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A (sacred) contagion

Monday, 25 May, 2020
Les pestiférés de Rome

‘Les pestiférés de Rome’ (c. 1855-1877), by Alphonse Legros. (BnF/Gallica)

You feel as though you are in danger. You know that what is threatening you is all around you and invisible. You feel precarious on this earth. When you look at the world out there, you are worried. Disorder makes you anxious, order reassures you. When you think of the days ahead, you find yourself in a state of bafflement; your mind vacillates between the fear of pain and disgrace and the hope for health and prosperity. At times of weakness or when your loved ones are exposed to risk, fear dominates. When they are safe, and you are feeling well, hope prevails. You are constantly suspended between opposite states of mind. Everything about your future and the future of your community seems unpredictable. You live in a constant state of emergency. Every day, you join your fellow citizens in lugubrious rituals where you remember the dead and celebrate the living, thank saviours and honour martyrs. You feel powerless. You do not understand; you know so little of the causes of your uneasiness. You wonder what they look like, where they reside, where they are from, how they affect you, when everything started, who was first affected, when misfortune will be over, and everything will be all right again. You have no answers.

La Contagion sacrée

Title page of Baron d’Holbach’s ‘La Contagion sacrée’ (1768).

But you realise that someone else knows more than you do. They do not have all the answers, but they do understand more than you, they are more acquainted with the invisible causes than you are, they have learned more. You trust them. You are scared. You have no choice. When their decrees are announced, you submit without a murmur; you adopt, without examining them, the prescribed ways of rendering the invisible agents harmless. You now follow their prescriptions methodically, ceremonially: you wear what they recommend, you purify your body according to their instructions, you move in the ways they endorse, in the places and times they have established. Sometimes, even those who have knowledge disagree, debate, fight battles, divide into sects. You doubt, sometimes. You do not like sects, perhaps. And yet you are scared. You do not know. You obey. You have no choice.

You are an inhabitant of this planet in the spring of 2020. You are also a believer from any time or place, according to the baron d’Holbach. Gods and goddesses may seem less real than viruses, but that does not mean they are less dangerous than a plague. The ghosts of religion and superstition can affect human life as much as a disease does. It is when fear meets ignorance and imagination, though, that the disease turns into an epidemic, a true ‘sacred contagion’: ‘fear is the most contagious of all passions’.

– Laura Nicolì

Laura Nicolì (Voltaire Foundation / LabEx OBVIL, Sorbonne Université) is currently working on the born-digital critical edition of Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach’s La Contagion sacrée ou Histoire naturelle de la superstition (1768), in the context of the Digital d’Holbach project.

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