We share small rooms and still don't know each other's bodies or thoughts. We work beside each other all day and never become intimate. If there's anything we must keep, it's our distance. I googled one of Ralph Fiennes' lines from The Grand Budapest Hotel and found, to my naïve surprise, that quite a lot of people claim to 'have sex with all [their] friends'. How satisfying that must be. I wonder if enemies should also be held close.
I'm thinking about private and public lives and the possibility that with floods of information and easy, often facile, communication, our very concept of an inner depth is being eroded. Are we, however pleasantly, being forced to be public? A private life is a luxury, after all, when economies and cultural development depend on co-operation and shared aspirations.
Reading the brilliant Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire by Eric Berkowitz (1) makes me very grateful to be living where and when I am. As we experience over and over, nothing engages the fear centres of the mind like sexual behaviour. Concern with the legal control of human mating has been consistently intense, the author says, from ancient Mesopotamia to date, though its focus has varied considerably. The motivations were often economic, but when practices are established or set in law, they often continue regardless of rationale. Sex was not at all a private matter in 1956 when a woman in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), rushed to a tribunal of tribal elders worried that her husband's act of sucking her breast was a form of witchcraft. But, you could also say that privacy was the problem here, if privacy involves the absence of information.
In the Middle Ages, social or sexual 'transgressions' were punished with extraordinary cruelty. Information mitigates cruelty, inculcates empathy, if only because the informed become militant, but the extreme practices of groups such as Islamic State and certain repressive governments suggest a global dynamic like that of a giant brain, with different parts expressing different conceptual evolutions. How can I say I'm not they? I haven't had their circumstances, but we are the same species. Liberal and repressive occupy the same conceptual world. 'Ancient' and 'modern' are shorthand, and more spatial than temporal.
A watchful, questioning, liberal society is an intense, and obviously better, method of control, as long as one needs its umbrella. I still dislike the atmosphere in schools, because, round tables and kind teachers notwithstanding, we're witnessing the containment of energies. Absolutely necessary, of course, but however much the language of liberation is used, it simply will not happen. Especially now that a web of professionals has nothing else to do but monitor a child's every blink. The scintilla of bewildered consciousness will be required to translate itself into acceptable language. Could we function otherwise? Artists, 'free' thinkers, so-called 'creative' writing, are the safety valves in a secure system.
I've recently read Spark by John Twelve Hawks. As in most speculative work I know, the near future is portrayed as one in which social control is intense and enforced by law. Humans and machines are often indistinguishable:
Regarding The Traveler, another of his books, the author speaks of the current ubiquity of surveillance:
When X-Nemo finishes a painting, he cuts his wrists and leaves his blood on the canvas. The artist's DNA authenticates the work. Frankly, I think most people in the creative field should do something like that. These days, you can't really tell if it was a computer or a human that wrote a film script or created a pop song. (2)
John Twelve Hawks is so convinced of the absence of privacy that he carefully protects his own and only a tiny few know his real identity. I sympathise with him, but having used the term, I'm prompted to ask what a 'real identity' actually is? A truly private life has no identity. A cartoon in the early days of the World Wide Web showed a dog at a computer screen telling a smaller dog: 'On the Internet, no-one knows you're a dog.' Cyberspace was an arena of privacy in which you could be all of your dream selves. Your particular potential could blossom without the politics of social interaction. That's not quite true any more, with ultimate traceability, and the rise of social media has reinstated the power of community to enforce conformity. You are identified as something or other with each utterance.
...all the technical aspects described in the book are either in use at this moment or far along in the development process. I didn't write the book to predict the future; I wanted to use the power of fiction to describe how we live now. (3)
How much does privacy matter? Brendan Kennelly wrote a poem called, if I remember correctly, 'Francis Xavier Skinner', about a man who wanted to commit one 'decent' sin so he could have some respect for himself. Most people neither have the inclination nor the time to explore their inner complexities and transgressive tendencies, but is this part of the control dynamic?
One of the most effective methods of social control is work, and not such a bad one if there's satisfaction. It's chilling, though, to think of the number of people-hours spent travelling to and in jobs that are repetitive and mechanical, and that develop little or nothing of the inner person. A life of public activity with a snatch of comfortable privacy appears preferable to private penury unto death, even if it means shovelling guano or pairing socks.
The word 'private' has roots in the Latin privatus 'withdrawn from public life', a use of the past participle of privare 'bereave', 'deprive', from privus 'single', 'individual'. There's the suggestion of lack. The word 'idiot' is from Latin idiota 'ignorant person', from Greek idiotes 'private person', layman', from idios 'own', 'private', indicating a value system in favour of public involvement. What has changed? The connotations of the word 'loner' are still predominantly negative. The drives to be 'known' and to connect are as basic as reproduction.
The Bible legend tells us that the absence of labor—idleness—was a condition of the first man's blessedness before the Fall. Fallen man has retained a love of idleness, but the curse weighs on the race not only because we have to seek our bread in the sweat of our brows, but because our moral nature is such that we cannot be both idle and at ease. An inner voice tells us we are in the wrong if we are idle. If man could find a state in which he felt that though idle he was fulfilling his duty, he would have found one of the conditions of man's primitive blessedness.
– Leo Tolstoy (4)
Transparency is a very good idea in government, but bodies are opaque. How can anything be fully upfront when most of our thinking, we are told, is unconscious, and most of our reality is in the dark? Translucency may be a better term to describe the possible.
One is the expectant face before the story begins. What story should be told, if any? Is not everything a kind of fiction? In here nothing is either true or false. The story will end in its
beginning, because there is no plot and no inclination to fabricate a premise.
“One side says this, the other that. You work it out yourself
and walk between the story lines.
What’s true is what you do. Keep your head down. Know
yourself. Ignore the starry skies." (Ciaran Carson: from 'Two to Tango')
There’s constant talk, and it only approximates meaning. Some say talking makes the mind. It’s estimated that people talk to themselves ninety per cent of the time and to others the remaining ten. If this is so, it’s probably what we tell ourselves that counts, and, plotted or not, becomes our story.
– Máighréad Medbh (5)
The more we know about each other, the more we can accept our selves, when we do meet that strange host of inner realities in the privacy of the night. That's if we're not quenching or transforming them with music or fiction. Whose strife is it anyway? The shadow selves shrink if they can't feed on their staple diet of fear, and good riddance, except that they are paradoxically colourful and come close when there's nothing else.
John Twelve Hawks argues that we are living in constant fear, that fear is foisted upon us by the media. If this is so, then we may be in a kind of emotional seesaw, oscillating between fear and release. I certainly am, but whether this is privately or publicly induced, I don't know. Economic recession seems to create pervasive fear, while boom spreads pervasive conformity, though not necessarily ease. One becomes what one does. One is what one wears. One must account for oneself. The Spanish philosopher, Balthasar Gracian, wrote these words of 'worldly wisdom' back in the 1600s—how very modern of him:
Fear and control, absence of choice, must be strong concerns in my vision of the world, because they crop up whenever I plot a story, which I usually do by letting one step lead another. In the highly-controlled slate city of my recently completed verse fantasy, the sacred text declares:
Man is born a barbarian, and only raises himself above the beast by culture. Culture therefore makes the man; the more a man, the higher. Thanks to it, Greece could call the rest of the world barbarians. Ignorance is very raw; nothing contributes so much to culture as knowledge. But even knowledge is coarse if without elegance. Not alone must our intelligence be elegant, but our desires, and above all our conversation. Some men are naturally elegant in internal and external qualities, in their thoughts, in their address, in their dress, which is the rind of the soul, and in their talents, which is its fruit. There are others, on the other hand, so gauche that everything about them, even their very excellence, is tarnished by an intolerable and barbaric want of neatness. (6)
Reduction of privacy may be the price we pay for prosperity, and also for truth and justice. There's nothing attractive about repressive or compulsive secrecy. But there are loyalties, and there are respectful silences. There are also blank silences, without continued, impulsive heaping up of the prevailing facile phrases and explanations. There are inner faces and no faces. Silence is often simply silence. How many conversations properly tell? What light properly reveals? There's always some spot under the radar, if we're careful to preserve a space.
A solitary stone is a weak one, prone to obsolescence worse than death.
And so the Great Crush decreed unity, amalgamation. To be annexed
by the march of empire is to be forever famed and tasting the breadth
of immortality. Little becomes great in the large; morpheme to lexicon. (7)
Look, says Parvit, don’tlook. I am just one, norace,
nobody. Noseless, geneless, wealthless, skilless, mute.
In my dark niche I am noglow and below your sweep,
will preserve all that I am unabscessed, if unformed. (8)
As for who's writing this, human or machine, inner or outer, I really can't tell.
(1) London Press: Westbourne Press, 2012
(2) New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2014
(4) War and Peace, Book Seven, Chapter I
(5) Savage Solitude: Reflections of a Reluctant Loner, Dedalus Press, 2013, p. 24
(6) 'Aphorism #87: Culture and Elegance', from Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia (1647), translated as The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Joseph Jacobs, New York: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1904. Online at: https://archive.org/details/artofworldlywisd00gracuoft
(7) From 'Genesis: The Lore of the Ancestors', unpublished
(8) From 'Hide', unpublished verse fantasy