Jen Gerson: You will forget 2020. But you'll remember the parties to come.
The last great plague is largely absent from the writing of the 1920s. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway — the flu is barely mentioned.
In my recent research into moral panics — which resulted in a piece about the Satanic Panic published several months ago in Victoria's Capital — I ran across a curious little habit: forgetfulness.
Most who lived through the '80s and '90s maintain at least some memory of the Satanic Panic; a period in which media, law enforcement and sections of psychiatry became convinced that a multi-generational cabal of Satanists were trafficking in children for the purposes of spiritual and sexual abuse. But for such a gruesome allegation, what amazed me was how fleeting that cultural memory proved to be. This was a moral panic that spanned a decade, yet once the energy of the thing dissipated, we largely memory holed it.
It wasn't the first time either. A similar kind of moral panic took hold of the court of Versailles in the late 17th century. Nobles that reached into the highest echelons of the aristocracy were accused of witchcraft, poisoning, attending black masses, and even child sacrifice. It was a horror that seized the court for about five years.
Yet once it was over, the witches burned, the witnesses forever imprisoned, and besmirched aristocrats exiled, the Affair of the Poisons was rapidly and aggressively forgotten. In historian Anne Sexton's book of the same name, one such lady is quoted from an 1689 missive: "One does not talk of poison; that word is forbidden at Versaille and throughout all France."
As our dread year 2020 lumbers to its preordained end, I can't help but think about the tricky matter of memory. Why is it that some crises and events seem forever etched into the stories that societies tell about themselves, while others fade into nothing? This has been an unbearable, even apocalyptic year for so many of us and yet I can't help but shake the sense that I will soon be shocked by just how aggressively we will pursue forgetfulness. Once the jabs are in and the bodies tallied, what words will be forbidden? What things will we not talk about?
The 1918 pandemic was another one of those terrible crises that society seemed too-eager to forget once it was over — in stark contrast to the First World War, which although horrific, actually cost fewer lives than that terrible flu. Historians like Alfred W. Crosby have pointed out that the pandemic was not only missing from many modern history texts, it was largely absent from the writing of many of the great Golden Age authors of the '20s. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway — the flu is barely mentioned.
There's a well-known divide between how the great wars were remembered, also. For North Americans, the conquering heroes of the new world order, our sons died in those conflicts, but our own physical homes were never in any existential peril. The wars marked the beginning of our cultural and economic ascendency. They, thus, weighed heavily in our literature at the time, and linger on in our pop culture today.
Not so in Europe. The great wars were the end of the old world, and the recovery was long and painful. For decades, they remained a difficult subject matter overseas.
The common consensus is that the 1918 pandemic was profoundly overshadowed by the events of the First World War, but I don't think that's it.
I mentioned here last week that one of the first curious symptoms that I and other writers experienced in the first waves of this virus was a kind of incurable writers' block. Wars offer the ceaseless fodder of action, the source of drama for movies and romance.
Pandemics, though, are a crisis of boredom, isolation, and absence. How do you write the void?
We remember and consecrate the crises that gave a sense of agency or shared identity — even when we are the hapless victims of circumstance or natural disaster. The Calgary flood of 2013, for example, is still recalled with a certain degree of warmth around here; that's because when the flood waters of the Bow River drenched half of our downtown and all the homes around it, strangers began to spontaneously organize in front of fetid basements, rubber boots in hand, to muck out damaged homes and decimated drywall. The disaster gave us a story of resilience and recovery, and it's memorialized to this day with that year's Stampede logo. The show went on "Come Hell or High Water."
High water proved to be a not-so insurmountable obstacle. Hell, on the other hand … well, there was no Stampede this year.
I think we seek to forget the stories that make us feel helpless, and the ones that seem to pull us apart. This happened in 1918, too. Diaries that recollect that event seem to suggest that the lockdowns and fear; the sense that one could not help each other or one's neighbours, left the social fabric forever altered. As noted in this Atlantic article, John Delano, a New Haven, Connecticut, resident, said in 1997: “They didn’t visit each other, bring food over, have parties all the time. The neighborhood changed. People changed. Everything changed.”
When one watches anti-mask protests and witnesses friends and family fall to the intellectual ravages of conspiracy theories on social media, does that not feel a little familiar? No one wants to memorialize a time in which it's impossible to think well of oneself and his neighbours.
I think we're going to forget 2020. I think we're going to go to some effort to ensure this lost year stays that way.
The '20s were known for the rituals of vitality and recklessness that are inextricably linked with encounters of death: speculation, gambling, drugs, sex and alcohol. These have the benefit of aiding forgetfulness, but they're also, in their own way, a kind of desperate and flailing attempt to rebuild the bonds between us that have been broken.
If I were to predict anything for the year or two ahead, then, it would be this: 2022 is going to be a party. The scars of this year are going to be felt, but not in ways that we will talk about or name.
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