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.
- Chiasson, Dan. “Coronavirus and the Ruptured Narrative of Campus Life.” The New Yorker, March 12, 2020.
- Turner, Victor. “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage.” In The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, 1967; and Arnold van Genepp, The Rites of Passage, 1909. 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.
Find out how you can get informed, get involved, and take action on this and other issues.
What some experts are saying:
- Solnit, Rebecca. “On Letting Go of Certainty in a Story That Never Ends.” Literary Hub, April 23, 2020.
- Delaney, Brigid. “How Not to Panic during the Coronavirus Pandemic: Welcome Hard Times like a Stoic.” The Guardian, March 17, 2020.
- Panizza, Silvia. “Philosopher in Italian Coronavirus Lockdown on How to Think Positively about Isolation.” The Conversation, March 18, 2020.
- O’Neill, Heather. “Art During the Time of Coronavirus.” Maclean’s, March 24, 2020.
- Shapin, Steven. “COVID and Community.” Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 30, 2020.
- Shillinger, Liesl. “What We Can Learn (and Should Unlearn) from Albert Camus’s The Plague.” LitHub, March 13, 2020.
- Broich, John. “Lessons of a Hero from the Plague for Surviving the Coronavirus.” The Daily Beast, April 5, 2020.
Research & Resources
Materials for further exploration:
- A Statement On Behalf of the Humanities and Social Sciences, August 12, 2020
- COVID-19 Oral History Projects
- Berinato, Scott. “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” Harvard Business Review, March 23, 2020.
- Chakrabarti, Meghna, and Brittany Knotts. “Coping With Loss And Grief During A Global Pandemic.” On Point (WBUR), March 30, 2020.
- O’Neill, Stephanie. “Coronavirus Has Upended Our World. It’s OK To Grieve.” National Public Radio, March 26, 2020.
- Resources from the National Humanities Center
- Luzzi, Joseph. “In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love.” National Humanities Center Virtual Book Club Series, streamed live on April 22, 2020.
- Newman, Jane O. “The Decameron.” National Humanities Center Virtual Book Club Series, April 29, 2020.
- Fontaine, Michael. “Consolatio: Coping with a Collapsing World.” Humanities in Class: Webinar Series. National Humanities Center, streamed live on May 5, 2020.