Since time immemorial authors have taken it upon themselves to capture the essence of the ‘times’ they lived in. On multiple occasions, those ‘times’ were characterized by pandemics, caused by natural diseases which brutally crept through society leaving countless dead in their path or by ideologies which infiltrated the minds of ordinary citizens leading them to commit previously unthinkable deeds. While the authors who had to endure such experiences were by all accounts unlucky, the same cannot be said for us, who have the opportunity to learn from their writings and, with any luck, avoid repeating the same mistakes.
In 1920, two years after the end of World War I and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s debut novel This Side of Paradise was published. Being an ambitious writer, Fitzgerald sought to compile an assemblage of prose, poetry, and drama, into a bildungsroman – a coming-of-age novel – offering an unfiltered look at the Lost Generation of the 1920s.
Fittingly nicknamed, the Roaring Twenties are remembered as a decade of widespread economic prosperity and unique cultural edge. Fitzgerald suggests the latter is driven by an underlying layer of hedonistic tendencies, which manifest themselves through nomadic party-going and exuberant lifestyles. All of this, however, is not merely fun for fun’s sake. Throughout This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald exposes the nonchalant lifestyle as a façade, helping his generation ignore the mental attrition accumulated throughout the 1910s.
Fitzgerald highlights the fear of disillusionment as a main force, which drives his generation further away from introspectiveness and honest self-expression. He hints that the post-WWI youth might be following an unspoken rule preventing them from expressing their inner thoughts, thus allowing deeply troubled individuals to live in artificial harmony. The mixture between the Jazz Age’s artificiality and willful ignorance prevents the Lost Generation from reflecting and learning from their mistakes.
So, more than a century later, what can we hope to learn from Fitzgerald’s account?
Steady progress in the European vaccination drive has led to significant drops in daily cases and deaths. Increasingly lax regulations and nonchalant enforcement in most European cities have inspired a feeling that we are ‘in the beginning of the end’.
At long last there is reason to celebrate.
Parallelly, mass-media and political rhetoric has jumped on this wave of hope and steadily converged on the notion that we will soon be ‘returning to normality;’ a superficially pleasant thought, with self-destructive implications.
The suggestion that we, as a society, should strive to return to some ‘pre-pandemic normal’ is elusive – in failing to acknowledge the scope of individual trauma and societal breakdown which fundamentally prevents any ‘return to normal’ – and dangerously myopic – any short-cuts taken in the post-pandemic reparation and healing process are bound to have unforeseen consequences.
The expectation that individuals should act and feel ‘normal’ in our absurd circumstances is oxymoronic and bound to result in internal as well as external conflict. Individuals should not feel pressure to brush any trauma under the rug, to revert to their previous habits and routines, and most crucially, to try and compensate for lost time by over-indulging as the Lost Generation did. Rather, public dialogue should focus on acknowledging the lasting impacts of the pandemic on the individual and society, as well as nurturing a supportive environment which inspires its members to lower their guard and express their inner struggles and frustrations, confident they will be met with kindness and reciprocity.
As Fitzgerald highlights, we must not allow ourselves, as a generation, to dwell in the nostalgia of a eulogized past. Superficially flamboyant lifestyles should not be a tool to avoid, rather than transcend, our generational struggle and current ‘lost-ness’. What we must do – what Fitzgerald’s generation failed to do – is deal with our crisis in a more permanent manner, no matter how challenging that may be. We must acknowledge the liminality or ‘in between-ness’ of our generation, relinquish any bonds with our former elusive ‘normality’, and begin the long and challenging process of collective reinvention.