Communicable experience: words begin again


Sitting down to write the handful of Christmas cards we sent this year, I found myself oddly inhibited when it came to the notes I’d meant to add—mainly rallying cries or apologies for silences, distances and disappearances. Last year, so much still felt relatively new, baffling, a strangeness that could be conveyed in simple language, with an expectation of a shared response, a reciprocity. To say the same things twelve months later seemed somehow absurd; in fact, any phrase that came to mind appeared wholly banal, quite pointless. Then, too, it required too many assumptions, some quite hazardous, about people’s recent history and present circumstances. So, either a five-page letter or nothing at all – beyond best wishes for next year – hardly, when it came to it, a difficult choice.

I thought of the famous observation of Walter Benjamin, ‘Was it not noticeable at the end of the [First World] war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience?’ He has been discussing the loss of ‘the ability to exchange experiences’, one reason for this being that ‘experience has fallen in value.’ Our picture of both the external world and the moral world have undergone ‘changes which were never thought possible.’ He goes on:

A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.[1]

It’s very easy to look at this and think ah, yes, mechanized warfare, dramatic scientific and technological changes, transport and communications revolutions, all very historical, all very back then. Despite the massive volume of commentary—largely because of it, perhaps—we find it harder to grasp the speed and impact of some of the changes occurring in our own historical period, in part because as things develop and change increasingly quickly, we accommodate, allow for and absorb those changes increasingly quickly too. The internet—we fret if it takes more than a few seconds to respond to a search term. And if we should actually draw a complete blank? ‘If it’s not on the internet it doesn’t exist’—I remember an American librarian ascribing this assumption to college students who frequented the library, some ten or fifteen years ago now. We see many programmes, essays, articles devoted to the phenomenon of social media, especially the aggressive and destructive aspects of it. Were there always this many repellent people? Have they been created or merely enabled by the internet, because before it existed they would have had to write a letter, address an envelope and stick a stamp on it? Incredible advances in medicine: why do so many people reject them out of hand? Questions pretty simple, answers less so.


But Benjamin’s ‘communicable experience’? Men returned from the battlefield, even had they wished to, could rarely find the vocabulary to convey the enormity, intensity and sheer unprecedented nature of what some of them had seen, heard and suffered. That surely differs fundamentally from our situation now. These last two years, there has been a good deal of shared, or at least common, experience. Not as common as it was originally represented as being: the—sometimes literally—murderous inequalities that obtain in this country (among others) meant that, while some glided, many others crashed and burned. Still, there were elements of a society under siege which were at least recognised by most of us.

Helen Macdonald recently articulated with her usual lucidity some familiar if often inchoate thoughts, firstly about the dual speed of time, passing ‘far more slowly than it did before’ but also ‘running far too fast’, secondly with the unvarnished statement that: ‘Most of us began this pandemic thinking that life would return to normal. We all now know that this is a fiction; nothing will return to what it was before.’[2] And I nod, yes, though I’d baulk at that ‘all now know’. A lot of New Statesman readers, maybe. More broadly, I suspect the rule of division still holds sway. I see I wrote a little earlier of ‘our situation’. But once more particularised than ‘the human animal’, that ‘our’ is a little shaky.

We’re told, on an almost daily basis, that we live now in a divided country, a fractured society. The nation splits along fault lines of class or age or education or information sources. Brexit showed up the real cracks and some of the reactions to the pandemic, or measures intended to combat that pandemic, have revealed some more, frequently new pressures on earlier, still suppurating wounds—which are often, in fact, the most troubling.

(Cherry-Garrard and pony: https://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/History/biography/cherry-gearrard_apsley.php

The biographer of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of the Terrra Nova expedition, travelling with Scott on that doomed journey to the Antarctic in 1910, and author of The Worst Journey in the World, observes that:

Many of those who had served felt, after the war, that the world had been everlastingly divided into those who had been there, and those who had not. To Cherry that binary vision had been cast before 1914, and the war only served to polarise it further: those who had been south, and those who had not. His psyche never fully engaged with the war. It was still in the Antarctic.[3]

In a way, things were simpler in the ancient world. Herodotus lived in a world divided into Greeks and barbarians, that is to say, ‘hoi barbaroi’, the non-Greeks.[4] In more recent times, Penelope Fitzgerald’s memorable categories occur in The Bookshop: ‘She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.’[5] And predominate they do, as so much of the twentieth century and, alas, this one too, can testify. Primo Levi, who survived the death camps, later wrote: ‘Those who experienced imprisonment (and, more generally, all persons who have gone through harsh experiences) are divided into two distinct categories, with rare intermediate shadings: those who remain silent and those who speak.’[6]

Personal, temporal. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak, as Ecclesiastes has it. Anne Carson, as ever, has her own take: ‘After a story is told there are some moments of silence. Then words begin again. Because you would always like to know a little more. Not exactly more story. Not necessarily, on the other hand, an exegesis. Just something to go on with. After all, stories end but you have to proceed with the rest of the day. You have to shift your weight, raise your eyes, notice the sound of traffic again, maybe go out for cigarettes.’[7]


In the teeth of it all, we—we?—proceed with the rest of the day, and the words that accompany it. The rain has cleared, the sky has brightened a little. And Fat Santa has not left the building.


Notes


[1] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ (1936), Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), 83-84.

[2] Helen Macdonald, ‘The lure of hibernation’, New Statesman (10 December 2021 – 6 January 2022), 44.

[3] Sara Wheeler, Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001), 189.

[4] Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, revised by John Marincola (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 3.

[5] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop (1978; London: Everyman, 2001), 29.

[6] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, translated by Raymond Rosenthal (London: Abacus, 1989), 121.

[7] Anne Carson, ‘Afterword’, in  Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (New York: Vintage, 2000), 88.

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