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Collection and video archive of the 17th International Bibliological Readings
On the Tablets of Poetry and Prose

How to Survive: Pandemic Advice from Writers of the Past

How to Survive: Pandemic Advice from Writers of the Past
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Palina Dolia

It doesn't get easier in time. Uncertainty and anxiety have become our constant companions, and no matter how much time passes, it only becomes more difficult to cope with them: after all, anxiety has an easy cumulative effect. So what do we do? Let's resort to someone else's experience. Surely, you are already tired of all these modern recommendations for dealing with pandemic stress in the style of "sing more often". What can people who have been in it for hardly a year know about real life in a pandemic? Amateurs! Today we'll turn to the experience of isolation in fiction and the lives of writers themselves – they would certainly know a lot about how to stay at home and not go crazy (or at least try).

Spoiler alert: the advice of the past isn't all that different from the current one, but it's still worthwhile.

Give in to hedonistic impulses

When we mentioned the authors of the past, we meant really distant past. Put aside all the stories about the Spanish influenza for now – let's recall the events of the Peloponnesian War (and this, for a moment, was in 431–404 BC) to begin with. Deaths alone on the battlefield, apparently, were few: a cruel plague struck Athens in the second year of the war and was so severe that it even took the life of the notorious Pericles. Thucydides in his "History" described this period as the greatest grief which, nevertheless, gave birth to an unquenchable thirst for life: "... everyone rushed to sensual pleasures, believing that life and wealth were brief and worthless." In general, everything that brought people at least some pleasure was "both honourable and useful."

Boccaccio's "Decameron" is imbued with the same spirit. While Black Death was in Florence, the characters of the short stories from this collection escaped to a country house, where they ate fine food, drink delicious wine and entertain each other with stories. Isn't it a glorious pandemic pastime? “Some believed that living in moderation and abstaining from all excesses was a great help in the fight against evil; having gathered in circles, they lived, separated from others, hiding and locking themselves in houses where there were no sick and it was more convenient for them themselves; eating the finest food and the finest wines, not allowing anyone to talk to themselves and not wanting to know the news from outside, they spent their time among music and pleasures they could get."

So, buy yourself something tasty, be it a sugar roll or a bottle of your favourite wine. We cheer for you.

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Wear comfortable clothes

It's time to admit that a blazer paired with pyjama pants during a Zoom meeting isn't such a dumb idea. The Byzantine historian Procopius in his "History of the Wars of the Romans with the Persians, Vandals and Goths" described the bubonic plague in Constantinople and mentioned that there were no people in chlamys in Byzantium, especially when basileus fell ill, but in the capital city of the Roman state, everyone sat quietly at home, dressed in the clothes of common people. That is, no formal clothes, raincoats and other tinsel. In some way, everyone in Byzantium wore pyjamas all day, and no one considered it as something shameful. According to Procopius of Caesarea, your home clothes are the most suitable for a pandemic, whatever it is.

So jump out of your jackets and shirts, the T-shirts suit you.

Laugh more often

Yes, it will probably sound silly. The expression "laughter is the best medicine" has always sounded rather implausible, but in fact it is not that far from the truth.

Returning to Giovanni Boccaccio and the Decameron: “… drink a lot and enjoy, wander around with songs and jokes, satisfying their every yearning, laughing and mocking at – this is the real medicine against the disease. And so they vowed to spend day and night, for they would go to one tavern, then to another, living without any rule or measure". It sounds like a violation of all the rules of self-isolation (we do not recommend wandering around taverns), but treating everything with humour is pretty good advice. After all, what is our life if not a drawn-out joke?

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The medieval treatise "Compendium De Epidimia" also takes a similar point of view: in order to fight disease, one must live in as much joy and fun as possible. Books and pamphlets on how to fight the plague instructed people to "have fun, do music, engage in worthy pursuits, and spend time in good company to drive away heavy thoughts."

People sincerely tried to follow these tips! The English official Samuel Pips in his diary, which he kept during the plague epidemic in 1665, wrote that he "never lived as merrily as at this time of the plague."

Laughter in a situation where human lives are in danger may seem inappropriate and even shameful to someone, but it really is a time-tested medicine. Don't let yourself drown in the abyss of despair and existential horror! Laugh.

Don't forget the fresh air

"Pale Horse, Pale Rider" by Katherine Anne Porter not only talks about the hardships of the plague, but also mentions how important it is not to lock yourself in four walls and at least sometimes go for a walk. In this story, the heroine eventually falls ill, and her lover, having come for a visit, opens a window first of all. Because everyone always forgets about fresh air, but it is really important.

In the poem "Antonia", dedicated to the plague in Malta at the beginning of the 19th century, Murdo Young writes, "With fatigue in their legs, going from a walk, they cursed fate, which warned them not to meet." The thirst for fresh air was stronger than any fear of infection, because every walk could have very dire consequences.

Hence the pandemic advice: enjoy your walk alone.

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Discover new hobbies

Since the beginning of isolation, many of us have turned to new hobbies in an attempt to fill the void that has formed in our daily schedule. NerdBear's research reveals a fun stat: over the past year, people have started to buy items for baking, yoga, knitting, and board games. In the end, you need to do something for yourself besides lying on the couch with mournful thoughts. Writers of the past thought so too.

Albert Camus in his "Plague" repeatedly turns to the fact that in such circumstances people "get bored and try to acquire habits." Medieval brochures about the plague also tried to encourage their readers to keep themselves in a cheerful mood with the help of songs, music and conversations (it could be boring, just not about imminent death).

The protagonist of the book "A Journal of the Plague Year" by Daniel Dafoe also found himself a fascinating occupation during the Great London Plague of 1665 (the aforementioned Samuel Pips suffered at about the same time as him). Firstly, journaling is also a frequent pandemic hobby, and it is socially useful in the boundless future. Secondly, cooking. “I went and bought two sacks of flour, so for several weeks we baked our own bread in the oven; then I bought malt and brewed as much beer as could fit in the kegs I had, that is, for five or six weeks. " An excellent opportunity not only to satisfy your hedonistic impulses, but also to realize your potential in the process as a baker, brewer and, in general, a creative person. At the same time, the number of contacts with people is reduced, because you no longer need to run for bread in bakeries.

Think about what you have long wanted to do. Bake some bread, buy a ukulele, start learning Hebrew: the right circumstances are right to open up a new talent.

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Think about the future (even in dark colours)

Porter's “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” ends on a rather stern note: “There is no more war, no more epidemic, only a numb silence that comes after the cannons are silent; silent houses with drawn curtains, deserted streets, cold, deathly light of tomorrow. Now there will be enough time for everything. "

However, some authors were much more optimistic. Francesco Petrarca, in a letter to his brother, where he informs him about the death of his beloved muse Laura, writes the following lines: "Oh happy people of the future, who have not known these miseries and perchance will class our testimony with the fables." After all, nothing lasts forever – not even the plague. One day, things will work out, and the stories of the pandemic will seem so distant and unrealistic again. Until then, dream. About how you will go on vacation, when the borders are finally open, about how you will go to the movies with your friends, how you will walk in a large crowd in the park and no one will have traces of a mask on the bridge of the nose.

Regardless of how you deal with the pandemic, one day we will all be these happy people of the future. No more sickness and sorrow, just a bright tomorrow. You just need to wait a little.

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