Category Archives: Digital world

The Slaughter of Language

There are books/authors that mark a time of life. Of these, I would include Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet; D.H. Lawrence and Scott Fitzgerald; Tilly Olsen, Grace Paley, May Sinclair and a swag of other women writers who were published through The Women’s Press and Virago. The defining characteristic of books that exert a significant power at a particular time is that most of them cannot survive later readings. It is best – kinder – to leave them in their times.

Other books/authors traverse an entire lifetime. For me, these would include the novels of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf (also Woolf’s letters and diaries), Proust, E.M. Forster, Maugham, Coleridge, Rilke. Life companions such as these are relevant no matter where you are on your life’s journeying. You read them over and over again. Each rereading is a new reading.

I first read George Steiner’s Language and Silencein 1971. It was a remarkable event. I was astonished and captivated by the ideas, dazzled by Steiner’s erudition, delighted and surprised by the richness of his language. And there was a sense of privilege too, that I, a twenty-year-old in Melbourne, Australia had access to something so extraordinary.

I have returned to Steiner many times through the years. I have read each book of his as it was published (Steiner is over 90 and is still working) and I have returned to several of them, but none so often as Language and Silence. Steiner is definitely one of my life’s companions, most especially through his Language and Silence.

I am a more critical reader these days than I was as a twenty-year-old, but still I find Language and Silence a compelling book; still I come away with the delight and appreciation and new understandings that have accompanied all my readings. This morning I reread the second essay in the collection, ‘The Retreat from the Word’. In this essay, from 1961, Steiner considers the dilution and shrinkage of language usage. He writes about modes of understanding other than linguistic, e.g. mathematical and musical, as well as the use of jargon. He is highly critical of the often quasi-scientific jargon in the humanities and social sciences. This jargon does not illuminate, rather it obscures. (Steiner’s essay was written before critical theory strangled the life out of the language, replacing it instead with deadly neologisms.)

Since the time of Shakespeare, common language usage has consistently shrunk. These days, all you need is a few hundred words to navigate the press, social media and everyday conversation. A few hundred more and you could probably get a PhD. We are like Moloch, killing off all that is most humanly precious.

In killing off the language, we also snuff out theorising and understanding and debate. The process has been accelerated with the doorstop interview and the 24-hour news cycle. It is impossible to get across a policy or a complex argument in 10 or 20 seconds; similarly, it is difficult to persuade people to shift from long-held attitudes and beliefs. Under present conditions, considered explanation and reasoned argument are jettisoned, and instead, our politicians and policy makers are resorting to emotional wrenching and obfuscation in the guise of euphemisms.*

Remember THE PACIFIC SOLUTION (nothing peaceful about it), and PEOPLE SMUGGLERS (at one stage mentioned ad nauseum, in contrast to desperate people seeking asylum who were hardly mentioned at all), and QUEUE JUMPERS and the MALAYSIAN SOLUTION. Now we have the absurd and almost incredible NEGATIVE GLOBALISATION (straight out of the Breitbart handbook), the tritely rhetorical HOW GOOD IS….?, and the just plain trite IF YOU HAVE A GO, YOU GET A GOWhile the current Prime Minister on his recent suck-up trip to the US was an embarrassment, his use of language is simply shameful. It’s as if he, and others like him, actually want the population – us – to be ignorant and stupid. Yes, our leaders are dumbing us down.

Back in 2012, and posted on this website, I wrote an article titled THE LANGUAGE OF LYING, about the way in which language was being defiled and squeezed of life. It is only 7 years ago, but with the dominance of social media and the prominence of Twitter as a means of spreading news at the expense of the traditional news; with a man in the White House who talks in tweets, who lies without compunction, and who never defends himself against criticism but rather attacks instead, and with several similar types in other parts of the world mimicking the supreme commander, language is truly in terminal decline.

In Australia, anyone under twenty and most people under thirty have never known life outside the digital age. It is hard to suffer the loss of something you’ve never known or experienced. Privacy, contemplation, personal responsibility, mental arithmetic and memory (to mention just a few human qualities and skills) are fast going the way of telephone boxes and fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. And so too a language usage that is lithe, argumentative, subtle, persuasive, that feeds and expresses an active, hard-working intelligence.

How can we navigate our way through this complex, fast-paced world if we don’t have the language to perceive, to analyse, to understand what is going on? How can we change what needs to be changed if we cannot define it in the first place? How can we head into an uncertain future if our power to reason and understand, both vitally reliant on language, is crippled?

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*During the most recent election, Bill Shorten dropped his pre-fab zingers and decided instead to treat the electorate as capable and thoughtful. In the post-election analysis, however, it was decided that Shorten’s message was too complex, too over-whelming for the average Australian. (Is it like climate change? Have we passed the point of no return with our language usage and ability to consume ideas?)

I would argue against this analysis. Politicians need to work out other ways than the ten-second grab,\ to get ideas and policies across to the electorate. We need vision in our politicians, and we need skill. We need politicians who make us better citizens, and our country a better country, politicians who address the best in us, not our worst.

 

 

ALL THAT IS SOLID MELTS INTO AIR…

All that is solid melts into air

….so Marx famously wrote in The Communist Manifesto(1848). He was describing the experience of modernity. With the collapse of the old institutions and traditions and the ever-increasing and quickly superseded products of the new age, life itself was shot through with contradictions and uncertainties. What to hold on to in such times of rapid change? Marx’s answer involved seizing the means of production in the new age of mechanisation.

We are still in the throes of modernism. Our age is characterised by fast-paced change at every level: global, national, local, inside the office and inside the home. Contradictions and uncertainties abound; we hardly know where we’ll be next week, much less next year. Mechanisation has given way to automation; work is no longer a certainty, the solid presence of friends and family can no longer be relied upon. The only presence we have, the only object we have is the self, or rather ‘myself’, as current speech would have it. (When did the word ‘me’ become obsolete, to be replaced with the more emphatic ‘myself’?). Our own individual self. It’s solid.

Descartes’ I think therefore I am has become in the contemporary age, simply, I am.

But how solid is it really, this self? With the various digital platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on – we are able to tweak the self, promote this bit over that, skim this, shave that, show our best side, our most interesting side, show brains, show beauty, skewthe self several times daily. This self, this individual which is all I can rely on, I am constantly reshaping and remodelling, undermining and usurping, this self that we reach for in our age of flux, this self that could be solid is, in our treatment of it, no more solid than air.

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Millions of Australians of voting age and younger looked forward to a change of government on May 18th, 2019. We were not naïve enough to think that all the wrongs would be righted, but we did expect a more compassionate approach to refugees and asylum seekers, a more proactive approach regarding climate change, a redistribution of public monies to strengthen health and education services, and a greater independence from the US. When the conservatives won another term, the loss I felt, as did many of my friends, was the loss of a better Australia.

I hardly recognise my country any more, this Australia that imprisons innocent refugees on Manus and Nauru for years, that holds on to coal when the rest of the world is giving it up, whose tricky maths has the nation meeting climate change targets, whose efforts to dampen independent and open surveillance through a free press are counter-balanced by covert surveillance into the private lives of its citizens. I hardly recognise my own country and I certainly do not want to embrace it. Following the election, I talked with like-minded citizens in a sort of collective venting of sadness and disappointment, indeed, I seemed unable to talk about anything else for several days. And then I did what so many people do in times of extremis, I reached for books. Solid and enduring books.

I was tempted by Jane Austen. The complete novels would keep me cocooned for several weeks during which time I would accommodate to the situation (like accommodating to chronic pain). That would have been the easy solution. But I needed to understand what had happened, because without understanding it will happen again and again.

So I reached for the work of progressive public intellectuals, writers with a good serving of humanistic values: Timothy Snyder, Zygmunt Bauman, and through Bauman to the Canadian, Henry Giroux, whom I’d not read before. Tony Judt would have made up the foursome but I’d read his last (Thinking the Twentieth Centurywritten in conjunction with Timothy Snyder) and with his death there were no more.

The titles of the books were a promise of better things to this heavy heart:

The Road to Unfreedom. Timothy Snyder.
Liquid Eviland Retrotopia. Zymunt Bauman. (Retrotopiais Bauman’s last book published in 2017, the year of his death.)
Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalismand The Violence of Organized Forgetting. Henry Giroux. (Several of his lectures are on Youtube.)
All that Is Solid Melts into Air. Marshall Berman (from 1982, and still a rich read, particularly for those with a literary bent).

I’m still reading these books, I’m still adding to my understanding of what is going on in Australia and elsewhere. Through these books I feel connected to a mode of being in the world, one in which critical discourse still prevails, the false lures of nostalgia are rebuffed, the destabilising effects of non-stop consumerism are revealed, individualism is shown to be bereft and self-destructive, and the loss of community is deplored.

While there is much more to be found in these books, it is not my intention to provide synopses here, rather I want to emphasize what books have always done. Yes, they provide comfort and confirmation and a community, but as well they illuminate and question and debate, and most particularly, when all seems futile and the forces marshalling against all that you hold dear are simply too great, you can connect with great and generous minds, feel as if you’re not alone AND find answers.

And you can share your emerging understandings with others who will have their own emerging understandings. These are dynamicconversations, productive and often surprising conversations, through which it is possible to shape some changes. And these changes, unlike so many changes that impact on contemporary life in the 21stcentury, are under our control. Our Control. For all the current emphasis on individualism, we are at the whim of fads and fashions, we are caught in a social life that is non-stop busy yet leaves us empty at the end of the day. Through the solitary act of reading one can become, once more, an active participant in one’s own life, a life connected with other people.

Often I find myself recalling the last line of Tennyson’s Ulysses: to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. The words give me strength, the words are a timely refrain in the strains and perplexities of today’s world. The words are solid.

 

Me, You and Us: the Problem with Memoir.

We are suffocating in memoir. Titles clog the bookshop shelves: My Life, Living with Cancer, My Abusive Mother, Poor Little Rich Girl, Poor Little Rich Boy, Skating on Thin Ice, Running a Marathon, Starving for Love, Living Black, Living under Cover.

The list goes on. And every month there’s another avalanche. Of course, in the rubble there are some gems, memoirs that reach out to a reader, that are about much more than Me Me Me, memoirs with ideas and reflections that stretch beyond the events of a single individual’s life. But unless you already know the author – Oliver Sacks, for example, or Jenny Diski, or Robert Gottlieb (his Avid Readeris a gift to all writers and readers) – it can be hard to find the good amongst the dross.

There’s a mistaken belief that memoirs are true, but when someone writes a memoir they select from life and they select from memory. It is not the whole story, it is not even an accurate portrayal of part of it. When people write a memoir they do so for one or more of many possible reasons, and those reasons shape what goes into the memoir. Of course a memoir does not reveal the truth, the full truth, the only truth.

Then there are the fictionedmemoirs, like Siri Hustvedt’s new book, Memories of the Future, and Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry. These are memoirs with a glaze of fiction, a hybrid form that seems to do little justice either to fiction or memoir, but gives ample room for a writer to resurrect aspects of her/his past and dwell on these. Clearly the author gets something out of it, or else they wouldn’t bother: a sense of play perhaps, or an innocent indulgence, or the pleasure of placing one’s own experience centre-stage. But when the subject matter draws on the author’s relationship with a well-known writer, as is the case with Halliday’s book, there can be something quite instrumental and calculating in the events selected. (Can Halliday’s book stand on its own, without the Roth connection? Yes, it can. It’s well-constructed, and well-written. Is it one of the best May-September novels ever written? No it’s not. Would readers have taken notice of it, and, more to the point would publishershave taken notice of it – it’s a first novel – without the Roth connection? Probably not.)

So what is happening here with all these memoirs and fictioned memoirs? Why in an era where the self has so many platforms and stages, do books need to be co-opted as well? Surely with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, with blogs and millions of web groups, with reality programs occupying more and more of free-to-air TV, the self has ample opportunity to bare its chest, to dance a tango, to do whatever it likes. And it can do it all the time. With people posting on social media numerous times daily, and checking for ‘likes’ even more often, the self never need to take a break from itself.* And perhaps that’s the nub: the self and the selves of our circle (which, these days, can stretch to thousands of strangers) are our main project, and for some of us, our sole project.

So many of the memoirs portray the self, the central character, as a victim. Of course, the very fact of writing the memoir, means the author has triumphed over their victim status, over adversity, but why would anyone want to dwell on it, and dwell for the years it takes to write a book? Why would I want to share my pain with you, a pack of strangers? And why would you, strangers all, want to read about me?

Voyeurism is not the whole explanation, but it plays a role. In much the same way that hardship stories fill the magazine programs on TV, we are drawn to hard-luck stories, particularly from the comfort of our own lounge room. But there are other factors at work here. The boundary between life and entertainment has blurred, and what’s real and what’s contrived/invented has similarly blurred. And being a promoter of self is so easy; it takes far less effort and imagination than learning about other people, people different from you. In the current world we reveal ourselves to people who are like ourselves, and vice versa. In this world, despite its porous borders and its multicultural societies, we are in danger of becoming more insular than ever before. Then there’s the clamouring NOW. Being a promoter of self, roots you in an ever-present, and history becomes irrelevant. With the demise of history, the major source of analysing and understanding the present is being lost.

Not so long ago (but, I’m pleased to note, before Invented Liveswas published) a friend asked me where all the good novels had gone. ‘Into memoir,’ I replied, ‘into memoir.’ Memoir is replacing fiction, self is replacing character, remembered facts are replacing an active imagination. The plethora of memoirs is doing more than just filling our leisure time, it is feeding a new type of person whose major concern is the cultivation of self, whose imagination is sluggish, who is constantly busy, stressfullybusy, with little to show for it at the end of the day.

I have often joked that fiction readers make better citizens. But the fact is that the deep immersion in fiction, the connecting in an imaginative way to characters/people who are very different from you, who might live at another time and/or in another culture, develops an understanding of life beyond your own experience. Fiction can take you into the world, and indeed the mind, of a dictator, a child soldier, a politician. Fiction can take you out of yourself. And what a gift and a relief that can be.

 

* What exactly do we derive from those ‘likes’? That people appreciated your post? Understood it? Laughed at it? Engaged with it? Or is it all about you wanting to be reassured you are not alone in your life? When togetherness is reduced to a click, we’re in a good deal of trouble.

BRING ME FICTION

Recently, while on a wilderness expedition with several others, I found myself talking with a man, a counselling psychologist. Apropos of nothing in particular, he said that when it came to novels he always read the last few pages first. It sounded like he was bragging. At this point, another member of our group told him I was a writer, a novelist.

‘What sort of novels do you write?’ he asked, not the least embarrassed.

I described them as contemporary fiction, character based, that while they told a story they also explored ideas.

‘Like what?’

‘The book I’ve just finished, Invented Lives, explores the notion of exile, the one before, The Memory Trap, looked at the complexities memory.’

He said he wouldn’t like my books. ‘They sound like too much hard work.’

I asked him who he liked to read. He said Dan Brown.

‘So you like plot,’ I said. ‘You like a fast-paced story.’

He nodded.

‘But still you read the end first.’

He nodded and smiled. Very self-satisfied he was.

‘You’re clearly not a man to take risks,’ I said, letting politeness off the leash. ‘You want to know the destination before you embark on the adventure.’ It was a comment made sharper by the fact that we were currently on a real-life adventure.

The barb missed its target. He was happy with his performance, indeed, he seemed a man entirely contented with himself. If he was aware of having insulted me, he didn’t care. It was hard to see him as a counselling psychologist.

I would be appalled if someone accused me of being risk-averse. It conjures up a warm-water-bath life, the years mounting up into decades of sameness. And I was appalled as a writer. Writers spend years shaping the journey, and this Dan Brown reader basically says, ‘Fuck you’ when he goes to the last page.

I was relating this incident to a friend of mine, one of Australia’s finest writers. D said she often consults the end of a novel first, in order to get the plot out of the way. She wants to savour the journey, and not be swept along in plot’s white water. She wants to linger in the language and the evolving fictional world. This is a desire I understand – and share. But I choose a different approach: I’ll succumb to the pull of the narrative on a first reading and return for the language and the nuances on a second – at least that’s the plan, but with so many books waiting to be read, the second reading is often little more than a cursory glance.

I suppose I should have been grateful that the counselling psychologist at least read fiction. Many men don’t. They read non-fiction and news sources, books and periodicals, but not fiction. They admit this not as some sort of shameful confession, but rather as a boast, as if to say ‘I am above the fluff of fiction. My time is too important to waste on stories.’ Their not reading fiction is not a fault in them, but a fault in fiction.

It is true that many women do not read fiction either, but in their case, they’ll announce – generally apologetically – that they are not really readers. They don’t read fiction because they don’t read anything.

At a cursory glance fiction can appear to be a curious anachronism in the fast-paced, multi-tasking digital age. The long, slow immersion in fiction, spending a weekend with Christina Stead or Julian Barnes becomes increasingly unlikely when 24/7 connection is the measure of not simply one’s place in the world, but of identity itself – a shockingly frail sense of identity, it must be said, one that can soar or collapse with a battery of likes/dislikes. And gauging others in this fast-paced world is similarly fraught when confronted with an avalanche of ever-changing data; it seems that the kitbag of tools once available for making considered judgements is emptying fast. We follow people like us; we visit sites that confirm our opinions; if we read news outlets (and most of us don’t) it will confirm our political views. The whole world is just a swipe or tap away, and yet for many people the day-to-day world seems to be getting smaller.

I’ve long believed that fiction makes the reader more understanding, more tolerant. The reason is obvious. Through fiction, you are exposed to characters – people – who are different to yourself: different life experiences, different family circumstances, different culture, different eras. For 12, 15 or 20 hours you are immersed in a world not your own, seeing it from the point of view of people who are not yourself, actually experiencing it from beneath the skin of strangers who are no longer strange. The other becomes a familiar through the process of reading a novel. This is an intense learning experience: it’s also an intensely enjoyable and stimulating experience, one that exercises concentration and attention and memory. There is no other activity that exposes a person to such a diversity of human experience in so concentrated and economical way.

So many works of fiction appear in lists of great books: The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, all of Shakespeare, Don Quixote, Wuthering Heights, Moby Dick, to mention only a few. Fiction exposes our complex human longings, it shows anxieties, jealousies, cruelties; it reveals shame, anger, joy and love. Fiction provides a context for understanding what drives us, what tempts us, what destroys and uplifts us. Fiction stops the flashing lights and flabby noise of our on-on-on lives and allows for reflection and understanding.

Imagine it: an hour at the end of every day, after work and before the night begins. You make yourself a coffee (or tea, or pour a glass of your favourite tipple), collect your novel and adjourn to the couch. You kick off your shoes, settle into its cushions; the dog (cat) jumps up, lies down next to you head on your thigh. Your phone is out of reach, in fact, it is out of hearing. You open your book, remind yourself where you are up to, and slip quickly and easily into a world of other people. This is bliss.

The Insatiable Self

Pride, sloth, lust, greed, envy, wrath and gluttony: these are the seven deadly sins. Unlike their criminal cousins of assault, battery, rape and murder, the sins have undergone a transformation in the past few decades. Leeched of badness they can hardly claim to be sins any more. Indeed, many people would now consider the traditional sins to be virtues.

Pride has become self-worth.
Sloth has become ‘taking time for yourself’.
Lust is doing what is natural.
Greed is entitlement and, according to Gordon Gekko, it is good. (This is one of the few clear messages trumpeted by Donald Trump and parroted by his besotted and deluded followers.)
Envy is a fair response to unfairness in the distribution of society’s rewards.
Wrath is emotionally healing.
And gluttony…well gluttony is the odd one out, but this has always been the case. Of all the sins, only gluttony dishes out its own punishment. Indigestion, arteriosclerosis, liver disease, collapsed joints, diabetes, and many more physical ailments punish the glutton mercilessly and, it must be said, often fruitlessly. However, this is not the only quality that sets gluttony apart, but more of that shortly.

When the world was a simpler place there was a virtue to combat each sin. So humility would address pride, diligence – sloth, chastity – lust, charity – greed, kindness – envy, patience – wrath, and temperance – gluttony. In much the same way that many of the traditional sins have been stripped of their sinfulness, so many traditional virtues are now regarded as highly undesirable. Humility conjures up a bowing scraping Dickensian character with poor self-esteem; diligence is associated with a mindless functionary who needs to get a life; chastity is a pathology in the lay population and aligns with sexual perversion in the religious; charity promotes lazy dependence and a class of dole bludgers; kindness is all very well but only towards those you can trust, and patience is a poor achiever.

As recently as fifty years ago there was a set of sins and virtues subscribed to by the vast majority of people in western Judeo-Christian societies, and there were social structures to help maintain them: family, church, political and educational systems. Fundamental writings contributed further support. The Bible is full of admonitions against sin and praise for the virtues. Dante’s long poem The Inferno, in which the poet-pilgrim is guided through the circles of hell by Virgil, reveals numerous sins with all their horrible consequences in one of the most creative and compelling narratives ever written. Milton dipped his pen into this material as did poets as varied as Pope and Byron.

Novelists have long looked to the seven deadly sins to fuel their work, so much so that to remove greed, lust, envy, anger and pride from fiction would shrink the library to a shelf. A New York Public Library series of lectures on the seven deadly sins conducted in 2003 attracted various august contributors such as Francine Prose and the incomparable Joseph Epstein, and in my own library I have a slender hard-copy of the seven deadly sins from 1962 (a cancelled book from the Sunshine Coast Regional Library Service) with the following contributors:

Angus Wilson: on envyseven deadly sins
Edith Sitwell: on pride
Cyril Connolly: on covetousness
Patrick Leigh Fermor: on gluttony
Evelyn Waugh: on sloth
Christopher Sykes: on lust
W.H. Auden: on anger.

If I did not already own this book I would covet it, I would lust after it, I would have to have it.

Sins warrant punishment, whether it’s Adam and Eve banished from Paradise because of their disobedience, or the pride of the Hebrews who thought they could build a tower to Heaven and were punished by God for their effrontery. God split their common language into several tongues, and thereby split the people asunder (thus: the Tower of Babel). In the secular realm, the various legal systems that have accompanied human settlements over the millennia have meted out punishments for the sins of their citizens, while commonly held values and attitudes have meant that sinners were banished to the margins of society and treated as pariahs.

Shared attitudes towards sin and virtue have allowed people to live closely in communities under a system of common values. Pride, envy, anger, lust, greed and sloth all can damage others; even gluttony is at someone else’s expense particularly in times of scarcity. An awareness and value of the other, of the family and neighbours who reside in close proximity, as well as strangers passing through the community, have undergirded the proscription against sin and the encouragement of virtue.

But times have changed.

A few dacades back, the global village replaced the local village, and in our own digital age, cyberspace has replaced the global village. We are now joined with everyone else via a huge web of connections built out of ’likes’, ‘send’, ‘post’, ‘share’, and mediated by vast, rich corporations run by strangers who/that* have easier access to you than your friends and family.

To return now to gluttony. Like the other sins it has been transformed – but not to a virtue. Gluttony has become INSATIABILITY, and in its current form, it is ubiquitous. Insatiability is the power engine of modern life, it drives the modern self.Gluttony

Insatiability has put the self centre-stage. Insatiability has cut us off from others – unless they can supply something we need. Insatiability is fast killing empathy. To want more and better wealth, to want more and better sex, food, friends, family, travel, jobs, leisure, possessions – this is what we have become, this is who we are.

Insatiable.

Insatiability separates us from other people: all that matters is our own perpetually needy, wanting and demanding self. The assault on social life is profound, but many aspects of human endeavour are threatened. For example, insatiability is anti-creative, in both the arts and the sciences. With so much energy directed into wanting/needing/expecting more and better for the self, there’s little time or desire or perceived need to create something new, something with questionable utility. Always lacking, always in a state of deficit, insatiability sees us feeding off the self in order to feed the self.

This is a madness.

Insatiability locks us into the present. We want more, and we want it now. Insatiability has no patience – and neither does the digital world. Immediacy is king. A moment ago doesn’t matter any more. On average, people check their phones every 4.5 minutes, they are checking what’s happening now – friends, news, work, leisure, arrangements – and in the now they respond. And 4.5 minutes later they tap into the now again. And 4.5 minutes later they do it again. And in each 4.5 minute bracket they may have gone to the toilet or made a quick cup of coffee or paid a couple of bills. But four and a half minutes is insufficient for a new Mona Lisa, a new Enigma Variation, a new Mrs Dalloway. Four and a half minutes is insufficient to understand the suffering of the woman next door whose husband has just had a stroke; or the harm heaped on desperate people seeking refuge among us; or the brutality of pledging an eight-year-old girl in marriage to a forty-year-old man.

Combine the digital world with craven insatiability and you have a scenario where the self reigns supreme. This self needs to be looked after, rewarded, stroked, recognised; it can never have too much attention. This self has become our god, our only God.

This self, this insatiable self has already gobbled up much more than the seven deadly sins.

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* It’s impossible to differentiate the non-human corporation, that mysterious behemoth, from the people who work there.

NOT NOSTALGIA

A little over a century ago, E.M. Forster wrote ‘The Machine Stops’, a short story that depicts human civilisation some time in the future. I expect Forster was projecting into the far-distant future – millennia not centuries – but in certain respects the world of his story bears a remarkable resemblance to human society today. In Forster’s story people live by themselves in their own room (children are raised in special nurseries). Within these rooms everything necessary for life is available at the push of a button. When you are hungry you press a button and food appears, when thirsty, another button produces a drink. When you want to sleep you push a button and a bed materialises, when you wish to wash, the right button will conjure a bath. If you are feeling ill, a thermometer, stethoscope and other diagnostic tools will appear to test and diagnose, following which, appropriate drugs will be dispensed. Under normal circumstances people do not meet in the real world, there’s no need and besides, touch between humans is considered rude, even disgusting. There’s plenty of company via a blue screen which links each person with thousands of others located across the world. With so many friends and so much activity via the screen, people are busy, their every moment occupied. Art has no place in this world. Creativity itself has been rendered obsolete. Nature – mountains, sunsets, clouds – is feared. With everything in hand’s reach, direct observation of the world is deemed neither necessary nor desirable. People are happy to stay in their rooms. And why not? The machine looks after all of their needs.

I read this story in my twenties during my Forster phase – what a pleasurable plunge that was. I have returned many times since to the essays and the novels – Howard’s End and The Longest Journey in particular. But I’ve never consider Forster to be an aficionado of the short story form and wouldn’t have reread ‘The Machine Stops’ if not for an article by Atul Gawande about Oliver Sacks in The New Yorker (September 14th, 2015). Gawande, a physician and writer like Sacks himself, was an admirer of the great doctor who died 30th August, 2015. Gawande met Sacks only twice, the first time in 2002 when Gawende was completing his medical training and again in 2014. The two of them did, however, correspond by letter.

Sacks, according to Gawande, never used email, rather he wrote letters long-hand with a fountain pen on quality paper. In a letter, four weeks before he died, in which he bemoaned the deadening effects of social media, Sacks referred to the Forster story.

So, because of Sacks and because of Atul Gawende and because I am months behind with reading The New Yorker I have just reread ‘The Machine Stops’. I needed this story because of a recent longing for my old, portable Olivetti typewriter which, in a state of technological euphoria, I packed up and took to the Salvos some time last century.

I want it back.

I haven’t capitulated to nostalgia. I considered those milky yearnings an excuse to escape the demands and challenges of today. The term ‘nostalgia’ was coined in 1688 by a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, in a dissertation to Basle University. He meant it as ‘a medical term to describe a depressed mood caused by intense longing to return home.’ (I gleaned this from an essay by Avishai Margalit on the role of the British in the making of modern Israel published in the NYRB, 7/2/2013.) A few centuries on, nostalgia relates to ‘home’ in the broadest sense: as a concept and a feeling – as well as a place. It is a notion fed by memory, by photos, by shared recollections, and by objects too. In essence there is nothing worrisome about this. The problem arises when longing for the past becomes primarily a longing for the familiar, for the known and certain. When longing for the past is used to flee from today’s rambunctious unpredictabilities.

My pangs for the old Olivetti tossed out during a technological high of several decades duration relates very much to concerns I wrote about in ‘Escape from Cyberspace’ (5/2/15) and the two posts about letter writing (‘Epistolary Pleasures’ – 22/6/15, and ‘The Passion of Letters’ – 16/7/15). In those articles I mounted a case for uncommitted time: time to think and imagine and create. Being constantly digitally connected is like being on speed: fabulously energising but not particularly productive. I have a desire for slow time. The manual typewriter, like writing letters, like the delights of onion skin paper, like my digital-free Saturdays, is in service not to nostalgia but a desire for deep and prolonged thought, and remaining with a train of thought long enough for ideas to emerge and be fleshed out, and understanding (quite different from knowledge) to be furthered.

My long discarded typewriter has been on my mind for months. The combination of Forster’s story, the fact that Sacks wrote letters longhand, and my own admiration and gratitude for Sacks work prompted me finally to make a move.

Having an Olivetti back in the days of yore wasn’t the same as having a Remington or an Olympia or an Underwood. It was akin to driving a Renault, reading Borges, travelling to Peru, and sitting through festivals of central European films. I was so taken by my Olivetti I made a tapestry of it. (And perhaps this is the time to confess that my Olivetti was actually not mine. Although it did become mine, but whether by fair means or foul, I can no longer say.)

Olivetti Typewriter

For decades I have noticed a shop near Melbourne University in the inner-city suburb of Carlton. The shop is called Elite Office Machines. The window display is a jumble of typewriters and adding machines. Some of these machines are not real but rather cute models. I have often wondered whether the owner of this shop collects typewriters or sells them. This morning I rang the proprietor. He’s a seller all right, a seller and a repairman, in fact Zeljko Koska is one of the few remaining typewriter repairmen in the country – possibly the entire world. He’s been operating from this location for 50 years, and yes, he said, he had a portable manual Olivetti.

I checked my phone. It was 38 degrees outside. Only a necessary mission would drive me into such heat (25 degrees is the upper limit of what I find tolerable). To Carlton I drove and found a parking spot right outside the shop. The parking gods are clearly partial to a manual typewriter, I decided. I entered the shop. Mr Koska – Tom – had just finished checking the Olivetti he had in stock. I looked at it. I looked at the case. It was mine, my old machine. I’m sure it was my machine. I couldn’t wait to get my fingers on it.

As it happened fingers, hands, wrists, indeed whole arms were needed. I had forgotten the pressure required to depress the keys of a manual typewriter. But the noise, that soothing yet driving clacking sound, was writerly Bach.

I went to an ATM to get some cash – no credit cards at Tom’s business – and decided that as much as I wanted an Olivetti, I also wanted a manual typewriter that was comfortable to use. On returning to the shop I tried a Brother Deluxe 750TR, a machine that would be a good decade younger than my Olivetti. The clack was even more musical and there was a spring in the keys that delighted my fingers. I tore myself away from my Olivetti – it was hard, very hard, but either I could capitulate to nostalgia or I could buy a typewriter that I knew would assist in a slower more meditative approach to work.

And here it is.

Olivetti tapestry

Tom, while fit and trim, is a man of a certain age. It turns out he is 73. If he’s not around who will service my typewriter? Who will supply the ribbons? He told me he had no plans to retire. He also revealed that people in their 20s and 30s make up a good many of his customers these days. Young people who seek the sort of slow, contemplative, creative intellectual stimulation that comes from books and digital-free days and manual typewriters.

In Forster’s story, diversity among people has disappeared. Fortunately in this aspect of his futuristic view he was wrong. Although the noise from social media, Google, iTunes and the rest fills our lives, the readers and creators and thinkers are still out there – in small numbers, but that has always been the case. And while they are, there’ll always be a place for hand-written letters, portable manual typewriters, and afternoons spent reading books – alongside the convenience, the wonders, the speed and the reach of digital technology.

 

ESCAPE FROM CYBERSPACE

I was born into a print world.

I learned to read at a very young age and I bought my first books while still in primary school. As a university student, in addition to my study books, I read newspapers and periodicals, feminist tracts and political manifestos. I would wander through campus on the way to and from the union gathering flyers as I went. I collected roneoed foolscap sheets advertising rallies in support of the NLF in North Vietnam, demonstrations against apartheid in South Africa, lectures on Existentialism and phenomenology, a Bunuel festival, a sit-in over the slaughter in Uganda, a reclaim-the-night march down St Kilda’s Fitzroy Street. A single trip across campus and I would collect information and activity sufficient to fill a week. I never threw anything out. I worshipped print. Stored in my filing cabinet – yes, I still possess a four-drawer monster – on sheets of fading foolscap I can revisit the left-leaning liberal’s diet of times past.

There has always been too much to read for any voracious reader, but back in the days of print I managed better than most. Through a process of sifting, selecting, and settng aside reading time every day I would read two or three books a week, plus newspapers and periodicals. The situation has now changed. With numerous digital devices and twenty-four hour access to the web, the problem has become one of abundance. There is, simply, too much – and not just to read. There’s too much information, there are too many shops, restaurants, publications to explore, in short, there’s too much of everything all of the time.

I long for an off-switch or a safety overload-switch. But I keep my longings to myself, for to admit to any sort of disenchantment with these information-rich times all too readily casts one as a dinosaur of the pre-virtual world.

Don’t get me wrong, I delight in being able to access a variety of information without moving from my chair. Over coffee with friends, I’m relieved to search out the name of that 1940s Hollywood star that was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. The problem is that it doesn’t stop there. Like the kid in an IRL (in real life) candy shop, it’s so difficult to control yourself when you enter the web. And just like the child keeps piling in the sugar despite feeling sick, the pleasure and delight you initially experience is readily crushed in the frenetic dashing that takes you over. You read an article or a news item, there are two or three links, you follow one, then another, there’s an ad for a miracle face-cream, you peruse the product, don’t buy, search out another product, still don’t buy, check into Facebook, return to original article, follow another link, check your email, investigate another face-cream, back to article, breaking news, return to Facebook, more email. And an hour or a day later little, if any, of the information is remembered because there’s been no time taken to absorb it, and no opportunity to reflect on it.

This is life in cyberspace. And it has consequences.

My favourite Saturday as a child, and well into adulthood too, was one spent with a novel. I would start the book in the morning and have it finished by day’s end. I was so absorbed I had no sense of time or place; indeed, the world about me could pass through all the colours of the rainbow and I would not have noticed. That same deep, focussed attention served me well during my studies, and has continued to serve me well as a novelist. I’ve never experienced any difficulties going to my desk and staying there throughout the many drafts that novels require so they appear as if they fell onto the page fully formed.

Until recently.

My new novel, The Science of Departures (the title is taken from a Mandelstam poem) has a Soviet Russian connection. The idea for this novel emerged about two years ago. Since then I have been reading extensively about Russia through the Soviet years. Most of this reading has occurred via printed books, and includes works by Orlando Figes, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Catriona Kelly, Gary Shteyngart, Masha Gessen, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Nabokov and many others. The books have furnished me with the political and social fabric of Russia during the twentieth century. But when it comes to specifics like the sort of home lighting available in the years just after the revolution, or the location of hospitals and universities in Leningrad during the 1980s, or brands of Russian cigarettes, or daily life in the communal apartments, the Kommunalki, it is the internet with all its arcane and special interests, together with its print and picture archives, that has been astonishingly helpful.

So where is the problem? I have books for depth, I have the web for detail, and I know enough about my characters to bunker down and write the novel. (In that previous sentence I rather fancied the word ‘hunker’ rather than ‘bunker’, but had a suspicion that ‘hunker’ might not be a real word. A few months ago I would have done an on-line search, but today, just moments ago, I took down my tattered OED and looked up ‘hunker’. It is not a word in my 1997 edition. I then flipped the pages back to ‘bunker’ to help me decide whether to use ‘bunker in’ or ‘bunker down’. Consulting my old OED took about one minute. If I had gone on-line, I would still be there, following up interesting titbits offered up by my search engine, but completely irrelevant to the task at hand.)

Yes, I have changed. Rather than mindlessly capitulating to the seductions of the web I am asserting control over my usage.

For a long time I’d been aware that my ability to concentrate on a single task for hours at a time had been compromised by constant web searches, obsessive checking of email, and an unnatural attachment to my mobile phone. Novels, particularly in the early drafts of their creation, require long and deep immersion: without prolonged concentration they will not be completed. My susceptibility to the vast digital world was putting my new novel at risk.

At the same time, my memory, always so reliable, was letting me down. Or, to be more accurate, I was not taking care of it. On the third occasion I looked up the various names given to the Soviet secret police during the 70 years following the revolution, I realised I needed to change my tactics; specifically, I needed to revert to some pre-digital practices.

I found an empty notebook. This became my ‘things/facts that need to be remembered’ book. It was no longer sufficient to do as I had done in times past, that is, take a moment to stick a fact into memory. My memory had been, for too long, mollycoddled by the ever-available information on the web, and it had grown slack and flabby. By writing the information down I was simultaneously taking the time memory needs to open itself up to a fact, and I was doubly rehearsing that fact by committing it to writing.

There still remained the issue of my jittery attention span. This was dealt with in a most unexpected way. It was a Tuesday in mid-July, I was having dinner with my old friend L. L and her family are, like me, Jewish, although they are a good deal more observant than I am. In particular, they observe the Sabbath – Shabbat: from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday theirs is a time of solitary reflection, of prayer, of time spent with family and close friends. For twenty-four hours they do no work, they do no cooking, they do not handle money, they do not drive or take public transport, they use no electronic devices including sound systems, computers and phones.

It’s a day of replenishment, L said to me, and went on to add that she simply did not understand how people managed to start another busy week without a day in which to stop and take stock. To replenish.

As L talked about her Shabbat, her manner and voice became quieter and more reflective, as if demonstrating what this day meant for her and the effects it produced. It was a state foreign to my current life.

I told her how besieged I felt by email. Each day, I said, brings at least twenty new messages most of which I do not want. I trash emails without reading them; I unsubscribe from commercial communications with fury; I think I’ve finished an email thread only to receive another communication. I can end up having daily emails with someone I’ve never met – and would not want to meet. I feel stalked, hounded, battered. I told her about my susceptibility to the web, that even before a session finishes I feel like a rat in a maze. And I wondered aloud whether I might not benefit from my own day partitioned off from the rest of the week – not a religious observance but a day of solitude and reflection: reading in the morning, followed by an afternoon of music and a leisurely walk. A day with no email, no time spent on the computer, no iPad, no mobile.

L stressed that if I chose this path it must not feel like deprivation. She suggested I might begin with just two hours away from my various devices.

This conversation occurred on a Tuesday. As the week progressed I found myself eager for Saturday to arrive.

I checked my email just before midnight on the Friday night. On the Saturday morning I woke at my usual 6 am, made my breakfast and took it back to bed, along with the latest print issue of the London Review of Books and a book on the publication machinations of Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago (The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée). Every few weeks I have breakfast in bed on a Saturday, so this in itself was not unusual. What marked it as different was that my iPad and my mobile were not on the breakfast tray, they were not even in the room. I read for an hour, I had paper and pen next to me to jot down notes and queries. I made a second cup of coffee and returned to bed. I read some more.

Far from feeling deprived, the hours were infused with familiarity. This was exactly how I used to start the weekend in the ancien régime before the digital age.

At mid-morning on that first Saturday I took my digital temperature. I didn’t feel deprived, I didn’t want to check my email, I wasn’t driven to do web searches on issues that had arisen in the course of my reading. So far so good.

I showered, I dressed, I took my dog for a walk. I was at ease. I felt gentled. And as I walked through the park my mind was in a lovely meandering – just like it used to be – moseying off into surprising and fruitful places. On the way home I bought the Saturday Age, and over lunch I read an IRL newspaper and not the on-line version. I read slowly, I finished articles.

That first Saturday afternoon I listened to a Mahler Symphony. I knitted while the music played and my mind continued its leisurely sauntering. Every now and then I put my knitting down, picked up a pen and made a note. Around four o’clock I checked my email. Only one email was waiting for me – which underscores what we all know: that the more you use email the more emails you receive. I checked my email again before going to bed. My inbox was empty.

The next morning I awoke refreshed and, yes, replenished for the day and week ahead.

 

I now observe digital-free Saturdays, this also includes mobile-free Saturdays. I also try to keep the day clear of arrangements. I look forward to my Saturdays, I actually start thinking about each one, planning for it a couple of days ahead.

To anyone who wants to reclaim an interior life, who wants quiet and extended periods of creative reflection, I would recommend you take a digital-free day each week. For those born into the digital age you won’t know yourself, for older people you will recognise a self from long ago, one you’ll welcome back – with relief – as a familiar.