Coronavirus conundrum: Islands in a ‘globalised’ world

Coronavirus conundrum: Islands in a ‘globalised’ world

It is not only the fragility of life that the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted. It is also the fragility of the thing called “globalisation“. Borders have been sealed off. Nations have barred the entry of ships and planes. The flow of tourists and migrants is put on hold. Suddenly, the global village Canadian futurist Herbert Marshall McLuhan wrote about in the 1960s seems to have exploded and scattered into self-contained little islands.

“Every nation is selfish,” wrote the French writer and aviator, Antoine de Saint Exupéry. “Every nation regards its selfishness as sacred.” Those words ring true as the coronavirus accentuates old divisions within the 27-member European Union. Speaking before the European Parliament, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen rebuked some countries for their response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Said she: When Europe really needed to be there for each other, too many initially looked out for themselves. When Europe really needed an ‘all for one’ spirit, too many initially gave an ‘only for me’ response. And when Europe really needed to prove that this is not only a ‘fair weather Union’, too many initially refused to share their umbrella.

Every nation is selfish. Every nation regards its selfishness as sacred.

~ Antoine de Saint Exupéry


To be sure, the world is not devoid of compassion and cooperation in these trying times. The small island nation of Cuba is sending medical teams around the globe to help with the coronavirus response. China and Russia have despatched doctors and medical supplies to Italy. On the personal level, the spirit of voluntarism is on the rise and people are reaching out to help others.

But self-centredness has also come to the fore. Consider celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, who was widely criticised for quickly laying off 500 restaurant staff in the face of the pandemic. Or landlords who kick out their health worker-tenants for fear of getting infected. Not less egregious are the numerous cases of racism and xenophobia spawned by the coronavirus — like the UK nurse who was racially abused by a couple on her way to her overtime shift at the hospital.

Should anyone be surprised? The whole history of civilisation has been spun around the themes of altruism versus egoism, cooperation versus division. The tension between these opposing tendencies has been illuminated by the coronavirus. But it has always been there, deep in the bowels of human nature. The words of the English poet, John Donne, may serve as a reminder to everyone as the world struggles, not only against the plague, but against the worst in humanity:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: 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. [Meditation 17, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624)]

~Barista Uno

The Marine Cafe Blog

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Nostalgic art: People at the beach by Winslow Homer

Nostalgic art: People at the beach by Winslow Homer

Many beaches have been emptied of tourists and holidaymakers as the coronavirus epidemic drags on. No worries. Winslow Homer (1836–1910), the noted American painter best known for his marine subjects, can transport beach lovers beyond the boundaries of time and space. The following works by Homer may not substitute for the sand and sea, but they can help those who miss the beach relive the days that now seem so distant.

Learn more about the life and works of Winslow Homer from these two monographs (click the titles to download the files):

An Eye for Art: Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer and the Poetics of Place


East Hampton Beach, Long Island, 1874
Winslow Homer (1836–1910)
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

After covering the American Civil War (1861–1865) as illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, Winslow Homer turned to the depiction of fashionable young women. This oil painting of women enjoying a sunny day at the beach is remarkable for its superb composition and cerebral use of colour. By putting in just the right amount of details, Homer conveys a pleasant, laid-back atmosphere.

Left (top)The Bathers, 1873; Right (bottom)On the Bluff at Long Branch, at the Bathing Hour, from Harper’s Weekly, August 6, 1870
Winslow Homer (1836–1910)
Images courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Homer’s drawings and paintings of beach scenes are significant not only because of their artistic value. They also open a window to a bygone era even as they remind us of the unfading joy of days spent on the beach.

Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide), 1870
Winslow Homer (1836–1910)
Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

There is an air of mystery and a strong narative element in ‘Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide). The three women are grouped together in an imaginary circle, as it were. They apparently know each other, but they strike different poses as they face outward from the centre of the circle. Two of them are wearing running shoes, but the girl on the left is soaking wet. Did she stand too close to the water when the tide rushed in? To add to the painting’s enigmatic appeal, a dog looks curiously but warily at the three figures.

A Basket of Clams, 1873
Winslow Homer (1836–1910)
Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

‘A Basket of Clams’ provides ample proof of Winslow Homer’s standing as a master watercolourist. His delicate handling of the medium to produce glints of sunlight gives this work a certain rustic charm.

Seaside Sketches – A Clam-Bake, 1873
Winslow Homer (1836–1910)
Image courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Winslow Homer chose a rocky beach instead of a sandy shore as the setting for ‘Seaside Sketches – A Clam-Bake’. If this was an artistic gambit, it paid off very well indeed. The variously sized rocks add a rich texture to the drawing, which contrasts with the plainness of the sea and sky in the background. Homer’s eye for detail is unmistakable.

A Fisher Girl on Beach (Sketch for Illustration of “The Incoming Tide”), 1876
Winslow Homer (1836–1910)
Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Winslow Homer’s sketch of a fisher girl walking along the beach shows his great empathy with fisherfolk as well as understanding  of human nature in general. The young woman has her head turned towards the boat, perhaps waiting for the fisherman to unload his catch. Like the stylishly dressed women Homer loved to paint, she exudes grace and confidence, although one detects a bit of haughtiness in her posture.

The Watcher, Tynemouth, 1882
Winslow Homer (1836–1910)
Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

It’s a hard life for fisherfolk. Winslow Homer sums it all up in ‘The Watcher, Tynemouth’ — one of many art pieces he made during his stay (1881–1882) in the English fishing village of Cullercoats near the city of Tynemouth. The white foam of the roaring waves serves to frame the woman in drab clothing. At the same time, it acts as a counterpoint to the gloom that permeates Homer’s watercolour opus.

~Barista Uno

The Marine Cafe Blog

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Solitude in art: musings during a coronavirus lockdown

Solitude in art: musings during a coronavirus lockdown

Entire cities and countries are in lockdown because of the coronavirus. Millions are forced to stay at home, marooned like the pirate in the 1903 drawing  by American illustrator and author Howard Pyle (pictured above, from his Book of Pirates). Humans being hopelessly social creatures, it is a miserable state of affairs. Even so, I hope the following works of art, together with my random reflections, would help mitigate the misery of those who are not used to being isolated from the crowd.

Study of a fisherman, by 1936, by Vincenzo Caprile (Italian, 1856–1936)
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (from the Bonhams auction house)

Prolonged periods out at sea are a kind of quarantine for fishermen and sailors. The sense of isolation is intensified by the absence of  familiar faces, of friends and loved ones, and the vastness of the sea itself. Yet, those who make a living from the sea endure it all.

The Gulf Stream, 1899, by Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910)
Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

There are many things worse than staying at home because of the coronavirus. The fisherman in Winslow Homer’s powerful painting is stranded on a boat with a broken mast and rudder. Surrounded by a shark-infested sea, he teeters between despair and hope, not knowing if the ghostly ship in the distance would finally see and rescue him.

Woman at the Shoreline, 1910, by Léon Spilliaert (Belgian, 1881–1946)
Image courtesy of The Athenaeum

Even during normal times, many people have to wrestle with solitude and loneliness. The solitary figure in Léon Spilliaert’s enigmatic work may well symbolise all the widows in the world who are forced by circumstances to stand on their own. Or the independent-minded woman who has to struggle against gender discrimination in the workplace.

Seascape with lighthouse after a painting by C. Frederick Sörensen, 1862–1876
Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

A lighthouse is not just an engineering structure. Often situated on a promontory, it is symbolic of human solitude. Yet, it is also a reminder that those who choose to be alone, to stand above the herd, can be a guiding light to others.

Meditation by the Sea, early 1860s, by unnamed American Artist
Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Do not fret. The times when one is alone and isolated are the best times for self-reflection. As Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.”

~Barista Uno

The Marine Cafe Blog

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14 great quotes to read in the time of the coronavirus

14 great quotes to read in the time of the coronavirus

Plagues do not come very often. But when they do, they cause a great deal of fear and consternation. The present coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has disrupted supply chains, wreaked havoc on stock markets, and sent people panic-buying in the supermarkets. The following quotes should provide some food for thought and perhaps  even solace in this terrifying time.

On human life

This life of ours is a wild æolian harp of many a joyous strain,
But under them all there runs a loud perpetual wail, as of souls in pain.

~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Christus, The Golden Legend

I came like Water, and like Wind I go. ~ Omar Khayyam, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The terrible events of life are great eye-openers. They force us to learn that which it is wholesome for us to know, but which habitually we try to ignore — namely, that really we have no claim on a long life; that we are each of us liable to be called off at any moment, and that the main point is not how long we live, but with what meaning we fill the short allotted span — for short it is at best. ~ Felix Adler, Life and Destiny, Section 8: Suffering and Consolation

Fisherman and Reeds, Album-Leaf Painting (Qing dynasty, 19th century)
Photo credit: Brooklyn Museum

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. ~ Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Like bubbles on the sea of matter borne,
They rise, they break, and to that sea return.

~ Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

On sickness and suffering

Oh, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer.

~ William Shakespeare, The Tempest

But what does it mean, the plague? It’s life, that’s all. ~ Albert Camus, The Plague

Det syke barn (The sick child), 1885–1886
Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863–1944)
Photo credit: Nasjonalmuseet / Høstland, Børre (under CC BY-NC 4.0 licence)

The suspense: the fearful, acute suspense: of standing idly by while the life of one we dearly love, is trembling in the balance; the racking thoughts that crowd upon the mind, and make the heart beat violently, and the breath come thick, by the force of the images they conjure up before it; the desperate anxiety to be doing something to relieve the pain, or lessen the danger, which we have no power to alleviate; the sinking of soul and spirit, which the sad remembrance of our helplessness produces; what tortures can equal these; what reflections of endeavours can, in the full tide and fever of the time, allay them! ~ Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

A sick thought can devour the body’s flesh more than fever or consumption. ~ Guy de Maupassant, Le Horla et autres contes fantastiques

Calamity is virtue’s opportunity. ~ Seneca the Younger, De Providentia, IV

On fear and hope

Even the bravest men are frightened by sudden terrors.
~ Tacitus, Annales (AD 117)

No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. ~ Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

Fear always springs from ignorance. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar

Bear and be firm: this unhappiness will one day be beneficial. ~ Ovid, Amorum

Moonrise, circa 1835–1837
Caspar David Friedrich (German, 1774–840)
Photo credit: The State Hermitage Museum, Russia

~Barista Uno

The Marine Cafe Blog

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Glimpses of greed in maritime Manila (real-life stories)

Glimpses of greed in maritime Manila (real-life stories)

There is a culture of greed in maritime Manila which reminds me of Gustave Doré‘s drawing (pictured above) of the greedy and indulgent pushing rocks in Dante’s Inferno. The caption reads:

Not all the gold that is beneath the moon,
Or ever hath been, of these toil-worn souls
Might purchase rest for one.

~ Canto VII., lines 65-67.

Not all have succumbed to the greed. I have known a few spirits whose kind-heartedness and generosity have helped preserve my faith in humanity. However, many folks, particularly in Manila’s manning community, have capitulated to Mammon, to the siren call of money. The following are two of my personal encounters with them, both excerpted from my e-book, Close Encounters in Maritime Manila:

Encounter 1: A journalist in love with money

I remember one afternoon when I had coffee with Ms. K. in the lobby of a large hotel in Manila. She was a journalist who had previously worked in Hong Kong. Given her background and evident interest in culture, I started hoping that we could become good friends. I even entertained the idea that we were kindred spirits whose paths were fated to cross.

After coffee, we walked together toward the block of flats where she lived, which was some distance away. The sun was almost setting by the time we reached the narrow road leading to her place, so I offered to treat her to an early dinner at a restaurant.

It did not take long for our orders to be laid on the table. We did not talk much as we partook of our meal. After we stepped out of the eatery, I was walking two steps ahead of her when she suddenly quickened her pace and tugged at my arm.

“Do you know how much tip you gave the waiter?” she asked. I thought it strange that she would bring up the matter.

“I think I gave 50 pesos,” I replied, a little embarrassed.

The amount was equivalent to a little less than one U.S. dollar and about ten per cent of our bill. It seemed to me quite reasonable. But after seeing the expression on her face, a look that said I had tipped excessively, I muttered something about the food being excellent and the waiter giving commendable service. That calmed her down, but it was silly that I had to explain a trivial matter involving money.

I felt like the protagonist in the novel L’Étranger (The Stranger) by the French author and philosopher, Albert Camus: an outsider, a cultural misfit, a spiritual expatriate in my own country. At that moment, I saw Ms. K. gradually recede, the gulf that separated us widening and widening until she shrank to a dot on the horizon, like a ship that had departed. It was a friendship that was never meant to be. (from CHAPTER 1: The Great Money Chase)

Encounter 2: A grasping manning agent

I hate to use a colourful Filipino term but it describes many Filipinos, rich and poor alike: patay-gutom. The expression, a combination of patay (dead) and gutom (hungry), literally means a greedy person who acts as though he or she is close to starvation. Its connotes a strong craving for money or material gain coupled with a strong fear of being deprived.

The word is offensive and grating to the native ear, but it would cross my mind after I was invited by Captain F. to the blessing of his manning company’s new offices.

Captain F. had as one of two guests of honour Mr. H, a manning executive known to all and sundry. Office blessings are usually stodgy affairs, but this one had a fascinating twist. After the priest sprinkled holy water in the rooms upstairs, company staff and guests trailing behind him with lighted candles, everyone walked back down to the lobby for the traditional tossing of the coins.

Lo and behold, Mr. H. was the first to dash for it. He was down on all fours, grinning as he picked up the coins scattered on the floor and put them in the pocket of his elegantly tailored business suit.

The popular belief is that the more coins you catch during the blessing ceremony, the greater the fortune in store for you. But surely, I thought, one need not appear so undignified when seeking prosperity and good luck from the gods. The sight of Mr. H. gathering up the coins like a starved capuchin monkey was forever etched on my mind.  (from CHAPTER 1: The Great Money Chase)

READ MORE real-life stories in Close Encounters in Maritime Manila, all of which serve as windows to Filipino maritime culture and society at large. For details, click here.

~Barista Uno

The Marine Cafe Blog

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