Sei Shonagon was a Japanese writer in the tenth to eleventh centuries who served in the entourage of the empress in Kyoto. Her Pillow Book is a diary, a commonplace book—a blog if you like—filled with her likes and dislikes, gossip, pleasures (her favourite outfits, quips, meals)—and her disappointments. She was encouraged to write after she was given a sheaf of very precious paper to use—the aesthetic faculty was extraordinarily prized in Heian Japan. She may have kept it by her bed to jot down her thoughts before she went to sleep or when she woke during the night. Hence the name, Pillow Book. She liked making lists—some of them very sharp and worldly. Life at court was luxurious but circumscribed and regulated, like a large household in quarantine, and its denizens amused themselves with anecdotes and exchanges of knowledge. Here, in a salute to Sei Shonagon, is a list of things that came to mind for me this week.
A family pet
I am talking more to friends and they’re telling me things I never heard before: during a Zoom coffee one Sunday morning, a neighbor reveals that he keeps a pet python in his basement. It was acquired as a pet and called Monty because the family thought it was male. It’s now known as Montikins. She spends the day sleeping but wakes at night and sometimes eats a rat, which my friend provides from his freezer. Montikins is two metres long and has been living there over thirty years, has a “very pretty face,” my neighbor says, adding he is very fond of her.
Dreams of escape
Dreams have become much more colorful, say several friends. It’s true in my case too. I am keeping much more regular hours, though I have bouts of insomnia. Maybe isolation helps incubate dreams. Though in my conscious day-to-day life I don’t think about travelling again, at night I roam the world, sometimes piloting my own plane, which is made of matchboxes and very small but as difficult to manoeuvre as a Boeing 747. Another night I took a taxi to the Heathrow Express but the driver refused to put my suitcase in the trunk and insisted it follow us on a Deliveroo moped. At a traffic light, I rebelled and opened the trunk myself, and found a corpse in it with signs of plague from olden times.
What do you miss most? asks another friend. I didn’t answer her and realized that I have shut my mind to thinking about life before lockdown so as not to become desperate. Now and then the pain cuts into me, of not seeing my family for such a long time.
Historical precursors #1: Joseph down the well et al.
Isolation is a terrible punishment, we all know. Circumstances when people have been hidden away include, at the extreme end, the horror of being dropped down a well, like Joseph by his brothers, and left to die. In The Arabian Nights, the wicked wizard, Aladdin’s uncle, lowers the boy into a deep cave to fetch the magic lamp and, then, abandons him—but Aladdin manages to free himself, and freeing yourself by ingenuity and patience is a heroic possibility in such stories. But not in real life. Isolation is enclosure and enclosure often implies darkness. The tales of the Nights are tunnelled with underground passages and chambers, and at the end of them, someone has been holed up: the incestuous brother and sister, or the prince of the black islands, who has been turned half to stone by the enchantress he married. In lockdown, I watched the National Theatre’s daring Twelfth Night, the production by Simon Godwin in which Tamsin Grieg played Malvolio as Malvolia—with deadpan severity. The comedy was wicked and light-footed until the scene when Sir Toby et al. trick Malvolia and she’s thrown into prison for being mad and her piteous cries from inside this dark hole rise up from under the stage. So many isolated nursing-home patients, now, as well as prisoners of all ages, are kept in all day because of staff shortages and the dangers of contagion, and have no such hopes or chances of escape.
Historical Precursors #2: Hermits & anchorites
At the other extreme, holy hermits choose to self-isolate: in Syria in the fifth century, Simeon Stylites climbed to the top of a pillar, with no room to lie down, and stayed there for thirty-seven years. He set a new craze in enforcing social distance, and cutting all ties to beds or baths, but he couldn’t get away from people who flocked to consult him. At one time, there were several more hermits standing on pillars in the surrounding area.
Some centuries later, medieval anchorites—mostly women—would wall themselves up near a church, in a cell so narrow they too could not lie down to sleep and depended on the charity of others for survival. Like the stylites or column-dwellers, these self-isolators also attracted crowds. Some visitors began by scoffing and taunting but were miraculously persuaded and converted to repentance. Julian of Norwich is the most celebrated anchorite, partly because T. S. Eliot in his Four Quartets was inspired by her Revelations of Divine Love and quoted her lines, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” She isn’t a fully recognized—canonized—saint, but her expression of steadfast hope and consolation under duress characterizes one role for saints across time, to show defiance and hold out promise.
Several other saints are directly linked to plagues, because praying to them delivered a city, a country, a people from the ravages of an epidemic. At the time of my writing this text, there is some debate concerning the reopening of churches. Pastors put the emphasis on the need for quiet prayer, not the efficacy of divine beings to end the horrors. But in Palermo, another hermit, Santa Rosalia– who is the palladium of the city and a symbol for the citizens as well as the Catholic faithful—was processed through the streets earlier this year, because her intercession brought an end to the plague of 1624-25. Anthony van Dyck was there when that one struck, and in lockdown painted glorious images of Rosalia at her healing work. It made me smile when I heard the Palermitani are still putting such faith in their patron saint. But the way belief works for believers shouldn’t be just smiled at or condescended to.
There are scores, no perhaps hundreds, of local Madonnas all over Europe and the Americas who are tied to the memory of a particular scourge, as healers or saviors. The shrines and statues set up in cathedrals, churches, and street tabernacles keep the record of what happened, though the memories fade with the bunches of flowers, the burned down candles, and the photographs of the ones who survived—and the ones who didn’t. At the same time, psychologically, these cults are expressions of belief that the powers above are kind but need to be told what’s needed. They’re not Greek gods sending arrows of pestilence in retaliation for crimes against themselves—usually for not showing them proper respect. When Oedipus arrives in Thebes and the city’s stricken with the plague, it’s assumed by everyone that this is a divine punishment, and the cause—the carrier of the pollution—must be found. I’m not saying, God forbid, we should revive mythological terror of divine fury, but that saints’ stories often provide grounds for hope. The question now is who or what can offer this in our present, intractable predicament.
The patron saint of plague victims is St. Roch, or Roc or Rocco—he’s always identifiable because he lifts his tunic to show the suppurating sore on his thigh and he has a dog with him. Legends differ, but it seems he was born in Montpellier in the fourteenth century, with a birthmark on his chest in the shape of a cross. Travelling to Italy and finding the plague raging, he nursed the sick and cured many sufferers. When he caught it himself, he hid himself away in the woods. There the dog found him and licked Roch’s buboes and alerted his owner to Roch’s hiding place.
His devotees have multiplied since his (reputed) time and grew even in the nineteenth century. Many churches all over the world are specially dedicated to him—in Glasgow he turns into St. Rollox (I am tempted to cry, Rolloxs to Covid). In Venice, a city stricken again and again by plagues, the paintings Tintoretto created for the Scuola di San Rocco are some of the most magnificent of the Italian high baroque. Probably the most glorious monument ever built to give thanks for the end of a plague is the church of S. Maria della Salute in Venice—which dominates the vista across the Grand Canal from San Marco and is also filled with sumptuous works by Titian and Tintoretto. When the composer Gustav von Aschenbach wanders semi-crazed through the pestilential alleys of the city in Visconti’s film, Death in Venice, his path takes him past these memorials raised to heavenly powers to stop such horrors returning. All these expressions of faith were, at one time, new contemporary works of art, ambitiously raising beauty as a weapon against loss, despair, and emptiness after plague.
The Fourteen Holy Helpers were like medics today—each had their special expertise. Sore throats, eyes, epilepsy, diseases of the tongue, family discord. The fourteen were scrapped in the Reformation and the Catholic Church rather sheepishly followed suit. But my favorite healing saint of all is Guinefort, who wasn’t a hermit or even a person, but a greyhound who was wrongly killed by his master after his master had left him to babysit and come back to find the dog with bloody jaws. Too late, he discovered the baby safe and sound and a dead viper by the cot, bitten in two by the brave hound. Thereafter, parents brought sick babies to Guinefort’s grave and there were centuries of miracles. (This story is found the world over—a variation from Guinea, featuring a cat nursemaid, is being animated for a short film by the refugee group Giocherenda in Sicily.
But who or what can we turn to now and escape?
In The Plague Albert Camus asked a good question: how to be a saint in a world without God? I hear on the news that sniffer dogs are being trained to detect Covid19—from a trace that’s the equivalent of a spoonful of sugar in an Olympic swimming pool. They should have a shrine, like Guinefort. But whose story would work now to stave off despair during this prolonged seclusion? Anne Frank didn’t survive, but she is still an inspiration. My proposal would be Emily Dickinson. She secluded herself and wrote, lines like “I dwell in Possibility...”
A friend—Sophie Herxheimer, who is an artist and poet, recently locked down on a residency in in Berkeley California—sent me the activity-cum-recipe book: 60 Lovers to Make & Do (Henningham Family Press, London), which she published last year. It’s a prophetic book about filling solitude, and her inventiveness and high spirits made me laugh and the air around grew less stifling. Escapism is a strong remedy and writers and artists open up escape routes. That doesn’t mean being cosy and heart-warming and consolatory. I’ve been plunged into watching the truly astonishing sequence of films Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger managed to create during and immediately after World War II—in spite of shortages of all kinds. These works are filled with wild, bizarre imagination, but they also make you think, hard and critically, about many things that still apply all too vividly to my own Brexit-embroiled, virus-crushed country. They show us how daring imagination leads us somewhere else—at least mentally. If here and now we could now make works that invent and reflect with the same breadth of feeling, that would be something to face down anxiety and defy the future gloom. The wartime creations of artist-storymakers like Powell and Pressburger present such overwhelming evidence of the role of culture in survival, it’s infuriating that literature and the other arts are being laid waste. Ideas needed—keep them flowing.
Marina Warner is a writer of fiction, criticism, and history; her works include novels and short stories as well as studies of art, myth, symbols, and fairy tales, most recently Forms of Enchantment: Writings on Art and Artists. An earlier version of this quarantine diary first appeared on the Birkbeck Arts Weeks 2020 web site.
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Image: Saint Roch with his dog. Normandy, France, early Sixteenth Century. Oak with paint and gilding. The Cloisters Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.