Prose and the Pandemic

By Jacquelyn Mitchard | August 10, 2020

Inevitably, the topic for me and my students in the Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing turned to the effect of life on art – most particularly, the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and the American social justice uprising on the creation of art. Our own virtual classroom, where we communicated as little faces in boxes, against backdrops of sunny windows, library shelves, lavender bedroom walls and backyard aspen trees, was an image pertinent to the discussion. Already, the swiftly tilting world had reshaped the classroom – for now, if not for the future. How will it reshape the images we create, and the discourse that surrounds them?

“We can’t really see it right now,” said one young man, a recent college graduate. “We’re in the middle of the storm.”

Another student, in his forties, a pediatrician recently turned memoirist, spoke up to agree. He was, however, much more certain that there would indeed be a post-pandemic effect, perhaps not as immediately visible as the pulling down of statues honoring United States leaders who fought for the right of Americans to own other Americans. As time tempers metal, my student said, in effect, it also tempers morals and experience. Archaeologists now suggest that ancient Greeks may have applied red and white paint to statues we now revere for their rugged gray-milk surfaces. So it is with trying to describe these events of promise and threat while living within them. Literary agent Kari Sutherland, among others, points out that the uptick in pandemic prose is not necessarily a good thing. For one thing, to record right now is to rush. When it comes to art, the sensible rule, although counter-intuitive, is to witness and to wait. Time must lend perspective to the creation of music, pictures, poetry and prose shaped by our turbulent times.

So, my students wondered, will all art created after the end of 2019 inevitably bear the emotional stamp of the era? We can only consider the past as prelude.

When artist Pedro Lasch emerged from a New York subway station a week after the 9/11 attack, he literally “saw” the Twin Towers as if they were still there – so imprinted were they on his consciousness. He spent much of the subsequent decade making nine paintings that depicted the vanished World Trade Center towers plopped into anachronistic, historic settings — ranging from Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad to hurricane-ravaged New Orleans.

Lasch was shocked to learn that he was going to have a really difficult time getting that work exhibited, if it wasn’t overly sentimental, nationalistic and simplistic. A professor of art and art history at Duke University, Lasch has said that many established cultural institutions feared this new work, as if its messages were somehow dangerous. Many months passed, and the reluctance eased, and museums began to display art that included Lasch’s “Phantom Limbs,” placing the World Trade Center towers in such diverse locations as Kabul, Afghanistan, and inside the notorious prison maintained in Guantanamo by the U.S. military.

Writers similarly felt moved to create a literature of 9/11. Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man was among the most prominent. The title refers to the iconic photograph taken by Richard Drew of a man in a business suit falling through the air after he either jumped or fell from Windows on the World on the 107th floor of the North Tower of the original World Trade Center.

The novel was about a young lawyer who survived the bombing, but whose fragile physical and emotional survival eventually led to him leaving his relationships and earning a living as a high-stakes gambler, an homage to the Friday night poker games co-workers whose deaths he witnessed (and a metaphor you can’t miss).

Critics called the novel a disappointment, pointing out that it fell far short of portraying the significance of the events it set out to cover. But how could it have measured up? Who, in 2007, when the novel was published, really knew the significance of the event, in cultural and historical terms?

An interesting footnote is that Richard Drew, the photographer who took the photo was twice witness to indelible American history. He was 54 on the day that he saw the man in business clothes falling across the surfaces of the towers. Continuing to take the photos was a moral struggle for him, but he is an Associated Press photographer, who considers recording history as it happens his duty. Indeed, one of the first pictures he took as a professional proved that. At the age of 21, he was standing in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, right behind Ethel Kennedy when Bobby Kennedy was shot. With Kennedy’s blood on his clothing, Drew leaned in to take pictures of the fallen young leader, even as his wife begged him to stop.

Other literature of the time wasn’t really about the reaction of Americans to the terrorist attacks. But writers creating books found it impossible to tell a story set in New York that did not acknowledge the lasting social and economic effects of the disaster.

In 2006, the year before DeLillo’s book, acclaimed novelist Claire Messaud published The Emperor’s Children, about a group of privileged young adults coming into their own in the aftermath of 9/11 … but in Messaud’s case, most of the references to the event are in passing or environmental. A year before that, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close told the story of one child’s emotional trauma in response to the 9/11 events, as nine-year-old Oskar travels through the city searching for people who might know the significance of a key that belonged to his father, who died in the terrorist attack. Despite the heavily symbolic nature, Foer’s novel is genuinely troubling, moving and even healing.

Such has been the case for previous generations and previous crises.

The literature and art of World War II were completed along a scale of generations – from the films The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 to Saving Private Ryan in 1998, with From Here to Eternity by James Jones in 1953 to All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer in 2015, both of which won the Pulitzer Prize and demonstrated the lasting imprint of the “good war” on the consciousness of Americans.

But what will be the artistic imprint of the pandemic, which estimates suggests may cost the lives of up to 500,000 Americans in less than a year, more than died in the four years of World War II? The differences are at once obvious and diffuse: As many have pointed out, this is an enemy we cannot see. In 1939, Katherine Ann Porter penned three short novels inspired by the 1918 “Spanish” flu pandemic, Pale Horse, Pale Rider. More than 80 years later, Emma Donoghue drew on the same pandemic for her novel The Pull of the Stars, eerily predicting the COVID-19 events that lay just a year in the future.

Fear and prejudice directed at homosexual men nearly denied the arising of art that portrayed the devastation of the AIDS crisis in the 80s, with some shining examples, including the sculpture and prints of Keith Haring, the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and the heartbreaking novel In the Gloaming, by Alice Elliott Dark. The agony and outrage of Vietnam simmered for decades, but then gave rise to classics such as Tim O’Brien’s 1990 The Things They Carried, and Neil Sheehan’s coruscating non-fiction indictment of the involvement of General John Paul Vann in the mythmaking of the Vietnam conflict, A Bright Shining Lie in 1988.

My students concluded that it is too soon to reckon the literature of the artlessly-named COVID-19 pandemic, much less to write it. Even the nature of its murderous onslaught is not quite defined. For some lucky few, there is an extended period of drowned exhaustion, a head robbed of its senses. For others, there is an indifferent recovery, with impaired lungs and limbs. For those most vulnerable, there is a quick and often very lonely death, a lost matriarch, a family cut down in the midst of a wedding celebration or a weekly picnic, their closeness their only sin.

For those in quarantine to try to stay healthy personally and stop the spread of the disease socially, the lasting memory may be of deepest isolation, or of a nearly spiritually incanted solitude. Every survivor will remember how the relentless ruthlessness of the way in which the disease every day dismantled yet more closely held illusions about the power to predict, survive, and control events, how its progress underscored how profoundly alone each of us is. That helplessness and the rage as well as the courage and grace it inspired may be one of the lasting artifacts of the pandemic’s historical perspective.

As for its value as dark inspiration, it is too soon chronologically, since, despite the breezy and bogus “Mission Accomplished” assurances of desperate leaders — the disease still hold Americans in a death grip. It is also too soon epistemologically. To attempt to make art now would be to react rather than to reflect. Just as comedy often is defined as tragedy plus time, the art forms of the pandemic may, like the emotional toll of war on human consciousness, intensify as the second great influenza recedes.

Copyright © 2020 Jacquelyn Mitchard
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