Daniel Defoe: The Plague Years. Review. Fictional Books (January 2023).
Mr. Defoe has just written a book about the last two years or more of unsettling unpleasantness and although it may not be published and is privately given to this reviewer it is unlike his recent text Robinson Crusoe (2017).
In fact it is not a work of fiction though like that text it does concern a man isolated and observing. Self isolating to coin a phrase de jour.
Thus Mr. Defoe stayed in London despite the advice of Doctors to chronicle the events described in his text. But where could he go after a while? No one was allowed to go anywhere except for a local walk, a brief controlled shop or a court room or hospital.
An earlier book was of course published at the time of the last plague in 1665 by a curiously similar named author.
I am led to understand by a learned Spanish friend of mine that the conditions in the city of Madrid and indeed by my publisher Dublin were much different during the plague and those countries have been more stringent in curtailing the liberties of subjects which sensible British opinion such as the noble Lord Sumption have condemned.
The slippery slope to the creation of a police state now sadly evident. I understand also that the Chinese have behaved very extremely but at great consolation to the mass of the populace but at great detriment to the impact on civil liberties not least of those in Hong Kong. The cause of liberty and indeed human rights are much imperiled by all of this embedded legislation.
Mr. Defoe chronicles the events in London of all his present citizens he encounters as The Plague visits in this year of our Lord 2020 and lasts for over two years and the sediments are still with us with the possibility of plagues to come.
He seems to have seen a lot and perhaps has not maintained all the rules about social distancing. London at least permits that limited level of freedom. Now from his observations Mr. Defoe has made a number of points of I think universal significance.
He is concerned about how astrology and the dark arts are gaining sway over the populace. He is thus obviously concerned about the quality and standard of governmental briefings. By indirection I suspect he is concerned about the rejection and denudation of scientific fact which has blurred both the standard of our public discourse and its responsiveness to this crisis and how spindoctering has taken over.
A point he might have made but did not in an escalating sense of crisis is that the rejection of scientific modes of analysis and the distrust of experts may have contributed to the present sorry impasse. But of course scientists are also manipulable and sell products too.
He is thus obviously perturbed how those who offer to the poor and gullible on the black market false information and fake solutions such as paper masks of dubious non proven validity should be disbelieved and one should not fall into that particular venus fly trap. In fact a German lawyer is accusing Pfizer of fraud and many are profiting from and have profited from social and economic collapse. Late dark capitalism.
Regrettably, he endorses as a Christian gentleman, how religion provides solace but that is the last thing we need now. Not religious solace but yes of course christian compassion to protect the wretched and poor of the earth with widening inequality.
He saliently notes how the poor and essential workers expose themselves to danger and danger to others as they irresponsibly interact of financial necessity and travel when they should not. He notes the fearlessness and the recklessness but does not, in my estimate, sufficiently weigh the desperation of Conorovirus Catch 22.
That much older text by Mr. Joseph Heller, an esteemed American author, is worthy of consideration in this context. Now the premise is simple and that is a serviceman refuses to go on a flying mission or indeed any other mission with the certain prospect of death as to do so would be insane unless of course you were a Japanese Kamikaze pilot. Thus the indication he would not want to do so is an exercise in rationality.
The Catch 22 is that demonstrates his rationality and not insanity and thus he is trapped. Or rather an impossible universe creates the problem.
The larger Catch 22 is that as depression looms or is here we have to work but by working unless privileged to do so exclusively from the comfort of homes or sealed offices we are all part of Catch 22. If we do not work then the social structure and economy will collapse and resources are dwindling and we will not be bailed out. If we do work we risk self immolation.
In a most salient passage Mr. Defoe notes:
“I only hinted before, but must more fully speak to here, namely, that men went about apparently well many dyes after they had the taint of the disease in their vitals, and after their spirits were seized as they could never escape it, and all the while they did so they were dangerous to others.”
Thus he is aware of the spreader or the silent spreader and many extreme actions have been proposed and were implemented in this respect. But what choice did they have or do we have. There is no alternative. TINA.
The watchmen figure highly in his book the enforcers of self isolation but he I think does not fully understand how their now putative and assumed authority can be abused and who shall watch the watchman as movement, liberty and dignity were and are still restricted and many arbitrary and random arrests took place and indeed random acts of civil disobedience and said powers are now given permanently to the Hobbesean state to abuse.
There are watchmen in effect now in abundance and of course a growing harvesting of personal data and information for reasons we know not but cannot only speculate. Doubtless we will know soon.
He notes how the tavern shows were closed or curtailed and condemned in a civic fashion by those who flouted the rules and engaged in those illegal vices. Well a little puritanical. The puppet show continues and the taverns closed and opened and closed again in a merry go round for we should be sociable beings for that is all we are creatures in now a worldwide magic lantern show. Smokes and Mirrors and it is very difficult to know what is going on in a world of illusions, fakery and fake news, spin doctoring and assumptions of false dawns.
He notes that the much criticised alt right President Trump lost the election in far off america and was replaced by an ostensible democrat Biden but nothing changes and trumpery or neo liberalism continues and the poor die in truckloads worldwide.
Something he neglects to mention is that we still have had access to the Brave New World (an even older book by Mr. Huxley) of the London hatchery of Netflix and social media. The bread and circuses of our new dehumanised, atomised and distanced existence. Working and looking at things from home.
Defoe does deal with how information travels fast but not with the quality of the information provided and shared gossip by the sans culottes is very dangerous. Word of mouth and I believe what The Daily Blah says got also us in this predicament and the social panic that ensued.
The most disturbing thing he demonstrates is how the pit of disposal and the knacker’s yard is the common fate of many and how human disposal needs to be quickly dealt with to avoid the dispersal of infection and spread of the same. The hospitals have become like scenes from a war zone for that is what is what or society has become.
The last two years or so has been a salutary reminder of human behavior at its worst and indeed best and the resulting confinements and social chaos as well as undignified deaths in an under resourced hospital system often by key workers something we should not wish to see again in 2023.
But yet I fear all has changed and the chronicle of Mr. Defoe is not an isolated one and there will be more to come unless the present order of neo liberal globalization changes which it will not.
John Gray, the UK academic, in evolutionary descriptive not evaluative terms has spoken and written about a form of Malthusian population cull. Conorovirus achieves that in increments as may austerity, depression et al. This is a turning point not for the good in human affairs.
Mr. Defoe chronicles the sheer amount of early deaths caused by this visitation. A form of Malthusian Social Darwinism he might have added. The death of the disempowered by a world leadership corporate and political obsesse with thinking in terms of numbers and not people.
David Langwallner is a barrister specialising in public law, immigration, housing and criminal defence including miscarriages of justice. He is emeritus director of the Irish innocence project and was Irish lawyer of the year at the 2015 Irish law awards. His column appears here every Tuesday and Friday. Follow David on Twitter @DLangwallner
Illustration via Samzdat Writer’s Co-Op