regular-article-logo Sunday, 03 December 2023

Plague upon the Other

The historian, Simon Schama, multiplies the significance of foreignness in this book

Amit R. Baishya Published 22.09.23, 05:39 AM

Book- Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines And The Health Of Nations

By- Simon Schama


Published By- Simon & Schuster

Price- Rs 899

The plague, Susan Sontag once famously wrote, has always been associated with foreignness. The historian, Simon Schama, multiplies the signification of foreignness in this book. Plagues and pandemics are not the only phenomena associated with foreignness but even the panacea for many of these infestations — vaccines — are often “sandbagged by indignation about foreign substances deviously introduced into our bodies.” Besides this doubling of the significations of foreignness, Schama’s book is also an attempt to think about the “two inter-connected crises of our age — the health of our bodies and the health of the earth.”

When the attempt to think through these two dimensions comes off, it results in some interesting insights. Consider, for instance, his discussion on how the displacement of animals has led to a fundamental recalibration of the ideas of “wildness” and “domesticity”. We were entertained in the early days of the Covid lockdown by the sight of wild animals roaming around in urban spaces then devoid of human presence. However, when considered carefully, we realise that such displacements and the clashing of boundaries between wild and domestic spaces are symptoms of “ecosystems under stress”. Similarly, the last chapter has a memorable discussion on the resilience of horseshoe crabs whose harvested “blue blood” renders them “our arthropod defenders against tiny toxins.”

The problem though is that the bulk of Foreign Bodies moves away from the stated aim of narrating human and natural history together and becomes a fairly conventional history of pioneering inoculators, ranging from Adrien Proust (Marcel’s father) to Anthony Fauci, and their titanic struggles with populist reactions against vaccinations. Viewed from this angle, Foreign Bodies shows how internationalist collaborations in public health are often sacrificed at the altar by militant nationalists and populists. The recounting of the history of major human innovators in inoculation also leads to some little-known insights. Turkey and the Levant may have been stereotyped as vectors of the plague in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man but the folk wisdom of women from the Turkish empire was also emulated by doctors from England as vaccination against smallpox.

Schama’s ability to fuse the disparate stories of different historical personalities makes this an engaging and readable account but it also belies his initial stated aim to tell human stories via their deep entanglement with the nonhuman.

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