The Pallor of our Plagues

Death, decries the novelist Alan Harrington, is “an imposition on the human race” from which we will be saved by “medical engineering and nothing else.” Though the dark hearse of death drives fear of that moment when “everything will go black . . . our messiahs will be wearing white coats.” In Pale Horse, Pale Rider by sometimes-Catholic writer Katherine Anne Porter, narrator Miranda comes to know precisely this sort of salvation—and she finds it wanting. Recovering from the 1918 Spanish influenza, which stole at least seventeen million lives, Miranda finds herself in an enervated, fever-fueled state. “Let me go, let me go,” she cries, for she knows “that the smell of death was in her own body.” But just as she slips beyond recovery, medics “do the trick” with a hypodermic needle, and she startles into consciousness to find doctor and nurse looking at each other “with the glance of initiates at a mystery.” The affectionate nurse pities the “salvaged creature” whom she “had snatched back from death with her own hands,” even though Miranda remains silent and apparently ungrateful. How could the twenty-four-year-old who now has “time for everything” not teem with the thrill of survival, especially when so many others are succumbing to this resistant malady?

How could a saved soul be so cold? After all, when she first falls ill and her landlady summons an ambulance, we learn that there “aren’t any beds” and all the drivers are already hurrying elsewhere: “all the theaters and nearly all the ships and restaurants are closed, and the streets have been full of funerals all day and ambulances all night.” Her boss, editor of the Blue Mountain News, has to cajole and elbow her into a hospital, wherein a “pallid white fog” disinfects the room of a dead man who, swathed from head to foot in white, is covered “tenderly and exactly” by wordless orderlies. Only through death is the place’s scarce space freed for the sick but still breathing.

Given that she could have passed away in her apartment—with the landlady hovering over her and harping about “the plague, my God, and I’ve got a houseful of people to think about!”—it should seem strange that, when she wakes, Miranda is made miserable by “the precise machine of the hospital” which has “conspired to pull her inseparable rack of bones and wasted flesh to its feet” only to set her in safety on the road that would again lead her to death. Bombarded by colleagues bent on buoying her up, and surrounded by a pile of mail celebrating her victory over mortality, Miranda plays along, telling everyone what a “pleasant surprise” it is to find her heart beating. It would not do to “betray the conspiracy . . . of the living: that there is nothing better than to be alive.” But, secretly, Miranda has defected from this all-too-human collusion. Mere living will never again be enough.

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Prior to this “happy ending,” Porter’s mercurial prose has taken us deep into a half-known territory that borders transcendence and delusion. From the novella’s very start we weave in and out of visions, with a sickly Miranda striving to “outrun Death and the Devil.” In a dream more palpable and more substantial than many of the story’s waking scenes, she swings into the saddle of her horse Graylie who “because he is not afraid of bridges,” may be able to help her surpass the “blank still stare of mindless malice that makes no threats and can bide its time.” But the stranger keeps pace; riding beside her “easily, lightly… his pale face smiled in an evil trance, he did not glance at her.”

Miranda recognizes the rider, who is no stranger to her, though she cannot place him; she does not know it yet, but her “burning slow headache” and constant fatigue are the marks of the Spanish influenza which Miranda at one point remarks, “seems to be a plague, something out of the Middle Ages.” Adam, the young soldier to whom she speaks, says, “Well let’s be strong-minded and not have any of it.” His voice echoes with the townspeople of Camus’s The Plague, men who “disbelieved in pestilences”:

A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.

When Miranda succumbs to the immeasurable, leveling sickness, Adam takes no precautions. He is falling in love with her on the verge of action: World War I awaits. Relentlessly and restlessly he tends to her, bringing medicine and ice, pressing closer as their impending parting hangs over everything.

On the night before she is hospitalized, still shorn of needed medical care, Miranda curates their conversation towards the faith. “Do you remember any prayers?” she asks suddenly, and he scrapes up “the Lord’s prayer”; she replies with a Hail Mary and the Confiteor. They fumble through “Now I lay me,” forgetting half the words before they take the reins of an old black spiritual. In a “hoarse whisper” she sings, “Pale horse, pale rider, done taken my lover away.” The couple partakes of what the narrator of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road calls “[t]he sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality.” With death knelling all around them, they seek consolation in childhood prayers and the misremembered spiritual, but they don’t exactly kneel. Rather, as they sing of death’s horseman “leaving one lover to mourn,” Adam presses his smooth face beside hers and moves his mouth toward her mouth, romantically contracting the germs that will kill him before he can even see battle.

Alone in the hospital, however, Miranda approaches something like the sacred with greater immediacy, more nakedly, and it is this which saves her from the reductive satisfaction of her fellow men. Many of them are people of good will, some of them heroic. Still, they are stubbornly contented by mere survival, definitively circumscribed by things of this world. Approaching the end, she steels her will to live, which Porter captures as a “fiercely burning particle of being that knew itself alone.” The particle begins to curve outward like a great fan, rainbow-like. Beneath the arc, a great company of persons emerges, all of their faces transfigured; all of them she had known while alive. Here—where?—they are “pure identities,” eyes “clear and untroubled as good weather,” each figure “alone but not solitary” as they drift into a widening circle. Her paradisiacal image is interrupted when she realizes that she has forgotten “the dead,” that is, those we call “living,” the people who pity and mourn those who have passed; a hypodermic needle rouses her back to “reality.”

Like the embodied soul in Plato’s Phaedrus, fresh from beholding the forms, Miranda chafes at her incarnate self. The body “is a curious monster” she says; being “no place to live in, how could anyone feel at home there?” Saturated with the fears and feverish strains of consciousness that come with pandemics, Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider persuades. It is the waking-dead lives led by many, and not the plague, that ought to own the name “mortality.” True, our medics are often heroes but not messiahs.

But Miranda’s “heaven” is no place for dead men made whole; who could feel at home there, either, in that self-made landscape willfully forged by a particle of being that “relied upon nothing beyond itself for its strength”? The circling “pure identities” surround no God; they surround none but the self, and the self—given to grandiosity when it becomes the center of things—is a pusillanimous god.

Nonetheless, Porter’s story helps us to revise our vision during this time of dramatic reorientation. Pale Horse, Pale Rider reins in death’s pride. Through hypnotic passages that take us straight through the dark woods of delirium and bewilderment, it cathartically needles the pustules of our plague-born anxieties, which, justified or not, can be maddening—perilously so. But pity the one who does not fear death on account of a self-made heaven. Certainly, “there might never be light again, compared as it must always be with the light she had seen.” Dante, too, saw unsurpassable sights as Beatrice led him through the Empyrean; beatified, souls became whirling lights. But unlike Porter’s “modernized” paradise (which is indebted to Dante’s but robbed of its main Mover), these little lights have a center, a source, and an utmost aim:

Before that Light one’s will to turn is spent;
one is so changed, it is impossible
to shift the glance, for one would not consent,
Because all good—the object of the will—
is summed in it, for it alone is best:
beyond, defective; there, whole, perfect, still.

Before that Light pestilences of both body and soul burn into colors so pale it is hard to believe they were real.

Image:The Triumph of Death with The Dance of Death by Giacomo Borlone de Burchis


  • Joshua Hren

    Dr. Joshua Hren is co-founder and assistant director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey. He is founder and editor-in-chief of Wiseblood Books. His first collection of short stories, This Our Exile, was published by Angelico Press in 2018. His first academic book, Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: J.R.R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy came out through Cascade Books in the same year.

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