It’s possible that we’re so eager to forget the trauma of the past two years that the cultural works of our time will redact it from our collective memory. Indeed, several television shows produced during the pandemic have simply ignored it — HBO Max’s “And Just Like That” and NBC’s “Mr. Mayor,” for example — in which the pandemic, though briefly acknowledged, seems to have passed without leaving a mark (or a mask) on the characters.
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There’s some historical precedent for this: Another infamous global contagion didn’t leave a large footprint on the cultural landscape. In 1918, the world was stunned by the devastation of the Spanish flu, but that monumental killer of more than 50 million people was comparatively absent from the novels, films, plays and songs of the era, a phenomenon that the writer Laura Spinney argues marks “our collective forgetting of the greatest massacre of the twentieth century.” Wars, by contrast, always loom large in our cultural imagination, and the First World War, which despite its ghastly toll took 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,” notes Ms. Spinney in her book “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World.” “Not as a historical disaster, but as millions of discrete, private tragedies.” Perhaps those who lived through that pandemic simply did not possess the narrative tools to tell its story in aggregate. Such an event, according to Ms. Spinney, “requires a different storytelling approach.”
It’s a truism that some experiences are simply too painful to remember. And as the neurologist Scott A. Small wrote recently, the mind’s tendency to forget awful experience rather than dwelling upon it is an essential defense mechanism: It “protects us from this debilitating anxiety not by deleting memories but by quieting their emotional scream.”
But forgetting at a societal level can be dangerous. As the philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Perhaps we have to accept the fact that Covid has no plot as the narratologists have defined such a thing, that we’ll 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. Maybe instead, this moment will force us into a new paradigm for making sense of the world.
Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein transformed the ways 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 outcome of incremental change and not divine spark, that our ideas of time and space were subjective. Could we be on the verge of such a moment of difficult enlightenment—not a new plot, perhaps, but a new understanding?