The Plague Incarnate: Ghost-Spotting in Times of Pandemic
By Amir Ahmadi Arian
The Scottish traveler James B. Fraser arrived in Persia in 1821 as the cholera epidemic was raging through the country. He disembarked from a ship in the port of Bushehr, and was immediately shocked by the enormity of the suffering that awaited him. Death was so omnipresent in Bushehr that in his daily walks, Fraser witnessed people falling to the ground and dying in the street. At the graveyard he saw a long line of residents, their dead relatives on their shoulders, lined up waiting for their turn to put their loved ones into the ground. Only a few days later the mortality rate was so high that the public burial ground could no longer accommodate the dead bodies, so they were abandoned wherever the disease felled them.
Fraser left Bushehr for Shiraz hoping to secure safer lodgings but the situation was not much better up there. He noticed that, as time went by, the period between the emergence of the first symptoms of illness and death rapidly diminished. A family member who looked healthy and sound would leave to fetch water or buy bread, and two hours later his body would be found lying in the street. In one case, in a family of five women and nine men, the women left for the mountains as soon as one of the men showed symptoms. A few days later they returned and discovered the bodies of all their male relatives. The disease had attacked the nine of them at the same time and incapacitated them so fast none could muster the energy to leave the house.
The Shirazis noticed that different communities were affected differently. The Armenians and the Jews did much better than Muslims, which prompted people to believe that the consumption of alcohol reduced the risk of contracting the disease. Those who were drinkers doubled down. Those who had never touched the stuff decided that God would withhold his wrath just this once.
The result was wild. Hordes of inebriated people staggered around the streets amid the decomposing corpses, moaning, yelling and crying. Fraser saw a drunk man running along, tripping over dead bodies, screaming, “Where is this disease, this dreadful malady! Let him show himself that I may fight and kill him!”
In Journal of A Plague Year, Daniel Defoe offers one of the earliest examples of what today we call the “documentary novel.”
Defoe’s uncle Henry Foe survived the Bubonic Plague of 1665 in London and later gave his nephew an extensive account of what he endured that year. That account, combined with Samuel Pepys’s diary, inspired the author to write the story of the plague. Defoe conducted extensive research on the patterns of everyday life in London during the time of sickness, and used this material as the foundation for the novel, which appeared in 1722.
Named in honor of Defoe’s deceased uncle, the protagonist H.F. is a keen observer in the plague-stricken city. He wanders around to bear witness and records what he sees in vivid detail. People have either left town or died. The ones who stayed are mostly the poor who couldn’t afford to leave and now wait for the inevitable. Human interaction is mainly characterized by violence and backstabbing, as people have decided that survival as a collective is no longer possible. Given this dismal state of affairs, when H.F. sees a crowd at a street corner peacefully staring into the sky, he is instantly drawn to them.
When he approaches, he realizes that the people were thronged around a woman holding forth about a white-clothed angel hanging above them in the sky and brandishing a fiery sword. Her audience responds with enthusiasm to everything she says. Yes, yes, I did see the smile on her face, they call back to her. Yes, yes, I saw the flash of the sword as she raised it.
H.F. looks up and all he can see is a smallis small piece of cloud hanging low in the sky. The woman, noticing the newcomer, tries to show him the angel. H.F. refuses to go along with her, insisting that he only sees a piece of cloud. The woman calls him “a profane fellow, and a scoffer,” and tells him to go “wither and perish.” H.F. notices that the mob is stirring, ready to jump on him if he doubts the existence of the angel one more time. He walks away.
On May 14th, 2020, the New York Times reported multiple ghost sightings by people in quarantine across the US. Aman in L.A. heard the loud rattling of a doorknob and the hard shaking of the window shade, both occurring inexplicably. “I am a fairly rational person,” he insisted, yet he couldn’t help thinking something out of the ordinary was happening. Elsewhere, a young man reported that in lockdown he frequently got blasted by cold water in the shower. Every time he reached for the nozzle, he realized that an invisible hand had turned off the hot water.
The piece mentions many other cases of paranormal in passing. People in lockdown reported hearing whispers in empty rooms, the ceiling light suddenly alit without anyone touching the switch, and objects disappearing or getting moved around the house.
In this report, the story of Patrick Hind caught my attention in particular. He is a 42- year- old man who left Manhattan for a cottage in Western Massachusetts. One night he descended the stairs at 3 am for a glass of water. The Times reported that, “he walked into the kitchen and saw a white man in his 50s, wearing a well-worn, World War II-era military uniform and cap sitting at the table.” Initially, Hind said, he didn’t even register the strangeness of this, and continued drinking water unfazed. A moment later the peculiarity of the situation struck him and he did a double take. The man was gone.
None of these accounts are first hand. In all three cases the narrators chalk up the behaviors they observe to the psychological pressures of living through a pandemic. Fraser took the shouting drunk man as an example of mass “confusion and consternation.” In Defoe’s Journal, H.F. regarded the crowd as delusional. As he realized the beleaguered Londoners, under the thrall of the charismatic speaker, would not listen to reason, he was dismayed that “this Appearance pass’d for as real.” The New York Times reporter, writing in an age of disillusionment, somewhat absurdly reminds us that “there is no scientific evidence for the existence of ghosts.”
What makes so-called ‘rational’ people seek or see ghosts during a time of plague? Why is it that in such distressing circumstances the human mind conjures a visible embodiment of its predicament?
Pandemics are caused by invisible pathogens that travel covertly and replicate with incredible rapidity. A pandemic is declared when the pathogen reaches an incalculably large number of people in the world, thus generating another form of invisibility: sheer size. Thanks to this dual invisibility of extreme smallness and extreme largeness, pandemics paralyze human reasoning. The calculating mind, habituated to ferreting out cause-and-effect relations, is at an impasse.
Faced with a pandemic, we become like characters in Rumi’s famous “elephant in the dark” story: an elephant is brought into a dark room. People enter and attempt to figure out what it looks like by touching it. One rubs his palm along the trunk, comes out and says that the elephant is like a rain pipe. The next one touches the ear and reports that the animal resembles a fan. A third person feels the leg and believes the animal to be a pillar. If their palms held candles instead, Rumi says, their accounts would converge.
For the human mind, grappling with the reality of a pandemic amounts to feeling out an elephant in a dark room. We can only use our fumbling palms to offer flawed, distorted versions of reality. We are simply too small to wrap our heads around it.
A pandemic is a perfect example of what the philosopher Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject”. It is an entity that spreads so vastly in time and space that the human mind has no way of capturing it as a whole. It is everywhere and nowhere. It sticks to everything, becomes present in all aspects of our lives, and yet stays far out of our mind’s reach. It resembles the image of Allah in the Quran: “He is above everything they attribute to him,” (6/100) while being “closer to man than his jugular vein.” (50/16) It bends time and space, defying the accustomed Cartesian breakdown of the world.
The story of the 21st century may well be one of emerging hyperobjects and our inability to contain them. The COVID pandemic is only one example. Every move we make, everything we say or write, is stored in a cloud somewhere. Big data is a hyper object specific to our time. Then there is global warming. The thickening cloud of CO2 in the atmosphere is a hyperobject if there ever was one, enormous and absolutely omnipresent, leaving its mark on every aspect of life. We see its discrete manifestations as individual hurricanes and droughts and melting icebergs, as disappearing islands and extinct animals.
Conjuring a visible embodiment of a hyperobject is what we have always done in the face of the unknowable. When a hyperobject strikes our lives, usually our first response is to find a visible embodiment for it: the greedy immigrants, the careless poor, the free-loaders. The pandemics are no different. The drunk Persian man wandering in the streets of Shiraz was desperate for an embodiment of cholera, so he could wrestle it to the ground. The Londoners of the 17th century needed an embodiment of the unstoppable disease, and found in the lingering death angel a soothing answer. The half-asleep Manhattan man in Massachusetts cottage gave the pandemic a body and outfit similar to what the Londoners saw almost four centuries prior.
Facing hyperobjects, we only have two choices: either accepting that we simply cannot defeat them and try to mitigate their effects on our lives, or scapegoating, designating or conjuring up figures that serve us as hyperobject stand-in, and project our fears and onto them. The latter has been by far our more common response over the course of history. There is no reason to think we will change any time soon.
Amir Ahmadi Arian teaches literature and creative writing at CUNY City College in New York City.
His work has appeared in The New York Times, Paris Review, New York Review of Books, Al Jazeera, London Review of Books, Electric Literature, Rumpus, Michigan Quarterly Review, Words Without Borders, the Guardian, Lithub, and elsewhere. He is the author of Then The Fish Swallowed Him (HarperCollins 2020).