There's a certain type of enthusiastic advice being dispensed online right now that I think is meant to help us all cope, or perhaps even flourish, while we're stuck indoors and socially distanced due to the coronavirus.
Country musician Roseanne Cash's tweet was widely shared: "Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear."
It is indeed likely, although not certain, that Shakespeare wrote King Lear around 1606 while isolating, along with Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth. While the quality of these plays is helped by their author being the greatest writer in the history of the English language, it seems that the closure of his theatre due to the peril of infection may have helped clear his schedule.
Many astonishing acts of artistic endeavour have taken place under restricted or horrific circumstances. While isolation can dull the mind and grate against the senses, and fear for the lives and livelihoods of ourselves and those we love can make creation feel impossible, these forces can also provide a kind of clarity. A shrinking world leaves fewer questions about who we must care for and how we might spend our time. Making art is one way, in darkness, of continuing to clear space for surprise and joy.
Isaac Newton's most productive years are considered to have taken place during the closure of Cambridge University due to plague. In 1665, shortly after graduating, he was forced to return home for two years, where, despite his initial reluctance, he completed revolutionary work formulating the foundations of calculus and the law of universal gravitation.
When the city of Palermo was struck by plague and placed under quarantine during 1624, the Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck painted the deeply moving St Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo, an unsettling yet hopeful work - the saint gently lit and encircled by disgruntled-looking cherubs, one self-consciously grasping a skull as if embarrassed at his failure to move beyond the most clichéd of death allegories.
And, of course, there are reasons we can find ourselves isolated other than disease. In 1572, after a career in Bordeaux politics, a 39-year-old Michel De Montaigne retreated to the book-filled tower on his estate where he spent much of the last 20 years of his life, inventing the essay form and changing the course of literary history. French composer Olivier Messiaen's extraordinary and dissonant piece of chamber music Quartet for the End of Time was written in a German prisoner of war camp in 1941, to be performed by fellow prisoners on clarinet, violin, and cello, with Messiaen himself on piano. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail, written in solitary confinement, is among the greatest polemics of the 20th century.
We must be careful, however, to remember that there are methods of attaining value and pleasure in our lives other than productivity. As we find ourselves increasingly confined, days broadly indistinguishable aside from whether they include risking a trip to buy milk, there is a temptation to assess our worth based entirely on whether we're caught up on emails or whether we've written one of the most remarkable theatrical tragedies of the last 1000 years.
Most of us will emerge from this pandemic without a King Lear or theory of universal gravitation to show for it, and that is all right. As I write this, I'm six days into a 30-day home yoga program, I've frozen some split-pea soup, and I'm only sometimes terrified. I'm pretty happy with the soup.
- Dan Dixon is a writer who teaches at the University of Sydney. He writes about literature, culture, politics, and America.
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