Sure is lonely around here.
The Gothic Wonderland is in full flower, begging you to come back and play silly games and roll around on the grass. The quad yawns, an empty expanse of green space. I strain my ears and hear ghostly laughter and the whir of invisible frisbees. Campus is immaculate in a way that is only possible in human places devoid of people. Abandoned bikes, dusted thickly in yellow pollen, dangle askew on their racks. The chapel is closed. The gates of our beautiful garden have slammed shut, depriving this year’s crop of toddlers their first glimpse of pond fish, and lovers their frolics and future blissful memories. Dogwoods and cherry trees bloom everywhere, pointlessly.
Back in January when the world made sense I built a syllabus around Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus, a dense modern Russian novel set in the Middle Ages. The choice was not random; we had invited the translator to campus to meet with students, and this book, with its mixture of archaic and modern language and its embeddedness in Russian religious culture, presented exhilarating linguistic challenges. A side benefit was its length, complexity, and potential to torture students into loving literature. In other words, business as usual.
We plodded along, read books, watched basketball. The news media whined quietly about some germ on the other side of the world, something about cruise ships and old people. Then everyone scattered for a week of R&R, to give time for nature to prepare its annual spring show, for our athletes to suit up for March Madness, and for everyone to put their sweaters away. I curled up on the couch with a week’s supply of strong coffee, grog, and chocolate, and entered the fifteenth century. Arseny (a.k.a. Laurus), a medieval Russian holy fool with a grave sin on his soul, joined me on the couch.
It is the fifteenth century. Russia (Rus) is pulling itself together after two centuries of Mongol rule. Life is hard; winters are long, wild animals spring out of nowhere and rip you to shreds, hunger lurks at the gate, and homicidal brigands roam the woods and roadways. In the middle of it all, people suddenly start to fall ill. Painful black lesions and swellings appear on their bodies. Overcome by fever, they drop dead in their tracks.
Turns out Arseny has a gift for healing. He lays hands on the ill and brings them back from the brink of death. His fame spreads far and wide, and before you know it, a fancy Prince summons him to cure his plague-stricken wife and daughter. A miracle! The Prince builds Arseny a house and gives him a luxurious sable-fur coat. Happy ending? Uh, excuse me, this is the land of Russian literature. Here, if you get too comfortable in your new fur coat, you will forget your sins and plunge straight down to hell. So the story perks up. Our man sheds his material trappings, heads off on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and...
My inbox beeps. An urgent message from my boss. Go online and learn about a product called zoom. In my news feed, something pings about cruise ships lurking offshore and not releasing their passengers. There’s a shortage of masks and other mysterious but essential items. More beeps. My novel’s translator can’t come! No events with more than 50 people! Plans begin to collapse, one after another. The beeping intensifies. It’s like popcorn! First a couple of isolated little pops, then a sprinkle, then a chaotic, deafening deluge. Maintain a six-foot distance between yourself and any other human being. No more than three people in an enclosed space. Wash your hands. Don’t touch doorknobs. Don’t touch anything. No events! No people! Stay inside! Do not panic, though: we can carry on as usual, just make sure there are no human beings in the room. The computers can do the teaching. It might even be better!
A box appears in my office, full of beautiful, student-designed Chekhov T-shirts. There is no one to wear them.
A grim silence falls over campus. An email pings in: the Libraries are closing. OMG, the Apocalypse! I rush next door to Perkins, elbow my way through a (phantom) mob of desperate, sobbing patrons, and grab the last available copy of Daniel DeFoe’s 1722 A Journal of the Plague
Year. The desk attendant holds up the book pinched squeamishly between two rubber-gloved fingers and says, “Looks like a good choice. Amazon has completely sold out of Camus’ The Plague.”
I’ve been at Duke for a long time. But in my wildest fantasies I never imagined a run on plague books.
Could be good for business, actually….
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Clutching DeFoe’s Journal to my chest, I scoot home to Arseny.
Arseny returned to the ill and remained with them until morning. He watched as life battled with death and he understood he needed to help life. He treated the pestilent sores of mother and child. He gave them much to drink because water washes what is fowl from the body. He held their heads over the wooden tub when they vomited. Most important, he released his vitalizing strength into them when he felt they did not have enough of their own (108).
Wait, what century is this? Maybe the 18th?
All the Plays and Interludes … were forbid to Act; the gaming Tables, publick dancing
Rooms, and Music Houses which multiply’d, and began to debauch the Manners of the
People, were shut up and suppress’d; and the Jack-puddings, Merry-andrews,
Puppet-shows, Rope-dancers, and such like doings, which had bewitch’d the poor
common People, shut up their Shops, finding indeed no Trade; for the Minds of the
People, were agitated with other things. (27)
It was time to institute legal measures:
That all publick Feasting, and particularly by the Companies of this City, and Dinners at
Taverns, Alehouses, and other Places of common Entertainment be forborn till further
Order and Allowance; and that the Money thereby spared, be preserved and employed
for the Benefit and Relief of the Poor visited with the Infection. (41)
Sounds a lot like the 21st century, actually, and Durham, and the world around us.
Today we resume our work, me over here behind my pathetic virtual podium, you in your bedroom at home or some other immaterial location. Our classroom with its state-of-the art array of multimedia equipment and high-speed internet echoes with your absence, and there’s a terrifying rumor afoot (undoubtedly by now a reality) that although these classroom buildings are now completely vacant, the whole place is going to be locked down, which means that your professors will get to teach their classes at home on overloaded, budget internet, in cramped domestic space shared with a screaming toddler, a boisterous, quarantined schoolchild, and a resentful, telecommuting spouse.
Everyone please get out a pen and paper.
Meanwhile, real people (the sick, the healers, and those who feed us) are somewhere else. Over at the Food Lion, exhausted cashiers run an endless flow of food packages across the scanner, taking our money with ungloved hands, and smiling at us through invisible, nonexistent masks.
The Truth is, the Case of poor servants was very dismal, for it was apparent, a prodigious
Number of them would be turn’d away, and it was so; and of them abundance perished.
Even in our seclusion, news filters in. In February the chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, who happens to be our very own North Carolina senator, was attending daily closed-door briefings in Washington. There he learned of the devastating effects anticipated from the coronavirus. Publicly, though, he put on a happy face: “Blah, blah, blah,” he said, “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats.” Then he snuck out, like a contemptible plague rat, and in a single day (February 13) dumped up to $1.7 million of his stock holdings, many of them related to the travel and hotel industry.
Admittedly, I’m still back here at “who has $1.7 million dollars?” But in that deep place where my conscience nestles, my thoughts are not with hypocrites and swindlers, but with the people who nurture my body and soul daily, delivering food, touch, and comfort. Some of them are working double and triple shifts in intense, dangerous conditions, endangering their own and their families’ health on our behalf. A vast number of others have already lost their jobs, their medical insurance, and possibly their homes.
In the 15th century, healers and nurturers like Arseny were revered, and even canonized. Let us see how our public servants take care of those who have lost their livelihoods in this plague: by providing free medical care, guaranteeing housing and compensating for lost wages? Or by bestowing sable-fur coats on CEO’s and bailing out cruise ship companies and airlines?
I’ll wait it out. Over here in the Middle Ages, I’m holed up with a stack of plague books, feeling lonely. It’s dark without you.
I think I speak for all your teachers: we sure miss you guys. Seniors, we’re thinking of you and sending virtual hugs. Stay safe and healthy. We’ll do our best to make things better. Zoom in and join us in whatever century this is.
Carol Apollonio is Professor of the Practice of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke. Her column, “rants from the podium,” runs on alternate Mondays.