Interview by Loredana Filip
Aureo Lustosa Guerios is a PhD student at the University of Padua interested in Comparative Literature, Cultural History and Medical Humanities. His research surveys the literary representations of epidemic cholera in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He writes and presents the podcast “Literatura Viral” in Portuguese in which he discusses how epidemics influence history and art. He holds a master’s degree in “European Literary Cultures” and wrote his thesis on the Divine Comedy. While pursuing his BA in Brazil, Aureo’s research focused on literary modernism (Joyce, Baudelaire, Mann) and the translation of children’s literature (Dr. Seuss).
LF: Your PhD dissertation deals with literary representations of epidemic cholera in the 19th and 20th centuries. Can you tell us more about it?
ALG: My dissertation is part of a collective effort to address a gap in the research on this disease. Cholera was the great pandemic disease of the 19th century. It started to spread around 1817 and it circumnavigated the globe four or five times before the 1920s. From this point onwards, some believed that cholera had been eradicated. However, a new wave hit in 1961, which has never been declared over. Today we are still living in the 59th year of the 7th Cholera Pandemic. Cholera has been a scourge for so many and for so long, and it has definitely left its mark on literature and art. But this has often been neglected. Only in the last decades have literary scholars started to pay closer attention to representations of disease. However, most of them focus on tuberculosis and syphilis, so other diseases such as cholera, malaria, typhus or even the Spanish Flu have been ignored.
LF: This is really surprising. Do you have an explanation for this lack of scientific interest in cholera? And why are we witnessing a sudden scholarly interest in diseases now?
ALG: We can think of several reasons, such as triumphalist approaches to the history of science, the unpalatable and scatological nature of the disease’s symptoms, which transgressed cultural taboos, as well as vague popular recollections of the disease which tend to confuse cholera with more memorable “plagues.”
In the 1990s, the publication and release of the first plays, movies and texts discussing HIV-AIDS awakened new interest in the representation of disease. And after the noughties, this interest increased with the blossoming of the Medical Humanities as a field. Many excellent studies have been published since then, frequently examining the subject of ‘Plague Art’ and ‘Plague Literature.’
LF: Interesting. So, one could say that literary and cultural texts managed to draw scientific attention to the subject of disease. Getting back to the situation in the 19th century: did pandemics directly or indirectly inspire literary developments?
ALG: Oh, yes, they did! But in so many and such different ways that they often evade our attention.
Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) is a good example. It was written immediately after the end of the First Cholera Pandemic (1817–1824), Europe was spared, but British India was hit hard. The novel accurately predicts the arrival of the ‘plague’ in England, an arrival that actually took place five years after the publication.
In The Last Man, Mary Shelley writes about the collapse of civilization caused by a new plague originating in the Orient. It presents a form of imperialism characteristic to so many of texts on cholera. This is evident in the very title: how can a first-person narrator actually know that he is ‘the last man’? Life in Russia, Mozambique or Australia could go on as usual and he would never know. Clearly what matters is not humanity per se, but the ‘cultured European male.’ Accordingly, ‘Asians’ and ‘Turks’ are depicted in typical orientalist fashion as dirty, negligent and diseased.
Although tuberculosis is simply tuberculosis, cholera is Asiatic cholera. This representation of disease naturally originating in the East will become a topos of the representation of cholera, and it can be observed in many texts, such as the play The Indian Cholera (1835) by Norwegian poet Henrik Wergeland or Raskolnikov’s apocalyptic dream in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866). Even when it strikes one of the quintessential European cities in Mann’s Death in Venice (1912), cholera is still somehow Asian.
LF: So cholera really seems to have been a widespread and popular topic in 19th century literature.
ALG: It depends… cholera’s gruesome and disgusting symptoms have prevented its direct representation in ‘appropriate’ Art. Balzac, for example, lived through the 2nd and 3rd Cholera Pandemics, and yet he barely mentioned the disease in his all-encompassing Comédie Humaine (1829-1850). Unlike the plague, which is the “Great Equalizer,” cholera is portrayed as the disease of the dirty, the colonized, the poor. Thus, it is unfitting for ‘high’ Art, much in the same way as syphilis is often replaced by tuberculosis in opera. Even decadent writers like Baudelaire or Huysmans, who aimed to shock and disgust their readers by portraying syphilis, actually tended to ignore cholera. Cholera appears to have been too pedestrian for their aristocratic interests and tastes.
Interestingly – and perhaps as a response to that–, the popular novels do not shun the subject. For instance, the depiction of cholera in the best-selling feuilleton The Wandering Jew (1844) by Eugène Sue is extensive. The prolific Italian novelist Francesco Mastriani approaches the subject in The Worms (1863), The Mysteries of Naples (1869), The Lady of Death (1880) and other works.
LF: Times of pandemics are often times of enhanced vigilance. What role does alertness or attention play in the books that you analyze?
ALG: A big one. First and foremost, there is a strong connection between cholera outbreaks and the rise of the Sanitarist movements all over Europe. Since epidemics were believed to be caused by miasmas – bad air, putrefactive odours and pollution –, collective solutions had to be found. Several campaigns were launched to eliminate filth. They aimed not only to educate and condition the behaviour of the population, but also to raise public awareness on issues such as public works construction programmes – sewage systems, water filtration plants, the creation of green areas and a reurbanisation of cities in general. Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris (1853–1870) was largely prompted by epidemics, and it was emulated all over Europe; in Barcelona, Budapest, and significantly Naples, the city of cholera par excellence. As a consequence of this process, bureaus of Sanitary Police were created in several countries, and sanitarists became powerful and outspoken members of society who would comment on almost any issue: public food consumption, prostitution, economic measures, personal hygiene and immigration.
Another interesting development relating to vigilance is analysed by Melanie Kiechle in Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth Century. According to her, the central role of the mother as a figure ensuring a family’s hygiene arose in connection to the Sanitarist Movements. In order to reeducate society, sanitarists reached out to women who became catalysts of social change. Other authors penned works similar in nature; the sole purpose of certain texts was to denounce the ignorance of the masses and to paternalistically educate them. The explicitly pedagogical short story Il Choléra a Roda, racconto istruttivo (1835), subtitled “an instructive narrative,” or the French novel Histoire d’un Village, 1830–1836 (1860), written “for the benefit of the proletariat” by M. le Vicomte de Melun are good examples of this.
LF: Besides these pedagogical attempts, are there any texts that have tried to raise vigilance more subtly? If yes, how did they do it?
ALG: Yes, we do see authors raising vigilance indirectly by observing the masses and denouncing their behaviour through comic effect and even mockery and ridicule. This is partially true of Heinrich Heine’s famous description of the cholera outbreak of 1832 in Paris, which, in my opinion, is largely fictional, and portrays the Parisian folk as violent savages. A similar argument can be made in connection to Rudyard Kipling’s A Germ-Destroyer (1887) in which a self-declared scientist and inventor releases a fetid cloud of smoke in the Viceroy’s Residence. Mark Twain also employs “warnings” of this kind in his hilarious The Innocents Abroad (1869).
Besides, cholera is sometimes used as a tool of denunciation. In the pacifist novel Lay Down Your Arms (1889) by Bertha von Suttner, the narrator loses several members of her family to the disease, which is portrayed as a direct consequence of war. Another instance is found in the autobiographical novel Cholera (1935) by the Bulgarian author Lyudmil Stoyanov. It presents the misadventures of a soldier subdued: on the one hand, by a severe cholera infection, and on the other hand, the fight on the front-line of the Second Balkan War (1913). The novel offers an acidic denunciation of the maltreatment of soldiers and the hypocrisy of military hierarchies.
But these bottom-up approaches are rarer, usually the victims of cholera
are blamed for their own infection; after all, as was often said at the time,
was the disease not a sign of their own barbarity and lack of hygiene?
Remarkably, the issue of not being vigilant enough is brought into question by Gothic literature and science fiction. Vampires, for example, are clear metaphors of contagion: they infect others, originate in exotic faraway lands, are strongly associated with mice, bats and other disease vectors, and so on.
LF: This entire discussion reminds me of our current corona crisis. Do you see any similarities or differences in the responses to the outbreaks?
ALG: Oh, yes, there are countless similarities. First and foremost, there is denial. In 1830 several physicians and scientists argued that cholera would never reach Britain, because of its colder climate. It did in 1831. That same situation repeated itself when the Italian Government sent a commission to Paris to follow the outbreak of 1832. It concluded that cholera would not reach Italy since the country was already occupied by malaria. It did in 1835. This is reminiscent of the dismissive remarks made by Trump at the beginning of the crisis, or Bolsonaro’s statement that Covid-19 was “less than a little cold.”
Then we have allocating blame and the creation of scapegoats. For instance, Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s statements are steeped in racist assumptions and orientalist stereotypes, like the claim that it is a “Chinese disease.”
Also, their simplistic search for causes is accompanied by the search for a God-sent one-size-fits-all-solution: inventive nonsensical remedies – such as Trump’s suggestion of injecting disinfectant – also abound in 19th century cholera texts.
Finally, there is a tendency to interpret the pandemic as a form of religious punishment that can somehow be appeased by purification. It is widely known that during the plague outbreak of 1348, groups of flagellants travelled around Europe to extirpate the sins of the community. It is less known, however, that during the 1831 cholera outbreak in Britain, Parliament declared a day of national prayer. Nearly twenty years later, this act was repeated by the president of the USA, Zachary Taylor, during the 3rd Cholera Pandemic in 1849. Accordingly, last April, the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, made “a saint proclamation” – as it was termed by his allies – and urged the population “to fast to free Brazil of Coronavirus.”
There are still many other similarities: the rapid circulation of conspiracy theories, the dissemination of fake news, xenophobia and the persecution of minorities, problems with supply and demand, the collapse of health systems, distress caused by burial rites not being able to be performed properly, difficulty in handling large numbers of cadavers, a general state of anxiety and a general feeling of diminished psychological health… It’s all very, very similar.
The three main differences, I would say, lie in our great capacity to gather huge amounts of data, the partial continuation of work and social life online, and our infinitely higher degree of scientific technical knowledge. Taking all this into account, we are in a much more comfortable situation, especially when we consider mortality rates: cholera’s mortality rate was 50 to 60%, while Corona’s rate lies around 2.5%.
LF: You have recently created your own podcast “Literatura Viral” on your PhD topic. What motivated you to start this project and what is your experience with this medium?
ALG: The idea of creating a podcast came to me some months before starting my PhD. Graduate research can be quite lonely at times, and I thought that a podcast could be an effective means to communicate with the world. Besides, I am often annoyed by the great schism that exists between academia and “the real world.” I think there are many areas of scholarly research and debate that need to be better understood by society at large. At the beginning, I was too lazy to actually start recording.
But since the Corona crisis, everything has changed. Up to that point, my research was mostly an artistic and historical inquiry, interesting to specialists or for those intrigued by literature and history of culture. When Corona became pandemic, my subject was suddenly enriched with contemporary meaning, and it gained in relevance. That’s why I decided to finally get my podcast up and running.
LF: Why is it called “Literatura Viral”? And what topics do you discuss?
ALG: “Literatura Viral” works as a pun in Portuguese, for the word viral may be interpreted as “appertaining to a virus” but also as “popular,” just like in English. The first episodes focus on how epidemics were understood scientifically in the past. Then, I analyse how fear and anxiety appear in various texts written by authors such as João do Rio, Maupassant or Poe. This discussion is followed by a larger one on the “positive aspects” of the pandemic. Is there anything good about such tragic events? In order to think about this possibility, I made episodes on Giovanni Verga, Susan Sontag and the Brazilian author Monteiro Lobato. Other topics that I have dealt with include: the representation of the physician in films and paintings by Picasso and Luke Fildes, or the prophetic texts of Ibsen and Mary Shelley as a tool to help examine the chaotic Brazilian response to the pandemic and the irresponsible dismissal of the Minister of Health right in the middle of it. So far, I have recorded 19 episodes of about 45 minutes each in slightly more than two months.
LF: That is impressive. Talking about prophecies like the ones made by Ibsen and Shelley… can you make one yourself? Do you have any ideas about how the current crisis will be treated in contemporary literature?
ALG: I guess it depends on what will happen. If the problem vanishes in a couple of months, Coronavirus as a literary theme will most likely suffer the same fate as the Spanish Flu. The 1918 Flu was largely forgotten from cultural memory until quite recently. Although it produced some interesting literary texts, these works are surprisingly few when we consider the unmatched historical magnitude of the Spanish Flu. The same could possibly happen if the Coronavirus lasts for a year or two and then goes away for good. However, if it behaves like the Plague, which wreaked devastation across the globe in the 14th century, but also reappeared periodically every generation or so until the early 20th century, then the Coronavirus Pandemic will leave a deep and lasting impression on our cultural landscape.
Broadly speaking, I do believe it will influence the artistic production in surprising and unexpected ways. On the one hand, it seems reasonable to expect a rise in interest in post-apocalyptic literature or zombie films. On the other hand, the opposite might be true. People’s interest for this topic has already reached saturation point and the public are partially numb to it. We could argue for the first scenario by remembering that Camus’ The Plague (1947) or Saramago’s Blindness (1995) have joined best-selling lists once again after the arrival of Covid-19. Yet, we could use the very same argument to reach the opposite conclusion. Both novels are ‘unrealistic’ in the sense that they either explore a disease that disappeared (plague) or a fictional new scourge (white blindness). If texts were to discuss the virus itself, they would run the risk of being too real, too familiar, perhaps uncomfortably so. Camus could have portrayed the Spanish Flu – still prevalent in living memory when he wrote his novel –, just as Saramago could have discussed HIV-AIDS –the pandemic raging during the 1990s. There might be a reason why they chose not to do so.
So, I have not yet really reached a conclusion… The cultural interest in epidemics as a literary theme could just as easily increase as diminish.
LF: Thank you for your insights and for this fascinating exploration of 19th & 20th century literature and its relationship to disease. We look forward to your future research findings and good luck for your projects!