The land of the living, sister,
Is neither here nor there.
We enter it and leave it.
The dead in the land of the dead
Are the ones you'll be with the longest.
(from Seamus Heaney's The Burial at Thebes)
Ebola. When public hysteria about the disease began to build, I admit I gave in to a moment's paranoid fear of infection. When I sat down to write through my anxiety, I realised what the problem was: I thought I 'knew' what Ebola was and how it spread, but really, my 'knowledge' was based purely on the representation of the disease in the 1995 film Outbreak, and Richard Preston's non-fiction book, The Hot Zone (1994), described by Stephen King as "one of the most horrifying things I've read in my whole life". In a more sober review of the book, Paul Trachtman suggests that the horrifying images in Preston's book "may owe more to the fictions we know than to the truths we have only begun to recognise. Peering into the edges of the rainforest, Preston shows us a landscape of infectious terror, but he misses the path into the frontiers of science." Indeed.
Much of the public hysteria around healthcare workers returning from 'the hot zone' is characterised by the public's complete disregard of the scientific facts of the disease and the way it spreads. The reactions described by South African epidemiologist Kathryn Stinson, a non-clinical worker recently returned from Sierra Leone, as well as some of the responses to her article in the comment section, vividly illustrate this point. The facts of the disease are ignored in favour of striking metaphors.
How might we then begin to understand why this particular disease has the globe in a grip of hysteria when the objective facts (see here and here) show that more people are likely to die of malaria and hunger this year, than from Ebola?
Perhaps it has something to do with the manner in which the disease obliterates the bounds and bonds of the community, starting with the family unit. If my husband or my child develops a fever and starts vomiting violently, of course I am going to clean up after them. Of course I am going to hydrate and comfort my sick baby by breastfeeding him. And if a close member of my community dies after a terrible, violently traumatic sickbed, of course I am going to show my support for the family and pay my respects to the dead by performing the rituals that my community and conscience require of me.
Because of its highly infectious nature, Ebola threatens the inter-subjective relations, the knowledge of ideological conventions and the accepted laws that allow a community to exist – what French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan termed the symbolic order. Ebola creates a traumatic rupture in the symbolic order.
Since my own research into the discursive treatment of the supernatural in South Africa has inevitably led me to questions of burial rites and the ancestral realm, I have recently been thinking a lot about the Greek playwright Sophocles's Antigone, and Lacan's 1960 series of lectures on the play. In following the various responses of the wider public, I am struck by the fact that this particular play, which explores the limits of the law in relation to the dead, might offer very useful ways in which one might begin to understand the function of this disease in the public imaginary.
In his 2005 monograph, Witchcraft, Violence and Democracy in South Africa, Adam Ashforth has a chapter in which he discusses 'Death, Pollution and the Dangers of Dirt' in the context of contemporary Soweto. Ashforth shows that, aside from the obvious dangers presented by decaying bodies, survivors are also considered prone to more mysterious infections, related to the spiritual realm:
A funeral will typically involve prayers for the soul of the departed – bound, most mourners hope and pray, for the Christian heaven – as well as rituals devoted to securing the place of the departed among the ranks of ancestors, remaining thereby, most are convinced, present in the lives of the living. Some mourners might also beseech the deceased in their prayers to intervene with the ancestors and God on their behalf. Funerals also involve rituals to cleanse and protect those remaining behind from any harm that might be incurred by their association with death. (Ashforth 164)
While this example is obviously specific to South Africa, it offers a particularly local illustration of the fact that the proper disposal of a corpse has material as well as spiritual implications for those left behind. The link between burial rites and the spread of Ebola in the affected countries has been well documented.
American popular culture has recently illustrated its own preoccupation with the link between proper disposal of corpses and the notion of pollution from the realm of the dead: the figure of the zombie has enjoyed a remarkable re-animation in the past few years. The zombie is a corpse that remains alive, coming back from beyond the limit of death to infect the living with a death-that-is-not-a-death. I would argue, then, that in the preoccupation with zombies, we see manifest the same fear of both physical and spiritual infection that the rituals described by Ashforth above are designed to prevent.
So, what might Antigone have to teach us about Ebola? In the play, we encounter Antigone, whose brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, have killed each other in a battle for the throne. Her uncle Creon has assumed the rule of the city Thebes, and decreed that Eteocles be buried with the formal rites, while Polynices, as a traitor, will be left unburied and unmourned, a corpse to be picked over by scavengers. Anyone who attempts to bury him will be punished by death. Antigone feels compelled to perform the correct funeral rites for both her brothers, and is inevitably caught trying to bury Polynices. Her horrifying punishment is to be entombed: Creon has her shut up in a cave and left to starve. Creon's son, Haemon, pleads with Creon and when Creon refuses to change his mind, Haemon goes to the cave, to find that Antigone has hanged herself. He kills himself, and when Creon's wife hears of this, she also kills herself, cursing Creon as she dies. The play ends with Creon a broken man, praying that his own death will hurry.
In forbidding the burial of Polynices, Creon believes that he is acting for the good. As the leader of his community, he "exists to protect the good of all" (Lacan 258), and his refusal to bury Polynices is based on his conviction that "one cannot at the same time honor those who have defended their country and those who have attacked it" (Lacan 259). However, by insisting on the law of the sovereign in the matter of burial rites, Creon overreaches the limit of his right and attempts to exert "authority over the dead" (Heaney 61). He "wants to inflict on [Polynices] that second death that he has no right to inflict on him" (Lacan 254).
Antigone, on the other hand, finds herself compelled to perform the necessary rites. She would rather suffer death than live with the knowledge that Polynices lies unburied. In this, Antigone is beyond what Lacan calls Atè: "the limit that human life can only briefly cross" (263). Antigone is between life and death, and her punishment is an affirmation of this state – to be shut up in a cave to die slowly leaves her suspended in the zone between life and death (Lacan 280).
It seems to me that much of what frightens people about Ebola might be understood in terms of Atè and the limit of the second death. In the figure of those who die of Ebola, we encounter the conundrum of the second death: the traditional burial rites, which involve washing, kissing, and viewing the corpse almost guarantee that those paying their respects are bound to become infected. The deceased are therefore subjected to a 'second death', in that failure to fulfill the proper rites has tremendous spiritual implications. It also has severe implications for the fabric of the surviving community, since these rites are part of what holds the community together.
As far as the family members who must care for the sick and observe the correct rituals for the dead are concerned, we might understand their situation in terms of Atè: They cannot but fulfill their obligations, but in fulfilling these obligations, they must resign themselves to certain infection. In a very real sense, they have crossed the limit between life and death and while they wait to confirm their own status, they are suspended in the zone between life and death: "Unwept by those alive, / Unwelcomed as yet by the dead" (Heaney, 52).
Of course, not everyone who cares for the sick contracts the disease, and not everyone who contracts the disease dies of it. However, those who survive the disease have already been given up for dead: "[People] think that being an Ebola patient means that you are dead, that you will never recover, that it will kill you, no matter what you do." To survive Ebola is to return from beyond the limit of death. Those who have survived suffer from the stigma of the disease, and are often denied full access to their former lives.
Similarly, healthcare workers – those-who-could-have-been-infected – returning from the field encounter irrational fear and ostracism. Driven by a sense of duty and a desire to help, the position of the healthcare worker might be understood as a form of Atè: they enter that which is perceived by others as a death zone, and return to life to find themselves subjected to quarantine – a kind of entombment – and socially shunned, in order to protect 'the good of all'. This restriction on their personal freedom and their expulsion from their community leaves them suspended, in a very real sense, between life and death. Their (former) lives are no longer accessible to them. Having crossed into the beyond of Atè, they are perceived as marked by death, even if they are not actually infected.
Ebola repeatedly exposes us to the image of the limit. Its ravaging effects conjure the boundary between life and death, what Lacan calls "the boundary of the still living corpse" (268). It is a disease that not only violently destroys the body that hosts it, but also the traditions of the community that must honour the body and the spirit of the departed.
Perhaps this is why Ebola induces hysteria – because it confronts us with a limit that represents the annihilation of our symbolic order and our place in it. The end of life as we know it.
Ashforth, Adam. Witchcraft, Violence and Democracy in South Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2005.
Heaney, Seamus. The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles' Antigone. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2004.
Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar, Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959–1960, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. by Dennis Porter. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.1992.