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Locating God in the Time of Epidemic: John Donne’s Plague


In our contemporary milieu, the diseased body has become an object of study to be viewed through various “models” that are frequently locked in combat with each other. The phenomenon of the pandemic has, in recent months, emerged as a site where these competing discourses battle each other out. In our times, the “scientific” medicine-based model of approaching disease may surface as the normative or desirable one, whereas the religious model, conflated with the superstitious, and together comprising the supernatural, may appear as its nemesis. Any such demarcation of the “supernatural” in the early modern conception of disease, including contagious disease, becomes problematic as the schema through which the world was viewed at that time was significantly different from ours. The realm of the supernatural, in itself, was also subject to splits, like that between religion and magic, as emerges significantly in a post-Reformation milieu, or that between benevolent and malevolent magic. The proposed paper intends to draw upon Gilman’s reading of Donne as plague writer, where he studies Donne’s sermons at the time of plague, and his poem An Anatomy of The World, and finds in him the last successful accommodator of the problem of the plague into the language of theology. The proposed paper seeks to read these works against the contemporary early modern discourses of plague and its relation to the supernatural, and particularly, against the new split that had been occasioned in the realm of the supernatural by the politics of post-Reformation England. The plague emerged, in early-modern Europe, as a site of polemic battle that sought an other to pin blame upon, while consolidating processes of nation-building and expansions of state power. Against such a backdrop, the proposed paper seeks to examine Donne as a figure of exception in his naturalisation of the plague, whose supernatural connotations were, in popular imagination tied to divine intervention in, and abrogation of, the natural scheme of things. By moving away from seeing the plague as a state of exception, and by retaining certain elements of the older Catholic schema of looking at disease, Donne circumvents, and perhaps seeks to transcend the new factionally charged split in the realm of the supernatural. The proposed paper hopes to generate new insight regarding Donne as intervener in the discourse around plague and the supernatural in his time, and, in the process, throw light upon the interconnectedness of different disciplines that have come to be regarded as mutually antagonistic and exclusive in our times.

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