Under lockdown I began following twitter accounts and even sometimes tweeting a cautious tweet. The divisiveness of the politics I encountered almost made me despair, and I withdrew from twitter for a few days, but the sheer oddness of some of the tweets and posts drew me back in, that and the discovery of new poetic forms (the Etherin!). One twitter poll I had to take part in was on the subject of reading and dreaming – can you read in your dreams? I have been interested in why you can’t read in dreams for a while, along with the way no one uses a cell phone in dreams, or can drive a car. There is something technology-shy about dreams which I find wonderfully mysterious. But oddly, when I took the poll, more than half the respondents claimed they could read in their dreams! I was so surprised I had to check with Simon that he couldn’t read in his dreams (he said he didn’t know!) and then, incredulous, had to check that for him, too, whenever he tried to drive a car it would turn into a pedal car, then a sort of shell of a car around his dreaming self as he ran in a kind of sitting form along the ground (and probably with bare feet). He said no, he drove cars in his dreams, just usually over a cliff, or down an impossibly steep hill without brakes. Which might make you wonder about our marriage. Then, that night, the night after the poll and after this conversation, I dreamed I was reading. I woke up and thought, indignantly, this is a whole new way for a dream to undermine me, almost impressed at the ingenuity of my dreaming self but disturbed too at the thought of a dreaming self so actively hostile to my waking mind, not using my unconsciousness to reveal things to me I might not have access to with my usual filtered attention even though I must somehow know them in some sort of capacity, but rather playing games with me to prove me wrong and undo any kind of narrative I might begin to embark on, sleeping or waking. Last night, I dreamed I was hiding under a desk in an empty school room. Obviously this was never going to save me from my eventual discovery, or from the pouring of acid over me before I woke up. That, I thought at first, on waking, was a dream about twitter, but perhaps it was a dream about dreaming itself, if consciousness is thought of as the desk under which we are hiding when we are awake.
I was listening to a very simple, old pop song the other day and was suddenly awash with feeling, awash with tears even, a depth of feeling rather too much for such a simple song. Wondering about it later, I thought the gap between the depth of the song and the depth of the feeling was an essential part of the effect. What was so moving was the way the song resonated with a situation and a feeling I was aware of bringing to it rather than finding in it, so that the experience of listening to it was the experience also of bringing the two things together, the reality and the song. The songs I might think I like more, songs that are more specific, more complicated, more the individual expression of a singer’s sensibility, could never move me in quite so absurd a way, so lovely a way, as this song did that morning.
I could not be a farmer myself, or not without changing how I relate to animals so much I would need to become a different person than I am, but I would not want to live in a world without farming. What I would like to live in a world without is the intensive factory farming that is not what I would call farming at all but an atrocity. George Monbiot points out that the opposite of intensive farming is extensive farming, given that, even if individual farms are small-scale, to produce enough food to feed a population still projected to keep growing we would need even greater numbers of these farms than we already have, and many more again if they were to replace the intensive farms now producing so much of our food. The land used by all these small farms, in place of the fewer and far more efficient factories of caged animals, is land that could have been rewilded, full of animals living out their natural lives without interference or domestication. But there are other things we use land for we could give up in order to reduce the space we take away from the wilderness, like schools, libraries, golf courses, parks and gardens. If we all lived in high-rise apartments without any public buildings or green spaces, our cities could be a lot smaller, and if no-one lived in a suburb or small town, our cities could rise out of the surrounding wilderness like islands we would never have to leave, except for those truck drivers bringing in food from the factories, or except for those farmers who might then be able to keep farming on their small-scale, organic farms, just a little worried about the wolves. If I wouldn’t want to live in a world without libraries, parks or gardens, how can it be right to keep millions of animals in factories, in order to let other animals live wild? The amount of meat eaten now is unsustainable, but even in a world in which everyone could be made to be vegan, intensive farming of peas, soy, almonds and other crops involves the use of vast amounts of land, chemical fertilisers and animal mortality, as deer, possums, wild birds and millions upon millions of mice are killed to sow, harvest and protect the crops (one estimate finds 25 times more animals die to produce a kilo of protein from wheat than from beef), creating inhospitable monoculture tracts of land that might serve a purpose, but are no kind of good in themselves. I would rather we looked at other ways of making space for wilderness than allowing intensive farming to take place of the kind of farming in which all kinds of animals, farmed and wild, can live good lives. And extensive farming doesn’t have to mean vast farmlands, but can also mean vast numbers of small farms and even tiny micro-farming initiatives, making space for farming in our own cities, with beehives on city apartment roofs, and hen coops in our back gardens. There are too few truly wild places left but there are also too few animals in the lives of too many people and I don’t want to live in a world where human people are wholly separated from plants and animals, never meeting anyone not of their own species.
Recovery programmes releasing animals into the wild are discovering the importance of culture. The habitat can be as ideal as it was when it supported the species originally and yet the fledglings let loose into it fail to thrive as their ancestors did, having the nature but not the culture they need to adapt. I was reading about a programme releasing macaw parrots: “Some rescue programmes declare success if a released animal survives one year,” but Sam Williams of the Costa Rica Macaw Recovery Service says, “a year is meaningless for a bird like a macaw that doesn’t mature until it’s eight years old.” Those eight years are spent learning macaw culture, which cannot be taught to them, but can only be picked up by them, the way the child psychologist D W Winnicott believed children should best pick up their own culture, or, rather, should enter into and transform their culture. So, for instance, morality, he argues, should not be taught to a child, but, rather, moral codes and moral beliefs should be left available to a child in the same way objects, such as teddy bears, dolls or toy engines, should simply be left available to a child to pick up and play with as it will, rather than as the child is instructed to. Adam Phillips follows this thinking a step further: “If trauma is untransformable experience, then any moral belief that is simply abided by rather than personally transformed is akin to a trauma.” It is a strange and compelling idea, though not very applicable to thinking about animals and culture and in fact might call into question whether it is culture, exactly, we are talking about when we talk about the transmission of learned behaviours between animals, if this doesn’t involve transformability. Like the traumatised child, the animal can’t put the trauma they have experienced into words or give the trauma the perspective of narrative, any more than they can put any of their experiences into words and turn them into stories. If all experience is, in this sense, traumatic for an animal, can an animal experience trauma? But perhaps the transmission of learned behaviours between animals does involve transformability, and perhaps there is more to animal culture than the transmission of learned behaviours. When Sam Williams is assessing parrots ready for release, he assesses them not in terms of the survival skills they have been taught, but in terms of their social abilities. Those scoring lowest on sociability rarely survive in the wild, and if they score too low they will be difficult even to catch and return to captivity if they fail to thrive. Almost always impossible to release are the ex-pets, who remain oriented towards people rather than the other parrots. For them, a release into the wild is truly traumatic, a blow on top of the original blow when their owners abandoned them to the shelter. The birds who will survive in the wild are the birds who get on best with the other parrots, who have the social agility that will allow them to pick up the moral codes and social politics of parrots in the wild they will need to integrate successfully, or even to develop moral codes and social politics in habitats where only the rescue parrots now belong. This is, perhaps, what belonging will mean, and will transform not only the culture of the flock but the personalities of the individual birds.
It is impossible not to be interested at the moment in how shaped we are by the usual routines of work and movements to and from the workplace and the home, as we give these routines up and establish new ways of living, most people making up new routines for themselves. Even the animals of the household adjust their routines, the hens including an afternoon session on the deck throughout April, when I sat there reading after lunch, the cat learning the new cues for feeding times. And then, talking to friends about their experiences, for different medical reasons, with steroids, I was struck by their different responses and about how shaped we are not only by our daily routines but by our ordinary levels of physical energy. One friend would almost prefer not to breathe easily than feel her personality changed on steroids, though to an observer she might seem simply more outgoing than usual and more energetic, another finds the regular withdrawal from steroids the hardest part of the treatment she is undergoing, suffering from the same loss of energy welcomed by the other. Perhaps the physical experience really is very different for each of them, but perhaps it is also a question of how they have shaped their personalities around their different characteristic energy levels, so that a rise in energy for one as much as a loss of energy for the other equally involves the dismantling of all their usual psychic defences. Defences is perhaps too judgemental a word for the construction of the self around how we live, which might involve more sitting or more movement which might in turn allow more or less reflection, more or less engagement with others, more or less reading and writing, drawing or dancing, which are not only the activities that add up to what a life is, around which we arrange the days we live in, but perhaps also determine our personality, the ways we manage moods, the times we think and the thoughts we avoid having, or have no need to have, the ways we find without even knowing it to become who we are.
I haven’t not washed in lockdown, I have had the loveliest long baths, but the early morning shower before getting ready for work has dropped out of the routine till this morning when I had a shower that was much longer than it needed to be as I found myself lost in thoughts I hadn’t had for weeks. I wouldn’t call these thoughts thoughts in the Jan Morris sense, far more the kind of thoughts that distract me from concentrating when I am making coffee, thoughts about committees and the work we should be doing on them, forms that should have been filled in, how to sustain our research and teaching in a difficult economic climate. But I had a thought about thinking such thoughts for the first time in weeks which was that thoughts seem to have a way of lingering in locations where you have had such thoughts before, like the smell of shampoo around newly washed hair, or the smell of sleep around someone just risen from bed, as if thoughts were like airborne viruses that you could catch again by moving into their space, the way a whale, for instance, might move through the sea picking up barnacles. Though this thought itself is a thought I have had elsewhere, in my office at work, which I used to drive to sometimes in the weekend so as to sit at the same place where my thinking had last left off, to pick up an unfinished thought and finish it, even though I had everything I needed at home to keep writing. How strange now to have to make my own house a place full of unfinished thoughts for working in. In the hen coop I have never thought about anything at all except the hens.
To imagine a language, Wittgenstein wrote, is to imagine a form of life. He gives the example of a language made up of commands and reports from battle, or a language made only of questions to which you can give a yes or no answer. The forms of life, or ways of living, he is imagining are easier to work out from these examples than the languages: what kind of grammer could restrict conversation to commands while allowing reports from battle? Wouldn’t someone whose grammar allowed reports from battle have the idea of reporting on other activities? Wouldn’t someone whose language was made up of questions think of using the question mode rhetorically, until someone eventually thought to reply to a “question” with a “question”? If I think beyond armed city states or a world of on-line bureaucracy, though, and open the doors to the waiting pets, in at once rush forms of life speaking only in commands and questions. If this is true of their conversations with me, though, is it true of their conversations with each other, and, even more interesting to think about, is it true of their conversations with themselves? Could an animal have a private language? According to Wittgenstein, not even a person can have a private language, and to prove this point he asks us to imagine having private beetles. If everyone has a beetle in a matchbox but no one could look in anyone else’s matchbox, how could we know we were using the word “beetle” to talk about the same thing? In such a situation, he says, if the word “beetle” was used, it would be as pure designation, without object, which makes the word designation not quite the right word either, it becomes pure gesture, and in Wittgenstein’s understanding of language, language is always gestural, a series of gestures used to provoke actions in others. But what action could the word beetle provoke? It could only provoke you to think of each other’s inner matchboxes, perhaps to wonder what is in there, what colour each other’s beetle is, whether when we call a beetle green we have the same idea of “green” in mind. It might provoke you to wonder what other secrets I am keeping, and perhaps whether I have a private language of my own to keep my secrets in. What if I kept my secrets in a diary, like Wittgenstein’s diarist who uses the letter S. to signify a sensation there are no words for, so as to record its recurrence. Wittgenstein’s argument against the possibility of a private language rests on the impossibility of giving a definition for this sign S. Is it really impossible, he asks himself? “I speak, write the sign down, and at the same time I concentrate my attention on the sensation – and so, as it were, point to it inwardly.” Is this a definition? No, he decides, it can only be a “ceremony,” since a definition “serves to establish the meaning of a sign,” and this inward pointing can only “bring it about” that “I remember the connection right in the future.” Language, for Wittgenstein, exists only to “bring about” actions, whether someone else’s or your own, and the definition of a word can only be tested by the results of speaking it, if someone brings you an apple when you expected a pear, you know you have got the word for pear wrong. (One of my earliest memories is of being asked to bring my mother a couple of apples, and not knowing how many apples there were in a couple, I brought instead of a pair of apples as many as I could carry, more in fact than I could carry, and the confusion that this caused cleared up the confusion over what the word “couple” meant for me so effectively I still know a couple is only two, to this day.) But for Wittgenstein’s diarist, there can be no “criterion of correctness,” only “whatever is going to seem right to me is right,” which is no correctness test at all. It is a funny idea though that language needs to be tested to be language at all, that unless we can be sure we are testing it against whatever everyone else means we are only babbling pre-linguistically using words that are not words, even if, unlike Wittgenstein’s diarist, we might be using words we have heard, only using them wrongly. I think I have thought using words wrongly as meaningfully as I have using words correctly, even if I have only been thinking for myself. Wittgenstein’s diarist’s use of the sign S. makes me think about how much more there is to language than communication, how by using it for inward pointing we can open up the whole vast matchbox of the self. As for those lonely beetles, never meeting another beetle, what do they make, I wonder, of our intermittent presence as we look to see our indescribable beetles are still in their boxes, do they take the flashes of light as communication, are they working on a hermeneutics of the box openings, or are they engaged in constructing a civilisation amongst themselves, communicating without our knowing it, through waves of pheromones coursing box to box, or in the ways they move their feet, and wave their feelers, against the walls of their boxes which are both the barrier that separates them, and the medium in which they speak?
Social media under lockdown is full of posts about the baking we are doing, and full of posts of the writing we can’t bring ourselves to write. It isn’t completely surprising that writers in lockdown find themselves unable to write, we are almost always unable to write, not being able to write is almost a condition of being a writer, except that unless we sometimes succeed in writing despite being unable to write we are not likely to think of ourselves as writers, only as wanting to write. To think of ourselves as writers we have to at least have written, which makes it all the more disquieting not to be writing now, when at last we have time. I think it is something about time itself that is causing the difficulty. As much as I am reading about writers who find themselves unable to write, who are asking other writers if they are able to write, who are forgiving themselves and excusing each other from writing, I am reading too about a shared feeling that we are experiencing time unusually, that whereas the days had been going more slowly than the years, now the days, for all the time we have, seem to be moving oddly quickly, and at the same time, the weight of time is felt more pressingly. Sarah Laing wrote, “time is laggy and elastic and simultaneously as heavy as a bag of wet compost and light as… as… well, it floats away and I have nothing to show for it.” She has more to show for it than most of us, a comic a day, which, as someone commented on her blog, is the novel she hasn’t written, is the work of art she is unable to produce. We can’t write, but we can keep diaries, and people’s COVID diaries are what we want to read too, or I do, following diaries like Sarah’s kept day by day, and looking up, too, those collections of people’s accounts of life under lockdown from around the world, compelled to read about how different these experiences around the world are in some ways, how similar in others. There is something very daily about how we are experiencing the pandemic, and I think this sense of time as “laggy and elastic” has something to do with the need to bake. When we bake, time is experienced very directly, very much in terms of present time rather than in terms of longer term goals, and very materially rather than abstractly, not as minutes ticking by on a clock (or phone face) but as dough rising, as an oven heating up, a loaf taking shape, becoming bread. I think this is a response to more even than our disorientation as we lose the usual routines that have structured our days, and have to find new structures. I think we are disoriented too in our relation to ongoing time, to history and to the future. How we live has changed so completely and rapidly, it is hard to imagine the future, and even representations of the very recent past are strange, stranger in some ways than representations of a more distant past. It can seem more startling when strangers kiss each other in greeting on a television show, when characters in novels expect to be able to just meet up with each other, in a cafe or library, than when Romeo and Juliet are kept apart by a family feud, or Antigone argues with her sister about breaking the law to bury her brother (which side would you be on now?). Perhaps to write we need to feel connected to the past, and to the future, a future we cannot yet imagine, and do not know yet how to work towards. Fleur Adcock at 86 describes her lockdown routine cheerfully, “I’ve had my good times,” she acknowledges, and there are ways to get through the days, and it is only towards the very end of the interview she observes, almost as an aside, that “one thing missing from this routine is any inclination to write poetry,” which seems to her now a “frivolity,” a “self-indulgence from the olden days,” the olden days of a few weeks ago. And she wonders “if I’ve been to my last book launch.” We can’t write, but I think we need to write, and I think the difficulty of imagining the future is our most urgent task now, because decisions are going to be made very quickly, almost as quickly as our slow-rising loaves of bread.
A student of mine wished that Coleridge could read On the Road and that at once became my wish as well, so long as Coleridge had already written Kubla Khan and the Conversation Odes so that there was no risk he would write his own Beat novel instead of, rather than as well as, the poetry. It is hard to imagine what writers from centuries ago would have been able to make of contemporary literature, whether the narrative forms or aesthetic values could make any sense at all, poetry without metre, with gaps on the page, the tilde as a tonal marker, the novel with its fictional first person narration, its interior monologues, or, perhaps even stranger, the third person narration from nowhere at all: what would it be like to read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall actually in the time of Cromwell, or to read Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls after the Trojan War, straight after it, that is, not three thousand years after it? Stephen Greenblatt would be sure it would be unreadable but then, he believes the literature of the past is unreadable to the contemporary reader except as a storehouse of historical power relations we can reconstruct through our study of literary texts read alongside other texts, whether shopping lists, account books, travel logs, it makes no difference. For Greenblatt, the pleasure readers take in the literature of the past is a theoretical problem: “Pleasure as a category is extremely elusive for historical understanding… Its apparently transhistorical stability poses a problem for any theory that insists in a strong way upon the historical embeddedness of literary texts....The supposed continuity of aesthetic response seems to lead most often to a notion of the inherence in the text itself of the power to produce aesthetic pleasure.” But don’t worry! “We can argue that the transhistorical stability or continuity of literary pleasure is itself an illusion; we can suggest that there is little reason to believe that the pleasure generated by The Tempest, say, was the same for the Jacobean audience as it is for ourselves.” Like Greenblatt, I like to hold on to a sense of the strangeness and difference of earlier times, it is what makes it exhilarating to be given such intimate access to how lives were lived and what was valued, how differently societies could be ordered. But I am also exhilarated by how inextricable these constructs are from the aesthetic work literature does, and I do believe Coleridge would have responded to the aesthetic power of On the Road, even as he marvelled at a society in the America he dreamed of travelling to in which men could abandon wives from one side of the country to another as they sped about in motorised machines, and how would he have imagined jazz, I wonder? And what would he have thought of the stories of Grace Paley, or Sylvia Plath? Perhaps he would have been less startled by David Eagleman’s Sum, which instead of portraying the world in which we are living imagines forty different possible afterlife scenarios, including one in which life at first seems oddly like it was when you were alive: all the people you love are there, even friends you haven’t seen for years, cousins, every one you’ve ever chosen to spend time with, you know everyone and feel oddly popular at first, as if you have finally arrived at a party where everyone knows your name. But there is no one you didn’t know in your life when you were alive and after a while you begin to feel forlorn, you miss the presence of strangers, and no one sympathises with you, because after all, those were the people you didn’t choose to meet while you were alive. The scenarios for all the afterlives Eagleman comes up with are inventive enough but the real effect of the book is to make life as it is newly startling, to draw attention to all those strangers we do not think about, all the people we do not know who are alive right here at the same time we are! And now here we are in lockdown, living in a scenario as strange as many of the Sum scenarios: what if we could only live in the houses we live in and never go out, what if we could only live with the people who are in our house now? What if we only had books to take us out of this world, and into the worlds and lives and stories of other people, real and imagined, living now or long ago?
One of the presents I most love to be given is an account of a dream I am in, as if my own life were that dream that I think most people as well as me sometimes have in which you climb some stairs in your house and discover a whole additional room, or a whole series of rooms, a vast additional space you didn’t know was there. In the same way, to be dreamed about by someone else gives your own life a room you didn’t know it had, a whole new resonant space you are being you in, without even knowing it. This could be a new kind of biography, a biography of the dreams people have had about someone, which might tell you as much as anything else they would say about them, as much as their waking judgements of the person’s character or their memory of how the person behaved at a party once. It would be more true, in a way, being unfiltered through conscious thought, which is always a narrativising and a rationalising, an interpretation which says as much about the person talking as the person talked about. I haven’t always found the consideration of my non-existence before I was born very reassuring as a way of reconciling myself to my non-existence after my death, given that as far as time goes I am only travelling in one direction, but I sometimes find I can be reassured by my non-existence elsewhere in the world, in the lives I am not living in other countries, where I am not seeing the milk that spilt on the tiles or feeling that gust of wind blow by, or listening to what someone would have been leaning over, intently, to say to me, if I existed in their life. If you say to that, yes but you are still somewhere, I say yes, and I am equally some when. But now, if I allow for other people’s dreams about me, suddenly I have a whole other way of thinking about no longer having a consciousness, the way I have no consciousness of the self I am living in dreams, my symbolic, resonant self that is probably most often forgotten about before the dreamer even wakes up, but when remembered, is remembered with that strange sort of glow of significance dreams can cast.