“You are all a lost generation.”
So reads the epigraph of Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises.” Coined by Gertrude Stein, the term “Lost Generation” describes the generation of people who came of age around World War I, a tragedy that brought about the modern world we know today. The Lost Generation has been immortalized by authors you’ve all read in English class, from Hemingway to Stein to Eliot to Fitzgerald.
The heroes of these works — the Nick Carraways, the J. Alfred Prufrocks — are restless, directionless, confused. Their experience of the world is fundamentally at odds with that of their parents. They cannot reconcile the traditions and expectations of life in the old world with the realities of the new world in which they find themselves.
Sound familiar? Yeah. Yeah it does.
Fast forward almost exactly 100 years. Take out World War I and replace it with COVID-19. The next generation of lost people has arrived. It’s you and me. And every college student and high school senior and recent graduate. It’s those of us who have grown up expecting to work within the bounds of a certain world order, but have ended up inheriting something vastly different. Something too nascent and uncertain to even be characterized.
The writings of the Lost Generation capture what many of us are feeling right now. That acute sense of lost opportunity, of wasted youth, of stifled vitality.
“We could have had such a damned good time together,” Lady Brett Ashley laments at the end of “The Sun Also Rises.” Her star-crossed lover Jake responds, heart-wrenchingly: “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”
Isn’t it pretty to think about being back at Yale right now. About breathing in air that is finally above 60 degrees on your way up Science Hill, about the blossoms that are showing up outside the window of your suite, about the parties and the concerts and the grass-laying on Cross Campus and even the studying with your friends in Sterling or — if you are that type of person — Bass. We could have had such a damned good time together.
We are all feeling this incredible sense of destroyed potential, of stillborn memories. It’s tragic and it’s okay to mourn what we’ve lost. To sit inside that grief.
The writings, the art, the movements produced by the Lost Generation are still revered, criticized, debated, enjoyed and explored today. Some of it is beautiful, some of it is terrible, some of it is both. What is inarguable is that the Lost Generation took a world which had been melted down and reshaped it. They filled it with their ideas and their actions. They made the 20th Century what it was, for better or worse.
I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that this global pandemic has marked the end of the world as we know it. But it’s not the end of the world, period.
Factors beyond our control have thrown our lives off course. We feel stuck and sad. But it isn’t final. In the midst of the pandemonium, we are already writing and thinking and creating and developing ideas for how to make things better. We are grieving, but we are also learning.
While many opportunities seem to have vanished, I hope that we do not overlook the opportunity we have to move the world in a more positive direction. To reshape the mold and do a lot better than our Lost predecessors did. We might feel powerless right now (I certainly do). But as far as the future is concerned — the post-war world — we are everything.
In a world in which it is virtually impossible to plan or look forward to some definite future event, it might also be hard to have hope. It might be easy to become some version of a tragic Gatsby figure — to beat on, a boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. It is much more difficult to venture out into the uncharted territory of life during and after the time of coronavirus — to envision where we will be one fine morning, maybe back in our colleges, or maybe at home.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that we can repeat the past. But please believe that the good times will roll again. Please believe in our generation’s — in your own — continued capacity to wonder, to create, to beat on and to bear ourselves into a brighter future.
STELLA VUJIC is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .