Is language a pestilence? Are bad ideas contagious? Is there safety in numbers? Are emotions dangerous? Or will they keep us going? Is the species frail? Is the species resilient and brave? Are we driven by prejudice and suspicion? Or can we put aside our grievances? Is love a disease? Is love the only cure? If you believe the successive claims advanced by the writing on infectious disease, the answer to all of the above questions is: yes. “You ne understand allegory,” a young woman chides her cousin, Pogge, in James Meek’s recent novel To Calais, in Ordinary Time, set in the 1340s, during the Black Death. Well, if that’s the case, Pogge would be hideously ill-equipped to confront the work of Meek and dozens of forerunners going back millennia.
At the start of the Iliad, the founding work of the Western tradition, the narrator commands the Muse to sing of the anger – “menis” – that emanated from the Greek warrior Achilles, killing countless men. Why did his anger have this impact? The direct reason pertains to military strategy – you don’t want a hothead for a leader – but Homer also aligns anger with deadly infection, and not just metaphorically.