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That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic

This series, That Thing With Feathers, grew from Facebook posts. Not just any posts--these were from author and professor Karin Anderson, whose novel Before Us Like a Land of Dreams is described, in a starred review from Library Journal, as a "fictionalized journey through time, prompted by a beloved country severely divided. A work of universal appeal." Anderson's search for stories from pandemics past and her generous impulse to share them is the foundation for That Thing With Feathers, and we're thrilled to bring you more from Karin Anderson today.

Conceptual Turbulence

Karin Anderson

It’s been a stupefying week. Everyone knows that as well as I do. Among other concrete manifestations of impending pestilence: each of my grown children, who have worked at steady jobs since they were sixteen, have been laid off, with promises they can return “when things get better.”

When will things get better? What will “better” be like?

Of course by now none of us can picture how next week, month, year will transform the world we’ve known, in any of its familiar uglies or exquisites. Our capacities for anticipation are jammed. And here in Salt Lake City, we’ve been struck merely by the first monster wave of economic fallout (well, and some earthquakes). The actual illness stalking the communal body yet rolls in the oracle’s mouth.

Very dark, yes. Possibly darker than we can comprehend at the moment. One effect is that we’re all learning to live more vividly in our singular moments, I imagine. And maybe that’s—you know—a thing with feathers.

I really do love the academic rigors of reading. In simpler times, I’m a theory freak. Even so, all that professorish stuff speaks to me precisely because I deeply, personally need to wring the hell out of the best language of the human archive. Most of us read and write because we grieve, we’re confused, we rejoice, and we crave contact. We reach for given lives, peculiar places in their temporal moments, the human family drawing back to the sensory body. Words yield and yield, even as they obscure. Anne Carson (working Baudrillard) praises the ancient lyric poet Stesichoros, who strains to break through politically formal poetic “code” in order to satiate his “passion for substances”—a passion for real things as they shock the senses, rupturing appropriate meaning and salutary cliché.

The buck-up reassurances of politics, of literature, of religion and medicine show their cracks in a dark time. While I sit here and write, seismologists in Utah are scrambling to map a previously unknown fault line at the eastern feet of the Oquirrh Mountains. Something apparently solid had to break and shake before we could plumb the fault lines.

I was trained as a child, and often as a college student, to read literature as high coherence: The Code. Literature was explanation. Even so, sly, many-faced, self-slipping word-creations beckoned me toward another way of being and seeing—far more beautiful, infinitely more terrifying: the gesture toward the inexpressible. In his strange, compelling novella The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals, Samuel R. Delany turns the meanings and anti-meanings in the early dawn of AIDS in New York (how striking now, again) over and over in his capable mind, recording his evolving impressions first hand. Plagues and Carnivals shuttles back and forth between real 1980s New York City and Delany’s brightly wrought fictional city of Kolhari, capital of ancient Nevèrÿon. Here, he’s in New York, speaking of AIDS before it meant what it now means in various hindsights:

This past summer, when one of the aging street people was suspected of having AIDS (because he’d lost perhaps forty pounds in a month) and the hustlers and dope dealers rallied to get the man to the hospital, Joey, talking about it with me in the Fiesta, said: ‘AIDS, that’s where your body just stops healing, and even an infection from a little cut, or a cold, can kill you…?’ There was the faintest interrogation at the end of his pronouncement that a question mark distorts. Still, he seemed to be waiting for my confirmation. How do I explain that this questioning is what we share—not what either of us can relieve for the other. This is the absence that will be filled, one way or the other, by metaphors, his, mine, or someone else’s.

I keep reading the word “unprecedented” in relation to current economic jags, previews of pandemic, rumors of conspiracy and apocalypse. I guess, in a way, everything is unprecedented, but then again, don’t we read? Don’t we watch movies, sing plague ditties in kindergarten, worship our ancestors’ mythic hardships? Of course we do—but when generational mortality jams into consciousness in the blood-and-bone body, words do too. Substance and language merge. Stories—fictional or “true” —get real. Delany expresses the urgency of recording the onset of AIDS before it settles into impermeable code, yet he also understands how plague must find its way into actionable cultural metaphor. How suddenly familiar is Delany’s scene from old Kolhari, inspired by the onset of devastating plague in twentieth century New York:

On the raised paving stone beyond the mouth of the Bridge of Lost Desire, on the speakers’ platform at both old and new markets, at corners in the business district along Black Avenue, on the waterfront and in the central squares of the ethnic neighborhoods, Imperial criers, wearing the sign of the Royal Eagle on breast and back, shouted: ‘There is danger in Kolhari of plague. To date there have been seventy-nine probable deaths—and of the several hundred who have contracted it, no one has yet recovered. We advise care, caution, and cleanliness, and Her Majesty, whose reign is brave and beneficent, discourages the indiscriminate gathering of crowds. This is not an emergency! No, this is not an emergency! But it is a situation Her Majesty feels might develop into one.’ And on the bridge and in the market and on the street corners and in the yards, people gathered, heard, glanced at their neighbors, and dispersed quickly.

Golly. Right there at the inversion of substance to code. Where we are now—or at least, where we were last week. We’re a bit beyond the first news but still in the unintelligible tunnel, cold fear between our shoulder blades. Delany, in his own voice, prods us from our current condition of nervous un-knowing toward an evolution of clearer social meaning, a code we can recognize. We’ll lose something of where we are now, what we’re experiencing at the animal level as we enter medical, political, and culturally-mediated recognitions. But, of course, until we settle on meaning and metaphor, we can’t act as a human community:

Without a virus, in a sense AIDS is not a disease. It’s a mysterious and so far (23 February 1984) microbically unagented failure to fight disease. It is connected with sex—‘perverted’ sex. It is connected with blood—‘blood products,’ as they say. Suddenly the body gives up, refuses to heal, will not become whole. This is the aspect of the ‘illness’ that is ravenous for metaphors to stifle its unsettled shift, its insistent uneasiness, its conceptual turbulence.

It's frightening and fascinating to return to the immediate record of a plague that most of Reagan’s America experienced as distant, foreign, and other even while very real people among us yet mourn the loss of dozens, hundreds of personally beloved friends and allies. To call our season “unprecedented” reiterates our refusal to make illness our own, to mourn the dead—past and future—as our kin, as ourselves. The raw impulse in response to a threat that stalks us all is to transform it into a threat that stalks them—foreigners. Queers and deviants. Old people. Already sick people. Unbelievers. Unbaptized. What we aren’t. Delany’s remarkable, endlessly figure-eighting novella traces this human urge with both compassion and reproof. It’s the kind of writing that teaches us how to read with our whole brains, whole hearts, the seismic fissures of selfness reconciled. In a Kolhari scene, Delany portrays a committed teacher— “The Master” —walking the schoolyard, pondering the sensation of sudden absence:

[The Master] stood with his lids near met, smiling. Because, walking out among his students, he smiled. Toplin would have been in the thick of their ball tossing… Can I hear his absence through their games? Eyes all but shut, the Master caught the shadow of three dashing by his left indoors and, a moment later, one sauntering out on his right. With a tiny joy, he (who claimed to know all his children by their footsteps, even around corners) recognized none of them. Then, as if in reaction to the joy, there was… Nothing, he thought. An absence. But it’s an absence in me. What will I fill it with? Work? Fear of the illness? Mistaken notions? Brilliant speculation? Care and concern for the ailing Toplin, whose distraught, angry mother had taken him away only an hour ago, back to her somewhat pretentious house in its somewhat unfashionable neighborhood? That he truly did not know was the absence. He opened his eyes to the sun and stalked among the young women and young men laughing and loitering in the light—certainly—of his knowledge.

So many people, in this new season of fearful, unquestionably precedented return, will rise to the kind of love we can in better times forget is the definition of human culture. They do not ask for whom the bell tolls. My sister, a registered nurse, is a member of the Wasatch Front Infectious Disease Control team. She’s on the front lines of corralling sheer anti-meaning into medical clarity, very literally risking her life. My university colleagues across the nation reach for their bewildered missing students across the mysteries of light and energy. The woman who rang up my groceries yesterday wished me well, and sent me off with kind blessings.

Here we are, this week: separated in our homes, together on the planet, bound to the generations. I pass on to you the blessings of the grocery clerk.


Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red. New York: First Vintage Contemporary Edition, 1999.

Samuel R. Delany: The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals, as enclosed in Return From Neveryon. Open Road Media, Kindle Edition.

A gardener, writer, mother, wanderer, and heretic, Karin Anderson is a professor of English at Utah Valley University. She is the author of Before Us Like a Land of Dreams and hails from the Great Basin.

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