Report // Stephen Rachman, “Pathoregimes: Poe, Pestilence, Space and Time,” 8 December 2023

Link to original event here.

Focusing on the four tales by Edgar Allan Poe that are set during epidemics, Stephen Rachman (Michigan University) foregrounded the process by which infectious disease usurps human authority, redraws urban geographies and alters normal temporalities, thereby establishing what Rachman terms a “pathoregime.” The name is inspired by the parallels between autocratic political regimes and the reign of disease. Both of these possess unclear beginnings and ends and their historical provenance is often obfuscated in favour of tracing them back to Biblical origins.

Recalling how the Red Death reorganises space into zones of safety and danger in “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), Rachman demonstrated that the pandemic world of pathoregimes is intensely spatialised. This redrawing of borders is motivated by fear, the individual and collective psychologies of which are thoroughly tested and ruthlessly exposed by pandemics. The permanent state of fear is a characteristic feature of pathoregimes, Rachman argued, which is what endows these latter with the power to interfere with the normal passage and human perception of time; for instance, Rachman remarked that “Shadow—A Parable” (1835) unfolds during “a year of terror.” Rachman posited that such drastic alterations of spatio-temporal conditions on a massive scale likewise serve as a source of meteorological changes, as ambient weather conditions begin to mirror those of the disease sufferer, making a confrontation with epidemics’ at once internal and external threat of death inevitable for all unfortunate subjects of a pathoregime.

Rachman connected pathoregimes’ spatial regimentation of urban landscapes that is at work both in “The Masque of the Red Death” and “King Pest” (1835) with the salient realities of the global COVID-19 pandemic, recalling the overflowing hospital wards and funeral homes of our very recent past. Furthermore, Rachman argued that attempts to assign meaning to the different tints present in the seven chambers of Prospero’s castle in “The Masque of the Red Death” impede the recognition that such a division of space into colour-marked zones is subservient to the pandemic logic of spatialisation that dominates the disease-wracked world outside the Prince’s abode. Mirroring the Red Death’s infectiousness, the virality of fear enabled by the powers of human imagination ceaselessly conjures up the very thing it hopes to banish, Rachman posited, leading to the disease’s penetration of the “safe space” within the castle walls and thus reaffirming the undeniable authority of disease over humanity.

Rachman moreover recognised the potential of “The Masque of the Red Death” to be understood as a double allegory, commenting on the ability of pandemics to expose political and social infrastructures, most notably the class hierarchy. Deploying Michel Foucault’s idea of heterotopias, Rachman framed the aristocratic revellers inside Prospero’s castle as at once staging a consumerist utopia and performing the fantasy of immunity, as they attempt to maintain the illusion of separateness from the pathogen-bearing working classes. According to Rachman, Poe stages the revellers’ encounter with the Red Death as a moment of a double revelation, as they are faced with the dual discovery of mutual interconnectedness between the different strata of society and, as a result, of their own susceptibility to the threat of exposure and death by illness.

Through his subsequent analysis of “King Pest,” Rachman brought to light other infrastructural changes caused by pandemics, namely socio-economic and environmental. As one dynasty comes to an end with the usurpation of the throne by the new monarch, King Pest I, whole neighbourhoods—including the businesses contained therewith—are abandoned due to the collective fear of miasmatic emanations. For Rachman, such societal disruptions result in profound changes in the way that urban communities relate to disease and crime, as rates of criminality soar in areas made unsafe by pestilence. Additionally, Rachman pointed out that the socio-political impacts of pathoregimes are allegorised on the distorted bodily parts of the members of the Pest royalty. Rachman concluded that pandemics’ grotesque conditions both demand and easily lend themselves to allegorisation, on which propensity Poe clearly capitalises in his pestilential tales.

Prompted by questions from Sari Altschuler (Northeastern University), Rachman commented on the differences in the psychologies, temporalities, spatialities, as well as visibilities of the different diseases to which he referred throughout the talk, namely cholera, bubonic plague and COVID-19. Altschuler likewise remarked that Poe’s literary theorisation of pandemics through autocracy is borrowed from contemporary figurations of cholera, which used to be widely known by the name “King of Terrors,” sparking a conversation on Poe’s effective use of clichés with the purpose of eliciting fear in the reader, with Rachman bringing up the classic perspective shift in “The Sphinx” (1846) as an example. Likewise pertinent were Altschuler and Rachman’s collective meditations on the factors that determine which pandemics end up being recognised as such (and which do not), and whether pathoregimes can ever act as sources of democratic action, recalling Harriet Beecher Stowe’s deployment of cholera as an agent that disrupts the politics of slavery in Dred; a Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856). The audience discussion also touched on a number of aspects of Poe’s pandemic writing, including the literary figures that support, interact with and complicate his tales’ central allegories, the “healthfulness” of reading gothic texts that describe the disruptive work of pathoregimes by which they are produced, and the influence that specific historical conditions had on Poe’s works.

Citer ce billet
Anna Shmatenko (2024, 2 avril). Report // Stephen Rachman, “Pathoregimes: Poe, Pestilence, Space and Time,” 8 December 2023. A19. Consulté le 21 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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A propos Anna Shmatenko

Anna Shmatenko holds a BA in English from the University of Cambridge and an MA in Anglophone Studies from Sorbonne Université. She is interested in the representations of liminal states between life and death in the literature of the nineteenth-century United States.

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