Many are the losses suffered and lives lost during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2020, writers around the globe have penned essays and books that make sense of this medical and public health catastrophe. But few have addressed a pressing question that precedes and is the foundation of their writings: How does the very act of narrating the pandemic offer strategies to confront and contend with the pandemic’s present dangers? What narratives have been offered during past plague and pandemic times to ease suffering and loss and protect individuals and communities from a life lived under the most precarious of conditions? The philosopher and literary and cultural critic Samuel Weber returns to past narratives of plagues and pandemics to reproduce the myriad ways individual and collective, historical and actual, intentional and unintentional forces converge to reveal how cultures and societies deal with their vulnerability and mortality. The “preexisting conditions”—a phrase taken from the American healthcare industry—of these very cultures converge and collide with the urgent situations of individuals confronting the plague. Texts drawn from the Bible, Sophocles, Thucydides, Boccaccio, Luther, Defoe, Kleist, Hölderlin, Artaud, and Camus demonstrate how in the process of narration individuals come to reconsider their relationship to others, to themselves, and to the collectives to which they belong and on which they depend.
“As is suggested by its title the ‘preexisting conditions’ that concern Weber are those that make recounting the plague possible. The conditions are specifically not causes and the plague is not, strictly speaking, a pandemic. The conditions, rather, are those to which recounting responds where tallying and counting fail. Weber’s proposal is thus concerned with particular and particularly literary responses to the broader and yet irreducibly singular experiences occasioned by pandemics.” —Kevin McLaughlin, George Hazard Crooker Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Brown University
“One of the most original, compelling, and intellectually rigorous books ever written on the plagues of history. Written in Weber’s usually adept and challenging way, Preexisting Conditions reminds us why his is a singular voice in the best sense of the term.” —Brad Evans, Professor of Political Violence and Aesthetics, University of Bath