Reconstructing Reality

Recently, our perception of our newfound reality has been quantified by an increasing death toll, the number of positive test results, and postponed album release dates. Both shocked and humbled by recognizing that our modern, progressive society has been halted by a virus, there are no easy answers as to how we can predict what will happen next.

Here is the free time we so often wish for––but it’s forced free time. None of us are being held by gunpoint to stay home, but rather, we are home because we share a common understanding of what we need to do. What happens when a modern society imposes upon itself to isolate from others, while simultaneously dealing with the loss of its previously constructed reality?

There is an impending pressure to be productive, to write, to create, to produce, and to better our lives. But how can we do that, with no awareness of what direction we can go in, when our future is undetermined?

The space between the indefinite numbers and dates is where we will (where we are) being forced to regain a sense of normalcy. In a letter published in The New Yorker, George Saunders reminds his students that “this is when the world needs our eyes and ears and minds.”

What you are remembering, feeling, and writing down is important. It shows not a dismantling––even though it may seem to be a record of just that––but the slow process of rebuilding the way you previously perceived how the world ran, and the things you were once certain of. Where your mind is taking you and what you are creating ultimately guides how you will reconstruct your sense of society.

Virginia Woolf and James Joyce dealt with similar loss in their time. Their work came to define modernism and helped to prompt conversations that their pre-WWI society never could have.

Topics like death, suicide, and the overarching will to live were no longer left unsaid. Feelings of intense anxiety and loneliness had never been fully manifested in literature until those writers did so themselves. Their work provided new forms to think about life as we know it.

Where does your mind go to––or who does it go to––when you are alone in your room? What is the first thing you are going to do when it is socially acceptable to walk outside without a mask and gloves? What will your first concert in a redefined world be?

People are alone––but are they lonely? We can FaceTime and text and call but it is hard and it is lonely not being able to go out and see people. To shake hands or to hold hands. To hug someone or to kiss someone.

It solidifies the inherent paradox that accompanies our use of social media: we have the opportunity to be constantly in contact with each other while staying completely separate. However, is that fulfilling?

This is not the first time that a pandemic or worldwide health crisis or overwhelming loss has affected human society. From the Black Plague to the Spanish flu to the AIDS crisis, there has been death and destruction that has altered the course of history.

As a whole, COVID-19 has not started a war of catastrophic death tolls. There is no trench warfare. But our world will now be forever changed.

Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway takes place over the course of one day. In that one day, Woolf shows a cross-section of the lives of a few unknowingly interconnected people, led by Clarissa Dalloway herself, who is going to throw a party later on. Not everyone survives that day. Clarissa realizes this, and during her party, she leaves to sit in a separate room, in isolation for a little while. She decides to go back to the party, eventually.

When we come back to the party, will we be the same? There will be numbers that define medical successes and failures, but to understand the long-lasting impacts of the worldwide pandemic we are living through, we must look towards everything that is not quantifiable.

We may not remember off the top of our heads the exact death toll from World War I, but we remember how an entire generation of people felt, dealt with, and changed from an insurmountable loss of life and of certainty. Those who were born after the AIDS crisis may not understand the scope of death and loss that ensued––but Tony Kushner’s Angels in America harnesses the extreme fear and life-altering loss from AIDS and timelessly encapsulates it for future generations.

How do you comprehend the extent to which our world will be changed after this––how will you reconstruct your understanding of how the world works? How will social media and instant communication and grocery delivery affect how we interact ever again? Will schools and universities function the same way from here on out?

This is not a call to create or produce or invent the most revolutionary thing––but it is a call to be aware. Aware of the changing world that we, as sentient beings, try our hardest to understand every day. Now, we must wake up every morning and try again.

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Incomprehensive Sexual Education & Irreconcilable Communication

In On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan creates a tension between Florence and Edward that reflects the tension in 1960s England pre-sexual revolution. Florence and Edward represent the final few marriages before, as Philip Larkin calls it, the “Beatles’ first LP.” Two generations in England (and eventually in the US) were soon to become ideologically separated––the people just a bit younger than Florence and Edward were soon to experience relationships that did not call for “a wrangle for the ring.” Florence has a little book on how to please her soon-to-be-husband on her dreaded wedding night, also known as the night she loses her virginity. The majority of women who were to be married in the late sixties and early seventies were not going to be using this book (though some conservative women were still going to). Edward is a virgin too, but Florence doesn’t think so—and herein lies the crucial problem in On Chesil Beach for Florence and Edward.

Their marriage might have worked out differently if they were able to communicate properly. As a reader, it is frustrating to watch Florence and Edward’s new marriage combust almost instantaneously, as they had a fulfilling relationship outside of their one sexual encounter gone wrong. McEwan makes it very clear with his intense description of their lives and interests, from Florence’s passion with classical music to Edward’s love of history, that their relationship had substance. Sex literally was going to make or break their relationship, and in the end, it broke it. The shame incurred from their one sexual encounter left them unable to go on. They had no previous experience and were told they could not have experience until “the ring,” and it was a horrid and uncomfortable first time because of it.

Due to cultural norms, any talk of sex was absolute taboo. There was so much mystery around the act—if sexual education today is still not comprehensive, it definitely was not back then. The taboo began to fade and sex began to be talked about more democratically as the late sixties came around. The idea of being a virgin at marriage was not so commonly held after “the Beatles’ first LP,” when a reaction against gender roles occurred, and overall, less shame followed with “freeing” acts (expressing one’s sexuality, women wearing pants, having more than one partner). However, Florence and Edward did not exist as characters during this time. In Florence and Edward’s time, Florence would be perceived as “lesser” and “dirty” or “not pure” if she had lost her virginity before marriage. There was shame involved, “a shame that started at sixteen / And spread to everything,” as Larkin reiterates. However, they were completely uninformed and unaware at to what sex was, because it was never talked about.

It is frustrating, as a reader, to have Edward admit at the end of the novel that he loved Florence and had never loved anyone more. They had much more than just that one night.

It is even more frustrating to realize that they were so incredibly close to a sexual revolution, but they crossed paths in a time where sex was an utter mystery. As readers, we are able to analyze the problem and see that the societal constraints around even talking about sex are mainly to blame. Now, there are many more issues that are prominent in On Chesil Beach, specifically McEwan’s misogyny and racist language, which I do not believe we can look past whatsoever. However, McEwan does create a tension that shows how life was so incredibly restricted before a sexual liberation that changed the way we as a society talk about sex. The music of the day went from doo-wop to “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to, eventually, “Let It Bleed.” Cultural norms started to shift and (mostly) “everyone felt the same,” and sex was treated less like the legend of the Loch Ness monster.

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