Devastating Isolation

Splendid isolation is a phrase that was coined to describe British diplomatic policies of the nineteenth century.

Nothing ‘splendid’ about isolation, many will feel at present, no matter which of the six degrees of separation they have reached:

  • not at all (a.k.a. being selfish and anti-social, with no regard for the health and lives of others)
  • wearing a face mask only as a piece of fashion
  • physical distancing (I know it’s called social distancing, but that’s a stupid term that doesn’t describe what’s actually required of us)
  • self-isolation
  • quarantine
  • hiding out in a nuclear bunker until the alien invasion is over

All of the above stink, of course, and most of us would not want to do any this under normal circumstances. Except for getting rid of this odd hand-shaking thing, maybe: seriously, who needs that!

Until recently, I had never much thought about the term isolation. But now that I can’t escape it, the first thing that came to mind was: as it would appear to be derived from Italian isola, Latin insula, ‘island’, I began to wonder if the term was, in fact, ancient…? Insulatio maybe?

Somewhat unsuprisingly, there was no evidence for insulatio in ancient Latin, it turned out.

But that was not the end of the story.

The late antique author Apuleius, author of a book of the eternally giggle-worthy title The Golden Ass, produced a translation of a pseudo-Aristotelian treatise ‘On the Universe‘ (De mundo). In this work (Apul. mund. 34), the author uses a previously unattested participle insulatus, ‘turned into an island’.

The very same passage is quoted and contextualised by Saint Augustin in his work The City of God (4.2, transl. G. E. McCracken):

Quid si commemorare voluissem et exaggerare illa mala quae non sibi invicem homines faciunt, sicut sunt vastationes eversionesque bellantium, sed ex ipsius mundi elementis terrenis accidunt rebus (quae uno loco Apuleius breviter stringit in eo libello quem de mundo scripsit, terrena omnia dicens mutationes, conversiones et interitus habere; namque inmodicis tremoribus terrarum, ut verbis eius utar, dissiluisse humum et interceptas urbes cum populis dicit; abruptis etiam imbribus prolutas totas esse regiones; illas etiam, quae prius fuerant continentes, hospitibus atque advenis fluctibus insulatas aliasque desidia maris pedestri accessu pervias factas; ventis ac procellis eversas esse civitates; incendia de nubibus emicasse, quibus Orientis regiones conflagratae perierunt, et in Occidentis plagis scaturrigines quasdam ac proluviones easdem strages dedisse; sic ex Aetnae verticibus quondam effusis crateribus divino incendio per declivia torrentis vice flammarum flumina cucurrisse),—si haec atque huius modi quae habet historia, unde possem, colligere voluissem, quando finissem?

What a story it would be if I had wished to relate and emphasize, not those evils which men do to each other, such as the devastation and destruction wrought by men in their wars, but by those afflictions which befall the earth from the elements of the universe itself! Apuleius in one place briefly touches on these, in his treatise On the Universe, where he says that all things on earth have their changes, reversals and annihilations. For indeed, to use his own words, “in violent earthquakes the ground has burst open and swallowed cities with their inhabitants. Whole districts have been washed away by cloudbursts; some that had been parts of the mainland became islands by the occurrence of invading floods, while others by a recession of the sea have become accessible on foot. Cities have been overthrown by wind and storm. Fires have flashed from the clouds, by which regions of the East were consumed and perished; in the western lands there were springs and floods that wrought the same destruction. Once, for instance, craters erupted from the peaks of Aetna in a godsent conflagration, and rivers of flame ran down the slopes like a torrent.” If I had wanted to collect historical incidents of this sort from every possible source, when should I have finished the task?

It is impossible to say whether the term existed before Apuleius, or whether he coined it himself when facing the task to render the Greek text.

Of course, objectively, Apuleius’ text has little to do with our own situation. Yet it is remarkable to see the term insulatus, which in a way is the ancestor of our current term isolation, in the context of a passage that describe how natural disasters change the surface of the earth, destroying continuities that existed, making access impossible.

To Apuleius, isolation was just as catastrophic as an earthquake, torrential rainfalls that wash away entire landscapes (or strong winds that have the same effect), floods, and volcanism.

Isolation disrupts lives. Even in the times of social media. Even in the times of Skype, WhatsApp, and the likes.

We have to do this at the moment. All of us. For the greater good.

But we mustn’t forget those among us, vulnerable in many cases, whose lives are both saved as a result of isolation and distancing in one way and severely adversely affected in another.

The elderly.

Individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

And many more.

To them, when they find themselves insulati and insulatae, the impact of this may be just as catastrophic as Apuleius and Saint Augustine describe.

PS. Curious about the etymology ‘quarantine’ now? It was introduced in the 14th century to denote a period of forty (Italian: quaranta) days of enforced isolation, imposed to cut the spread of dangerous diseases.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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