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A syllabus for the end of the world

Stories that tell us how to live in, and after, a pandemic.

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Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

We started watching Chernobyl the day we started quarantining.

Back then, we weren’t sure how long we’d be grounded, or what the full scope of the coronavirus threat might be. Back then, we were hoping it might only be a few weeks. Back then, the president was still claiming the US had taken actions resulting in “dramatically fewer” cases of the virus than were showing up abroad. That was back then.

I don’t know what made my husband and roommate and me decide to finally start the HBO miniseries. We’d all meant to watch it. It seemed like the right time.

What we soon realized was that it was about an unthinkable historical tragedy, but also, it was about us. In five episodes, Chernobyl explores not just what led to the 1986 nuclear disaster but the ways a government tried to hide the extent of the damage — and the long, cruel fallout they’d be forced to live and die with — from the citizens it was meant to protect.

Stellan Skarsgård and Jared Harris in the HBO limited series Chernobyl.

Chernobyl is a masterpiece, and it’s incredibly sad. It’s just five episodes long, and I’m glad; I’m not sure I could have handled much more, especially since within the two days it took to finish, the world outside our windows had turned toward chaos. There was no distinct catalyst, like a nuclear reactor exploding; it was more like an insidious invasion by an unseen enemy. But the invisibility and silence of the killer, and the fear we were being lied to, were shared traits.

The morning after we finished the series, I stood in my quiet kitchen, making a cup of coffee and thinking about whether I felt better or worse having watched it. The answer was both, and neither. It is good to be reminded that we are not the first people to have faced an uncertain future, with leaders we cannot trust to put the people’s needs ahead of their impulse to protect themselves, ahead of their thirst for good PR. It is gutting to watch people grieve and suffer and die.

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth,” says Chernobyl’s Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a Soviet chemist tasked with investigating what went wrong; as the series begins, Legasov has completed that assignment, and he’s speaking into a tape recorder.

“The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all,” he warns. “What can we do then? What else is left to abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves instead with stories? In these stories, it doesn’t matter who the heroes are. All we want to know is: ‘Who is to blame?’”

When he finishes recording, he hangs himself.

Chernobyl had made me feel both comforted and anxious. I was glad I’d watched it. I wondered if that meant I had abandoned hope of truth and was contenting myself with stories.

Or maybe stories are all we have. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, to haul out the often-misused Joan Didion line. What Didion meant when she wrote that sentence at the beginning of her essay “The White Album,” about a hellishly tumultuous time in American life 50 years ago, was that we try to make sense of chaos and confusion by crafting fictions to comfort ourselves. We trace lines between events, forcing them into arcs that make sense to us, that let us extract meaning from the world.

This rush to make stories out of madness, I think, can be a way for us to kid ourselves about circumstances that are difficult to confront or understand. But this instinct can also be a necessary survival tool. As a culture, we don’t tend to agree on much anymore; it’s much harder than it used to be to buy into a common narrative about what’s going on and what we should do about it. And that might explain why in times of chaos, we fly to stories told by writers and artists and historians. They give us hooks to hang our hats on, inklings of what might be, patterns for living.

So we turn to books and movies and TV shows not just to escape, but so they can tell us how to live. Why did Contagion shoot back into the iTunes top 10 list way back in late January, when people started hearing of a highly contagious virus in China? Why did I pluck Max Brooks’s World War Z off the shelf after scrolling through headlines about different countries’ responses to their outbreaks? Does it make any sense that we frequently reach for works that could scare us when we’re already scared?

I genuinely don’t know. The best answer I have is that we all seek road maps for how to live, blueprints for building our new lives.

I have poked my nose into books, looking for answers. Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague imagined a plague sweeping a city, then used it to ask questions about the human condition, our relationship to one another, and how we deal with the absurd. Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven dipped into a post-apocalyptic world trying to rebuild itself, and considered the possibilities for art to survive. I slowly read Ling Ma’s 2018 novel Severance, which dwells on our lives as office drones while spinning a tale of a fever that originates in China and creeps across the world, immobilizing people trying to live ordinary lives. Turning the last page, I felt sorrow; it had shown me how the world might change, and already was changing.

Albert Camus in 1946. He wrote the novel The Plague, about an imagined epidemic, the following year.
Cecil Beaton/Condé Nast via Getty Images

I also feel as if I need to flee to the past. I’ve been reading about how pandemics change history and what New York looked like during the 1918 flu pandemic. I’ve listened to Karina Longworth’s short podcast about how the movie industry survived that 1918 pandemic, and felt buoyed by these two awesome women who lived through it — and then lived through the Holocaust and the Great Depression, and are still alive and kicking in New York, at 101 and 95. I’ve been reading about M.F.K. Fisher, who figured out how to preserve the feeling of feasting in hard times in her wartime cookbook How to Cook a Wolf. All this history reminds me that we’ve been through this before, we’ll go through it again, and right now our experience is both extraordinary and very ordinary.

I’ve also revisited the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, from which some have tried to draw lessons for fighting the coronavirus, with varying degrees of success. David France’s 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague, about how activists drove the push toward treatment and a cure for AIDS in the face of a largely unconcerned medical establishment was eye-opening. It demonstrates how different the AIDS epidemic was from what’s happening now, not least because of the social stigma and homophobia that accompanied and delayed AIDS research.

Yet there are parallels, in both American leadership’s abdication of its responsibility and the role of education and citizens’ involvement in the process. How to Survive a Plague underlines how epidemics and pandemics affect everyone, even if not everyone gets ill. (Dr. Anthony Fauci, now a popular and calming onscreen presence during President Trump’s daily coronavirus briefings, shows up in the film, too, and not always as a positive figure, though he eventually became known for his contributions to AIDS research.)

I recently read Susan Sontag’s essay “Illness as Metaphor,” first written in 1978 and then collected in 1989 with a later essay titled “AIDS and Its Metaphors.” In the resulting book, Sontag grapples with our urge to turn sicknesses like tuberculosis, cancer, and AIDS into metaphors, and to deal with them as metaphors, because we understand so little about them. “Feelings about evil are projected onto a disease,” she wrote in the first essay. “And the disease (so enriched with meanings) is projected onto the world.”

In the latter essay, Sontag makes a chilling observation. Exploring the precautionary practices of exclusion and separation that arise whenever plagues appear, she writes that “the great [1918] influenza epidemic, which killed twenty million people, was an affair of fifteen months. With a slow-motion epidemic, these same precautions take on a life of their own. They become part of social mores, not a practice adopted for a brief period of emergency, then discarded.”

For now, I’m healthy, and so is my family. I pray we remain that way. But even if all goes well — tests are distributed widely, effective drugs are found, a vaccine is developed quickly, fatalities are curbed, the economy begins to come back to life — I am not sure what it will mean to go back to “normal.” I have been thinking a lot about how living in isolation for so long will have changed us once we return to a less distant existence.

Already, stories have emerged of people in China who have developed agoraphobia after having their movement restricted for months. I watched the 1965 horror film Repulsion, in which a woman for whom human contact is repellent slowly goes mad while secluded in her home alone for days, trash piling up, an uneaten dinner collecting flies.

And I hoped for something else. I found comfort, unexpectedly, in The Circle on Netflix, which I’d watched not long before all of this began. It’s a reality show, one where contestants can only communicate through a social media platform, so they form relationships with one another through a screen. It felt oddly reflective of our new Zoom-mediated reality, and oddly hopeful, too. Real human emotions can operate without close physical proximity, at least for a while.

The Circle.

Even more comforting, though bittersweet, was the 2013 movie Her, in which Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with an operating system named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). I’ve always thought of Her as a post-apocalyptic film. The characters live in near-future Los Angeles, and they are happy and prosperous. But they seem weirdly removed from each another, as if a barrier separates them when they’re in public. Their technologies have put space between them for long enough that they’ve become unaccustomed to touching. Even on the subway.

But I’ve also always thought of Her as a metaphor for a long-distance relationship, in which you can only communicate with someone you love through a piece of technology. When we’re restricted like that, what makes each of us human — our bodies — is removed from the equation, leaving just our minds and our voices. Her ends with Theodore rediscovering that while his relationship with Samantha was real, it is the closeness people can share, the space we can occupy together, that makes us human.

I yearn for the time when we can come back together in the same place. And I wonder how we will feel, especially those who have brushed death at close quarters and felt it change us.

Reading a Paris Review interview with the novelist Katherine Anne Porter, I found an answer. She spoke about living through — and nearly dying in — the 1918 pandemic:

That was the plague of influenza, at the end of the First World War, in which I almost died. It just simply divided my life, cut across it like that. ... It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I was really “alienated,” in the pure sense. It was, I think, the fact that I really had participated in death, that I knew what death was, and had almost experienced it. I had what the Christians call the “beatific vision,” and the Greeks called the “happy day,” the happy vision just before death. Now if you have had that, and survived it, come back from it, you are no longer like other people, and there’s no use deceiving yourself that you are.

“It took me a long time to realize that that simply wasn’t true, that I had my own needs and that I had to live like me,” Porter concludes. The interviewer asks whether the experience “freed” her.

“I just got up and bolted,” she replies. “I went running off on that wild escapade to Mexico, where I attended, you might say, and assisted at, in my own modest way, a revolution.” Having had her brush with death, she couldn’t imagine a future that didn’t involve leading her most passionate, full, creative life.

And I think maybe that is the best of cases, the road map I will keep looking for in art in the days ahead. It’s not that we need stories to comfort and distract us from reality. We can choose, as we read and absorb and build stories for ourselves now, in this frightening new world, to focus on the ones that might lead us toward our own revolutions.

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