Hovering over everyone is the daily morning wait for new infection rates to be released, rates which are unprecedented in Australia and stubbornly refuse to come down. And for a sad, dark backdrop, there are locked-down silos of contagion – housing commission towers – and, across the city, dozens of nursing homes left negligently unprotected from the pandemic, inside which the disease is rampaging out of control and with mounting deadly effect.
The social temperature has plunged, freezing the public world in a kind of cold storage. The suburban home, like the inner-city apartment, has been recast as the entire globe, within which for individuals, whether alone or in family, almost the entirety of their lives must play out. The home has, de facto, been turned into a total institution, whether castle or prison or both. A lot is being asked of it – often too much.
For those inside, a new discipline is required to adapt to the fact that virtually all the usual pastimes, distractions and engagements have been cancelled into the foreseeable future. The old and trusty antidotes to restlessness and boredom are unavailable. It is not possible to wander around casually in the normal alleyways of one’s life, dallying here, snooping there. If the human condition is driven by the alternating primary motivating forces of hope and fear, the balance has tipped, with hope thinned and fear weighted.
Character deficiencies are inevitably being exposed, with alcohol consumption radically up. Character strengths are likewise under pressure. The key adult relationship of the contemporary era is the companionate marriage, or the long-term partnership of equals taking on the challenges of making a life together. It is being put under extraordinary stress, in a range of situations like that of the couple forced to get up at 4am to get some work done before they home-school their kids – having, in addition, lost their normal help from extended family.
This couple is too busy; others are not busy enough. There are those used to lukewarm cohabitation enlivened by outside interests, who now have to face each other hour after hour. Then there are those who live by themselves and have to wrestle with unrelenting loneliness.
Michael Leunig titled one of his cartoons, published in early July in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, “Reclutter Your Life”. It shows a naked man alone in a bare, empty, windowless room, sitting on a pastel-coloured, striped floor. He is mournful and bewildered, reading a book titled Reclutter Your Life and Be Happy Again.
While satirising the current self-help fad of “decluttering” and pointing to the fact that lockdown has eliminated the “clutter” of virtually all public activity, the cartoon is ambiguous. The surface message seems to be that the room of life needs filling, to combat the threat of lonely vacancy – this man’s life is empty, and he wants to be happy again.
But, viewed differently, the room is peaceful in its spare elegance, like an idealised monk’s cell. Its call is to prayer, meditation or whatever mental re-orientation we might call the brightening of the inner self, or the soul.
Leunig’s cartoon serves as a further parable in reminding about the seesaw of life, a universal experience. The first half of a person’s life is spent in evolving and expanding: developing character traits, including strengths and weaknesses; discovering passions and talents and training them; discovering tastes and inclinations; finding possible vocations and enduring relationships. The child and teen years are critical.
The second half of life is spent in doing the opposite, stripping back the excess, the accumulated barnacles and dross, casting off the superfluous, which is vast in its proportions. I am not talking about the trivial clutter of too many old socks and forgotten knick-knacks. Rembrandt in his late etchings would scratch out much of the detail, leaving the few important lines. “Reclutter Your Life” is as much about the opposite impulse—to simplify down to the bare essential.
With life shut down outside the front door, the spotlight turns to the big questions. Leunig’s re-clutter/de-clutter contrasts with other command axioms such as “Live your life”, “Seize the day”, “Kindle your life”, “Act to the best of your ability” and “Be kind”. The normal life supports have been removed, so the individual wakes up confronted by the threatening absurdity of human existence. Where does the directing truth lie; what makes most sense of life as actually experienced, if there is any absolute sense? And indeed, the times may call less for dynamic, upbeat exhortations like “Seize the day” and more for simple calm.
Joseph Conrad provided another possible take in his 1917 novella The Shadow Line. A man in the transition age from youth to adulthood is unexpectedly made captain of a sailing ship for the first time. He travels to Bangkok to take command.
Once there, nothing in his life ever equalled the satisfaction, even the joy, when he first stepped on deck of his ship – suddenly his life has purpose. But all his eager ambition and momentum is soon thwarted by malevolent fate in the form of bad weather. The wind won’t blow.
The young captain just manages to get the ship out to sea, precipitated by his own restlessness and the tropical fever that is spreading among his crew. For an interminable 14 days adrift in the Gulf of Thailand there is hardly a breath of wind. Becalmed in cloying tropical heat, the atmosphere on board becomes stagnant and fetid, with the chief mate going mad and all the crew, apart from one, falling sick and becoming useless.
This allegory of depression evokes the mood of the current pandemic shutdown in Melbourne: “The brooding stillness of the world seemed sensitive to the slightest sound.”
In The Shadow Line the wait is finite, with a storm striking after the 14 days of immobility. In Melbourne, the wind did return in June and the ship got underway, only to hit another trough of even more immense and stagnant low pressure. Now there is no end in sight, with the daily count of new infections like an impenetrable canopy of oppressive tropical heat.
Conrad draws the conclusion, at the end of his melancholy tale, that everybody should conduct a searching intimacy with their own self, so that they might learn not to be faint-hearted and to be able to stand up to their bad luck, their mistakes and their own conscience.
The recommendation is for honesty and resilience. Easier to say than to practice, but there may be no other way out, and on. Life becalmed in shutdown today, with the outside bleak and motionless, and new opportunity and hope closed off, may require its own searching intimacy with the self, to counter any faintness of heart. The key to individual wellbeing may dwell here, for surely the sun will shine again.
John Carroll is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at La Trobe University.