The invisible gift

Someone should write a typology of confinement.

We are more reflexive than ever, more sensitive than ever, and less likely to put up with any form of detention than ever.

I’ll be honest, when I read or hear how people are getting depressed from staying at home, I can’t help thinking: we wouldn’t last a minute under torture, in a war-zone, labour camp or hiding from the enemy. But then I am reminded we’re all shaped by the culture we live in, and we shouldn’t expect 80 years of peacetime and prosperity to make Rambos and Dr Robert Nevilles of all of us.

What we can do is imagine and remember what it must have been like for others in the past (and many around the world at the moment) to experience involuntary confinement. So let’s imagine and remember, in no particular order:

  • those unable to flee epidemics of plague, cholera or other diseases which kill almost instantly, anybody, but have to stay in and wait it out, especially in times and cultures which don’t have the means to deal with the situation. The Italians in 1348 and then the rest of Europe by 1351, those in Samuel Pepys’ and Daniel Defoe’s London, in Lieber Augustin‘s Vienna, in 1855 Yunnan, China, down to times and places within reach, the list goes on.
  • those finding themselves under siege, running out of food, water and supplies, locked in a cruel game of attrition with the enemy.
  • those unjustly thrown in jail and being tortured for confession, ever approaching breaking point but not always crossing it. Allowed to stay in your cell is always better than going out.
  • those imprisoned in labour camps, from west to east, north to south, and back, forcing themselves to survive when everything around them shouts ‘just die already!’ Another game of attrition, but this time Death is a gentleman sitting on the other side of the chessboard, like in Ingmar’s Seventh Seal. You can’t play your pawns forever.
  • those gone in hiding, the millions of Jews of yesterday and others like them, keeping their breath under the planks, in attics, in barns and stables, to see who is quieter, the silence or themselves.

The list goes on to the point that we might ask, if freedom is so precious, why do we take it for granted so easily? If captivity is so well-distributed across time and space, and if we find so hard to breathe the air between our walls, and if we raise our fist in the air and shout – I protest, then why are we often so complacent?


A slight detour

I don’t know about you, but I’ve come to appreciate the momentary silence falling over our streets and markets. Provided it’s momentary, of course. Silence can be deadening, but enough of it for a short while can be assuaging. As outer noise fades, inner music can grow, and I always keep my door open. No knocking, no tiptoeing required. I welcome all bursts into my room, no questions asked.

I hope you will allow this slight detour from my usual activity on this blog, to cherish those moments which are very rare in affirming themselves. In crippled verse and poor skill, you may even seize my voice in the recording below. I hope you can forgive me – I promise it won’t happen again – too often.

Send your angels into my room one by one, that I may get to know them.

Send your angel of quiet, that I may cherish every sound.
Send your angel of freedom, that my shackles may vanish.
Send your angel of light, that I may blow the darkness away.
Send your angel of mercy, that I may forget about guilt.
Send your angel of hope, that I may chase despair away.
Send your angel of fire, that I may leave the ice behind.
Send your angel of wind, that I may be rescued from stalling.
Send your angel of water, that I may embrace the whole earth.
Send your angel of music, that I may be released from cacophony.
Send your angel of love, that I may forget the enticements of hate.
Send your angel of beauty, that I may marvel in my rags.
Send your angel of poetry, that I may recover the lost rhymes.
Send your angel of vision, that I may bring the light home.
Send your angel of eloquence, that I may find the right words.
Send your angel of desire, that I may know where I’m headed.
Send your angel of reconciliation, that he may plaster my wounds.

Send all your angels into my room at once, that I may be overwhelmed.

Open chronicles in cloistered times

Screenshot 2020-04-06 at 4.52.24.png
An anonymous universal chronicle running from  Incarnation (year 1 in red Latin numerals) to 1141 AD, London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero C VII

There are many paradoxes out there, but they fall under our radar when we focus on the wrong points. Let me explain using a familiar example.

Most chronicles written during the Middle Ages were done by monks. By chronicle I don’t mean any history book, but those long compositions starting from way, way back and rolling down year by year to the chronicler’s last breath. Many are also called annals if they were updated annually and structured accordingly. In the year of our Lord 1000, this happened. In the year 1001, that.

One bestselling genre among producers and consumers of chronicles was the so-called world or universal chronicle – a pompous name, and I know what I’m talking about, having spent 4 years writing my PhD on one of them, and studying others thereafter. Let’s stick with the more pompous of the two, the universal chronicle and expose the paradox! But first, to write or to recognise a universal chronicle, you need the following:

  • a very distant past, or a past perceived as being distant. A founding moment, a point zero. The usual suspects are: the creation of the world, the Incarnation of Christ, the Crucifixion, or, closer to home, the founding of your monastery or a turning point in local history, like a Viking invasion or the death of a king. Warning, Anglo-centrism! So many monks and so many chronicles on such a small island. End of digression.
  • enough source material to cover the period between point zero and the year of writing. Anything counts as source material, but you may apply various notions of criticism to dismiss some and accept others. The devil is in the details of your compilation, and every monastery has its devils and compilations. Monks loved cutting and pasting more than any undergraduate student. You may acknowledge sources from time to time, even those which haven’t been used, as long as they make you look erudite.
  • the illusion of comprehensiveness. This is my favourite and it’s key to universal chronicles. The distant past meets the distant land. Universal chronicles seek to cover the news from every known place on Earth. – Bringing you live, with a delay of 500 to 1000 years, breaking news from Antioch, Jerusalem, Assyria, India, Africa, Egypt! Universal chronicles are histories of the world, all-embracing and the first pulsation of European cosmopolitism.
  • a very simple style and an excess of the conjunction AND: And the Great Heathen Army attacked AND the monks fled AND the monastery was burned AND we all felt bad about it. Aim for an 80-95 score on the Flesch–Kincaid readability test.
  • anonymous authorship: don’t let anyone know who wrote your chronicle. Most chronicles from 500-1250 AD are indeed anonymous, written by obstinate authors who didn’t give their name. While this practice was largely intended to comfort the monk’s sense of humility, it fans the flames of pride of discovery for countless modern researchers, yours truly included, who manage to snatch the coy monks out of anonymity and show them for the authors they are, name and all.
  • updated versions. Some books stay alive because people read them. Medieval chronicles stayed alive (for a while) because monks updated them. One monk may end his chronicle in 1225 AD, but then it is picked up by another, edited and continued till 1300. Open-source and open-ended, universal chronicles are the ancestors of Wikipedia and Creative Commons.

Did I miss the paradox? Not really, here it is, and I call it the paradox of the universal chronicle, you can quote me on that. With very, very few exceptions, universal chronicles were written by monks cloistered in monasteries, on voluntary house arrest. They had access to relatively few books for their immeasurable ambition to put together a universal chronicle. They had little to no travelling experience, they met very few people in their lifetime (ok, forgive my wild generalisation, but most of them did, anyway), and their notion of tourism was framed by the ideal of a pilgrimage to Rome or perhaps Jerusalem. Yet, and it’s a big yet – they lived and breathed under the sign of eternity, of infinite time and infinite space. Confined as they were and reduced to a few miles and a few years, their spirit was roaming free and, if only for an instant, their humility went to sleep allowing them to dream of places they’d never visit and times they’d never understand, and in the end, write a universal chronicle, which for many of them would be the last thing they’d ever do.

The age of self-chronicling

Since deciding to start blogging every day, I have avoided writing in the first person, recounting my days and my experiences in typical public-diary fashion, as I didn’t want this blog to be yet another machine of ego-production, yet another let-me-tell-you-about-my-life space. Yet, it turned out to be yet another machine, and yet another space, rife with the potential for boredom-inducement and non-value.

Then Coronavirus came knocking at our doors, and I realised that there are not just pandemics of pathogens, but also pandemics of stories about pathogens. That a virus is not just contagious, but also culturally totalising. It eats up the airwaves, the bandwidth, it fills every crack and every corner. It became clear that there are only two types of discourse allowed to thrive and proliferate in this time of crisis: the impersonal, journalistic, descriptive, often scientific idiom around what the pandemic has been, is, and will be, and the personal, phenomenological discourse of what the pandemic means to each one of us, individually, the first-person view upon the shuddering world, upon our slice of the world to which we have unmediated access.

As the public space disappears, the private space becomes a novel marketplace, a panopticon of self-expression and self-visibility. We are losing the ‘we’ field, but we’re boosting the ‘I’ space. The crowd of observers discovers the power of storytelling, the reservoir of personal expression. The crowd rejects the crowd and scatters out.

Readers become writers. The age of self-chronicling is upon us. It is not only therapeutic, but also inevitably empowering, the sudden realisation that our lives may finally interest others. Why we needed a pandemic to understand this obvious truth, beats me. Maybe that’s how it works. St Augustine discovered it at a time of public crisis. So did Boethius. So did Montaigne. So do we.

Yet it remains that everything we read or see these days contains a protein of coronavirus. It’s in the stories we tell, the poems we write (the New Yorker has just published a poem about self-isolation), the conversations we have. We express ourselves reflexively and creatively, but we’re being held captive and captivated by this tiny killer. Pandemics are totalisers. We shouldn’t respond in kind. It’s hard, but perhaps we feel that if we don’t, we’ll be taxed as indifferent and aloof.

If you’re reading this blog regularly, you will notice that I too have cast my lot in with those singing the fall of Troy. Which means that this blog is at risk of becoming even more boring, more irrelevant, more personal. You’ve been warned.

Sing, o muse

The wooden horse, the burning city, the exile, the wanderings, the hope of arrival, the unexpected detours, the illusion of arrival, the excitement of adventure, the despondency of the open sea, the desire for new shores, the resilience in fighting, the loss of loved ones, the long sleep, the blessing of telling the story from the comfort of a symposium, the open-endedness of it all, the vanishing memory of misfortune, the lived life, the patient wait.

We sing and we cry, we fight and we sleep, we hope and we despair. Nothing ever gets lost, everything finds its place on the map, the map helping us navigate the high seas, the sail hoisted up, in the end there is no end, the Earth is round and so are we, the circling of the sun above the ruined landscape, the hope of new beginnings shimmering in the east.

The poet seeks a new voice, but cannot find it, it’s all been said, it’s all been offered on a silver plate in a multitude of voices, each trying their hand at a new game, but the game is never new.

The lines are broken and so are we. Giacometti figures dancing on a wire stretching out from one city to another, the brouhaha below sending vibrations up above, the love which moves that sun the stars and the rocks, gravity has no claim on those whose hope keeps them afloat with the desire for anything new, really anything, as if the Earth stopped for a moment to allow us to remeasure it and remaster the main track.

When Robinson Crusoe starts to cough

In times of trouble, we act just like our immune system. We either keep a low profile or go into overdrive. Some like to track the second hand as it goes around the dial. Others mine the free/d hours of the day frenetically for new occupations. As a writer recently put it, we might find that we have been in training for this moment all our lives. You always take it more seriously when you know it’s not a drill.

We’re told to stay at home, stay in or go out only when absolutely necessary. We’re told to stay in to save lives. In the spring of 2021, London is a city besieged from within but also cocooned unto itself, like a sock rolled inside out. 

Confinements are a big deal when they’re unprecedented, which usually means we can’t remember having gone through one already. If living memory is the benchmark for getting anxious or agitated, then historians are the world’s biggest cynics, for they have seen it all and heard it all.

Most of us have no memory of historic crises. To have a conversation about the Spanish flu, the Black Death or the Plague of Athens, we need to have read a history book or watched a documentary. It gets even harder to talk about the doubtlessly countless epidemics that lie so far back that they haven’t been captured by the written record.

Eyewitnesses are rare, and we are now called to be the eyewitnesses of our own common adversity.

I think I’m reading too much stuff about what’s happening outside. It’s becoming harder for us to stay in and harder for the authorities to keep people in. The more I read about this, the more I promise myself not to read about it anymore, and the more I realise that people have always been the same. If you don’t believe me, you might believe Daniel Defoe.

Three years after Robinsoe Crusoe’s packaged holiday had come to an end, Defoe published A Journal of the Plague Year, an account of the Great Plague of London of 1665. It was the unofficial reason why Crusoe never booked another flight again. Defoe was too young to remember the plague, but the report is authoritative and gripping:

“As several people, I say, got out of their houses by stratagem after they were shut up, so others got out by bribing the watchmen, and giving them money to let them go privately out in the night. I must confess I thought it at that time the most innocent corruption or bribery that any man could be guilty of, and therefore could not but pity the poor men, and think it was hard when three of those watchmen were publicly whipped through the streets for suffering people to go out of houses shut up.”

Does it sound familiar?

Between the Zoo and Foucault’s Great Confinement

As I suggested in previous posts, all moments of crisis reveal unseen aspects of human existence. They pick us up from the waters of our daily swim and give us a different perspective on the pond. Some force us to look at ourselves and each other differently, some help us discover previously-unknown truths about ourselves. All, however, are likely to put us on the spot.

When I injured both calf muscles in a skiing accident earlier this year, I couldn’t walk properly for weeks. Everywhere I went, I had to take baby steps, literally. My walking speed dropped from 3.2 to about 1 mph. It was intensely annoying, but also something of an eye-opener. For the first time in my life, I experienced the world a person suffering from mobility impairment would experience it. Almost overnight, space dilated like a balloon when you blow in it. As my perceived space expanded, time shrank, as it took me longer to do anything I used to do before. A trip to the office toilet suddenly became an epic odyssey, while the daily commutes and journeys had to be reviewed with a red pen. I also knew that while this was a temporary inconvenience for me, it wasn’t so for others, who’d have to struggle with it all their lives.

Then Covid-19 came and with it, the gentle age of confinement which pretty much everyone in the world is now familiar with. I say gentle because although we are told to stay indoors, most of us still enjoy the benefits of modernity: home deliveries, open supermarkets and communication channels. We’re far from living a dystopia, but that doesn’t mean it’s pleasant. After all, we’re stuck within four walls, or several more, if you’re on the fortunate side of living space. Between you, me and the bedpost, it kinda sucks.

Shall I compare thee to an iron cage? Or perhaps to a zoo? A multitude of cages advertising a new brand of freedom. Vodafone drives it home: Staying connected while we stay apart. Never has the word apartment done more justice to its root: being apart, staying apart, in a separate place, in a separate cage. This terrible reality is most obvious in those disturbing, yet often uplifting, videos of Italian block residents coming out on the balcony to do a swan-song singalong.

Our cities are fast turning into cage-scapes, the streets emptying like walking lanes in a zoo after hours. The only noise comes from the cages themselves, and it’s often the noise of incarceration mitigated by whatever trick we use to view the picture beyond the bars without noticing the bars.

Michel Foucault described the period between the 17th and the mid-20th centuries in Western Europe as that of the ‘Great Confinement’, in which all deemed socially inadequate – beggars, petty criminals, social outcasts and those suffering from mental disorders – were confined to hospitals and other special institutions. They were collectively referred to as madmen and were shut out from polite, bourgeois society. We’ve outgrown the brutal age of the great confinement, thank God, but it seems that confinement hasn’t outgrown us. We’re chased back into our apartments and houses not as undesirables, but precisely because each of us counts. Our cages turn out to be made of gold, not iron, and the zoo becomes a place of quiet healing, not ominous captivity. Our great confinement, inasmuch as it’s observed by our neighbours and friends, is a measure of our greatness, resilience and patience, the cardinal virtues of a ailing body on its way to fitness recovered.

Camus’ whispers and suspicions

‘There still exist towns and countries where people have now and then an inkling of something different. In general it doesn’t change their lives. Still, they have had an intimation, and that’s so much to the good. Oran, however, seems to be a town without intimations; in other words, completely modern.’

Like so many towns today. Here’s Albert Camus writing in 1947 and ringing more relevant than ever. His novel The Plague is about more than the plague sweeping the town of Oran. The slow viral pages we turn today are about so much more than Covid-19. They are about us.

An inkling of something different, an intimation. The original French word is soupçon, a suspicion. Do we suspect anything happening, moving, beating under the skin of our daily routine? Probably not, just like we don’t suspect to have lungs until our parents and schoolteachers start telling us about them and we see them diagrammed in illustrated science books.

The Covid-19 crisis is forcing us to rediscover our existential lungs, those we don’t always know we have, and to draw near to unsuspected sources of joy. To grope in the dark of this late hour for the lamp under the bed and to put it back on the table.

Make no mistake, Camus’s Plague is a mirrored image of our present mess. He’s seen and written it all, from A to Z, the passage from surprise to panic, the incredulity, the illusion that we’d be spared, the provocative carelessness, the confinement, isolation and separation, the bad dream and the reality of the nightmare, the insufficiency of protective measures, the overwhelmed hospitals, the quarantine centres, the self-exile, the funerals without ceremony, the thickness of time face-to-face with the outside enemy.

And yet, we are to put our ear to the ground and listen to the faint whisper of something different.

The banality of writing

You and I know how to write because others wrote before us. Westerns thus go back to the Romans, and the Romans to the Greeks, and so on to the very beginning of writing itself, which was not in Europe, but in ancient Sumer.

The Romans lived in a highly literate society, but there was an important distinction between those who knew how to read and write, and those who actually wrote. Elite Romans preferred not to write and left the skill of writing to the lower classes, often even to slaves. For such a literate culture, the cultured were pretty tech-averse, writing being considered a technology in need of manual operation. So the Romans raised their ink-free finger and started dictating to scribes and other professionals of the written word.

We’ve never been too far from this distant practice, and we’ve probably come even closer to it now, as fewer and fewer people get to write anything by hand. Writing is in decline, while Siri and Alexa sure look like they are ready to interview for the scribe’s position. Just imagine Cicero at his desk saying ‘Ave, Siri, please take the following down’.

Isn’t it ironic for me to say such a thing? I am after all writing this. But am I really? I am in fact typing at my computer. Potato-potato, you’ll say. Yes, but chirography, or the act of manual writing, is not the same as typing, although there are some similarities. In essence, they are different. While they are both manual operations requiring skill and dexterity, writing is fundamentally different and a hundred times harder to learn than tapping keys. It takes a lot longer for a child to learn to write than to type. You may teach a simple machine to type, but handwriting is closer to magic. While someone’s typing skills are a function of speed and accuracy, their handwriting is a bundle of cursivity, legibility, fluency, and also speed. Not to mention the personal signature embedded in someone’s handwriting.


Life in DIY mode

We are faced with a splendid opportunity: to be the architects of our own time, now that we have been given leave from the managers of our daily schedule. To be, as Pascal Bruckner has called it, an aristocracy of inner life. An aristocracy, I would say, of our internal clock. It is a rare opportunity for reappraisal and recalibration.

To many of us, it feels as though we’ve been taken captive and thrown in jail. But we are wrong to think we’ve POWs, when we are really handed a precious slice of freedom to use in the service of mental hygiene. What we do with it, as individuals and as a society, will show whether we are made of dust or rather stardust, galaxies of creativity and freedom, as many exclamations points against the entropy of the world beyond our doors and windows.

We fight boredom with the lightsabers of our imagination. We reject gloom with the cheerful glow of hope. We close our eyes and travel to more places than this world is prepared to allow us entry to. We pick up a book, a pen, a keyboard, a screen or a camera and we tailor new garbs for a world begging in rags. We have a chance to furnish our rooms with mirrors to better understand who we are and why our clocks don’t have to stop when all clocks in the world stand still. We look around and understand that space is not always needed for us to stay in motion, balanced and upright. And most of all, we dream.

A computer crashes when a line of code goes wrong. A bad play falls apart when lines are forgotten. We are neither computers nor bad works of fiction. We are suspended particles refracting the light into beautiful beams, always changing, always moving. Infinite, not confined.