Elizabeth Knox

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Thoughts upon watching people shout people down

St Jerome in his study by A Durer
St Jerome in his study by A Durer

I began writing this in October in response to one ‘storm on twitter’ and finished it today, prompted by another.

I’ve been wondering whether, in most people, the instinct for agreement is stronger than the one for self-expression. When people agree they belong. And belonging doesn’t necessarily mean feeling yourself part of a larger society. Quite often it can mean defining yourself in opposition to something that you perceive to be the large society – ‘mainstream’ this or that. How do we agree? Not by discussion so much as quickly letting other people know what we think, or by a kind of rushed
calibration where we can discover what it is we should think, what our position should be. Agreements are established through the tone taken and the language used. Particular words and phrases. Saying things in a correct and unexceptional way. Each agreement has its own personality, its way of talking – its creep or swagger.

That urge to agree, to find out what the group thinks, to pacify and calm the most emotional individuals, to stand in the tree tops and shake our fists and make enough noise so that the lions, those lazy, maybe hungry lions out there, won’t come too close – these instincts are all deeply human, and calculated for survival. I never have any quarrel with what’s deeply human. But these behaviours and instincts, the twitches and fends, the loving gestures, don’t necessarily add up to a total unifying good.

What we have now with the Internet is, I think, a much more heightened tendency to agreement, disguised as self-expression. Pure self-expression doesn’t look like agreement. Not that it’s oppositional, it just has a different voice. Someone you can hear maybe from further off, at the other side of the room, a little out of the light, further from the fire and lamps, closer to the light of the window – like Jane Eyre hiding behind the curtains and reading a book about British birds. Maybe that someone one has their back to you, perhaps they’re walking away. But is walking away necessarily dissent or opposition? Maybe they’re just going for a walk, and doing a bit of thinking.

When we read deeply, openly, we are always meeting our fates on paper. I am sitting on a train reading an essay in a journal, or a book. I’m partaking of someone else’s world view or wily seduction. And when I lay the book down, bent over my knee, I don’t do anything else but think. Reading is like walking with wind and birdsong brushing my ears. I know I’m myself because the moment has made a bowl for me to curl up in; cool and sheltered. I’m reflecting on what I’ve read and that’s somehow an equivalent to physical exercise, to walking along the tideline, swinging my arms. Sensation, movement, timeliness.

We used to walk to the train, the field, the village, the market, the foundry. We used to walk to visit the invalids of our father’s parish, or to the shady stone laverie to wash our clothes. At some point we were all natural athletes. We were in our bodies and they were in space. We were natural readers too: fit, patient, habitual. (Although my ‘we’ never included everybody, since even when things were near their best, and the horizons of possibility for human life the farthest away they ever got, there were people without books or learning, or jobs, shelter, sustenance.) But we weren’t always logged in and checking to see whether we still exist. Its like we’re in a bar, morning, noon and night, with only bottles between ourselves and the mirror behind the bar. The lights are low and the mirror makes the room look big, but it’s only an illusion of scale. Don’t you long to lose sight of yourself?

The storm on the Internet

If they’re feeling alarmed, what is it that’s alarming them: the situation, or the talk about the situation? The story they heard. The scary story they heard, and the other frightened people. Or are they enjoying their fear? Is their fear making them feel alive? Are they enjoying their anger? Is their anger (indignation, disapproval) making them feel large and consequential?

When I feel threatened or angered by something I read on the Internet, I try to wait for that moment when I feel something apart from all the voices; something apart from myself, the aggregation of my history and hopes and desires for the future, and all the things I cling to to protect my ego, the face in the mirror behind the bar. I believe that if we hold ourselves in an undecided and even contradictory state, then there sometimes comes a moment that can teach us a truer relation to the world.

One thing that comes back to me as I write is a sound, the stumbling buzz of an invisible bumblebee in the lavender bush by our front door, just before dawn, summer, the 12th of January 2001. My mother, my sister Sara, and I were returning from the hospital after Dad had died. The silence of the street, the silence of the house, Jack asleep, Fergus up waiting, and then a first sign of life after death, the stumbling buzz of an invisible early bumblebee in the lavender bush. When I think about that I am like one of those saints in the old paintings where the saint is his study, and on his desk is a human skull, a memento mori, a reminder of death.

We should be reminded of death. But usually we’re only being reminded of danger. Somebody has it in for us, somebody is going to kill us, there are those out there who hate us or what we hold dear. We get that all the time. We get what we can do to disguise the appearance that our lives are short. But what we need is the quiet study and the skull on the desk. We need to know that we will die, and that we owe something to our lives, and it must be something vital. Those lovely villains in old movies, the articulate Machiavellian ones, might say to the queasy heroine that ‘Hate is vital and warming’ – but the spectacle of people agreeing to hate isn’t of life, it’s the already bony thing, it’s the same words being used, having to be used, like a catechism; the same phrases, as if that’s self-expression.

Go back into the quiet room, the room empty of everyone but yourself. Go for a walk. Stand still and stare at something inhuman and alive, or inanimate and kinetic, like a river. Be with yourself and think, ‘Who am I apart from all this? What is the world to me? What is my life to me?’ Put out your hand and touch the top of the skull and think about life, what a short time there is in which to be yourself – your good self – and do good.

St Jerome in his study by Caravaggio



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