Fright Flight and the Suffering City:
Mobility, Catastrophe, and the State of Emergency

Sandra Logan

 

Victims of Hurricane Katrina

Victims of the Bubonic Plague

 

     1. In "The Dialectics of Disaster," Fredric Jameson critiques the notion of collective emotional response to catastrophe, arguing that the sense of nationwide mourning in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York was constructed through the media's performative production of public emotional trauma, coupled with the condemnation of any voice of resistance to that production ("The Dialectics of Disaster," The South Atlantic Quarterly, 101(2), Spring 2002: 297-304). Jameson's impulse to negate the emotional impact of such an event arises in part from his understandable cynicism regarding the motives and objectives of the media, in part from his disgust at the ways in which emotional response can be shaped in the service of a particular political and economic agenda (a disgust I share), and in part from a concern for the ways in which the smoke of enflamed emotion has mystified the actual economic and political dynamics of this particular global moment.

     2. I want to pose a second contemporary catastrophe against this one -- the impact and aftermath of hurricane Katrina -- in order to call attention to the kinds of historical repetition that reveal themselves in the face of such catastrophe. Jameson's challenge to the collective emotion of mourning at the destruction and loss of human life produced by the September 11 attack must on some level be rethought in this second context, which produced a collective response of its own, in part fueled by this same sensationalist media, in part an effect of genuine horror at the indelible confrontation of the U. S. public with the devastating reality of poverty that defines the existence of such a large portion of our population.

     3. I wish to explore the early modern analogue of Katrina, not by considering an earlier meteorological disaster, but by focusing on the disparities of social valuation and protection, and on the concomitant systemic granting or denial of rights and privileges, that catastrophe reveals. The central lesson of catastrophe is that the condition of poverty is a condition of punishment avant le crime. That is, the impoverished suffer from life-conditions that replicate the forms of punishment associated with criminal activity for the more privileged classes -- the poor suffer a retraction or restriction of rights and privileges as a basic circumstance of existence, including the restriction of movement. Indeed, restricted movement permeates the parallel systems of criminal justice and poverty, as incarceration, half-way houses, parole, tracking bands, and other forms of limitation define the existence of those convicted of crimes, while the disprivileged find themselves trapped in impossible conditions without the means to mobilize toward a better set of options.

     4. But the parallels in the social status of criminals and the poor extend far beyond limitations on mobility. The retraction of rights as a punishment for crime is based on the perceived diminishment of the perpetrator's moral status, understood to have been demonstrated by his or her incapacity to make appropriate moral judgments. The condition of the underprivilegd, produced through systemic policies and social formations, replicates the condition of the criminal, and thus appears to link poverty and immorality through the vector of crimeless criminality. This parallel between the quotidian lived conditions and criminal status of the poor has been recognized in various ways throughout history, and here, I will consider the acknowledgments and implications of this parallel within the discourse of poverty, disease, and movement in the early modern period. In this essay, I begin by considering Thomas More's critique of English policies that reveal parallels in the early modern attitude toward the poor and the criminal. I then turn to early modern plague texts, exploring their focus on the flight of the privileged from danger and social responsibility, and restricted mobility as a factor in the disparity of danger for privileged and disprivileged occupants in the plague city. Finally I take up Ben Jonson's representation of the plague city as a crucible of moral and social revelation, to focus on the impact of catastrophe on the poor, through which the parallels between the daily violence and trauma of poverty in the early modern and in contemporary U.S. culture are revealed.

Poverty, Choice, and Moral Status

     5. Agnès Varda's film Sans Toit ni Loi1 [Without Roof or Law], reflecting a current perception that destitution is a choice, stages the closing phase of a young woman's life as an outcome of her decision to step away from a "successful" career, and explores the tensions between her idealized achievement of "freedom" and the inevitable disintegration that follows her abandonment of social compliance. In his early sixteenth century Utopia, Thomas More recognizes that lack of choice is most frequently the cause of vagabondage and its debilitations. Nevertheless, the French title suggests a long-standing association between vagabondage and lawlessness, an association which in earlier periods, as in Varda's film, figured the wandering homeless as resistant to the restrictions and limitations of society and law, and thus as morally suspect.

     6. It is well documented by scholars of the fifteenth and sixteenth century that vagabondage, associated with the collateral conditions of "roguery" and "masterlessness," was defined in legal, social, and moral terms as a transgression against society, and those guilty of this crime were suspected and feared as idlers, ruffians, or rioters, and punished accordingly. Their punishments -- the burning of a one-inch hole through the ear, the lopping off of a thumb or a hand for theft, the branding of a cheek, shoulder, or other body part, were perceived as the public announcement of the crime and a warning to those encountered by the "perpetrator" that this was a person guilty of operating outside the acceptable boundaries of the social order.

     7. These punishments were also steps on the path to execution, for repeat offenders experienced escalating punishments until in very short order life itself was the only remaining attribute that could be claimed by the society against which these transgressions had been perpetrated. Horrible though these punishments seem from a twenty first-century western viewpoint, they were not actually formulated as means to induce psychological trauma, but as a means to either mark "criminals" as criminals, or to prevent them from repeating the crime -- as in the loss of a hand. In addition to the marking of the criminal, the concept of deterrence was centrally a part of the execution of "justice" in the early modern period, as in the placing of heads on pikes, and the public hanging of both humans and animals convicted of crimes. The hung animals, like their human counterparts, were imagined to serve as a discouragement to other animals of the same sort who might be contemplating similar transgressions.2 But regardless of whether or not violent punishment is intended to produce psychological trauma, it invariably must do so, not only for the victims, but also for their friends and families, for casual observers of the marks of transgression, and even, perhaps, for the perpetrators of punishment themselves.

     8. The trauma of such punishments reflects and replicates a deeper and more pervasive form of trauma -- the systemically produced trauma of poverty itself. This trauma is made manifest in myriad ways, as in the struggles of daily existence that render life simultaneously precious and vulnerable; in the moral dilemmas that frequently develop between adherence to the laws of society and adherence to the laws of survival; and in the inevitable recognition that the differences in access, position, condition, and vulnerability established by ideologically justified social hierarchy amount to nothing less than the devaluation of those lives relegated and confined by circumstance, social organization, and legal restriction to the lower strata of society.

Systemic Violence in More's Utopia

     9. We find an early articulation and critique of the presumed connection between moral degradation, poverty, and mobility in Thomas More's Utopia, first published in 1516. While there is no scholarly consensus about More's personal attitude about the views articulated in the text by the characters Raphael Hythloday and "More," the arguments offered by Hythloday, against execution as a punishment for theft offer a sympathetic portrayal of poverty and an incisive understanding of its causes and effects. In depicting the changing conditions of the poor in England, this character explicitly invokes enclosure and forced vagabondage as forms of social injustice. As we know, thousands of peasants were driven off the land to become unemployed, homeless wanderers in a social context where homelessness and unemployment were considered crimes and treated as deliberate transgressions against society. For example, Holinshed notes that Henry VIII executed more than 70,000 vagabonds in the course of his 38-year reign, and the problem and this "solution" continued throughout the early modern period.3

     10. In Utopia, Hythloday critiques the class system in which idle men of wealth rely on the labor of their impoverished peasants, as well as the system of enclosure through which, in effect, "sheep eat up and swallow down the very men themselves" (22). But perhaps the most important commentary offered by Hythloday is his suggestion that, rather than punishing theft with execution, as was the practice in England at the time, thieves should be condemned to a life of hard labor (28-9). The irony here, as More effectively conveys it, is that the poor were, by birth, always already condemned to a life of hard labor, and thus, he suggests, treated as criminals from birth within a system of inherent privilege and disprivilege. His elaboration of imaginary social formations in the course of his narrative reveals additional parallels between the lived conditions of the English poor and punishments for criminality. For example, directly after his critique of the various social conditions in England that produce the vast populace of social subjects whose only alternative to starvation is theft (22), and of the English execution of transgressors for that crime, he offers up an alternative practiced by the imaginary society of the Polylerites.

     11. The Polylerites condemn a convicted thief to make restitution for the crime either by returning the stolen property or by paying the equivalent amount after his assets have been liquidated. Whatever is not required for restitution is given to his wife and children, and the thief is handed over to the state. He lives the remainder of his days in servitude to society, working every day in hard labor. He is physically marked as a criminal by being restricted to a particular color of clothing, having a haircut that exposes his ears, and by having a notch cut in one of his ears to designate not only that he is a condemned thief, but also his region of legal residence. He may not possess money or arms, and being caught with either constitutes a capital offense. He may not travel to other regions or converse with men of his status from other regions. Such a transgressor might, with several years of compliant servitude, regain his freedom and return to a normal life -- a hope denied to the peasantry of More's own country (27-30). The permanent condemnation to hard labor, restricted movement, lack of political voice, limitations on public gatherings or interactions, and sumptuary restrictions - these were the conditions of the English peasant.

     12. While Hythloday posits the Polylerite response to the crime of theft as an exemplum of humane treatment and punishment appropriate to the crime, as well as an effective deterrent, this solution poses a number of ethical and practical difficulties. If it were an effective deterrent, soon there would be no one available to undertake the onerous labors which serve as punishment for transgressors (freemen have to be paid for them). If a condemned thief does regain his freedom, how is he able to reestablish himself in a viable livelihood? Like a soldier returning from the wars, he is forced to recreate a life from the tatters of his servitude, and as Hythloday points out, returned military men comprised a large portion of the destitute population in England. The physical element of the punishment meant to single out the "serving man" from the freeman -- the notched ear -- is indelible, so the history of criminality would haunt the "redeemed" slave as much as it limits the privileges and social place of the enslaved. Finally, the causes of theft are not eliminated among the Polylerites -- they have a hierarchical, money-based society, in which some men sell their labor and others purchase it. If the primary cause of theft in England is, as Hythloday argues, the want caused by lack of access to the means of sustenance through labor, we must wonder if the same cause pertains in Polyleria. Hythloday's notion of an ideal response to the crime of theft is fraught with problems, and it invites a consideration of the question of social value and reintegration that serves to emphasize the critique of the social causes of theft that Hythloday has already articulated.

     13. In assessing the relationship between privileged and disprivileged social subjects, More's traveling philosopher offers pointed criticisms of the behavior of monarchs in general, especially regarding the failure to serve as good husbands of their people. Monarchs misguidedly focus on building their own wealth, on expanding the reach of their power through war and conquest, and on circumventing the laws that control their subjects in order to extend their own benefits, he argues (33-9). Contrary to such practices, monarchy is an institution structured, according to Hythloday, "not for his [the monarch's] sake, [but] to the intent that through his labour and study they might all live wealthily safe from wrongs and injuries" (39). Thus, "the king ought to take more care for the wealth of his people than for his own wealth" (39). Monarchs, however, mistakenly believe "the maintenance of peace to consist in the poverty of the people" (39).

     14. In refuting this view, Hythloday argues that one finds the greatest "wrangling, quarrelling, brawling, and chiding . . . among beggars," and asserts that, being "not content with the present state of their life," and having "nothing now to lose," they are "more desirous of new mutations and alterations" and "bolder stomached to bring in all hurly-burly" (thereby trusting to get some windfall) (39). Thus, the threat of rebellion is strongest among the oppressed, and any monarch who assures his own authority through such oppressions ought to "forsake his kingdom [rather] than to hold it by this means" (39). While we might wish to take exception to the representation of the poor as especially quarrelsome, More seems to be using this characterization to call attention to the discord and desperation that poverty creates, in order to negate the policy of cultivating a dispossessed class in the interests of containing rebellion. In other words, according to Hythloday and contrary to the typical monarchical perception, poverty offers no assurance of domestic peace, but rather poses a threat to it.

     15. Hythloday's arguments for reasonable living conditions for all, and his challenge to the idea of exploitation or oppression as supportive of hierarchy, offer a new model for sociopolitical stability based on the relief of pressures and tensions that eliminate the possibility of choice and drive people into desperate actions. We can also consider the flattening of social, economic, and political hierarchy, and the equal distribution of social benefits and of social responsibility in Utopia, described in Book Two, as imagined solutions to the problem of oppression, as they might be framed by the oppressed -- as almost a post-revolutionary model of social organization.4

     16. In framing a utopian solution to the problem of socioeconomic inequity, More imagines a society that grants equal privileges and responsibilities to the majority of subjects, requiring all to work at farming for part of their lives, and all to earn their right to food and other goods through labor.5 The exceptions are the ruling strata, who hold their positions not by right, but by election, and those in bondage, who perform "all vile service . . . all laboursome toil and base business" (65). He explains that the majority of these bondsmen have been brought from other nations, where they were condemned to death for crimes, or else they have voluntarily come to Utopia from other conditions of servitude, because they are better treated as bondsmen in Utopia than they were in their countries of origin. This latter group has the right to leave at will, but Hythloday reports that few actually do so. The third category of bondage applies to those Utopians who commit one of the few serious crimes, among them adultery, or illegal travel. There is thus an explicit concern in the text with two kinds of boundary transgression -- moral and physical -- as well as an assertion of the centrality of the family as an organizational structure, and the centrality of regional affiliation and identity. Utopia is focused upon what might be thought of as the "local." This arrangement parallels the organizational structures of England -- especially those of the English countryside in what was, for More, their traditional, idealized form.

     17. Nevertheless, as Linda Woodbridge points out, More is not entirely and universally sensitive in his attitude toward vagabonds, for at one point he argues that beggars -- especially those who dupe their patrons by feigning disability, disease, or madness -- are a threatening class who deserve their violent fate.6 It seems that More, or at least his character Hythloday, endeavors here to distinguish among the various categories of poverty and vagrancy, in parallel to those operative in England at the time. Hythloday seems to suggest that a beggar in effect remains "honest" if he or she succumbs to the crime of theft out of desperation, and indicates that this is a legal and social matter requiring quite different handling from the punishment of one who adopts stratagems for duping the charitable public into providing assistance. The designation of the latter group as "sturdy and lusty" might be understood to mean "not truly disabled," and thus the concept of the "honest poor" is here not merely a label reserved for those who remain "at home" on their master's estate, but those who make an honest effort to redeem their lives from the desolation of enclosure or other kinds of catastrophe, even when that effort includes vagabondage. Indeed, the overall trajectory of Hythloday's argument here suggests that appropriate social measures might prevent the downward slide of the peasantry, from honest laborer to honest vagabond to thief, and would at the same time make it more difficult for "professional" (sturdy, lusty, dishonest) vagabonds or beggars to survive, as they would be the only vagabonds left. The categories and the problems addressed in this section refer to this latter group, and thus are not necessarily representative of a lapse in Hythloday's social consciousness. Additionally, the "solution" posed in the text of housing this group of illegal beggars with the Friars who begged legally (32-3) calls attention to yet another disjunction within Tudor English policy, whereby idleness and begging for the Friars is deemed acceptable and even holy, while idleness and begging for others is a crime against the church, the public, and the state.

     18. Despite his criticisms of English justice and its mistreatment of the poor, More seems unable to imagine a society without restrictions on movement, for although the particulars of punishment for this crime vary from society to society, fictive or real, the restriction on movement is universal within the real and virtual cultures Hythloday describes. One difference between English policies concerning travel and those of Utopia lies in the scope of the restriction, for Utopia requires all citizens to obtain travel licenses, and punishes all equally for their transgressions against this requirement. Thus, in the name of social equity he offers a model of scrutiny and limitation that is more broadly restrictive to some members of society, and less restrictive to others (compared to England). At the same time, the conditions of lived existence in Utopia eliminate much of the impetus to movement within Utopian society, and travel beyond the borders of Utopia is impractical.7 In early sixteenth-century England, the most elite echelon of English society -- the court, the nobility, and their households -- enjoyed the privilege of movement without restriction, while the poor were restricted from travel in most circumstances.8 More implies that in a system of equitable social responsibility and reward, as in Utopia, unauthorized travel should be recognized as a deliberately disruptive act, potentially threatening and intolerable, while he makes it clear that, in contrast, early modern England had failed to address the conditions of poverty, abuse, and involuntary exile that emerged through the transformation of rural social organization, as a result of war, and as an effect of a wide range of other social ills.

     19. Thus, he recognizes both the inequity of the system in its functional and dysfunctional forms, and the injustice of early modern responses to the effects of the particular systemic dysfunctions faced by English peasants. Trapped in a system of exploitation, driven into a condition of exile, the early modern peasant existed in what Walter Benjamin has termed a state of emergency, or what Georgio Agamben has called a "state of exception," where sovereign will deprives an arbitrarily designated group of the privileges, rights, and expectations of the lawful subject. This, as More indicates, is the antithesis of justice.9

The Plague and the Restriction of Movement

     20. The "state of emergency" upon which More focuses -- the disenfranchisement of the peasantry through enclosure, war, loss of work and home, and the intensifying criminalization of wandering or vagabondage -- is clearly systemic in its causes. The outbreak of bubonic plague, which for the most part was concentrated in urban environments, represents a catastrophic transformation with overwhelming effects on the impoverished.10 The city under assault by bubonic plague was the extreme embodiment of the forms of differential privilege addressed by More, whereby the wealthy were able to vacate their city dwellings and relocate to their country estates, while the less fortunate remained behind to suffer the devastation of an unstoppable epidemic. Those tied to the city by their occupations -- merchants, craftspeople, retailers -- were trapped, as were the indigent poor, while those with the means and freedom to move left the city in droves. The mass exodus from the city of its privileged occupants thus served as a marker of privilege and of relative social value during outbreaks of the plague, and this privilege continued as long as such outbreaks occurred.

     21. The plague, associated to a great extent with the impoverished, was historically considered to be a moral affliction. Despite gradual transformations in the discourse of disease toward a more modern sense of its measurability and control, traditional perceptions of the causes and cures of Bubonic Plague persisted well into the seventeenth century. The root of the word "plague" -- the Latin plaga, meaning "strike" or "blow" -- continued to reflect the widespread view of plague as a divine punishment, attacking those made susceptible through humoral and moral imbalances.11  In this view, the plague arrived as a generalized punishment for corrupt human behavior.

     22. Alternatively, the epidemic was imagined to develop through some natural conjunction of influences, as a result of which the air was tainted with contagion and those of a questionable physical and moral condition succumbed. Thus, it was perceived as a "blow" in both explanatory models, either as a divine punishment or as a natural outcome of moral corruption. Medieval medical treatises on treatments for plague, which remained popular into the seventeenth century, instructed their readers to purify and purge their bodies of corrupting influences such as rich food and sexual activity as a preventative and as a cure.12

     23. In terms of the actual death rolls during the plague, the poor were most likely to succumb, both because they made up the largest percentage of the population, and because their crowded and difficult living conditions exposed them more directly to the actual sources of contagion. In so far as moral judgment was centrally an aspect of the perception of this and other diseases until at least the seventeenth century, those who succumbed to the disease were seen as having brought this end down upon themselves. Furthermore, in the early modern period, there was a tendency to see moral degradation as a cause of poverty and of disease, and the systemic response to poverty then, as now, was to dismiss the impoverished as an expendable population.13 Indeed, even in our contemporary context of a "purely scientific" understanding of infection, we still attach moral judgment to those who become infected with diseases today -- I'm thinking here of the discourse surrounding HIV and other contemporary plagues of our global condition. Poverty and disease are inevitable partners in human destruction, and we continue to function in ways that distribute human beings on a sliding scale of moral and social value directly related to their wealth and privilege, and to award or deny treatment based on that relative value.14

     24. In the early modern period, as attempts were made to respond to plague epidemics, the restriction of movement became one of the means of controlling the spread of bubonic plague, for despite the tendency to understand these epidemics as a problem of the atmosphere or as a blow of divine retribution, there was a parallel recognition that it followed those who came from infected regions, and a sense that they somehow bore the contagion with them when they fled. This recognition was not inherently at odds with the perception of disease as a moral judgment, both because the bearers would suffer the punishment wherever they fled, and because moral corruption was considered to be relatively universal and thus to constitute a relatively universal vulnerability. Thus, about a century before the last major plague outbreak in England in 1663, following the practices implemented in Italy, England issued a series of statutes concerning how plague conditions should be managed. Those who had been obviously exposed were not allowed to leave the city, and it was increasingly the practice to seal infected houses as much as possible to quarantine their occupants, and to implement a range of restrictive containment regulations. These included the shutting down of public gathering places; sanitation attempts; the immediate removal and burial of the dead; and the burning or fumigation of any clothing or bedding associated with a plague-infected house.15

Fright Flight

     25. While plague regulations affected wealthy and poor alike, early flight to the countryside became the common aristocratic response -- a choice that instigated an earlier and probably more severe collapse of the social and economic structure of a threatened region, as the consumption of goods and services by the more privileged classes evaporated with their removal to the countryside. Despite legislation prohibiting emigration to the countryside, the universal dictum of the mobile urban classes in the face of a plague threat was "flee early, flee far, return late."16

     26. This practice continued as long as outbreaks erupted. Daniel Defoe, writing his Journal of the Plague Year in 1722, offers a retrospective description of this "fright flight" from London preceding the 1663 outbreak -- the last major outbreak of this dreaded disease in England.17 He writes:

The richer sort of people, especially the nobility and gentry from the west part of the city, thronged out of town with their families and servants . . . indeed, nothing was to be seen but wagons and carts with goods, women, servants, children &c.; coaches filled with people of the better sort, and horsemen attending them . . . besides innumerable numbers of men on horseback. . . . (JPL 28/29)

There were economic as well as health reasons behind the flight of the privileged. Additional regulations in England provided for the general welfare by requiring the healthy to care for the sick, and by levying a general tax on the infected area, "either by charging the towne infected with one summe in grosse, or by charging the special persons of wealth within the same . . ." (Orders Item 3, 1593).18 This money was intended to sustain the indigent poor, whose already enormous ranks swelled when most forms of labor and trade were shut down. Many of the wealthy chose to vacate the city rather than pay plague taxes to support the thousands of people who provided their goods and services in easier times.

     27. For Defoe's narrator H.F., the "terrible and melancholy" spectacle of the flight of the privileged had an inevitable analogue: "it filled me with very serious thoughts of the misery that was coming upon the city, and the unhappy condition of those that would be left in it" (29). Our own recent national disaster, Hurricane Katrina, suggests that his depiction of the plague outbreak as an index of socioeconomic difference remains vital and applicable. A city struck by disaster does not only produce desperation -- it reveals desperation as the defining characteristic of the most oppressed stratum of its inhabitants. As Anthony Burgess notes in his introduction to Defoe's account, disaster unveils the city "as a breathing, suffering entity and not just . . . 'an abstract civic space'" (18).19

     28. When Defoe wrote his Journal, the city as a breathing, suffering entity had been the topic of plague tracts for more than a century. Thomas Dekker, in his late-sixteenth or early seventeenth-century tract, A Rod for Run-awaies, similarly critiques the self-interest and lack of social responsibility of the well-off during plague outbreaks, arguing that

It were a worthy act in the Lord Maior and honorable magistrates in this City, if . . . our Constables and Officers, might stand with Bils to keepe the rich in their owne houses (when they offer to get away) until they leave such a charitable piece of money behind them, towards the maintenance of the poore, which else must perish in their absence. They that depart hence, would then (no doubt) prosper the better; they that stay, fare the better, and the general City (nay the universall kingdome) prosper in blessings from Heaven, the better (149-50).20

Like Defoe's, Dekker's is a moral critique of the privileged, who neglect their social responsibility and thus bring down further divine wrath on themselves and on the city as a whole. Dekker also gives a sense of the scope of the "fright-flight" of London's elite and of the toll of the plague. Reporting that 3,000 people have died in the week in which he is writing, he comments that "four thousand houses have been shut up for plague" in the course of a month, and adds "For every thousand dead here, five times as many are gotten hence" (Rod 147). Nevertheless, many more thousands remained behind, trapped in the poverty and trauma of a city under siege.

     29. Writers like Defoe and Dekker help us to understand the tragic conditions of London under an outbreak of the bubonic plague. They make clear the larger implications of inequitable social structures, and of the impact of implicit parallels between poverty and criminality evident in Hythloday's critique of English policies relating to the poor. In each case, the capacity to move freely marks a primary distinction between aristocrat and commoner. Yet, the implicit logic of moral degradation and criminality associated with vagabondage and masterlessness, and thus with poverty, is destabilized by all three of these writers. Mobility and privilege come to be understood in these later texts as the marker of social irresponsibility, and thus as a cause of disorder, especially in the face of catastrophic conditions.

Jonson's The Alchemist and the Alambic of Catastrophe

     30. I turn now to my main literary text, Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, a city comedy written in 1610 and performed at Oxford when plague regulations closed the London theaters. Not only is The Alchemist a play written and performed during a plague outbreak -- its setting is plague-ridden London. The Argument of the play, in the form of an acronym, explains the action:

T he sickness hot, a master quit, for fear,

H is house in town, and left one servant there.

E ase him corrupted, and gave means to know

A cheater and his punk, who, now brought low,

L eaving their narrow practice were become

C ozeners at large; and only wanting some

H ouse to set up, with him they here contract,

E each for a share, and all begin to act.

M uch company they draw, and much abuse,

I n casting figures telling fortunes, news,

S elling of flies, flat bawdry, with the stone:

T ill it, and they, and all in fume are gone

     31. Beyond this "Argument," which makes evident the plague-state of the city and the "fright-flight" of Jeremy's master, the play's references to the conditions of plague are relatively oblique. A single line in Act 1 reveals that the mistress of the household has died, and although the cause is not mentioned, it seems possible that she is a plague victim. Later in Act 1 Jeremy assures his co-conspirators that Lovewit will not return to the city and disrupt their schemes: "while there dies one a week / O' th' plague, he's safe from thinking toward London," (1.1.182-3). These references to plague are nevertheless significant in establishing the general context of social anarchy under which the action occurs, and in defining the nature of the moral argument the play makes.

     32. Although none of the schemes undertaken by Subtle and his crew feature characters suffering from or fearful of bubonic plague, and none of the schemers' victims comes seeking plague cures or protection, this lack of concern for the threat hovering over the city emphasizes the pecuniary interest of the citizenry in general, eliding any clear distinction between small businessman, serving man, and hardened shyster, for example. Only the wealthy, whose economic situation is stable, and whose economic advantage might in fact be protected through flight and the avoidance of taxes, show concern for their own personal safety. Among those left in the city, each seeks the means of his own upward social mobility -- a horoscope and talisman that will attract business for the druggist, a charm for the gambler, and most important, alchemy's prized object, a philosopher's stone to turn base metals into gold for the Puritans, who hope to gain wealth and power beyond imagination. The play is mainly concerned with the social inversions created by "fright flight," as Jeremy makes the house a locus of opportunism predicated on the general lack of social control in the devastated city.

     33. Dol, Subtle, and Face finance their own quotidian survival and aim for more permanent financial gain by taking advantage of the general desire for economic advancement that plagues the London citizenry. The play's critique appears to be twofold, then, against the carnivalesque inversions that the plague epidemic brings to the city, opening the way to unrestrained charlatanry; and against the desire for upward mobility that feeds that inversion and that constitutes, some would say, an inversion of a more lasting sort, as the strict blood-based social hierarchy was giving way to one based on economic status rather than on inherent place.

     34. However, Jonson's critique is not so straightforward. He makes it clear that the plague city is itself akin to an alchemist's alembic, fired by the burning pressure of disease, through which the general populace -- the mixed elements of the city -- are forced into the alchemical processes of disintegration and sublimation. What remains in the alembic after this process is the base element of the social structure, while the putatively rarer elements have been driven off. However, just as Jonson rejects the veracity of alchemy itself, depicting it as a form of charlatanry, he rejects the easy distinction between base and rare among the London populace that he metaphorically represents in the conditions of the play.

     35. Jonson thereby prefigures Defoe's concerns with the social disruption associated with such an outbreak, and perhaps even more assertively, suggests that the essence of the "breathing, suffering" city is its immobile, impoverished population. In the world of the play, these citizens bound to the urban locus struggle to advance their own interests in the context of an almost invisible catastrophe, while the deliberate invocation of that catastrophe and its impact circulate just below the surface, reminding the viewers that the material struggle inevitably occurs in the context of abandonment by the aristocracy, and in the shadow of the spectre of death.21 Through this catastrophic context, Jonson refuses to suggest that the corruption and opportunism underlying the humorous action of the play are uniquely characteristic of the lower social strata -- those left behind to deal with the epidemic. Jonson is pointedly attentive to destabilizing both the early modern conceptions of natural social hierarchy and of inherent distinctions between elite and base members of that social formation. The capacity of his characters to transform themselves through performance and attire, creating a wide range of social identities through such transformation, suggests how malleable the condition of the individual actually is. With the customary social restrictions eliminated, servant and master, shyster and religious figure, protected widow and pragmatic gadabout become indistinguishable, and doubt is cast on the assumptions behind the hierarchy that enforces and relies on such distinctions.22

     36. Jonson's negation of the inherent moral justifications of hierarchy emerges as the ubiquity of corruption becomes evident when Master Lovewit reappears unexpectedly. Upon his return, the various schemes unravel and Dol and Subtle are forced to flee without a dime, while the numerous victims of their schemes are left to absorb the costs of the failed projects, gaining nothing for their investments. But Face, returned to his role as Jeremy the servant, is rewarded by Lovewit for his clever action, particularly for re-orchestrating the marriage scheme so that Lovewit gains an unsuspecting wealthy widow for his wife. In the denouement of the play, Lovewit is as guilty of corrupt self-interest as the various targets of the cozeners' schemes, his servant, or the thwarted cozeners themselves -- no surprise given his abandonment of household, city, and responsibility out of fear for his own safety. More significantly, while the inversions of the social order enabled by "fright flight" and perpetrated by the cozeners are doomed to failure, more effective inversions occur upon Lovewit's return -- that is, Lovewit's restoration of the "proper" social hierarchy returns the city to its condition of normal, quotidian moral decay and self-interested behavior, bringing to fruition the marriage-plot and reasserting Jeremy's place as a collaborator in corruption -- a place he strove for but failed to reach when his master was absent.

     37. The outcome of Jonson's play thus suggests that the mobility of the elite citizens -- their relative privilege with relation to their static and disprivileged counterparts -- simultaneously reveals and partakes of the only real difference between elite and oppressed. Not only does the capacity for mobility signal social privilege, but the desire for and pursuit of mobility, either social or locational, suggests that self-interest is the shared quality of all social strata. This city, occupied post-exodus by what is in effect an expendable population of the not-yet-dead, is not so much torn from its moorings in Christian morality, then, as exposed as a site of universal secular self-interest -- a condition embodied by the fleeing privileged as well as the entrapped unprivileged.

     38. Like Thomas More, or his character Hythloday, Jonson offers a cynical view of social hierarchy and calls attention to the artificiality of both sanguinary and moral distinctions between wealthy and impoverished, privileged and disprivileged. Although More foregrounds the daily struggle of the poor and the gradual, long-term effects of policy rather than the sudden impact of catastrophe, while Jonson only obliquely depicts the inequities produced by quotidian systemic violence and allows catastrophe to circulate in the background, both focus on the moral hypocrisy that supports such inequities. More's depiction of the permanent systemic negation of the human value of the impoverished snaps into sharp focus as Jonson's city, abandoned to its least privileged inhabitants, reveals itself as existing in a "state of emergency," not simply because disaster creates an untenable situation for its immobilized population, but because immobility itself reveals extreme social disparities that are the quotidian condition of the "breathing, suffering" city. As we have recently seen in New Orleans, the disparities of daily existence are painfully exposed and horribly exacerbated when the thin infrastructural network is rent by disaster. More creates alternate realities to address these disparities, while Jonson makes comedy of such conditions, aiming at reform. Their shared impulse to transform the social practices that lead to catastrophe -- quotidian or manifest -- is one we should be taking seriously in our own historical moment.

 

 

 Go to Craig Dionne's response.  Go to The Electronic Seminar.
Go to this issue's index. Send EMC your comments on this essay. 

 

 

Notes

1 U. S. title Vagabond, Director Agnès Varda, France 1985. Rosemary Gaby's "Of Vagabonds and Commonwealths: Beggars' Bush, A Jovial Crew and The Sisters," Studies in English Literature 34 (1994): 401-424, offers a detailed accounting of the representation of vagabondage as a desired and voluntary state in early modern literature. The relationship between poverty and the law is explored by Walter Gellhorn in "Poverty and Legality: The Law's Slow Awakening," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 112, no. 2, Law and Liberty, (April 15, 1968): 107-116.

2 This view of intention on the part of "transgressive" animals appears to mark a difference in perceptions of animal cognition in early modern and contemporary periods. Laurie Shannon offered both this observation and several remarkable examples of early modern legal transactions involving "transgressive" animals in her keynote address at the Ohio Shakespeare Association conference on Shakespeare and the Law, Toledo, Ohio, October 2005.

3 Those designated as vagabonds included a wide array of social subjects, not only displaced agricultural workers, but soldiers back from the wars, etc. Thomas More comments on some of these categories in Book One of Utopia. All references to More's Utopia refer to the Oxford World's Classics volume Three Early Modern Utopias: Utopia, New Atlantis, The Isle of Pines, ed. Susan Bruce, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). The categories are also evident in the statutes against vagabondage instituted by Henry VII and reissued repeatedly in the sixteenth century.

4 This is not how More presents Utopia, of course -- it is a society that has been modeled on a quasi-monastic, mutually agreed upon set of principles, not on agitation from below. However, given the arguments in Book One, it is at least possible, if not probable, that More did not advocate such universal equity of benefit and responsibility, but posed it as an embodiment of what the aristocracy and monarch stood to lose if they should continue to ignore their responsibilities to the poor under the hierarchical system that ensured their relative leisure and greater socioeconomic privilege. More's treatise is consonant with other critiques of the excesses of the privileged, and springs, one assumes, from his own adherence to intensely self-enforced moderation.

5 This is one of two dominant approaches to the creation of a successful utopian society. We see the alternative in Plato's Critias, where husbandmen are trained to have a sense of pride in their work, and where their occupation is respected. The resulting abundance and easing of concerns about limited resources underlies the condition of creativity necessary for the development of higher arts and sciences. It is not a model of social and economic equity, but a hierarchy based on a reformed attitude about subservience that supports Critias's perspective on achieving an ideal social order.

6 In Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), pp. 123-5, Linda Woodbridge refers to this distinction, but doesn't discuss it as a distinction within More's argument. She argues that Hythloday's condemnation of the "sturdy and lusty beggars, who go about feigning some disease as an excuse for their idleness" represents the sudden "disappearance" of "the victims of sheep enclosures, the brave poor eager to work if only they could find a job . . . in favor of an easy stereotype of lazy beggars feigning disability to escape work" (124, Woodbridge's quotation of More from the Norton edition of Utopia, p. 38 (ed. and trans. Robert M. Adams, 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1992).

7 It is, in fact, striking that a Utopian traveling internationally would be thrown almost instantly into the condition of an English vagabond, lacking all means of support and forced into a reliance on charity or dishonesty for survival.

8 The English laws against vagabondage were, one can surmise, originally intended to keep peasants "where they belonged," working within a system of disprivilege, but a system within which they at least had a designated place and function. In effect, More's articulation of alternatives through Hythloday's narrative and critique suggests the author's nostalgia for such a situation, where the only vagabonds would be those who chose to leave their socially allotted place and transgress the restrictions of their prescribed existence.

9 Walter Benjamin, in "On the Concept of History" (also often called "Theses on the Philosophy of History"), asserts that "The condition of the oppressed teaches us that the 'state of emergency' in which we live is not the exception but the rule" (Thesis VIII), suggesting that the selection of a particular group for state-sanctioned disprivilege and even extermination (by explicit or more insidious systemic means) is the basis for state power, but cannot be accepted as the only possible foundation for sociopolitical order. It is the norm in the sense that it is the historically dominant model, and yet it must not be taken as inevitable. The angel of history, blown backward into the future while the wreckage of the past piles up at its feet, embodies the desire for a transformation of the sociopolitical norms that make such wreckage inevitable (Thesis IX), but Benjamin's is a call to political action rather than a hope that moral justice will triumph. For the complete digital version of Benjamin's "On the Concept of History," see Lloyd Spenser's translation at <http://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html>. Original title, Über den Begriff der Geschichte, 1939, published posthumously. It is useful to compare Benjamin's comments with those of Georgio Agamben in State of Exception, trans, Kevin Attell, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005). Agamben situates the suspension of protection under law and government as "the state power's immediate response to the most extreme internal conflicts" (2), and although he makes explicit the arbitrary nature of the disenfranchisement (arbitrary in that there is no basis in law for this disenfranchisement, it is an act of convenience to the state), he situates it as quotidian only from the suspension of the Weimar Constitution, and only quotidian in terms of its relationship to a state of emergency, real or constructed (and such a state is always at some level constructed, of course) (2). Thus, Agamben's comments on the "exception" remain less aware of the ongoing operation of states, throughout all of history, as predicated on the denial of rights and privileges for some sectors of their population -- a denial that Benjamin's invocation of "the oppressed" explicitly calls attention to. Both refer to Carl Schmitt's definition of sovereignty in Political Theology -- "The sovereign is the one who decides on the exception" (Schmitt 5), which in the explanation that follows this first provocative statement invokes a condition of extreme disturbance "that requires the application of extraordinary measures" (Schwab, note 1, p. 5). See Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. and intro George Schwab, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005) (orig. pub. Berlin: Duncker and Humblot, 1922; Schwab translation orig. pub. MIT Press,1985).

10 According to Andrew B. Appleby, in "Nutrition and Disease: The Case of London, 1550-1750," Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 6, no. 1 (Summer 1975): 1-22, "during all of these food crises, except possibly the dearth of 1522, plague was endemic to the city" (10). He argues that there was no direct correlation between times of dearth and plague outbreaks, and thus no demonstrable association of malnutrition with diseases such as the bubonic plague. Quoting J. N. Biraben, he notes that "'the plague is a sufficiently grave disease that all who contract it, even the well-nourished, have little chance of recovery'" (Appleby 10, citing Annales de Démographie Historique 1968, (Paris, 1968), p. 15). However, in his incisive study of relationships between population decline and disease, John Saltmarsh argues that plague outbreaks were only one factor in a larger pattern of population decline, but at the same time notes the impact of bubonic and other forms of "black plague" on the poor. See "Plague and Economic Decline in England in the Later Middle Ages," Cambridge Historical Journal, Vol. 7, no. 1 (1941): 23-41, esp. p. 36. Saltmarsh also mentions restrictions on movement as an important factor. These studies seem to suggest that the generally evident negative impact of poverty on health did not significantly increase deaths due to the plague during outbreaks, nor did it increase the frequency or intensity of outbreaks. However, other factors did conspire to render the impoverished, particularly in urban environments, more susceptible to the disease, and thus to death, during an outbreak.

11 Jonathan Gil Harris invokes this Latin root for the early conception of disease in his a provocative and insightful analysis of early modern literary and mercantile representations of national economies in the language of disease, Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare's England, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), p. 111. His argument calls attention to the apparent paradox between the "exogenous understanding of the disease" evident in this term, and the medieval perception of the disease as a divine visitation rather than a "thing in motion," as he argues it came to be imagined in the context of "the new mechanistic philosophy of quantifiable matter in motion" (110). He also traces out other explanations for the disease, such as the humoral or epidemic before the seventeenth century (112-13), all of which shared a sense of moral culpability for the victims.

12 For a discussion of such treatises, see Margaret Healy's "Discourses of the Plague in Early Modern London," Epidemic Disease in London, ed. A. J. I. Champion, (London: Centre for Metropolitan History, University of London, 1993), pp. 19-34.

13 The connection between moral and physical corruption is addressed by Healy; see especially pp. 20-27. This devaluation was not universal, however, and there was some effort to distinguish deserving from undeserving poor in response to plague outbreaks as under other conditions. Healy notes, for example, that the effort to prevent vagabonds and other masterless men from entering the city was part of the advocated response to plague (27), which suggests that there was some effort to protect the occupants of the city from those whose unregulated movement rendered them a threat to all such occupants. At the same time, it emphasizes the devaluation of the vagabond and the perception that vagabondage constituted a form of social transgression that negated the human value of the disprivileged traveler.

14 It may be argued that treatment is awarded according to the capacity to pay for services and medicines in a system that requires such payment, and not on a scale of "moral value," but it is impossible to ignore the ongoing policies and practices that shape the system toward the care of the wealthy and privileged, from which we can infer their greater social value. The basis for these policies appears to rely on a balancing of costs and benefits, but in a system that purports to embrace equality for all under the law, only by reducing the actual value as humans of less protected members of society can such differential protections be 'justified'.

15 In Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1997), Sheldon Watts traces out the development of such strategies. See esp. pp. 15-18.

16 Watts, p. 9.

17 Saltmarsh argues that the epidemics ceased in England primarily because of the displacement of Ratus ratus, the black rat, by Ratus norvegitus, the brown rat. Because of its habit of living out-of-doors and its particular flea species, which avoids biting humans if at all possible, Ratus norvegitus served less effectively as a vector for the disease (33).

18 Full title: Orders thought meete by her Majestie and her Privy Council, to be executed throughout the counties of this Realme, in such Townes, Villages, and other places as are, or may be hereafter infected with the plague, for the stay of further increase of the same, Imprinted at London by the Deputies of Christopher Barker, printer to the Queen, 1594.

19 Below, building on the discourse of the irresponsibility of the privileged in More, Defoe, and Dekker, I endeavor to complicate the argument of Cheryl Lynn Ross in "The Plague of the Alchemist," Renaissance Quarterly Vol. 41, no. 3 (Autumn 1988): 439-458, that the plague leaves the city vulnerable to the "parasites" he depicts, as the moral characters vacate (439-40).

20 I have used the modernized edition of Dekker's tract from The Plague Pamphlets of Thomas Dekker, ed. F. P. Wilson, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925), pp. 136-71.

21 This recognition of the transitory benefit of material gain is almost ubiquitous in early modern representations of material desire.

22 The marking of status through sumptuary law seems somewhat redundant, given the physical impact of a life of poverty and labor, but the threat of identity transformation through the adoption of proscribed fabrics and styles circulated quite visibly in the laws and literature of the early modern period. This malleability is central to the schemes of Jonson's characters.

 

 

Form copyright © 2008 Early Modern Culture.

Content copyright © 2008 Sandra Logan.