I came late in life, and almost by accident, upon the work of W.G. Sebald. The Rings of Saturn only popped up because a friend– who still doesn’t have that much trust in literature– felt compelled by a piece of scholarship to read the late German great, and then further bound by friendship to notify me that he’d found an exact literary fit for my mode of being in this world. Since then, I’ve read everything of the author’s I’ve been able to get my hands on, and have even watched a documentary on him that somehow managed to make itself as beautifully haunted as its own subject matter.
Just as I was so long ignorant of work so close to my own heart, it’s taken me eons to become aware of Philip Hoare, whom Sebald himself admired. A few days ago, I finished Hoare’s The Sea Inside, an exploration mostly centered around cetaceans and seabirds and the environments they call home. Although not as laden with the spectral as is his German colleague, Hoare seems to absorb in welcoming fashion the sea and the air and the fauna that share it, communing easily not only with whatever inhabits the present moment, but also with creatures whose kind disappeared from the earth long ago– stylish catlike beings and lumbering bird-giants too disturbingly other to our human ancestors for the latter to allow them even to continue existing.
This comfort in dwelling with past and present, near and far, is hinted at early on, when, listening to the weather forecast on the radio, Hoare hears with pleasure announcements about “places I’ll never visit but whose names reassure me with their familiar rhythms, while their remote conditions seem strangely consoling.”(1) I immediately perked up when I read this passage, sensing a kindred spirit. The combination of scratchy radio and the knowledge that there actually exists some mystery destination, close enough to be connected by sound waves, but entirely dependent on one’s imagination for existence in thought: the allure is plain for dorks who spend most of their lives dreaming up true, if not-quite-real, worlds– especially for those of us who every now and then find a hint of transcendence on the AM dial, eerily connected to the other side of the continent, where an ultra-local announcement about farm implements for sale, or the parish news in Cajun French, is going on.
That unpredictable, somewhat neglected band of radio provides its own kind of nostalgia for presently occurring things, or a narrow entrée into apparently closed communities. In its own way, (good) writing should do just that, and more; I get the sense that maybe, just maybe, good writing enables that expansion of empathy better than most other mediated channels of mental and emotional exploration.(2) As a recent article by Tim Parks argues, reading writing we just don’t understand might very well broaden and deepen, if not our outright empathy, at least our willingness to believe that there are entirely other modes of life going on all around us– that we are not the final arbiters of how existence should proceed or be run.
We can’t absorb reading in one quick gulp; in taking the time to move from the understanding of one word to another, and of the connections between and among them, we’re forced to witness something unfolding, one detail at a time, at least somewhat at that something’s own– not our– pace– as opposed to the flash of a complete picture on a screen or a page. As Hoare looks up at a night sky filled with constellations, he wonders at the “ancient patterns created by minds yet to be overwhelmed by the images that fill our waking day.”(3) That consolation he found earlier in the recitation of names of never-seen places: would that feeling still be there, or be any different, if he were still living in an analog world, or one in which television screens hadn’t yet become ubiquitous? Were Hoare not instantly able to pull up photographic images, if not of those exact locations being read out, then something very near and/or similar to them, would his sense of consolation be a bit more tenuous? Would his wondering at the stars be somehow different, were he not able to Google pictures of and detailed information about them at any given moment?
Might the ability contemporary technology has given us to view even the remotest of places, whether the entire length of an unpopulated island or the darkest interiors of our own viscera, contribute to a hasty presumption of familiarity with that which is other? That need that so many of us seem to have to believe “they’re just like us,” from politicians to celebrities to tribal-based societies, erects barriers not only to really knowing those multiple “theys;” it also prevents us from wanting to step outside our own little worlds, to confront possibilities beyond our own or allow those others to speak for themselves. It’s not that reading can’t result in, or even encourage, this sort of willful blindness. (Just look at all the propaganda that’s gotten even the American public where it is right now.) But the instantaneous visual flash of landscape or people may provide us with only a cheat sheet– something that, in being adequate enough for a starting point or surface-level summation, can’t possibly count as robust knowledge. Even Hoare’s real-life glimpse of the constellations in his sky– a present viewing of a collective image– can’t give him the full understanding of their meaning for people dependent on their positions to figure, for example, changes of season or locations at sea.
My allegations are, I know, old hat; I know I keep harping on the absolute necessity of our being able to read our reality for what it is, and to use all the resources we have at hand in order to build and maintain that capacity. As we become ever more impatient, begrudging the time needed to accomplish even the smallest of tasks or transactions, bothering to slow down and interpret words– even as we willingly communicate with each other (think emojis in place of text, as one huge example)– comes to seem like a tremendous burden. And as we lose the capacity to wield our words wisely and creatively– as we allow images of all sorts to replace those words– I worry about the attendant decrease in our capacity to wonder with all the power we’re able. And if that wonder is gone– well, what’s the point, anyway? Maybe that’s what it means for everything and everyone else to be just like us, or for us to be just like everything else: the whole universe floating along in one big sea of visions, watching it all pass by in a daze.
(1) Philip Hoare, The Sea Inside (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2014), 4.
(2) Note I said “mediated”– because obviously, there’s probably nothing better than live, face-to-face interaction with another human being for realizing that each I is not a closed world unto itself. For a much fuller, better-articulated rumination on this theme, see Merve Emre’s recent piece on the personal essay in the Boston Review.
(3) Hoare, 36.