Fiction can help us understand ourselves during the coronavirus crisis
Works of fiction are important in that they can help us approach the unthinkable when we are subjected to sudden experiences of the wholly unanticipated.
The news ran through the university like a terrified, fleet-footed animal. And when I heard the news it left me shrunken and shivering, but also amazed, because although it was bad news, without a doubt, the worst, it was also, in a way, exhilarating, as if reality were whispering in your ear: I can still do great things; I can still take you by surprise, you silly girl, you and everyone else…
The quote is from the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s novel Amulet (1999), and it captures our current existential moment during the coronavirus pandemic rather pointedly.
Fiction has the ability to make us look at the world in new ways when something unexpected like a global health crisis occurs, shutting down societies across the globe.
In our view, it does so in two, perhaps slightly contradictory, ways.
Different times, similar challenges
At first glance, fiction expands our imagination.
We turn to dystopian fiction in times of crisis to understand how others in different times and places faced similar challenges.
This is arguably the reason that films like Contagion and Outbreak are among the most streamed at present, and books engaging with pandemics – from Mandel’s recent Station Eleven to Boccaccio’s 14th century Decamerone – feature highly on recommended coronavirus reading lists as people are forced to stay at home.
Some of us can even be seen to be acting out a familiar trope from apocalyptic films and books, furtively fleeing to a remote summer house or small island with the intention to hunker down until the threat has passed.
The following passage from Doris Lessing’s 1974 novel, ‘The Memoirs of a Survivor’, has eerie resonances to what we are currently experiencing:
Yet for all of us there were moments when the game we were all agreeing to play simply could not stand up to events: we would be gripped by feelings of unreality, like nausea. Perhaps this feeling, that the ground was dissolving under our feet, was the real enemy… or we believed it to be so.
Perhaps our tacit agreement that nothing much, or at least, nothing irrecoverable, was happening, was because for us the enemy was Reality, was to allow ourselves to know what was happening. Perhaps our pretences, everyone’s pretences, which in the moments when we felt naked, defenceless, seemed like playacting and absurd, should be regarded as admirable?
On a placid island of ignorance
This brings us to the second, perhaps less obvious, function of fiction that we want to dwell on here. On closer inspection perhaps fiction does not simply expand our imagination, but also makes our world smaller.
In this way, it helps us deal with and eliminate an unbearable threat to existence.
Does that sound confusing? Consider how we humans deal with being confronted with something we do not understand and do not know how to respond to instinctually. Inevitably, some communicative relationship with what we are facing has to be established.
When thunder rolls across the skies, we give it the name of a god, imagining it communicating with us. The smartest among us (some say) become its interpreters, the thunderclaps and the lightning bolts signs in a language, and the god who speaks the language, the spokesperson of this new world.
It is agreed: if we behave in certain ways, the gods (or reality) will respond in ways comprehensible to us.
No one, perhaps, understood the fragility of this position as well as the horror fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft. The opening paragraph of what is probably his most famous short story, The Call of Cthulhu (1928), summarizes his perspective perfectly:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
In cosmic terms, Lovecraft is suggesting, our world is not one of insight and understanding, but of blissful ignorance.
The stories that we tell ourselves about reality are an alternative to the terrors of actually comprehending our (insignificant) position in it.
The marvellous elasticity of fiction
The role of fiction in this case then is to limit the world to what is humanly imaginable. In other words, it allows us to face reality, not by understanding, but precisely by not understanding it. In that way, it functions as a bulwark against what Lovecraft calls the ‘terrifying vistas of reality’.
So while fiction in one way expands our imaginative range, it does so only by first (in order to allow the former to happen without getting out of control) making the world more narrow. This is the marvellous ’elasticity’ of fiction.
It acts as a bulwark against anxiety; it takes care of the threat of losing control.
Is reality scarier than fiction?
COVID-19 is a reminder of that threat.
Outbreak, or any disaster movie for that matter, is the bounded way of experiencing it. It shifts the focus from anxiety to fear: while in the first everything is possible, the latter gives terror a tangible object.
Take the ubiquitous ‘War’ metaphor abounded these days, most forcibly expressed by Mario Draghi, the former president of the European Central Bank, in an article for the Financial Times: ‘We face a war against coronavirus and must mobilise accordingly’.
As much as we may fear it, a war makes sense, when we think about it. But as Angela Hernández Puente – a surgeon and deputy general secretary of Madrid’s Amtys medical association – put it laconically: ‘This isn’t a war: it’s a very badly managed epidemic’.
We are not literally at war with the coronavirus. How can you fight a battle against something you don’t see, let alone understand?
The fact is, this is something far more horrifying: the anxieties related to a loss of control, to ‘a very badly managed epidemic’.
What can Bolaño’s novels teach us about apocalyptic times?
In a forthcoming book, we have asked contributors to trace the implications of our apocalyptic times for our academic discipline – Organization Studies – through a careful engagement with the work of the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño and in particular his monumental last novel 2666.
This title is a mystery, not least because ‘2666’ never appears in any of the five sections of the novel. It takes on the form of a date, and by a date in the far future it marks a paralysis, we believe, between a history that is no longer unfurling forward, unable to provide adequate bearings and resources for working out how to proceed in our affairs, and a future that we inevitably anticipate but cannot imagine or take the measure of.
In the novel Amulet, with which we started this article, Bolaño offered a subtle hint that he thought of that future as apocalyptic when he referred to:
… a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else’.
This article’s authors’ book, ‘Organization 2666’, will come out in Summer 2020 with Springer VS.
Read this article in Danish at Videnskab.dk's Forskerzonen