opinion | Covid on TV, in Movies and in Books: What Will the ‘Covid Plot’ Look Like?

It may be that we are so eager to forget the traumas of the past two years that the cultural works of our time will erase them from our collective memory. Indeed, several television shows produced during the pandemic simply ignored it — HBO Max’s “And Just Like That” and “Mr. Mayor,” for example—where the pandemic, though briefly acknowledged, seems to have passed without leaving a mark (or mask) on the characters.

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There are several historical precedents for this: Another well-known global contagion has not left a major imprint on the cultural landscape. In 1918, the world was shocked by the devastation of the Spanish flu, but the monumental killer of more than 50 million people was relatively absent from the novels, films, plays, and songs of the era, a phenomenon that writer Laura Spinney says marks “our collective forgetfulness of the greatest massacre.” twentieth century.” On the other hand, war has always overshadowed our cultural imagination, and the First World War, which although it cost far fewer lives than the Spanish flu, inspired literary classics such as “All is Calm on the Western Front” and “The Sun Is Rising”; the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon; the music of Benjamin Britten and Gustav Holst.

“The Spanish Flu is remembered individually, not collectively,” notes Ms. Spinney in his book “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World.” “Not as a historical catastrophe, but as a million separate personal tragedies.” Maybe those who lived through the pandemic simply lacked the narrative tools to tell the story in its entirety. Such events, according to Ms. Spinney, “requires a different approach to storytelling.”

It is true that some experiences are too painful to remember. And as neuroscientist Scott A. Small recently wrote, the mind’s tendency to forget bad experiences rather than think about them is an important defense mechanism: It “protects us from this debilitating anxiety not by erasing memories but by calming their emotional cries.” “

But forgetting at the community level can be dangerous. As the philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Maybe we should accept the fact that Covid doesn’t have a plot as defined by the narrators, that we’ll never read The Great American Covid Novel. And maybe that’s a good thing. At this point we need no more repetition of our outdated mythology. Perhaps on the contrary, this moment will force us into a new paradigm to make sense of the world.

Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein changed the way people understand the narrative structure of their lives — telling us that we are no longer at the center of the universe, that we are the result of gradual change rather than divine sparks, that our ideas about time and space are subjective. Could we be on the verge of such a difficult moment of enlightenment—not a new plot, perhaps, but a new understanding?

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