|Bring out your dead!|
44%! Try to imagine that for a moment. ... Now what do you come up with? As she points out, there are a series of highly excitable images of utter social collapse, despair and descent into barbarism to be culled from contemporary plague literature, and a lot of historians have swallowed this ‘dystopic vision’ wholesale. Whether because we simply believed it, or because the quotes make good copy for our textbooks. But as she points out – and proves with a careful reading of wills and parochial documents, but really, the point is self-evidently true once she has made it – that’s not really what happened. English towns didn’t collapse into a Hobbesian world of desperation as the death toll mounted; they kept calm and carried on. They didn’t even tend to suffer panics of scapegoating or paranoia about deliberate plague-spreaders or witchcraft. Instead they made wills, conducted funerals, regulated trade, listened to sermons and prayed for it all to end.
It seems to me that what Formby has done is diagnose a weakness, not simply of our accounts of plague in early modern England, but in our collective imagination. This is why I started thinking about movies, the principal medium for modern dystopias. We love 'em. But they tend either to be absolute: near-extermination, total collapse, zombie takeover, world utterly transformed – or averted: after a desperate brush with near-calamity the world goes back to how it’s always been.
Well, fair enough, our imaginations like absolutes, but this is lazy. Lazy and cowardly. It is the attitude of the marine in Aliens (I did promise) who, when the shuttle is destroyed and the band on the surface are left without an apparent means of escape, whimpers ‘Game over! Game over!’ – because in the world of video games, we are used to the idea of total disaster, crash and burn, pull out and start again, no consequences. But reality ain’t like that.
Most disasters are not absolute. They are real, devastating, and consequential, but they do not wipe the slate clean. Human beings are resilient and are also creatures of habit. You can panic, but you can’t keep panicking, and once you’ve finished, you tend to carry on, because what else is there? The real catastrophes of the West in the past century (world wars, the Spanish flu) have been of this kind: even as the principal imagined one (nuclear war) is of the absolute variety.
We need to learn to be better at imagining serious but non-terminal disasters, the kind which are actually going to hit us. (For a recent cinematic example, the excellent and chilling Contagion.) That way, when we confront such things, we will be less tempted simply to say ‘Game over!’ and to attempt to reboot reality, and will instead try to work out how to deal with real, permanent but not unlimited damage. Plus, doing the work of imagination beforehand may also give us a more prudent attitude to the risks we recklessly run.
And look, I did that whole thing without saying a word about climate change!