Fitzgerald Park, Cork, approx. 1:30pm March 18, 2020
In Defoe’s version of this story, the priests abandon their pulpits and congregations, fleeing to the isolation of country homes. In Shelley’s version, American refugees invade Ireland, and then Scotland, murdering and looting their way south to the gates of London, before the son of the last king of England reminds them of their humanity. In Poe’s version, the party ends because even high walls, loud music, and a prince’s hubris cannot lock out the unwanted guest. In Byron’s version, humanity circles her burning cities beneath a sunless sky, frozen, starved, hateful. For Camus, the last hope is meaningless, the coded messages from the other side of the ocean are nothing but the wind.
For the Greeks, it was a goddess who brought the famine, a mother’s wrath when a daughter was taken. For the Egyptians it was ten times the destruction visited by a wrathful deity that they did not worship, an anomaly in mythology. Usually plagues are wrought by one’s own gods rather than the gods of someone else, the pantheons do not often intersect.
In the past six months I have spent innumerable hours thinking about these things. The ancient destruction myths, the modern classics, and the eighteenth and nineteenth century pillars on which each of today’s apocalypse films and video games and comics and TV shows and novels is built.
Last summer, when I wrote a proposal to teach an entire second year seminar on apocalypse fiction from centuries past, the Wuhan flu a phrase in a Dean Koontz thriller from 30 years ago. Six months ago, when I began researching in earnest for my first lecture in January, if there was word of Covid-19, they weren’t reporting it outside of China. When I returned to Ireland from Christmas break, fresh and ready to utterly disgust my students with graphic descriptions of plague buboes, mass graves, and miasmatic transmission, reports of the coronavirus’ toll in China had only been on American radar for a few weeks, if that.
For three months my students and I watched it spread. We talked about the power of misinformation, the spread of panic, the rapid construction or acquisition of modern day ‘plague houses’, desperation and what it can lead to.
We talked about the way some things never change.
And, as of last Thursday, our classes were suspended. My university, like every school in Ireland, closed its doors at 6pm Thursday the 12th and will not open again until the end of the month. Classes will not resume, and seminars as small as mine will not be continued electronically.
Pubs closed over the weekend, and likewise will remain closed in the coming weeks. Theaters will remain dark. The demolition site across from my house has been abandoned for the time being. The major tech companies in the area are sending employees home to work. A budget airline in this country is considering grounding its fleet.
Walking around Cork yesterday, almost all independent stores, restaurants, and coffee shops are closed. Many of those businesses still open have hand sanitizer stations at their entrances.
Living through a minor apocalypse is a strange thing.
Opera Lane, Cork, approx 1pm March 18, 2020
These past few nights I have dreamt that all water was connected. Last night I walked into the River Lee and emerged shivering from the pond in my parents’ front pasture. The night before that, it was the ocean and the creek I slosh across when we walk our dogs on the hunting tract behind their home.
They are safer and I am safer if these dreams stay dreams.
If I stay as I am, on the other side of the world, walking my empty city, maintaining my careful six feet between the wandering souls here, and baking more sweets than should reasonably be eaten by one person, then we will all be safer.
In literature, disaster divides humanity. It turns us away from each other and that is our downfall.
In history, disaster unites us. We rebuild cities, mend levees, donate blood and energy. We dig through rubble, put out fires, save so, so much. We save so many.
In this time of crisis, our best act of unity is separation. Not division, but distance. Our greatest act of love will be to sacrifice personal desires for companionship while we wait out this storm.