I’m not sure whether I’m isolated or not at the moment. London is already isolatory by default.
Is that a word? “Isolatory”? I don’t think it is, but maybe it will be soon enough. I’ve already heard a dozen different euphemisms for “shitting it on your own”.
Every journey I take on the bus is defined by psychosomatic symptoms. All I want to do is clear my throat and touch my face. By the end of a thirty-minute bus ride I feel like I am definitely coming down with the sickness — at least until I feel fresh air on my face and then I’m okay again. It is worth noting, however, that this is only a mild intensification of what it feels like to take any mode of public transport in this city. I am far from a clean freak but it is palpably germ-ridden.
The first year I spent living here I had to start going into work sick because I caught so many colds, one after another, that my place of work started suspecting I was faking it. I wasn’t. I was just spending ninety minutes on the bus every morning and getting hit in the face by unending clouds of germs.
Last Friday, on the bus home from work, I passed two people in head-to-toe hazmat suits wheeling a trolley out of an old people’s home, opposite the local Lidl. We passed the scene too quickly for me to see if it was a body bag or a still-living patient. It didn’t matter. Such a sight — unnerving but too fleeting to cause a stir — felt like the sort of unsubtle foreshadowing you see in a camp zombie movie.
When I got home I watched Children of Men for the umpteenth time.
The pressure not to come into work is growing from the news and other sources whilst, at the office itself, the attitude is very much one of making hay while the sun
shines sets. I’d rather not make a decision for myself either way. Typical freelance oddjobs have dried up. I’m worried about making ends meet.
When I was younger, I’d typically have anxiety attacks as I was on the verge of falling asleep. Eyes closed, hovering somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness, my body turned decidedly towards the wall, falling naturally into “the recovery position”, I would find myself in a state of drift, leading to successive disembodied hallucinations.
(I’ve never been big into drugs and these experiences are mostly why. I have always been good at auto-affecting my brain into unnatural states — for better or for worse.)
It was a meditative state that was addictive but terrifying. I used to have a similar habit of holding my arms in the air whilst watching TV, letting the blood run out of them until they no longer felt like mine, then grimacing through the oddly pleasurable sensation of blood rushing back to my finger tips — an activity that becomes less and less enjoyable, the older I get. Now it happens inadvertently, like every time I sit down on the floor or fall asleep on my front with my arms entangled underneath me. These oneiric states were the cognitive equivalent.
In this state, I would become pointedly aware of a lack of spatial awareness. The wall, mere inches from the end of my nose, was, in my mind, thousands of miles away. My goth bedroom, with its black walls and black-out blinds behind black curtains, was less an echo chamber of adolescent reverberation and more an anechoic chamber where a half-sleeping self became lost in the universe of a box room. Six feet by twelve. Cosmic cognitive coffin.
I don’t get the tube for much the same reason I don’t like to fly. I don’t like feeling like cattle. I don’t like being shipped from one destination to another. However, this hatred of feeling like the bleating member of a homogenous mass is reciprocated by the absolute terror of disconnection and sensory deprivation that comes from utter isolation.
Both experiences are a kind of existential irritant. I find myself feeling both claustrophobic and agoraphobic, swinging between the extremes of an embodied disembodiment.
It is the normalisation of this feeling that I am expecting over the coming days, weeks, months ahead. I worry about getting lost in our flat. Unable to go outside, the self, like a recklessly sheared toenail, begins to grow inwards. I’m sure I’ll be working from home soon enough. I wonder if the day will come when I can’t work at all.
I found these constellation of sensation captured beautifully by Matt Levin in an article for The Paris Review. He writes:
An extended self-quarantine resembles, in many aspects, any religious-minded circumscribing of the daily round — a meditation retreat, a monastic cloister, a ritual purification. There is the same restraining force, liminal and protean, keeping one within the enclosure — not quite mandatory, not quite voluntary, but a volatile mixture of superego, conformity, altruism, and the anxiety of social sanction. There is the withdrawal from social life, the distillation of most personal interaction to the telegrammatic and unavoidable. There is the ascendance of repetition — the same cycle of meals, the same rooms, the same window, the same orbit of light from that window. And within that tightened repetition, unintentionally noticing, finding yourself incapable of ignoring, certain physical tics and emotional reflexes, patterns that were previously subliminal. Brushing a chip in the wall paint as you round a corner, lifting yourself just barely but entirely off your chair as you pull into the kitchen table, discovering the tonic thrum of the refrigerator under the clicking of the kitchen clock, the uniquely personal sound and resonance of your spoon scraping, inadvertently but consistently, on the chipped bottom of your bowl. Both retreat and quarantined life become microcosm magnified to macrocosm, like the map drawn to the same scale as its territory in Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science.” The most minor elements of the daily routine flower to monstrous proportion — I have known, in the midst of a retreat, the consumptive, totalizing desire for just one extra bread roll; the tattooed memorization of the flowering, spidery cracks on a poorly plastered ceiling; the gnawing curiosity about what lay beyond the finite universe to which I had confined myself. And above all, there is the imperative to focus obsessively and intentionally on reflexive actions that were, in the previous life, unnoticed, the white noise of bodily existence — in the case of a meditation retreat, it is one’s breath; in the case of the coronavirus, touching one’s face moves from compulsive background to neurotic foreground. Every touch is monitored, assessed, brooded over.
The “distortion” extends both outward, to the touch, and inward, to the sense of the body itself. A retreat, a quarantine, a sickness — they simultaneously distort and clarify, curtail and expand.
Like a man after my own heart, this fellow Matt is using the quarantine to write about the immersive experience of reading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Woolf occupied much of my mind during the last few months of 2019 and, right now, this feels like time well spent.
Along with the works of D.H. Lawrence, quarantine feels like a good time to continue travelling inwards. I only hope I don’t get stuck there.
[Quarantine] is an ideal state in which to read literature with a reputation for difficulty and inaccessibility, those hermetic books shorn of the handholds of conventional plot or characterization or description. A novel like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is perfect for the state of interiority induced by quarantine — a story of three men and three women, meeting after the death of a mutual friend, told entirely in the overlapping internal monologues of the six, interspersed only with sections of pure, achingly beautiful descriptions of the natural world, a day’s procession and recession of light and waves. The novel is, in my mind’s eye, a perfectly spherical object. It is translucent and shimmering and infinitely fragile, prone to shatter at the slightest disturbance. It is not a book that can be read in snatches on the subway — it demands total absorption. Though it revels in a stark emotional nakedness, the book remains aloof, remote in its own deep self-absorption. The opening of the first monologue describes the strong spectral presence of the novel itself, lays down its own gauntlet: “‘I see a ring,’ said Bernard, ‘hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.’” I have read the opening pages at least a dozen times, but have not yet been able to string together the unbroken attention required. There is no better opportunity than this moment to try again, for The Waves is itself about this estranging and revealing state. The characters, in a ring, each take turns to talk to themselves, speaking to their interior landscapes with total clarity, and with all the hallmarks of extended isolation — the simultaneous telescopic intensity and dazed distance, the noticing of sensation and reflex as if they were new, numinous. Goes the round of private proclamation: “‘A caterpillar is curled in a green ring,’ said Susan, ‘notched with blunt feet.’ ‘The grey-shelled snail draws across the path and flattens the blades behind him,’ said Rhoda. ‘And burning lights from the window-panes flash in and out of the grasses,’ said Louis. ‘Stones are cold to my feet,’ said Neville. ‘I feel each one, rounded or pointed, separately.’ ‘The back of my hand burns,’ said Jinny, ‘but the palm is clammy and damp with dew.’” The descriptions of the exterior world are, fittingly, given to a disembodied third party, with a suprahuman eye — a bracing blast from the outside, to which we will eventually and inexorably return. For now, though, we are given the time to explore the close, feverish, interior world of The Waves.
It is odd to read this in our dystopian present. As elusively lucid as I’m sure Woolf is under these particular circumstances, I can’t help thinking of the non-sequiturs that define Blade Runner‘s diagnostic tests. ‘There’s a tortoise on its back…’
Give me a week of quarantine and I think I’ll be all too ready to tell you about my mother.
I’m not sure if or when I’ll be going back into work but I know for certain I’ll be on personal lockdown, at least until Friday. I have a text to finish — on the Apocalypse, most appropriately! At some point I’m going to set up a camera and a tripod and watch Rear Window.
This blog series, if it manages to become such a thing, will be an isolation diary. Expect pictures and paranoia from the street below our only window — the front window.