Culture in ‘Isolation’

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis

by Donald Sassoon (London)

For centuries those who wanted to consume culture had to leave their homes, go out, go somewhere. Very few could read and fewer had the means to purchase a book and sit quietly at home reading it. Those who were well off went to the theatre, to the concert, or to the salons of the rich where they could listen to music. At the Globe Theatre, in Shakespeare’s London, you could enjoy Hamlet (four hours in the original version!). All standing (minus the really rich), side by side, breathing the same air, wondering whether to be or not to be. If you were poor, you could always go to church to enjoy music and, at the same time, gain a place in Heaven. Those lucky enough to live in Leipzig between 1723 and 1750 could go to the Thomaskirche, and enjoy, almost every week, in world premiere, a Bach cantata, conducted by Bach himself. Did those who were in attendance at the Thomaskirche on 11 April (Good Friday) 1727 realise their luck to be the first in the world to hear Bach’s St. Matthew Passion?

At market fairs throughout Europe there were often storytellers who, for some money, told stories of monsters, of bloody deeds, of murders, of torture, of the fight between the good and the bad, of forbidden loves – all the elements of the soap operas, TV serials and videos of the future. Sex and violence sold then as now. Some of the stories, printed on a broadsheet with one or more pictures, became ballads to be sung (‘broadsheet ballads’ or ‘broadsides’). The performer would sing and read the text, illustrating it by pointing to the picture, and later selling a few sheets. The ballads, taken home, often to be read aloud, would habitually tell the story of some crime among the lower orders such as a domestic killing, embellished out of all recognition to make it even more alluring. Between three and four million broadsides were printed in England in the second half of the sixteenth century.Great stories such as the anticlerical and picaresque novel La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes, De Foe’s Robinson Crusoe, the various versions of Tristan and Isolde and the stories of wandering knights and banished aristocrats were simplified to reach those who could not read. In France these sensational news stories would be called canards the ancestor of the modern tabloid – the title cried in the streets in a duck-like sound (hence the name). The narrators told stories of prodigies, monsters, miracles, satanic manifestations, dragons, and offered detailed accounts of murders, trials of criminals, horrific descriptions of tortures –such as flesh removed by pincers, molten lead poured in the wounds– and executions. An example was a best-selling canard of 1610 entitled New and Extraordinary Story, of a young woman (the daughter of Monsieur de Mont‑Croisié) who hanged her father for having forced her to marry –against her will, her protestations,  l and in spite of her tears– an elderly man who was impotent, obsessively jealous and who tormented her unceasingly. She had been executed in Nice the previous year.

In pre-modern times culture was a social thing, with many possibilities to meet others, make friends, exchange ideas and, of course, exchange germs and viruses. Culture, like war and love, was an excellent means of contagion.

The books were expensive and most people who knew how to read borrowed them from libraries (for a fee). Each book was handled not only by those who produced, sold or loaned it, but by dozens of readers. Knowing how to read was not everything: the peasants were usually illiterate, but there was often a priest who read aloud a life of the saints, a biblical story, moral tales that helped the good Christian to be an even better Christian. In certain peasant houses, on long winter evenings, when little work was done, people gathered to listen to popular stories or even rough stories that, of course, were much more fun than the stories of the saints. The backbone of the itinerant trade were the chapmen, called colporteurs in France, gårdfarihandlarar or ‘tradesmen travelling to farms’ in Sweden, leggendai in Italy (because they specialised in selling the lives of the saints or legends), Jahrmarktströdler or kolporteur in Germany, repartitor in Spain, and ofeni in Russia.

From a technological point of view, between Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press with movable type (c.1439 –the Chinese had used woodblock printing 2,000 years before) and that of sound recording (first the cylinder by Thomas Edison in 1877, then the disc by Emile Berliner), nothing really innovative altered the production and consumption of culture. Musical instruments became cheaper. A professional, a doctor or a pharmacist, was able to buy an upright piano, cheaper and smaller than the grand piano. This is what made the fortune of John Broadwood, the most important piano manufacturer of the nineteenth century until it was supplanted by the German-American Steinway. In Jane Austen’s Emma Frank Churchill, at a party, sings several songs with Jane Fairfax who plays on Broadwood, ‘a very elegant looking instrument—not a grand, but a large-sized square pianoforte.’

Of course, books, too, became cheaper and, with expansion of education, the number of people able to read novels increased to the benefits of authors, publishers, booksellers, lending libraries, newspapers and magazines. But reading them was a solitary, not a collective experience.

With the invention of the phonograph, the first great change in the consumption of music in modern times took place. Now you could stay at home and not only listen to Beethoven’s symphonies, Mozart’s string quartets, and Verdi’s arias, but even to the new popular songs without having to go to a Café-concert or a cabaret. Then came the radio, or ‘wireless telegraphy’ as it was initially called, that broadcast (c.1919) not only music but also stories, bulletins on the events of the day, and eventually the so-called ‘soap operas’ (as they were called in America because they were afternoon and morning programmes mainly aimed at housewives since the advertising they transmitted was dominated by detergents). This trend towards solitary cultural consumption was accelerated enormously with the invention and expansion of television. In the beginning, as television was too expensive for most people, people would go to bars and cafes to watch the more popular programme such as ‘quiz shows’ (‘Double your Money’ in the UK and ‘The $64,000 Question’ in the USA). Then collective television viewing diminished, although many still prefer to go to the pub or bar to watch sporting events in a group.

As individual consumption increased, travel also increased. While, before 1945, few people went on vacation, in the decades following the post-war holidays and mass tourism became normal, as was mass emigration, which, globally, reached and perhaps surpassed the decades of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

From the sixties onwards, however, technology contributed to produce goods that allowed the individual consumption of culture: transistor radios (which were commercially produced in the USA since the mid-fifties); then the Sony Walkman (in 1980) with which you could go around, isolated from everyone, listening to your favourite music in cassettes. Finally with the internet and the spread of low-cost computers, tablets, mobile phones, iPad, iPhone, ebooks, kindle, skype, whatsapp, instagram, and especially social media such as Twitter and Facebook, the possibility of almost complete physical isolation was finally reached, while the ability to communicate increased.

Naturally, people continued to meet, to talk to each other in cafes and bars, to go to the cinema, to buy books in the bookshop, to have real ‘friends’ and not simply virtual friendships. You could take lessons (and listen to them) from the computer but the direct relationship continued, taking advantage of the possibility of moving easily. Academics continued to travel around the world at conferences. Politicians could talk on the phone but the leaders of the G7, G8, G20 were meeting for real, as did delegates from the United Nations and various international organizations. Seeing leaders shaking hands remained important. Putin arguing with Trump on the phone is not news. But a Trump who lands in Moscow, greeting an imaginary audience with his hands, would be broadcast by all television stations in the world.

Direct and visual contact remains central in modern society: devotees who go to Rome want to see the Pope and be blessed when he appears on the balcony, just as in England people flock to see the queen passing on her carriage or slow moving car in the direction of parliament. The importance of direct experience is an ancient thing. People went on pilgrimage to Mecca, to Rome, to Jerusalem to see and touch. The millions of tourists who go to the Louvre want to see the ‘real’ Mona Lisa not a copy. Observing all the Uffizi masterpieces on the home computer is not comparable to being there in person to observe, even if only for 30 seconds and hampered by numerous other visitors, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

Consuming culture in almost complete isolation has been possible for years but under the conditions of the current pandemic we are encouraged and even obliged to do so. In times of crisis solidarity is an essential necessity. An epidemic should force us to organize ourselves to take care of others and this is done by doctors, nurses and volunteers, but most people must express their solidarity (and also their self-defence) by staying away from others. Today you can take lessons from home (as many schools and universities are doing); a psychoanalyst or a doctor can be consulted by patients via Skype; politicians and experts talk to us from their home and not from a television studio. We discover that in many cases it is not necessary to go to an office and that a medical examination sometimes only requires a conversation. In short, we can work, listen to music, see films and theatrical performances, read books, talk with friends, express our opinions (Twitter and Facebook), perform acts of devotion in a church or virtual mosque, keep up to date with everything that happens at world without ever leaving home. We could have done it yesterday, before the coronavirus. Today we are forced to do it. Will this bring about big changes when the epidemic is over. Will there be an increase in loneliness and self-imposed solitude? We cannot know this. That something is possible does not make it inevitable.

The novelty however is that we are not truly alone, we are in constant communication with others, and therefore we can bear to be alone precisely because ours is a material solitude while technology allows us to communicate with a huge number of people. And this is what makes physical solitude and isolation bearable. As Balzac is supposed to have said: ‘La solitude est une belle chose; mais il faut quelqu’un pour vous dire que la solitude est une belle chose.’ (Solitude is beautiful; but it takes someone to tell you that loneliness is beautiful.) Being sociable is an integral part of human nature. We are not bears that hibernate for many months or sloths that are lazy, slow and lonely; we are rather like wolves or penguins or sheep: we stick together like a herd. Being alone will remain a choice, but it is useful to remember the famous words of John Donne: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’


Donald Sassoon is Emeritus Professor of Comparative European History, Queen Mary, University of London. His last book is The Anxious Triumph. A Global History of Capitalism 1860-1914 (Penguin). His Morbid Symptoms. Anatomy of a World in Crisis will appear with Verso in 2021. Email:

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