Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The rescue

With a fearful symmetry, Bubonic Plague is back where it started, in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, reminding humans, just as the Icelandic volcano did a few years ago, that for all our big ideas and vainglory, we are puny and ineffectual, mere blaggers in the universe.

One of my favourite pictures from childhood, along with illustrations to E. Nesbit, and Tolkein, and Narnia, was from a 1930s children's history book that edified impressionable young minds in the days of Empire. Along with When did you last see your father, and Millais' two beautiful doomed boys, the Princes in the Tower (the elder, staring out from the darkness of captivity on the page with poetic prescience, his blond curls tumbling over his black velvet suit, was destined to be my husband, I knew in my eight-year old heart), my imagination was fired by a naked young girl's rescue from the window of an elegant Restoration mansion during the Great Plague of London.

Now the picture horrifies me more than the pestilence itself, a sickly Victorian excess of sentimental romanticization and sublimated paedophilia, the imagery of soft porn applied to social and medical history.

Before we pass sentence on our 19th century ancestors for lapping up this sort of mass-marketed fantasy, born out of the conviction that humans are the progressive conquerors of evil, and that the best way to secure ourselves against the return of a powerful enemy is by trivializing it, we should remember our own smugness, our own self-deluded race away from reality, our odd taste for sensationalism and tweeted voyeurism, our ambition to live longer and longer while poverty and inequality and cruelty and conceit infect the world. 

Who cares, so long as we can share a photo.