Prose in the Time of a Pandemic (An Essay)

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The onset of a global pandemic seems to have called upon the comedians of the world to amass an emergency stockpile of “coronavirus jokes,” to be distributed far and wide via social media to the desperate and the needy i.e. sufferers of lockdown. In however silly or serious a manner, Covid-19 has activated the group mentality among us. It has reminded us that survival depends upon what John Donne called being “part of the main” – participating within organisations, companies and communities which are being compelled, by the situation, to turn their efforts towards the unified goal of fighting against the contagion. This is, arguably, uncomfortable territory for writers as well as professors and students of Literature. We were hardly known for being the most essential of disciplines when the world was relatively normal; it takes some stretch of imagination, and would probably be pretentious, to consider ourselves equally important as a “Covid Warrior” for writing a blog post, a research paper or story. Nevertheless, those of us fortunate enough not to have coronavirus (touch wood) have more time than usual on our hands to think of how the world and ourselves will be changed in the aftermath. What role does writing and education play when stuck at home, with a pandemic on the loose outdoors?

When I was thinking about the topic of this week’s blog post, naturally the worldwide situation right now was the first thing to come to mind. A psychologist or sociologist or more qualified literary scholar would be the right person to ask about this, but I get the impression that so many of the creative arts draw on the environment as a stimulus – jokes are one very visible example of this, doing the rounds on social media, but also fashion (bejewelled face masks), stories, poems and more. It’s almost as if producers of cultural capital feel obliged to respond, or if they aren’t the first to talk about it – which is more likely – add to the conversation. The difficulty, though, is in the how. What is there to say that hasn’t already been said about coronavirus, other than appreciating the surprising effect it has had on people bonding again with their family while at home, a dramatic curbing of pollution and manmade destruction of nature etc.? Then again, this is a time which can also be very individual – many writers have talked about the universal being contained in the “particular.” It is clear that we can use this opportunity to grow, though the ways might differ according to your specific situation.

I think my tutors at Oxford have got me off to a great start by employing this last term of the academic year in working on a dissertation project, on a topic of our choosing. I’m writing mine on James Joyce’s Ulysses. Why I think this is a great way to occupy our time during various Covid-19 related confinement is that we now have more time to improve as students of Literature and really produce a well-considered piece of work. Additionally, I’m glad I chose a book I didn’t like on first impression. It’s allowing me to push at the boundaries of my existing appreciation of literature. This period of study is also useful for delving into the work of miraculous proportions that is James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce apparently once said that the true reader of his works should devote their whole lives to the study of his writing; understandably so, considering the many thousands of allusions, styles, genres and forms he has sandwiched into that one novel. I am trying do it justice – hence why I am also reading Peg Boyle Single’s ‘Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A Streamlined Process from Choice of Topic to Final Text’ to help with making this extended piece of writing (6,000 words) the best it can be.

This is all well and good, you might think, but I haven’t answered my question – why bother studying such a vague subject that is of no practical use, a fact that is made even more evident by the apocalyptic circumstances? The answer is I am not entirely sure yet, but I know that somehow the study of Literature is my calling. In many ways I am not a fan of how literature likes to fantasise and distort reality, because that is contrary to the wealth of Eastern spiritual wisdom that recommends developing clarity, an ability to see things the way they actually are. Wilde famously said, “all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.” He says to be “natural” is to be “obvious” and to be “obvious” is “inartistic.” For instance, a work like ‘Ulysses’ is acclaimed by literary critics, I think majorly because of Joyce’s Herculean intellectual effort in layering meaning upon meaning in the text. This seems to confirm Wilde to be true – Joyce wasn’t obvious, and I wouldn’t call his descriptions natural (i.e. simple, straightforward) either – yet he’s now thought of as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. I wonder whether that means we have to redefine our notion of what good and bad literature is.

Literature can be a form that does nothing more than act as a narcotic that gives us fleeting pleasure, or create artificially induced states of emotion in the reader for the fun of it. However, I would prefer if it was capable of working as a medium to access more spiritual dimensions of life. Whether it can do that, I have yet to discover. These uncertain times may have challenged the importance of the creative arts to the world at large, but I will return that challenge by continuing to write. Even if this all comes to no good, I will continue to write because it is my way of engaging with life. That fulfils me as a human being and has the added benefit of being a surefire way to ward off depression and lockdown blues. I will end upon that thought – hope everyone is keeping well, and that this post brings a bit of cheering or thoughtfulness to your day!