Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Plague comes to Alexandria

I wrote yesterday about physicalist medicine and alternative and complementary therapies. I have written a novel on the topic, about a 3rd-century Galenist physician, Valentine, who advances naturalistic healing at a time when most matters of medicine were left in the hands of the gods, the stars, and necromancers. (It's a love story too.) Here is a passage about young Valentine's first encounter with epidemic disease.
On the night of Eppia's death, as Theophrastus grieved, Valentine walked across the Heptastadium causeway to the island of Pharos. The lighthouse was dark: No blazing beacon welcomed sailors to the stricken city. A chain blocked the harbor's mouth. On the beach near the lighthouse he spreadeagled himself on the sand. Red Mars blazed in Pisces in the southwest, where he could also see the glow of fires in the necropolis beyond the city walls. The Great Bear skimmed the northern sea horizon. In the east, towards the channels of the Nile, rose majestic Orion. Sirius, too, was there, presiding over the pestilent dog days of autumn. As Valentine watched, a crescent moon lifted out of the distant marshes like a silver cup of libation to indifferent gods. Soon, he knew, the Morning Star would follow. He whispered to himself the opening lines of the great poem of Lucretius:

Dear Venus, creatress of the world,
joy of earth and heaven, mother of Romans:
For you that sweet artificer, the earth,
Offers gifts of flowers, and for you
The deep ocean smiles, the peaceful heavens shine
With shoreless light.

The city slept. A deep silence hung upon the sea. The star-pricked heavens arched from east to west, from north to south, godlike in their uninterrupted turning. Theophrastus lives. Eppia dies. Do the gods roll dice? Does fortune choose? Or is it all a chancy thing, as Lucretius says, a jumble of atoms in the void, corpuscular seeds of pestilence on a capricious wind, wafting here and there, alighting randomly on the good and bad alike, rich and poor, Christian, Jew and acolyte of Venus. He closed his eyes. And then for some reason that he did not understand he thought of Olivia, the girl of Apollonia whom he had left with child. It was perhaps the first fully adult thought of Valentine's life -- a sudden sense of consequence, of responsibility. It had been two years. What had become of the child who was his seed? Was it aborted as an embryo? Did it die in childbirth? Or was there even now somewhere in the district of Cyrenaica a toddling boy or girl who would never know a father, watched over by sweet Olivia.

...for you
The deep ocean smiles, the peaceful heavens shine...

For the first time since he had come to Alexandria, Valentine was homesick.

The moon cradled upwards. And thinking of his single act of love with Olivia -- the impetuous spilling of his seed that had entrained such unintended consequences -- his thoughts turned to [the prostitute] Nibi, careful Nibi, with her contraceptive balms of honey and resin, her locks of fine white wool soaked in the juice of balsam. Honey. The resin of cedar. Myrtle oil. Incense. The sweetness of her oiled skin. The delicious fragrance of her lamp. He rose from the sand and made his way back across the Heptastadium and through the dark city to the Street of the Emeralds. It was the first time he had been to the house of Nibi since the sickness had come to Alexandria.

Her door was marked with the magistrates' black "X" of pestilence.