Eight Sorts of Solitaries

If you go by what one reads on the internet regarding the lockdown spreading across the face of the earth in the tracks of the coronavirus, there are two sorts of people.

There are those who are bored out of their minds, and resorting to all sorts of eccentricity to pass the time, and there are those who are suddenly gaining a new appreciation for the work of teachers and childcare professionals.

I fall into neither of these groups. I fall into the rather quieter group that lives most of its life at home anyway, and therefore find themselves busier than usual, since they have all their usual work to do still and can’t knock off all their people things at once. Not every meeting can be an email, but they’re all trying to be.

Nieuwe meubeltoonzaal van Van de Meer in Diemen Finse ontwerper Eero Aarnio bij, Bestanddeelnr 927-7336
Busy woman in her bubble.

However, since we are all in the same basket (figuratively speaking; try to avoid joining anyone in a basket unless they are part of your bubble), let us take a moment to consider the many and various kinds of people who have dealt with isolation in the past.

The obvious parallel, it seems to me, is those under house arrest, although one can hardly accuse the government of being oppressive under the circumstances. Imagine yourself imprisoned in your own home by an evil weevil like Sir Percival Glyde, if you will, but do not, under any circumstances, contemplate escape.

Also similar, if rather more willing, are recluses. Many famous individuals have reclused (reclosed?) for all or part of their lives. Consider writing poetry – epic like Virgil or short with lots of Capitals and Dashes like Emily Dickinson – or a brooding novel like Emily Brontë (must be something about the name Emily).

Or you could focus on some scientific experiments like Nikola Tesla and Madame Marie Curie. I recommend the sort that result in baked goods – the results are generally more pleasant than radiation poisoning. You could go for long solitary walks like Greta Garbo (big sunglasses optional for added mystery), or, if you get really bored, repaint the ceiling like Michelangelo.

One step further from recluses are hermits. Hermits have varying degrees of interaction with others, from the poustinik of Eastern Orthodoxy who lives a life of prayer in their little hut except when someone in the community needs a hand, to the old-fashioned sort who settle in a nice peaceful cave in the desert and get peeved by the constant stream of pilgrims who bowl up seeking a bit of wisdom.

Taking this a step further again are stylites; those who lived on top of a pillar in order to get some extreme social distancing in. Although personal hygiene is not known to be at its best under these conditions, they did at least still manage to interact with others, including holding long-running theological debates with those on nearby pillars. This does, however, call for the right sort of neighbours, as few will accept you preaching from your rooftop with equanimity. Particularly if you keep it up for 37 years like Simeon Stylites the Elder.

Menologion of Basil 054
Can’t get a moment’s peace around here!

A rather more comfortable approach to isolation is that taken by anchorites and anchoresses. They moved into a room or two – known as an anchorhold – attached to their local church, and never moved out again. One window into the church allowed for spiritual nourishment, and physical nourishment (with its inevitable results) was managed by a second window into the street, which doubled as an opening for people to ask for prayer, advice etc. Crucial to the comfort – and, indeed, the continued existence – of the anchorite or ess was the servant who brought the food, carried away the chamberpot etc.

Which does rather remind one of Diogenes the Cynic who lived in a large earthenware pot but still apparently had a slave. Said slave ran away, and who can blame him? Even slaves have their standards, and Diogenes was decidedly infra dig.

Of course, not everyone is housebound (or pot-bound, in Diogenes’ case) by choice. Consider, for example, the classic sailor marooned on a desert island. I must admit, I’ve always wondered how islands manage to be desert. Surely, unless it’s absolutely micro, something must be growing there. Of course, it could be a growing pile of guano, in which case one would have the frustration of sitting on a goldmine under the least favourable of circumstances.

Robinson Crusoe leaves home and is shipwrecked
Robinson Crusoe leaves home and is shipwrecked – and let that be a lesson to him!

Now is the time to pick out and make use of all your Desert Island choices. You could even try clearing out one room completely, and, armed only with a selection of items from the rest of the house (chosen at random to up the Robinson Crusoe effect) try making the best of it by the use of your wits. Improvise, Adapt, Overcome, and retreat to the couch for a cuppa if it all becomes a bit much.

Also on the list of people confined not by their own choice are the unhappy residents of oubliettes – from the French oublier, to forget, as an oubliette is basically a hole you put someone in to forget about them. Except that what are generally referred to as oubliettes today were actually storage rooms, and the idea of imprisoning someone and leaving them to rot in a body-sized cell is more or less the invention of more modern imaginations.

However, imprisoning people in a cage for public view and/or ridicule is not a mere matter of imagination. Both Isabella MacDuff and Mary Bruce were hung in cages (in Berwick and Roxburgh castles, respectively) due to falling foul of Edward I of England, Hammer of the Scots, Imprisoner of Scottish Noblewomen Who Were Minding Their Own Business (i.e. Scotland). The cages were reasonably comfortable as cages go (which is to say, not very, in the Scottish climate, but at least there was a privy).

A prisoner is shown a cage which is suspended from the ceili Wellcome V0041665

So if you are finding your confinement irksome, you can always remind yourself that you’ve got it better than the (then) Countess of Buchan and Robert the Bruce’s little sister.

Bringing our survey of the isolated and confined to a close, we turn from medieval Scotland to ancient China. In times when the government was rife with corruption, the appropriate thing for a man of learning and discernment to do was withdraw from society and become a yinshi – a “gentleman in hiding.”

Which is a very classy way of reacting to political squalor, and vaguely reminiscent of Richard Temple’s rather snide landscape gardening at Stowe – including a ruined Temple of Modern Virtue featuring a headless statue of the Prime Minister he fell out with. Also rather reminiscent of a Catholic gentleman in England who was forced to be a crypto-Catholic but filled his estate with highly symbolic landscape gardening. Just the sort of thing one could imagine a refined ancient Chinese scholar doing, in his country retreat.

Fei Yigeng - Lady Writing Poetry - Walters 35101F

However, in better times, the scholar was expected to Do His Bit in keeping a non-corrupt government running, and in this there is a lesson for us all. Namely, if your government is doing its best, then Do Your Bit and cooperate with them – and if your government is rubbish, just Stay Home.

6 Replies to “Eight Sorts of Solitaries”

  1. I’m intrigued: what’s with the crystal dodecahedron? On a separate note, do you think we’ll all be classed as Co-vidites?

  2. I loved reading this blog post Deborah. Your view of how people interact with social isolation is so creative and witty. I enjoyed seeing if I could draw any parallels to my own experience from the many wonderful and a couple horrific examples you shared. Wonderful!
    Best Wishes, Charlotte

    1. Glad you enjoyed it!
      You’ve already played a nun – who knows, maybe one day you’ll perform the role of the Countess of Buchan, singing in her cage on the castle walls!

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