Is this pandemic our cultural WWI?
What will we be like once this is over?
Stores and schools and churches will reopen. Stay-at-home orders will be lifted. Canceled weddings will be rescheduled and suspended celebration seized anew. But however and whenever the pandemic ends, it seems impossible that we can be the same. Too much has changed within us. The exterior life will go back to relative normalcy; our interior vantage will not.
The coronavirus outbreak has been compared to the 1918 flu, the only public health scare in extant memory which might offer any perspective. But as a civilizational event, a cultural cleft, the present pandemic's better analog from the century past may be World War I, a crisis that upended close-held narratives of social and technological progress and left bitter disillusionment in their place.
"[I]t cannot be denied that the moral overstrain of the Great War has left our national morale in a certain state of shell shock," wrote historian Preston Slosson in the November 1920 edition of The Independent. "Our stock of idealism has temporarily run low and a mood of cynicism has replaced the devoted enthusiasm of 1918."
Slosson was certain the shock he diagnosed would quickly be mended. "Well," he assured, "this is nothing to worry about in the long run." He was wrong, as the art and literature of the post-war era soon showed. The Great War had embossed Western culture with a mark of chaos, cruelty, and unpredictability it could not smooth.
After the Great War, technology was a means of death. Long-held pieties and patriotisms rang newly flat — "I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it," remarks Ernest Hemingway's narrator in A Farewell to Arms. "Abstract words such as glory, honour, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates."
The poetry of the postwar era is no less grim. T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" is all fragmentary dread and weary vexation. "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned," wrote W.B. Yeats in 1919's "The Second Coming." "Never such innocence/Never before or since/As changed itself to past/Without a word," mourns Philip Larkin's "MCMXIV."
"We gave what you will give," Herbert Read warned "To a Conscript of 1940":
We think we gave in vain. The world was not renewed.
There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets,
But the old world was restored and we returned
To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud
Of rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.
Power was retained where power had been misused
And youth was left to sweep away
The ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet.
The Great War was not supposed to happen; and when it did happen, it was supposed to be easy and brief; and when it brutalized and lengthened, it was supposed to end all wars; and then it failed that expectation, too. The war swept away the envisioned timeline of the 20th century — and hasn't this pandemic equally swept away our anticipation of the 21st?
That's so, I think, whatever you believe about the gravity of the viral threat or the wisdom of the policy response. However we analyze it, the fact of unanticipated disruption of everything is overwhelming. Time seems to stand still, the future receding into indistinction.
On New Year's Day, I published a column theorizing we'd find the 2010s "long," that the felt boundaries of the decade would run from 2008 to 2021 or perhaps as late as 2025, depending on the outcome of this year's election. In the longer term, an absurd and futile yet reasonably comfortable stagnation like that described in Ross Douthat's Decadent Society seemed likely.
Now this decade feels very new indeed, not because any of the old story lines are concluded — we have the same wars, the same president, the same cultural gridlocks — but because the pandemic has so changed the daily lives we took for granted. And it wasn't supposed to happen. It's a medieval anachronism. Unless it's a horseman of the apocalypse turning up early? Too late, too soon, I don't know, but surely this shouldn't be happening to us. We had plans.
The unsettled drear of the Great War's aftermath thus feels too familiar. Innocence lost, life overturned, and the world will not be remade for the better. Power will be retained where power has been misused. "For Thine is/Life is/For Thine is the" — how does it go? How was this year supposed to go? Not like this.