Don’t Panic: ‘Plagues and Peoples’ Offers Hope

We all know the old proverb about the only two sure things in life being death and taxes. But we could add a third certainty: plagues and pandemics, though obviously that would fit in the ‘death’ category. Rather than being something to fear, however, if we take the broad overview of history we come away not dismayed but reassured. This becomes apparent when you read the late William H. McNeill’s superb history Plagues and Peoples. Originally published in 1976, an updated version was published in 1998 partly in response to the AIDS crisis. A Canadian by birth, McNeill taught at the University of Chicago starting in 1947 and lived to be 98.[1] For once, the book jacket copy lives up to the hype when it says: “To most of those who read it, the history of the world will never seem quite the same again.” Anyone who believes the overblown media hype about the dangers of so-called “novel coronavirus” should read this book.

Why should we be reassured? Because, contrary to the continual fear-mongering of the media regarding Covid-19, it’s thanks to the human body’s amazing immune system that humans exist at all on this planet, as McNeill’s book explains. His thesis was that life on Earth exists in a symbiosis between “macro-parasites” (humans) and “micro-parasites” (disease). I’m reminded of the image of Shiva, the goddess who wears a belt of human skulls but is always pictured dancing. The principle of homeostasis within the human body will always seek a return to balance. McNeill’s brilliant thesis re-examines history through the lens of plagues and pandemics, and how these shape everything from internal social dynamics to imperialistic ventures that ultimately shape the rest of the world. Just as micro-parasites—naturally occurring disease pathogens—can invade a body and make ‘war’ on one’s health, humans act as “macro-parasites” by invasion of other countries, insurrections and revolutions, or simply by installing a parasitic elite that lives off the productive work of others. Although today’s ‘One Percent’ comes to mind, this class has been with us from the dawn of civilization, determined to exploit the labour of others to build their estates and empires.

William H. McNeill, distinguished Canadian-born historian who taught at the University of Chicago and authored many books on history. University of Chicago photo.

This makes a neat parallel with Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, in which he posits a thesis of internal vs. external pressures on civilizations, and explains the nuances of how these pressures work out in practice—not as predictable as you might think. For instance, external pressures such as migrating to northern latitudes where climates are harsher than the Mediterranean latitudes can often spur a people into highly creative adaptive responses that advance their civilization far beyond their more outwardly comfortable neighbours. Here’s a good representative passage from Plagues and Peoples that brings the impact of human ‘macro-parasites’ into sharper focus:

“Very early in human history, successful raiders became conquerors, i.e., learned how to rob agriculturalists in such a way as to take from them some but not all of the harvest. By trial and error a balance could and did arise, whereby cultivators could survive such predation by producing more grain and other crops than were needed for their own maintenance. Such surpluses may be viewed as the antibodies appropriate to human macro-parasitism. …Disease immunity arises by stimulating the formation of antibodies and raising other physiological defenses to a heightened level of activity; governments improve immunity to foreign macro-parasitism by stimulating surplus production of food and raw materials sufficient to support specialists in violence in suitably large numbers and with appropriate weaponry.”[2]

Humanity’s earliest records of plagues date to 2000 BC, though there were likely others that emerged soon after we began congregating in cities in large numbers:

Plagues & Peoples is an indispensable read for a broader perspective on humanity’s resilience in the face of pandemics.

“…civilized infectious diseases were only a little behind the diseases incident to irrigation agriculture in achieving a balance with their host populations in the ancient Middle East. As the locus of the oldest civilizations of the earth and one of the largest concentrations of human population in the world as of 500 BC, the Middle East offered adequate time and opportunity for micro-parasitic as well as macro-parasitic balances to approach stability within conditions defined by village and city life. More particularly: since the earliest surviving literary references to epidemic disease date back to about 2000 BC, there had been sufficient time by 500 BC for some reasonably stable patterns of infectious diseases to establish themselves in the anciently civilized, much fought over, and densely populated regions of the Middle East.”[3]

Isolated populations such as Japan paid the price for their isolation by falling behind more exposed populations in developing immunity, as McNeill writes: “Japan’s geographical isolation obviously tended to insulate the archipelago from disease contacts with the world beyond. This was, however, a mixed blessing, for insulation allowed relatively dense populations to develop which were then vulnerable to unusually severe epidemic seizure when some new infection did succeed in leaping across the water barrier and penetrating the Japanese islands.”[4]

McNeill charts the evolution of disease pathogens from epidemic to endemic as the human immune system learns to adapt to even the most deadly pathogens. As I wrote in the poem sequence Diary of a Pandemic Year of the bubonic plague that struck London in 1665, “Two-thirds of London somehow survives. No one bothers to ask why.” Recently archaeologists and scientists have been able to determine that even for this high mortality disease that killed a third to half of Europe during the Black Death plague of the 14th century, those that survived did so because they developed resistant antibodies. Very much like Covid-19, which targets primarily the elderly and those with pre-existing co-morbidities—in Canada over 80% of Covid deaths have been in nursing homes—scientists now believe that London’s bubonic plague “acted as a force of selection by targeting frail people,” says Sharon DeWitte, a biological anthropologist at the University of South Carolina. Research published in 2014 “suggested that the plague did write itself into human genomes: the descendants of plague-affected populations share certain changes in some immune genes.”[5]

Eventually epidemic scale pathogens are lowered in threat intensity to the status of a childhood disease, at least, for populations with a sufficient history of exposure. According to McNeill, even the dreaded smallpox was eventually downgraded from a high mortality pathogen to barely more than a childhood illness like measles. Again, like Japan, after colonists introduced smallpox, aboriginal peoples in North America suffered devastating mortality rates due to their isolation up to that time. This was what expert virologists and epidemiologists such as Dr. Knut Wittkowski and scientists at Stanford University have been saying since the beginning of the Covid outbreak—lockdowns only ensure people are not exposed to the virus, thus guaranteeing second and third ‘waves.’[6]

Arguably, humans—like any other animal on Earth—must have their populations controlled by periodic pandemics in order to ensure survival of the species as a whole. Unlike other animals, our science has enabled us to sidestep that fate through improved sanitation, diet, adaptation and to a lesser extent vaccines. In an undisturbed ecosystem, homeostasis is maintained by an occasional thinning out of the population through disease or starvation. As McNeill notes, today’s growth of human population is unprecedented in world history:

“In the context of the entire human venture upon earth… persistent population expansion is exceptional. On a global time scale, in fact, population growth appears as a transient concomitant of some ecological upset permitting larger numbers of human beings to survive and multiply for a few generations until natural limits again assert themselves… …cultural adaptation and invention diminished the need for biological adjustment to diverse environments, thereby introducing a fundamentally disruptive, persistently changeable factor into ecological balances throughout the land masses of the entire earth.”[7]

And as McNeill explains, history is littered with failed micro-parasites, since not all disease pathogens are equally adaptable: “A disease organism that kills its host quickly creates a crisis for itself, since a new host must somehow be found often enough, and soon enough, to keep its own chain of generations going. Conversely, a human body that resists infection so completely that the would-be parasite cannot find any lodgement, obviously creates another kind of crisis of survival for the infectious organism. In fact, many disease partnerships have probably failed to last into our time because of one or the other of these extremes…”[8]

William H. McNeill in later years. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Already by the 1970s when McNeill wrote Plagues and Peoples it was becoming apparent that our modification of the natural environment was having an impact on this symbiosis. Although it was too early yet for him to be aware of today’s ‘gain of function’ research that seeks to deliberately weaponize viruses, he was aware that “organic evolution is operating in high gear nowadays, largely because of human intervention in natural ecosystems. Perhaps one can say that biological evolution has, in effect, been overtaken and accelerated beyond all precedent by human intervention…”[9] It remains an open question whether Covid-19 originated in a lab or naturally, but clearly such research has been ongoing both in China and elsewhere.[10] Some have said the virus may actually have originated in an American biolab before being spread to Wuhan by an exchange of US military personnel in late 2019.[11]

Recent research into the ‘micro-biome,’ the billions of viruses and bacteria that inhabit the human gut has cast new light on these entities not as threats to life but quite the reverse.[12] “Not only are all bacteria not detrimental to our health, but some are actually crucial for boosting immunity, keeping our digestive systems running smoothly, our hormone levels balanced and our brains working properly.”[13] The hope therefore lies not in wiping out the virus, or some unproven vaccine or gene therapy rushed to market, but in what McNeill calls “disease homogenization.” This is the process that happens every flu season as peoples’ immune systems develop resistance to current strains, forcing it to mutate in order to survive for the next flu season. “The pattern of the flu virus, evolving a new variant almost every year, is archetypical… while an unending flow of new medicines (and pesticides) also present infectious organisms with rigorous, changing challenges to their survival.”[14] Other disease pathogens may take much longer to adapt to; according to McNeill, “historical experience of later ages suggests that something like 120 to 150 years are needed for human populations to stabilize their response to drastic new infections.”[15] But it’s flu, not bubonic plague we’re talking about today. Humanity has survived for hundreds of thousands of years quite nicely without vaccines. 

For the history fanatics out there McNeill’s book offers a fascinating thesis as to how entire cultures are molded by plagues, often drastically altering their trajectory. In fact, it’s probably this and not race that is responsible for the ascendancy of some nations over others, among other factors. Europe took nearly two centuries to fully recover culturally from the Black Death. Other cultures may not have been so lucky, especially if they started at a disadvantage resulting from successive crop failures, less than optimal growing conditions, or already reduced numbers at the onset of plague. It’s this idea that makes the history of the world “never seem quite the same again.” And in the Covid era that’s a good thing—a reason for hope.

[1] For more about McNeill, see University of Chicago obituary, ‘William H. McNeill, world historian and distinguished scholar, 1917-2016,’ https://news.uchicago.edu/story/william-h-mcneill-world-historian-and-distinguished-scholar-1917-2016

[2] William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, Anchor Books/Random House, New York 1976, 1998 ed., p. 72.

[3] William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, ibid., p. 98.

[4] William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, ibid., p. 152.

[5] Stephanie Pappas, ‘Black Death Survivors and Their Descendants Went On to Live Longer,’ Scientific American, May 8, 2014: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/black-death-survivors-and-their-descendants-went-on-to-live-longer/

[6] ‘Dr. David Katz Makes the Case for Herd Immunity Against Covid-19 Rather Than Continuous Lockdown,’ Fox News, April 19, 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yID0vMEANXg

[7] William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, ibid., pp. 44, 119.

[8] William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, ibid., p. 28.

[9] William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, ibid., pp. 15, 16.

[10] ‘Neither ‘lab’ nor ‘wet market’? Covid-19 outbreak started months EARLIER and NOT in Wuhan, ongoing Cambridge study indicates,’ RT News, April 18, 2020: https://www.rt.com/news/486194-study-coronavirus-southern-china/

[11] Prof. Michel Chossudovsky, ‘Coronavirus COVID-19: Made in China or Made in America?’, Global Research, March 14, 2020: https://www.globalresearch.ca/coronavirus-covid-19-made-in-china-or-made-in-america/5706272

[12] ‘Scientists identify more than 140,000 virus species in the human gut,’ Science News, February 18, 2021: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/02/210218142739.htm

[13] Jillian Levy, ‘The Human Microbiome: How It Works + a Diet for Gut Health,’ January 7, 2016: https://draxe.com/health/microbiome/

[14] William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, ibid., p. 15.

[15] William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, ibid., p. 76.

Posted in book reviews, Coronavirus, COVID-19 lockdowns, History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Day After Covid

They had for their king the angel of the abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek Apollyon, or the Destroyer… He seized the dragon, that serpent of old, the Devil or Satan, and chained him up for a thousand years; he threw him into the abyss, shutting and sealing it over him, so that he might seduce the nations no more till the thousand years were over. —Revelations 9:11, 20:1–3

If thou indeed derive thy light from Heaven

Then, to the measure of that heaven-born light

Shine, Poet! in thy place, and be content…

—William Wordsworth

 

The day after Covid, surgical masks

lay dead in the gutters, so many leaves

riffled into history by the collective sigh

of billions—breathe, O breathe free

 

at last! The lie laid bare, the masks of power

cracked, blue-backlit screens split open.

Shaggy-horned demons scurry, still

sucking the world dry—O hunger, circling

 

the drain, fill, fill these beasts that they prey

upon us no more. Strap them into the SpaceX

express and fire them into the eye

of the sun. Failing that, build them cages

 

made of gold, that their bloody forked tongues

lick clean daily from top to bottom,

their cells far, far away from the living

and sealed like a nuclear bunker

 

with the warning: There be monsters here.

Trespass at your own risk. The Angel

of the Abyss, shining lancet of Revelations,

will stand guard, stanching infection

 

at its wormy roots in the heart, where dreams

dark and deadly take hold. Fear not, O you

who tend the sapling and mend a broken wing,

for this guardian is an Angel of Dance,

 

who skips off the sun’s corona as it crests

the arc of Earth, spirit-sails the spiral arms

whose galactic milk stains the summer skies,

jigs the ocean for its shattered jewels

 

and sheds us all of our Earthly chains.

 

©2020 Sean Arthur Joyce

Posted in COVID-19 lockdowns, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Soul Medicine of Poetry

Given the incredible pressure lockdown is putting on people, it’s no wonder many of them are turning to poetry for a sense of meaning in their cramped, constrained lives. Hopefully this renewed interest in what had become all but a dead art to the masses will be spurred on by the reading of Amanda Gorman’s poem at President Biden’s inauguration ceremony. As an article in Britain’s Independent explained: “There is a reason why reactive poetry—and occasion poems, in particular—are striking such a chord right now. Poems are a monument to our emotional history. In times of crisis, hope is in short supply; while feelings run high and low at an increasingly unmanageable rate.”[1]

San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti has written movingly about the vital role of poetry in our lives.

Already in Canada a poetry hotline has been set up in Vancouver, the Poetry Phone, available 24 hours a day.[2] It’s not a new idea—something similar was done in New York City during the 1980s with poets such as Laurie Anderson, William S. Burroughs, John Giorno, and others. (A selection was published on record but is incredibly rare.) But it speaks to a deep-seated need in people for language that goes beyond the partisan and divisive, the mundane and ordinary. Some years ago, during yet another American political crisis, Susannah Herbert, director of National Poetry Day, said: “At these moments of national crisis, the words that spread and the words that were heard were not the words of politicians, they were the words of poets. Almost everything a politician says is incredibly forgettable. There is a hunger out there for more nuanced and memorable forms of language.” In my favourite go-to volume of poetic aphorisms, Poetry as Insurgent Art, Lawrence Ferlinghetti puts it plainly: “Poetry the common carrier / for the transportation of the public / to higher places / than other wheels can carry it.”[3]

Gorman has achieved a rare feat in going on to be a featured artist at the Super Bowl, with an audience of up to 102 million people. As most poets can attest, usually you’re lucky if you can fill a room with 50 people for a poetry reading. The last time something similar happened was when Canadian poet Shane Koyczan read his poems at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, though probably not to quite as large an audience as the Super Bowl enjoys. It’s arguable whether such hot-button moments in history tend to last where interest in poetry is concerned. Still, it certainly does no harm to a young poet’s career; henceforth they need never fear a lack of audience for their work.

Amanda Gorman recites her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. (DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)

Though when you compare Gorman’s age (22) with the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration, Robert Frost, who was 87 at the time, one suspects the choice of such a young poet is itself a political statement. British columnist Mary Harrington, in her article on Gorman’s presidential reading, raises important questions about the ‘state of the art.’ Harrington’s title covers a lot of ground: “Slam poetry’ is all rhyme no reason.” She is concerned that “the digital-era update of ‘slam poetry’ seeks to purge language of any reference to literary tradition… as problematic repositories of whiteness.”[4] I also see this as the misguided ethos of “burn everything from the past,” as if somehow this culture knows better than all the thousands of generations that came before. Surely the accumulation of knowledge over millennia is what has given the human species its distinctive edge—destructive as that often is—over all other creatures on this planet. For John F. Kennedy’s inauguration an elder poet was chosen, a master of his craft. Choosing a poet at the very beginning of her career, so early in her development as an adult, seems odd. What do any of us know yet of life in our 20s, much less the craft of poetry? A dear friend of mine was fond of saying, “A poet at 21 is 21. A poet at 40 is a poet.”And still learning—at 50, 60, 70, 80…

Gorman’s naïveté reveals itself in her lines: “But one thing is certain: / If we merge mercy with might, / and might with right, / then love becomes our legacy…” Charitably speaking, such an idea is evidence of someone too young to know any better. A course in world history is in order. At her age I knew nothing about history either. Marrying might with ‘right’ has been the rallying cry of dictators throughout history. As the great historian Arnold Toynbee once explained: “An end does not justify a means. Means and ends must be ethically consistent. This principle is borne out by experience. It is psychologically impossible to do right at stage two by deliberately doing wrong at stage one. If one is wrong at the outset, it is impossible to reach a righteous goal.”[5]

Still, political implications aside, let’s hope the spotlight shone on Gorman spills over onto other poets, and Godspeed to her as well. In every statistical report released so far about the impacts of lockdown, the Covid crisis has caused record levels of depression, suicide, a huge surge in suicidal ideation among youths, and collateral deaths due to lack of access to medical care for other conditions. So we’re in need of some serious soul medicine, something to feed our starving spirits. As Georgetown University poet Carolyn Forché said recently, “It’s a time for strength, endurance, survival and care for others. In times of peril and danger, we turn, I believe, to poetry for wisdom, for secular prayer and for the language of acknowledgement of our condition.”[6]

As I’ve written before, poetry—both the reading and writing of it—has been a great comfort to me throughout my life. Poetry has helped me survive periods of depression and despair just as reading from a holy book does for others. I’ve always considered poetry the most spiritual of the arts. As the Indian mystic poet Osho wrote: “Poetry contains all: it is love, it contains prayer, it contains meditation, and much more. All that is divine, all that is beautiful, all that can take you to the transcendental, is contained in poetry.”[7]

It’s an important reminder in a culture that has seen the steady marginalization of the humanities in favour of STEM disciplines. Poetry not only articulates with precision of language that which we wish we could have said ourselves in as few words, it also raises our consciousness. By employing figurative language, whether through simile, metaphor, analogy, or mythic references, it develops our capacity for abstract reasoning and creative solutions. As Maya James, a Georgetown University student living in Columbia, Maryland, puts it: “With poetry, I feel like I’m activating different parts of my brain that I don’t really get to use every single day. So it just feels good for my well-being to read it and write it.”[8]

Poets tend to be empaths, so in addition to exercising parts of the brain most of us seldom get access to, it can help us develop compassion. First century BC Roman poet Juvenal summed it up: “Nature confesses that she has given to the human race the tenderest hearts, by giving us the power to weep. This is the best part of us.”[9] Poet Gary Snyder further develops the connection between poetry and compassion: “The mystery of language, the poetic imagination, and the mind of compassion are roughly one and the same, and through poetry perhaps they can keep guiding the world toward occasional moments of peace, gratitude, and delight.” At such a dark time in human history, such illuminated moments are precious.

NOTE: I’ll be posting my poem The Day After Covid next on this blog. Watch for it!

REFERENCES:

[1] “First the inauguration, then the Super Bowl—Amanda Gorman is leading a poetry revolution,” Nikita Gill, The Independent, February 8, 2021: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/amanda-gorman-super-bowl-inauguration-poetry-b1799297.html?utm_content=Echobox&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook#Echobox=1612817816

[2] “Downtown Vancouver now has a poetry hotline,” Brendan Kergin, Vancouver is Awesome, February 7, 2021: https://www.vancouverisawesome.com/vancouver-news/downtown-vancouver-now-has-a-poetry-hotline-3361454

[3] Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poetry as Insurgent Art, New Directions, New York, 1975 (2007 ed.), pp. 74, 75.

[4] Mary Harrington, “Slam poetry’ is all rhyme no reason,” UnHerd, February 17, 2021: https://unherd.com/2021/02/slam-poetry-has-no-rhyme-or-reason/

[5] The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue, Arnold Toynbee and Daisaku Ikeda, Kodansha International, Tokyo, New York & San Francisco, 1976, p. 211.

[6] “Poetry Power: Faculty and Students Turn to Art Form During Pandemic,” Georgetown University, April 28, 2020: https://www.georgetown.edu/news/poetry-power-faculty-and-students-turn-to-art-form-during-pandemic/

[7] Sean Arthur Joyce, “Bring Out Your Dead Part 2,” chameleonfire1 blog: https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2020/12/16/bring-out-your-dead-part-2/

[8] “Poetry Power: Faculty and Students Turn to Art Form During Pandemic,” Georgetown University, April 28, 2020.

[9] Quoted by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, HarperOne, 2000, p. 96.

Posted in Arts & Culture, COVID-19 lockdowns, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment