During this time of grief and loss, many are turning to the arts for support. Music, fiction, poetry, photography, and even virtual museum tours show us expressions of fear, loneliness, sorrow, and hope. But the COVID-19 crisis is also a place for the humanities. Where the arts provide individual expression and connection, the humanities help us make meaning and find understanding on a collective level.
Recently, English professor Dan Chiasson described how the coronavirus “ruptured the narrative of campus life” this pandemic spring, noting that in a normal academic year, “if spring means the end of something—as it does for college students, and especially for seniors—the losses are more painful, but somehow the orderly ceremonies of the term can compensate.”1 But there are no orderly ceremonies this year. Students are home, finishing classes online. The rhythms of life at school are broken. Graduation is postponed or canceled. There will be no formal goodbyes. No commencement, no ceremonial end-that-marks-a-beginning.
Anthropologists note that rituals like convocation and commencement give shape and meaning—that is, narrative—to the otherwise ceaseless flow of events in our lives. As Arnold van Genepp and Victor Turner observed, rituals create a liminal space, a threshold between past and future. In the ritual, you are no longer who you were before, and not yet who you will become. All kinds of things can happen in this special time of flux.2 Rituals are usually handled by ritual specialists—priests, pastors, provosts—who can guide you through to the other side. But in the time of COVID-19, we seem to have no guides, no certainty, no known future.
This disarray, this frantic turning in search of rationality, is one of the symptoms of trauma. The sudden upheaval which people across the planet are experiencing feels new and unprecedented. But in fact, we know that other generations before us have had their plagues, their wars, their holocausts. Perhaps it is here, in our history and memory, in the wide embrace of the human experience, that the humanities can help us regain our purchase and perspective.
We can recall and anticipate that there are other ceremonies yet to come: homecomings, reunions, memorial services. These rituals remind us of our connections and make us resilient because of them. We can share our grief. The humanities demonstrate we are never alone in our experience, but are always caught up in recurring and collective cycles of life, death, and suffering.3
The humanities are shared. They connect us outwardly, toward others; backward, through time, to other experiences; and forward, to the future experiences of generations to come. That sense of humility and linkage is the root of empathy. As we collectively grieve, the human experience can be our guide through loss towards understanding and acceptance.
- Dan Chiasson, “Coronavirus and the Ruptured Narrative of Campus Life,” The New Yorker, March 12, 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-coronavirus-and-the-ruptured-narrative-of-campus-life
- Victor Turner, “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage,” in The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (1967); Arnold van Genepp, The Rites of Passage (1909; 1960). Thanks to anthropologist Nora Haenn for inspiring this connection to the Coronavirus spring.
- Thanks to historian Ari Kelman for his insight that the humanities are a source of resilience.
What some experts are saying:
- How Not to Panic during the Coronavirus Pandemic: Welcome Hard Times like a Stoic, Brigid Delaney, The Guardian, 3/17/20
- Philosopher in Italian Coronavirus Lockdown on How to Think Positively about Isolation, Silvia Panizza, The Conversation, 3/18/20
- Art during the time of Coronavirus, Heather O’Neill, Maclean’s, 3/24/20
- COVID and Community, Steven Shapin, Los Angeles Times Book Review, 3/30/20
- What We Can Learn (and Should Unlearn) from Albert Camus’s The Plague, Liesl Shillinger, LitHub, 3/13/20
- Lessons of a Hero from the Plague for Surviving the Coronavirus, John Broich, The Daily Beast, 4/5/20
Research & Resources
Materials for further exploration:
- COVID-19 Oral History Projects
- That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief, Scott Berinato (interview with David Kessler), Harvard Business Review, 3/23/20
- Coping With Loss And Grief During A Global Pandemic, Meghna Chakrabarti and Brittany Knotts, On Point (WBUR), 3/30/20
- Coronavirus Has Upended Our World. It’s OK To Grieve, Stephanie O’Neill, National Public Radio, 3/26/20
- Resources from the National Humanities Center
- “In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love,” Joseph Luzzi (author, guest speaker), Virtual Book Club, 4/22/20
- “The Decameron,” Jane O. Newman (guest speaker), Virtual Book Club, 4/29/20
- “Consolatio: Coping with a Collapsing World,” Michael Fontaine (webinar leader), Humanities in Class webinar for teachers, 5/5/20