Is every pandemic a curse from God? Or a blessing for humanity? Is losing people around us a message from the absolute? What does history say about that? Let us dig out some historical references and unravel something interesting today.
In 1603, several melancholic incidents happened simultaneously in then England. In the first quarter of the year, Elizabeth I (1558-1603) died; immediately after her death James I (1566-1625) ascended the throne of England. In the same year, the dreadful bubonic plague swept through England and the surrounding countryside. Thomas Dekker (1572-1632), an Elizabethan dramatist wrote his first pamphlet, The Wonderfull Yeare in the same year in which he illustrated all these three melancholic incidents picturesquely. To delineate the ferocity of the plague he brought to light a chilling account of the disorder and despondency brought forth by the epidemic. He wrote:
"Imagine then that all this while,
Death hath pitched his tents,
In the sinfully-polluted suburbs:
The plague is the Muster-mister
And Marshall of the field…
Fear and trembling arrest everyone:
No parley will be granted…"
(The Wonderfull Yeare, 1603).
Dekker gave the plague a persona and described much of it, especially how it could not be avoided while it had taken its victims without any warning! We later came to know that that dreadful plague had wiped out over one-quarter of London's population.
However, a few decades later, another English poet, John Donne (1572-1631) wrote a poem on the severe typhus fever epidemic, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1624). This poem deals with several intrinsic themes of human life, such as life, death and the human condition at the time of illness. He chants:
"Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee."
For Whom the Bell Tolls (John Donne).
Donne shows a humanitarian approach in this poem. Starting with a punchline- "No man is an island"- Donne addresses humanity and exerts that no man is solitary. He considers his existence as a part of humanity that is highly interconnected. Through his contemplating words, he manifests that our existence is a part of the whole and that human existence stands as a part of the divine. Such a metonymic expression consequently signifies that when a person dies so does a part of the entire population. When we mourn someone's death, we not only mourn for others but also mourn for the fact that someday we will also pass away. Hence, the poet asks his readers not to quest for whom the bell tolls as it tolls for everyone; me, you, all of us. Truly so.
Donne was a cleric in the Church of England and known for his metaphysical poetry. It should be noted that this poem is an implicit expression of the Elizabethan idea of sickness. What was that then? The concept depicts that sickness is a visit from God. Any kind of sickness is a reflection of internal sinfulness and recovery of illness and death is like meeting the absolute.
What if we argue a bit more on that? Let us explore historical artwork regarding this. The Plague of Ashdod (1630) is a magnificent artwork by Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665), a Classical French Baroque artist. Having been an avant-garde of the French Royal Academy, Poussin painted several masterpieces among which The Plague of Ashdod (1630) is a splendid one which was based on the mythical and religious texts of the Old Testament. This painting represents a story from The Book of Samuel. The subject of the story narrates that the hand of God was heavy on the people of Ashdod (a city in present-day Israel). He sent a plague upon them and the vicinity was ravaging them and afflicting them with tumours. Why was God's hand too heavy upon the people of Ashdod? --- because they had stolen the Ark of the Covenant or God's Ark. And since they had stolen God's possession, God must have sent the plague as a punishment to that community. The painting also illustrates that hungry and thirsty children were being pulled away from their dead mothers' breasts so that the children would not become infected with the plague from the blood and milk of their mothers. Consequently, the people were dying from the pandemic. Such a heartrending painting it is! I could not help but draw parallels between the depiction in the painting and the current global situation. Notably, during 1630, Italy had experienced another plague that influenced Poussin's painting so much. Poussin draws the reference from the Biblical text and illustrates the story of the pandemic of that time through his painting.
John Donne's Elizabethan idea of sickness, however, has a deep-rooted connection with Poussin's artistic portrayal of The Plague of Ashdod to a great extent. Both of them support the idea of sickness as a visit from God. Their contemplations prophesied that nature was vindictive. It shall subdue the malignance in its own way. Both of them connected the thread of spirituality and reality.
Now the question is whether the Covid-19 pandemic is a curse or a blessing? Why has God's hand been so heavy upon us? What did we do to displease Him? Although there might not be any clear answer, there are some clues. We are living in a sinfully polluted suburb where social discrimination, greed, corruption, wars, political unrests, evil intentions and insolence have long prevailed. We have seen innocent people being shot dead across the world for mindless reasons. Oppression, persecution, injustice, dominance upon the minorities by the eminent is still predominant in the society. The class struggle to date is a major issue all over the world. Humanity is being ravished ever so often. Our society's vein is filled with corrupted blood as Shakespeare had once said! We have been as cruel as one could be to his/her surroundings. Do all these facts support the Elizabethan idea of sickness regarding the coronavirus pandemic? Have we been punished just like the people of Ashdod? Is there more to come? We need considerable contemplation over our deeds as Donne realised centuries ago. We are not solitary. We are part of humanity. When a man dies, a part of society dies with him. This is high time we purified ourselves.
However, Bangladesh has recently recorded her highest death rate from Covid-19 ever since the pandemic made landfall in the country in March last year. The number is rolling up gradually. We have countless people from every corner of society. We have lost doctors, policemen, octogenarian politicians, economists, cultural and social activists, reformists, veteran artists and so many others. As Donne said, neither does the bell toll for any one of us nor are we an island of ourselves. We are losing humanity, we are losing ourselves and the bell is tolling for everyone. It tolls for thee!
The author is an Art Critic and a student at the University of Dhaka
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.