Comfort Crash Course

Comfort Crash Course, Day 5: Defining Comfort (or, The Great Shift)

4,000 Miles of Confronting Comfort

Since my first Comfort Crash Course post, I’ve been bombarded with questions from colleagues, naturally curious about my life here aboard the ship. So let me set the stage for you.

The Hanjin Palermo is a 45,000-ton ship with a capacity of 3,000 containers—“nur ein kleines Shiff,” the captain said to me in seriousness when I boarded, “just a small ship.” The largest containership in operation today carries 16,000.

At the back of the ship is a small tower, eight floors high, which houses all the rooms aboard—the living quarters, kitchen (pardon me—galley), dining rooms, sickroom, engine room, etc., and the bridge on the very top, where the captain and officers control the thing. From there, when you look forward, the rest of the ship is taken up by stacks upon stacks of boxes.

Hanjin Palermo - containers

On the main deck there is a walkway around the circumference of the ship (about 400 meters, a fitness-savvy sailor told me), next to or sometimes beneath the containers, but otherwise life aboard is confined to the eight small floors of the tower.

Hanjin Palermo - walkway

The ship is nearly twenty years old—and it shows, an officer remarked to me during a quick tour yesterday. Twenty is a lot of ship years when it comes to quality of accommodations and amenities, he said. And while I don’t doubt this is true, I didn’t exactly come aboard with high expectations.

The rooms are basic, as are the dining hall, the day rooms, and everything else I’ve seen so far. Nothing less than one needs; but not much more either. My room is bigger than I had expected, with a double bed, a desk, a private bathroom with a shower curtain spotted with happy-looking rubber duckies, and a small sitting area where I’ve taken to cozying up with my CCC readings late at night.

Hanjin Palermo - room

Hanjin Palermo - room

My window looks out on the ocean and, if I lean out far enough, the back end of several refrigerated containers.

Meals are served in a dining room that I share with the captain and officers (all German), along with three other passengers. (“Hearty seaman’s fare,” as promised by the “ABCs of Freighter Travel” I received from the company before I departed.) The rest of the crew are Filipino and eat in a separate, slightly less ornate room. Even aboard a ship, it seems, hierarchy and privilege rule. The same goes for the day rooms for recreation: there is one for the captain and officers, and one for the crew that brings back memories of my first-year college dormitory. Below deck there is a small pool (empty, covered in net), a sauna (maybe working, the officer told me with an uncertain shrug), and an exercise room with one ancient stationary bicycle, a few dumbbells, a ping-pong table, and a well-used dartboard.

The whole place reeks of twenty years’ worth of cigarette smoke.

During the day I work from the deck with the salty wind brushing through my hair, looking out at nothing but the swirling wake and the unbroken, never-ending horizon behind us.

Hanjin Palermo - wake

All of this, of course, is extremely relevant to my task of understanding comfort. After all, we tend to think of comfort in terms of the relationship between ourselves and our surrounding environment.

But this hasn’t always been the case.

Oxford Dictionaries Online defines the noun comfort as follows:

1 a state of physical ease and freedom from pain or constraint:
      room for four people to travel in comfort
—(comforts) things that contribute to physical ease and well-being:
      the low upholstered chair was one of the room’s few comforts
—prosperity and the pleasant lifestyle secured by it:
      my father left us enough to live in comfort

2 consolation for grief or anxiety:
      a few words of comfort
[in singular] a person or thing that gives consolation:
      his friendship was a great comfort

Its origin as such comes from Middle English, as a noun, “in the senses ‘strengthening, support, consolation,’” and as a verb, “in the senses ‘strengthen, give support, console’”; from Old French, confort (noun) and conforter (verb); and from late Latin, confortare, from com- “expressing intensive force” + fortis, “strong.”

But it is the last sentence of this etymological description that bears, in my mind, the most consideration: “The sense ‘something producing physical ease’ arose in the mid 17th century.”

In other words, while our current definition of the word begins first and foremost with “a state of physical ease,” in the entire history of the linguistic concept of comfort, it is only in the last three to four hundred years that it has referred to the physical.

Today I began reading “The Sensibility of Comfort,” an essay by John E. Crowley published in the American Historical Association’s journal The American Historical Review in June 1999. It begins with an anecdote that alludes to the noteworthiness of this exact shift:

For 45 years, between 1758 and 1802, the Reverend James Woodforde kept a diary analyzing every single physical comfort and discomfort of his day-to-day life. He noted, for example, how the quality of his sleep was affected by the smoke and smell of his candle; the temperature readings when he was too hot, or too cold; whether he used bedwarmers at night, or an umbrella on a rainy day.

The minutiae of all minutiae.

But Woodforde’s attention to these details was indicative of a shift that eventually became so widespread that it could be argued that the shift was as philosophical as it was cultural. Crowley writes:

Each of Woodforde’s concerns—ample ventilation of sleeping quarters, the elimination of smoky chimneys, umbrellas for rainy weather, furnishing homes for domestic leisure—drew the attention of Anglo-American political economists, moral philosophers, scientists, humanitarian reformers, even novelists.

These commentators sought to evaluate the relations of the body, material culture, and environment in the name of physical comfort. They gave the term “comfort” a new physical emphasis as they reconceptualized values, redesigned material environments, and urged the re-learning of behaviors.

For centuries “comfort” had primarily meant moral, emotional, spiritual, and political support in difficult circumstances. To be “comfortless” had meant being “without anything to allay misfortune,” and “discomfort” involved feelings of “sorrow,” “melancholy,” and “gloom” rather than physical irritability.

In Ralph Josselin’s diary, the most appropriate seventeenth-century document for comparison with Woodforde’s diary, the word “comfort” appears every few days, but almost invariably in reference to providential blessings—thoughts of love toward his father, his wife’s pregnancy, the delivery of a sermon, good weather.

When the term “comfort” began referring to the physical realm, political economists increasingly applied it to standards of living. The new concept allowed them to analyze the differences between “luxury” and “necessity.”

By the last decades of the eighteenth century the concept of physical comfort had gained so much ground, and exerted such ideological force, that “humanitarians incorporated it in their appeals for social justice toward the poor, the incarcerated, and the enslaved, groups whose lack of comfort indicated the crucial need to remedy their circumstances. At the end of the eighteenth century, physical comfort could be asserted as a right of the underprivileged and a humanitarian responsibility of the propertied,” Crowley writes.

It’s this shift that led to the now nearly universal mentality that made my colleagues so curious about not my spiritual or mental state alone on the high seas, but my accommodations aboard the ship. Comfort, as we understand it today, is inextricably bound to our physical state within our surrounding environment.

And the shift to that ideology was one that produced a new era—an era in which physical comfort was, as Crowley puts it, a “legitimizing motive” for a pattern that came to define our idea of modernity, and that I will explore in my next post: consumption.

Photos: Christine McLaren.

The Comfort Crash Course is a two-week series by BMW Guggenheim Lab|Log blogger Christine McLaren as she journeys 15 days from New York to Berlin via containership, following the same cross-Atlantic route traveled by the Lab itself last fall. In the complete absence of city life, and armed with a library of diverse readings that helped inspire the theme for the Lab’s first cycle, Confronting Comfort, as well as others recommended by Lab|Log followers, she explores this theme at its core. The goal: to discover and understand the roots of the human quest for comfort—and why it needs to be confronted. More here.