The 1918 Flu Pandemic Killed Millions. So Why Does Its Cultural Memory Feel So Faint?

701ad6ec 804b 460a 8aab 9b727dd2cd79Literary scholar Elizabeth Outka finds the pandemic between the lines in literature.:

Historians have by and large felt that the event, despite killing 50-100 million, left little impact on culture and public memory. Many argue that it was overshadowed by the concurrent experience of WWI. But in late 2019 literary scholar Elizabeth Outka published Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature, arguing that while only a handful of writers addressed the pandemic explicitly it was foundational for the work of luminaries such as T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and W.B. Yeats. 

Diseases are recorded differently by our minds than something like a war. By their nature, diseases are highly individual. Even in a pandemic situation, you’re fighting your own internal battle with the virus, and it’s individual to you. Many, many people in a pandemic situation may be fighting that same battle, but it’s strangely both individualized and widespread…

It’s difficult to memorialize a pandemic, because disease makes people feel helpless, and there’s very little we can do to make meaning from it. With war, even if you disagree with the war, you could at least argue about whether the death was worth it. Did this sacrifice keep a soldier’s family safe? With an infectious disease, if you die, your family is more likely to die. There’s no sacrificial structure to build around a loss of this kind. It’s simply tragedy.

My specialty is literature, and literature is especially good at capturing these elements of disease that are difficult to represent. Our bodies’ perception of the world depends on the health of the body and the experiences of that body. There’s that sort of invisible, strange conversation that happens between the body and the mind. Literature can capture that.

For instance, Yeats’ canonical 1919 poem The Second Coming, generally read as c capturing the postwar zeitgeist and the political upheaval in Ireland, was written while his wife was convalescing from near-death from the virus while pregnant at a time when the death rate among pregnant women was up to 70%. ‘Now, did Yeats have this at the top of his mind when he was writing the poem? We don’t know, but it certainly captures that horror, and that delirium.’ And Woolf, who was ill with the virus herself, showed the subtle ways the flu still affected Mrs. Dalloway’s eponymous main character long afterward. Outka also finds reflections of survivor guilt in characters with experiences of pandemic loss in several works, and ‘there’s not any place to put it.’ . 

— Via Slate

I recently read one estimate that, by the time the death toll reached around half a million here in the US, on average everyone will have experienced the death of someone they knew from coronavirus. Will we have any place to put that?

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