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.
I woke up early this morning and with mornings coming so late these days, I was awake before the birds and heard them all wake up in order. First, the ruru called a last few times after its long night awake, then one after another tui began to call, the warblers warbled, a kaka called out and the blackbirds began to sing. In the summer, the tui wake up long before I do, and today I thought about how much more sleep birds have in the winter than they do in the summer, and I wondered whether they dream more in the winter, even though you would think in the winter they would have less to dream about. I read somewhere once that scientists had tracked the dreams of animals by comparing the patterns of neurons firing in their sleep to their waking patterns, and concluded that rats dreamed of running in mazes, birds dreamed about bird songs, presumably confirming their hypotheses, although the maze-running must be a laboratory-specific dream and perhaps birds, too, have more to dream about after a day of flying around outside. The point of the experiment I think was to confirm that dreaming consolidates learning, one of the theories about dreaming and why we sleep. Perhaps I am not sleeping late because I have nothing I need to dream about, going out so little into the world at the moment. Perhaps the rats and birds in the laboratory also woke early, electrodes on their heads, not feeling like sleeping any later even if all they had to wake up to was another day of running mazes and learning notes. If the sleep of birds depends so much on the season though, dreaming cannot really be what is driving sleep patterns, and bears hibernating through the winter may not be processing particularly complicated knowledge they took in without processing through the long summer, or managing particularly troubled or repressed emotions. Perhaps dreaming really is just like reading with your eyes shut, a way of getting through a time in which it isn’t safe to move around in the world, a way of staying put. I have been half thinking of using the long sleeping hours of my hens to accustom them to being patted, by patting them on their perches when they are relaxed and half asleep, except they roost so high up that by the time I’d climbed up to where I could reach them they would probably be in a state of high alarm, as well as tired, and in any case as the weather worsens I don’t find myself much wanting to put my gumboots on over my pyjamas and make the trek down to the coop in the dark. Instead, I go to sleep early, and dream about minding children I realise are substitute children, dreaming yet another dream about having the wrong child in my arms, or, the other night, a blue speckled rooster who let me carry him around but whom I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to keep, and shouldn’t be carrying, but how could I know he’d be safe, if I let him go?
I have been thinking about emergencies, as the whole world enters a state of emergency, and about the distinction between a disaster and an emergency Jenny Offill gives in Weather – “a disaster is a sudden event that causes great damage or loss. An emergency is a situation in which normal operations cannot continue and immediate action is required so as to prevent a disaster” – feeling like we are living through both a disaster and an emergency, with the actions taken to prevent disaster being also the cause of disaster, and the emergency having arrived with a suddenness the disaster didn’t share, the disaster of both the epidemic and the economic collapse being slower in the unfolding than the emergency which has changed everything with astonishing speed. Jenny Offill’s definition is given in the context of a novel about climate change, a novel in which nothing quite happens, but everything that happens has a kind of refracted significance in relation to the disaster of climate change, a disaster that is happening so slowly that normal operations are continuing and no immediate action is being taken, despite the understanding that we are, in fact, in a state of emergency. Now in the grip of the COVID-19 epidemic, extraordinary measures are suddenly being taken to save lives, measures we desperately need to take, and that almost everyone is willing and ready to take, many of them the same measures we have needed to take to prevent the disaster of climate change. For some time what we have needed has no longer been more facts and projections but a leap of the imagination, but what kind of art installation or work of literature was it going to take to make any change in policy? Inspiring, disquieting works were being produced, and a growing call for change was being heard, and perhaps it was only a matter of time, perhaps we have been preparing for emergency action for years now, but perhaps nothing would have changed and perhaps even now, we will come out of this crisis into a world in which an urgency to get economies growing will see more roads built, new coal plants built, as they already are being built in China, a renewed exhortation to everyone to buy more consumer items. I hope we can respond to the scale of the suffering we are witnessing, across a world in which the virus has crossed every border, with the solidarity it will take to meet the challenge of climate change and with the experience everyone has shared of how dramatically it is possible to change how we live, to accept extraordinary restrictions, and to redistribute, borrow and conjure up previously unimaginable funds of money, all of which we will need and need to fight for with some urgency as we look ahead to the time when we can begin to open up businesses again, put on theatre and concerts, and see the family and friends we are missing, when I will make the apple pie I have promised my son and when I hope to watch television curled up with my daughter, and then I will make my way to Auckland to be with my parents who are having to go through so much alone.
It was in a Tiny Ruins song I heard the concept of “the commons” being invoked if not for the first time, maybe the first time in this kind of ordinary way, in a line in a song that anyone might sing, or listen to. The yearning in the song is for a utopia more whimsy than realism, with ballet dancers for traffic controllers, and all the billboards painted over with colours, and even so, the commons aren’t depicted as something we need to work together to build but just as something it would be nice if “no one felt like taking.” But however well our lives might be going, the commons were being taken, have been being taken from us, systematically, for centuries and with an exponentially new drive since the 1970s, even the internet, which looked, for a few years, as if it might be a space in which the commons might flourish, largely given over to advertising and algorithms. I think this is partly why I loved the Agnes Varda film Visages, Villages, or Faces, Places, so much – driving around taking photographs becomes a way of creating a commons, inventing public projects, collaborating with people and communities to come together around large-scale public art. And then this morning I read the word commons again in George Monbiot’s article for the Guardian about how communities are coming together in response to the COVID-19 threat. How surprising that we can come together in self-isolation! But some people are feeling less isolated, he writes, than they have for years, and he lists dozens of community actions linking people and providing services all around the world. At the same time as people are taking on a greater social responsibility in communities, governments are taking on a greater role offering the kind of safety net that hasn’t been seen for decades. It is very strange living through a time in which lives are changing so dramatically and not just in one country but everywhere, and so fast. It must have been a bit like this during the Second World War, which, come to think about it, there seem to have been a lot of films and television series about recently, as if perhaps we had already felt the loss of the commons, and were ready for a shift in power away from corporations and private wealth, towards both states and communities, though admittedly that nostalgia came dressed up with a lot of uniforms and relied on a lot of mostly decent policing, not a lot of ballet dancing by the traffic controllers.
If the world has mostly got worse over the last thirty years, as perhaps anyone who was twenty thirty years ago has always thought, one thing that has got dramatically better is the opening up of possibilities for the expression of sexuality and gender. The recognition not only of transgender identity but genderqueer and nonbinary identities is liberating in a way that wasn’t easy to imagine in the 1970s and 80s when I was growing up. We did have books in our house by Jan Morris, alongside books she wrote as James Morris, before she transitioned – her book on Oxford, written as James Morris, gave me an early Romantic feeling for Oxford that wasn't entirely undone by the years I lived there. I find the argument that transgender women don’t share the same experiences as cisgendered women no argument at all because who shares the same experiences as anyone? I can remember the same argument once being made about lesbian women who didn’t have the same romantic experiences as straight women. But who has the same romantic experiences as anyone? I don’t think anyone now would say loving a woman is less of a woman’s experience than loving a man, and having a childhood as a boy can’t be any less of a woman’s experience than having a childhood as a girl, given that some women have boyhoods, some have girlhoods. And the possibilities opening up for more complicated or more fluid gender identities can be welcomed without any contradiction or any loss of transgender identities. I’d like to be open to all the possible ways we can find to live our lives, not shutting down any possibilities but adding to a lovely array. I wouldn’t want to lose any of the possibilities, even problematic ones, because what gender concept isn’t problematic and what gender concept doesn’t have its possibilities for identity freedoms? The concept of the tomboy could mean all sorts of things for girls, in a way that the idea of the sissy never usefully did for boys when I was growing up. For a few years from around the age of 8 or 9 I liked to think of myself as a tomboy, which to me only gave me a word, and a kind of permission, for the way I liked going into the bush more than going to birthday parties and didn’t much like the kind of girl culture that was marketed to us, or perhaps was sold to us more by some of our peers than anyone in advertising. If I identified with literary tomboys like George and Jo, it was as a girl not as a boy being labelled a girl. For me, being a tomboy made me no less a girl, but opened up possibilities for what a girl could be. It had a kind of age limit to it, which for a transgender boy must have been an unbearably painful limitation, but if the concept could be kept in play alongside other liberating and available non-binary and transgender identities, perhaps it could still offer its own freedom without closing down any possibilities for others. One of my favourite novels, my favourite Virginia Woolf novel, is Orlando, and I love the Sally Potter film as well, the way Orlando swoops so joyously through the centuries and from one gender to another, with some irritating bureaucratic complications but nothing to trouble his, then her, sense of self. I was always also going to love essa may ranapiri’s collection ransack, with its series of letters to Orlando, and its ransacking of an impossibly inadequate language for all its ardour and despair, and I do love it, through and through. It is a reminder that Orlando’s freedom from body dysphoria and chemicals and hormone replacement therapy is not the experience of everyone (but what experience is?), a reminder that Orlando’s ease was always a fiction. But it is also a joyous and complicated and profound celebration of desire, intimacy, struggle, self-seeking and self-making, spaces between words, freedoms in quotation marks, “a sunrise with my gender / embossed in its peaking,” “a laugh that hit the high ceilings and tangled with the light”… Every time I read it (quite often) I find more to find, and every time I read it I want to see the world and our words held open to make space for everyone to be whoever it is possible they can be.
Often I read that being brave isn’t about being unafraid, that you can only be brave if you are afraid. I would like to believe this, and it is obviously more useful to believe you can act bravely without feeling you have to wait to feel unafraid, or would have had to have been a braver person in the first place. I can’t help thinking, though, that it isn’t exactly what we mean when we talk about someone being brave, and it isn’t what we’re going to be looking for when deciding who should lead us into battle. Maybe there were other battle leaders besides Boudicca who were far more frightened than she was, but it is her bravery I’d have been counting on in the fray. I can’t help noticing, too, that some people are kinder than others. I think even those of us who might not be as kind as others ought to try to be kind, and we can model our behaviour on the kindest people around us, but I don’t think it takes anything away from someone’s kindness if it is so natural to them to be kind that they would find it harder not to be kind. People can be more or less sociable, too, without anyone saying you are only sociable if you see people when you really don’t want to, without anyone saying it isn’t friendliness if you actually like hanging out with me. I don’t want to only see people who are making a particular effort to see me but would much rather not. Having said that, it is very nice of anyone who ever did make a particular effort to see me and I hope it turned out better than you expected.
I am having all my American literature students write blog posts, because although I like to write exams, I find out far more from the blog assignment about what my students are reading and thinking, more than I could ever have imagined from reading most of their exam answers. But, they tell me, no one has actually read a blog since 2010 – everyone now listens to podcasts, and scrolls through twitter and Instagram. We don’t have the attention for blogs, they said, though I would have thought a podcast took more attention than a blog (I am not very good at listening). I wonder whether it is really an audience shift, driven by a changing capacity for attention, or whether it is the writers (or presenters) who are directing the shift, by choosing to present their work on different platforms? It does feel as if our attention-capacity is changing, but what is changing it, if not our engagement with these different kinds of presentation? Is it really the change in available technology that is deciding how we communicate with each other? Does anyone write a diary anymore, for instance? For writers like Virginia Woolf – and later, Sarah Manguso – this was a daily necessity, a form of expression so compulsive that a day without writing in the diary felt for Woolf like “a tap left running,” with it being not the writing she imagined as a running tap but the day itself, as if writing somehow stemmed the flow of time. Could the diary really have become so important to so many writers just because paper was cheap, and ready-made exercise books were sold in stationery shops? And if writers began at some point, perhaps in the 1990s or 2000s, to stop writing diaries and start writing blogs, simply because of the availability of personal computers and the internet, how strange to think that a shift in technology could involve such a shift in audience, could really lead to the end of one kind of writing and its replacement with a completely different genre, with a completely different purpose, answering, surely, completely different needs, and maybe involving a different way even of imagining the self. Did the diary not so much answer a need for secret self-reflection, as create it? And then, if being able to publish blog-posts somehow replaced the need for secrecy with a need for an audience, what happened to the need for self-reflection and for memory-recording when the podcast took over from the blog as the genre audiences listen to, and Instagram took over as the platform people post on to? (And we haven’t even got our solar panels up and writing yet!) My own Instagramming still feels unfamiliar and strange to me, as I wonder who is going to look at these pictures, and why I am posting them out to people who aren’t here, and why I don’t send them to friends as part of an email correspondence, that would still be a conversation of sorts between two people. (But who would I email photos of squares to?) It isn’t just a shift in self-expression or even just a different form of communication, it creates a different and strange sort of relationship I think. But then, doesn’t also the novel, or the poem? There is hardly anything stranger than how well you can know a writer through a novel, or a collection of poems, and how diminished the relationship with them is in, for instance, the signing line at a book festival.