Why a 1939 Story Helps in 2020

Gustave Doré – Death on the Pale Horse

Maybe we have been here before. With pandemic running rampant, economic devastation, and protest settling in for a long spell, it can seem that humanity has never been to this place. But we have and I went back to a short novel from 1939 to get the news.

On the eve of the Second World War, Katherine Anne Porter looked back on the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak to get some perspective on the current dis-ease around her. Pale Horse, Pale Rider is a kaleidoscopic picture of a young woman in the city who comes down with the dreaded influenza. We meet Miranda in the midst of a dream, just prior to the onset:

In sleep she knew she was in her bed, but not the bed she had lain down in a few hours since, and the room was not the same but it was a room she had known somewhere. Her heart was a stone lying upon her breast outside of her; her pulses lagged and paused, and she knew that something strange was going to happen, even as the early morning winds were cool through the lattice, the streaks of light were dark blue and the whole house was snoring in its sleep.

Katherine Anne Porter

Porter knows how to write hallucinatory prose in a way that captures what it feels like to be struggling for sense in a strange landscape. There are always multiple things going on at the same time, even before she descends into a dream state. Miranda is an arts reporter for the local newspaper reviewing plays. She is falling in love with Adam, a young man going off to the battlefields of Europe in the Great War. She is getting sick and sicker. Meanwhile the backdrop of multiplying deaths hovers just behind the protagonists:

They paused at another corner, under a half-foliaged maple, and hardly glanced at the funeral procession approaching. His eyes were pale tan with orange flecks in them, and his hair was the color of a haystack when you turn the weathered top back to the clear straw beneath. He fished out his cigarette case and snapped his silver lighter at her, snapped it several times in his own face, and they moved on, smoking.

When a disgruntled producer shows up at the newspaper office to complain about one of Miranda’s reviews, the weight of it all makes her speechless as she spills it all out to her co-worker, Chuck..

Miranda said, “There’s too much of everything in this world just now. I’d like to sit down here on the curb, Chuck, and die, and never again see—I wish I could lose my memory and forget my own name…I wish—

And she almost gets her wish.

Anyone worth their apocalyptic salt will recognize the pale rider on a pale horse as Death. And he does get his due. But there’s something about the way Miranda persists, even with the stranger stalking the land. She knows enough, in her first dream, to choose a horse who is “not afraid of bridges” and to ride in the early morning “because trees are trees in one stroke, stones are stones set in shades known to be grass, there are no false steps or surmises.”

I need to travel to Porter’s stable this morning to find a horse to carry me through this time. I need a companion who knows the way to what comes next, who is not afraid of the bridges that will take us there, and who walks through a landscape with reliable features. These days feel like a fever dream. There are too many ominous signs. “There is too much of everything in this world just now.” We need good stories to slow us down. To see.

One response to “Why a 1939 Story Helps in 2020”

  1. Simply beautiful reflections that pull on the heart-strings of living in our apocalyptic seeming landscape today. Alex, thank you for introducing us to Miranda. Picking the right horse to ride is more important than ever right now.

    Liked by 1 person

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