This is not the article I had intended to write. I had planned to write about a conference I co-organised with friends in Irish and American studies in collaboration with the QUB Centre for the Americas, which was founded in 2017 by current IAAS Chair, Dr Catherine Gander. The conference, “Common Ground: Divided Selves and Societies in Irish and American Literature and Culture,” marked the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and brought together postgraduate students from Ireland and the UK to discuss points of comparison and contrast between Irish, American, and Transatlantic literature in terms of the themes and aesthetics of division.
While this idea percolated in the back of my mind, however, two others came to permeate the front and centre. The first was the looming fear that I, in my final year as a PhD student, was morphing into Bill Gray from Don DeLillo’s 1991 novel Mao II, a character “always whiting out and typing in” while attempting to complete his “water-bloated, slobbering, incontinent” monster of a book (55, 92). Tracing my metamorphosis from a metaphorical caterpillar—while nestled in the chrysalis of Queens’s library—to the not-so butterfly-like Bill, little did I know that I, along with the rest of the nation, would soon be entering a new cocoon. On 17th March 2020, a day of celebration dedicated to Irish culture and heritage on both sides of the Atlantic, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar urged the people of Ireland to practice social distancing and to stay at home in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. On this “Saint Patrick’s Day like no other” (Varadkar), Elizabeth Bishop’s advice to Robert Lowell sprang to mind: “[s]obriety & gaiety & toughness will do the trick, or so I hope for myself and hope & pray for you too” (qtd. in McCabe 145-46). Not quite ready to stockpile marshmallows and graham crackers for a sojourn in the woods á la Sylvia Foster from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980), I returned, and stayed at, home.
While my phone buzzed with daily updates of death tolls and the falsetto tones of “Staying Alive,” I scrubbed my hands. I then scrubbed up my sloppy work, the content of which was beginning to dovetail with the world beyond its pages in ways unforeseen. The purpose of this article is not to write a shameless piece of self-promotion but to share some insights from my studies of American literature that I consider relevant to life in Ireland at this time of lockdown and loss. My PhD project examines post-9/11 counter-narratives of loss and considers the aesthetic, ethical, and socio-political potential of grief. In the US, COVID-19 has repeatedly been compared to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, especially since the death toll surpassed the number of victims killed on September 11th, 2001. Forbes magazine contended that “COVID-19 Is This Generation’s 9/11,” while US Surgeon General Jerome Adams referred to the time of the pandemic as “our 9/11 moment” (Woodward). There are echoes of the post-9/11 “Portraits of Grief” in the New York Times’ series of obituaries, “Those We’ve Lost,” dedicated to Americans who have died from COVID-19. Renowned grief scholar, David Kessler, commented further on this connection, stating that “we’re grieving. Collectively,” partly because “the world has changed” just as “going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11” (n.p.). Whether or not the world has entered the uncharted waters of a COVID-19 era remains to be seen, but what is clear is that there is a renewed focus on grief, which is partly why I have chosen to write this article and not the one I had originally intended.
Whilst uncritical comparisons threaten to elide the substantial differences between the 9/11 attacks and the current pandemic, there are notable rhetorical similarities between narratives of 9/11 and COVID-19. The Bush administration, with the assistance of mainstream US media, interpreted the terrorist attacks as an “act of war” that left the country with no other choice than to lead the battle against terrorism (Bush). State officials in the US, Ireland, and Britain have braced citizens for a battle against a new invisible enemy: COVID-19. In a press briefing on the pandemic, current US President Donald Trump styled himself as a “wartime president” (“Remarks”); 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden claimed that the US was now “at war with the virus” (“March”). As the enduring implications of the War on Terror have demonstrated, the transmutation of grief into a war cry and citizens into warriors—or a “human shield,” in the words of current British Prime minister Boris Johnson—is both a risky rhetorical strategy and state policy. Encountering post-9/11 literary counter-narratives, I have realised that lived experiences of grief have the potential to create a sense of social solidarity not through warfare but through a sense of shared responsibility to those with whom we are invariably bound. As an idiosyncratic combination of affects traversing the porous boundary of the body in uncontrolled ways, grief reveals the contingency and incontrovertible relationality of the experiential realm of being. With each day that passes in lockdown, with each person that passes away from COVID-19, and with each tear that falls in response, the reality of our interdependency is brought home.
What I have learnt—partly from American writers such as DeLillo and Claudia Rankine, whose works have kept me company during this time of self-isolation—is that with grief comes disruption and the possibility of progressive and profound change. In the liminal state of grief—the limbo-like state of flux, where the embodied subject is, in Judith Butler’s words, “undone” (23)—the solidity of the status quo dissolves into fluidity, bringing both incremental and significant changes to the pattern and fabric of quotidian life. In the months past and yet to come, we have withdrawn from universities, conferences, and the hustle and bustle of daily life, while airplanes once criss-crossing the skyline have ground to a halt. We have done so not to claim an (illusory) autonomy but to protect one another. While life has taken an inward turn, the purview of our gaze has neither been confined to ourselves nor the world inside our windowpane. The very act of self-isolating constitutes an acknowledgement of a shared responsibility to prevent and alleviate the pain of familiars and strangers, especially those who are the most vulnerable. Turning inward in a time of introspection might better turn critical attention toward human interdependency and to the “ungrievable” lives—defined by Butler (34) as lives rendered unworthy of recognition, protection, and grief—disproportionately infected and affected with COVID-19. Neither COVID-19 nor death are the great levellers they are often proclaimed to be. For (too) many, “ordinary” life before lockdown already consisted of crisis, chronic suffering, entrapment, and exclusion. Turning inward is not synonymous with turning away from this reality; rather, it presents an opportunity to look on overlooked lives, with the potential to map alternate and affective cartographies.
Together, though apart, we have entered a state of suspension, a state of stilled life. There is now time to follow the directive of the still life: to “look at the overlooked” (Bryson 14). To look at the overlooked is to notice the marvels of the mundane, what was once considered “ordinary” or commonplace, with the possibility of altering habitual processes of perception. DeLillo—whose later novels paint still lives with words—invites readers to consider this prescient thought: whether the “extraordinary wonder of things is somehow related to the extraordinary dread, to the death fear we try to keep beneath the surface of our perceptions” (qtd. in Curtis 63). There is dread in the air, dread in the body. A strange aura of dread emanates from even the most comforting of moments for many today. But with this dread, as DeLillo ponders, there is, quite possibly, extraordinary wonder. This paradoxical feeling might be experienced, as it is in Falling Man, as a strange moment of silent communion with the ruins of the dead. It might otherwise manifest as a re-evaluation of the precariousness and preciousness of taken-for-granted “essential workers,” whose selfless work is not only “essential” but simultaneously dreadful and wonderful. Alternatively, sharing the output of days whiled away on TikTok might instil a sense of wonder in loved ones who dread yet another day counting down each tick of the clock during lockdown. Still, others might emerge from lockdown with a new appreciation of the often-overlooked profundity of art, from rainbow paintings to literature.
One of the most poignant post-9/11 poetics of loss for the present is Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004). The title of the work is a prayer or a plea invoking the presence of another; undoubtedly a prayer that has been made by many during this time of self-isolation. In this American lyric, neither the frontier fantasy nor self-reliance are cherished ideals, while a life of loneliness amounts to living death. The titular lyricist responds to this “death” sentence with lifelines that listen. Being listened to and, in turn, listening to the voice of another creates a space in which loneliness shrinks, leaving room for hope. As handshakes are no longer permissible at this time of writing, the lyricist’s words are particularly relatable: “Or Paul Celan said that the poem was no different from a handshake. I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem […]. Hence the poem is that—Here. I am here” (130). Poetry reaches, touches, and embraces others, while the poetic handshake greets, seals, and affirms the presence of those sharing the ontological space of the text. In the poetic encounter, a polyphony of poetic voices speaks to the receptive reader, with the possibility of (momentarily) allaying pangs of loneliness. During this time of self-isolation and social distancing, poetic lines as well as phonelines continue to connect and collapse spatio-temporal distances, giving hope that those who are dearest will remain nearest.
To conclude, I wish to return to one of the questions that this special issue of IJAS Online seeks to address: “what does it mean to be an Irish scholar of America?” Quite possibly, I would have given a different answer, if not the opposite answer, if asked this question during one of my many Bill Gray moments, when “courage and perseverance” were in short supply, and I had “forgotten what it means to write” (DeLillo 48). However, writing at present as an Irish student in lockdown, studying the literature of loss and engaging with the work of American writers has gained a new significance: it has been an antidote to despair. Though there is grief, there is hope; or, more precisely, where there is grief, there is hope. Where there is dread, there is wonder. Though there are still(ed) lives, there remains a propensity to be moved by others and, in turn, to move for others, to implement change that betters ourselves and our society. This is why we need to celebrate the IAAS, not only during this anniversary year. Members—students and more established scholars alike—inspire each other to make a difference to Irish society, no matter how small. Our efforts to change ways of thinking, seeing, and being through enquiry, inclusion, and diversity are not only urgent now but also in the months and years that lie ahead, when it is time to rebuild and reflect on the critical lessons learned from COVID-19. Although researching and writing might sometimes feel like a prolonged stint of self-isolation—or a preparatory course for life as a hermit—the IAAS is there for Americanists across the island of Ireland and, in this way, does not let us be lonely. Throughout the past fifty years, in times of dread and wonder, the association has provided support and solidarity for Irish American scholars and will undoubtedly do so for future generations to come.
Bryson, Norman. Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting. Reaktion Books, 2013.
Bush, George W. “President’s Remarks at National Day of Prayer and Remembrance.” 14th Sept. 2001, georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010914-2.html.
Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. Verso, 2004.
“COVID-19 Is This Generation’s 9/11, And Other Ways Life Will Never Be the Same Again.” Forbes, Apr. 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/greatspeculations/2020/04/09/covid-19-is-this-generations-sept-11-and-other-ways-life-will-never-be-the-same-again/.
DeCurtis, Anthony. “‘An Outsider in This Society’: An Interview with Don DeLillo.” Introducing Don DeLillo, edited by Frank Lentricchia, Duke UP, 1999, pp. 43-66.
DeLillo, Don. Mao II. Viking, 1991.
Johnson, Boris. “Coronavirus: Boris Johnson thanks NHS for ‘saving his life’ after hospital discharge.” Guardian, Apr. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=10&v=gNuL1wgTVYU&feature=emb_title.
Kessler, David. “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” Interview by Scott Berinato, Harvard Business Review, Mar. 2020, hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief.
“March Democratic Debate Transcript: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.” 16th Mar. 2020. www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/march-democratic-debate-transcript-joe-biden-bernie-sanders.
McCabe, Susan. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss. Pennsylvania State UP, 2010.
Rankine, Claudia. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press, 2004.
“Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Briefing.” 18th Mar. 2020. www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-vice-president-pence-members-coronavirus-task-force-press-briefing-5/.
Varadkar, Leo. “Address to the nation on St Patrick’s Day.” 17th Mar. 2020. www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/coronavirus-many-of-you-are-feeling-scared-full-text-of-varadkar-speech-1.4205405.
Woodward, Alex. “Coronavirus: Surgeon General Jerome Adams says Covid-19 is ‘Pearl Harbour moment’ for this generation as deaths predicted to spike soon.” The Independent, Apr. 2020, www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/coronavirus-peal-harbour-donald-trump-death-toll-surgeon-general-a9448411.html.