Michel Foucault’s history of madness describes the decrees of 1656 that confined the insane, the unemployed, and the socially aberrant to the Hôpital général de Paris, the former home of the lepers and the plague-ridden. It was part of what he described as the Great Confinement.
“It is common knowledge that the seventeenth century created enormous houses of confinement; it is less commonly known that more than one out of every hundred inhabitants of the city of Paris found themselves confined there, within several months…. From the middle of the seventeenth century, madness was linked with this country of confinement, and with the act which designated confinement as its natural abode.”Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1965) pp. 38-39
He may have exaggerated and misinterpreted the historical events; but he did create an enduring historical metaphor – the Great Confinement – that described how a political order, economic drivers, an array of ideas and a new pattern of disease could rapidly change the daily life of people.
Could we be living through another such moment? Millions of people around the world are self-isolating and staying at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Next week I will be among them, as I take into my own hands a more proactive response than is recommended by the public health authorities. Kevin Bacon has seized the social science concept of networks and social distance that is forever associated with his name – six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon – to galvanize a movement to #stayathome – not to save yourself, but to protect others. Guests on panel shows do not appear together in the same room. Bondi Beach is closed by the police. The infinite number of eateries and cafes in our consumer-driven service economy are shutting down – in some cases by government fiat, in some cases by the citizenry voting for health with their feet.
Unlike Foucault’s Great Confinement, this Great Seclusion is driven more by the ordinary person, concerned to protect their family and friends from unwitting infection, which they and the authorities can do nothing else about; more that is than it is driven by the commanding heights of Reason, in Foucault’s explanation, or the confusing directives of the governments and chief medical officers of the world, who have been jumped by a social problem to which they cannot readily adapt their systems and institutions.
We do not know how long this Great Seclusion will last for – 15 days to slow the spread? Or will it be for six months or more, as we need to adapt to later waves of more transmissible or more deadly strains of this and other viruses. There will be many inconveniences and difficulties. There will be many deaths and losses. We may see serious strains on the economy and social order. We may see the spread of bad ideas, from both elites and the deplorables. We may see more modern bread riots, as consumers fight over access to rationed goods in our modern capitalist supermarkets.
But might this voluntary Great Seclusion also give birth to something better in our cultural lives, even in the face of many deaths and great tragedies? Something that we will not want to give up when busienss and the authorities call us to return to normal later in the year. In many traditions, seclusion has long been a practice of spiritual renewal. The American journalist Andrew Sullivan has written in recent days a comparison of his experience living through the AIDS epidemic and this more widely dispersed pandemic:
“Living in a plague is just an intensified way of living. It merely unveils the radical uncertainty of life that is already here, and puts it into far sharper focus. We will all die one day, and we will almost all get sick at some point in our lives; none of this makes sense on its own (especially the dying part). The trick, as the great religions teach us, is counterintuitive: not to seize control, but to gain some balance and even serenity in absorbing what you can’t.
There may be moments in this great public silence when we learn and relearn this lesson. Because we will need to relearn it, as I’m rediscovering in this surreal flashback to a way of living I once knew. Plague living is almost seasonal for humans. Like the spring which insists on arriving.”Andrew Sullivan “How to survice a plague” New York Magazine 20 March 2020
Rod Dreher at the American Conservative has taken that thought further:
“We really are in an apocalypse, a word that means “unveiling.” This plague shows us who we really are. It first reveals to us that we have far less control than we thought, and the things we believed were permanent are not permanent at all. It can all be taken away from us in a matter of days and weeks. “Rod Dreher, “The hard road ahead” 20 March 2020
What will The Great Seclusion reveal to us all? We can hope it will reveal some better ways to live and work and play than those we have institutionalised – in the Great Borderless Consumer Market – over the last 50 years. As Nietzsche wrote:
“And while I shall keep silent about some points, I do not want to remain silent about my morality which says to me: Live in seclusion so that you can live for yourself. Live in ignorance about what seems most important to your age. Between yourself and today lay the skin of at least three centuries. And the clamor of today, the noise of wars and revolutions should be a mere murmur for you.”Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Image: Metéora monastery, Mount Athos