Whenever major crises in history have taken place, they have caused the fragmentation of the linear progression of time because of the ruptures in daily life and existence. Wars and calamities have generally done that, as the normal functioning of the society slowed or halted altogether, even as civilisations attempted to survive despite all.
The previous century witnessed many such moments, and this century has een the first of its kind at the end of the second decade, as the lockdown due to the global pandemic gave rise to a point in history when there was an abrupt and wholly unprecedented deceleration of time.
I have often wondered what happens to love during such anomalies in time. The temporal experience of love, after all, is an essential aspect of social life. Aristotle had proposed the idea of reductionism in relation to time, through which we know that time and events are not isolated from each other. Plato, however, said they are independent of each other. So then what happens to romances in times of war, calamities, and diseases?
We may say that like everything else, love is also transformed in the face of a crisis owing to the strangeness of the circumstances. After all, if the nature of official work, domesticity, social life, festivals, education, and almost everything has changed because of the moment of crisis, then why shouldn’t love too shoulder the burden of change?
But is it as simple as that?
Aberrations, not failures?
Needless to say, the magnitude of the impact of the pandemic on love cannot be quantified. While almost every other aspect of social existence has been deliberately changed to suit the requirements, often on emergency basis, love remains one of those things that has not changed at the fundamental level. Although the performance of love has required adaptation, however, the acceptance of even this change, and of the difference due to the circumstances, has caused fissures in relationships.
Nobody has learnt to love a little less, like they have learnt to travel a little less, or socialise a little less, or shop a little less. Nobody has learnt to expect less, like they learnt to waste less, earn less, buy less. Indeed, nobody has learnt to need less love even in the worst of situations.
I am reminded of a recent advertisement for an online dating app which showed two youngsters dating in a “pandemic-friendly” way. They were not touching or embracing, and were wearing masks in public spaces. The nature of flirtation, meetings, dates, seem to require immediate evolution, albeit enabled by technology. And this embrace-free dating seems to be the new normal in the Covid era.
But does this mean human requirements in love have somehow also managed to quickly adapt, as the market-driven economy would like to have us believe? It makes me wonder whether it is possible that all pandemic love stories will survive the lack of meetings, travel, activity, intimacy, closeness. The sudden forbiddance of something as basic as physical touch and company is bound to take its toll.
Indeed, adapting love and romance to extraordinary circumstances is not always possible. Can we say that the Darwinian law of Survival of the Fittest applies to human bonds of romantic love? Do only the strongest of love relations withstand the test of times, even when it comes to anomalous circumstances? Or should we not judge cases of failed love during such times on the usual parameters?
Surely the nature of circumstances would allow for some allowances to be made. Shouldn’t broken relationships during such aberrations in history be given some kind of a special treatment – like you give to lives lost during war, or deaths during epidemics? Are the lost loves of the lockdown, then, the “martyrs” of the pandemic, connoting, therefore, a kind of heroism and splendour?
Going further, is it possible nullify the failings because the circumstances are extenuating? After all, if everything else that takes place during such periods are given special treatment, why shouldn’t a failure in love also be treated differently for being another “casualty”? Consequently, then, shouldn’t such failures be allowed a second chance at revival like everything else, after the passing of this anomalous time?
A recent BBC article reported that the pandemic is causing great strain on relationships, and increased amounts of time spent indoors, without respite, have resulted in the breakdown of a great number of marriages. The lockdown seemed to have exacerbated the pre-existing problems in personal relationships, and combined with other problems that were caused by the pandemic, the results were catastrophic.
However, the question arises: if offices can be shut and social gatherings held off or adapted, then why is love the one thing that cannot be moulded to suit the need of the time? What then makes all the breakups during the pandemic any less of an aberration than the period it is located in? Isn’t love lost during the pandemic a case where the lovers are not to be blamed? Does the love lost during the pandemic not become eternal and unforgettable because it ended during a rupture in time?
Anomalous times need different rules
Wartime romances are important examples as they try to explore the transformations in love relationships during such moments of crises and anomaly. The award-winning American classic, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, for instance, provides an important insight into the transformation of the pre-Civil War idea of love, and how it alters with the beginning of war, and how it is transformed as the war comes to an end.
All the characters – the lovers – mould their courtship, marriages, and even parenthood to the needs of the time. So perhaps love has always been something that has shown an ability to change and adapt. Indeed, the idea of love prevailing through intensely hard times has always been extremely powerful. However, somehow, the idea of love being claimed by any such crises is equally powerful – a kind of potent tragedy that affords it a kind of timelessness.
Indeed, there is something strangely appealing in the idea of love failing because of anomalous circumstances like war and disease (rather than the typical reasons of betrayal or lovelessness). Somehow, the tragedy of circumstances overcoming the passion of lovers, wherein the circumstances are an externalised entity that sabotage the romance, makes for an epic tale of tragic love.
Indeed, Ilsa’s departure in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) is all the more poignant because it is set in World War II. Rhett Butler’s abandonment of Scarlett in the middle of a skirmish is forgivable because it is, again, in a moment in history which is an emergency.
So I’ll take the risk of suggesting that estranged lovers may make exceptions and consider the breakdown of their relationships during such periods an anomaly in itself, which may be rectified. But does the pandemic qualify as a substantially “extenuating circumstance”, so that failure can be cancelled?
In the film The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, which is about a difficult marriage (although it offers reconciliation in the end), the character played by Gregory Peck impregnates an Italian woman during the war, even though he was involved with his wife at the time. Later, upon discovery, the character played by Jennifer Jones ultimately forgives him. The time of the war is considered an exceptional period, which allows the Peck character’s transgression to be treated as an anomaly.
He was stationed far away from home, lonely and frightened, so it is as though the extraordinariness of the time warrants a different view of transgressions committed during them. We see Jones’s character driving off hysterically, but she ultimately forgives him. This makes me wonder, can all failures and transgressions in love relationships during anomalous times be condoned? Can it be viewed as some kind of a trauma born out of the time, and therefore pardonable?
The unprecedented period of lockdown during the global pandemic seems to require us to shed our “normal” perception of love and betrayal. Should the inability to “work things out” be viewed as a consequence of the traumatic experience which may be treated later?
Facts versus fiction
When it comes to fiction, I cannot help but wonder what kind of romances will emerge from the pandemic. If wartime romances were written where the lovers found or lost love, then the same can be attempted for the lockdown, as love has indeed been lost by some in this period all over the world. Can the pandemic become the backdrop for a classic love story like Gone With The Wind? Does the time of the coronavirus allow for such eternal love narratives with two characters who were meant to be together but couldn’t due to time or timing?
The bigger question is, does the modern age even allow for the persistence of such love – or any love? But I won’t go into that now. What needs to be asked is whether stories of lost love during the lockdown can ever have the kind of grandeur of classic novels of tragic love stories in the times of war and disease. Are broken love relationships during the lockdown, then, more than mere statistics and trends? As a writer and teacher of stories, I ask, since an old-fashioned war is not underway, can the lockdown provide the backdrop for grand romantic literature that may someday attain cult status?
For my Masters’ course, we studied Look Back in Anger, a kitchen sink drama of sorts by the famous playwright, John Osborne. It took me at least two years to fully appreciate the tragedy of domestic discord and failed marriages. Later, A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams became one of my favourite reads (Marlin Brando’s and Vivien Leigh’s performance in the film helped) which were centred on two people who continue to be in an unhappy and abusive marriage despite all the disputes.
And so, when I read articles about failed relationships during the lockdown – something that began just a few weeks after the pandemic forced countries to slow down and impose lockdowns – it made me wonder how far modern couples are from such fictional stories about toxic marriages. In fact, some issues of domesticity, marital problems, compatibility and incompatibility seem to be eternal, universal.
Take Richard Yates’s novel Revolutionary Road, or Noah Baumbach’s film The Marriage Story. The basic tussle between the genders over power and authority in a relationship has always been there, and in a situation like the lockdown where there seems to be no escape – just as there was no escape for Alison or indeed, the angry young man, Jimmy Porter – it probably worsened the matter.
This in turn reminds me of a fascinating article I recently came across in The Guardian, “Splitting up in the lockdown”, which was focused on the inescapability of reality in the face of such adversity because there is no way of escaping – sort of like the Look Back in Anger situation. Aziz Mirza’s Chalte Chalte (2003) somehow comes to mind. It is perhaps one of the few melodramatic Bollywood films that came close to depicting the humdrum aspects of real marital problems.
Tragic romances and the coronavirus
So then, will the tragic love stories of the lockdown period give rise to kitchen-sink drama with pathos located in inescapability, ennui, and boredom? Will the tragedy be in the bedroom fights, quarrels over domestic duties, exertion, and even financial problems? What, after all, would constitute a tragic love story in the times of the Coronavirus? Or will it provide material for tragi-comedies?
The post-pandemic literature (as well as cinema and television) will certainly be interesting to see. We can anticipate a mass of fiction on the after-effects of the pandemic, and, certainly, about the trials and travails of the extended periods of lockdown. Anthropological insights into the lockdown may focus on its impact on personal relationships, domesticity, conjugal ties, etc, but what will fiction do with it? How will writers, poets, filmmakers deal with it?
More than anything else, I am curious to see what kind of love stories will arise from this period. All love and marriage stories written in this time may not necessarily deal with romances located within this time-period to explore the impact of the lockdown on love, but those that do will be crucial portrayals of one aspect of the lockdown that must not be elided over.
As we draw closer to mass inoculation, so that the lockdowns may finally start ending, we must not allow ourselves to forget these personal narratives of love and longing, as relationships broke down because of the exigencies of the pandemic. I am sure that these stories are a crucial aspect of cultural history, which scholars will want to excavate in the post-pandemic era.
But when it comes to literature, will the lockdown fascinate readers enough to pick a book about how relationships broke down due to the tensions and the inability to leave (home) during lockdown? I marvel at the ridiculous irony of it: Lovers needed the possibility of escape to be able to stay together. Too much of togetherness in extended periods of lockdown was one contingency that many ill-fated lovers had not planned, and could not cope with.
Who will fictionalise that trauma? Months or years later, will the lost love stories of the lockdown become a romantic subject powerful enough to rouse a reader? And will readers (and lovers) be able to read and know broken love stories as aberrations that were never meant to be? And will we someday be able to blame the “tragedy” on the anomaly of lockdowns, and spare the lovers who got separated at this time because love failed them?
Ipshita Nath is the author of The Rickshaw Reveries.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.