Living in lockdown: can literature help?
Fiction cannot cure illness or predict the future, but it can help us survive a lockdown
Photograph: Getty Images
In an attempt to find some company in this strange world, I just finished teaching a course on literary works and films set in quarantine.
With the closing of the campus in March, the students who signed up, mostly majoring in medicine or business, found themselves suddenly at home and, I imagine, hoped that this course might offer some bearings to help navigate the strange silent waters of life in lockdown.
I had misgivings about the whole idea: as a rule, I feel that literature is rarely of immediate practical help. I think the kind of knowledge reading fiction imparts is stealthy and slow-burning, and that novels rarely work as instruction manuals that we can pull off the shelf in case of emergency.
And of course, the readings could not possibly address any of the questions the students most urgently wanted to know: when the world will start again, how many of the things they cherish will still be there when it does.
Some things never change – the poor suffer the most, the rich hide away in their holiday homes. Otherwise, science, technology, and socioeconomic systems have changed so radically that comparisons with the fictional epidemic imagined by Camus for Oran in the 1940s, let alone the Black Death in 14th-century Tuscany, are less a set of informative parallels than a kind of inkblot test where we see refractions of our own fears and desires more than any solid facts.
But one thing that seems not to change all that much is what being on lockdown feels like, and, to my surprise, in this, managing the psychological experience of quarantine, the readings turned out to afford a great deal of comfort. It is hard to get a good mental handle on a situation that has no precedent in our own memories or those of anyone we know.
I look up at rush-hour buses rumbling past my window in Dublin, empty of passengers except for a solitary, masked figure; my mind gropes for a framework to process the image, but all that it can find is Gothic legend: the story of the headless horseman, a film by David Lynch.
The simple fact of reading about other people managing pandemic lockdowns – crossing the street to avoid potentially contagious passersby, finding their minds numbed by the weekly statistical bulletins of the fatalities – made us, my students and I, feel, in a general way, less lonely.
More particularly, we found vividly familiar descriptions of one of the most troubling feelings in Covid-19 lockdown: the sense that life has been put on hold. The shock of recognition when reading older accounts of mental life in quarantine prompts an almost exhilarating realisation that this lockdown, weird as it is, is life, too, not an interruption to it, a form of human experience unfamiliar to us in living memory but historically familiar to the species.
Indeed, what stands out most of all across the centuries is the way in which being on indefinite lockdown changes your sense of time. We are used to thinking of the future as a sort of empty, fertile field which we can sow with the seeds of our plans and ambitions and expectations, whether grandiose or modest, fearful or hopeful. During a pandemic, the future is not an expanse opening in front of us, but an impenetrable thicket we cannot enter or see past. The idle, daydreaming mind naturally drifts, whether in hope or fear, towards the future; once the future is out of bounds to the imagination, we need to find somewhere else to send it.
This is the basis for the plan cooked up after Mass one morning by the 10 young people in Boccaccio’s The Decameron (1353) in response to the bubonic plague that is devastating their city. Spooked by the shuttered buildings, the unchanging diet of news, and by the endlessly repetitive conversations about the plague, they decide to pass the time by telling each other stories.
Their game is not just for fun; it is a strategy for psychic survival. The Decameron is, among other things, an app for preserving inner life during a plague. For the reader, there is a great cathartic release when the book moves from the gloomy descriptions of disease-ridden Florence in the introduction to the exuberance of the first story. The pandemic reduces human beings to grisly statistical aggregations or to bare biological functions; people become objects to be counted, fed, disposed of, or avoided.
The tales of randy nuns, greedy friars and false saints that the young people tell each other reverse all of these things, re-emphasising the unclassifiable quirks of individuals and the irresistible attractiveness of other people’s bodies.
Distraction in time of plague, The Decameron suggests, is not a luxury but a duty, one we owe to others as well as to ourselves. Deprived by the plague of the possibility of new experiences, travel, adventures, Boccaccio’s young people respond by drawing down on what they have already done, reactivating things they already know, experiences they have already had.
This response to confinement – sending a bucket down the well of the mind – comes up in many different contexts.
In his memoir of Auschwitz, If this Is a Man, Primo Levi describes his good fortune at being assigned the job of accompanying another inmate, Jean, on the daily walk across the camp to collect the vat of soup for the rations. This gives the two men the rare luxury of an hour to themselves every day. To his own surprise, Levi finds himself devoting all of this sliver of freedom to painstakingly calling up from memory some of the poetry he learned off by heart as a schoolboy.
The passage he recites and translates to Jean is a moment in Dante’s Inferno when Dante stops to talk with the Greek hero Odysseus, who boasts at length of the great sea journeys and adventures he undertook in his lifetime. At first glance, nothing could be further from the confinement and powerlessness of a camp prisoner than these stories of heroic voyages to the ends of the earth. But the parallel, of course, is striking: Odysseus in the Inferno is imprisoned too, reminiscing about his old life of sailing round the Mediterranean from the point of view of an eternal lockdown in hell.
For Levi, remembering the lines in the midst of the horrors of Auschwitz strengthens the frayed links with his own past in a context where a sense of time and identity are being erased. When travelling and new experiences out in the world are forbidden, what is lying forgotten in the mind can be transformed and repurposed into a vital resource, like forgotten tins at the back of a hoarder’s pantry.
The strategy is not limited to times of war or disease. The reader who makes it to the end of Joyce’s Ulysses will have spent the whole day in the company of men, wandering around the kind of places that are now, in the days of Covid-19, out of bounds to us: pubs, cafes, offices, beaches. But the person who ends the book, Molly Bloom, spent her whole day, as far as we can gather, at home in Eccles Street. As an Edwardian woman, these public spaces are not as open to Molly as they are to her husband Leopold or to Stephen Dedalus.
In the last chapter, she is lying in bed, restless with insomnia, anxiety and occasional waves of depression. Yet her train of thought that night, as she mentally sorts through the events of her day, her week, her whole life, listing and analysing forgotten friends, boyfriends, old rivals, gives us the most vivid parade of characters in the novel.
In a pandemic, literature cannot cure the sick or give nurses gowns. What it can offer, more modestly, are strategies for psychic survival to those who are lucky enough to be well. When the future is fenced off, the mind must roam elsewhere. When we are cut off from the things that usually anchor us – routines, work, relationships, travel – we can internally reactivate the store of things we have already done and seen.
In quarantine, when we are not meeting anyone, we can take mental stock of those we have already known, remind ourselves that other people are not just statistical aggregations or potentially contagious bodies to be avoided in the street, but complex individuals, with whom, even in lockdown, we remain thoroughly bound up.
You’d be amazed at what you’d find once you must rummage around. And what is true for the individual is true of societies too. Many ancient peoples associated plagues – like failed crops or poor weather – with bad governance; plagues are presumably one of the reasons for the executions of those chieftains or priests whose mutilated corpses occasionally return to us from the bottom of our bogs. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, written in the immediate aftermath of a deadly outbreak in Athens in 430 BCE, opens with a plague that is ravaging the city of Thebes. For the Greek audience, this was a clear signal that there is something badly wrong with the city’s ruler.
We can attribute this belief in part to simple superstitious association, of course, but it’s also that, if lockdown forces individuals to take stock of their life and memories to date, epidemics also provide, on the social level, a sort of heightened vision, laying bare certain fundamental realities that are usually hidden.
It is tempting to turn to literature to ask what the pandemic means, but, as Camus’s now oft-cited novel makes relentlessly clear, contagious illness is not a symbol or a metaphor. It is something beyond meaning, even opposed to it, a manifestation of the simple, brutal fact that nature is indifferent to our plans and systems and ambitions.
However, it can reveal their true character to us. Once the daily round of ordinary life – the provision of food, the rearing of children, participation in ceremonies and rituals – becomes difficult to carry out, flaws in the social machinery and fault lines in the social order become suddenly visible. As do those things that do work, those instincts and feelings and practices which bear witness, as much as contagious illness, to our inseparability from one another.
Barry McCrea is a professor in the departments of English, Romance Languages & Literatures, and Irish Language & Literature at the University of Notre Dame, where he holds the Keough Family Chair of Irish Studies.