Coronavirus and Literature: What we can learn from Michel de Montaigne

Being banged up in the house for 3 weeks has been tough for many of us, but French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne would have pissed his way through lockdown as he chose to self-isolate for 10 years… 

Michel de Montaigne (28 February 1533 – 13 September 1592) was a Renaissance philosopher, statesman and writer best known for making the essay a literary genre. Blending anecdotes about the mundane (he wrote a lot about his aging body) alongside intellectual expositions, he was deemed self-indulgent by his contemporaries. Montaigne is of interest today because he chose to self-isolate for 10 years, which isn’t that surprising when you consider his formative years.

Despite being born into wealth, Montaigne’s father injected a bit of realism into his life early on when he was ushered off to a peasant family for three years to “draw the boy close to the people, and to the life conditions of the people, who need our help”. After this, he was brought back to the family château to learn Latin, spiritual meditation, and be awoken each morning by a servant playing a new instrument. His father was a stickler for rules, putting in place a comprehensive programme for education that would ensure his son craved intellectual liberty as an adult rather than becoming a wealthy layabout. It worked. He became a courtier between 1561 – 1563 and was awarded the collar of the Order of Saint Michael.

Montaigne got married in 1565 and had six daughters, all of whom died, except one. When his father followed suite a few years later, he inherited the family fortune and retired from public life in 1571. Whereas we are obliged to social distance to stop the spread of coronavirus, Montaigne decided to self-isolate to pursue his favourite hobby – himself. To do this, he locked himself away in his library with 1,500 works for company. His isolation would last for nearly ten years, culminating in the publication of three volumes of Essays. To remain motivated, he had inspirational quotes from classical philosophy carved into the wooden beams of the library, as well as his own motivational ponderings:

“In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michael de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.”

Although a vociferous reader, Montaigne was quite happy to give up on a book if it didn’t spark his interest, advising, “I am not prepared to bash my brains for anything…if one book wearies me I take up another.” I guess this isn’t a problem when you’ve got 1,500 to choose from.

Montaigne was not one for reverence. He railed against stuffy academics and pompous intellectuals for whom abstract dogma acted as an intellectual cage that led to hubris, fanaticism and other social nasties. Life, he wrote, “consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom”. Liberty comes from striking a balance between knowledge and pleasure. In modern parlance, he kept it real. Or as he put it, “Kings and philosophers’ shit, and so do ladies.”

Montaigne’s determination to focus on his art is a reminder to all writers that discipline and dedication are equally as important as talent and creativity. It doesn’t matter how great your ideas are if you don’t get them down on paper. It’s in this spirit we should view Lockdown as an opportunity to finish that incomplete novel, now that public distractions are a distant memory.

Of course, it’s easier to write when you’re overlooking the Dordogne from your inherited tower. But writing is magical wherever it happens. It allows temporary escape from our lives as we inhabit other characters and worlds. For Montaigne, writing acted as a form of therapy, an opportunity to escape dark thoughts by getting them down on paper. Writing during Lockdown could be good for our mental health too.

His Essays explore the human condition from various perspectives – fear, happiness, childhood, possessions, fame, with wonderful confessions on the failings of the body – he was as happy writing about poo and impotence as he was a philosophical treatise. Underpinning all of this was gnôti seauton – know thyself.

Coronavirus is forcing us to think about the human condition in terms of poverty, globalisation, pollution, community, health – and how we might live differently when this epidemic passes. Let’s hope our splendid isolation is not for 10 years.

This blog was originally published on the Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature website on 20 April.

I am currently working on Whatever People Say I Am, a graphic novel serial challenging stereotypes, and D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage, a memory theatre exploring Lawrence through artefacts.     


Coronavirus and Literature: What we can learn from Orwell.

In the first of three blogs, I’ll be turning to literature to find out how we can build a better world with words during these testing times. First up is George Orwell, who wrote that moments of extreme crisis create ‘emotional unity’ and an opportunity to reboot social values.

In Socialism and the English Genius, George Orwell suggests that England is comprised of two nations: the rich and the poor. He argues that inequality in England ‘is grosser than in any European country’ and that our class-ridden country is ‘a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly’. Only during ‘moments of supreme crisis’, when ‘emotional unity’ is required, can these two halves of Britain unite.

For Orwell, this moment of change came during World War II as people surrendered ‘leisure, comfort, economic liberty, and social prestige’ for the common good. The war also exposed the folly of private capitalism in that ‘land, factories, mines and transport owned privately and operated solely for profit – does not work’ in such conditions. This, he argued, was because during war capitalism ‘has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of it’.

Orwell was a classic socialist in the mould of Aneurin Bevan and therefore identified a basic problem with the economic system: How could someone earning £100,000 a year ever find any commonality or empathy with someone earning £1 a week. He saw peacetime as a once in a lifetime opportunity to readdress this balance. A recent ONS Wealth and Assets survey found that the top 10% of earners finished 2018 with 45% of national wealth, while the poorest 10th held just 2%. Orwell would be horrified. Peacetime has intensified the problem.

We are now being presented with another moment of ‘supreme crisis’ as coronavirus brings life as we know it to a grinding halt. Replacing war with coronavirus, Orwell could have wrote:

‘Coronavirus is the greatest of all agents of change. It speeds up all processes, wipes out minor distinctions, brings realities to the surface. Above all, coronavirus brings it home to the individual that he is not altogether an individual. It is only because they are aware of this that men will die on the field of battle.’

The main agent of change brought about by coronavirus is complete lockdown. We’ve had no choice but to give up ‘leisure, comfort, economic liberty, and social prestige’. This enforced solitude is our moment of ‘emotional unity’ and an opportunity to reboot society as we find alternative ways of living now that the pub is closed, and there’s no sport or theatre to distract us. Orwell proposed a 6 point plan for his socialist vision. Here’s mine for a post-Covid future.

Health not profit: Scientists at MIT have developed a ventilator that costs roughly $500 to build. The current cost to a hospital is about $30,000. Imagine how much money hospitals could save and reinvest elsewhere if we adopted an ‘open source’ approach to medicine and health. The NHS, along with other public services, has been stripped to the bone. Now we are reminded of its value.

Universal Basic Income: This would reinforce the idea that all members of society are valued and equal. This is in stark contrast to the stress and anger created by Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme, whereby many people, mainly the poorest, simply don’t qualify. We are either in this together or we’re not.

The right to life. Article 3 in the Declaration of Human Rights should be the abiding principle on which we measure success, not GDP. To live we need breathable air. Air pollution has been linked to Covid-19 death rates and some scientists have suggested the Coronavirus lockdown may save more lives by preventing pollution than by preventing infection. Whether dropping the price of public transport, investing in electric cars and making them affordable, or introducing a points scheme for flying, we want to breathe clean air now that we have experienced it for the first time.

Overthrow the idiocracy. In Ancient Athens an ‘idiot’ was a private person, someone who had no interest in society. Pericles was particularly scathing of idiots, writing, ‘We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.’ Self isolation has stopped us being private people. We’ve got to know our neighbours. We’ve learned to talk to strangers. We look out for each other – or at least on our street we do. Let’s not forget this.

Work is a four letter word. Evidence suggests that a four day working week can increase productivity while allowing more time to be spent with family or on personal hobbies. A good example of this use of free time is how many of us have been learning to bake, now that there’s no bread left in the supermarkets. Similarly, working from home is possible. Sat in the garden typing is more productive and better for your mental health than working in an open plan office with headphones on to muffle out the noise.

Ethical capitalism. Capitalism is a value system. It informs how we treat each other. It communicates who we are as people. Clearly it is not working. There needs to be some form of reinvestment to create the commonality Orwell discussed. A good starting point would be ensuring any industry or company that pays certain staff astronomical figures (sport stars, actors, bankers) should ensure that anybody else employed in that industry – from cleaners to car park attendants – are paid a living wage.

Forget taking back control of our borders, we need to do something more radical: We need to take back control of our lives. Moments of ‘emotional unity’ enable this to happen. It is only in dire circumstances that people pull together – although it might not feel like this when you go food shopping.

Everything we have been told is impossible has become possible: homeless people have been housed, a Tory government is implementing a loose form of socialism, and the air is breathable now that aircraft sit twiddling their thumbs at Gatwick. A brave new world awaits us. Fight for it. We might not get this chance again.

This blog was originally published on the Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature website on Monday 13 April 2020.