Historically Speaking: Castaways and Other Lonely Survivors

From prisoners to exiles to marooned sailors, human beings have faced the ordeal of enforced solitude.

April 2, 2020

Being one’s own company can be blissful, but not when it’s involuntary. According to John Donne, the 17th-century English poet and priest, “As sickness is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sickness is solitude.” Now that nearly two in three Americans are currently subject to shelter-in-place orders as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, how will we cope with prolonged isolation?

Tom Hanks in the 2000 movie ‘Cast Away.’
PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION

The Germans have a special word for feeling utterly alone and isolated: mutterseelenallein, a compound that literally means “mother’s souls alone.” According to one theory, the word entered the German language as a misinterpretation of the French phrase moi teut seul (“me all alone”), which was used by the Huguenots—French Protestants who fled to Berlin in the 18th century to escape persecution at home.

Although the ancients didn’t have an equivalent word, they certainly knew the feeling. In 44 B.C., the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero was declared an enemy of the state and forced into hiding. Despite his loneliness, or perhaps because of it, Cicero used the time to write his final work, “On Duties,” in only four weeks.

We can’t all be like Cicero, of course, and write a masterpiece while on lockdown. But we can certainly rise to the occasion and surprise ourselves. One of the least likely castaways in history was the wealthy French aristocrat Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, who in 1542 agreed to accompany her spendthrift cousin Jean-Francois de Roberval on a voyage to New France, modern Canada. The jolly adventure became a nightmare after Roberval accused Marguerite of sexual immorality while on board his ship. This was his flimsy excuse for marooning her along with her maid and lover on the deserted Isle of Demons off Newfoundland.

Marguerite’s lover and their baby soon succumbed, as did her maid, leaving the hitherto pampered heiress to survive in the wilderness as best she could. During her two years as a castaway she killed a bear, ate its carcass and turned its skin into clothing. After her rescue and return to France in 1544, Marguerite created a new life for herself as an educator. The treacherous Roberval escaped punishment, but was subsequently murdered by a mob in 1560.

Such stories provided ample material to Daniel Defoe, who wrote the ultimate social isolation story, “Robinson Crusoe,” in 1719. The novel has been adapted many times since, including for the 2000 film “Cast Away,” starring Tom Hanks as the Crusoe figure. Defoe based his tale in part on the real-life castaway Alexander Selkirk, a Royal Navy officer who in 1704 was abandoned by his shipmates on a deserted island in the south Pacific, where he managed to survive until he was rescued five years later.

Defoe himself knew something about prolonged isolation: In 1703, he was imprisoned for several months after he published a pamphlet satirizing the Church of England. Defoe’s stint in prison made him a better advocate for the social outcasts he described in his novels, just as Crusoe’s 28-year sojourn on the island made him into a better person—a man of faith and purpose rather than the malcontent of his former life. “No man is an island entire of itself,” wrote Donne; being human makes us all connected, no matter where we are.

 

Historically Speaking: The Pleasures and Pains of Retirement

Since the Roman Empire, people have debated whether it’s a good idea to stop working in old age

The Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2019

The new film “All Is True,” directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, imagines how William Shakespeare might have lived after he stopped writing plays. Alas for poor Shakespeare, in this version of his life retirement is hell. By day he potters in his garden, waging a feeble battle against Mother Nature; by night he is equally ineffectual against the verbal onslaughts of his resentful family.

In real life, people have been arguing the case for and against retirement since antiquity. The Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero was thoroughly against the idea. In his essay “Cato the Elder on Aging,” Cicero argued that the best antidote to old age was a purposeful life. “I am in my eighty-fourth year,” he wrote, “yet, as you see, old age has not quite unnerved or shattered me. The senate and the popular assembly never find my vigor wanting.” Cicero lived by the pen—he was the greatest speechwriter in history—but he died by the sword, murdered on the orders of Mark Antony for his support of the waning Roman Republic.

Knowing when to exit from public life is a difficult art. The Roman Emperor Diocletian (ca. 245-316) retired to his palace in Split, in modern Croatia, after ruling for 21 years. According to Edward Gibbon, Diocletian was so content for the last six of years of his life that when emissaries from Rome tried to persuade him to return, he replied that he couldn’t possibly leave his cabbages.

For most of history, of course, the average person had no choice but to carry on working until they died. But in the 18th century, longer lifespans created a dilemma: The old were outliving their usefulness. Not realizing that he had two more productive decades left, the 60-year-old Voltaire told his friend Madame du Deffand: “I advise you to go on living solely to enrage those who are paying your annuities…. It is the only pleasure I have left.”

By the end of the 19th century, it had become possible for at least some ordinary people to spend their last years in retirement. In 1883, the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck bowed to popular opinion and announced that all retirees over 65 would receive pensions. With that, 65 became the official age of retirement.

But some critics argued that this was the thin end of the wedge. If people could be forced out of careers and jobs on the basis of an arbitrary age limit, what else could be done to them? Troubled by what he regarded as ageism, the novelist Anthony Trollope published “The Fixed Period,” a dystopian novel about a society where anyone over the age is 67 is euthanized for his or her own good. The naysayers against any form of government retirement plan held sway in the U.S. until President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935, by which time half of America’s elderly were living in poverty.

Today, the era of leisurely retirements may be passing into history. Whether driven by financial need or personal preference, for many people retirement simply means changing their occupation. According to the AARP, the number of adults working past age 65 has doubled since 1985.

Even the rich and famous aren’t retiring: President George W. Bush is a painter; the Oscar-nominated actor Gene Hackman is a novelist; and Microsoft founder Bill Gates is saving the planet. In this day and age, flush from his success on Broadway, a retired Shakespeare might start his own podcast.

WSJ Historically Speaking: On the Trail of Art Looters

A relief from Rome’s Arch of Titus showing the spoils of Jerusalem. PHOTO: DEAGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

Since 2014, Islamic State has been doing its best to destroy all traces of pre-Islamic culture in Iraq and Syria. Hammers and explosives aren’t its only tools. The antiquities trade is worth billions, and the self-styled caliphate is funding itself in part by looting and selling ancient treasures.

In late May, the Journal reported that U.S. and European Union authorities were scrutinizing a pair of art dealers as part of a wider investigation into who has been facilitating the market for ancient coins, statues and relics stolen by Islamic State. The dealers say they have done nothing wrong.

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