It is possible that we are so eager to forget the trauma of the last two years that the cultural works of our time are redacting it from our collective memory. Indeed, several TV shows produced during the pandemic simply ignored it — HBO Max’s “And Just Like That” and “Mr. Mayor”, for example – in which the pandemic, although briefly avowed, seems to have passed without leaving a mark (or a mask) on the characters.
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There is historical precedent for this: another infamous global contagion didn’t leave a big footprint on the cultural landscape. In 1918, the world was stunned by the devastation of the Spanish flu, but this monumental killer of more than 50 million people was relatively absent from novels, films, plays and songs of the time, a phenomenon which, according to writer Laura Spinney, marks “our collective forgetfulness of the greatest massacre of the 20th century.” Wars, on the other hand, still loom large in our cultural imagination, and the First World War, which despite its appalling toll claimed far fewer lives than the Spanish flu, inspired literary classics such as “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “The Sun also rises”; the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon; the music of Benjamin Britten and Gustav Holst.
“The Spanish flu is remembered personally, not collectively,” Ms Spinney notes in her book “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World.” “Not like a historic disaster, but like millions of quiet, private tragedies.” Perhaps those who lived through this pandemic simply did not have the narrative tools to tell its full story. Such an event, according to Ms Spinney, “requires a different storytelling approach”.
It’s a truism that some experiences are just too painful to remember. And as neurologist Scott A. Small recently wrote, the mind’s tendency to forget a horrible experience rather than dwell on it is an essential defense mechanism: it “protects us from this debilitating anxiety not by suppressing memories but stilling their emotional cry”.
But oblivion at the societal level can be dangerous. As the philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Maybe we have to accept the fact that Covid has no plot because narratologists have defined such a thing, that we will never read The Great American Covid Novel. And maybe that’s a good thing. At this point, we don’t need another rehash of our well-worn mythologies. Perhaps instead, this moment will force us to embrace a new paradigm for making sense of the world.
Galileo, Darwin and Einstein transformed the way people understood the narrative structures of their lives – telling us that we were no longer at the center of the universe, that we were the result of gradual change and not a divine spark , that our ideas about time and space were subjective. Are we on the verge of such a difficult moment of enlightenment – not a new plot, perhaps, but a new understanding?