I am the book of every thought I ever had. I am the record of my every move in ticks and tiny blots and florid flashes of illumination like gold leaf moving with the sun through the cavernous vaults of my body. Every page I read burns away and drowns and is stripped by the relentless wind. My body disperses through every part of space. My body condenses to a retinal cell, a finger tip fold, a bud, an ossicle.
I am a packet of information sucking at my skin clinging to and separating every hoarding. Chords, horns, bells announce desires I did not know I felt. Sirens entice me into their delirium.
I think the ring is you. The call is to say a text is here. I open an envelope while reading an email exhorting me to open my window and wander enchanted through it, always forgetting where I’ve been and where I am in the deafening glory of the promised world.
Each bit in this quicksound is shaped to suck its neighbours in while slipping away on a fluid film. From this terrain the cold emptiness of the sky seems like a liberation. The falcon sees only one thing.
I string a snare of words to catch every charged pulse but love and hate and play feints through the clauses. Word falls through word. And sense swims in the air between us thinking like an animal, its body changing. Our pages drift and trawl over every liquid surface searching for the fugitive lover. But the breath can never be caught.
The stacked towers of my conversations are archived in folders. I can cross-check the blocks of my history like a city. Misunderstandings, corralled and hobbled, cower in sheepish bars. The wilderness is penned. Busily I flag and mark and cipher space while the sky gets bigger and bigger. And a falcon rests on its arms outstretched.
So I’m not a hermit because I’m on the internet?
It’s true I miss the quietness of a more unplugged retreat but here I’ve wanted to ask how alone any of us is, and how together?
There is a screaming arrogance in our assertion that to be away from humans is to be alone. It’s the arrogance that allows us to close our fist around a frog, brush away the earwig’s quiet story, snatch the seat from under the Taino, uproot the sparrow’s home. ‘Only people like me count’, it says. With that kind of attitude it really is a lonely world. And it gets lonelier and lonelier. In the middle of a city, surrounded by a million single-minded trajectories and averted gazes, on the internet where there are no consequences, that’s where you’re alone. But in a forest every creature is part of a millions of years old dance. In a desert even the clouds and the dunes tell you stories. There is a sense of belonging from which human arrogance has held itself aloof.
A great shift happened when humans invented writing. I’ve spoken elsewhere on this blog about tools and agriculture but surely one of the most significant technologies in human evolution must be writing. The moment when an object in the world became represented by something other than itself, by a sign, it began to lose its own particular voice and began to be relegated to a category for a human purpose.
Writing began as a means of asserting ownership, of counting possessions and trading in them. It was an assertion of control over objects. Writing conveyed a magical power. Spoken language already does this to some extent but it is still tied in to a memory which is housed in a body with its particular sound and breath. Speech still has a music which cannot be captured and tamed.
But writing grew far away from this breath. It progressed by leaps and jumps from pictures to rebus to phonetics to a full alphabet to the printing press and now to the computer. In that process of evolution humans have become gradually unmoored from the particular moment of connection. The life of the thing itself has diminished as human power has increased.
Maybe the key difference between an oral and a literate culture is its attitude of dominion over the world.
Here is a bundle of reed pens from a 13th Dynasty Egyptian tomb. They are an example of just one step in the long journey between smeared pigments on cave walls and the push email and cloud storage of my iPhone. Maybe you’re right, I can’t be a proper hermit with a computer. In the interests of the silence that leads to greater communion, perhaps I should do away with these and all the writing that has trapped the world in a net.
But the hermit has always been a function of highly sophisticated urban societies, and hermits have always kept some vestiges of connection with that society, a Bible, an alms round, medicines, at the very least the language of thought. Perhaps for a post-urban, hyper-connected society a laptop is the new Bible and begging bowl and skull. You don’t need to go the Himalayas any more to find a teacher. After all the work of silence is about attitude not altitude.
And indeed where can we go now to find wilderness? Hermits have traditionally sought wilderness as an antidote to the hall of mirrors that is a human city, in which we see nothing but reflections of human concerns. Whether they go to listen to Nature or God, self or the more-than-human, hermits have always had an inkling that there are other voices to be heard if we can get away from the whine of our own obsessions.
Where is that wilderness now? The hermit goes there not to be alone but to find a greater communion. The vision quest, the walkabout is not for solitude but to meet with the people we normally shout down.
Buddha, sitting alone under his fig tree, was visited by apsaras, demons and gods, ultimately by Mara himself. Jesus too hung out with the devil in the desert.
Now all the avatars are on the other side of that screen you are looking at as you sit there. Alone.
Well. At least we’re alone together.