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The world we live in.

A Fortnightly Review.

The Plague
by Jacqueline Rose

Fitzcarraldo Editions/FSG | 176pp | £9.99 $16.00


We live in the age of dementia and aerial bombardment. This is not a wild statement: 55 million people worldwide are currently in a state of dementia. It takes many forms. But in all cases one truth applies: your wits are coming astray. What is going on fulfils Newton’s third law of motion. To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. He was thinking purely of mechanics, but it appears to apply everywhere else too. Cities started lighting themselves up in the nineteenth century. Gaslight propelled the progress. Now you no longer needed the ‘link-boys’, who had once offered to lead you through the darkened alleys with flares. They would also frequently beat you up and rob you, in the process. Who could possibly complain at such urban illumination? But don’t forget Newton’s law. It took two centuries to fulfil itself in this case – now we can barely see the stars. Similarly, we put a vast amount of medical effort into prolonging life. And now we have the result: 55 million dementia sufferers.

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As for aerial bombardment: in its modern form, employing craft heavier than air, it began on November 1, 1911. Italy was bombing Libya, modestly enough, with a couple of handgrenades dropped from a monoplane. But soon it all got going in earnest, and it has never stopped since. During the Vietnam War, the US dropped over five million bombs on Vietnam, twice the number it had dropped during the entirety of World War Two. The richest country in the world was trying to bomb one of the poorest into extinction. One of the most savage activities ever invented, bombing, had become the de facto morality of the West’s leading nation. Those bombs in 1911 had been made in Denmark. Warfare tends towards the international, particularly when trying to annihilate as many foreigners as possible.

The Plague is no longer a historical item…It is back on our streets, in our homes, in our lungs.

In Jacqueline Rose’s brilliant little book, the twinned pair that characterises our age is war and plague. This insight she takes from Albert Camus’ The Plague, a novel first published in 1947. These are the two things you never expect, but they keep coming anyway. This insight seems particularly pertinent now. Russia launched its war against Ukraine. No one knows how long that is likely to go on. And Covid has reconfigured the world. The Freud Memorial Lecture that is at the heart of this book had to be switched from 6 May to the 23 September – from Freud’s date of birth to the date of his death. And all because of Covid. The Plague is no longer a historical item, safely bracketed away with things that no longer happen. All those buboes. It is back on our streets, in our homes, in our lungs. But the Bubonic Plague was rooted in a bacterium; our modern menace is a virus. And a virus cannot live without us. A successful virus needs to keep its host alive, however poorly. If we die, so does the virus. So, like a kidnapper with a fetish, it needs to keep us going down in the cellar, miserable but still pulsing on, until the next grim session.

One of the major figures Rose discusses is Freud. The Great War astonished him. Who would have thought so many human beings could collectivise themselves into mass slaughter? Then his beloved daughter, his ‘Sunday child’, Sophie, died. Freud had to reconfigure his thought. The result was Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and particularly Chapter Six. Here Freud experimented with the idea of a Death Drive. This has come in for much criticism, since it has no equivalent in biology. So, although he never put it like this, it does appear that human consciousness can be at cross-purposes with biology. Freud was also coping with patients who were neurotically repeating their experiences of the war, and a notion suddenly struck him. The minds of the war-damaged were rehearsing for the event they had not been prepared for in the first place. The catastrophe of mechanised warfare had not been mentally prepared for (how could it be?) and so the mind returned, in a kind of bafflement, to this unprecedented event. The repeating of the experience was the mind rehearsing its readiness for an event, already past, for which it had not been ready at the time of its occurrence . It was like watching a recording of a game you have lost, in order to gain the qualifications you might have needed in order to win it.

Notes and CommentFreud, we should remind ourselves, was living at the moment of the great pivot of modernity we call the birth of Modernism. The Renoir nude was metamorphosing into the Egon Schiele nude. All the serenity and promise of Renoir’s young ladies out there on the greensward, awaiting their smiling engagements, was imploding into Schiele’s hysteric nudes – those frantic, self-clawing creatures for whom an orgasm would appear to promise all the satisfaction of an improvised explosive device in the intestines. Between Renoir and Schiele stands Freud and neurosis. The Great War did not kill Schiele, the Spanish Flu did, immediately after. In terms of mortality, the Great Influenza claimed many more victims than the war, yet we managed to mislay the memory. We’re good at that, when it suits us.

Spanish Flu – the great destroyer. We left it out of our history books, or only dropped it into a parenthesis, like a weekend in Brighton. It’s as though its significance was too dreadful to contemplate. We might not have had to deal with German militarism, for a few years anyway, but we all had to deal with the ongoing presence of the virus. You can turn yourself around three times widdershins, but it will still be there when you stop. Viruses. Now even our computers have them.

Rose devotes a chapter to Simone Weil. Her thought and her ethics are demanding. She situated herself in the middle of a triangle constituted by God, humanity and justice. Trying to align these three forces became her life’s work, and the form of her death. She came up with the notion of decreation. This is conceptually complex, and I can’t help thinking it owes something to the Kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum, whereby the Almighty sheds a part of himself in order to facilitate creation. This in turn is related to the fracturing of the vessels. This is a cosmic catastrophe that can be turned into a benediction. As Leonard Cohen put it:

There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

Yeats’ Crazy Jane had a similar notion:

A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.

We are, then, the ruins of the Lord. It sounds like a more eschatological version of the scientific perception that we are made out of the remnants of dead stars. Either way, we are memorials to our own former glory.

Simone Weil would not eat more than the rations of prisoners in France. Because she was in the advanced stages of tuberculosis, that signed her death warrant. You can say one thing about her: she always put her money where her mouth was.

We decided not to see the ravages of Spanish Flu, and the menace it leaves all around us. We celebrated the end of the war instead. Now we cannot seem to see anything else but ravages. Everything is becoming viral. Let us return for a moment to Renoir and Schiele. There is a turning-point between these two artists. We can call it Modernism, but that merely raises as many questions as it answers.

Consider pretty much any two nudes, one by Renoir and the other by Egon Schiele, painted within years of each other. But worlds apart. In Renoir the nude embodies longing, a promise of connubial bliss. The softness of the female physiology is celebrated inch by inch. John Berger thought Renoir painted skin as though it were a form of clothing; and that all Renoir’s nudes commemorated the site of a tragedy. These women were not really the promise of fulfilment, but the elegy for such fulfilment ever being possible. Well…maybe. Contrast any Renoir nude with a nude by Egon Schiele and you see two different worlds, both focusing on the female anatomy – its promise and its torment. The nude in Schiele foretells no fulfilment. Instead it announces an anorexic, tortured scream of the flesh. Many figures by Francis Bacon were prefigured here. Here the nude is the focus of anxiety, not its relief. Here there is nothing in us that offers comfort, either to ourselves or others. The same woman on the same street, walking into two different studios. See how differently she can be seen.

Renoir was known as the painter who adored women. Look carefully at his portraits of nudes and you can see each brushstroke as a fingerprint: he is caressing these bodies on to the canvas. Then the inevitable modern reversal happened. He didn’t love women; he hated them. He was the perpetrator of that modern form of optical assassination: the male gaze. Well, I am male and I gaze, often for a long time at something or someone I find attractive, and I am not aware my gaze has ever been murderous. The women in these portraits, it is pointed out, do not look as though they are about to formulate the theory of relativity. Well, come on, folks. Paula Rego painted and pastelled a few male nudes. I can’t find a single one who looks as though he is about to utter the Second Law of Thermodynamics. That just doesn’t seem to be the kind of things nudes do…In fact, we know who the male nude is in the Paula Rego pictures. It is Anthony Rudolf, a distinguished contributor to these pages, in fact. He can give a very plausible account of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but prefers to do it with his clothes on. I do also sometimes feel like inviting the more pompous critics to see what they look like after four or five hours posing without a stitch on while somebody else daubs them…

We generally talk about pattern-recognition as though it is passive. Similarly with coincidences – we just happen to notice them. But certain forms of thought activate pattern-recognition. And pattern-recognition is a form of coincidence in the perceptible world. We acknowledge this when we talk about pareidolia. At the beginning of paranoid schizophrenia, all sorts of patterns are detected. Everything fits together. What everyone is doing suddenly makes sense. Unfortunately, this often takes the form of a persecution complex. They’re all out to get me. We could say that our pattern-recognition has outrun its factual basis. Years ago I had a friend who was a lecturer at Essex University. He shared a room with a female lecturer. They had one room which they shared, with a joint phone sitting on a large desk between them. I once phoned Francis. The phone rang for a while then the female voice answered.

‘Is Francis there?’ I asked.

‘Obviously not,’ said a cross voice, ‘or he would have answered, wouldn’t he?’

That seemed to me to be a paranoid reply. It reminded me of a classic Thurber cartoon in The New Yorker which had a lady lying back on a chaise longue, with a phone pressed to her ear. She says: ‘Well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?’ In both cases, the paranoid person situates the first person singular so firmly in the centre of the world, that displacement appears impossible.

Freud somewhere remarks that a psychosis bears a remarkable resemblance to a philosophical system. They both make sense of things; both shape experience into intelligibility; both are relentlessly heuristic and hermeneutic. Both are partisan on behalf of their chosen meanings. And both can be hard to argue with, if you are sceptical about the given position, the starting-point. Is a coincidence still a coincidence if it is a willed coincidence? Are there not active as opposed to passive coincidences? Heuristic pattern-recognition happens when we do not simply stumble upon possible patterned pairs, but actively seek them out.

Pareidolia is the name given for the obsessive seeing of patterns, which are not necessarily there. It is thought of as a characteristic of psychic disturbance, and a classic product of the ingestion of psychotropic drugs. The world becomes more patterned the more our mind bends towards it. The total patterning of the universe can be a mere opium-stretch away. Apophenia is a related phenomenon, not exclusively visual. We have externalized the mnemonic devices we normally hide within us. All forms of remembrance are types of mnemonic. Just think of the way someone’s life is remembered. Either in a biography – this one was a biggie, then – or in two old suits in the Oxfam shop, and a drawerful of dead watches. All depends on the luck of the draw…

How psychotic the look is depends on who is doing the looking. I can see the obvious relation between two lovers and a pair of steel compasses – how they bend away and then turn back toward one another. This could either be a symptom of the onset of paranoid schizophrenia, or the onset of your full maturity as a poet, if you happen to be John Donne, writing ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’. To a considerable extent, what we see is what we seek.

Freud’s thought ended up very dark indeed. Simone Weil ended up dead in the Middlesex Hospital. Does justice seem any nearer these days? Justice is kept alive in writing as lucid and brilliant as this.

ALAN WALL was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

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