, and in many cases identical to, the media experience we will have if a pandemic does occur. The effect of this virtual pandemic is at least twofold: to prepare us affectively for a pandemic if it were to happen, so that the public could deal more effectively with the shock of the disaster; and to provide us with the affective, medialogical experience of a pandemic whether or not it ever materializes.That’s all very true, but I think there is another aspect to it: namely, that the virtual isn’t yet real, and the more the media insists on staking a virtual claim on how the future will unfold - often borrowing explicitly from the modes of cinematic narrative - the more these representations will strike us as fictional. You carry on in this fashion for long enough, and soon every human event on a global scale, no matter how legitimate a story, becomes an object of systemic scepticism bordering on the paranoiac.
I’m not an expert on conspiracy theories (unlike, say, Mr Dentith), but it seems to me that one could trace their confounding relationship with electronic mediation back to the uncanny film of JFK's assassination, so revealing and yet so inconclusive, a seemingly direct apprehension of the real yet without the means to get to the truth; and later most especially with the Moon landing, the very unlikelihood of that live link with outer space, and an astronaut turned chronicler of his own deeds. It all defied belief, as if scripted. And scripted it was: a camera was waiting, already deployed on the ground, to film Armstrong as he stepped off the ladder. The American flag was rigged up so that it would appear to wave, as it would have on our planet.
By the time we got to 9/11 this level of ultra-sophisticated, self-reflexive mediation was already built into the event, and Manhattan became quite literally a soundstage for murderers. Radical doubters were quick to seize the opportunity and in time came up with a whole new word to describe themselves: truthers. The Internet is their breeding ground, and fittingly so, since after all a healthy and sometimes unhealthy distrust of the mainstream is what keeps so many of us going here in cyberspace, is what motivates us to look for alternative voices and find and measure our own.
In the meantime, the real gets lost in the time shuffle and the news makes truthers of us all. It is all already a nefarious machination, from the exhilarating moment when the graphic announces that there is breaking news. By familiar paradox, it's the multiplication and constant enhancement of how our means to describe the real that makes mediated events appear simulated. Take the swine flu virus. Within days, it had been photographed
Represented as 3D graphical art
Turned into street performance
And had its amino acids sequence translated into a piece of ambient music.
The slow pace and sparse language of analysis, sober reflection and bearing of witness cannot compete with that level of time compression, the sense of being instantly there, in the event, critically involved, able to pass judgment and even decry the media spectacle itself or the advice of the WHO. When the pandemic shall come, as many virologists believe it will, we might refuse to recognise it, and die sceptical, stoic, invincible, like the towering aliens of HG Wells, cursing a common, unseasonable cold.
The last word this week goes to another witness. You had to dig pretty deep in the days after the outbreak to get the news from the epicentre, hear the voices of the Mexicans themselves. One such voice, recorded by Massimo Calandri for La Repubblica, belongs to writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II, and urges us to reflect on the slow, quotidian apocalypse of a society in decay, a disease immune to the news cycles, but no less virulent or deadly:
Take note, my friend. In Mexico City beat in unison the hearts of the first and of the third world. The cruel paradox is that in this city there are more university students than in New York, more clochards than in Paris, more poor than in New Delhi, more murder victims than in the England of Jack the Ripper, a police force more corrupt than Thailand's. […]
I live in a bubble, holed up in a burrow, and I wait. […] I spend my time at home, I read, I take some notes. And I reflect on the misinformation, on the efforts of those who tell you that this is a plague-stricken city. We obsess about the disease, and forget the permanent political crisis of this country, the shameful inefficiency of the federal government, the frightful economic crisis that eats us alive, the arrogance of the criminal organisations and the politicians, the daily massacres perpetrated by the drug traffickers. […] [Instead] they tell us - and tell you - another story, that of a metropolis and a country in the grip of the plague.