Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The West Wind

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."

9 comments:

Speechless said...

Phila, I so appreciate your posting oon Bleak House, one of my favorite novels by Dickens. I've long regretted having already read it, if you know what I mean. What else does one have to look forward to by him that isn't rather a lesser work?

Your tying it it this Bird Flu is a good surprise. And your right, it does feel like we are possibly as helpless as people were then to insulate ourselves from the threat. In my thinking about it, I've imaged it rather like the potatoe famine in Ireland, but you're right that this is far more classless a threat than faminine as it can strike everyone without regard to wealth or station.

I keep imagining myself protecting my children by keeping them home from school and getting them to wash their hands constantly, but they are actually at an age where they will hear such instruction as obsessiveness from the mammy.

And if this bird flu does strike as hard as some expect, will we think back on this time now as the happy time before the plague? It's a sobering thought, isn't it?

WHT said...

And the news people around my parts are up in arms over West Nile virus. The little reading I have done on West Nile show it to be a very quickly self-limiting contagion. But one person finally dies from it more than halfway into the year and you would think you couldn't go outside for fear of getting stung by a mosquito.

Phila said...

But one person finally dies from it more than halfway into the year

Someone's who 82, as often as not...

Engineer-Poet said...

... 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." 

The (Muslim) government of Indonesia has slaughtered the pigs of ethnic Chinese farmers (presumably non-Muslim) in a claimed attempt to fight avian flu.  Exactly what responsibility do the nations of Europe and N. America have for this nonsense, and what could we possibly do about it?

While the West has its people who resist the lessons of evolution, even the USA has enough smarts in the government to avoid nonsense such as this.  Japan, Taiwan and India would be unlikely to make such big mistakes either.  Indonesia and other nations in the grip of anti-scientific thinking have chosen to disregard the facts on display.  Such willful ignorance may shortly reap its just reward; in nature, the only capital crime is stupidity.

Phila said...

E-P,

Exactly what responsibility do the nations of Europe and N. America have for this nonsense, and what could we possibly do about it?

You seem to have gotten the idea that I'm claiming the US is responsible for every action undertaken by a foreign government. That's an absurd proposition, which I never made.

Briefly put, we have the responsibility to do what is in our power. That might include creating massive stockpiles of (for instance) anti-virals and ventilators, that can be rushed to trouble spots as needed; wholeheartedly supporting an effective, completely de-politicized global health infrastructure in concert with Europe, Japan, etc.; using our financial and political leverage to increase compliance with scientifically sound medical and agricultural practices, through incentives, sanctions, and educational efforts; offering scholarships in medicine to interested students from impoverished countries like Vietnam; funding improvements in clinics and hospitals, and donating up-to-date equipment; putting in place organized, collaborative monitoring systems for emerging diseases; and refusing to play politics with public health issues as a matter of principle.

In the case of Vietnam, a country whose present state of disarray we did a great deal to impose on it, I think we'd have a moral obligation to build a functional, fully funded public health system, even if it weren't ultimately in our best interests to do so. And our support for the rapacious government of Suharto, who squandered Indonesia's wealth - and our tax dollars - on any number of reprehensible and regressive policies is at least worth considering, when we're critiquing the present state of that country.

Scrapping a couple of prospective weapons systems would pay for most of the stuff I'm suggesting. I'm not a utopian, and I realize that much of what I suggested above is not likely to happen. Nonetheless, we do have a responsibility to come as close to these ideals as possible. I hope you're not going to suggest that we've done so.

in nature, the only capital crime is stupidity.

That's admirably terse, but if you read it again, more objectively, I think you'll agree with me that it's not only untrue, but meaningless.

Engineer-Poet said...

The USA also had a lot (up to everything) to do with the current state of Taiwan, Japan and S. Korea, and they are in far better shape than Indonesia despite the rapacity of the ruling parties in all three.

Don't discount national character.

Phila said...

The USA also had a lot (up to everything) to do with the current state of Taiwan, Japan and S. Korea, and they are in far better shape than Indonesia despite the rapacity of the ruling parties in all three.

Don't discount national character.


Sorry, but I will discount national character, at least for now. I think that to view the US's postwar role in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan as somehow comparable to our backing of the gruesome dictator Suharto would be somewhat irrational.

Your argument here is really pretty threadbare, IMO. And making a casual - and easy to misinterpret - appeal to the notion of "national character" doesn't help matters at all. At least not with me.

If you're at all inclined to clarify what you mean, please do.

Engineer-Poet said...

Arguing that national character is irrelevant begs the question of why.  At the outset, the various nations differed immensely in religion & culture, climate, education, regional influences and a host of other things; these differences constrain and direct responses to pressures and events.  Of the various examples you cited, Vietnam was conquered by a communist dictatorship (a recipe for decay everywhere it's been tested); the difference between S. Korea (rescued from the same fate by US intervention) and N. Korea is typical of the outcomes, as their relative fortunes have completely reversed since 1950 (N. Korea used to be the prosperous, industrial part of the peninsula).

Suharto was nasty, but there were some pretty nasty episodes in Taiwan with the KMT and the dictatorial "presidencies" of S. Korea too.  Taiwan and S. Korea have graduated to full liberal democracies, Indonesia has not.  If you assign blame to the US for Indonesia, you also have to give the US credit for the rest.

It may have been possible for Indonesia to do better, but that begs the question of how.  It appears to be not out of line for the region, perhaps better than the average Muslim-dominated nation with low educational levels; progress toward democracy appears strongly related to education and income, factors which the US is relatively helpless to improve on their behalf.  US influence in the region was largely directed toward containment of communism; this isn't about moral purity, this is about reálpolitik.  If the cost of not dealing with Suharto was another Vietnam or North Korea but with most of a billion people involved, would it have been worth it?  You can say that it would, but the people I've met who left Vietnam on boats would probably tell you otherwise.

Phila said...

Of the various examples you cited, Vietnam was conquered by a communist dictatorship (a recipe for decay everywhere it's been tested)

Ultra-right authoritarianism isn't exactly a recipe for happiness and prosperity, either. Or is it?

Suharto was nasty, but there were some pretty nasty episodes in Taiwan with the KMT and the dictatorial "presidencies" of S. Korea too.

Which the US was also involved in, IIRC. But at its worst, the authoritarian brutality in South Korea was very different from the situation with the mass-murderer Suharto, who operated on a scale more comparable to that of our old pal Pinochet.

If you assign blame to the US for Indonesia, you also have to give the US credit for the rest.

Happy to oblige. The US did a fair amount of good in Japan, for instance.

US influence in the region was largely directed toward containment of communism; this isn't about moral purity, this is about reálpolitik.

Oh, come on. The idea that the Timorese needed to be massacred in order to prevent the spread of communism is absurd. The "reálpolitik" argument is too often used as a substitute for actual engagement with an issue, and it's shallow insofar as it refuses to assess honestly the long-term effects of the courses of action reálpolitik supposedly dictates (to say nothing of the opportunity costs involved).

It seems like you're somewhat worked up about Islam, which is fine. Would you agree that the US has done a great deal over the years to make Islamic extremism more attractive to people in countries like Iran, Indonesia, and the Philppines? (And Iraq, for that matter?) I'm curious what you think about this.

Last, getting back to the actual point of this post: How do we protect ourselves from emerging diseases when we've gutted our own public health infrastructure, and have taken a generally laissez-faire approach to global public health issues? You seem to reject both the compassionate, and the self-interested side of my argument, in favor of (as far as I can tell) a blend of moral isolationism and ideological imperialism. Would you care to give me a good reason why we shouldn't build up-to-date medical facilities in Vietnam and Cambodia, even if it were primarily for our own protection and the interests of medical research? We can sell bullets to a foreign thug like Suharto to help "contain communism," by your lights...so why can't we build foreign clinics to help contain diseases? I personally believe there's a moral obligation to do so, because that's the kind of person I am, but one could reject that obligation and still recognize that there are good scientific and economic reasons for monitoring and fighting diseases in foreign countries. Kind of a no-brainer, IMO.