This piece is part of HWO’s feature on ‘Apocalypse Then and Now’. The feature brings together radical reflections and historic perspectives on catastrophe and calamity. How have crises (both real and imagined), and responses to them, shaped our world?
In 1623 the dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, the poet John Donne, was suddenly struck down by a mysterious illness which left him feverish and sweaty. ‘This minute I was well, and am ill,’ he later wrote of this debilitating sickness. ‘This minute. I am surpriz’d with a sodaine change, & alteration to worse, and can impute it to no other cause, nor call it by any name.’ Weak and frightened, he was confined to the St Paul’s deanery, where fear of infection kept everyone away from him, even his physicians. This isolation was terrible to him.
As Sickness is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sickness is solitude; when the infectiousness of the disease deters them who should assist, from coming…Solitude is a torment which is not threatened in hell itself.
Meditating on this experience the following year, Donne concluded that solitude is unnatural to humankind. ‘I am involved in mankind as a whole’, he famously wrote. ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’
Early modern England was wracked by disease. Donne’s sudden week-long affliction remains a mystery. But for thousands of his compatriots it was bubonic plague that felled them. For these wretched people enforced solitude was a prelude to death. Plague victims were locked into their homes; their contacts were traced and imprisoned. They were not allowed to visit sick neighbours, attend funerals, or comfort people who had lost family members or friends. This enforced ‘social distancing’ met with protest. ‘Do you in this sort love your neighbour as yourself?’ one critic demanded: ‘When as at no time… [there is] greater need of fellowship, company, comfort and help than in the time of plague.’ To shatter human bonds in this way could destroy society, a clergyman warned.
These are exceptional times. But the dangers of solitude are a very old theme. When Donne wrote that solitude is ‘a disease of the mind, as the height of an infectious disease of the body’, he was echoing medical and moral views that reached back to antiquity. But over the succeeding centuries the risk register of solitude changed. Solitariness could still be hazardous, producing acute misery of the kind that Donne experienced, but it could also be a positive experience. Religious solitude was highly valued, but so too were everyday experiences of aloneness which offered people, in the words of the late-eighteenth-century Swiss writer Johann Zimmermann, opportunities for ‘self-collection and freedom.’
Solitude became an escape from the pressures of modern living, a place to reflect and to recharge mental and bodily resources. At the same time a revolution in consumption and mass communication made it easier to find private space in more comfortable homes. A widening range of solitary pastimes became available for those seeking to spend time alone. In the early twentieth century a decline in family size – together with the provision of two and three-bedroom council houses with fenced gardens – made it easier for hard-pressed working men and women, as well as their teenage children, to escape from each other’s company.
After 1945, advanced Western societies began to self-isolate on an increasing scale. Single-person households – a rarity in earlier centuries – became common, amounting in our own times to nearly a third of all domestic units. Their occupants now had the material means to enjoy their own company. The elderly, at last equipped with adequate pensions, preferred independence to moving in with their children. Younger cohorts discovered the resources, including personalised communication systems, to make living by themselves preferable to sharing homes with unsatisfactory partners.
Isolation itself was no longer a fearful prospect. Instead ‘loneliness’, a concept that gained currency from the late nineteenth century, became the great risk. Loneliness is best described as failed solitude, the state, as Stephanie Dowrick writes, of being ‘uncomfortably alone without someone.’ In late modernity there has been an increasing concern with what is described by campaigners as an ‘epidemic of loneliness’. Now that we are reminded of what a real epidemic looks like, it is perhaps the moment to cease associating a particular form of social relations with so infectious and lethal a condition.
Nonetheless, today Covid-19 is sequestering people in their homes on a scale not seen since the patchy attempts at quarantine during the 1918-19 Spanish flu epidemic. There are some grounds for supposing that the experience may not be as acutely painful as that endured by Donne. After initial uncertainty, we understand the biology. A seventeenth-century plague victim, as indeed those in the Spanish flu outbreak, had no reliable information about what caused the spread of the disease or what could be done to prevent it. Fears multiplied in the face of an inscrutable enemy.
More generally, we enter the crisis with a rich inheritance of expectations and resources for self-isolation. Solitude is now a practised and practicable condition. In terms of personal communication, few men and women could describe themselves as an island entire of itself (although according to the Office for National Statistics around seven per cent of households still have no internet connection). This country has been slow to ensure that those locked in their homes have access to the means of physical survival, but distribution systems – with lots of voluntary support – are finally being put in place.
There remain, however, serious threats to psychological wellbeing. The most obvious is time. One definition of loneliness is that it is solitude that has continued for longer than was planned or expected. Donne endured his torment for just a week. The current injunction to self-isolation has a three-month limit, but no-one (except Donald Trump) regards that as a guarantee of release. The more effective modern states are in enforcing isolation, the greater the threat to individual and collective wellbeing. The ‘science’ which is guiding political decision-making descends into guesswork when we contemplate how the vulnerable will respond to seclusion over so long a period.
The second threat is inequality. The long-term growth in positive solitude was made possible by widening access to a range of public services and consumer goods. Concern about the apparent growth in loneliness in the recent past reflected the impact of the austerity programme introduced after the last great global crisis in 2008. The contraction in services such as libraries and community centres prevented the isolated from making contact with local social networks. It became more difficult to afford spacious, heated accommodation. It remains to be seen how far the state, in a matter of weeks, can compensate for a decade of under-investment in health and social services, and how much better those with live-in companionship, adequate homes and private gardens will fare as the isolation persists. Disabled people living on their own, whose services have been so savagely curtailed, will be at particular risk.
The final threat is that of consent. Loneliness occurs when individuals are unable to choose the company they keep. Where they know they can move at will between forms of sociability, periods of isolation cease to be threatening. The imposition of controls on movement foregrounds the issue of trust. Donne felt abandoned by those around him and had only a hidden God to explain his condition. Planned, transparent, equitable systems of community support may now make all the difference. The sense that the state is performing with competence and justice is equally critical. Everything will now depend on whether citizens agree to disrupt their patterns of living for the sake of their own and the common good. Trust and communication police the boundary of acceptable and unacceptable isolation.
Barbara Taylor is Professor of Humanities at Queen Mary, University of London. Her general field of research is British intellectual and cultural history with special interest in feminist ideas and movements, Enlightenment philosophy and cultural practices, histories of subjectivity, and the application of psychoanalytic ideas to historical enquiry. She is an editor of History Workshop Journal and serves on the advisory board of History Workshop Online. She is currently directing a four-year Wellcome Trust multidisciplinary research project, ‘Pathologies of Solitude, 18th – 21st Century’.
David Vincent is Professor of Social History at the Open University, where he was previously Pro Vice Chancellor. He is an Honorary Professor of History at Keele University, and a Research Associate of the Pathologies of Solitude project. He is the author of a range of studies of British and European social history since the late eighteenth century. His new book is A History of Solitude (Polity, April 2020).