On Outka’s Viral Modernism

Viral Modernism | Columbia University PressI would like to start this brief meditation with a phrase from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. There, Fanon describes the colonial situation as one characterized by what he calls “atmospheric violence.” While Fanon is using the phrase here to describe the violence inflicted on the colonized, I think we might also recognize our current situation as one shot through by “atmospheric violence.”  We might quibble that Fanon is describing a wildly different situation, and this in undoubtedly true, but in the following I want to address how—particularly in the context of a pandemic—past texts and the way we read them, change, allowing us to think seriously about our current predicament, perhaps out of a need to make sense of what is increasingly an inscrutable situation. Aided by Elizabeth Outka’s incredibly timely study of the influenza pandemic, Viral Modernism, I will be discussing three modernist texts, The Waste Land, Mrs. Dalloway, and Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” As Outka argues, the way we read these texts change when we consider them in the light of the 1918 influenza pandemic. I would only add that the current pandemic will also have a profound change in the way we think about modernism.

Outka mounts an entirely convincing framework to analyze a number of modernist works through the lens of the 1918 influenza pandemic, but I would like to start with the one in which her argument is more tenuous, namely her reading of Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” Perhaps one of the most famous poems in the English language, the poem, with its apocalyptic tones, has been read as a text shot through by WWI and fears of global revolution. Outka however, present us with an interesting biographical detail: Yeats’s pregnant wife George had been sick with the pandemic virus two weeks before the composition of the poem. Outka grants that intentionality is out of the question here, and while her argument that the poem represents a kind of disembodied feverish state is somewhat muddled, her larger claim that the influenza pandemic has been erased by the foregrounding of WWI is entirely convincing. In the end, the biographical detail, beyond intentionality, points to the historical atmosphere created by the 1918 pandemic, and it is hard to disagree that the poem can be read not as a direct response to the outbreak, but perhaps as an indexical symptomatic document of the forgotten Spanish Flu pandemic.

Viral Modernism’s reading of Eliot’s The Waste Land is more exacting, and here the biographical detail adds complexity: Eliot’s wife Vivien had almost died in the midst of the pandemic, and Eliot himself succumbed to the virus. Indeed, we might see our current situation in Outka’s description of The Waste Land as “a miasmic atmosphere of failed vision, unseen deaths, silence, and failed communication.” Or elsewhere, when she described how “Eliot’s lines make logical sense…. when seen within a delirium context, evoking the splintering of thought illness could produce.” In other words, and this is the key point, there might be a relation between the splintered form of modernist poems and the state of delirium associated with the influenza pandemic. “Eliot’s aim to capture ordinary experiences that would otherwise be missed,” Outka writes, “was ideally suited for the elusive bodily and mental sensations the virus generated.”

I would like to close with what is perhaps Outka’s most convincing reading: her interpretation of Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” and Mrs. Dalloway. In a move that is sure to change we read the novel, Outka zeroes in on the way Woolf’s protagonist is described as frail and recovering from the virus. In her essay, Woolf calls for more novelistic engagement with the reality of disease, and this is echoed in her novel.  Woolf writes:


Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us in the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of angels … when we think of this and infinitely more, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.


As Outka writes, Clarissa Dalloway’s battle with influenza is explicitly thematized:

At the start of the novel, she is seen by Scrope Purvis pausing on a London street corner; she is pale, “Very white since her illness,” her heart possibly compromised, “affected, they said, by influenza.”

Not surprisingly, Clarissa spends most of her time in her room, in a state of perpetual convalescence.

Woolf’s depiction of her character as one recovering from influenza evokes current fears about COVID’S long-term effects. And here I would only like to add that this evocation means that the way we read past texts in contemporary times is inevitably colored by the current pandemic. The virtue of Outka’s book (one written, amazingly, a year prior to the first detection of CORONAVIRUS) is that it helps us re-read canonical modernist text through a palliative lens, that is, it helps us see prior pandemic experiences that can help us make sense of our own ongoing battle with a viral atmosphere.