–David Aaronovitch writing in a recent issue of The Times posed the question what would be the cultural responses to the pandemic. This is in an article entitled “We’ll be free to enjoy the Roaring 2020s”. He thought the closest equivalent would be to look at what happened after the Spanish flu pandemic had passed. That of course followed the equally apocalyptic WWI but both had hit hardest at the young adults. In America the response manifested itself in the Roaring 20s and the literature and music of the Jazz Age for which Scott Fitzgerald acted as spokesman.
Here in Britain the “Bright Young Things” satirised by Evelyn Waugh in his 1930 novel Vile Bodies, included several leading writers, described by one historian as possessing “a restless rootlessness …” having “a feeling, because ultimately they survived the war, of being both chosen and undeserving”. One of Waugh’s main characters describes “Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties … almost naked parties in St John’s Wood”. Condom sales grew exponentially. The diaphragm began to be mass produced. If the privileged partied, then at least the less well-off danced — the Charleston, the Lindy-hop and in dance marathons. And if women authors displayed a new candour, then ordinary women displayed a new independence.[…]
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the emergence from the straitened, anxious, death-laden times of the Great War and the Great Pandemic created a cultural and social dynamism, as the life force reasserted itself. In 1918, American cinemas and theatres were closed in flu-hit cities and towns, and mass events were banned. Masks were worn. And, given that the transmission from person to person of the flu was well understood even then, there must have been a reluctance to press up too closely against other bodies. Yet not only did the closest form of mass entertainment — cinema — survive, it thrived. Within a matter of months huge picture palaces seating 1,200 people were being constructed. By 1930, in a US population of 123 million, weekly movie attendance was 90 million. In close social proximity the pandemic survivors watched Buster Keaton, the “It girl” Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino.
My reasoned hope is that the same will happen this time. That the lid put on our collective lives will come flying off as younger generations of play-goers, cinephiles, festival fans, art-lovers and their heroes, together, turn the world upside down again. Get ready for the Roaring 2020s.
–A not dissimilar reaction is described as following WWII. This is in an article (“Brace for the New World Order”) by Harold Persimmon posted on the New Zealand website of thebfd.co.nz (a center-right media organization), and Evelyn Waugh is again its spokesman:
When Great Britain emerged blinking from the rubble of the Second World War it was a nation hugely in debt and on the brink of a silent social revolution. The country’s war debt to the United States was in the order of $3.7 billion, and despite Harold Macmillan’s ’never had it so good’ speech of 1957, the debt owed was not fully repaid until December 2006. The social change to come was hinted at presciently in Evelyn Waugh’s wartime novel Brideshead Revisited where a young soldier remarks in the closing pages that ‘it’s our turn now’ – ‘our turn’ referring perhaps to those belonging to the new order – ‘the people’; different people to the ones who are running things now. The country would henceforth become a startlingly different place, run to a new agenda.
–Another view is expressed by Lou Stoppard in the weblog of aperture.org, a nonprofit foundation consisting of members of the photographic community. In a review of the current but now closed NPG exhibit of the early works of Cecil Beaton, she concludes with this:
…The Bright Young Things were the generation after the war had passed. They were, for a while, the lucky ones. There was, like today, a remarkable split between generations, a chasm between young and old. And if you were young, you were so very young.
Post-lockdown, post-COVID-19, post–all the death and anxiety and the relentlessness of being cooped up and afraid, will the young of today fully take up their place as a “generation after”? Will it be the roaring twenties all over again? Will they break free from worry into parties and make-believe and lightness? Or will they do something more? I’m sure the latter, but who can know. The words of Lord Metroland, in Waugh’s Vile Bodies, have never seemed more poignant: “There was a whole civilization to be saved and remade. And all they seem to do is play the fool.”
–Finally, the Washington Examiner has posted a discussion by Eric Felten of a newly translated book by a little known German poet. This opens with a reference to a Waugh post-war novella in which he bemoaned the “new world order” that he had forseen in Brideshead:
The dim protagonist of Evelyn Waugh’s postwar novel Scott-King’s Modern Europe teaches classics at a British boy’s school. Inside the classroom, he slogs through Xenophon and Sallust. Outside, he has carved out a niche as the sole scholar of an obscure 17th-century middle-European poet, Bellorius, whose life’s work was “a poem of some 1,500 lines of Latin hexameters.” The poem told of “a visit to an imaginary Island of the New World where in primitive simplicity … there subsisted a virtuous, chaste and reasonable community.” The verse was, as Waugh put it, “irredeemably tedious.”
Classics professor Michael Fontaine has found a real-life Bellorius, a Renaissance German poet who composed verse in Latin and who is remembered, if at all, mostly for one work. The poet is Vincentius Obsopoeus. Where the fictional Bellorius penned a paean to an imaginary “virtuous, chaste and reasonable community,” the nonfictional Obsopoeus celebrated The Art of Drinking. This obscure poem has just been published by Princeton University Press under the unfortunate title How to Drink.
Waugh’s novella is also included in his Complete Stories.