The city in a time of plague

The city in a time of plague by Pepe Escobar for The Saker

History teaches us that epidemics are more like revelatory moments than social transformers

The plague-stricken town, traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies – this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city.

– Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish

Predictably eyeing the Decline and Fall of the American Empire, a serious academic debate is raging around the working hypothesis of historian Kyle Harper, according to whom viruses and pandemics – especially the Justinian plague in the 6th century – led to the end of the Roman Empire.

Well, history actually teaches us that epidemics are more like revelatory moments than social transformers.

Patrick Boucheron, a crack historian and a professor at the esteemed College de France, offers a very interesting perspective. Incidentally, before the onset of Covid-19, he was about to start a seminar on the Black Death medieval plague.

Boucheron’s view of Boccaccio’s Decameron, written in 1350 and about young Florentine aristocrats who fled to the Tuscan countryside to tell stories, focuses on the plague’s character as a “horrible beginning” that tears apart social liaisons, provokes a funerary panic and has everyone wallowing in anomie.

Then he draws a historical parallel with Thucydides writing about the Athens plague in the summer of 430 BC. Pushing it to the limit, we may venture that Western literature actually starts with a plague – described in Book 1 of the Iliad by Homer.

Thucydides’ description of the Great Plague – actually typhoid fever – is a literary tour de force as well. In our current setting, that’s more relevant than the “Thucydides trap” controversy – as it’s idle to compare the context in ancient Athens with the current US-China hybrid war.

Both Socrates and Thucydides, incidentally, survived the plague. They were tough, and acquired immunity from their earlier exposure to typhoid. Pericles, the leading citizen of Athens, was not so lucky: he died at 66, a victim of the plague.

The city in fear

Boucheron wrote an immensely interesting book, Conjurer la Peur (To Conjure Fear) telling the story of Siena a few years before the Black Death, in 1338. This is the Siena pictured by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the walls of the Palazzo Pubblico – one of most spectacular allegorical frescoes in history.

In his book, Boucheron writes about political fear before it is engulfed by biological fear. Nothing could be more contemporary.

In Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Bad Government, the court of bad justice is governed by a devil holding a poisoned chalice (today that would be the “crowned poison” – or coronavirus). The devil’s eyes are crossed and one of his feet is over a goat’s horns. Floating above his head we find Avarice, Pride and Vainglory (match them with contemporary political “leaders”). War, Treason, and Fury sit to his left (the US Deep State?) and Discord, Fraud and Cruelty on his right (casino capitalist financialization?). Justice is bound, and her scales have fallen. Talk about an allegory of the “international community.”

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