From the very first time that my mother put a book into my hands, introducing me to a strange new world of words and wonder where my imagination could roam at will, I’ve always loved to read. One lesson that my fifth-grade English teacher, Mr. Olschefski, drilled into me and the rest of my classmates that I’ve never forgotten is the frequency with which the two extremes of fact and fiction mirror one another.
This childhood memory has resurfaced in a profound way over the past seven months as an uninvited guest, coronavirus, has upended the way we live, work and play, slowing my pace and forcing me to reconstruct how I utilize my time.
But there’s been one shockingly surprising outcome. To my delight, I’ve been allowed the opportunity to spend long-lost time with many of my favorite authors again. While combing through my bookshelves several days ago, I ran across two unforgettable works of fiction that provide prophetic insight into the harsh realities which we face today: “The Plague” by Albert Camus and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.”
But it was the short story by Poe whose final images, both unfamiliar and frightening, forced me to reconsider how we can learn so much in our travels through the world of fiction for battles that we must wage in our daily walk through the real world — through life.
As an example, on Saturday, Oct. 10, President Donald Trump invited a select group of his most ardent supporters to the South Lawn of the White House for a “highly exclusive masque,” as Poe wrote in his masterpiece.
Trump, standing on a balcony in self-indulgent pride while hundreds below shouted words of support, told the crowd that he was “feeling great,” after just days during which he’d been hospitalized and treated by his doctors following his positive test results for COVID-19.
For a few brief moments, he would welcome his guests with his face mask before removing it with exuberance — signaling to his guests, perhaps, that they too could or should remove their “masques” — that is, if they were even wearing them before the festivities began.
In the Poe narrative, the guests fortunate enough to be allowed access to Prince Prospero’s ball, moved from one room to the next, oblivious to the dangers that lurked within — the “red death.” They wholeheartedly swallowed the notion that somehow they were superior to the rest of the village, the chosen few — eager to indulge themselves in the “gay and magnificent revel” where they, following the example of their host, “bid defiance to contagion.”
As Poe’s haunting tale reaches its conclusion, we learn that an enormous ebony clock has struck the death knoll while “darkness and decay and the red death held illimitable dominion over all.”
In comparison, we saw the celebrants at the Trump soiree moving about as if they had already ingested a yet-to-be-discovered magic elixir — a vaccine for the deadly coronavirus pandemic — that would protect them from joining the millions of Americans who have already died or who remain quarantined or hospitalized, fighting for their lives against a foe that has disproportionately wreaked havoc upon the health and welfare of America’s Black and brown citizens.
And so, with unbridled hubris and an air of petulant superiority that have come to define his presidency, Trump assured his guests, white, brown and Black alike, that with him remaining at the helm, “we’re going to defeat this terrible China virus!”
“We’ve had a lot of flare-ups,” he said, “but it’s going to disappear.”
However, absent of any scientific support, the inescapable truth and inevitable tragedy which awaits many of Trump’s misguided guests as we’ve seen in the past — in an outcome reflective of that which awaited those in Poe’s tale who felt emboldened because of their gold-plated invitations to Prince Prospero’s soiree — will be “the red death.”