A (brief) Journey Around my Lockdown
The spatiality of Covid-19...
Amongst my last published blogs of 2020, I appraised my year’s reading and this year’s resolutions (in the form of a more general prose ode to lists), but beginning 2021 I want also to centre a more shared aspect of present reality (at least for many of us). That is, being indoors, specifically home, almost all of the time.
The pandemic is ongoing (exacerbated in the UK by government incompetence, corruption, and outright malignancy), while numerous other calamities threaten, and we (those fortunate not to be compelled to work in unsafe conditions) are stuck in apartments and houses, communicating via email, phone, and online video calls. (The latter has proved, as a medium, more exhaustingly demoralising than many of us anticipated.)
I am habituated to being at home a lot even at the best times (I work as a freelance editor, after all, about which I am very happy), but the quality of it is changed considerably when it’s not broken up by at least fortnightly traverses outside. By occasional visits to cafés, some meetings with friends at a pub, or other such social gatherings. These do more than add variety, they shift your focus, give even the context of home a different situatedness.
I have become all too familiar with my apartment during this period, and thought often of the literature of being stuck in places. In particular, of Xavier de Maistre’s extended essay A Journey Round My Room (the title of which I am flagrantly ripping off here), Nick Malone’s narrative-poem Jason Smith’s Nocturnal Opera, Fernando Pessoa’s magisterial The Book of Disquiet and the epic verse of Edward Young, Night Thoughts. Such literature charts in painstaking detail the fixation on a small, but all-encompassing space, the psychology and meaning of it. (Sometimes, as with Young, as a frame, and others, as with Maistre, as the chief subject.)
The tendency, as I know from being reclusive for much of my adolescence and early adulthood, is to turn inward to intense introspection, and (without too much external variation) to fix in place an increasingly rigid set of habits. When the world is reduced to a few rooms, invented spaces become important. (For some, as would have happened to us had the pandemic hit a year or so ago, that few rooms is just one central living space not counting a bathroom and kitchen.)
It is no accident that this year I have turned to literature more profoundly even than I generally do. It is not odd at all that I have sought out especially mediums of storytelling that allow for expansive world-building as a key feature (Metroidvania games, single player pen and paper RPGs, etc.). There’s been an intense need for a release in mythos and universes defined—in part—by an excess, an overflow, of space. And space that needs charting, staking out, defining, as a constituent of the medium.
Of similarly increasing importance is the reconfiguration of unthought spaces, those that are so much backgrounded in the normal run of events they go completely unnoticed. The amount I have altered my work desk, shifted the arrangement of stuff and furniture in every room, redecorated, subtracted and added to my home is pronounced compared to ’19. I have clipped together messy cables, refiled old documents, organised and re-organised jars. A sentimental hoarder by inclination, I have gone further than before overcoming that practice.
I do not believe any of my responses to be especially atypical—even if filtered through my own personality and eccentricities. When we are given little space to play around with, the set of human responses is as usually stereotypically narrow as our literal confines, as any wider examination of those responses shows.
The survey of literature mentioned above has a tendency towards the contemplation of morality and to try to find within it the broadest impression of life’s proper scope. It has a tendency towards obsessing the details of a place, and of projecting the mind into great imaginary fictional places. My own inclinations during lockdown are often found in refrain throughout the literature of solitude.
Maistre, who uses an understated humour in his accounts, talks of ‘the new mode of travelling I introduce into the world’, but comes to still serious conclusions about humanity’s duality, its abstract capacities realised in bodies defined by base needs. He is a good illustration of what I’m describing here; most of the above fixations, found in myself, can be found in his far too underread book as well.
Travel (even figurative, conceptual) is a seemingly odd theme for works situated in tight confines, but also features prominently in Malone’s metaphysical journey. (We are compelled to seek what we are denied, after all.) As with Maistre, Malone’s contribution to the literature of domestic solitude has more than a hint of metamorphosis about it. (I have seen my fair share of tweets during lockdown comparing it to a kind of cocoon directly or indirectly, a period of protected self-transformation.)
On this, Pessoa is the poet master of reinvention, famed for using heteronyms (fictional identities, under which he published). It often surprises me that the internet, whose framework of self-curation he so much anticipates, has not elevated him considerably more that it appears to have done. Either way, the image of Pessoa constructing a new selfhood in quiet isolation is powerfully redolent of our moment.
While embracing solitude has its philosophical advantages, imposed solitude (as the ostracised, imprisoned or abandoned too often discover) is deeply opposed to human flourishing. As well as a hopeful and creative literature of such circumstances, there is a whole genre of domestic horror that zeroes in on this life-denying aspect. And that, too, is a powerful guide to life under lockdown.
Much of this is focussed on the experiences of women trapped in spaces defined by patriarchical control. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’, inarguably one of the supreme examples, is illustrative. Published in 1892, it speaks to the experiences of a woman confined to a single room, driven to break down by the limits of these circumstances. This piece still finds resonances today, as with Tracy Fahey’s updating in ‘Papering over the Cracks’ (published in 2018). Fahey’s is a beguiling, horrifying short narrative of suffering domesticity, of social power relations rerendered in contemporary gothic colours.
There are probably more than a few months to continue with lockdown (even if of the stuttering, ineffectual, badly communicated on and off again type). It is not a good place to be, but the best way to manage it is with creative fancies and plenty of self-awareness (however aided by literature). I mentioned at the start that it is not the worst place to be (front line workers, those corralled in the death traps that are our barbaric care homes, etc. can attest to this), but it nonetheless has made for an uncomfortable period, one that could easily pass the year mark.
Certainly, and despite it by no means being my first period of isolation, it has left me changed. It has altered my relationship to being situated in certain locations. I am far more eager to be outside than I can ever remember being. And, as an introvert, far more inclined to seek company, to try out bit of gregariousness.
In the early days of Coronavirus, I fixated (including in my online essays) a lot on time (the sudden absence of its usual markers, the subjective feel of the dreamlike, unreal passage of a crisis), but at the other end it is topography and space that I find most compelling. Arguably, these two preoccupations are not too distant, as a somewhere is always also always a somewhen.
The wheres and whens of lockdown are uncanny, and like any oddity demand to be understood.
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