I am sure I am not the only person who is looking back into history to help me think about the current moment of social unrest. In fact, I know I’m not. For example, I am following an engaging series by my colleagues at The King’s College (NYC) as they discuss “How Epidemics Change History.” Google Search Trend data show a complete “hockey stick” graph for searches of “The Spanish Flu,” “Plague,” “Contagion,” and “Pandemic.” When you are in the rising moment of a pandemic, a hockey chart graph is kind of scary. Given how the story has played out, more startling is the search data for “The Great Depression,” which has a standard recession bump but shows a startling increase in March. My favourite data-nerd website, FiveThirtyEight, though traditionally focussed on sports, culture, and politics has turned to explaining COVID-19 data (e.g., see here). And there has been a glut of articles titled “What the Spanish Flu Can Teach Us About COVID-19?” (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here).
What is perhaps more revealing is that I know all of this news and chatter because I have been moderately obsessed with it myself–as if I can once again see the sun and share time with friends and go to the library by staring at trendlines in data charts. I have even resorted to making bad jokes and terrible puns to myself to believe I am staying sane, like “Let’s put the ‘ague’ back in ‘plague!'” and “A priest, a monk, and a journalist walk into a bar … oh wait, no they don’t.” Yes, exactly.
While the current contagion hasn’t done much to increase the quality of my sense of humour, it has helped me to read differently. In particular, the pandemic has helped me rethink C.S. Lewis’ novel of surprising depth and literary quality, Till We Have Faces, which I am teaching next week. It also gives me an opportunity to continue the TWHF series that had stuttered due to our most recent apocalypse.
Before the good stuff, though, a caution.
I have been silent about all these “What C.S. Lewis Said about COVID-19” articles and memes that have been popping up. While there are some relevant things in Lewis’ work about rooting ourselves beyond the cultural moment, the WWCSLS? (What Would C.S. Lewis Say?) movement has gone off the rails. Joe Martyn Ricke pushes back a little bit here, and William O’Flaherty has already written an entire book about Lewis misquotes (see here). However, fake Lewis quotes spread like the flu. One of the newest heretical branches includes an incredibly lame, socially irresponsible, and poorly written “Screwtape” dialogue between Satan and Jesus. Given that neither Satan nor Jesus are characters in The Screwtape Letters, and that the book isn’t a dialogue, I’m glad that our friends at Snopes launched an investigation into the nonsense:
While there’s all kinds of silliness afoot (some of which I tried to prevent here), it is true that the ways we live and grow and walk in the world affect the things we discover in the books we read. Because of the present plague, I have been peering into pages in a new way.
And, in doing so, I have seen for the first time how a plague structures the entire action of Till We Have Faces. And not just your everyday epidemic, but what may have been a local superinfection. Loosely speaking, a “superinfection” is when infections work together to create even more suffering. Typically, the second infection is often caused (or envigorated) by poverty, malnourishment, poor hygiene (personal and medical), and conditions that cause people to crowd into tight quarters, such as warfare, religious revival in times of trouble, and overwhelmed medical systems. The perfect storm of activities combines to create ideal conditions to ravage a population.
The 1918-1920 Spanish Flu–really caused by H1N1, our Swine Flu friend–was one of those influenzas where superinfection became a factor. A global pandemic, it ultimately killed more people than the terrible event that was WW1: the Spanish Flu killed between 17 million and 50 million people, and upwards of 1/4 of the globe was infected. While that statement is strictly true when it comes to the numbers–the lowest estimates of Spanish Flu deaths is greater than the soldier death count–it is probably truer to say that the Spanish Flu itself is a WW1 event. I remember walking through a Welsh graveyard and seeing all the Canadian soldiers buried there, so far from the trenches. These were men who survived the war but died of the Flu waiting for passage home. So close, and yet so far.
These Canadian boys were not alone. About half of American soldier deaths in WW1 were due to illness, no doubt accelerated by the Flu. And they brought the illness with them from camps and hospitals to communities back home and across the world. For some communities, it was “almost as if we’d lost the war”–to quote Mrs. Dimble from That Hideous Strength. While modern societies like the United States created physical distancing rules and quarantine rules (see Chris Gehrz’s great little piece here), the Spanish Flu was particularly potent. It a fictional account, but one that illustrates the point well (and from a book I am teaching this week), Marilynne Robinson‘s protagonist in Gilead, Rev. John Ames, talks about the pandemic from his perspective:
People don’t talk much now about the Spanish influenza, but that was a terrible thing, and it struck just at the time of the Great War, just when we were getting involved in it. It killed the soldiers by the thousands, healthy men in the prime of life, and then it spread into the rest of the population. It was like a war, it really was. One funeral after another, right here in Iowa. We lost so many of the young people. And we got off pretty lightly. People came to church wearing masks, if they came at all. They’d sit as far from each other as they could. There was talk that the Germans had caused it with some sort of secret weapon, and I think people wanted to believe that, because it saved them from reflecting on what other meaning it might have….
It was just like a biblical plague, just exactly. I thought of Sennacherib. It was a strange sickness–I saw it over at Fort Riley. Those boys were drowning in their own blood. They couldn’t even speak for the blood in their throats, in their mouths. So many of them died so fast there was no place to put them, and they just stacked the bodies in the yard….
You would never have imagined that almost empty sanctuary, just a few women there with heavy veils on to try to hide the masks they were wearing, and two or three men. I preached with a scarf around my mouth for more than a year. Everyone smelled like onions, because word went around that flu germs were killed by onions. People rubbed themselves down with tobacco leaves…. The magazines were full of soldiers wearing gas masks, looking stranger than we did. It was a remarkable time (47-49).
While the pandemic is important to Ames’ growth of vocation in Gilead, the epidemic in Glome absolutely central to the action of Till We Have Faces. The Pestilence of Glome had several critical effects:
- As the militia was ill, it made Glome extremely vulnerable to attack or revolution
- It ravaged the commons, causing a people’s revolt
- This popular movement gave religious leaders an opportunity to make a move with the will of the frightened people
- The head priest called for the sacrifice of Psyche
- While this sacrifice appeased the people and may have brought rain for the fields, it broke and embittered Orual
- And while the King was initially pitied and his hand strengthened by the sacrifice, he was ultimately weakened by the exhaustion of leadership during difficult times
- Because of the King’s capitulation to the priest, and Bardia’s neutrality as captain of the guard, Orual is able to seize the throne when he becomes ill
Never before did I see how Lewis used the plague as the structural event to trigger the critical moments in Orual’s story. While there are a series of key events that move the story along–like pillars in a temple–none is more critical than the pestilence. It has made me curious to know Lewis’ experience of the Spanish Flu, from his limited perspective as a soldier from France some months before the end of the war.
Within the text, some things are like the Spanish Flu and others are different. Unlike COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu, Lewis’ plague looks local as nations around Glome were strong enough to arm for a takeover. Our current novel coronavirus targets the old and immune-suppressed, while the Spanish Flu had the heartbreaking effect of killing young adults–soldiers and mothers and health workers. But it destroyed children as well as young adults, like the plague in the pagan Greeklands of Till We Have Faces, which “killed the young more easily than the old” (I.4). Like the post-WW1 Spanish Flu, the TWHF epidemic looks like a superinfection, where warfare, poverty, and famine increase the effectiveness of the sickness itself:
First, the famine, which still increases. Second, the pestilence. Third, the drought. Fourth, the certain expectation of war by next spring at the latest” (I.5).
I argued before that some of the initial famine may be worsened by poor leadership, but the problems of famine were multiplied by a lack of rain, so that the harvest failed in successive years: “the second bad harvest and the beginning of the fever” (I.3). Wild animals disappeared on these hills, the creeks ran dry, and seed grain and breeding herds were used for food. All of this on the heels of a bloody internal rebellion, ineffectively put down, so that the illness becomes an epidemic, and that epidemic becomes a plague on the people of Glome.
It may also be that Lewis’ plague is able to anticipate the social realities of epidemics as we see them globally. People are counting the dead in the street–“There were a hundred died yesterday (I.4)–but not everyone suffers equally. Two-thirds of the royal guard caught the fever, and many were in peril, including the chief counsellor, one princess, and the head priest, who had to fight the illness twice. But although countless peasants died, and a “good many” of the palace slaves passed away, only one soldier was lost. Everyone in the royal family lived, as did the head priest. Lewis’ plague was not the great equalizer; for Lewis, Death can only ever play that role. It is clear from the text that the poor and famished suffered more than people who had a lifetime of good feeding.
To what degree did Lewis pick up these intimations of plagues and poverty from the Spanish Flu that ravaged the world as he was heading back to Oxford to attend university? Frankly, I just can’t come to a conclusion on this point. There is no sense of influenza being a concern in his letters from the front line; Trench fever and warfare were the problem. On the day before the Armistice agreement was signed, Lewis wrote from military hospital:
We have been innoculated against the influenza here. If it is at all bad at home I should get it done. It is not worth one’s while risking ones life over a thing like that and the innoculation is very mild. It proved an effective check in Paris and why it has not been more widely used here, goodness only knows (10 Nov 1918 letter to his father).
I’m not certain which inoculation Lewis was referring to, but it would have been relatively experimental in November 1918–perhaps only available to (observable) military patients. There may be other hints in letters, but I cannot discern them with confidence from what is published. As far as I know, biographers haven’t addressed the question. Though there were pictures of people in facemasks in the papers, as a homebound vet and new student, who knows how connected Lewis would have been to the world outside of his own dreams of being a scholar and a poet?
I suppose, then, the most obvious source for the plague in Till We Have Faces is Lewis’ own imagination, inspired by books and bits of history. Pestilence would have been for Lewis an aspect of English history and letters, as well as a Saturnal reality suited to the age of WW1. The links may be accidental or formed by later epidemics, like post-WW2 illnesses or the 1954 polio outbreak. But in any case, Lewis is able to describe and anticipate what something like COVID-19 or the Spanish Flu might do to a local population in times of want.
This result of reading in new ways, I have decided, is better than terrible jokes or hunting down quotation-heretics. I wonder what other passageways of the mind the social moment might open to us!