The Quarantined Mind

“The Solarians have given up something mankind has had for a million years; something worth more than atomic power, cities, agriculture, tools, fire, everything; because it’s something that made everything possible . . . . The tribe, sir. Cooperation between individuals.”
― Isaac Asimov, The Naked Sun

I was 15 years old the first time that I read Isaac Asimov’s novel The Naked Sunthe sequel to The Caves of Steel and the second of his science-fiction/mystery novels designed to prove that the two genres could co-exist comfortably in the same book.

At 15 I didn’t much like The Naked Sun. It seemed too far-fetched, even for a science fiction novel. The Caves of Steel — with its human beings living in massive, overpopulated underground cities that they never left — seemed plausible to me. I could imagine our world ending up that way, and it struck me as a logical continuation of the urbanization that started 5,000 years ago and has continued ever since.

But The Naked Sun takes civilization in the opposite direction. It supposes a colony of earth people who live on huge estates in near-total isolation from each other. They never talk to each other in person, but they communicate frequently through video devices. Husbands and wives tolerate each other’s presence for very brief times when reproduction is required but otherwise live in separate parts of their huge mansions without ever encountering each other face to face. They have a pathological fear of contamination from other people, and even the thought of an actual visit produces incapacitating anxiety. Their entire society is built around never needing to have physical encounters.

It is, in other words, a society very much like the one that we have all been living in for the last few weeks.

When I re-read The Naked Sun yesterday, almost 40 years after encountering it in high school, the world it described no longer seemed impossible. After just a few weeks of isolation, I find myself reacting reflexively to the thought of actually meeting another person not part of my immediate family. And even with family we generally stay in our own parts of the house. About a week ago, I went outside to check the mail and almost shrank in fear when a neighbor two doors down waived at me. And that was after only a few days of quarantine.

That level of extreme response probably won’t last longer than a few weeks after the quarantine ends. But we really don’t know what kinds of effects might linger. This is the first time in human history that the entire world has been under quarantine. We have never shut the whole world down before. Or limited travel and human contact on the scale that we are trying to do right now.

The Naked Sun gives us a picture of what a society could look like if the assumptions of the present quarantine become normal. CS Lewis gives a similar picture in The Great Divorcewhen he describes Hell asa huge city where everybody builds a huge house far away from anybody else in order to avoid the unpleasantness of other people.

As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarrelled so badly that he decides to move. Very like he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarrelled with their neighbours-and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house.

Both Asimov and Lewis are trying, in different ways, to describe what happens when the human mind allow the assumptions of a quarantine (that other people are dangerous and that human contact is scary) to override our social nature — the human traits that allow us to form friendships and alliances and to marshal the resources of the tribe to a common cause. The social instinct is strong in human beings, but, like nearly every other instinct, it can be preempted by our concern for our immediate safety. Fear can make hermits of us all.

Unfortunately, human societies and governments are very good at solving the last big problem that faced. We always know how to prepare for the last war, the last stock market crash, and the last major pandemic. Depending on how long the shutdown lasts, we may see some dramatic changes in our society as a result of this latest plague. Not only will we have a worldwide memory of a screeching halt. We will always know that such a thing is possible, and that the kind interconnected global village we have created to make our lives better also has the potential to kill us.

And this will be good, to a point. We need to have stronger societal responses to pandemic threats. When one appears, we need to be able to identify cases quickly and isolate them effectively. Novel diseases can be contained, but it doesn’t happen by accident. We have to be prepared and vigilant.

But we don’t have to become afraid. Specifically, we don’t have to internalize the assumptions of the quarantine, which are appropriate for the time but will prove disastrous if they shape our societies permanently or accelerate existing trends towards replacing personal contact with online interactions. Human beings can live like this. We can stay home all day and work, socialize, and worship in increasingly sophisticated techno chambers. But, when we do so, we risk losing the power of the tribe — and we risk turning our beautiful world into a lonely hell in which we are always lonely and never alone.

Comments

  1. Very interesting! Humans are susceptible to creating a hell of our their design! This brought me back to one of my favorite Bishop Barron videos on the Great Divorce – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwJ8j-gNosQ

    I adore Lewis, but am not familiar with the Naked Sun. Guess I have some reading to do! :)

  2. Dr Cocoa says:

    One man’s idea of hell is another’s idea of heaven. Not everyone likes being around people. Some of us have been social distancing our whole lives.

  3. Michael, because of social distancing, I find myself feeling the opposite of you when I accidentally see someone when out walking. I want to talk to them and stand as close as the 6 foot distancing will allow. I talk to strangers. I give friends virtual hugs. I want to facebook chat with people, not just talk to them on the phone without video, because of my intense desire to SEE people. I like sitting in the same room with members of my family that I’m quarantined with, even if we’re both just reading a book or looking at the internet, because I feel an intense desire to be WITH people. The moment this quarantine is over, I want to spend hours with my friends, my family, my children and grandchildren, and the women I tutor at the prison, because I miss human contact. I wonder if it’s a matter of personality traits, what your reaction is to this situation.

    I’ve read a lot of Asimov but never heard of “The Naked Son”. I’ll have to give it a look.

  4. east of the mississippi says:

    @Dr Cocoa… I’m with you, I have to admit that the current situation is nirvana for me. Being told to social distance and stay at home… and not being criticized or having to feel guilty about it.

    And I haven’t missed any of those numerous meetings and activities I’m normally required to go to.

  5. John Mansfield says:

    The Naked Sun had been running through my mind too. Many will be left with a hunger for the security and solitude of the quarantine. After coronavirus kills two or three times as many as influenza usually does in a year, next year when the latest new strain of influenza shows up, there will be those who figure that since it can kill half as many as coronavirus did, then we should implement a large portion of the controls and shutdowns that we did in 2020 for coronavirus.

  6. I agree John. When the social distancing restrictions are lifted, it will be too soon for many. I can see people preferring to self-quarantine now and when future diseases spread. Schools and employers might be forced to offer stay-at-home options. It will also be interesting to see if this has a lasting effect on younger generations. My heart breaks a bit when I hear my son express profound fear over this virus. He only has a cursory understanding of what’s happening but knows that it has turned his world upside down.

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