When did we last meet a stranger–––from nearby or from across the world–– long enough to find out who they were, share a moment of life with them, say good-bye, and never see them again? For many, the question really is: when did we last travel? Our universe has shrunk since March 2020 and we are entrenched in the strictly familiar, so the answer is likely to be ‘not recently’ ––and, for most of us, ‘not in the near future.’
There are some unexpected costs attached to this new insularity of ours as travel constitutes the type of disruption that only serves to further hone the acuity of our perceptions and help us adapt to unprecedented situations. It disconnects us from our natural environment and intensifies experiences because so much of what we see and hear is new to us and may even lack explanatory context. What cultural tools do we use to assess a new environment and strangers’ behaviour? Our passing connection with strangers, in particular, can only be tentative and based on the sole and fragile cues of appearance and demeanour because our usual identity and reputation may weigh very little and we are as unknown to others as they are to us. Yet, we still have conventions to respect, self-protection to ensure, and a certain comfort zone to maintain. Whatever relations we may form are based on different criteria than those forged at home: there is neither past nor future involved, only the present–––yet, in spite of these differences, our travelling behaviour is not usually at tremendous odds with our behaviour at home. However, when the ordinary disconnection of travelling – being in transit from one place to another and sometimes from the known to the unknown – is compounded by external events of extraordinary import, the rules of conduct by which we usually abide can be profoundly disrupted and can even endure a total reversal of their habitual character––––as happened to me once in unusual circumstances.
Although I happen to be married to the perfect travelling companion, I have mostly journeyed on my own. I am of rather bland appearance and mild-mannered, often slightly rumpled: in other words, quite unremarkable and this blessing has probably saved me from potentially unsavoury encounters since I do not draw attention to myself. But on two exceptional occasions I became part of a dual alliance between two flights. In May 1974, a series of events blew away my comfort zone to smithereens and I still relish the memory of two nights spent in Amsterdam and Montreal with two total strangers with whom I exchanged a passing friendship. There is no likelihood at all that, had we spent more time together, we would have actually developed a real friendship. We had nothing in common except the circumstances that united us. It was a connection of the moment and for the moment, understood as such, with its own rules of conduct. Both ended blandly on a handshake and mutual good wishes, but somehow, almost half a century later, out of dozens of other encounters, these men whose names I was told at the time but forgot immediately afterwards, those two men have remain clear in my mind, though perhaps as distorted as childhood memories.
I was on my way back from Paris and, rather than fly directly home, I decided to make a detour through London to visit an old friend and then come back to Vancouver via Amsterdam. I registered my luggage directly to Vancouver, keeping only a small overnight bag with me. Soon after my friend had dropped me off at Heathrow-Terminal 1, passengers were told that a bomb had exploded on the third level of the parking garage across from the street. London was no stranger to such attempts and the routine response was pat. Everything closed down at once and all flights were suspended. A bunch of us in the same area, by happenstance all from Canada and Australia, started exchanging rumours and quips, and even spotted an unattended suitcase, which we reported and were amazed at the promptness of its disposal by heavily protected men. We stuck together until, after several hours, we were told some unscheduled planes would take us to Amsterdam, from which we could connect to our various flights. I vaguely remember being driven across the tarmac to a plane, possibly in a truck, but really would not swear to it. Fatigue had already taken its toll and my memories are vague.
Eventually, I found myself sitting beside a monochrome man of bland blond looks, his English so clipped I thought him to be German. He turned out to be a South African of Dutch descent. The events of the day had definitely created a spirit of fellowship among strangers and we found it natural to comment on the events at Heathrow. By the time we reached Amsterdam, we had formed an alliance of two against whatever awaited us there, although our directions would diverge at once, as he was on his way to Hamburg and I was aiming for any available Canadian city from which to fly home to Vancouver.
The incident at Heathrow had obviously played havoc with many airlines and their scheduled flights. Amsterdam was handling the aftermath––and all these years later, I can appreciate the extraordinary job they did of it, but at the time it all looked like chaos and confusion, and Amsterdam was where everybody seemed to have landed that evening. There were no flights from there to anywhere and we were told to come back the following morning at five, when we would all be put on standby.
I must have looked rather down for my travel companion, probably equally at a loss, offered to show me around Amsterdam which he had known as a student some twenty years earlier. So, we spent the night walking. I do not remember his name. In fact, I remember very little about him, only that he may have been a little younger than me, also had five children, lived in Johannesburg, and was either an engineer or a businessman. What I remember well is how much we laughed. Surely, we could not have been that funny? We must have been thoroughly exhausted because it seemed as if every remark led to peals of laughter, sometimes leaving us leaning against a wall to support ourselves. It was a silly night, a full regression into childhood. But what I remember most vividly about him is something he said before we went back to the airport at dawn. Once, as a young man, he had shaved his whole body and in a slightly perverse way had enjoyed the feeling of total nakedness it had given him. Why such a “confession” (for that was what it was) to a stranger, I have no idea, but it felt like a gift. Only later did I think I should have also confessed something to him (something tawdry or shameful, like my faking an appendix attack to escape a math test in high school and, feeling unable to retract, had undergone an emergency operation). Like children, we should have exchanged secrets to seal a friendship, even a passing one, even if mine had merely been cowardly and fatalistic, not clever, mysterious, and slightly louche, like his. But I did not think of it. At the airport we shook hands, wished each other good luck and safe journey, and went our separate ways.
Unable to book a flight to Vancouver, I eventually flew to Montreal instead. I slept most of the way, stretched over three seats. A passenger across the aisle explained why the plane was almost empty: it had flown from Israel and, because of a bomb rumour, many people had cancelled their flights. I thought of all those stranded in Amsterdam, turned over, and went back to sleep–––not the restorative sleep I was hoping for but the nasty one that leaves you even worse off. In Montreal, there was no connecting flight to Vancouver and, once more, I had to wait until the next morning. There were a few of us, in a darkish corner of a long waiting room full of unyielding plastic seats, facing the long night ahead. Among them, Jesus.
I had noticed him in Amsterdam. Indeed, he was difficult to miss among the scruffy and noisy group we formed at the airport. A tall, slender, blond, bearded, long-haired young man, immaculately robed in homespun white, quiet and serene. The white and gold Jesus of my First Communion missal, minus the halo and the lamb. He was still immaculate and serene in Montreal. We were both waiting for a westbound plane in the morning, so we sat and waited together. We must have made an odd pair. He as I have described, with an odd Teflon-like quality for repelling stains and smudges from his white garments; I, very battered by then and exhausted to boot, unkempt in my leather coat and rumpled jeans, and probably a bit smelly in clothes that I had not changed since Paris three days earlier. He also had, and by a good twenty years, the advantage of youth.
Local young boys started appearing, the airport at night being apparently a regular source of entertainment. They soon gathered around him–––us, I should say, since as we sat together and talked, they took us to be friends. Sitting on the dirty floor, they passed a joint among themselves and listened to him, soon oblivious to my presence. I think his name may have been James and he told me his story when the boys had left and we had the rest of the night still ahead of us. He was the son of a Calgary businessman who had supported him while he spent two years in an ashram in India. Now, as agreed, he was coming back home, would cut his wavy blond hair and his soft beard, don a business suit and would report at his father’s office at nine o’clock on Monday, briefcase in hand. It was a ludicrous picture he painted for me with gentle, self-deprecatory humour but as sad as the end of summer holidays in childhood. In my weakened state, I was almost bawling with regret and sorrow on his behalf.
With the remaining change in my pocket, we bought a cup of coffee as soon as the coffee shop opened. His flight to Calgary was announced, so we shook hands. “Goodbye and good luck,” I said lamely. He looked at me, deep in the eyes, and said, “Take care.” This was 1975, and I had not heard the expression before, so I took it literally. I toyed with the words long after we had parted ways and I was homebound. What did these words mean? Take care because you are a dear person whose welfare is precious to others? Take care because we would grieve if anything bad happened to you? Thanks to him, I sometimes still think there could be some really kind thought backing the now irritatingly trite expression.
I arrived safely, three days after my luggage. I had not phoned home, assuming my husband would know I would be doing my best to get home safely, somehow. It never occurred to me anyone might worry and wonder. Perhaps I had simply been caught in a maelstrom of events unleashed by a bomb exploding in an airport garage. When the dust settled (perhaps literally) reality had momentarily changed to exclude everything save imponderable connections, warped timeframes, and mental and physical exhaustion. The days and nights had blended into an unmeasurable continuum. Most notably, my usual cautious behaviour had been replaced by an acceptance of the disruption of the normal rules of conduct and encounter. The rule of thumb had suddenly become the here and now, every event specific to this particular time and space. The garage explosion had also exploded custom and habit, making the atypical suddenly acceptable and even natural. Not being gregarious, I am usually enrobed in silence and veiled observation, seldom a participant in life’s agitation and always respectful of personal distances. In fact, when travelling I usually nurture disconnection. I remember one eventful journey from Vancouver to the Seychelles, with a transfer in London and an unscheduled stop in Dubai for repairs–––thirty-three hours in flight and airports–––when I spoke to no one save to ask twice for directions and say thank you. This time, however, I had not spent a moment alone since Heathrow, connected as seldom before to strangers I would never see again.
Any event out of the ordinary is likely to create its own unique micro-reality, particularly when it is dramatic or horrific enough. Such were bomb shelters during the Blitz with their own etiquette and hierarchy; hostage-taking in Stockholm creating wrong and mistaken affiliations; survival techniques attempting to sublimate reality in concentration camps or doomed ghettos; hospitals’ emergency waiting rooms where the commonality of fear allows everyone to relate in every detail the recital of their woes and hopes. As social animals, we respond to pressures that affect the group and develop behaviours that favour cohesion and support when we feel under threat. By the time James (?) and I reached Montreal, the Heathrow bomb (that neither of us had seen, heard, or felt) was still our strong connecting link and the basis of our tacit alliance. Events need not be overly dramatic or present direct danger to make allowances for unusual behaviour but, in this case, the rules had changed immediately through a sense of unreality. In extraordinary circumstances, events and connections take on another dimension and preconceived ideas about adequate behaviour are superseded by the immediacy of the perceived threat. In effect, this modified environment is what fashions the new adequacy and the behaviour it dictates. Like newly hatched goslings, we gang up together and follow whoever gives us a sense of belonging.
For over a year now, we have been limited in our expectations. Rather than seek connections with strangers, most of us have stayed close to home and those we know well, both for safety and comfort. Under a new type of threat, we had to act against our natural tendency to gather and unite–––but compensated by saying we were “all in it together,” expressing loud clapping support for our health workers at the same time every night, and emailing jokes and videos back and forth to forge and maintain connections as tangible as the times would allow.
Naturally, forming brief connections with strangers need not be solely in response to threats and there are other reasons to seek group affiliation. While most of our contacts are neutral and forgotten almost at once, every so often, through happenstance or good luck, we meet strangers with whom to share small courtesies, an impromptu joke, or a minimal event that might otherwise not have been noticed but will now be pleasantly remembered. Such slight connections and the briefest of encounters are often what gives lightness to everyday life and remind us that not everything is straightforward and regulated. So, the first thing we should do when we come out of this time of constraint and serious mulling, is to seek the unexpected and rediscover the lightness of being–––– while also reaffirming our membership into the pack and being reassured by it. And when we travel again, our seat on a plane, a train, a sampan, or a bus will testify to our having successfully come out of the dark side of this dangerous period, together with the people on the same plane, train, sampan, or rickety bus without air conditioning noisily winding its way on a dusty country road.
A miniature world is deemed easily controlled by its God-like creator. This assumption naturally applies to all forms of art where reality can be transcended and, often, compensated. It enables us to imagine doing things we cannot actually do by inventing worlds where these actions can take place. For example, when Artemisia Gentileschi paints Judith savagely murdering Holofernes [two versions of the painting can be seen at the Capodimonte Museum in Naples and at the Uffizi in Florence], she takes her revenge on Agostino Tass who had brutally raped her, then falsely denounced her and caused her to be imprisoned and tortured. Those who knew them were not fooled by the artistic aliases of Judith and Holofernes.
Art allows the artist to take control–––and even more so when its scale is one inch to the foot and it can be held in the palm of one’s hand. This last year has confirmed how little control we actually have over our condition, so it is a relief to turn to the empowering world of tiny people moving about tiny rooms over which we can loom, full-scale. Four women (among a very large assembly of gifted miniaturists and collectors) are remarkable through their engagement to illustrate the everyday life and social responsibilities of a seventeenth-century Dutch wife of the prosperous merchant class (Petronella Oortman, 1656-1716), the technical perfection and historical accuracy that great wealth and devotion permit (Mrs James Ward Thorne, 1882-1966), the detailed reconstitution of crime scenes as teaching tools (Frances Glessner Lee, 1878-1962), and the empathetic depiction through dioramas of everyday harsh living conditions all over the world (Karine Giboulo, b.1980). Their creations can be seen (in the same order) at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Baltimore Medical Examiner’s Office and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and various art galleries in Canada and the United States.
What is, at first glance, child’s play is actually to be taken far more seriously. Originally, miniatures were never intended for children, particularly in an age where childhood as we conceive it today did not exist and children were merely seen as small adults. It is only within the last century or so that doll houses for girls and toy soldiers for boys became common toys to train them for their presumed future occupations or merely develop maternal or martial traits suitable for their genders. There were other, more practical reasons for miniaturizing objects. The nomadic nature of human groups or the difficulty of transporting bigger artifacts, for instance, dictated the small scale of this form of craftsmanship. Such were the Egyptians’ clay representations of objects placed in tombs to accompany and sustain the dead on their journey, the early Inuit models carved out of bone, or the European and American travelling salesmen’s samples of wares or furniture.
Whole miniature households and their accoutrements are, naturally, another matter, one that can only be considered in the context of social stability, sophisticated artistry, and public presentation. Renowned manufacturers of furniture and household utensils often reproduced for aristocratic families the miniaturized perfection of their residences, as did miniaturists entirely devoted to their art. They used the same care and the same materials (sterling silver, precious woods, embroidered silks, Limoges porcelain, crystal and ivory) as for their life-size counterparts. The small objects and compositions were intended to cause their viewers to marvel and wonder how such precision and delicacy could be achieved.
Many ladies were well known for their marvellous doll houses intended to record daily life in their own time and place. These houses and rooms (whether contemporary or later reconstituted) went beyond being objects of artistic admiration: they also reflected the household’s standing and wealth and provide us today with accurate illustrations of the artifacts and realities of daily life, of particular interest to historians, sociologists, economists, and anthropologists.
It should also be noted that, while the women’s inspiration and tenacity were at the source of the miniatures’ creation, it was the fortunes of husbands or fathers that usually helped realize them, as women of their class were not meant to earn a living. The male relatives were not always complicit in the women’s endeavours (Glessner Lee used her inheritance from her father) but those who were must have found some social benefit in the recognition of their wives’ outstanding creations: at the very least, they confirmed the men’s wealth, a tremendous social and business advantage. Finally, without the extraordinary and dedicated craftsmen employed by these women, few if any of these masterpieces could have been achieved.
Petronella Oortman’s Doll House
Petronella Oortman’s French-made cabinet of tortoiseshell with pewter inlay housed the most detailed illustration of a wealthy Dutch merchant’s life in the late 1680s. It was then the fashionable thing for women of her class to have the best artists and craftsmen produce replica of their living accommodations. No money was spared (in fact, their cost was often in line with the value of real houses) and the little houses drew as much attention at social gatherings as the gentlemen’s “cabinets of curiosities.”
The Oortman’s nine-room house reveals the most intimate details of life, notably the nursery and lying-in room where the new mother could entertain her friends; the size of the laundry and linen room, of significance since household linen was normally sent out for washing only once or twice a year, thus demonstrating the amount of linens required and stored; the beautifully appointed kitchen ornate with Delftware, while others might in fact have two kitchens: one for display, the other where the dirty work was actually done. While strictly Petronella Oortman’s creation to represent and idealize her life, the house is also both a work of art and a social historical document.
Her remarkable cabinet house is not the only one of its kind, and I could have chosen Sara Ploos van Amstel’s (now at the Franz Hals Museum in Haarlem), as both are exemplars of excellence and rated among the most magnificent of their time.
The Thorne Rooms
Sixty-eight lighted boxes constitute the favourite exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. Designed and financed by wealthy socialite Mrs. James Ward Thorne (née Narcissa Niblack) and usually inspired by actual settings, they are historical highlights of fashions in architecture and interior design covering the extended period between 1600 and 1940. She used elements of her vast collection of miniatures gathered world-wide, her own creations, and the expertise of the English firm of cabinet makers and antique dealers, Arthur Punt. None of her rooms are occupied, as the presence of doll/people might have had a jarring effect against the perfection of the static rooms.
As with the two seventeenth-century Dutch ladies, I hesitated between the American Mrs. Thorne and the British Mrs. Carlisle––to some extent, it was a choice between Thorne’s cold eye and Carlisle’s warm heart. Both were avid collectors of miniatures, both employed the finest craftsmen of their time, both banned distracting dolls from their scenes. Mrs. Thorne won the toss up, even if Mrs. Carlisle’s magnificent petit point should have given her the edge. Her rooms, now managed under the National Trust, can be seen at Nunnington Hall, Yorkshire.
The Nutshell Studies
Upon inheriting her father’s fortune, Frances Glessner Lee could devote her time and attention to recreating exactingly correct reconstitution of real crime scenes––through her own handicraft and skills, her vast collection of miniaturized objects, and the help of her carpenter, Alton Mosher.
Her fascination with crime caused her to found the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard in 1936, while being appointed captain in the New Hampshire police department. She also improved the training of medical examiners from their previous status of coroners, positions often filled by former undertakers. Finally, she developed week-long training seminars in the 1950s where detectives were to observe real crime scenes in her “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” with every accurate detail being deemed a potential clue. From their observation, they would conclude whether the crime scene was that of a suicide, accident, or murder. Today’s precise protocol of photography of crime scenes has replaced her little museums of horror but the focus on details has contributed to opening the investigators’ minds and still constitute a major element in their panoply of crime-solving tools.
The Giboulo Dioramas
Through her “Small Strange World[s]” exhibitions, Quebecoise Karine Giboulo currently creates clay models of dioramas featuring the various constraints of everyday life among workers across the world. There, she illustrates the themes that concern her: poverty and hunger, environmentalism, urbanization, globalization, the pursuit of wealth and power, the obsession with consumer goods, the dreariness of work on assembly lines, etc. Ordinary people, ones she actually met on her extensive travels, are shown participating in the drudgery of their working lives. Her work is not propaganda but an honest attempt at revealing other aspects of the human condition than the ones we hold familiar. Her sympathy for her subjects transcends her work: those are not interchangeable figurines put in different settings as each seems to reflect a particular identity, a personage that might have in fact existed and whose reality and nearness are as close as we permit them to be.
Boys and men are not indifferent to miniatures. They build balsa wood planes, wonderful replica of ships with breathtakingly delicate riggings, miniature battlefields where to replay the same historically accurate battles; they once decorated little lead soldiers with impeccably detailed uniforms; they still collect trains whistling their way through imaginative countrysides; and many are involved in manufacturing artifacts to furnish women’s miniature houses. But I think there is a remarkable difference in the way both sexes approach their creation of miniatures. The men tend to emphasize technique and accuracy, rather than imagination and dream. Women, certainly no strangers themselves to technique and accuracy, impart their creations with more heart and imagination. While men wish to control the materials, women hope to control the environment. Often deprived of real power, they use miniatures to infuse order into their scenes and control the histories they narrate.
Naturally, it is not as clear cut as I seem to imply. The men’s hills and vales and tiny stations of their miniature trains’ journeys are “feminine” in that sense. The women’s reliance on scale and historical accuracy in the construction and appointments of the rooms are similarly “masculine.” But I think the possession or lack of power and control in the real world is reflected in the handling of the controllable universe of small things.
Seeing the world in miniature and recreating it tests human creativity: we tinker, transform, and create metaphors in the process. It forces us to see opportunities, alternatives, and be alert to possibilities where none had previously been self-evident. It also confounds categories and causes us to transgress the rigorous perception of our environment. Glessner Lee used pussy willow catkins for the bodies of mice. I used the thumb of an orphan grey leather glove to make that Victorian abomination, the elephant-foot cane and umbrella stand.
A prosecutor, who dealt with murder, rape, and child abuse on a daily basis, justified her interest in miniatures by saying, “I create perfect worlds.” These worlds need not always be perfect, but they may compensate for the deficiencies of everyday life. The elegant Regency library where tea is served only awaits the refined and erudite guests who might (otherwise) grace my life–– but creating the setting for their improbable visit is enough to satisfy me. The stress of their actual visit might not. As well, my real kitchen is ineffably uninteresting –––a small galley-type room, with a large window looking onto the building across and the usual modern appliances not built to last. Our building does not allow dogs so there are no pets in my real kitchen.
My miniature kitchen, on the other hand, is the kingdom of excess. Shelves are almost sagging under the weight of platters, canisters, heavy pots, milk jugs, copper kettles, and even a small butter churn above the stove. Pies and cakes are served, beside teacups waiting to be filled. Kittens are, as usual, playing with the wool of the knitting basket beside the rocking chair on which someone was recently grinding coffee beans. The door must have been accidentally left opened and unsolicited visitors have invaded the room, for there is a rooster perched on the table beside a green cabbage and a large red pepper, and a frisky little goat that must have followed the dog in…
Naturally, the real me could not live or work in such a kitchen, but in the concocted world in which such kitchens could exist, my own narrow personality might have undergone a similar transformation and be at peace with lively chaos and open-hearted disorder in the kingdom of make-believe–––for what we reveal is not merely a room but a personality and a way of life. Having made the rounds of who we are, perhaps we all aspire sometimes to becoming our very opposites, particularly in a world of apparently little consequence. Every woman who has seen it has smiled and said she wished she could have such a kitchen, yet aware that such chaos would drive her to distraction or despair.
The fashion for creating works of major architectural and stylistic scope is no longer sustainable and only seems to exist today in museums and, at an infinitely more modest level of excellence, in individual backrooms. These are the miniature rooms and houses with which we are most familiar. They are often animated by dolls performing ordinary tasks and most exude an air of obsolescence underlined by their Victorian attire and trappings.
Although they still have their aficionados––perhaps the last generation to be absorbed in their static fiction––they are on the way to being overtaken by the far more exciting and participatory worlds of computerized make-believe. These new worlds, more complex and dynamic than the miniature worlds of little houses, are created with different and more abstract tools than those used in the past. Single creators can bring them to life, unassisted–––and then cross the line and enter these worlds themselves as avatars with imaginary powers and facing an uncertain fate. While the avatars may lead far more exciting lives than the poor antiquated dolls only shown pouring tea, listening to music, or baking bread (when they were allowed at all on the scene), the dangers they face as the game develops and their unknown prospects take us to an entirely different dimension – where scale and verisimilitude are no longer constraints. Perhaps we crave the more escapist worlds technology now permits us to enter. One thing is certain, though: their only resemblance with the doll houses and rooms of old is that neither are really intended as children’s playthings.
Sources:The Art Institute of Chicago. Miniature Rooms. The Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago (1983), Corinne May Boetz, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (2004), Faith Eaton, Classic Dolls’ Houses (1990), Karine Giboulo’s Small Strange World(s) and Arnait (2018).
PetronellaOortman’s Doll House
The Thorne Rooms
The Nutshell Studies
The Giboulo Dioramas
Locked Up, Locked Down
When hominids first stood up it was to extend their vision and see farther afield, increasing their operational space, and modifying their brains in the process. While safety required shelter at night, daytime activities were devoted to nomadic survival in the outdoors. Small bands formed to sustain livelihood, offer protection, cooperate in the hunt, until farming and sedentary living caused them to stop roaming and build compounds–– if I may be permitted such radical shortcuts in our prehistoric narrative. The point is that such is our heritage: we are social animals and we live in interdependent groups.
In 2020-21, the established order went topsy-turvy for many: no longer together, confined indoors, with drastically changed activities. The distancing from others seemed to go against nature and for children and adolescents, unattached people, the unemployed, prolonged confinement magnified the unease and misery generated by the initial isolation. Those who suffered the most have been the elderly, locked down in long term care homes, unable to receive visitors and see their families, unfamiliar with electronic communication systems, often kept under conditions that have long be the shame of our society and its institutions. Many––the overwhelming majority of the national death toll–– have died painfully and alone, not understanding why it had to be so.
The consequences of isolation varied, although there was general alert to the mental health problems it may cause or intensify, particularly for those who often bear the brunt of familial, social, and economic changes. In Japan, for instance, during this last year of the pandemic suicides grew by 14 percent among women. It is true that the Japanese have a different cultural view of suicide than we do in the West: rather than being deemed a sin or experienced as a heartbreaking stigma for the family or a tragic failure for the individual, it is more likely to be accepted as an honourable way out of a situation deemed unbearable. We are slowly rallying around this notion when seeing it as an end of life choice, but still balk at accepting it as a solution for the burden of life. In this case, the Japanese Prime Minister saw the increase important enough to create in February 2021 a Ministry of Solitude and Isolation.
The hierarchical part of our system took over and regulated our responses to the coronavirus, with variances from place to place. In Europe particularly, some countries went into early lockdown and sporadically returned to it throughout 2020 and early 21. Passes were issued to allow designated ‘essential workers’ to circulate, unlike those only permitted short breaks from total confinement to shop for food and walk their dogs. Warnings and even fines were issued to those who transgressed their limits. In Asia, official control was sometimes stricter but whatever measures were taken everywhere had the same intent: keeping people apart to stop contamination. Many saw these measures as intended to put an end to individual freedom and resisted them. They remained unmasked, defied physical distancing, and helped spread the disease accordingly. We could see ourselves falling into two groups: those who privileged community over self and those whose egocentric concerns ruled their behaviour.
The history of isolation is as old as man’s understanding of contamination. For instance, as contagious diseases were often introduced through ports, ships were routinely isolated for chronic dysentery in Venice. In Marseilles, plague victims had been kept out of bounds for forty days (quarantaine or quarantine) since the fourteenth century. Modern science only confirms that isolation is still the surest way to contain epidemics. The consequences for not observing it could be tragic. In England, during the 1545-46 plague epidemic eleven British vessels were infected and spread the disease into the coastal garrisons with horrific loss of life. The authorities then decided to demobilize the men who had not yet succumbed: the seamen returned home, spreading the plague even farther. Today, holidays celebrated without restrictions routinely follow a similar pattern and strain once more hospitals’ ability to respond to new coronavirus cases.
Confinement and isolation have always been the methods of dealing with outside threats to the welfare of the community. Thus, they also apply to people deemed dangerous to the community because of the crimes they have committed and may commit again: we segregate them from us. French philosopher Michel Foucault in his seminal work on the birth of the prison system (Surveiller et punir/Discipline and Punish, 1975) describes how, by the sixteenth century, the organization of cities in times of pestilence already resembled the model of penal institutions.
We go even further and sometimes segregate inmates from one another: ‘solitary confinement’ is what we commonly call this Russian-doll experience of being further imprisoned while already in jail. It is this extreme version of confinement––the solitary one––we consider here as it bears a strong resemblance in its effects to epidemic isolation. The term ‘solitary confinement’ is too loaded for modern sensitivities and was first replaced by ‘dissociation’ or ‘adjustment units’ under three categories: ‘punitive dissociation,’ ‘administrative segregation,’ and ‘protective custody.’ With today’s theoretically more liberal regulations, it is also known as ‘structured intervention units.’ To the inmates, it is more likely to be known, as it always has been, as the Hole.
When a British Columbia penitentiary closed its doors in 1980, I was allowed to take three people with me to collect graffiti from the walls of solitary confinement cells. We spent the day collecting proverbs, inscriptions, drawings, insults. The cells had been used successively by several inmates who thus engaged in a conversation of sorts, where questions may be asked by one man, answered by another, but never read again by the first man. It was a continuous linear series of statements that could only progress in one direction.
The passage of time is a jail leitmotiv. We all sense our tenuous hold on it: tempus fugit––and is like water or sand running through our fingers. An inscription on an Italian church steeple goes further: it reads, tempus volat, valet, velat and implies that time has the triple function of flying, being valuable, and hiding things. It is the measure of life. But in the graffiti, time was dead time and only meant purposeless waiting.
A sixteenth-century notation on the wall of a cell in the Tower of London already describes its author as “a close prisoner 8 months, 32 weeks, 224 days, 3576 hours.” People do time while in jail. They are not passing it, spending it, or wasting it. They measure it in two ways: the time already spent and the years, months, or days still to come. Going to the Hole, however, seem to have interrupted this longitudinal measure, like time taken out of time. On the walls we examined in 1980, one man had, for instance, created an improbable sentence for himself: “1000-1 year.” Another had organized the passage of time through the repetition of recorded menus, real or imaginary, as the only variant in the monotony of his days: “8 Sunday Pork chops - 9 Monday Roast Beef - 10 Sausages - 11 W. Stew - 12 T. Liver - 13 F. Sandwiches - 14 S. Steak - 15 S. Turkey - 16 M. Steak - 17 T. Chicken- 18 W. Liver.”
By their very nature, graffiti are solitary pronouncements to which is added the freedom of anonymity. Yet, they also intend to elicit a response, thus creating a community of sorts, even if the initial writer will never read the succession of reactions his graffito may have elicited (unless he goes back to the same cell). It is only later readers who, reading both the initial statements and the responses, detect a powerful sense of similar values and beliefs. The graffiti express the abomination of the “System” and its perceived injustice, the men’s hatred of “pigs” and “rats,” their post-prison plans, revealing a strikingly collective coherence.
Solitude and isolation are not always the evils evoked in the graffiti. They are often the tests through which we dig deeply into our inner resources and are transformed, such as in tribal quests and rites of passage or in the form of religious and monastic contemplation. But undergone under duress, they are seen as torture. The graffiti we collected were clear on this point: ‘SOLITARY CONFINEMENT IS TORTURE,’ or ‘Using an atonom [sic] for the word torture we can say the Canadian Penitentiary System.’ In total agreement almost two centuries ago, Charles Dickens wrote about solitary confinement, “Very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment… inflicts upon the sufferers. (American Notes for General Circulation, 1842).
Such are also the conclusions of today’s close observers of the prison system, in a more modern and humanistic approach influenced by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Recently, a measure was introduced to extend to four hours a day the time prisoners could spend out of isolation. Two unexpected factors have interfered in its application. The first is the advent of COVID19 and the need to isolate people (in a context where close proximity is the rule unless prisoners are already in punitive or protective solitary confinement cells). The second is the reluctance of many inmates, institutionalized in the prison’s isolation system where mental problems are rife, to leave their cells for the four hours now allowed.
While it would be otherwise inappropriate to compare the living conditions of convicted inmates and those of elderly residents of long-term care homes, solitary confinement in one case and COVID19 quarantine in the other have brought them together through a common link of even greater isolation. The COVID19 pandemic will come to an end and people will cope with its economic, social, and psychological aftermaths because it is in our nature to do so. The John Howard Society and many jurists and humanists are pushing for changes to the prison system and the abolition of solitary confinement as we know it today. For the time being, I am only reminded of a very small line I noticed above the door as we were leaving one cell in 1980. I dragged the stool we had been using for the higher inscriptions, climbed on it, and read in minuscule letters,
“If you read this, you must be very lonely.”
There is a certain irony in wearing a mask when entering a bank and assuming that we would be turned away if we refused to wear one. I am pushing the effacement even further: having enjoyed Korean shows on Netflix since 2019, I wear their young men’s bangs low on my forehead. Korean hair is very black, very thick, very shiny and I only have old-lady grey hair getting a little thinner every year but so far, so good: I am brow-less. I also wear prescription glasses that turn dark in the sun. Below it all, the mask.
As I enter the bank, there is no visible skin on my face. I have been an infrequent visitor over the years and they do not know me. How can they assess the threat I might present? Would they look harder if I were six foot five inches tall and weigh three hundred pounds? This is the same bank, after all, that called the police one year ago to arrest an ordinary-looking man trying to open an account for his twelve-year-old granddaughter. Not the same branch –and they did apologize, and the overzealous teller was apparently duly chastised. So all is well and forgotten one might assume, except by the ordinary-looking man from Bella Bella and his granddaughter. But, let’s be fair: he had a lot to answer for, having acted “suspiciously” and only offering as I.D. (1) his government-issued Indian Status card, (2-3) his and the young girl’s birth certificates, and (4) her medical card. Imagine if they had been masked as well…
For me, perhaps the most startling aspect of President Biden’s inauguration last month was the small military parade that filed by. The flow of identical uniforms was accompanied this year by a similarly identical lack of faces. They passed by mechanically, their different semblances hidden by the same black masks, like an army of robots. Only their eyes showed, expressionless and fixed straight ahead except when passing the man they were meant to honour. The choice of black is no accident. Soldiers could have worn khaki, or red if on parade (red being traditionally the colour of warning, danger, and blood––with a hint of taboo) but they wore black. Women might choose it because it is elegant and it would look different on them, but elegance is not what military men seek: they want to instill a sense of danger compounded by anonymity. They want to look like dark faceless automata, safe from identification, powerful in their sameness. Simply put, black masks – en masse – are scary.
The face having disappeared, must we from now on rely exclusively on the eyes to carry our non-verbal messages? Eyes on their own do not communicate well. They need some muscular activity close by to denote moods and intentions. Even with masks, we can still crinkle a few wrinkles around the eyes to indicate amusement and the implication of a smile or summon a furrow between them to show displeasure—in other words the basic caveman communication. But how much further can we go without using our voice?
A French child, I grew up in Morocco until the age of sixteen, with veiled Moslem women everywhere around me. In northern cities, both eyes were revealed, heavily kohled, and the women were more genteel. In the south, where I lived, the more rustic Berber women used their head cover held with a hennaed hand to hide most of their faces, often showing only one eye. They were on the whole quite vocal in the marketplace where I would see them haggling, and perhaps these childhood memories where communication never seemed a problem makes me think that hidden faces do not hinder it. But, in truth, I do not remember, as these hidden faces were the norm rather than a novelty, which is still the case for us.
I was thinking about this a few days ago, while waiting in line, six feet apart, outside a Vancouver shop that only admits two customers at the time. Further along, a man was also waiting (presumably for his wife inside the shop), a small dog on a leash sitting beside him. I wondered how I could engage with the dog without using facial expressions, since we believe dogs are masters at interpreting them. My stare soon drew her attention but seemed to unnerve her a little–perhaps because it did not seem to carry any intention on my part (friend or foe? I would assume that, in nature, until one knows the answer, it’s safer not to draw attention to oneself). So, still looking at her, I simply inclined my head a little to the side, the way dogs do to express curiosity and interest. It is quite possible that they also do this to mimic us, but that is what basic seduction is made of after all: drawing the others in by acting like them. Within seconds, the little dog was pulling on her leash to get closer to me. The man released the leash but it was still too short and she could not reach me. I turned my head away to break the visual connection and the little dog sat back, presumably disappointed in her efforts to meet a compatible stranger.
Imitating the other’s motion is a well-known technique of seduction. Could this become a new ritual, a conventional short cut to show good intentions when we first meet strangers? A small dance of replicated motions to show that we wish to be attuned, used as a transcendental message to prepare the ground before we can even speak? No doubt we will develop this approach into a sophisticated code but I wish I had better observed the veiled women of my childhood.
This concern is not anodyne. There is an affliction called prosopagnosia––the inability to recognize faces. I suffer from a very mild version of it and score poorly on face recognition tests. The way it manifests itself is that I do not hold the total image but focus instead on special components. For instance, I usually recognize actors in different roles through their voices or some favourite facial expressions (I am an expert on Meryl Streep’s smiles). I also prefer shows where the characters are quite distinct and clearly defined: blond hero, dark villain. Mustaches, beards, baldness, limps, missing limbs, corpulence, size, distinctive pieces of jewelry, the arch of an eyebrow, the fold of an ear, are essential in building up recognizable personalities. However, in the real world, the distinctions are sometimes less evident, and I have only mentioned here those not hidden by a mask. The face is still the port of entry into the other’s identity.
When many features are now hidden, how am I going to maintain an acceptable level of recognition? So far, the pandemic social isolation has meant that my circle is made up of very few and very familiar faces, but were I to meet new people, all masked, how am I going to recognize them from one encounter to another? The problem is that we all think ourselves quite memorable, but without clues how can people like me manage in a world where women change hairstyles and men grow beards? With age, my vagueness will no doubt be interpreted as a sign to watch for.
More seriously, I also wonder about babies and toddlers, whose immediate world of close carers are the only unmasked faces from which to learn non-vocal communication. How extensive will their panoply of facial expressions be when reduced to the familiar/familial ones? Does the masked world––the non-close family world, the “non-us” world–– imply notions of threat as well as alien-ness? All faces are no longer equal and the majority are clearly marked as not belonging within the safety net. One wonders how they will handle the multiple levels of relationship and family configuration now partly defined by how one nana wears a mask when visiting and the other one does not.
To compound the mystery, how do the deaf manage? Gone are lip-reading and expressive features. One little detail, often ignored, is how the wearing of masks also interferes with the aging process and its accompaniments of instrumental aids. With the virus variants becoming more actively transmissible, it is recommended that we wear double masks in close quarters. So, double masks loops, glasses, and hearing aids? All three feel essential to many old people’s sense of safety but most human ears are not designed for such paraphernalia.
In such a complicated context, the perfectly understood little tilt of one’s head feels like quite a sophisticated exchange rather than a primitive performance of inter-species communication.
During the first wave of COVID-19 in the Spring and Summer of 2020, every evening at the same time – as seen on television news as much as in our city streets – we beat saucepans with wooden spoons and we also clapped. We clapped as if our lives depended on it. Not in our Vancouver building, though: we have no balconies and we are nowhere near any hospital or health clinic for gratitude to be heard or acknowledged, but we silently clapped with our hearts. COVID fatigue has now set in as we enter our second year of pandemic, and our hearts are clapped out.
If we feel fatigued as mere spectators, what can we say of those who care for us? We see the exhaustion on their faces, those men and women doubly or triply masked, wrapped in plastic from head to toe. We know taking care of others takes its toll but such a toll, and for so long, is hard to bear, yet their enduring compassion is compelling.
All will soon be well, we are told. Vaccination has already started for very old and fragile people, together with those who care for them. Others will follow, until everyone is made to feel safer. This is not true of the whole world, naturally, particularly of Africa where in one of the poorest countries only twenty-five people have been so far vaccinated. “Not twenty-five thousand, not twenty-five hundred,” the head of the World’s Health Organization tells us, “Just twenty-five.” Only 230,000 vaccines have been administered in the whole continent, in contrast to the millions of Westerners already vaccinated.
Faced with worldwide demand, manufacturers struggle to ramp up production while governments clamour for the existing supply. Anticipating this challenge and to allay the discrimination of access, several NGOs created COVAX, a plan for wealthy countries to help offer “fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.” These vaccines were clearly intended for developing countries shut out of an open market––for poverty is also a pandemic. However, faced with delayed shipments and an uncertain supply chain, as well as political embarrassment, Canada decided to recover some of her share of the COVAX order and use it at home. Canada privileging her own: what could be more natural?
But privileging one’s own is not always the rule. During three days at the end of June 1859, the women of the small city of Castiglione did something we might do well to remember today. When the long lines of wounded from the nearby battlefield of Solferino started arriving, the authorities first tried to repulse the wounded Austrians, only allowing through the Sardinian-Piemontese troops and their French allies. The women of Castiglione stared them down. “Tutti fratelli,” they said. They are all brothers.
Leaving nearly 5,000 dead behind, many of the 23,000 wounded continued to arrive, their various uniforms equally stained into the same hue of mud, blood, and guts. They came, brought on makeshift contraptions pulled or carried by mules, the blind and the lame supporting one another. The women nursed them all, side by side, dragoons and grenadiers, bersaglieri and zouaves, voltigeurs and uhlans, lancers and hussars–– King Victor Emmanuel, Emperor Napoleon III, but also Emperor Franz Joseph’s men. All received their share of whatever could be mustered of water, food, bandages, and compassion.
There have been many battles but Solferino, where modern Italy was forged, remains among the bloodiest. It is said that even the horses, caught up in the spirit of carnage, fought among themselves. Yet, during the three days that followed the horrifying battle and the fury, as the wounded were triaged and first treated in Castiglione, all that prevails was organizing, tending, feeding, reassuring, caring for all.
One civilian, a travelling Swiss gentleman by the name of Henri Dunant, surveyed the battlefield of Solferino and was inspired by the women of Castiglione. He and the Red Cross he founded as a result of what he witnessed between 24 and 27 June 1859 were three times awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A monument celebrates The Courageous Women of Castiglione, who “accepted human pain beyond uniforms.”
Surely, if there is a time when these women’s message should be remembered, it is now. The message is still “tutti fratelli.” Not only is it the right thing to do, it is also the smart one, for the family of man can only be safe when all its members are protected, not just those in our own household. It is also the best way to show those exhausted nurses of ours that we admire their dedication. It beats clapping.
Henri Dunant, Un souvenir de Solferino(1911), Patrick Turnbull, Solferino. The Birth of a Nation(1985).
He sits by his fireplace wearing a casual but elegant sweater, a drink on a small table by his side ––an eggnog no doubt, given the festive season. Festive? Not really: this is not the usual holiday we celebrate with family and friends. This is Christmas 2020 and we are in the middle of a pandemic, he reminds us thoughtfully. We must all make sacrifices, which means staying home, away from others, respectful of distances, protecting one another. It is a comforting message from an elected official who cares about his constituents.
The Ontario minister of finance’s video, setting an example of conduct for us all, was released by his office on Christmas Eve in a timely fashion. We learned soon afterwards that the video (along with others showing him carrying out some ministerial responsibilities) had been pre-taped and that the man was actually holidaying in St Barts at the time. The clip was replayed on the news where we also continued to hear the exhausted voices of our healthcare workers pleading with us to stay home, wear our masks and keep our distances: the very echo of the minister’s own words.
He was not the only one not to have heeded the message. Several other officials had also discreetly sneaked out of the country and spent Christmas in the sun (Hawaii, Cuba, Florida, etc.) as was later revealed when their Ontario counterpart was found out. When he returned home and resigned, so did they. Some may have misjudged their importance and it is possible that a little heartfelt contrition on their part and a small demotion might have sufficed in their case. The St Barts episode was different: what we could not forgive was the man’s craftily released videos and his crass intent to fool us.
The very exclusive St Barts must be quite pleasant this time of year, and we accept its attraction. As social animals, we recognize that we live in a hierarchy––a harsh taskmaster for some, a benign mistress for others––where some are gladly permitted to do things that others can only aspire to from afar. We are used to the sense of entitlement of the privileged few. Indeed, one such has just been released after serving time for committing fraud so their children could attend one of the best American universities. A few well-connected parents had apparently believed that what is usually obtained through natural talent and hard work could instead be bought outright. Such things always rankle but we are used to them.
However, as we are repeatedly told, these are not normal times and our very safety is at stake. For some, it means their very lives. If a deceitful high-ranking politician is willing to defy the no-travel recommendation in order to enjoy a holiday in the sun, what assurance have we that he will respect the quarantine rule at its strictest? Can we still trust his judgement and honesty? Many COVID19 cases have arisen from visitors or returnees’ lax interpretation of the word ‘confinement’.
Today what used to be mere cheating on the rules, simple queue jumping, shoving someone aside to take their place, all those irritating peccadilloes that life in society forces us to face have taken on another dimension. The wealthy Vancouver couple who chartered a flight to the Yukon community of Beaver Creek in order to be vaccinated against the coronavirus probably just saw an opportunity they could not pass. They felt entitled to it. Being far too young to receive the vaccine legitimately at home and learning that there was a small village in the Yukon where the virus had made such ravages that the adult population was being vaccinated, why not fly in, pretend to be locally employed, receive their first shot, fly back home, all within a few hours? No quarantine either way and depriving two local people from their precious doses of vaccine. Anyone capable of conceiving such a plan for circumventing the rules must have thought themselves very clever and probably still fail to understand why we only see them as liars and thieves willing to further endanger a hard-hit community to serve their own interests.
These are confusing times for us all. The rules change from place to place and time to time within the same country, the same province. Those charged with enforcing them must sometimes be as confused as we are ourselves. But, surely, one thing is clear: anything that can potentially endanger those around us is wrong, such as large private parties, lax quarantine, refusal to wear masks. All are potentially dangerous practices but they also betray a sense of entitlement that finds its ridiculous extremes in faking videos to hide being away on holidays or in passing themselves off as local workers in order to steal vaccines from people who truly need them. Piddly crimes with serious consequences. Not to mention the terrible loss of face…
What do Tik Tok, Netflix, Kermit the Frog, sweater-wearing men with deep voices, and those nearly two million people who, within five days in 2020, listened to Scottish postman Nathan Wellerman sing Drunken Sailor have in common? A taste for sea shanties. The Guardian even designated the word “shanty” (from the French chanter or chantez) as their word-of-the-week at the end of January 2021.
So, what are sea shanties? A young woman in the show Fisherman’s Friends (Netflix) flippantly defines the genre as “Rock and roll of 1752,” a definition that would certainly have puzzled eighteenth-century sailors. For them, a shanty was a working song, aligning the beat of the song to the gestures and rhythm required for many men to propel oars as one body, to hoist heavy sails in single motions, to smoothly ride the “donkey” and load cargo in unified effort—whatever the ship and whatever her identity (Navy, merchant service, whaler, pirate ship). Where a single man’s effort would have been vain, many arms working together did the job. Cooperation and coordination were key at sea, where life only obeyed the hierarchy and the elements. Known as the “wooden world,” seafaring was a singular and unique entity, harsh yet cohesive, where men’s voices soared as one with a freedom otherwise unknown to them.
A real song, with a melody, a theme, a chorus were not strictly necessary to regulate and unify seafaring activities and, indeed, very early versions often consisted in grunts uttered in unison, sometimes to the accompaniment of a violin near capstans or halliards. But the eighteenth century, followed by the naval victories of the Napoleonic Wars and the expansion of commerce when Britannia truly ruled the waves, saw an explosion of developed themes as shanties flourished on board. All dealt with what sailors loved (their ships, their women, their grog, the sea), what they feared (the sea again, the elements, the enemy, diseases, phantom ships), what they resented (the dreaded but unavoidable impressment, manic captains, greedy owners, the harsh discipline), what filled them with pride (their unique status, their ships again, victories in battle, good captains, prize money): there was no lack of topics on which to dwell in their perilous and lonely lives. One voice would hardly have been heard but, as with the utmost stretching of their arms in physical work, the united echoes of a whole crew’s chorus spoke of bonding, power, and strength.
Why this sudden interest in the sea shanties of two centuries ago? Perhaps we need to look no further than the sense of a community facing similar dangers with common goals, the harshness of the times, the often expressed sentiment that “we are all in this together,” the reliance on others to do their duty so we can be protected (as we protect them by doing ours), the willingness to help our community, acknowledging that we all benefit from its wellbeing? Together we banged on saucepans at seven or eight o’clock at night all over the world, together we watched musicians according their instruments on split television screens, together we stay masked and away. All are versions of the strength of coordinated action that seamen in the Age of Sail experienced so profoundly when they used a common voice in dangerous times.
Brian Lavery, Nelson’s Navy. The Ships, Men, and Organization 1793-1815 (1989), Monique Layton, Voices from the Lower Deck. Folklore and Folkways of the Sea (2019), Roy Palmer, The Oxford Book of Sea Songs (1986).
Random thoughts by an anthropologist on living in a time of upheaval.