Our solitude is double-edged. It’s both an unprecedented restriction on basic freedom, and a privilege to be in the group who can safely be confined. But the experience of separation is not totally new.
There’s an argument that those of us who feel gloomy about the increasing sense of isolation never really had the things we’re now lamenting. And perhaps all mourning, like all thinking, is about the idea of the thing and not the thing itself. But there are concrete things.
In Britain many things arrive late. New films, trends, technology. The trains, of course, but this is a valuable source of bland conversation for a notoriously non-confrontational people. I think this feeling of lateness explains why I’ve always found a strange satisfaction over the years in seeing my American friends pay for things over here, only to be confronted by a digital device’s demand for analogue proof: a signed receipt, a security method the rest of us had forgotten even existed.
There’s an ancient story about three entrepreneurial lads who come into possession of a cloak one evening and decide to sell it at the market. Perhaps they came into possession of it at the market. Best not to ask. It’s a not the finest of garments, but it’s eye-catching, and at dusk that might be enough to win a sale. They set up their stall at the far edge of the market, to avoid running into its previous owner.
What does it mean to be perfectly proportioned? Is it possible? The biologist JBS Haldane wrote about species “being the right size.” What he meant was that in nature, the size and shape of an organism is always a trade-off: between speed and strength, for instance. And the way that organisms work imposes some absolute rules: there’s a minimum viable size for mammals, based on their circulation, and (thankfully) a maximum for spiders.
The machines do not work as intended. They are always on the border of total breakdown, held together more by ingenuity than mechanical integrity. “As time goes by, one begins to have the impression that everything is already broken before it leaves the factory.” Even the handles of doors are chiefly decorative. This is the sketch with which Alfred Sohn-Rethel begins his essay “In Naples.”
Who needs a uniform? What does it mean to adopt one? And what connects people who dress the same? These questions were on the minds of entrants to the Swedish Royal Patriotic Society 1773 essay competition, which asked whether Swedes might benefit from sharing a costume, as well as a language and a territory.