To Quarantine from Quarantine: Rousseau, Robinson Crusoe, and “I”

Catherine Malabou

In May of 1743, a vessel from Corfu carrying bodies of dead crew members who had died of a mysterious disease arrived in Messina.  The ship and cargo were burned, but cases of a strange new disease were soon thereafter observed in the hospital and in the poorest parts of the town; and in the summer, a frightening plague epidemic developed, killing forty to fifty thousand people, and then disappeared before spreading to other parts of Sicily. Rousseau was traveling from Paris to Venice and was forced to halt in Genoa because of the epidemic. He narrates his quarantine in the Confessions (1782):

It was at the time of the plague at Messina, and the English fleet had anchored there, and visited the Felucca, on board of which I was, and this circumstance subjected us, on our arrival, after a long and difficult voyage, to a quarantine of one-and-twenty days.

The passengers had the choice of performing it on board or in the Lazaretto, which we were told was not yet furnished. They all chose the Felucca. The insupportable heat, the closeness of the vessel, the impossibility of walking in it, and the vermin with which it swarmed, made me at all risks prefer the Lazaretto. I was therefore conducted to a large building of two stories, quite empty, in which I found neither window, bed, table, nor chair, not so much as even a joint-stool or bundle of straw. My night sack and my two trunks being brought me, I was shut in by great doors with huge locks, and remained at full liberty to walk at my ease from chamber to chamber and story to story, everywhere finding the same solitude and nakedness.

This, however, did not induce me to repent that I had preferred the Lazaretto to the Felucca; and, like another Robinson Crusoe, I began to arrange myself for my one-and twenty days, just as I should have done for my whole life. In the first place, I had the amusement of destroying the vermin I had caught in the Felucca. As soon as I had got clear of these, by means of changing my clothes and linen, I proceeded to furnish the chamber I had chosen. I made a good mattress with my waistcoats and shirts; my napkins I converted, by sewing them together, into sheets; my robe de chambre into a counterpane; and my cloak into a pillow. I made myself a seat with one of my trunks laid flat, and a table with the other. I took out some writing paper and an inkstand, and distributed, in the manner of a library, a dozen books which I had with me. In a word, I so well arranged my few movables, that except curtains and windows, I was almost as commodiously lodged in this Lazeretto, absolutely empty as it was, as I had been at the Tennis Court in the Rue Verdelet. My dinners were served with no small degree of pomp; they were escorted by two grenadiers with bayonets fixed; the staircase was my dining-room, the landing-place my table, and the steps served me for a seat; and as soon as my dinner was served up a little bell was rung to inform me I might sit down to table.

Between my repasts, when I did not either read or write or work at the furnishing of my apartment, I went to walk in the burying-ground of the Protestants, which served me as a courtyard. From this place I ascended to a lanthorn which looked into the harbor, and from which I could see the ships come in and go out. In this manner I passed fourteen days. [1]

Being told like the rest of humanity to “stay at home” because of the pandemic, I immediately remembered this passage from the Confessions. While all of his companions of misfortune chose to stay confined together on a boat, Rousseau decided to be locked up in the lazaretto instead. A lazaretto is a hospital for those affected with contagious diseases. A felucca, or Mediterranean sailing ship, could also be set apart for quarantine purposes. Obviously, the two possibilities were offered to travelers in Genoa, and Rousseau thought he had better leave the boat and stay on his own in the building.


One can read this episode by solely focusing on the idea of choice: What is best in a time of confinement? Be quarantined with other people? Or be quarantined alone ? I must say that I spent some time wondering about such an alternative. If I had had the choice between the two options, what would have I done? (I am on my own, by the way, sheltered in quasi total isolation in Irvine, California.)

There is something else perhaps more profound in this passage, which is that quarantine is only tolerable if you quarantine from it—if you quarantine within the quarantine and from it at the same time, so to speak. The lazaretto represents this redoubled quarantine that expresses Rousseau’s need to isolate from collective isolation, to create an island (insula) within isolation. Such is perhaps the most difficult challenge in a lockdown situation: to clear a space where to be on one’s own while already separated from the community. Being cooped up on a boat with a few others of course generates a feeling of estrangement, but estrangement is not solitude, and solitude is, in reality, what makes confinement bearable. And this is true even if one is already on one’s own. I noticed that what made my isolation extremely distressing was in fact my incapacity to withdraw into myself. To find this insular point where I could be my self (in two words). I am not talking here of authenticity, simply of this radical nakedness of the soul that allows to build a dwelling in one’s house, to make the house habitable by locating the psychic space where it is possible to do something, that is, in my case, write. I noticed that writing only became possible when I reached such a confinement within confinement, a place in the place where nobody could enter and that at the same time was the condition for my exchanges with others. When I was able to get immersed in writing, conversations through Skype, for example, became something else. They were dialogues, not veiled monologues. Writing became possible when solitude started to protect me from isolation. One has to undress from all the coverings, clothes, curtains, masks, and meaningless chattering that still stick to one’s being when one is severed from others. Social distance is never powerful enough to strip one from what remains of the social in the distance. Sheltered-in-place has to be a radical Robinson Crusoe experience, an experience that allows one to construct a home out of nothing. To start anew. Or to remember.


I wonder if Foucault, at the end of his life, did not turn to the ethics of the self—care of the self, technologies of the self, government of the self—out of the same necessity. The urge to carve out a space for himself within the social isolation that AIDS insidiously was threatening him with. Perhaps Foucault was looking for his island, his absolute (ab-solutus) land where he would have found the courage of speaking and writing before he died. Those who have seen in his late seminars a nihilistic individualist withdrawal from politics have totally missed the point.

We know that Karl Marx made fun of eighteenth-century robinsonades like Rousseau’s. Marx said that the origin of the social can by no means be a state of nature where isolated men finally come to meet and form a community. Solitude cannot be the origin of society.

This may be true, but I think it is necessary to know how to find society within oneself in order to understand what politics means. I admire those who are able to analyze the current crisis caused by the covid-19 pandemic in terms of global politics, capitalism, the state of exception, ecological crisis, China-Us-Russia strategic relationships, etc. Personally, at the moment, I am on the contrary trying to be an “individual.” This, once again, is not out of any individualism but because I think on the contrary that an epochè, a suspension, a bracketing of sociality, is sometimes the only access to alterity, a way to feel close to all the isolated people on Earth. Such is the reason why I am trying to be as solitary as possible in my loneliness. Such is the reason why I would also have chosen the lazaretto.

23 March 2020

Catherine Malabou is a professor in the philosophy department at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University and of European languages and literatures and comparative literature at University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity (2012) and Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality (2016), and most recently, Morphing Intelligence: From IQ Measurement to Artificial Brains (2019).

[1] Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions, trans. pub., 2 vols. (London, 1903), 1:273-74.


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

43 responses to “To Quarantine from Quarantine: Rousseau, Robinson Crusoe, and “I”

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  4. Hi Catherine, any chance we can get permission from you to republish this in the Academia section on Inverse Journal with due credit and a link back to this original source? We are a non-commcial Creative Commons driven online journal of contemporary culture. Our readers from 143 countries would appreciate this piece as much as I do.

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  10. Sabine

    in this argument about solitude, and creativity and the self, this analogizing to robinson — where is freitag???

    • K Vasudeva Naidu

      The quarantine has certainly forced a re-evaluation of the notions of ‘self’ because of the isolation it has imposed on the body across the world. This rethinking of the ‘self’, of solitude in isolation and as one response entails- of ‘un-bracketing the locked down/up selves’ of ‘gendered bodies’ in a particular ascribed category in the context of India, opens up numerous possibilities to the discourse on these notions in different contexts.
      For instance, the possibility of looking at the politics of semantics, of language itself in defining and redefining the notions of ‘self’ and ‘solitude’, where the positioning and repositioning of the influence of language on thought and that of thought on language (both in a general and in a particular sense) might find a new resonance.

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  13. Dionisis Liaros

    Rousseau did excellently. Robinson was metaphorical of course, he stood for any of us. We all need a Friday. Marx was right in a general sense. But Foucauld was Nihilist long before he contracted Aids. His were basically rationalizations of much obscurer inclinations/

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  19. Bikash Sarma, Shruti Sharma

    Un-bracketing the Locked Down/Up Selves: A Response to Catherine Malabou

    Co-written by Bikash Sarma, Shruti Sharma

    Catherine Malabou’s reflections on the ‘psychic space’ makes one wonder about the socio-spatio-temporal nature of the very quarantined state as well as of quarantining oneself within it. The quarantine – that we dwell in now – has been redeemed by Malabou through Rousseau’s ‘choice’, Foucault’s necessitated ‘ethics of the self’, and her ‘self’ sheltered-in-place.

    Even though, the two experiences of quarantine – Rousseau’s in Genoa due to the Plague epidemic and Malabou’s due to the outbreak of CoVid-19 – are separated by almost three centuries, they are connected by the debates on the possibility of a radical alterity. A close reading of Malabou’s idea and experience of radical alterity provides crucial insight into the immanent constraints of the same possibilities to ‘quarantine from/within quarantine’, as implicated upon and by differential bodies, spaces and times. This response to Malabou takes a cue from post-lockdown India and can be seen as an addition as well as a reaction to her piece.

    For Rousseau the past is not an alien and detached memory but a continuation into his present – the quarantine in the Lazaretto. Rousseau’s normal or ‘inner companionship’ is evident in the usage of words like ‘amusement’, ‘liberty’, ‘ease’ and ‘commodious living’ to describe his experience of being the only person in the Lazaretto. It reminds the reader of the preservation of his ‘hermit existence’ rather than an abrupt disjuncture with a non-quarantined past. This can be juxtaposed with Malabou facing the “most difficult challenge” which is “extremely distressing” for her – the “incapacity to withdraw into myself”, as she confesses. Malabou seeks refuge in Rousseau’s normal to deal with the anxiety of the exceptional, although temporary loss of her normal – community and sociality. She is able to convert her anxiety into what Barbara Taylor wishes for us to attain – a “productive solitude”.

    Malabou acknowledges Karl Marx’s attitudes towards the ‘robinsonades’ like Rousseau – and had he been alive – would have included Foucault and Malabou into the list of “isolated [wo]men [who] finally come to meet and form a community”. She also feels that “this may be true”. Marx’s characterisation of solitude in the materialist sense as defining the state of nature can be placed into the philosophical discourse of the evolution of “wrong-headed” Hobbesian men into sociality. Sociality, thus, stands commendable in contradistinction to the ‘pathological’ solitude which was viewed as deprecating – creating a caricature of such a man and woman in the ‘polysemous’ discourse on solitude. However, the pathological universe of solitary existence and sociality were also made to witness a constant process of paradoxical rapprochement, via semantic innovations – of ‘philosolitude’ and ‘intermittent withdrawal’ – in eighteenth century Europe, at a time when Rousseau composed his autobiographical note.
    Malabou’s as well as Rousseau’s (intermittent) withdrawal to the psychic space in all its differences expresses a similarity in its dialogic meaning mediated through the ‘subjected circumstance’ of the bacterial/viral exception, isolation from the social and reclamation of the self in/through the ‘quarantine within quarantine and from it.’ The possibility for reclaiming the self lies not in a response ‘in being alone’ or as the author contends not “even if one is already on one’s own” – to extend it a little further – within or without the epidemiological quarantine, but in stripping oneself “from what remains of the social”.

    Stripped from the social, Rousseau confining himself to the Lazaretto and Malabou’s insula/solitude within the space of the ‘present’ quarantine – as the philosopher underlines – opens up the possibility “to do something” – through dialogues with the self (or with others). For Hannah Arendt, this something to do “…is a solitary but not a lonely business…” Solitude is a human situation in which “I” keeps oneself company and loneliness comes “without being able to split up into the two-in-one”. The possibility “to do something” that this insular point provides is – in Malabou’s case to (read and) write – within a similar psychic space of ‘choice’ and ‘intermittent withdrawal’ to and for the self.

    But what happens to the possibility of doing ‘something’ when the radical psychic space is itself non-existent? Or that ‘something’ is always already subjected not just to ‘the circumstance’ – as is the case for Rousseau and Malabou – but to the subjection of the social that both Rousseau and Malabou may have successfully bracketed their selves from? Where does one go if they want to leave the felucca but there seems to be no possibility of choosing the Lazaretto?

    Facing a similar anxiety as Malabou’s confession, at a time when we are cooped in and reflecting on our isolation and solitude, her piece on the CI blog appeared opening up new insights – a posteriori. The transcendence of the estrangement imposed by isolation/social confinement into solitude is an idea(l) that our individual selves have been able to associate with, since the arbitrary declaration of the 21 days lockdown in India – due to the CoVid-19 pandemic – from the midnight of 24 March 2020. In fact, even prior to the lockdown – under normal circumstances – we would ‘carve out a space’ for ‘intermittent withdrawal’ to do something – in our case too, to read and write. But the post-lockdown period seems to have quarantined off this ‘intermittent’ island from “I” leading to a bizarre estrangement. Unlike Malabou who has had to experience a ‘radical Robinson Crusoe’ in herself under the social distancing to counteract the effects of the social in distance, locked up at home with family now, one of the authors has been having a contrary experience, even as they write and the reader reads. Like other gendered bodies in India and elsewhere too, they have experienced an increase in the intensity of the social – the heteropatriarchal gender order – and scrutiny over their everyday life because of which they are having to make trivial negotiations for partaking (or wanting to) in the ‘wrong-headed’ activity of solitude. Multiple attempts at undressing the social have come back as Penelope’s undone tapestry every morning.

    We found it pertinent to briefly bring forward this experience of the ‘stay at home’ period to create a parallel with Malabou’s ‘personal’ in the same state. However, the problematic of transmuting subjection into solitude is probably more complicated than it appears in the personal narratives discussed till now. In this regard, from within the social location that the authors can relate to experientially – the urban upper/middle class savarna heteropatriarchal family – the experience of the female homemakers become very telling, for they are subjected to a physical, material and ideological quarantine in the ‘felucca’ without the ‘choice’ of an escape. Subjection, here, is a reference not just to the quarantine but also to the always already existing – although intensified in the quarantine – heteropatriarchal gender order.

    The horrendous outbreak of the non-human mutant – CoVid-19 – and the subsequent lockdown in India brought initial respite to many (particularly among the stratum of population that is our reference point) as it compulsorily quarantined them from their normal – the monotony of everydayness. It also calmed their apprehensions about their selves becoming pathological and served as a conduit to transmit their romanticized self into the home/private. However, the latter has been possible only through the reconfiguration of domesticity in the space of physical and social quarantine that ‘home’ is now.

    This reconfigured domesticity is scheduled primarily around the availability of ‘spare time’ and of ‘time to spare’, the meanings of which are deeply gendered to complete the romanticized picture of the ‘private’. Spare time either signifies the time – in the modern temporal matrix – outside of paid and prioritised (productive) work, or the time that one does not have ‘something’ to do, or both. However, this temporal matrix is arbitrary as it is based on the (de)valuation of work itself – often equating unpaid work and the work unintelligible to men, with spare time or not doing ‘something’. Since cooking, cleaning and caring are not considered as work, the time spent of doing them is also considered as spare time. What is ironical is that even though men maybe working from home have a lot of ‘spare time’ in quarantine – “there is nothing to do”, a statement uttered every now and then – they do not have any ‘time to spare’ for work for home.

    To add more work to unpaid labour, the public self of men now quarantined is seeking compensation and an alleviation of their trivialized existence by imposing the burden of their boredom upon women. This is done by demanding efficient utilisation of homemaker’s spare time – assumed to be plenty – and their time to spare (both becoming indistinguishable). Further, as consumerism has now been curtailed or limited by the closure of the public, it has been reshaped within the home in its primitive form by claiming ‘extraordinary something’ from the kitchen and continuous ‘sociality’ (read care) with the young, old and equal to entertain them in their spare time . Most men are also celebrating the new quarantine melancholy that the mutant ‘unleashed’, as it opened up a space to ‘get back to normal sexual (not necessarily consensual) life’. This has led to an increase in demand (virtual and real) for physical and emotional intimacy from the women (girlfriends or wives), in the lives of these men. Sexuality, mediated by this new form of the quarantined space of patriarchy, supplements the one-sided imposition of the temporal and spatial demands. The de-prioritised economy of (unpaid) work equated with spare time and time to spare, is being called for as a “standing reserve” according to the will of men, within the epidemiological space of social isolation. “To do something” that would be considered meaningful – now – needs to contribute to the de-alienation of the public rational self and the subsequent rejuvenation of the private intimate self of men.

    Under the neologism of ‘family time’ and ‘family bond’ – to be managed and strengthened by the homemaker – the quarantine has cooped in a renewed sociality within the family. In all of this, the homemaker’s estrangement has been made to appear endearing and insular (read as familial). Her self is undressed to “meaningless chattering” in intimate companionship. All the “coverings, clothes, and curtains” have become spectators of the estrangement in sociality.

    The socio-spatio-temporal matrix that the homemaker finds herself in is one in which the social in social distance seems to be more powerful than ever. In such a subjected circumstance – physical, materially and ideological – would the “suspension” of the social by withdrawing to oneself be possible? In fact, the radical psychic space of withdrawal to one’s self would be held up as ‘wrong-headed’ and in derision, leading to the production of stigmatised and morbid bodies in the space delineated for ‘staying safe (and healthy)’ from the pandemic.

    The immanent possibility of the space one (homemaker) had carved out for the self in the pre-lockdown normal within the home, has suddenly become a detached memory. Under the lockdown, the hope of its immanence is disappearing to nothingness. Though we are all well aware that these possibilities maybe tied to the heteropatriarchal gender order, what is distressing – in our re-reading of Malabou – is the realization that finding “a society within oneself” can never be an unambiguous bracketing of the social under these circumstances. Certainly, a tactical manoeuvre on the part of homemakers with the very social is possible; but could this tactical manoeuvring create an alternative psychic space (in the social) to that of Malabou’s? Would the consideration of a radical withdrawal to one self in the normal – pre-quarantine – within the social, lead to reworking Malabou’s solitude? Does this call for a more inclusive reading of solitude – in isolation and in the social?

    But for now, as for the homemakers the chimera of being “my self” – a reminiscence of the non-quarantined space – is drifting away, we (the authors) are frantically trying to drift away with the radical ‘robinsonades’ – Rousseau and Malabou – to the socially stripped island of “I”…

    • I liked the many levels of comparisons: between the western world generated sense of the ‘quarantien’ versus the Indian; the take on the gendered sense of the quarantine; the philosophical vs the social in the pre quarantine or the ‘permanent’ state of affairs to the ‘quarantined’ sense of ‘being taxed’. I am not sure whether to feel preturbed or hopeful of the end piece wherein to me the onus of reworking the ‘alternative psychic space’ as an unambiguous open space for all irrespective of gender and class and caste is the collective task to which we are really “yoked” presently.

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  21. correction on second line: ‘quarantine’ and not ‘quarantien’

  22. cmalabou

    Dear Bikash and Shruti, thank you for this remarkable and necessary response. It is true that I wrote my piece at the very beginning of the confinement, and my first reaction was self-centered as well as centered around the self. I was not aware of what the situation in places like India would become. Give me a few days and I will try to respond to your response. In solidarity. CM

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