The shock of Covid-19 resulted from our cultural amnesia about past pandemics
Keerthik Sasidharan | 31 Jul, 2020
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, I was at the Strand bookstore in midtown Manhattan in New York to find a copy of Amitav Ghosh’s then recently published book titled, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. It speaks to the inability of literary culture to engage with climate change, in parts because of aesthetic choices and historical contingencies over the last 50-60 years that had privileged an individual’s ‘search for authenticity’ over all else. This had transmuted much of modern literary culture into ‘journey[s] of self-discovery’. The pessimistic consequence of Ghosh’s thesis is that when catastrophic, or even outsize, climatological events appear, as producers and consumers of cultural products that suffer from this climate blindness, we will have no meaningful ways to collectively speak of that experience. In absence of a common understanding regarding an emergent peril, vocabularies to diagnose it and an understanding that we are all in it together, the results could be devastating. The ongoing refusal-to-wear-masks, Covid-19 parties in defiance of health advisories and widespread politicisation of this still unfolding health emergency—all of this can be traced to an absence of a common understanding of how to interpret new perils and the nature of an individual’s responsibility to the collective.
This reluctance to think intensively about climate and geography, disease and pandemics as critical factors that shape human societies has also worked its way through other disciplines which have substantial influence in our intellectual and cultural environs. From political writing to popular history books, at least since the 1970s, our intellectual climate has increasingly focused its attentions on chronicling the histories of institutions, transnational capital flows, ideas, empires, identities, mentalities, political consciousness, epistemic categories, globalisation and other subdisciplines as different waves of interest rise to the fore. In parts, this is understandable as global interconnectedness began to peak by the early 2000s. But more ‘distant’ phenomena like climate, geography, weather, disease—as entities and processes worthy of historical and cultural investigation—were often seen as of second-order importance, or at worst as the indulgent plaything of a few specialists. Most visible of these was the decline of geography as an academic discipline—with Harvard University leading the charge in 1948 by shutting down that department. Even as epidemiology as a discipline grew in complexity and deployed new techniques to combat non-infectious diseases like lung cancer as well as infectious diseases like Ebola or HIV, the study of diseases as world-historical phenomena with acute influence over human societies, including politically, often stopped in the 1950s. All subsequent epidemics or outbreaks were treated as technocratic or medical issues and, in turn, were steadily emptied of historical, cultural or geopolitical relevance. The associated shock due to the Covid-19 pandemic to our cognitive frameworks—‘no one saw this coming’ is Donald Trump’s favourite refrain these days—can be traced to the lack of cultural memory about epidemics and pandemics which preceded our times. Names of medical historians like Erwin Ackerknecht, Georges Canguilhem, Mirko Grmek, Pierre Huard, George Rosen, Owsei Temkin, Jean Théodoridès are forgotten or, worse, almost entirely unknown to present-day historians, to say nothing of the wider public. In contrast, many of the same are no doubt intimately aware of and themselves prescribe the writings of figures like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama as course material. This trend to privilege the textual over all else, in many ways, mimics the historiography of the 19th century when all of history was simply reduced to diplomatic history-—the history of happenings between royal courts. This rise of political histories as the chief mode of approaching our understanding of the past is not new or unremarked either.
Even as epidemiology as a discipline grew in complexity and deployed new techniques to combat non-infectious and infectious diseases, the study of diseases as world-historical phenomena with acute influence over human societies, including politically, often stopped in the 1950s. All subsequent outbreaks were treated as technocratic or medical issues and were steadily emptied of historical, cultural or geopolitical relevance
In a foreword to a collection of essays by the cultural and literary historian Velcheru Narayana Rao, the historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam asks, ‘Who [then] is the rightful object of intellectual history in South Asia?’ This rhetorical question follows his observation regarding two books which discuss Indian thought, CA Bayly’s Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire and Ramachandra Guha’s Makers of Modern India, wherein the contents of these books are circumscribed by their focus on politics by English-speaking Indians. Those who make the list are deemed as having contributed to India’s intellectual past, while the rest are implicitly assigned the rank of second-order importance. This is not a new diagnosis. At least since Amit Chaudhuri’s marvellous anthology of Indian writing which sought to deflate Salman Rushdie’s claims that India’s best writing is in English, this tension between the Indian middle class’ fidelity towards its creolised English and the reality of India, where English is merely the first among equals, has been commonly invoked as an analytical vantage point. All this said, there remains the obvious question: why does this inequity persist? Subrahmanyam goes on to trace this to material conditions—English education, family wealth, urban backgrounds and other markers—which have allowed some Indians to function as ‘universal’ intellectuals, while the rest are consigned to roles as ‘organic’ or ‘traditional’ intellectuals or merely as translators of a non-English-speaking India. This ‘universality’ is bestowed and propped up by the political demands of the state, which in turn leads to politics being the central arena of discourse.
But there is also another, less sociologically motivated reason for the domination of political discourse as our understanding of the past: lack of expertise in a complex discipline. To be a historian of medicine or geographical dynamics or epidemics or technology means increasingly keeping oneself abreast of changes in areas of study that have dramatically changed since the 1950s. If the history of epidemiology in the 1950s was intimately tied to the 19th century European experiences of urban sanitation and infectious diseases that afflicted the colonial rulers, after World War II it meant learning to parse through the lineaments of first and second-order developments in two disciplines: medicine and history. No such demand of technical skill or knowledge is made of students of political history, except a passing familiarity with a ‘foreign’ language that serves as a requirement in highly rated PhD programmes and some commitment to archival work. In contrast, scholars like Mirko Grmek, the Croat-French historian who also had an MD, or closer to home, polymaths like Dr MS Valiathan, a cardiac surgeon and an extraordinary interpreter of Vagbhata, Susruta and others from the Indian medical past, offer up examples of transdisciplinary knowledge that are often difficult to foster in an institutional framework. In light of the fact that our intellectual class is dominated by those who have trained in humanities and social sciences and whose last exposure to the sciences and mathematics is often in high schools, it is of little surprise that political discourse dominates the commons of our collective thought.
OVER THE PAST two decades, however, as climate change, geographical catastrophes and diseases have begun to creep back into our news cycles, more attention has been paid to these subjects that are often seen as lacking historical content. These include, among others, monumental surveys like Geoffrey Parker’s study of 17th century climate change, titled appropriately as Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, Philippe Beaujard’s sweeping work titled The Worlds of the Indian Ocean: A Global History and most recently, David Abulafia’s magnificent and awe-inspiringly learned The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans. In contrast to these large epic studies and other smaller academic works like Sebastian Prange’s fascinating Monsoon Islam: Trade and Faith on the Medieval Malabar Coast, there has also been a flurry of books on the cultural experience of geological phenomena like rivers (the Ganga, the Nile, the Yangtze and so on). Even in academic economics, a younger generation of scholars like Nathan Nunn at Harvard have sought to tease out historical conclusions using clever techniques that rely on geographical features as instrumental variables in econometric regressions.
As far as public discussions of medicine and diseases are concerned—which are often led by academic work—the focus has largely been ‘analytical’ in nature. This is tantamount to a chronological accounting of historical experiences of disease such as malaria, influenza, yellow fever, rabies and so on. This, of course, is interesting to learn and offers many valuable insights, especially when diseases spill over into the political realm such as during the Treaty of Versailles, when almost every major leader or their close relative was inflicted by the influenza pandemic. It also allows us to imagine counterfactuals and ask questions like how would Soviet Russia have evolved had Vladimir Lenin not suffered from fatal illness in the early 1920s. There are other studies as well, accessible to the wider public, where diseases, geography and history entangle in unexpected portraits of the past. This we see in the works of Roy Porter or the historian William H McNeil or the anthropologist Jared Diamond. But thinking about the history of diseases over a long historical period is more complex, often interconnected, methodologically fraught with issues and produces dynamics among pathogens and vectors that complement and conflict in ways that we don’t still fully comprehend. For example, one of the fascinating mysteries of medical history is: why did leprosy and plague disappear from Western civilisation long before adequate treatments were developed? There is some evidence that being infected by tuberculosis is ‘most probably followed by a relative immunity to leprosy’. The implied consequence is that as tuberculosis spread in the West, leprosy began to vanish. Better known, and well-documented, including in popular works like Charles Mann’s wonderful book titled 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created is the antagonistic relationship between malaria and sickle-cell anaemia. Faced with such vast correlating forces that involve epidemiological and medical subtleties, the scholar who thinks about health and accompanying cultural paradigms ends up faced with various confounding aspects where causal linkages are harder to draw. As Grmek writes, ‘The historian of medicine confronts a dilemma similar to that of an astronomer observing the movements of at least three bodies. It is known that such problems cannot have theoretical solutions. Solutions must be found in an empirical manner.’
In light of the fact that our intellectual class is dominated by those who have trained in humanities and social sciences and whose last exposure to the sciences and mathematics is often in high schools, it is of little surprise that political discourse dominates the commons of our collective thought
This absence of ‘theoretical solutions’ has not prevented historians from proposing models of how historical dynamics ought to be framed. Close to home, the historian KN Chaudhuri has often sought to write histories that ostensbily comport to a model. He writes that his historical retelling emerges from a ‘rigorous theory of the concept of unity and disunity, continuity and discontinuity, ruptures and thresholds’. This effort to ‘model’ broad swathes of time into manageable units of analysis or ontological categories is not limited to historical geography. Grmek writes, provocatively, ‘Diseases only exist in the world of ideas’, by which he means they are ‘explanatory models’. We call a set of symptoms and pathologies by the name ‘Covid-19’ or ‘leukaemia’ but in itself Covid-19 or leukaemia exists only within a set containing concepts devised by man. In a similar vein, Chaudhuri asks in a fascinating and influential study, ‘Is the ‘Indian ocean’ as a geographical space the same as Asia?’
What is remarkable, however, is that both Grmek and Chaudhuri, if one were to take them as representatives of medical and geographical histories, trace their influences and disagreements to one of the greats of 20th century history, Fernand Braudel, who sought to marry vast and slowmoving phenomena like climate and geography with the history of events at a scale and detail few have since attempted. But Braudel was a rarity. As Chaudhuri writes, ‘Braudel’s work is incapable of direct imitation. It is the result of an inborn intuition, an understanding of the complex interplay of events and impersonal forces, which does not explicitly make clear its theoretical and rigorous logic.’
Fernand Braudel was born in 1902, in a French village, with less than 200 peasant-farmers, called Luméville-en-Ornois. Years later, when reflecting on his origins, Braudel wrote: ‘I was at the beginning and I remain now an historian of peasant stock. I could name the plants and trees of this village of eastern France: I knew each of its inhabitants: I watched them at work: the blacksmith, the cartwright, the occasional woodcutters, the bouquillons.’ From 1927 onwards, Braudel dedicated himself to a thesis tentatively titled ‘Philip II, Spain and the Mediterranean in the 16th Century’. Part of Braudel’s research on Philip II—thanks to the nature of his subject—led him to Spain, Portugal, Italy, Croatia and Algeria (where he was a school teacher). Alongside research in archives, Braudel also ended up buying a movie camera which allowed him to photograph thousands upon thousands of documents. With his research material beginning to overwhelm him, Braudel agonised on how to organise this material into an intelligible thesis. Eventually, his thesis advisor and later collaborator Lucien Febvre guided Braudel out of a cul-de-sac with a word of advice: ‘Philip II and the Mediterranean is a fine subject. But why not the Mediterranean and Philip II? Isn’t that an equally fine but different subject? For between the two protagonists, Philip and the interior ocean, the match is not equal.’ This nudge from a more senior historian allowed young Braudel to find the intellectual courage to pivot his research from what would have otherwise been yet another thesis on the diplomatic histories on why Philip II pivoted his policy from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic in the 16th century. Instead, now Braudel reworked his focus towards the more difficult, vastly more interesting subject of the Mediterranean, that ‘inner sea’ which lay between Africa, Asia and Europe.
Nearly 16 years after he began his research—during which time he was jailed in Nazi POW camps—Braudel went back to his thesis to edit, factcheck and rewrite parts of it which culminated in a defence in 1947 and finally a 600,000-word publication in 1949 as La Méditerranée et le Monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II (The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II). Much as he did in his thesis, over the course of his life, Braudel’s methodology relied on three forms of temporality: longue durée, conjoncture and histoire événementielle which were often translated as ‘the long perspective’, ‘a modality of conjunction’ and ‘the history of events’. He argued—by stint of innumerable forays into labour, geology, market structure—that history can be understood as these three layers of time and processes which acted both separately and contemporaneously. Of the longue durée which encompasses the geohistories of a place—mountains, land, soil, waters, animals—are born the possibilities for formation of social relations captured by institutions. It is within these institutions that we see a chronicle of discernible human events. History, Braudel argued and demonstrated, operates simultaneously at different timescales. By the time Braudel’s thesis was translated and published into English, by 1973, he had been widely acknowledged as the most influential historian then alive. The German historian Helmut Koenigsberger, reviewing in an English magazine called The Listener, wrote that Braudel’s thesis-book was ‘a classic you can compare with the great classics of history writing, from Thucydides to Gibbon and from Macaulay to Burckhardt’. By the time Braudel died in 1985, he was seen as a ‘grand panjandrum’—with legions of admirers and critics, including outside the academy.
But by now, Braudel is largely forgotten today, except among a niche group of historians who follow in his footsteps, at least methodologically, including Geoffrey Parker in his deeply influential work on 17th century climate change. ‘Braudelian structure’ is a code word that is used to either follow, sidestep, deconstruct or portray Braudel as entirely dated. In parts, this eclipsing of his reputation has been because Braudel had the singular misfortune of being followed by a brilliant generation of intellectuals—Michel Foucault, Georges Duby, Jacques Derrida, Carlo Ginzburg— who successfully transfigured our understanding of the past into studies of power dynamics, mental attitudes, interpretations of the text and ultimately the study of an individual itself. The structuralist flavour of Braudel was overshadowed by the rise of the individual and his mind as an object of study itself. These new ways of reading the past were juxtaposed and contrasted with Braudel’s largely ambivalent attitudes towards features of the present that ostensibly influenced the history of events: religious revivalism, fundamentalism, discontents of identity, contestations of representation. In contrast, Braudel had a decidedly more conservative view of how much humans could do or change over a lifetime. He writes, ‘When I think of the individual, I am always inclined to see him imprisoned within a destiny in which he himself has little hand.’
At the Strand bookstore, Braudel’s extraordinary works that impress upon us the importance of seemingly unchanging phenomena—climate, geography, weather, disease, pandemics—stand with the élan of an old aristocrat who is reconciled to being ignored. Volume after volume filled with words, numbers, paragraphs, summaries, nuances, curlicues of thought, contingencies, conjectures greet a reader. I couldn’t help but think of Braudel himself, the man who must have stooped in front of a desk, with his pen in hand, ink smudges and paper cuts on his fingers, with backaches, shoulder pains, loneliness and, ultimately, the fleeting sense of futility that afflicts any writer. But on that book rack, there was so little of the man himself. Braudel, the author, was a ghost. There was no autobiographical account, no reflections on his oeuvre, not even a photograph of the author in the inner backflap of his books. In contrast, surrounded as we are by our celebratory cult of the self, with ‘authenticity’ held as talismanic codeword in public discourse, when even the most clichéd of writers and high priests of cant project themselves as Socratic embodiments, Braudel seems like an anomaly. One who knew that for all the self-aggrandisement by individuals and the manias of our shortlived delusions of self-importance, our lives are in the ultimate reckoning as brief in the face of historical time as those of fireflies at night.