Zizek, who has very quickly produced a book called Pandemic!, noted in an interview that the Covid crisis is a combination of 1918 (pandemic), 1932 (economic collapse), and 1968 (social unrest) all rolled into one. He also stated:
The life that they knew will not return. Both the left and the right don’t understand the reality of the epidemic, and refuse to accept the full consequences of it.
As people are looking backwards for parallels as they look forward to possible futures, I feel inclined to jump into the fray. World War I keeps popping into my mind--in other words, 1914--as a frame of reference, a touchstone year, more so than 1918, 1932, or 1968.
As historian David Stevenson writes in 2014 in "World War I and the 'Short War Illusion,'" when World War I began in 1914, there were runs on the British banking system and panic food buying, but many people thought the war would be over quickly--by late autumn or Christmas. Even after the war became literally entrenched, many clung to the hope it would soon end, what Stevenson calls "wishful thinking." Military commanders who knew the war would last longer hoped it would not last more than 18 months to two years and did not anticipate the catastrophic death rate.
|An opulent way of life that had lasted many decades ended with World War I.|
This nostalgic mourning goes on for decades and is captured in Jean Renoir's 1938 film about World War I, The Grand Illusion, a movie anachronistic now but wildly embraced at the time. It paints a flattering, idealized, and nostalgic picture of international upper class solidarity and shared values from a "lost time" viewed through highly rose-colored classes. The idea that somehow life would spring back to "normal"--ie, the prewar model that was desirable for people of privilege--seems to have persisted up to about 1950.
|The Grand Illusion: A nostalgic and idealized view of the World War I world.|
I became interested in this, too, because of the unexplained evidences of change that occurred, say, in the life of Virgina Woolf. Before the war, she (and after her marriage, she and Leonard) lived comfortably on her inherited income. The money she earned writing book reviews was, before her marriage, her "mad" money, to be spent as she willed. She and her siblings, before her marriage, took months-long holidays in the English countryside, repeating the pattern they grew up with, traveled to Europe, maintained homes with servants in downtown London, and seemed to do all of this financially effortlessly. By 1920, however, money has become a much more acute problem: the Woolfs needed Virginia's review income to live, trips to Europe were curtailed, and very tight budgets had become the order of the day. As Jane Harrison put it, the 1920s Woolfs were as "poor as rats."
In a fine, engaging new biography of Edith Nesbitt (The Life and Loves of Edith Nesbitt, by Eleanor Fitzsimon), much of what happened is spelled out in more detail. Though children's author Nesbitt continued to produce her books, money seemed to evaporate after 1914 to the point that this enterprising and always romantic minded woman was organizing growing and selling flowers at the end of her front yard (on a well-travelled route) and growing vegetables to survive.
While happened between 1914-18 was hyperinflation. At a certain point, the British government, completely broke but needing to finance a costly war, simply resorted to printing money. The country was supposedly on the gold standard, but, out of resources, it bought armaments with paper that had no gold to back it up. This led to rapid inflation as cash with literally no value flooded into the society. The inherited incomes that once sustained comfortable lives lost purchase power--and never fully recovered. The trauma was so deep and widespread that nobody at the time needed to explain it: it was understood.
On the principle that reality imitates art, I keep thinking of Dr. Zhivago. The Russian Revolution was the direct outcome of a wealthy and out of touch, utterly incompetent wannabe strongman (Czar Nicholas II's) mismanagement of World War I. A fraud like Rasputin is not so far off from the "advisors" around our great leader today. Kaiser Wilhelm II, Czar Nicholas II, and Donald Trump are the result of putting an out-of-touch elite in charge and allowing reality to take a back seat to wishful fantasies.
Right now, we are in a moment when, as in 1914, we think this crisis will pass quickly. From the resurgence of disease the reopening is causing, it seems instead that the pandemic might be the beginning of something that will last far longer than we think.
Adding to stress, Covid is coming on top of the fact that in the U.S. we haven't recovered yet (not for the average person) from the 2008 stock market crash. Many of us have been longing for the pre-2008 world to reemerge, or to use a better metaphor, for the ship drifting off course for 12 years to get turned back so it can start steaming toward that distant shore. Now it looks like that ship has been blown by hurricane a thousand miles the other way.
On the other hand, life is endlessly surprising--and as a friend says, this is a moment to live in the Now and appreciate all it has to offer. On the positive side too, if old systems come tumbling down, we have a chance to build a more earth-friendly world, one that may make our carbon-based present economy seem as barbaric (and unnecessary) as the slave owning past. It is also worth noting that the pre-World War I had a belief in progress that the war undid: maybe our own crisis will undo persistent dystopic visioning and show that life can get better.