Devotions Upon Social Isolation
El Arbol de la Vida (The Tree of Life), Ignacio de Ries, c.1612
by Ed Simon
Late in 1623, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London fell ill with fever and had difficulty breathing. At 51 years of age, the poet and priest John Donne had already survived any number of dangers present in an era when Western medicine was still in its infancy, but he had reason to believe that this latest affliction would kill him. “I know not what fear is,” Donne wrote, “and yet I do fear the increase in this disease.” Donne was already the author of poetry which he’d one day be celebrated for, his Holy Sonnets written more than a decade before. Now, the priest would take pen and parchment into his sick chamber. His modern biographer John Stubbs explains that Donne “recorded his final impressions even as they burnt him up… never before had he discovered such depths and recesses within his own being, and thus within all men.”
Scholars have hypothesized that Donne’s sickness was either typhus or a particularly virulent form of the cold. Stubbs writes that the “disease had been reported… for over a month when it seized Donne,” at which point the illness “was nearing epidemic proportions.” Describing the fearful symptoms of Donne’s sickness, Stubbs writes that a “relapsing fever hits the victim without warning, and induces a frightening schism between mind and body. The sufferer remains lucid but is left physically helpless, scorched and bewildered.” Donne’s impressions during that convalescence would be the genesis of the pamphlet Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, a series of 23 meditations that would be quickly published after his recovery—one of his few works that was to be printed while he was still alive.
The Devotions are a remarkable piece of writing. Donne considers the mutability of health, the fear of disease, the pains of isolation, the presence of death, and most importantly, the connections between people—even when an individual is alone. “Variable, and therefore miserable condition of man,” Donne wrote with melancholy, “this minute I was well, and am ill, this minute,” a reminder of how viruses have no regard for our own personal plans. Regardless of the provenance of his illness, the author of the Devotions wrote an account which demands a second look in the epoch of COVID-19, for his experiences are not foreign to our contemporary moment, as all of us are discovering. What Donne offers is more than just a deeply personal account of the anxieties and suffering of sickness; what is presented is nothing less than an argument about what it means to be part of this thing called humanity. Even if—especially if—we happen to find ourselves alone.
Donne may have had trouble recognizing our world a few months ago, but he’d be a little more familiar with the vagaries of our present. No one currently living in the developed world has endured a global pandemic before now. We are still getting used to the idea of being prohibited from public spaces, of wearing masks in public, of monitoring coughs and scratchy throats for fear of our own mortality. Our recent complacency is a privilege; most of human history has been marked by pestilence burning through a population and leaving thousands of dead (as indeed is the dark expectation of the current coronavirus pandemic). Our moment has, with uncanny and eerie resonance, returned to Donne’s century. Writing a few decades after Donne, and Revered Thomas Vincent, an observer of London’s Great Plague of 1665 would note that “there is a dismal solitude in London-streets… Now shops are shut in, people rare and very few that walk about… a deep silence in almost every place.” When Donne considers the universality of human experience and his connections to those whom he shall never meet, it’s us that he has in mind.
The operative emotion of much of the Devotions is both fear and alienation; while sequestered in his pest-house, Donne heard a funerary church bell ringing, and famously noted that “he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him.” Donne could imagine that his sick bed was his coffin; his sheet his funerary shroud; his illness a type of death in miniature. Forced into the isolation of his bedchamber for both his health and that of others, finding his universe transformed into a small room, the sometimes-delirious Donne lost track of time. He rhetorically asks, “if I be entering not into eternity, where there shall be no more distinction of hours, why is it all my business now to tell clocks?” The present both compressed and expanded in the inchoate homogeneity of hours restricted, the patient displaced in both space and time. “As sickness is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sickness is solitude,” Donne wrote.
Feeling isolated, dejected, and abandoned, the ringing of that bell was a potent reminder to Donne that something existed outside of himself, that there is “nothing singular, nothing alone.” His earlier fear of isolation was a “disease of the mind; as the height of an infectious disease of the body is solitude.” What Donne discovered over the course of the Devotions was perhaps the poet’s most famous observation, that “No man is an island, entire of himself; every man is a piece of a continent, a part of the main.” Far beyond a simple feel-good platitude, Donne’s principle is an inviolate axiom, a necessity to survival during pandemic (or any other time as well). What Donne presents is a proper model of what it means to be a human being living within a matrix of other human beings, which is to say a society. The statement is the antidote to the noxious narcissism of rampant individualism, and as such it’s a potentially life-saving idea now that we must paradoxically isolate ourselves for the good of the gargantuan majority of people whom we’ll never know or ever see.
Talk of solidarity has often been anathema to the American character, it’s the reason why there has been a perseveration on “getting back to business,” or why there has been resistance in some quarters to the social isolation required to stem the tide of the pandemic. Journalist Astra Taylor writes that “individualism, taken to its extreme, erodes the very idea of the people.” Arguably the fetishizing of the individual at the expense of everybody else has even deeper origins than economic supply-side acolytes, perhaps going back to the early modern era of Donne himself when philosophers like Rene Descartes would refashion man as the complete measure of all things. Taylor writes that with individualism “we are left on our own—liberated or isolated depending on how you see it—searching for a path to the top, even if we have to climb over others to get there.” When everybody depends on everyone else to avoid infection, however, and the zero-sum game of competition suddenly makes less sense.
A clear-eyed reading of the epidemiological reports from the Centers for Disease Control or the Imperial College London shows horrifying numbers in our future. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, dead from coronavirus in a few months. Ours is a moment of incongruity, for if it’s in isolation that we now serve the mass of people, it’s also imperative that we recognize and honor the specific individuals who have died and will die from COVID-19, rather than all of us just being lost in statistics. Donne’s call to recognizing that nobody is alone, that we’re all interconnected, isn’t a call to erase that which is distinct in the individual, rather he was concerned with what is immutable and unique in each human soul. The poet reminds us that “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind.” Even in isolation, it’s impossible to cut ourselves off from the body of society, to separate ourselves from the continent of humanity. The irony is that it’s in our lonely quarantines that we now most fully serve those women and men whose faces and names that we shall never know, but whom nonetheless are our sisters and brothers.
Essay corrected to include “Western” in the sentence, “…in an era when Western medicine was still in its infancy,” on June 9, 2020
About the Author:
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.