Most of us long to inhabit a clearer pandemic story, one with a predictable plot where cases decline and variants disappear. We want an arc where we know things get better, even if they’re never the same, and where the pandemic comes to a decisive end.
I’ve spent a lot of time writing about pandemic stories, in particular the literature that emerged from one of history’s deadliest outbreaks, the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, which weaves its surprising way into poems and novels I taught for years without seeing the flu’s presence. These works, by writers such as W.B. Yeats and Virginia Woolf, blend times, emotions, memories and bodily sensations in ways that reflect our own ambiguous plotlines. And they suggest that some solace may be found in creating a story from uncertainty, in finding shape in shapelessness, in dwelling within the contours of all we don’t know.
Historical accounts can rarely capture the experience of narrative vertigo, the dizzying sense of scrambling for traction in midair before a finished story is possible. How do we represent the peculiar anxiety of not knowing how many of our fears came true and how many did not, of a time before we knew when a cataclysm would end, or how it would end, or if it ever would?
The writers I study — and the works they produced in the wake of personal, visceral experiences with the influenza pandemic — powerfully represent the burdens of such uncertainty. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” completed in 1919 while his pregnant wife, George, was recovering from her nearly fatal flu case, plunges the reader into the immediacy of delirium reality, capturing a moment when nations and individual bodies were “turning and turning,” teetering on the edge of collapse. The first stanza is saturated with threats from an unseen presence, something that is drowning innocence and letting loose anarchy and blood-dimmed tides, an insidious danger reflecting global war and revolution, but also an invisible viral threat that filled the lungs and produced massive hemorrhaging.
The narrative vertigo bleeds into the second stanza as the speaker grasps for familiar stories that might map the moment: “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand. / The Second Coming!” Does the panic that infuses the language arise from the thought of the second coming, or does the story of the second coming help ease the panic of having no idea what might happen next? Yeats captures the sense of being unmoored, the ways we grasp for patterns and stories, and how those, too, are upended as we wait to see what “Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”
Another type of narrative vertigo is also embedded in the poem, one that may be familiar to those who have been raised on stories: the pain of finding you are telling the wrong story about yourself, that you are not in the story you thought you were. This experience may be collective (we will enjoy a return to normalcy soon!) or individual (after many setbacks, I am now in the healing part of the story). Things have been hard, but you’ve learned the trajectory now — only to be jolted, often violently, out of such plotlines. The pain and vertigo come from the jolt, from the realization that you were wrong, from the fatigue of forming a new story, from the bitterness and distrust the process may engender.
Yeats was watching his own narratives fall apart during the pandemic. The invisible “spirit guides” he and his wife consulted had informed them that their soon-to-be-born baby would be a son and possible second messiah, a future that Yeats saw evaporating as George struggled to breathe at the height of her infection. Unlike most pregnant women at the time, she survived her encounter with the virus — though the son narrative was upended when daughter Anne was born a few months later.
A sense of narrative vertigo also infuses modernist novels, such as Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” and “To the Lighthouse,” making them well suited both to the pandemic aftermath in which they were written and to our own uncertain moment. The haunting, elegiac “Time Passes” section of “To the Lighthouse,” for example, which covers the years of World War I and the influenza pandemic in less than 20 pages, serves as a larger meditation on cataclysmic loss and a field guide for representing narrative vertigo.
Launching us into the section, Woolf offers a flavor of the disruption to come. “We must wait for the future to show,” says one character. “It’s almost too dark to see,” says another, and a third notes, “One can hardly tell which is the sea and which is the land.” And then, “a downpouring of immense darkness began,” as the house at the center of the novel empties of people, invaded by encroaching airs and unstructured darkness. Time passes, as the title suggests, but in that uneven, sputtering, fragmented and drifting way that seems to accompany periods of vast loss like our own. And both readers and characters must confront the sudden, startling jolts of finding they are not in the story they thought they were, as familiar narratives of family life, courtship, nature’s renewal and heroism take unexpected turns — and come to unexpected ends.
Within this climate of uncertainty, the narrator reflects, “almost it would appear that it is useless … to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer.” The sentence acknowledges how unmoored this moment feels, but the “almost” grants a small balm, holding out the possibility that the ask remains vital. Toward the end of the section, there is a tentative rebuilding, a hesitant stumbling into a new normal, though one marked by all that is no longer there.
Woolf’s artistic achievement — crafting a story from all this nothing — becomes its own kind of narrative structure; “in the midst of chaos,” as one character observes, “there was shape.” Figuring out how to navigate our own narrative vertigo is another way of asking how we find meaning and structure in such times. Woolf suggests — and demonstrates in her work — that art has long offered ways not to answer these questions but to represent uncertainty and upheaval while creating a new story out of these disruptive materials.
Literature may help us navigate such narrative crises, sometimes simply by representing them. And perhaps, in reading and telling stories, we will discover ways to live in uncertain times, to accept that we don’t know how or when the story will end, and — within this very uncertainty — to forge meaning nevertheless.