On Politics and Plagues. What can literature do for us?

Like many others during this time, I have turned to literature to try and gain deeper insights into the times we are living through and, in particular, the COVID-19 pandemic. I know I am not alone in reading Albert Camus’, The Plague. Early in the lockdown Stephen Downes linked to a post about it in his newsletter, OLDaily, which contained this video

The Plague was also the first fiction choice for the online platform Quillette’s Quarantine Book Club, where it generated a lot of interesting discussion.

Two other books that have informed my thinking at this time are Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (which I have slowly and carefully re-read, whilst making extensive notes), and William Ophuls’ Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail.

The question of what can literature (in the broader context of the humanities) do for us at times like this, was discussed by Professor Sarah Churchwell, Dr Kate Kirkpatrick and Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge in an excellent online conversation ‘On Politics and Plagues’ at the end of last month. This was organised by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, as a precursor to the Being Human Festival, due to take place on November 12-22nd November.

Lindsey Stonebridge is currently writing a book about the relevance of Hannah Arendt for today. Arendt is known for her book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil’. What did she mean by the banality of evil and how does it relate to the idea of infection? Lindsey Stonebridge told us that Arendt did not refer to the banality of evil as a plague, but as a fungus. By banality she did not mean ordinary. She talked of banality as meaning thoughtless (not thinking) and what happens when we are in a bureaucratic, over-socialised system which allows thoughtlessness to happen. The banality of evil is fearsome and thought-defying. In this sense, evil is not demonic, but banal. The problem of modern evil is that it’s not radical, not deep, not profound; it’s like fungus. Fungus is really contagious; it grows rampant all over a surface. In this sense thoughtless, policy-driven bureaucratic evil is like fungus. It is not a plague; it is a moral rot, which grows and rots at the same time, like a fungus.

Kate Kirkpatrick has recently published a well-received biography of Simone de Beauvoir, who was an associate of Camus. She suggested that Camus and Arendt thought in similar terms about moral contagion and the trivial wrongs that result in really morally significant actions. In Camus’ novel, the plague has agency and humans are passively reactive. Simone de Beauvoir thought that in Camus’ writing, the plague gave people an alibi for not being politically engaged and for not being morally responsible; it enabled evasion of individual accountability. de Beauvoir thought that although humans cannot make evil disappear, they can mitigate it. Arendt, in her reference to the banality of evil, wanted to cut it down to size (no matter what the scale, as in the holocaust), to make it recognisable.

Lynsey Stonebridge thought that Arendt and de Beauvoir would have agreed that there is no master plan. When you have a plague (e.g. political evil as a contagion and when politics is out of control) you feel helpless and people rush for the demonic (the big man), but to deal with the morality we need to analyse it. She believes that generally people are trying but failing to do this, because they are not thinking; we can’t think in the policy and administrative systems spaces we have set up, she says. Camus wrote that the plague never dies, you can’t defeat it. Kate Kirkpatrick thought that this might encourage apathy, or it might spur people to different political thought, but what do we do about the habits of thoughtlessness that have led to increased inequalities and oppression? A response to the banality of evil, according to Lynsey Stonebridge is thought, language and writing.

At this point the conversation moved on to a discussion about the relationship between fascism and patriarchy. Kate Kirkpatrick pointed out that this discussion depends on which fascism you are talking about, and that situations and freedoms are different and context dependent. For further information about this discussion see the video of the recording which I have linked to below.

Finally Sarah Churchwell (who hosted this conversation) asked Lindsey to discuss the political and moral question of the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to her recently published article in the New Stateman, What Hannah Arendt can teach us about Work in the Time of Covid-19. In this she argues that the metaphors we choose matter; they do political work. She writes:

The government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy, published on 11 May, states that people will be “eased back into work” as into a dentist chair: carefully, and with face masks.

The reason they need to be coaxed is, of course, the economy. At one point in the document, it reads as though it is the economy, not people, that has been sick: “The longer the virus affects the economy, the greater the risks of longterm scarring.” The economy needs ventilating, and people are its oxygen.

Lindsey Stonebridge’s argument is that the metaphors being used explicitly prevent us from being agents of the economy; we are not working for the economy, we are labouring for the economy, but according to Arendt action requires both labour and work, and it’s action that makes us human. Labouring is simply what we do to survive. Work, on the other hand, gives collective meaning to what we do. We labour by necessity; we work to create a human reality.

This is why debates and policies about how we get back to work matter so much: we are also talking about what kind of human society we are – or want to be.

If taking the human value of work more seriously is key to a better politics, we should also grasp this opportunity to think about what counts as valuable work.

This fascinating conversation ended by returning to the question, What can literature do for us?

As this conversation shows, it gives us ways to think about the world. It also gives us the opportunity to participate in human memory and consider what it means to be human, by listening to a plurality of voices, and aesthetically, it gives us pleasure.

For a recording of this event, where you can get the full details and not just the bits that interested me, here is the video.

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