"SHOULD YOU EVER HAPPEN TO FIND YOURSELF IN SOLITARY"
A Wonder Cabinet organized by Lawrence Weschler for The New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU on November 17, 2012.
I. DREAMS OF SOLITAIRE: Tony Kushner, Joshua Foer, Mike Daisey, Catherine Chalmers, Carl Skelton, Alastair Reid, Samantha Holmes, Walter Murch, Stuart Firestein, The Yes Men, Dan Tague
II. FOUR WHO HAVE SPENT TIME: Breyten Breytenback, Robert Hillary King, Tim Blunk, Shane Bauer
III. THE SCANDAL OF SOLITARY IN THE US TODAY: Lisa Guenther, Juan Mendez, Scarlet S. Kim
Below is the presentation I gave (but without most of the audio and visual content). A video of the event is at nyihumanities.org.
Are we ever really alone if we consider the ubiquity of invertebrates? Flies, spiders, ants and cockroaches – all could easily come and go through the cracks of a prison cell as if they were freeways, challenging the very notion of solitary. But would a bug offer companionship and therefore comfort or would their presence insight further terror to a confined individual? What are the physical and behavioral characteristics of an arthropod that might influence these opposite reactions?
Take the fly for example. Their incessant buzzing - always out of reach, small, quick, hard to kill - could drive anyone mad. We loathe them for spreading disease and for their larvae eating us when we die. But if a fly was your only companion could you see it in another light? The same dramas of the human world - birth, sex, predation, war and death - play out in the insect world. They’re just on a smaller scale and take more patience to observe. Flies have earned their moniker - they breed like flies. And to do that, they have a lot of sex. They put on a veritable mini-porn show. That might entertain a sex-starved prisoner.
Humans tend to like animals with eyes - the bigger the rounder the better. We certainly prefer eyes to antennae, two legs are better than four, which are usually preferable to six and no doubt for most people, superior to eight. Besides having too many legs, spiders don’t even have heads. And most importantly they don’t have eyes that we can look into, and relate to. Most spiders have an eye cluster mounted on a torso. Their morphology offers little opportunity for traditional engagement and companionship.
But, they make art. Orb weavers even make and remake their art daily, changing a solitary confinement cell into a spider’s studio. Spider webs are beautiful by any definition of art – gossamer, delicate, intricate, and composed. They are three-dimensional sculptures hanging in space. Who cares about the spider’s lack of expression when the web it spins is a masterpiece of expression?
It is difficult to befriend a bug if you cannot be certain to whom you are speaking. One fly is hard to distinguish from another. But spiders have a home address. If you call your new friend Charlotte you can be fairly certain you are still talking to her the next day if her web is in the same general location.
And Charlotte’s art is lethal. If your cell has both a fly and a spider, you are in for a glorious performance of nature’s ability to spin life into a dizzying ball of death.
Perhaps an isolated human being might embrace the chance to spend time with another species with whom we share our unique socialness. Ants are a sophisticated social species with complex communication and organized division of labor; they are master chemists and accomplished architects. Ants invented a networked communication system that rivals the Internet. Without central command - antennae touches are like text messages - complex decisions are made. Ant conversation is not top down, but bottom up, not command and control, but connect and collaborate. At some point a message goes viral.
Leave some food for the ants and those antennae touches will communicate a message to come visit you. To feed and care for another being, or hundreds of beings, has proven health and emotional benefits. But provide too great a bounty and a rival colony might challenge for a place at the buffet. Is there a social species that doesn’t engage in warfare? To incite an ant war is to see mini-gladiators locked in epic battle.
I cannot imagine a creature more hated than the cockroach. The word itself is an insult in many languages. But on what is this based? They don’t bite or sting or carry the dangerous pathogens that flies and mice regularly do. There is nothing life-threatening about a cockroach.
Would it be possible to put disgust aside and draw companionship from one of the world’s most successful creatures? Getting past the dark, twitchy exterior, the roach is remarkably subtle and sculptural. Its wings are a glowing, translucent amber and its long, elegant antennae explore the world with the grace of a ballerina’s arms.
Even cockroaches, which are not defined as a social species, seek out each other’s company. When they are kept in isolation, they have significantly reduced lifespans. Like us, they enjoy hanging out together - when they drink, when they eat.
Their molting is a magical moment of transformation. The roach walks up and down the wall to make sure it has enough room, then it hangs upside down and drops out of its old skin. The newly emerged roach is white and delicate and soft. Cockroach sex lasts for nearly an hour. The female mates once, consequently is quite choosy, and then is pregnant for life.
But maybe you buy none of this. For some people solitary confinement is preferable to the company of insects. Then at least a bug could provide a rare opportunity for the expression of control over your environment, as you chase it around the cell and simply squish it out of existence. Humans have been doing this for a very long time.