Introduction: Literature and Plague

Introduction: Literature and Plague

This week Professor Barry McCrea introduces the topic of the course by taking a long historical perspective on pandemics in society. Mass outbreaks of contagious illness have been common in human history, and over the millennia, thinkers and writers have left us their responses to the experience. In this introduction, taking examples from the traces left by prehistoric tribes, the role of plague in ancient Greek tragedy, and the work of Chaucer and Defoe, Barry looks at what aspects of life in a pandemic seem to be constant throughout the centuries, irrespective of technological and social changes.

Meet the faculty

Presented by Barry McCrea

Barry McCrea is a scholar of comparative literature and a novelist. His novel, The First Verse, won the 2006 Ferro-Grumley prize for fiction and a Barnes & Noble “Discover” award. He is also the author of two academic books, In the Company of Strangers (2011), and Languages of the Night: Minor Languages and the Literary Imagination in Twentieth-Century Ireland and Europe which was awarded the American Comparative Literature Association’s Wellek prize for the best book of 2016. He is currently finishing a trilogy of novels tentatively entitled Dalkey. At Notre Dame, he teaches in the departments of English, Irish, and Romance Languages, and he holds the Keough Family Chair in Irish Studies.

Run time: 2 minutes

How can literature help us live through a pandemic cycle?

Presented by Barry McCrea

In our time together in this enrichment program, we will explore some of the rich history of plague and quarantine literature, with the hope of gaining a better understanding and navigating our own experience of COVID-19.

Run time: 5 minutes

Living in lockdown: Can literature help?

Presented by Barry McCrea

With the closing of the campus in March, I decided to offer an online mini-course on literary works and films set in pandemic or quarantine. My hope was to give students who had suddenly found themselves back home some bearings to help navigate the strange silent waters of life in lockdown.

I had some misgivings about my idea; as a rule, I feel that literature doesn’t usually work well as an instruction manual you pull off the shelf in case of emergency. The help that reading fiction gives is stealthy and slow-burning, not immediate.

However, it became clear right way that reading accounts of living through pandemics – even with hundreds of years of distance – offered a great deal of comfort. It is hard to get a good mental handle on a situation that has no precedent in our own memories or those of anyone we know. But literature does not leave us alone: Plagues have always happened, and over the centuries, people have left us their thoughts about how best to live through them.

Even if almost everything else changes – science, medicine, technology – one thing that seems not to change all that much is what being on lockdown feels like. The students – majoring in all sorts of fields, from accounting to pre-med to theater – reported that they found the course enormously helpful in giving them a broader context to understand the pandemic and tools to manage its many psychological challenges. For this reason, I have been working with Kylemore and the NDAA and other campus partners to make this series open and available to the wider Notre Dame community.

What do pandemics reveal about society? How does literature respond to plagues?

Presented by Barry McCrea

Living through a pandemic is an unprecedented experience to most of us as individuals, but it is nothing new for humans as a species. Over the centuries, people have reflected on what living in the midst of contagion feels like and have come up with tools for coping with the strange psychological experience of life in lockdown.

Run time: 6 minutes

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Additional resources

Kylemore Book Club Zoom Backgrounds

Use these stunning Kylemore Abbey virtual backgrounds in your Zoom.

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Presented by Barry McCrea

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Featured Speakers:

  • Susan Ohmer, The William T. and Helen Kuhn Carey Associate Professor of Modern Communication, University of Notre Dame
  • Kieron Webb, Head of Conservation, British Film Institute
  • Rev. Jim Lies C.S.C., Director for Academic Initiatives & Partnerships, University of Notre Dame, London, England

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Prepare for next week

Read the “Introduction” and the “First Story” (the story of Cepperello) of “The Decameron” by Giovanni Boccaccio. Recommended translations: Oxford University Press, Norton, or Penguin Classics.

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