Effect Measure describes Europe's response to the westward march of bird flu, which reminds me of Charles Dickens' working title for Bleak House: "The West Wind."
The title refers to the wind that carried disease - according to the theories of Dickens' time - from a fictionalized East End slum called Tom-All-Alone's to the mansions of the West End.
Even the winds are his messengers, and they serve him in these hours of darkness. There is not a drop of Tom's corrupted blood but propagates infection and contagion somewhere....There is not an atom of Tom's slime, not a cubic inch of any pestilential gas in which he lives, not one obscenity or degradation about him, not an ignorance, not a wickedness, not a brutality of his commiting, but shall work its retribution, through every order of society, up to the proudest of the proud, and to the highest of the high.In a report published, like Bleak House, in 1853, Dr. John Simon echoes this passage with talk of "the vapours of a retributive poison....spreading over miles of land." Simon described open sewers as
[C]hambers for an immense faecal evaporation; at every breeze which strikes against their open mouths, at every tide which encroaches on their inward space, their gases are breathed into the open air - wherever outlet exists, into houses, foot-paths, and carriage-way....In other words, bacteria and poisons don't stay where you put them. Among other things, Bleak House is about the impossibility both of isolating oneself from society, and of confining moral and physical sickness to an area conveniently reserved for it by economic theory. The book's heroine catches smallpox from a homeless child; she describes a stage of her delirium in one of those striking images that seem to go off like flashbulbs throughout the book:
Dare I hint at that worse time when, strung together somewhere in great black space, there was a flaming necklace, or ring, or starry circle of some kind, of which I was one of the beads! And when my only prayer was to be taken off from the rest and when it was such inexplicable agony and misery to be a part of the dreadful thing?The "dreadful thing," of course, is humanity itself. In Dickens' era, as in ours, a great many people felt that they could buy their way off this necklace. What happens to the poor, the logic goes, is their own problem; the diseases they catch, and the accidents that befall them, are simply their punishment for failing to be sufficiently prosperous.
Bleak House is an extended assault upon this viewpoint. First, the population of London is consistently de-individualized; the city is presented as an object - or even as a body with "ganglions of roads" - and the boundaries between its citizens are blurred or eliminated:
[E]very noise is merged, this moonlight night, into a distant ringing hum, as if the city were a vast glass, vibrating.Dickens' London is like a smoke-filled glass, with humanity puddled at the bottom. Throughout the book, he explores the various miseries of human proximity, from queasy distate (the minister Chadband exudes a hideous "train-oil" that his flabby hands smear over other characters) to smallpox.
The threat of contamination is everywhere. The death of Krook by spontaneous combustion is presaged by a pair of characters complaining about a certain greasiness in the air, and the stench of spoiled meat cooking, which they assume is coming from a nearby kitchen. But what they mistake for the stench of a lower-class meal is actually carbonized human flesh. When they go to visit Krook, they blunder into a "little thick nauseous pool" of his molten fat:
A thick, yellow liquor defiles them, which is offensive to the touch and sight and more offensive to the smell. A stagnant, sickening oil with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder....“This is a horrible house,” says Mr. Guppy, shutting down the window. “Give me some water or I shall cut my hand off.”This passage is symptomatic of the fascination with contamination and decay that so often led Dickens to visit the morgue on his midnight walks. On one such visit, he saw "a large dark man whose disfigurement by water was in a frightful manner comic, and whose expression was that of a prize-fighter who had closed his eyelids under a heavy blow." Later, while swimming in the river, Dickens is panicked at the thought of sharing the water with this corpse:
I was seized with an unreasonable idea that the large dark body was floating straight at me. I was out of the river, and dressing instantly. In the shock I had taken some water into my mouth, and it turned me sick, for I fancied that the contamination of the creature was in it.But despite his horror of contamination, Dickens needed crowds pressing in on him; isolation from crowds robbed him of his power to work. Perhaps it was this symbiosis that led him to see through a central lie of his era, which was that one could exist as something entirely separate from one's society...that one could escape basic human relationships and responsibilities through religion, or money, or aestheticism, or some appalling confluence of the three.
At any rate, we have a new disease drifting westward from the slums of the East. We have medical resources that Dickens' era lacked, of course; unfortunately, the persistence of laissez-faire's most nonsensical dictates has left us unable to use them to our best advantage. We exist at the mercy of an "invisible hand," of all absurd superstitions, and if it forbids us a functional public health system, that's just too bad for us.
As I argued elsewhere:
[S]ociety must put out my burning house not because I'm part of some "meritocracy"...but because a conflagration at my house may well burn down everyone else's.But even this modest concession to self-interest apparently requires too much acknowledgement of vulnerability and culpability from the idiot children of laissez-faire. Where they have control, they pretend to be helpless slaves to market forces. Where they have no control, they imagine that they're omnipotent, and immune to all "retributive poisons."
Our globalized world is more thronged and claustrophobic than Dickens' London; the "telescopic philanthropy" he complained about - because it led Londoners to pay more attention to the woes of far-flung "savages" than to those of their own neighbors - is hardly an issue; third-world slums are no less threatening to us than the slums of the East End were to the mansions of the West End. And it's very possible that our failure to recognize the problems of global poverty and ignorance as our responsibility "shall work its retribution, through every order of society, up to the proudest of the proud, and to the highest of the high."