Literature, post-Covid-19

December 6, 2020

The constant fear of getting infected and the stigma of surviving the pandemic will substantially affect trauma studies

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’. But it is during such times that human potential for creativity finds fertile ground to take root and flourish.

In this article, I discuss the nature and various aspects of literature that may emerge after the pandemic — the nature and implication of such a literature, the genres and themes that may surface or resurface and the distinctive features that may arise and become crucial to the creative fiction, non-fiction, and other genres of literature.

In other words, I take a leap from these unimaginably uncertain times, where sanity per se is questioned and imagine a post Covid-19 world to account for the possible literary shifts that may provide a better perspective to what we are going through at the moment.

How will the pandemic impact literature? The very question is based on confusion, assumptions and a precariously slippery hope. However, a brief look at the history of literature that emerged out of natural or man-made crises reveals a concurrent 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 repeat this cyclical journey is what defines and informs existence in this world.

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, the mention of 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, the Great Depression, 9/11, and mass migrations — the historical 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 the pandemic at a Chinese city 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 eventual repercussions. What does all of this historical pandemic literature have in common?

They 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 the pandemics have, 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 with the wrath of gods and goddesses, magic and superstition, and the evil conduct of people. As human beings became more scientific and 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 reaction of human behaviours to certain events, occurrences, upheavals and revolutions. It is after times of real crisis that writers recollect and memorialise their communal and individual struggles. Since Covid-19 has directly impacted the private lives and working situations of the writers, this socio-economic instability will be reflected in their writings while the threat to economic sustainability will become a criterion for evaluating their 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 but this time with a clear message that if we lose now to our mean ways, human civilisation will not be able to stand again. A dire need to bridge the socio-economic divide and communal existence will be felt and demonstrated by the writers with vision.

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 vaccinated into the bodies. These conspiracies will pave the way for, perhaps, bigger geopolitical breaks and global malaise against certain powerful nations or countries. With growing competition, literature of propaganda, bigotry and racism will penetrate into the fabric of aesthetic endeavours.

The desire to produce the literature of realisation will prompt the writers to take an inward journey and find answers to nature’s response to the deadliest virus on the planet earth, the human virus. Covid-19 has already been called nature’s vaccine against humanvirus. 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 over-population, 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 technology? We may be able to explore the farthest corners of the universe but have we been able to find a cure to this wee bit of an organism? Have we conquered our impending fate? This helplessness might change the perspective about human indomitability and advancement, even changing the ideals of power. Whereas soldiers, tycoons, and warriors took the centre of pre-pandemic stage in literature, doctors, nurses, and paramedic staff will find an awe-inspiring and inspirational position in the post pandemic literature.

Literature of escape may produce a tendency in writers to completely reject any literature related to the pandemic and adopt a utopian perspective to life. This escapist tendency may further foreground romance narratives becoming sensationally potent by backgrounding pandemic settings.

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

The constant fear of getting infected and the stigma of surviving the pandemic 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.

As a treat for opportunist publishers, it is likely that we will see a mushrooming of cheap commercial literature using the themes of pandemic 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 writers taking this line will approach the pandemic situation through the lens of piety and mystic maturity, encouraging the consumers to self-explore and be one with themselves.

How are we going to come out of this situation? If not, for how long, If yes, when? These questions have become routine thoughts. At the back of our minds we are perhaps all thinking about reliving our lives, “When the hurlyburly’s done/ When the battle’s lost and won.” The battle with the virus will be won but the art of literary endeavours will change its face forever, perhaps exhibiting more spontaneity, originality, and creativity. But then, 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 Assistant Professor and Chairperson

Literature, post-Covid-19