From the Archive | Part one: Lizard talk

In this first of a four-part series, historian Peter Linebaugh riffs on historical plagues, including those found in Exodus and the Book of Revelation, to think about HIV/Aids.

Marxist historian Peter Linebaugh wrote Lizard Talk; Or, Ten Plagues and Another: An Historical Reprise in Celebration of the Anniversary of Boston ACT UP February 26, 1989 to honour the Aids Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP). It was published by the Midnight Notes Collective and is republished here with permission.

Well, well, well. Happy birthday, ACT UP, and many happy returns of the day!

The Aids Coalition To Unleash Power has just begun to flex its muscles. We are all beginning to feel better in the reflection of your struggle against Aids. Although you may sometimes feel like the little boy whose thumb in the dike is all that stands between the next breath and the deluge, your supporters gain courage by your example. 

Aids, like the pestilences before it, has been used as a principle of division – division between the genders, between the races, between the nations and the continents. But it has backfired, and the struggle against it brings us greater power than we knew, for we are beginning to understand that there is not a single question of struggle that is not involved in yours. The struggle against sex and racial discrimination, the struggle of workers at our places of employment, the struggle for civil liberties, the struggle for housing, the struggle to choose our own lifestyle, the expression of solidarity with those struggling in Africa, in Haiti, in the Philippines and in Latin America, the struggle against medicine-for-profit, the struggle for education, the struggle for prisoners’ rights, the struggle against identity papers, the struggle to sleep when, where and with whomever, the struggle to retain some of the break throughs of the 1960s to create our own forms of sociality, the struggle against drug abuse, the struggle for gay liberation, the struggle for women’s liberation, the struggle for the envi­ronment, the struggle for science for the people, the struggle for sex and the struggle for safe streets, have gained strength from your vigilance, creativity and staying power. 

Here is a birthday present. It is a history of 10 plagues. It contains warnings and danger signals. It shows us how far we have come. It is a collective present which could not have been written without the help of Michaela Brennan, Silvia Federici, George Caffentzis, Evan Stark, John Wilshire, Monty Neill, Nancy Kelly, Bettina Berch, Harry Cleaver, John Roosa, Kate Linebaugh and all the “whores, sluts and martyrs” who supped on minestrone last Friday beyond midnight. 

So, as they say in San Francisco, “Let us go gayly forward.”

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HIV made its active appearance in the late 1970s in the United States. At the same time, in Chicago, an economic theory was propagated (“monetarism”) that organised poverty, famine, disease and dislocation all over the world in the interests of ruling classes whose corrupt desperation was personified by an aphasic actor, Ronald Reagan. Chicago also became a centre noted for the adoption of free-market economic models to the interpretation of law (Stephen Possner) which ceased to pretend to justice and quantified instead the cost-benefit of life and death, and such jurists gained political ascendancy. Not long after, under the barking leadership of William Bennett, other dogs of the liberal arts joined the howling chorus for “Western Civilisation”. A Chicago historian, William McNeill, published Plagues and Peoples in 1976, shortly before the Aids pandemic appeared. He takes a long view, indeed the longest view he can, beginning with “Man the Hunter” and placing “him” within a very deterministic ecology. He notes that our survival is contingent upon survival against microparasites which inhabit our bodies (bacteria, viruses) and against macroparasites (ruling classes in their many mutations) who raid, enslave, exploit, tax, kill and otherwise mess us up. Any kind of parasite is dependent upon its host, the HIV no less than a ruling class, and therefore it is in the interest of the parasite not to annihilate its host completely, as otherwise, the parasite too is dead. A balance, or stasis of some kind, must be accomodated. The host is permitted to live only to the extent that it works to produce a surplus for the parasite. While McNeill does not prattle, as Hitler does in Mein Kampf, about “sacrifice for the race”, or “ruthless measures for survival”, he is at ease with that cool distance from events that permits him to speak of “nature” and our “species”. Susan Sontag warned against the metaphorical treatment of disease, and that is a danger McNeill has not resisted. He retains a lay person’s knowledge of disease and a Chicago person’s knowledge of ruling classes. He does not, for all the suggestion of a class analysis of plague and history, tell us about the lost history of our own communism. Nor does he know about the lizard. 

1. Lizard talk in ancient Egypt

“Aids!” her lips curl about the syllable. “There is no such thing. It is a false disease invented by the American government to take advantage of the poor countries. The American president hates poor people, so now he makes up Aids to take away the little we have.”

Prostitute in Port-au-Prince, quoted in Life, August 1987.

What about the famous plagues of ancient Egypt? They provide an atavistic component to the whisperings and prayers of the bourgeoisie. They are the “fundamentals” of the fundamentalists. Did not the Lord of Hosts, the wrathful Yahweh, sling down plague and pestilence to those who got in the way of the “Chosen People”? Listen to the voice of the chief physician of the Baptist Mission Hospital outside of Port-au-Prince (one-third of whose beds are unoccupied): “Fornication. It is Sodom and Gomorrah all over again, so what can you expect from these people?” (Life magazine, August 1987). In Lutheran, in Calvinist, in Vatican, in Zionist ideological practise, these are the fool “fundamentals” dividing “darkest Africa” from the “glory that was Greece”, the slave mode of production based upon the empire of irrigation (ancient Egypt) from the slave mode of production based upon the democracy of the city-state (ancient Greece), the ancient third world from the ancient first world. 

The plagues of the Old Testament took place in the 13th century BCE. They are the pestilences described in the Book of Exodus. But what is this book? It was composed at least 300 years afterwards, during the reign of Solomon. It summarises cultic recitation, song and chronicle: or, the official myths of an ancient state, and must therefore be treated accordingly. 

Zora Neale Hurston speaks of them as pan-African stories. The pestilences are exercises of the magical machismo of Moses, a man with a stick, a rod of power, a serpent god who leads slaves to freedom. He must fight the Egyptian oppressor and the Egyptian gods. The victory over Pharaoh is a victory of superior magic. Moses throws down his stick, and it becomes a serpent. He dips it in the waters of the Nile, and the waters turn to blood. He stretches his staff over the streams, and frogs fall all over, even into ovens and kneading troughs. He strikes the dust on the ground, and maggots spring up everywhere on man and beast. 

Flies, hailstorms, locusts, eclipses, pestilences, boils: Moses and his stick bring all of them, and Pharaoh’s magicians are stumped at every turn. Thus does Yahweh defeat the frog goddess, the sun god and the cattle deities. 

Such serpent-and-stick power is a living power in Haiti and in Dahomey as Zora Neale Hurston discovered. How did Moses, the leader of slaves and outlaws (for these are the Egyptian meanings of the word “Hebrew”) obtain his magic? He learned it from Pharaoh’s stableboy, Mentu. Moses says to him, “I love you because you know all about the beginning of things and you tell me about them. You tell me such nice lizard talk.”

But Mentu did not give his knowledge for nothing. Moses brought him scraps from Pharaoh’s kitchens. “Roast pork at Pharaoh’s table meant boiled hog head for the help.” With his new pupil Mentu could say, “I am eating further back on the hog now.” 

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The class relations of magic-knowledge are made clear. It is concocted in kitchens and stables, exchanged for a price, and only then comes the familiar, ambiguous story of rebellion, massacre and new kingdom. “‘No more toting sand and mixing mortar! No more taking rocks and building things for Pharaoh! No more whipping and bloody backs! No more slaving from can’t see in the morning to can’t see at night! Free! Free! So free till I’m foolish.’ They just sat with centuries in their eyes and cried.”

Certainly, this is a version that only is possible after the liberation of the Afro-American, the historic person who straddles Christianity, Judaism and Voodoo. The reading of the Egyptian pestilences supplied as a result of that experience is the opposite of Luther and Calvin, the gods of capitalism, whose Gospel was really “Work or be Hanged”.

2. ‘What they had formerly done in a corner…’ Ancient Greece

Thucydides. Let us call him “Thuc”. He belonged to “the glory that was Greece”, and no wonder for he came from an aristocratic family. He was the manager of a gold mine on the frontier of the Athenian empire. He was a failed general and an exile of 20 years. We’re supposed to study his book, The Peloponnesian War, as part of “Western civilisation”. Okay. Let’s have a look.

He praised maritime imperialism. He recounted the Athenian bid for Mediterranean hegemony. He lived in the transition to commodity production, and to the money form of human creation. It is the transition from piracy to commerce (smile). 

In methodology his book is no less revolutionary, as it departs from the magic of Moses. It is influenced by the sophist theories of disease propounded by Hippocrates: there is the observation of symptoms, the chronicling of the course, the identification of crisis and the analysis of causes.

The year is 430 BCE, during the second year of the war, the Spartans invaded Attica and attacked the silver mines. At the same time a pestilence descended upon Athens, first the port city of Piraeus. It arrived, rumours had it, from Egypt and Libya, and beyond them, it was said, its origins were to be found in Ethiopia. Thus, it was a disease of the “Other”. Thus, does “darkest Africa” plague Western civilisation. Thus, does “Western civilisation” blame the victim. The old story has begun.

In Athens it ravaged the population, killing soldiers, wasting the urban population. It spread with ferocious rapidity as masses of people suffering from the Spartan invasion migrated to the city. Thuc describes the symptoms of the pestilence – the inflammations, the thirst, the insomnia, the diarrhoea. Thuc cannot but help to see it as part of a natural crisis. Birds and beasts refrained from contacting those who were infected.

But already this “modem historian” – actually the historian of diplomats and bankers, the man who writes a vade mecum for every politician – understood that there was nothing exclusively “natural” about an epidemic. He described the “lawless extravagance” induced by the unnamed disease.

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“Men now cooly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner … seeing the rapid transitions produced by persons in prosperity suddenly dying and those who before had nothing succeeding to their prosperity.” Pestilence, in its social dynamics, contains a possibility of liberation. Thuc the banker and Thuc the health professional was worried: “Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.”

The epidemic produced a crisis likewise of political leadership: Pericles was blamed, and indeed he was himself to succumb to the pest. And it produced a military turning point causing the Lacedaemonians to quit Attica. It intensified class struggle everywhere. Revolution broke out in Corcyra. 

“The iniquitous resolves of those who desired to get rid of their accustomed poverty, and ardently coveted their neighbour’s goods” and “the reprisals exacted by the governed who had never experienced equitable treatment or indeed aught but insolence from their rulers” worried Mr Thuc, but why should it worry us? The struggle for justice became the therapeutic treatment of choice upon the part of the slaves, the poor and the afflicted.

3. Christianity and the whore of Babylon

The macroparasitism of Roman times preyed upon the peoples of the world through the vectors of tribute, taxes and tithes. The poor slobs from Palestine to Portugal bought immunisation from barbarian attack by payment to the civilised legions of Caesar and Nero. And the same “protectors” extended their “health” to Africa, India and northern Europe, thus bringing a confluence of four human disease pools into the Mediterranean world which consequently was visited by repeated epidemics. Measles, smallpox, influenza, typhoid, dysentery, mumps, malaria ravaged this world in periodic visits that culminated with Justinian’s plague of 543 CE as commerce and conquest extended this “known world”.

The formation of a Mediterranean disease poll transpired during the same centuries of the consolidation of Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. McNeill argues that disease and religion were interrelated, the transcendental fatalism of each religion reduced the danger of class struggle against Chinese, Indian and Roman ruling classes.

It is true that the institutionalised Christians comforted the sick, nursed the dying and consoled themselves with the thought that death was a release from suffering, and justice might be meted in the afterlife. Thus, did Eusebius of Caesarea complacently credit his church, while the Bishop of Carthage found mortality a “salutary departure”. The microbiology of the Roman empire thus became lost in the theological sell-out of the early church fathers.

Yet, the macroparasitism of Rome, “the whore of Babylon”, was denounced by the turned-on drop-out John of Patmos, who found deliverance in the Seven Angels from the Tent of Testimony with their Seven Plagues and Seven Bowls of the Wrath of God, as he described them in the last book of the Bible, Revelations.

Bowl One poured out foul malignant sores, Bowl Two turned the sea to blood, Bowl Three turned the rivers and springs to blood, Bowl Four burned men with flames, Bowl Five made men gnaw their tongues in darkness, Bowl six dried up the Euphrates and Bowl Seven poured huge hailstones (“weighing perhaps a hundred weight”) upon Babylon. Such like passages of Revelation remained for nigh two thousand years a source of prophetic hopes to millenarians and revolutionists from the Middle Ages (Joachim of Fiore), through the 17th century (Abiezer Coppe) and into the 20th century (Peter Tosh, Bob Marley).

Class anger rages through Revelation making it less opium for the masses than crack for a vanguard. The kings of the Earth who had committed fornication with Babylon and the merchants of the world who grew rich upon her bloated wealth could only weep and mourn. They could no longer buy and sell: “their cargoes of gold and silver, jewels and pearls, cloths of purple and scarlet, silks and fine linens; all kinds of scented woods, ivories and every sort of thing made of costly woods, bronze, iron or marble; cinnamon and spice, incense perfumes and frankincense; wine, oil, flour and wheat, sheep and cattle, horses, chariots, slaves, and the lives of men.”

4. One hundred tales of love in the transition from feudalism to capitalism

“I was on DMSO [chronic topical application of dimethylsulfoxide] last year. It paid real good and it was better than that plague thing [bubonic plague vaccine immunisation study] that fucked with guys last year. There was a lot of bad reactions to DMSO, but I guess that’s why it paid so good.”

Department of Criminology, University of California, Vacaville Prison interview (1969).

The Decameron was written by Boccaccio (Bo’ for short) shortly after the Black Death of 1347-1349 which killed more than one third of the European population. He was the son of a Florentine banker. He went to business school in Naples, but he couldn’t hack it, so he tried church law, but he couldn’t cut that either, so he became a diplomat and survived the plague.

The hundred tales contain as many satiric pricks against the church and the bourgeoisie. Although the stories were stolen from the dying peasants to whom Bo’ stood in a relation that may be compared to Joel Chandler Harris and the Afro-American, ie, as a vector of palliation, their goal was to amuse the genteel who were occasionally and good-humouredly satirised.

The peasants “had no physicians or servants whatever to assist them, and collapsed by the wayside, in their fields, and in their cottages at all hours of the day and night, dying more like animals than human beings”. 

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Bo’ begins the fun with a short disquisition on comfort and compassion. This does not lead him to the subject of nursing, of tending to the sick, of caring for the dying. No, the comfort he means is the entertainment of those who have abandoned the city to escape precisely “an endless torrent of tears and sobbing”. “Fathers and mothers refused to nurse and assist their own children, as though they did not belong to them.”

The seven ladies and three gentlemen escape the town because: “Most houses had become common property”; “All respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken down and been extinguished in our city”; and bereavement became a signal “for laughter and witticisms and general jollification”. The ladies meet in church and begin to talk, to plan: criminals are no longer exiled but career in the streets “in open defiance of the law”. The ladies agree that they are at “the mercy of the scum of our city, who, having scented our blood, call themselves sextons and go prancing and bustling all over the place, singing bawdy songs that add insult to our injuries”.

They skip town and ease their digestion of banquets savoured with eastern spices by telling their jokes and stories. These spices, however, came aboard the same ships that brought pasteurella pestis. This is the name of the microparsite whose vector is a flea and whose host is the “ship rat”. It was brought to Europe by a combination of two macroparasites, 1) Ghengis

Khanis plunderitis and the rapid circulation of life forms in central Asia, and 2) the virus Venetia avaricious, the central artery of European commodity trade. The macroparasites had not developed techniques of self-immunisation, that is, there were not “administrative routines” (triage, quarantine) in urban Europe for dealing with the infestation.

Pasteurella pestis found a succulent human population to thrive upon, because the defenses of the host had been severely weakened by malnutrition and war. The feudal peasantry had begun to develop patterns of its own against these scourges, namely millenarian movement and peasant rebellion against the parasites of church, lord and prince.

The Lollard movement in England and the Fraticelli movement in Italy were two such, and it was against them, as well as every other form of deviance, that ruling class commentators welcomed the plague. The ruling class theory of disease was that it was either influenced by changes in the heavenly bodies (astrology) or that it was a punishment from God for an iniquitous way of life. Henry Knighton, the English chronicler, considered the plague a “marvellous remedy” in the prevention and punishment of the practise of women dressing as men, for instance. Furthermore, vicious pogroms against Jews began, and ended, with the course of the plague.

Meanwhile, the church offered salvation in exchange for money. The Pope invited Christian souls to Rome. One million two hundred thousand heeded the call and upon completion of their pilgrimage deposited their offerings, and (since only 10% survived to return home) their corpses as well. Meanwhile, the Pope moonlighted to the fairer clime of Avignon whence he ordered that the dice factories be converted to the manufacture of rosary beads. 

In Germany, meanwhile, the bravest souls seemed to get into beating themselves up, for it was in central Europe that the Flagellant movement, or the Brothers of the Cross, originated as a response to the plague. Men (and a few women) wandered the desolated countryside in bands of two or three hundred. On arrival in town they assembled themselves in large circles and proceeded to whip themselves into a frenzy of weeping, singing and hollering.

The authorities at first met them with sceptical toleration, but it soon became clear that the Flagellants meant the church no good as they ridiculed the hierarchy and looted the monasteries of their ill-gotten gains. Thus did pious S & M turn to revolutionary chiliasm.

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Genocide on the scale of the Black Death had its revenges upon the macroparasites. Pasteurella pestis neither annihilated the sources of revolt, nor disciplined the working class to moil, nor prevented men dressing as women. Wages doubled in Europe. Life actually became more valuable. Furthermore, to quote Thorold Rogers, “the effect of the Plague was to introduce a complete revolution in the occupation of the land”. This reached its apogee in England where the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 produced an historic crisis of feudalism. Attacking monasteries, liberating prisons, taking over land, assaulting lawyers and priests, peasants and urban craftspeople united under the potent slogan, 

“When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the Gentleman?”

The meaning is double, for the words “delve” and “span” may refer to either agricultural fertility or human generation, that is to ploughing, harvesting, fucking and birthing.

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