The days of the lockdown, even though they came upon us as recently as this past summer, have already acquired a nostalgic shimmer. Now that an effective vaccine has at long last reached the shore, this sense of nostalgia will only grow stronger. Not that the virus is killing fewer people. If anything, the devastation of life has multiplied over the past months. News channels continue with their verbal hypertrophy that viewers believe in not believing. What has changed is the way we react to the ongoing crisis.
As is the wont of human existence, even a global threat like the present one, which is perilous like never before in our lifetime, has been put through the grooves of habituation. More than a new information regime, COVID-19 has placed us in a whole new geography of affects. The more we get used to it, the more the early period of the lockdown, those days of sheer bewilderment and panic, acquire a pristine, tender ring to it, as if it was the second coming of childhood, seasoned now that we are living under the glare of unpredictability and death for months in a row.
The virus is only half a life and needs a body to breed. In the present case, it jumped from captured animals to humans. In response, we quarantined ourselves, observing our movements every passing moment. We all have become trace-detectors chasing our touch. As surfaces — of tables, chairs, doorknobs, taps — took on a new meaning in our lives, out of the blue, the topologist in us started working overtime. In supreme uncertainty and existential threat, someone in the family held out a green liquid made of aloe vera juice that promised to kill 99.9 per cent germs and mused whether it would be of real help. Confused, he saw a mighty gap between 99.9 per cent and 100 per cent. Those were the days of the “micro” or, better, as the demography teacher back in my university days used to announce in class as he stroked the chalk on the blackboard, “from micro to further micro”, leaving us wondering where “macro” stood in his scheme of things.
When home becomes an invaded space, touching becomes exploring. Touch can happen only at the surface of an object but quite often it carries the speculative possibility of what lies inside. Depending on our state of mind, every touch may open a new theatre. Each object becomes an allegory of itself in the state of solitude. It could be as trivial as a particular crack in the wall or the odd shape of moss collected in the balcony. Each of these is an image, an abode, of our ponderings. They reproduce nothing; rather we reproduce our inner selves in them.
I have been living in this room of mine since 2007. Yet for the first time, as I made it a point to clean it frequently during COVID-19, I noticed that my existence is actually crowded by a plethora of squares — from the shape of the room to the windows, doors, racks, air conditioner, bed, table and the numerous books that surround me. Similarly, I noticed that there are circles all around me — from the clock that hangs on the wall, to the pedestal fan that stands at one corner, to the bottles, and the lampshade next to my table. And also, there are straight lines. I realised that I am surrounded by a ballet of geometric shapes and proportions. On a similar journey, architect Sarovar Zaidi asks: “How do we… begin to inhabit squares, dwell in them, create enclosures and forms of order for our lives?”
Solitude is often mistaken as a kind of loneliness. Loneliness is yearning for someone who is not there. Solitude is communion with the world, making visible the deepest fabrics of our relations. Loneliness kills. One doesn’t die of solitude. Solitude is also typically mistaken as the privilege of the well-off. For one thing, solitude demands an ascetic lifestyle. In India, those who enjoy the rewards of cheap labour usually have no time or aptitude for a contemplative existence. They fill in their lonely hours with television serials, just as they did during the cooped-up days of the lockdown. On the other hand, ill-paid jobs like pottery or weaving require a great deal of immersion.
In solitude, one discovers in oneself an “other than me”. This is what attributes solitude its grace. This is also why solitude is immensely political, especially in the age of neoliberalism, which is all out to kill any internal dialogue of the subject consumer, who must not be reflexive. A consumer is not a solitary being. In a cruel irony, the advent of the deadly microbe has created the possibility to take a fresh look at how we have been framing our lives in the age of hyper-technology. Instead, what effectively happened during the long-stretched immobility of the lockdown was that the vast majority of the population allowed the cyber world to do their thinking. The result was a perpetuated sense of crisis, helplessness, and oftentimes, crass selfishness.
For long, homo sapiens has been known as a questing, consuming, destructive species. What is new in this calculus is the idea of global finitude. What is crucial is the capacity to reflect on the history of this crisis, the contingent pathways through which we reached what seems like a point of no return, our fait accompli. This is a deeply ethical exercise. COVID-19, albeit in the cruellest and most perverse of modes, has offered the possibility of this happening, of a new care of the self, an aesthetics of existence. Have we failed?
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 1, 2021 under the title ‘The reinvention of solitude’. The writer is a former professor in cultural studies at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.