Sunday, March 29, 2020

Plague Duty

In Kinglake's Eothen, Chapter X, one finds
My old friends of the Franciscan convent at Jerusalem some time since gave proof of their goodness by delivering themselves up to the peril of death for the sake of duty. When I was their guest they were forty I believe in number, and I don’t recollect that there was one of them whom I should have looked upon as a desirable life-holder of any property to which I might been entitled in expectancy. Yet these forty were reduced in a few days to nineteen. The plague was the messenger that summoned them to a taste of real death; but the circumstances under which they perished are rather curious; and though I have no authority for the story except an Italian newspaper, I harbour no doubt of its truth, for the facts were detailed with minuteness, and strictly corresponded with all that I knew of the poor fellows to whom they related.

It was about three months after the time of my leaving Jerusalem that the plague set his spotted foot on the Holy City. The monks felt great alarm; they did not shrink from their duty, but for its performance they chose a plan most sadly well fitted for bringing down upon them the very death which they were striving to ward off. They imagined themselves almost safe so long as they remained within their walls; but then it was quite needful that the Catholic Christians of the place, who had always looked to the convent for the supply of their spiritual wants, should receive the aids of religion in the hour of death. A single monk therefore was chosen, either by lot or by some other fair appeal to destiny. Being thus singled out, he was to go forth into the plague-stricken city, and to perform with exactness his priestly duties; then he was to return, not to the interior of the convent, for fear of infecting his brethren, but to a detached building (which I remember) belonging to the establishment, but at some little distance from the inhabited rooms. He was provided with a bell, and at a certain hour in the morning he was ordered to ring it, if he could; but if no sound was heard at the appointed time, then knew his brethren that he was either delirious or dead, and another martyr was sent forth to take his place. In this way twenty-one of the monks were carried off. One cannot well fail to admire the steadiness with which the dismal scheme was carried through; but if there be any truth in the notion that disease may be invited by a frightening imagination, it is difficult to conceive a more dangerous plan than that which was chosen by these poor fellows. The anxiety with which they must have expected each day the sound of the bell, the silence that reigned instead of it, and then the drawing of the lots (the odds against death being one point lower than yesterday), and the going forth of the newly doomed man—all this must have widened the gulf that opens to the shades below. When his victim had already suffered so much of mental torture, it was but easy work for big bullying pestilence to follow a forlorn monk from the beds of the dying, and wrench away his life from him as he lay all alone in an outhouse.
The notion that fear of the plague contributed to one's prospects of contracting it was a hobby-horse of Kinglake's. Perhaps his confidence helped him through a fever that he contracted in Cairo when the plague was killing hundreds there every day. The final chapter of Eothen tells how Kinglake and a Russian diplomat bluffed their way through a quarantine at Antalya. He began the travels recounted in 1834.

Saturday, March 28, 2020


In The Italians, Luigi Barzini writes of Mussolini that
In one of the first months of his government, in 1923, an old ambassador returned from Geneva where he had represented Italy at a meeting on the control of poison gases. As the venerable gentleman entered the younger man's room, Mussolini did not look up from his desk and went on writing. Finally, after long minutes, he lifted his eyes from the paper and, jutting his chin forward, asked disdainfully: 'What are the most dangerous gases, ambassador?' The ambassador gravely answered: 'Incense is the most lethal of all, your excellency.'
A friend to whom I showed the passage at first did not understand it, and then at the mention of incense in churches, was slightly shocked. He was highly educated, he had I think largely fallen away from the Protestantism he grew up in, yet the notion of incense in a Christian church troubled him.

This occurred to me the other day, when happening to pick up Morte d'Urban by J.F. Powers, I noticed in Chapter 4, "Gray Days",
What troubled them was the hocuspocus that went on in Catholic churches. And Harvey Roche, as a boy, didn't blame them. Wasn't it all very strange there, in that place, at that time, the fancy vestments, the Latin, the wine? What if Catholics were Protestants, and Protestants were Catholics, and they worshiped in such a manner? What would Catholics think? Could you see Dr. Bradshaw, of Grace Church, burning incense and throwing holy water around? ... You could not.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Plague Stories

Books, Inq. notices a mention in the Texas Monthly of Katherine Anne Porter's novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a fictional treatment of her bout of the Spanish influenza of 1918. It is an excellent novella, one that I have read more than once. Yet my complaint against considering it as a novel of the pandemic is that it shows the delirium of the patient and the bereavement of one who has lost a loved one; but the caregivers, those who administered medicine, changed the bedclothes, and generally tended to hygiene, is absent. I say the same of the few pages given to the same epidemic in Ivan Doig's Dancing at the Rascal Fair.

This may simply be a matter of what makes for better reading or more interesting writing. The eponymous protagonist of Roderick Random gives a more memorable account of his own sufferings from yellow fever than of his tending to the sick as surgeon's mate before he fell ill. (To be sure, this is quite in character: somewhat later, Random complains of the hard duty of serving as physician on a slave ship on a voyage from West Africa to Argentina.) In War and Peace, one reads gathers that Natasha Rostov was an assiduous nurse. One reads rather more--not that I would omit a line--of Prince Andrei's thoughts, delirious and otherwise, while under treatment.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Social Distance

A book that Hugh Kenner reviewed in 1987 quoted Marshall McLuhan to the effect that North Americans "may well be the only people who go outside to be alone and inside to be social." It did not occur to me when I first read the review that McLuhan was a Canadian, and that for some months of the year Ontario weather does not lend itself to outdoor socializing, rinks apart. Still, on the whole, the generalization seems to hold from what I see. I do enjoy solitary walks and runs.

Most weekends we run in Rock Creek Park. The stretch between Broad Branch and Ross Roads, which is then closed to motor vehicles, usually has plenty of people in it. Last weekend and this it seemed to have fifty percent more than usual. I take it that the extra fifty percent were all the families that would have been at children's sport, movies, or restaurants. In any case, it would have taken some work to plot a course over that mile and a half that did not bring one within six feet of another person. Actually, one might have had to run in the creek.

I ran downstream towards Klingle Road and so skipped the crowded stretch of Beach Drive. Certainly I passed walkers, runners, and cyclists closer than is recommended. But I did what I could to keep my distance, running in the street, sometimes in the bike lane once I was out of the park. On the return leg of my run, I found the sidewalks along 16th St. less crowded than Beach Drive.

(The book Kenner reviewed was Talking Tombstones and Other Tales of the Media Age by Gary Gumpert. As "The Media Culture's Counterfeit  World", it is collected in Mazes: Essays by Hugh Kenner.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2020


In several of his novels, Walker Percy mentions the unhealthy appeal of disasters, as lifting one out of the everyday. In a couple at least of the novels--The Last Gentleman, Lancelot--the disasters are hurricanes. Percy spent most of his life in Louisiana, where hurricanes  regularly arrive. I grew up in Ohio and Colorado, where they never do. In the Midwest and Mountain West, blizzards break into the everyday, but are allowed for--generally they slow, but do not much disrupt one's routines.

In the Potomac valley, where I have lived many years, snows do disrupt one's routines. Schools and offices close. On first arriving, I found this amusing, then enchanting--a week to do nothing, because of snow that would hardly be noticed three hours drive north! Eventually, I noticed that the charms of a city-wide shutdown were more than balanced by the inconveniences that followed, as the snow sat or slowly melted.

The pandemic has disrupted life in this region. Schools, restaurants, churches, and many offices are closed. I have been working from home for three days now, and will be somewhat surprised if I'm back in the office on March 30. At 25 or 30, I might have found this novel and amusing. Now, I'd just as soon be back in the office with people about, even though working at home has been reasonably productive.

Friday, March 13, 2020


The morning paper had a list of closings:
  • All public schools in Maryland, for two weeks.
  • All Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington will follow the Maryland schedule.
  • Effective Saturday, weddings and funerals to be the only Masses celebrated in the archdiocese, and those attended only by immediate family, until further notice.
The District of Columbia announced that it was closing its public schools for two weeks, effective Monday.

At the office, I heard that our reseller is sold out of HP laptops. The reseller thought it possible that we could get Lenovo laptops; but I didn't hear whether we could, or will.

After work, I walked up to Kramerbooks at Dupont Circle. In less than a mile, I passed two persons carrying large monitors. I infer that they are taking them home to use with laptops. In the years  since flat-screen (i.e easily portable) monitors became readily available, I don't think I've ever seen anyone carry them on the streets.

Thursday, March 5, 2020


When I was not watching, the word "narrative" became popular. I first noticed this when an admissions officer at a college in the Midwest suggested that there needed to be a narrative around why college tuition costs so much. I could have thought of stories to explain this, but he seemed to have in mind an explanation without a story. Since then I have often noticed what are said to be narratives and seem to me explanations, commonly enough not good ones.

Some of them put me in mind not of the Latin "narro", to tell or relate, but the German "narrisch", foolish. I therefore propose a new word, which would cover many of the narratives one hears of:
narrischtive, n.: a tale told by the befuddled, full of context and self-consciousness, signifying nothing.