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COVID-19 Crisis Blog: Literature and the Pandemic A Tale of 'Afterwards'

13 May 2020 - As we navigate a national and global public health crisis with the spread of Covid-19 Coronavirus, we hear from our research and policy fellows, and members of our research community in a new weekly blog which reflects on these new societal challenges. This week, Professor Eve Patten from Trinity's School of English, asks if the novels of the First World War help us understand the ‘afterwards’ of the pandemic?

Eve Patten, Professor in modern literature and culture, School of English; and incoming director of the Trinity Long Room Hub.

It was the novelist E.M.Forster who first used “the long weekend” to refer to the tense interim between the two world wars. The expression may unfortunately become relevant again as we contemplate a brief summer release from lockdown without fully liberating ourselves from the fear of returning to it in the autumn. In this context, “afterwards” has become a heavily burdened word. As we begin to talk – tentatively – about resuming something like normal life, the phrase “after it’s over” has become a kind of mantra, a promise of a magical reversion to a world we recognise. But we have to confront the fact that the virus also has an “afterlife”-- perhaps retreating, perhaps mutating, perhaps returning with the havoc of a second wave -- and in this context the idea of ‘afterwards’ is filled with apprehension rather than enchantment.

Trying to imagine what a Covid-19 “afterwards” might be like has sent me back to thinking about some of the novels I have taught for many years to my students, and most of all to the fiction that emerged after the end of the First World War. The literature of this time is characterised by a very distinctive anxiety, generated by the terrible experiences of global conflict but also sustained by a crippling sense of foreboding, a dread that the War, with its unfinished business, will inevitably return. The novelists of the 1920s reported on the everyday consequences of the peace – to adapt Keynes’s premonitory title – by depicting a society pinnioned between grief for what had happened and disquiet at the prospect of it happening again.

Responding to this landscape, literary critics often engage the language of psychoanalysis and talk about “anticipatory trauma” to describe the effects of post-war novels that seem to have no straightforward direction. Caught in what Virginia Woolf called the “perpetual suspension” of a fragile present, these works are jumpy, jittery, breaking up the conventional lines of plot into episodes that start and then tail off, thoughts that drift at random, stories that seem to have no resolution. Of course this was “modernist style”, but such narrative disturbance was also rooted in the very real anxieties of the post-war era, as authors juggled with portents and predictions of a second conflict. In Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway, set almost five years after the Armistice, a shellshocked soldier struggles to move forward in a state of acute mental disturbance, fuelled by the fear that disaster will befall him again. His anguish is extreme but he embodies a collective trepidation: “The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?” Woolf’s question mark is familiar to us all at present -- where and when will the virus strike next?

Media-driven comparisons between the calamity of world war and the impact of coronovirus are over-stretched and obviously reductive of their different scales, but perhaps there is a useful analogy to be found in the prospect of an ‘afterwards’ common to both. Troops on the Western Front sang “After the War is Over”, written in 1917, with little comprehension of how their “afterwards” would extend across at least a decade of disorientation and bad dreams. It was in literature that this communal instability found expression. Though he didn’t serve in the War, D.H. Lawrence absorbed its shocking effects and was haunted throughout the 1920s by the thought of the world descending into renewed violence. He suffered recurrent hallucinatory night terrors, imagining his body being devoured by giant insects and visualising waves of destroying armies rising up in front of him, anxieties he translated into the “Nightmare” episode of his strange and dislocated 1923 novel Kangaroo.

My students are reading the fiction of almost a century ago, conceived and written in a deeply traumatised era. Is there anything constructive to be learned from it now about the concept of “afterwards”? As the pandemic has run its course, we have listened, rightly, to the science. But it may well be that art and literature provide a better diagnostic tool than science for understanding the hesitant and disorientated nature of a post-virus sensibility. Writers of the interwar years showed that trauma works forwards as well as backwards, and that the fear of a painful recurrence can be almost as debilitating as suffering in the present.

At the same time, the novelists of the 1920s herald a human resilience in the slow and piecemeal reconstruction of interrupted lives. “The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins”, Lawrence wrote in the famous opening to his post-war saga, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928); “there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

Eve Patten is a Professor in the School of English and a Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin. She has served as Head of School, Director of the Oscar Wilde Centre and Co-ordinator of the MPhil Irish Writing, and is currently the Global Director for the School of English and Deputy-Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub. She lectures in nineteenth and twentieth-century British and Irish literature and is the author and editor of several books and articles in this field, including volume 5 of the Cambridge History of Irish Literature in Transition series, published in 2020 (see here for launch details). She is Irish Literature area consultant for the Oxford Online Bibliographies for British and Irish Studies and a frequent review contributor to the Irish Times, RTE and the BBC. Professor Patten is the incoming Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub.

Recent posts in the COVID-19 Crisis Blog:

Distress and Disease at Sea with Killian O'Brien (30 April 2020)

Adapting in a Time of Crisis with Melanie Ní Dhuinn (28 April 2020)

Power in the Name of Emergency with Róisín Costello & Conor Casey (21 April 2020)

Human Rights in a Time of Crisis with Donna Lyons (14 April 2020)

Solidarity in a Time of Crisis with Rory Montgomery (6 April 2020)

Art in a time of Pandemic with Rita Duffy (1 April 2020)

Leadership in a time of Crisis with Mary Doyle (25 March 2020)

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