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Dissertation Abstracts

Reilly, Patrick. The Aesthetics of Destiny in Plague Literature from Early Modern to Postmodern Times. City University of New York, 2011.

For centuries -- for millennia, at least since the myth of the Plague at Aegina -- the subject of plague has been generating an aesthetic that distinctly characterizes its manifold texts, five of which this dissertation considers in depth: A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Daniel Defoe; The Betrothed (1840), Alessandro Manzoni; Death in Venice (1912), Thomas Mann; The Plague (1947), Albert Camus; and Angels in America (1993), Tony Kushner.

While plague texts, no matter how culturally particular and historically specific may be their narrative elements, repeatedly share distinguishable metaphysical themes and mythical motifs, they are more fundamentally wed to each other by their aesthetic response to the overwhelming fact of disease and pestilence. To classify such texts as apocalyptic is already to be approaching them in terms of their aesthetic, as the designation is not only a way of defining plague texts but also, and more importantly to an exploration of their aesthetic, a way of perceiving plague itself. For the descriptive "apocalyptic" also aggrandizes. It invests plague with significance. Angry gods, for example, must be appeased; a savior-scapegoat must die if the people are to be delivered from the pestilence on the land. The bald facts of disease and death become aesthetically, in plague texts, a matter of design and destiny.

As it was in ancient Greece, aesthetics is defined, for purposes of this study, as perception. In the perception of a subject's reality the aesthetic process begins. The reality of plague lies in the fact of it, but to see the fact as diabolical, tragic, cataclysmic, or redemptive is to see -- or to perceive -- the subject in an aesthetic way. What begins with the perception of pestilential fact ends in its re-presentation as plague text. The text translates the perceived reality into a literary one, for the act of translation is also an act of signification, in which aesthetic constructs like that of destiny, are employed to make sense of what in fact, and terrifyingly, lacks or defies sense. So it is aesthetically that a plague-stricken city's destiny may lie in the hands of God. Or in a migratory bacillus.

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