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On Edgar Allan Poe, Plague, and Trusting Princes

May 4, 2020


Put no trust in princes,
in children of Adam powerless to save.
Who breathing his last, returns to the earth;
that day all his planning comes to nothing.
Blessed the one whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD, his God.
(Ps. 146:3-5)

In a time of plague, ’tis good to read plague literature.

And so, daily, I am getting the willies as Albert Camus’ plague-infected rats emerge by the hundreds from dark corners to die in the streets of Oran. And as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man and Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron wend their way from Amazon to my doorstep, I decided to lay in bed last night and drink deeply from Edgar Allan Poe’s brief plague tale, The Masque of the Red Death.

Page after page, as Poe’s sinister tale unfolded, my young daughter, Vivian, laying next to me asked if this master of suspense was hard to read. “No,” I answered, “but he is kind of spooky. Do you want me to read you a little bit?” As she smiled and turned back to her young fiction novel, she flattened me with a resounding “No.”

The Masque of the Red Death takes place in the dominion of Prince Prospero. The “Red Death” was an infection that wracked its host with sharp pain before swiftly killing by way of a horrifying exsanguination. It was a bloody terror that left the body and face crimson-stained. Notwithstanding the immense sufferings of Prospero’s “half depopulated” countrymen, he was happy. Surrounded by a thousand of his choicest friends, Prospero walled his court and himself off from the dangers of the plague and the troubles of his people. In a fortress of walls and gates, iron bars and massive windows, there would be joy. For months while the infection consumed his country, musicians and dancers, art and alcohol would deaden the sense of the crisis outside. Labyrinthine passages and oddly illuminated rooms would create a surreal dreamscape where, with food aplenty and body pressed upon body, there could be no illness, but only vibrant, ageless health.

If only it were so.

For each evening—even the night of the great masquerade—every hour, on the hour, emanating from the deepest, blackest chamber of the fortress was the toll of a massive ebony clock. The clock’s hourly thrumming was haunting and it resonated so insistently that the music would stop, the dancing would cease, and all revelers would endure an inexplicable sense of unease. Once the music resumed again, the disguised partygoers would dazedly shake off their disquiet, weakly assuring one another that there was no need for such angst.

But then they saw him. It was a shocking figure. His appearance, in Poe’s words, lacked “wit and propriety” and had “gone beyond the bounds of even the prince’s indefinite decorum.” There confronting the countless merrymakers was a walking corpse adorned in blood-soaked funeral rags. And his face—was it a mask or not? Cheeks and brow were blood-stained with the tell-tale sign of the Red Death.

This spectacle—this horrifying and unwelcome reminder of death—was an intolerable disruption of the prince’s self-absorbed delight. And he demanded that this man be apprehended, unmasked, and hanged. For the rest of the story, I commend you to your favorite chair on a dark and stormy night.

But this tale—which began as a casual, suspenseful lark—soon pricked me. What is our responsibility as Catholics in a time of pandemic? Our faith is no stranger to plagues. But who are we called to be when they occur? What habits should guide us?

Solidarity: Prince Prospero crafted a life of pleasure and aloofness to the concerns of his fellow men and women. His fortress walls protecting an inner decadence were spiritual barriers to God and man. While, in the name of infection control, we are to thoughtfully keep our temporary distance and shelter where required, we are restless and impatient. We are made to live in community with family and friends while concerning ourselves with the well-being of every person at home or abroad. Christ reminds us of the dignity of every life and calls us to support those struggling in health, wealth, and spirit. Those who help us survive our present circumstance (truckers, clerks/cashiers, grocers, healthcare workers, manufacturers, school teachers, mail carriers, and more) deserve our prayers and support. Ultimately, we are called to rich communion and not to fortress living.

Humility: What enraged Prince Prospero as he looked upon his unwanted guest was a difficult reminder. Notwithstanding the walls of the fortress and the distractions of his hedonistic sanctuary, he wasn’t in complete control. The Red Death could find its way in. We are called to a humility that we are not fully in control and that God does not sleep. We should act and then trust. The Serenity Prayer masterfully speaks to the peace that comes in trust:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Memento mori: Prince Prospero was “happy.” But was he really? Or was he simply sedated with pleasure as thousands perished in his greater kingdom? The fortress’ thrumming clock marked time and its inexorable passage. It reminded that the day may be long, but it always ends. During a time of plague, we are called to remember that we are mortal—that, someday, we too shall die. This is not a practice of morbidity; it is a concentration of the mind about the permanent things—about what really matters—so that we may live answering God’s calling and receiving God’s graces.

Responsibility: Prince Prospero abdicated responsibility. His life curved inward as he immersed himself in the raptures of the flesh. But as St. John Henry Newman reminded, “Conscience has rights because it has duties.” In a time of plague, we should not be guided solely by what we want to do, or even what we have to do, but what we ought to do for Christ and our fellow man.

Faith: As smug as Prince Prospero was, he was faithless except in his own power and the anesthesia of pleasure. Whether we are immersed in the uncertainty of plague or we are living our normal daily lives, we are called to believe. We should pray and worship and ask and argue with God with the earnest faith that he is forever present. If we were created with such delicate and enduring love, how odd would it be that our Father would soon grow weary of us? The God of the prodigal son and the lost sheep, the God of the cross, will not abandon us. Ever.

Do not put your trust in Prince Prospero, but instead have faith in the Prince of Peace.

Come, Lord Jesus.