Worrying in Times of Plague

Written by: Francis O’Gorman


The revival of the London plague in 1665 ‘alarmed us all again,’ said Daniel Defoe in A Journal of the Plague Year (1722): ‘and terrible apprehensions were among the people, especially the weather being now changed and growing warm, and the summer being at hand’.

Uncomfortable words.

Defoe’s book, like Albert Camus’s La Peste (1947), gives a peculiarly searing account of living with contamination. The body is visible in its diseased forms, suffering in a great city. But Defoe is interested, as is Camus, not only in what pestilence does to the flesh. But in what it does to the mind.

‘Apprehension’, in one of those marvellous double acts of words in English, means both to have sense of (‘to apprehend’) and to be worried about (‘to be apprehensive’). We can know something—and we can be anxious about it.

COVID-19 has proved the point d’appui of real anxieties. One of the most striking things about the whole ‘home-working’ language from governments and employers in the current crisis is how readily it accepts a version of home that doesn’t exist at the moment. As it happens, I work from home as much as I can—it is the place I read and write. But that is different from saying that we can carry on as if nothing is happening. The whole light by which we live has changed. We are amid the stretched tension of new mental difficulties. And home, where we used to imagine safety, isn’t quite that any more.

I haven’t left our house for four weeks. Under normal circumstances, that would be marvellous. But what a buzzing hive of anxiety everything now happens in. Worrying is a kind of effort to control the future when we know we can’t. But this virus has intensified fearfulness about what is next, and what we can and can’t do about it. There is anxiety about ourselves or friends and family catching the thing itself, and in its most appalling forms. And there is anxiety too—unique in my experience—of fearing that those loved by us might lie terribly ill or even die without us there. Or without anyone there.

The British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, ruminating on ordinary mundane fretfulness, thought we should ask of a worrier: who is the worrying for? He proposed that familiar, quotidian worries could be a way of making an appeal, of trying to change the attention of the person to whom the worries are being expressed. But that is not so true of anxiety now. Such anxiety, indeed, is hardly likely to be spoken about in any detail at all. It is too raw and real.

This emergency corrodes concentration and infects the quiddity of who we are. The saving grace of being absorbed—in a book, a film, in sex, in a conversation—has become destabilised. Like tinnitus, fearfulness about our futures has become a noise that can’t properly be shut out.

Such figurative tinnitus oddly brings some history back to us afresh. What must our ancestors—like Daniel Defoe’s narrator as the summer approached—have suffered in the mind at points of plague? Or, differently, in times of fearfulness about invasion, or knowledge of any approaching evil? Those ancestors come back now with new and unexpected intimacy.

Never has the telephone, video-linking software, email, and other electronic media, served a better purpose in the contemporary world. Communicating with our friends and family is a precious barrier against this fearfulness at the moment. Defoe’s ‘Terrible apprehensions’ need facing, however inadequately, with whatever tools we have.

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About the Author: Francis O’Gorman

Francis O’Gorman is Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. Among his 24 edited or authored books is Worrying: A Cultural and Literary History (2015), which was a Guardian ‘Book of the Week’ and a Sunday Times ‘Must Read’....

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