Would you turn up at a protest even if you knew it wouldn’t be instrumental in bringing about the change the protest was calling for? Agnes Callard set a twitter poll for this question and I was surprised at how many people said yes, they would still protest, even though I had answered yes myself. I did have to think about the question before answering, but what I thought was that I would turn up to a protest even if I didn’t believe it would be instrumental in bringing about change in the same way that I would turn up to a funeral even if I didn’t believe it would bring anyone back to life. I turned up at the Black Lives Matter protest in Wellington today to express support for the protestors in America. But I do think protests are instrumental acts as well as expressive gestures, instrumental because they are expressive. They aren’t essays or arguments, and perhaps no one is going to change their minds about an issue by watching a protest, but protests are watched, they get on the news, they are talked about, and that means the issues they raise are talked about, and become what politicians are asked to address, and what opinion pieces cover, and what people are going to be thinking about when they decide who to elect to parliament. Perhaps the most important audience for the protests though is the audience of the protestors themselves, the audience for the chants they - we - are chanting, the audience for the speeches and the karakia and the haka and the stories, as we come together and become an audience.
If Dionysus is a god of identity transformation, can we see him as the god of translation? To this question, asked by Simon Perris, I say a resounding yes, I love the idea of translation as identity transformation, it is what I loved about reading the first selection of Stephanie Burt’s Callimachus translations I came across in the London Review of Books, the feeling that I was reading a Callimachus poem through a Stephanie Burt poem and that one writer was transforming into another writer right in front of my eyes. Callimachus worrying about imposing on his friends with another manuscript becomes Burt needing “to learn how not to speak, when not to hit send,” or, if not Burt herself exactly, at least Burt imagining Callimachus with a laptop, knowing how Callimachus must feel. In the prologue to the translations Burt offers an even more provocative way of thinking about the transformations of translation, when she suggests that a translation of a classical work that borrows images and objects from the time in which it is translated could be read as a form of science fiction, an form of alternative history in which computers, netflix, synthetic hormones and so on had all already been invented over two thousand years ago, or what Callimachus might have written as a preternaturally prescient science fiction writer imagining a future in which all the problems of his time and his own life took place surrounded by all these as yet uninvented inventions. And it makes me think about the science fictional quality of all writing, and all reading, which always involves a Dionysian identity transformation, when I turn, for instance, an idea, an image, some words into a poem by Anna Jackson, even if I am not turning a poem by Catullus into a poem by Anna Jackson, or when, for instance, Jan Morris writes, about her thought diary entries, that she is “getting rather tired of me,” of the “carefully-honed persona” - what a nice sort of person - in whose voice the thoughts are written. And what about the way in which, reading a Jan Morris entry, my own identity is transformed as I become perhaps not Jan Morris herself, but someone listening to Jan Morris, a friend of this likeable 92 year old? Which isn’t quite the same as the way when, reading a poem by John Keats, for instance, or even a translation of Callimachus by Stephanie Burt, I become not a listener but an inhabitant of the words and the thoughts and the emotions they express, as if I, too, am hesitating to hit send, or failing to hesitate, not having learned, perhaps not really entirely wanting to learn, when not to. And what about the even stranger fact of reading itself, which may not have been science fiction in the time of Callimachus except in the way laptops are science fiction in the translations of Stephanie Burt? Reading might have been ordinary to Callimachus but some of the earliest works he was reading, and translating, and appropriating, and bringing into the future of his own present day had their earliest origins before the written language was yet in play, when it would have been the strangest kind of science fiction to imagine that it could be possible for someone to speak to someone else across centuries in time, and without any sound being made at all, by someone interpreting coded symbols that represent not even words but sounds, sounds that the reader hears only in their own head, turning them back into words, words they might be half believing are their very own.
In an essay written in 1979 Annie Dillard writes of watching an eclipse of the sun. It is a very strange essay, circling around that moment and rewriting it again and again. It is only late in the essay she describes the approach of the eclipse which she earlier in the essay wrote about as a single moment, as a strangeness of vision. In that earlier description, the world appeared as “faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages” in which she found herself standing “by some mistake,” missing her own century, the people she knew, looking at her own husband and finding him in the film, “a platinum print, a dead artist’s version of life.” She looks him across an expanse of time, or non-time: “The sight of him, familiar and wrong, was something I was remembering from centuries hence, from the other side of death: yes, that is the way he used to look, when we were living. When it was our generation’s turn to be alive.” I loved this description of a time out of time, but when she returns to that moment, or, rather, the moment before that moment, much later in the essay after she has already described the return to ordinary life, the rapid retreat from the strangeness of that vision, she describes a very different effect, not of time stopping, not of a time out of time, but of living in accelerated time: “The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed – 1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight – you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it.” I first read this essay in lock-down, when we had watched the virus accelerate with extraordinary rapidity, shutting down one part of the world after another, and then I read it again this week as protestors gathered to commemorate George Floyd and call for the end to police brutality, only to be met not only with police brutality in response but a President calling for dogs to be unleashed, the army brought in, tear gas to disperse a peaceful protest getting in the way of a photo opportunity. In the light of the protests, I have spent the week rewriting class lectures and setting new readings for students whose emotions are running high, whose social media feeds have no space for any other issue, whose instagram feeds have darkened with the black squares of solidarity. The speed and magnitude of the response to George Floyd’s death is dazzling, but the protests are not a darkness so much as a light, and the darkness which has so suddenly been brought to the centre of my vision has not come suddenly at all for most of the protestors whose lives have been darkened by the shadow of racism for so long. When the eclipse ended, Annie Dillard writes, everyone who had gathered to watch it hurried away, not staying to watch the sun complete its return but returning to their houses and hotels and their breakfasts and cups of coffee, hurrying to leave behind an experience that turned out to be too overwhelming to stay with. The essay, too, took a turn away from the description of the eclipse, returning to the odd, random details that travelling involves. But she keeps returning to that moment from one angle then another, and she gives the account of one young boy who recalls the “life-saver” of white light that continued to circle the darkened sun at the height of the eclipse, a life-saver of light that might be a better image for the protests than the darkness at its centre.
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?