Literature in a post Covid-19 world

July 26, 2020

Battle with the virus will eventually be won but the face of literary endeavour will likely change forever

These are unprecedented times. We have been challenged to the core – physically, socially, psychologically, and more importantly, ideologically – by what now appears to be another take on Conrad’s eternal call to humanity – ‘the horror, the horror.’ It is during such times that human potential for creativity finds fertile ground to take root and flourish.

How will the pandemic impact literature?

The very question is based on confusion, assumptions, and precariously slippery hope. A brief look at the history of literature that emerged out of natural or man-made crises reveals a trend depicting the commonality of experiences and specificity of its impact. The human endeavour to survive through the challenges and come out successful and have the grit to resume the journey is perhaps what defines or informs existence in this world.

The extensive accounts of pandemics in literature, especially whenever they are necessitated by circumstantial realities, reflect the human capacity to document history in creative moulds to make it digestible to the consumers. The account of Egyptian plague in the Book of Exodus, mention of the devastating plague which inspired Sophocles to reify Oedipus’s kingly traits, and Thucydides’s description of the plague that struck Athens and claimed Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s life are some of the earliest attempts to capture the essential nodes of history along with the human urge to stamp an aesthetic mark on the written oeuvre of that age.

Whether the paradigm shift comes in the form of pathological reasons such as leprosy, influenza, smallpox, malaria, the Black Death, cholera, Spanish flu, SARS, MERS, and Ebola or through events of phenomenal significance such as World Wars, apartheid, Great Depression, 9/11, and mass migrations – historical and political happenings have influenced literature of their times, leaving an indelible mark on the literature written during the supposedly ‘normal’ circumstances.

Boccaccio’s Decameron, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Defoe’s A Journal of Plague Year, Camus’s The Plague and in the most recent times, Dean Koontz’s chillingly real prediction of a pandemic at a Chinese city called Yuhuan in his 1981 novel, The Eyes of Darkness and Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (2009), to name a few, are all based on and inspired by epidemic and pandemic outbreaks and their repercussions. What does this pandemic literature have in common? These works all project, to a lesser or greater degree, that ominous, fatalistic, and fear-inducing tone that depicts and amplifies the effects of isolation and loneliness, loss of normalcy, the threat to survival along with an emphasis on having a will to survive at the darkest moments of history and retain a hope for a better future.

The parameters of assessing the nature of pandemics, however, evolved with the passage of time. During the initial phases of history, human beings associated an enigmatic occurrence, an event or a sudden pestilence to the wrath of gods and goddesses, to magic and superstition, and to the evil conduct of people. As human beings advanced in sciences and became more rational, these attributions to the supernatural gradually matured into fictional literary works. The historicity of the pestilence became an emotional and aesthetic projection of pent up emotions.

Literature, indeed, is a human reaction to certain events, occurrences, upheavals and revolutions. It is after times of real crisis that writers recollect and memorialise communal and individual struggles. Covid-19 has directly impacted the private lives and working situations of many writers. The socio-economic instability will be reflected in their writings. The threat to economic sustainability will become the criteria of evaluating their aesthetic output. This may, in turn, give prominence to fictionalised autobiographical chronicles based in real-time settings.

Fight for survival is predicted to take the front seat in terms of the thematic thrust of post Covid-19 writings. Juxtaposing fear, threat, darkness, and death with freedom, peace, and life, the theme of survival will probably resurface again but this time with a clear message that if we lose to our mean ways now, civilisation as we know it will be threatened. The dire need to bridge the socio-economic divide and communal existence will likely be felt by the writers and demonstrated.

Literature, indeed, is a human reaction to certain events, occurrences, upheavals and revolutions. It is after times of real crisis that writers recollect and memorialise communal and individual struggles.

The near future may also witness the rise of conspiracy literature which will depict fictionalised versions of how globalists might have selectively infected people they wanted to wipe out or control through tiny chips installed into their bodies. These conspiracies will pave the way for, perhaps, bigger geopolitical breaks and global malaise against certain powerful nations or countries. With growing competition, the literature of propaganda, bigotry and racism will penetrate into the fabric of aesthetic endeavours.

The desire to produce the literature of ‘realisation’ will prompt some writers to take an inward journey and find the answers to nature’s response to the deadliest virus on the planet Earth, the human virus. Covid-19 is has already been called the nature’s vaccine against the human virus. On a more positive note, ecological concerns in literature will become more intense and prominent, a clarion call for writers to produce more literature related to healing of our planet dealing with issues like overpopulation, climate change, economic disparity, poverty and universal health care solutions.

One may also see a decline of science fiction in post Covid-19 literature. The Pandemic has raised a serious question about the utility and efficacy of the technology. We may be able to explore the farthest corners of the universe, but have we been able to find a cure to this tiny organism? Have we conquered our impending fate? This helplessness will change the perspective about human indomitability and advancement, even challenge the ideals of power. Whereas soldiers, tycoons, and warriors took centre stage in literature during pre-pandemic days, doctors, nurses, and paramedic staff will find an awe-inspiring and inspirational position in the post-pandemic literature.

Escapism may produce a tendency in some writers to completely reject any literature related to the pandemic and adopt a utopian perspective to life. Such a tendency may further foreground romance narratives, becoming sensationally potent by backgrounding pandemic settings.

A category possibly labelled as ‘masked romance’ could change the very nature of physical intimacy in relationships leading towards virtual emotional alliances. Quarantine and self-isolation could thus loosen the hold of realism, making the imagination more fertile and palpable. The more confined the corporeal existence, the greater chances there will be for imaginative flights. This will not be without the risk of literature losing its social worth.

The constant fear of getting infected and the stigma around the disease will substantially affect trauma studies. Torn between safety and survival, benefits and ills of proximity, value and harms of freedom, and personal space and socialising, writings will diversify psychological issues.

It is likely that we shall see the mushrooming of cheap commercial literature using pandemic themes to create adventures and excursions based on impossible missions – a way to regain, project, or sustain power.

Another point of view pertains to the growth of religious and spiritual themes that writers may weave around the ideas of evil, curse, punishment, redemption, and salvation. The potential writers adopting this line of thought will approach the pandemic through the lens of piety and mystic maturity, encouraging the consumers to self-explore and be one with themselves.

How are we going to emerge of this situation? Such questions have become routine thoughts. At the back of our minds we are perhaps all reliving our lives, “When the hurlyburly’s done/ When the battle lost and won.” The battle with the virus will be won but the face of literary endeavours will change forever, perhaps exhibiting more spontaneity, originality, and creativity. Who knows?

The writer has a doctorate in Nigerian drama. She serves at the Department of English and Literacy Studies, University of Management and Technology, Lahore, as an assistant professor and chairperson.

Literature in a post Covid-19 world