Where I attempt to dust the cobwebs off of my brain and get back to writing for writing’s sake.
Constant communication and the vanishing membrane of home
I think of home like I think of my body. Home has a skin, a barrier between out there and in here. Four walls and a roof circle us round, make us feel safe. Crossing the threshold of home has symbolic and emotional weight; we step into a place where we can let down our guard. Home is like an exhale—“home again, home again” we sigh, or “hello the house,” we announce.
But like the skin that surrounds the blood and bones of our bodies, the membrane of home is permeable—it lets in light, air, friends, information. An impermeable membrane would be prison, exile rather than sanctuary. Letters, telegrams, then telephones and television and the internet, have brought “out there” progressively “in here,” perforating the home skin. Virginia Woolf wrote this in her diary, about a morning on January 4th, 1915:
The outside world burst in upon us with a clamour this morning. 1. I had a letter from Mrs. Hallett. 2. I had a letter from Lily. 3. I had a document from Sydney Waterlow.
A hundred years ago, three pieces of what we now call snail mail constituted a “clamour” and a “burst[ing] in” of the outside world; the unexpected missives are described like an attack from “outside,” not by warlords, wild animals, or wicked weather—what homes sheltered us from for thousands of years--but information.
We used to have to leave our homes for information. Now there is almost nothing we can’t get—from pizza to obscure definitions to pornography--from the comfort of our homes, a mere click away. In her essay “Is Staying In the New Going Out” Molly Young wonders if all this clickable comfort has given the womb of home a magnetic appeal that we hardly ever want to leave. She—a New Yorker—compares herself to one of Willa Cather’s rugged pioneers, “buried in a sod house and peeping timidly at the harsh landscape outside.”
Life in 19th-century Nebraska was fraught with peril in a way that life in 21st-century Manhattan is not — there, you could die from dropsy or fall into a wheat thresher — but our modern horrors — terrorism, global warming, presidential campaigns — are documented so thoroughly that a voyage outdoors can feel just as dire.
At my restaurants, I watch armies of carefully packaged boxes of food slipped into bags and spirited into homes whose inhabitants are hibernating, hiding, hunkering down. Meanwhile, I dim the dining room lights and turn up the dining room music and light the candles that go on every table, even the empty ones.
I feel sad that our customers are staying away and ordering in, more and more. But on the days I’m not working, I’m hunkering too. Staying in feels safer. I’m beginning to wonder if it actually is.
For a long time, home has been less about protection from physical assaults and more about the possibility of sanctuary and privacy that is as emotional as it is physical. Home is a place where, in theory, we should be able to turn off our hyper vigilance, our ever-scanning attention, and relax.
Paradoxically, as we’ve made our homes more comfortable, more convenient, we’ve also opened them up to constant communication and stimulation, a barrage of beeps and alerts, blaring screens and insistent reminders. Work has followed us home, with its insatiable email. Drunk friends on wild rants on Whatsapp too. An infinity of commerce, more comments from more people than you could fit on your street. More news in a single night than Viriginia Woolf read in a lifetime. The skin of home has become as vanishingly thin as a contact lens.
I finally get around to reading Great Expectations. Not having read Dickens felt like a great gap in my literary life, a missing tooth. I read it in bed, mostly, tucked under a mountain of duvets and pressed into a puffy clutch of misshapen pillows, which is where I read most books. Every night, my two dachshunds, heat seekers, shape shifters, fit their bodies into what artists call negative space but to dogs is only the possibility of a really good cuddle—the crook behind a knee, the semicircle cut by a waist, the triangle between elbow and torso. They will me to be still. If I’m overly fidgety, they decamp towards Jeff, who lays to my left with his head crammed at odd angles into the pillows and a tee shirt wrapped around his eyes to block the light from my reading lamp while he snores, still as a stone. I can’t understand why he never gets a crick in his neck.
This is my favorite place. The peaks and valleys of white fluffy covers that the dogs bound through, ecstatic when we head for bed, like it’s some snowy landscape they were bred for, as serious about bedtime and blankets as a Husky in the Iditarod. The amber glow of lamps on adobe walls. The quietness of the desert night, and the fact that I’ve left my laptop outside, and the wifi doesn’t reach anyway, and that during this and maybe only this sliver of day—late, before bed—it feels like it’s OK, really OK, to not be communicating with anyone. To not check in with anyone at work. To not scan my email or fear there is something lurking there that I need to root out. I can really turn off, as if the downy weight of the two duvets and the quilt have some sort of fluffy faraday effect and there is an unbesmirched expanse of time and space as white and pure as the soft comforter itself.
Sometimes I will read like this for four or five hours (and unlike Jeff, because of this I do have a neck injury), late into the night, finishing a book in one sitting. But Dickens I read more slowly, put it down and came back to it. Pip, the main character, periodically annoys me, which is kind of the point—it’s a coming of age morality tale, and he goes through a prolonged punk-ass stage. The book is about how when we get what we want, we sometimes lose what we already had.
My favorite character is Pip’s friend Mr. Wemmick. Wemmick is a homebody—maybe the best homebody I’ve read in a novel. He lives in a tiny turreted cottage in Walworth that he protects like a castle. He keeps his home and work life completely separate:
No; the office is one thing, and private life is another. When I go into the office, I leave the Castle behind me, and when I come into the Castle, I leave the office behind me. If it’s not in any way disagreeable to you, you’ll oblige me by doing the same.
At the office, Wemmick is “hard and dry,” preoccupied with “portable property,” his mouth drawn and tight like a “post office box.” At Walworth he is caring and “soft,” taking care of his deaf old dad with love. Work Wemmick is obsequiously beholden to his bullying boss; Walworth Wemmick is self-reliant and creative. He has turned his home into a kind of Eden all by himself (“I am my own engineer, and my own carpenter, and my own plumber, and my own gardener, and my own Jack of all Trades!”) and owns it free and clear (“It’s a freehold, by George!”)
Wemmick’s wonderland is surrounded by wandering, looping paths through bowers and gardens, gurgling fountains and lapping ponds by which Pip and he sit, under an arbor, lazily sipping punch until dinner. Dickens makes quite a fuss about all these watery features:
Then he conducted me to a bower about a dozen yards off, but which was approached by such ingenious twists of path that it took quite a long time to get at; and in this retreat our glasses were already set forth. Our punch was cooling in an ornamental lake, on whose margin the bower was raised. This piece of water (with an island in the middle which might have been the salad for supper) was of circular form, and he had constructed a fountain in it, which when you set a little mill going and took a cork out of a pipe, played to that powerful extent that it made the back of your hand quite wet.
In Christianity, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven one must be “born again of water and spirit,” symbolized by the baptism. In the architecture of the church, the baptismal font of holy water is in the outermost part of the church, which you pass on the way to the sanctuary, the holiest, innermost part of the church, behind the altar. Like a stone basin that holds the holy water, like the innermost part of a church, Wemmick’s home is a sanctuary, protected from the “wilderness” of London’s grubby capitalism. A sanctuary is both an actual place for the true self to live, as well as a metaphor for it—that inner-innermost nature of a person, our soul-spirit, that dwells within the walls of our body.
In biblical stories like the parable of the three friends, doors and windows are the symbols of the five senses; to access the higher self, the soul-spirit, one must close the windows and doors of the senses. In other words, one must “cut off communication,” like Wemmick does, when he cranks his miniature drawbridge fast every night, telling Pip:
‘After I have crossed this bridge, I hoist it up—so—and cut off the communication.’ The bridge was a plank, and it crossed a chasm about four feet wide and two deep. But it was very pleasant to see the pride with which he hoisted it up, and made it fast; smiling as he did so, with a relish, and not merely mechanically.”
Wemmick’s Edenic home is cut off from work and from London, from what Dickens clearly sees as the dinginess of a world obsessed with capital and “portable property.” In contrast, Dickens portrays home as the realm of charity and kindness—the qualities that save Pip from his solipsistic nightmare. These nobler human emotions—love, empathy, kindness—have to be noticed and tended. They have to be incubated, like eggs in a nest. They tend to get shanghaied by distraction and business, which like sneaky raccoons, plunder our nest. If we don’t spend any time “cut off” from the “clamour” of communication, we can’t check in with that part of ourselves—quieter than the noise, many megahertz slower than a CPU—that is awareness-of-awareness, peering out from some mysterious, indwelling place. This part of ourselves can only be sunk down into. The sanctuary of home used to be a good place for this.
More people work at home, buy things from home, socialize from home. We are told this is progress. Companies that provide the “benefits” of smart technologies profit from our most private spaces and moments. No drawbridge can keep out today’s “surveillance capitalists” who have penetrated the very core of our homes with their “silicon spirits.” Christopher Wylie, in his book about Big Data, issues a caution:
For the first time in human history, we will immerse ourselves in motivated spaces influenced by those silicon spirits of our making. No longer will our environment be passive or benign; it will have intentions, opinions, and agendas. No longer will our homes be a sanctuary from the outside world, for an ambient presence will persist throughout each connected room. We are creating a future where are homes will think about us. Where our cars and offices will judge us. Where doors become doormen. Where we have created the angels and demons of the future…This is the dream that Silicon Valley has for us all—to surround us at every minute and everywhere.
As these public-private boundaries blur and fade, as the skin of home becomes increasingly pervious, we burrow into our nests even more, not realizing, not wanting to notice, that the walls have lost their meaning. Shoshana Zuboff, in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, puts it plainly:
That our walls are dense and deep is of no importance now because the boundaries that define the very experience of home are to be erased. There can be no corners in which to curl up and taste the pleasures of solitary inwardness. There can be no secret hiding places because there can be no secrets. Big Other swallows refuge whole, along with the categories of understanding that originate in its elemental oppositions: house and universe, depth and immensity. Those ageless polarities in which we discover and elaborate our sense of self are casually eviscerated as immensity installs itself in my refrigerator, the world chatters in my toothbrush, elsewhere stands watch over my bloodstream, and the garden breeze stirs the chimes draped from the willow tree only to be broadcast across the planet. The locks? They have vanished. The doors? They are open. (478)
We are living, like Pip, in the shadow of our corrupted expectation. The greatest of expectations—like Pip’s mysterious boon that was tainted all along—is our belief that we can be engirded not by four walls and a roof, but by “silicon spirits,” and still have access to the innermost chambers of ourselves. That we can be blown open, overexposed, and still retain our humanity.
Earlier I said a home without permeation is a prison. But home with total permeation is another kind of jail—a web of infinite dimension, wound of silicon threads as sticky and invisible as a spider’s. If there is nowhere we can “cut off communication,” can we be free? Will there be any meaning left to communicate? As Zuboff says, “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you are nothing.”
In the Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin discovers an aquatic lizard, cousin to the Iguana, that lives on the edges of rocky beaches in the Galapagos. “It is a hideous looking creature, of a dirty black color, stupid, and sluggish in its movements.” The lizard never ventures more than ten feet from shore, but with its flattened, sinuous tail, can swim out to eat the plentiful seaweed that grows on the ocean floor just off the coast. And yet, the compulsively curious Darwin is shocked to discover that “when frightened, it will not enter the water.” No matter what he does—cornering it, cowing it, tossing it again and again from land to water—the “stupid” lizard refuses to escape by jumping into the water, and when tossed into the water from shore, swims in a straight line right back to land, to the source of the assault.
Darwin finally figures it out. The lizard has no landbound predators, and never has; it only knows to fear the sharks it faces when it swims for seaweed. It has no precedent, no instinct, for harassment from land, from a predator in its home. Danger is out there, not in here.
People have a primal need for shelter. Shoshana Zuboff calls it our “yen for nests and shells.”
When danger lurks within our shelter, when the enemy is in the nest, we—like the sluggish Amblyrhynchus cristatus—don’t have an adequate response in our repertoire. We delve deeper and deeper into home, trying to find safety. We even try to make it more convenient, so we never have to leave.
Our yen to nest exists in relation to our yen to move, to leave, to venture. Our need to boogie for our supper is what gave us legs and brains and the impulse to use them. To cross the Bab Al Mandab strait and beachcomb out of Africa, some 70,000 years ago. These twinned yearnings—to venture and to hunker, to leave and to stay, to explore and to understand—are at the heart of what it means to be human. As Young says “Leaving the nest, even just to get outside, is how we grow, challenge ourselves and discover things that have not been tailored to our relevant interests by an algorithm.”
Darwin spent four years aboard the wind-born Beagle, traveling the globe, seeing its mountains and oceans and islands and the wildly varied creatures who’d made these different places home. In order to know, he had to wander, to touch, to sail. To grab lizards by the tail and fling them into the surf. As he travelled, as he moved through the mysteries and wonders of the natural world IRL, an idea, a web of connections, traced between dots of his peripatetic wanderings, coded in memory as smells and touch and taste and sight, began to percolate. Then he went home again, home again, and sat sifting and sorting and synthesizing his experience for years, before finally publishing his theory. It marinated, incubated, and—finally—became.
I wonder if, by some quirk of spacetime, the facilities and ease of modern life were magically given to Darwin, and he never had to actually travel the globe (which was incredibly dangerous, after all), would he have been able to imagine the epic scope of evolution? Would his mind have stretched wide enough to encompass a story through long space and time if he had binge-watched footage of the Galapagos live-streamed on a tablet, in his sweatpants, back in London? Could a virtual Voyage of the Beagle ever have given us On the Origin of Species?