Canisius Course, “Apocalyptic Culture,” relates to modern-day pandemic

A Canisius College course taught by Cynthia Stewart reflects our modern-day situation.

COVID-19 mimics what was discussed in a class dedicated to an apocalypse.

“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.”

  • Oscar Wilde

The debate over whether life imitates art or art imitates life has existed for generations upon generations. If there’s one thing our current worldly situation has shown us, it’s the fact that the answer to the question could lie in the notion of concluding one’s current surroundings.

Upon enrolling in Dr. Cynthia Stewart’s “Apocalyptic Culture” seminar before the spring semester started, I had no idea the class itself would become prophetic. I assumed I would merely be reading and analyzing literature that dealt with circumstances I myself would never have to face throughout my lifetime. Little did I know, a grueling global pandemic was in the cards for the latter half of the semester–– one that harbors eerie similarities to a plethora of the content we’ve analyzed in the class.

“There are definitely correlations between what’s going on in society and what types of apocalypses we imagine,” Stewart said, who was kind enough to be interviewed via email in the midst of organizing classes that are now being taught remotely. “When you get down to it, apocalyptic stories are stories about people who are scared and how they react. There are so many things that people can be and are afraid of, so understanding the range of possible reactions and which ones “work” is always relevant. The world may not literally be ending, but at any given time someone may feel like their world is ending and act out of that fear. Having empathy for that is important.”

Stewart has been teaching for five years at Canisius, and she and her husband have been contemplating the idea of a class that focuses on apocalyptic circumstances for the past 14 years. During the year of 2006, she received copies of “Earth Abides” (1949), “A Canticle for Leibowitz” (1959), and the then-newly published “The Road” (2006) –– three pieces of fiction that would eventually become staples of discussion within her class. 

“I started searching for other similar stories and noticed that there was a burst of apocalyptic stories in the 1940s and 1950s, then a lull, another surge starting in the 1990s. That’s when we started to think we could build a class around the question of why people write apocalyptic stories and what do those stories tell us about the concerns of the people who wrote/read them,” Stewart explained.

You may be wondering: what’s it like for Stewart to have to teach the aforementioned material during a time in which they hold more weight than solely literary merit?

“In a word, surreal,” Stewart admitted, “We’ve the massive fires in Australia (Koalapocalypse?), plagues of locusts in Africa and now a pandemic. It’s practically biblical. I’m half expecting the four horsemen to ride down my street!” 

However, with every worthwhile subject matter, one must deduce the valuable portions of the material – even if it’s primarily fictional content – for both current analysis and future necessity. In this case, of course, future necessity arrived earlier than expected, but luckily Stewart believes there is plenty to be reaped from this genre of literature. Not to mention, plenty of recommendations that are similar to our current wordly standings in case you may be looking for a way to pass the time.

“Mary Shelley’s The Last Man comes immediately to mind. In the wake of a world-wide plague, there is a man dealing with the effects of solitude. That hits pretty close to home (pun intended). He has all the world’s treasures, works of art, books and museums at his disposal. These are all things he enjoys but with no one to share the experience with, no one to talk to about it, it loses all meaning. His solution is to write his story, to become a creator himself,” Stewart explained. “Maybe there are other people somewhere and someday someone will read his book, or maybe not, but it gives him a way to share and that gives him the reason to go on. I’ve been blown away with some of the creative things ordinary people are sharing on social media these past few weeks. They are isolated and bored, so they tap into their inner creative genius to get them through.”

Stewart continued, ““The Machine Stops” is a reminder not to take our support systems for granted. In the current situation that would be all the “essential” workers who are working harder than ever rather than being stuck at home bored. Some of these folks, such as medical personnel dealing with Covid patients, cannot go home at all. Others are working at grocery stores, or restaurants, or delivering packages, etc. These are the people we usually do take for granted. They don’t earn much, but they are the ones that we cannot live without. I hope we will all remember that going forward.”

Thus, one can probably form an educated opinion on the pandemic itself simply from understanding the circumstance’s true entailments, ensuring their sources of information are updated and reliable and fully comprehending these works from authors who perhaps possessed a vision for the future that not many others have been able to do.

Are we, as a collective society, overreacting, under-reacting or properly dealing with the situation?

“Yes. All of the above,” Stewart said.

“What’s been really fascinating to me is observing how quickly social norms are changing,” she continued. “A month ago, if I had crossed the street because I saw someone approaching me on the sidewalk, it would have been terribly rude at best. Now, it is just expected that you avoid passing people on the sidewalk if you can. Two weeks ago, people in the grocery store wearing masks looked paranoid, now they seem normal; and I won’t be surprised if next week anyone not wearing a mask is considered reckless. I’m really curious to see if any of these changes become permanent. Will what is considered personal space expand? I kind of hope so. Is the high five a thing of the past? How about handshakes? It’s all changing so fast. It’s easy to get all judgmental and condemn people for making decisions different from your own. I’m not ready to do that—except for the people hoarding TP. C’mon folks, really?!”

Needless to say, there is no proper way to expect the unexpected, or to even mentally prepare for it. But during these rather dark times, it is crucial to obey the rules that are being implemented in order to ensure our safety, remain calm whilst hopefully keeping ourselves occupied, and simply knowing we’re not alone – even many of the authors of books within the apocalyptic fiction genre are doing their best to survive the unknown.

And don’t forget… 

“Wash your hands! Seriously,” Stewart warned. “Also, be patient with yourself and with others. We are all in uncharted waters and doing the best we know how.”

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