The Sunday Magazine

Not just diseases but ideas can plague us, says this political scientist

How people behave in times of great uncertainty and fear — such as the current scare over coronavirus — is the focus of Emily Nacol’s research. She teaches political theory at the University of Toronto and is currently studying accounts of plagues in fiction.
Skeletons suspected to have come from a cemetery for victims of the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century are shown in London in this March 2014 file photo. The Black Death, as the plague was called, is thought to have killed at least 75 million people in the 1300s, including more than half of Britain's population. (Lefteris Pitarakis/The Associated Press)

How do ideas intersect with illness? This question is at the core of the work of University of Toronto political scientist, Emily Nacol.

She wonders why words that connote contagious, deadly sickness, such as "the plague," have metaphoric power, and how they insinuate themselves into how we feel, what we think and how we react to the world.

Emily Nacol is the author of An Age of Risk: Politics and Economy in Early Modern Britain. (Tahiat Mahboob)

According to Nacol, "plague" can be used as a metaphor to describe anything that we suffer collectively that is out of control. And she's interested in how people behave under conditions of deep uncertainty and fear.

Nacol is the author of An Age of Risk: Politics and Economy in Early Modern Britain.

She specializes in the history of early modern political thought and political economy and the problems of risk and uncertainty in 17th and 18th century British political and economic writing.

She spoke with Michael Enright, host of The Sunday Edition, about how people behave in times of great uncertainty and fear. Here are some highlights of their conversation. Her comments have been condensed and edited for clarity.

What is the difference between epidemic and pandemic?

The answer to that really comes largely from people who work in epidemiology. So the language that I tend to use in my own research — and that pops up the most in the work that I look at — are the metaphors of "plague" and "contagion."

The question I become interested in is: what's the difference between plague and contagion? I've learned a lot from the social historian Paul Slack, who writes about the plague as a very specific disease with a very specific manifestation in a specific bacterium. But he also says that at some point it's been wrested loose from that biological foundation and we use the metaphor of plague to talk about contagions of all kinds.

Studying literature to understand the effects of a plague

Lots of political scientists use fiction in their teaching as a way of helping students think imaginatively about the things that we study empirically or theoretically. It brings alive some of the conflicts that we're able to theorize and measure. That's one reason why plague literature turns out to be important. We can measure the effects of a plague or a contagion. We can study, observe and measure political behavior and institutional transformation during these times.

Literature helps open that up a little bit. It helps people feel as well as think when it comes to reflecting on how we react during these times. And in the old-fashioned 18th century sense of the term, it helps us feel connection and compassion for others when we read about their experiences and we're asked to imagine them. That's one reason why fictional narratives and non-fictional narratives about the experience of illness are so powerful for us. 

On the other hand, I suppose I don't really know yet what effect I think these have on us. Do they inform us and how, if they do? If they calm us, how do they work to calm us? And if they inflame our fears and anxieties, how does that work?

Plague literature as a genre

There's a scholar named Priscilla Wald who has a book called Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. She looks at film, literature and narrative nonfiction. That book has had a big influence on me because she writes about what she calls an outbreak narrative. This incorporates plagues and other kinds of epidemics and pandemics. She says these always have a particular structure that they follow, more or less. So I think one way to think about plague literature is as a genre that follows this outbreak narrative. I do think that the novels I taught in my class and the ones that I read for my own research often follow a similar kind of pattern.

Coronavirus and the othering of people

This is one of the things that I think Priscilla Wald writes about so well. She looks at the structure of outbreak narratives and she says in almost all of these we can notice one particular feature — this idea that the disease comes from outside. In the 20th century and forward-looking narratives, it often comes on a plane from somewhere else. 

Wald argues that it's no accident that very often, the story that is told is that these diseases come to the developed world from the developing world. That is the trope and we see that in political discourse and in fictional accounts. She explores, pretty extensively, that this is one way that we establish the borders of a community and designate who's in and who's out. And we reinforce those views when we talk about where illness comes from.

Plague narrative adapted to modern times

In the time period that I study, in the 18th and some in the 17th century, there are two places where contagion pops up as a metaphor pretty aggressively. One is in the spread of religious belief and religious enthusiasm. It's often talked about as something that spreads like a contagion among political thinkers and we're worried about it as a political phenomena.

The other place where that's talked about a lot and is still talked about in this way is in the world of finance. So stock frenzies and financial crises are often talked about in terms of contagion and people's financial behavior has something of a contagion-like feel to it.

Beginnings of the modern plague novel and its snowball effect

I've been doing some research into Daniel Defoe. He was a very astute observer of the financial revolution in Great Britain. I guess the beginning of the modern plague novel could be his Journal of the Plague Year. In that book, he's writing about a growing commercial London and what happens to it under conditions of outbreak. There's much attention given in that novel to the ways in which the health crisis becomes an economic crisis of sorts. He does some pretty astute class analysis of how wealthy people versus poor people fare under conditions of outbreak, one better than the other as you might assume.

He also looks at how eventually the whole city's business community clears out or dies and how this creates starvation and deprivation on top of plague. Some folks read Defoe's account as something of an extended metaphor for the rise of capitalism in London. I'm not completely sure I buy that argument. But I do think he pays very close attention to how plague affects the political economy and how — what we would call — socioeconomic patterns affect how disease manifests itself. That seems very modern to me.

Literature's role in our own vulnerability and forging unlikely relationships

The question that's at the heart of many of these plague and plague-adjacent novels, short stories and films is: who is my friend and companion during these dark times? There are often unlikely relationships forged and represented in these texts, which I think expands our own moral thinking about what we owe to other people.

For me, the greatest contribution that literature can make, both as a person who loves to read fiction and as someone concerned with political thought and political thinking, is that it expands and our moral imagination. And it makes it possible for us to ask questions about our own humanity, the humanity of others and to think about the value of sympathy and solidarity under conditions of crisis. So I think that is what literature really has to offer us.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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