“Literature is my Mirror”: Literature Helps Us Confront A Frightening World, Part 2 (YSJ Literature in Lockdown)

In the second of two posts, Level 5 student James Turner reflects on the books that have helped him to navigate the last few years of social and political turmoil and, of course, the global pandemic.

By James Turner

During this crisis, I became increasingly preoccupied with how frequently it is described as ‘dystopian’. When I was at college, one of my friends wrote a novel for their EPQ. Although they studied English Literature, their primary interest was biology which they now read at university. The plot of their novel (which was never given a title) was focused around an undergraduate called Tasmin. The novel begins with the breakout of a pandemic, one of the symptoms being respiratory issues. It features a lot of the usual aspects of the genre such as a vaccine that causes more harm than good (which the protagonist luckily misses out on receiving) and a slightly Byronic scientist who assures Tasmin ‘we will find a way’. There is a hyperawareness of hygiene, particularly washing your hands and treating open wounds correctly. Eventually the dystopian theme becomes more pronounced with it becoming an I Am Legend style apocalypse, with a blood infection causing people to rise from the dead. 

Now I don’t think we will see this happen in the next few months. Nor do I think that my friend in some way predicted the virus. The point I’m making here is that pandemics are not new to the human imagination. I recently read Welcome to The Desert of The Real by Slavoj Žižek. Within the text Žižek applies psychoanalytic, postmodern and Marxist readings to the 9/11 attack. The maybe slightly tenuous link I’m drawing here is the pandemics relationship to the human psyche. Žižek argues the attacks were already invested in the American psyche through the Hollywood genre of apocalypse films. Therefore, the attack functioned as the ultimate spectacular experience. He takes this further arguing that this external threat validated global capitalism and allowed it to go unchallenged, squashing any alternative socioeconomic systems. Capitalism becomes associated with democratic rights and liberal principles, yet 9/11 allowed the US to suspend these rights in regard to individuals relegated to the state of ‘detainees’. The attacks warrant for a movement to a ‘state of exception’ meant ‘detainee’ were exempt from human rights and sanctioned the use of torture in order to fight ‘the war on terror’.

The parallel to the present is to do with this being, in some respect, an exacting of our own beliefs around societal collapse. This feels like an end of the world scenario because we have written these narratives before. Covid-19 feeds into a narrative which is fully invested within the human psyche. Moreover, it is exposing the systemic failures of capitalism. A friend said on the phone that he feels as if we are living in a Communist state; the government pays the wages; we can only go out for one state-sanctioned exercise session a day; there is a visible police presence on the streets monitoring our movements. Furthermore, Covid-19 not only threatens illness. Loss of livelihood looms over many households in the UK like a Damoclesian blade. The government has already had to step in to address the situation regarding rent and mortgage payments. Although these measures are completely necessary in our present situation, the fact they have had to be taken is indicative of a system that is not robust enough to deal with this unfolding crisis.

My friend’s novel therefore feeds into a genre of bio-apocalyptic literature. Increasing numbers of ‘dystopian reading lists’ circulate online, ranging from novels that feature physically restricted protagonists, to fully fledged pandemic thrillers. An example is The Plague by Albert Camus, dealing with a more Cholera-style outbreak, the protagonist Dr Bernard Rieux struggles with his lack of control over the spread of the virus and works long hours to try and combat it. However, the novel also calls into question modern life and our way of living. The transmit of the disease causes panic and horror and functions to strip back the inhabitants of Camus’ Oran, illustrating their own systemic failures. He is pointing towards the absurd; suffering is blind, makes no sense and is without meaning. The universe has no design or moral. It simply is. Perhaps a more contemporary and hauntingly relevant example is Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion. It begins with a virus outbreak in China, but this rapidly shifts from a local phenomenon to a fully-fledged pandemic, in turn facilitating societal collapse. This bares frightening similarities to our current situation. It is complete with conspiracy theories, research for a new drug to cure patients, supermarkets being stripped bare, and generous appearances of face masks and hand sanitizer.

I refer to these examples not to frighten but to show that the reason this current situation feels so dystopian is because it fits into a narrative that has been written before. It has been made through fiction into something familiar. Although fiction has ‘predicted’ this it doesn’t mean fiction functions in a prophetic fashion in so much as it acts as sort of map warning us of what to avoid. Throughout this piece I have been trying to show the relationship literature (and art more generally) has with our current society but also how it can shape and change attitudes towards world events. Therefore, although this is a damning and depressing situation, unprecedented and causing mass suffering, I find optimism that it may lead to a better tomorrow. Literature can document, reflect and comment on past and possible events, and I wait in anticipation to see how literature will continue to engage in the future.

Read Part 1

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