In the early days of the pandemic, I found these words kept repeating in my mind and went back to reread the poem. Yeats’ poem Easter, 1916 is of course about the human cost of politics, not of contagion – but there is something political about this pandemic. The virus seems to have exposed weaknesses in our political structures, the way in which people continue to act as though the world fits their expectations when in fact it has completely changed, leaving all our systems unfit for purpose. Our leaders are frantically grasping at solutions, some with a lot more foresight and imagination than others. I am hoping the ones who succeed will be the ones who can help us create a better future, not the one we were headed towards when the virus so abruptly forced us to stop.
We struggle to maintain our ‘normal’ in the face of all this, but perhaps normality itself was the illusion. The slow inevitability of environmental disaster brought the pandemic to us as humans came disastrously too close to wildlife whose own ecosystems are being destroyed. We are now forced to question some of the fundamentals of our society up till now. Can we continue to have economic growth at the expense of everything else?
A terrible beauty is born
I started reading Tarot cards recently, to see if it would help me come up with ideas for my writing, and two cards come up a lot in my readings. The Hermit (which makes a lot of sense for obvious reasons), and the Tower, signifying destructive change but also rebirth. Change, my Tarot book tells me, is terrifying but also necessary. There’s something surreal about the contrast between the achingly blue skies and clouds of blossom I see when I go for my daily walk and the appallingly high death toll I hear about every day when I watch the news.
Nature appears to be thriving during this enforced cessation of human activity – we’ve all seen the photographs of wild creatures venturing out of their usual territories – but this recovery will probably only be partial and will need a huge amount of effort to sustain once the pandemic is over.
I keep hoping that out of all of this chaos and misery something good could come in the future. A chance to rescue our planet and the other creatures we share it with? To stop the pollution, environmental degradation and endless war and destructiveness we’ve created? For the UK, the country which Yeats holds to account in his wonderful poem, a chance to become more forward-looking, equal and inclusive, instead of heading in the opposite direction? I don’t know, but I can only keep hoping.
An extraordinary book I read recently during lockdown was Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. It was written in 2014 and tells the story of a pandemic which wipes out most of the human race and the aftermath as the survivors attempt to create a new society. I was almost too afraid to read it but actually it’s a hopeful book showing how the stories we have created (a comic book which one of the characters draws, the Shakespeare plays acted by The Travelling Symphony, a group of actors who are permanently on the road) live on after us and can inspire new worlds – both good, and bad.
The most recent Tarot Card I drew was The Artist. As we wait indoors, it’s our artists who are saving us with their stories, music, plays and drama. I’m hoping that the terrible beauty of their visions will inspire us to create a new and better world, when the pandemic is finally over.