This is my final essay as the Editor-in-Chief of Writer’s Block Magazine. Being a member of the editorial board for the last 18 months has been incredibly enriching. I’m moving on because I feel it’s time to pursue other creative projects—but Sona (who is also leaving) and I are both so excited to follow the progress of the magazine. Our readers and contributors are in very good hands!
When I joined the magazine in January 2019, I hoped that both my editing and writing skills would be sharpened, but I did not anticipate the extent to which the sense of community and camaraderie within the team would enable me to feel at home in Amsterdam. The weekly meetings of animated literary discussion and the occasional weekend gatherings of wine and laughter were so uplifting to me. But most of all, my friendship with my multi-talented Co-Editor-in-Chief, Sona, helped me through the dark wet winter months and through many highs and lows.
But then the pandemic hit, and everything moved online, and into isolation.
I have always filled my Writer’s Block essays with vaguely related photographs from my personal stash. So I decided to continue this trend in my final piece. And since I spent many lonesome hours during the lockdown poring over my old hard drives and shoe boxes of photographs in order to feel closer to the people I was missing, I have included some of these very personal pictures. These slightly out of focus smiles and shining eyes helped me to quell my fears and gave me the inspiration to write this essay, so it only seems fair to bring them along for the ride.
During the lockdown that began, for residents of the Netherlands, on the 20th of March, I often found myself waking with a gasp in the middle of the night or early morning. I’d jolt awake in the half-dark of my small studio apartment (half-lit with late-night neon from the hotel next door). For the briefest moment, I would have no idea who or where I was. Then I’d see the details of my life scattered before my mind’s eye like miscellaneous debris washed up on an empty beach. My life felt so ephemeral. It was a feeling akin to arriving home stoned at 3 A.M. and seeing the contents of one’s bedroom in a strangely unfamiliar way, as if one had been suddenly thrust into the muck and crumbs of somebody else’s cluttered existence. The pathos of flimsy individual hopes and endevours. The stage props of a little life.
At first I thought this feeling was caused by the global pandemic and the subsequent social and economic upheaval, or rather, I thought it was only because of the pandemic. But having so much time and solitude on my hands allowed me the privilege of thinking more deeply about this unsettling, recurring sensation. My disconnectedness from my self seemed to be amplified by a lack of interaction with other people. I had little opportunity to step outside the revolving moods and time-worn thought-patterns I wrestled with daily, stale reruns of The Brendon Show, desperately needing fresh faces. Now, this is not to say that I had no deep connections in my life. I was (and am) extremely lucky to have solid bonds with my family, and with a few precious old friends. But these relationships are maintained through long-distance texts and phone calls. They form the background of one’s life, which is highly important, but they remain separate from the sweat and grime of one’s daily hustle.
It soon dawned on me that I had become very closed off to new people in recent years. Make no mistake, I had made some wonderful friends in the two years I’d been living in Amsterdam, but I had not allowed them into the deepest parts of myself; I’d been maintaining a constant barrier of guardedness. When last did I make a truly deep connection with another human being? When last did I open myself up completely, reveal my hopes and fears and flaws and quirks to someone who in turn reciprocated this deep opening? Hell, when last did I even hug somebody? I was missing a tangible daily sense of community and family. The isolation of lockdown helped me realise this. When freedom to gather with friends returned, I would do something about this lack of connection.
I recently read a novella by the South African writer Nadine Gordimer, called The Late Bourgeois World, and was struck by a passage in which the narrator-protagonist is sitting in the sun on her balcony, listening to the sounds of people passing below her: “We were all in the sun. There is a way of being with people that comes only by not knowing names. If you have no particular need of anyone, you find yourself belonging to a company you hadn’t been admitted to before; I had these people who […] would go away in a little while. Without any reason I felt very much at home.” For the narrator, Liz, this seems to be a novel and soothing feeling. This soporific sun-soaked anonymity. But then, she is living in a comfortable gated suburbia, where such an occurrence might feel uncanny and strangely liberating; while for people living in busy international cities, anonymity is the norm.
Since leaving my own sleepy suburb of South Africa eight and a half years ago, I have spent considerable time in many vast and fast-paced cities. At first, just as Gordimer’s character describes it, the feeling of anonymity was thrilling. It was a relief knowing you would never bump into your third grade maths teacher or your ex-girlfriend’s uncle, or your ex-girlfriend. But then after a while you get used to being a random bee in the humming neon hive. And then, at some point, inevitably, you lose your sting or your wing, your life falls apart and in an instant you feel profoundly alone. And you become acutely aware of the fact that you don’t know your neighbours, or your co-workers, or the people at the gym or the sleepy commuters you share the metro with…and this isolation, this isolatedness, has been, for me and many other city-dwellers, exacerbated by the corona pandemic and subsequent lockdown.
There are roughly 600 people, all students, living in my building in south-east Amsterdam. Each of us has a small studio apartment with sound-proofed walls. People generally keep to themselves here. The only time people acknowledge each other is when passing one another in the long sterile hallways. And even then it’s just an awkward nod. I don’t mind this privateness. You can always go out and visit friends who live elsewhere in the city. Normally. But then lockdown began. And on about the tenth day, I awoke with that abovementioned gasp of unreality, and felt a strong urge to see people in the flesh, without the impediment of a screen. I decided to try and make some new friends in the building.
I took a walk downstairs to ‘check my mailbox’. The corridor stretched away in white-washed silence. Weak April sunlight and a smudge of spring’s greenness lit with bland daylight the window at the end of the passage. As far as I could see, every solid, eight-foot front door along the hallway was closed to the world. And the silence had an eerie quality to it, a deep-sea kind of silence, as if the world were holding its breath in this unprecedented moment of global haltedness. I ambled downstairs. The spacious and impersonal communal area of the lobby was deserted; the front desk, the ‘chill-zone’ of couches, the work stations, and the pool table were cordoned off with red and white tape, like a crime scene. No one in sight. The crackle of key in postbox echoed through the lobby like a rusty gun being loaded. Well, I’ve never loaded a gun so maybe that simile is way off. Anyway, I had no letters in my box. I headed upstairs and as I came out of the stairwell on my floor, I nearly bumped into one of my neighbours, a tall blonde woman I’d exchanged nods with several times. Now was my chance to branch out!
“Oh, sorry!” we both said simultaneously.
“Sorry,” I said. “Hi.”
“Hi,” she said.
“Oh, I think we’re neighbours?” I said. “But we’ve never actually met properly. I’m Brendon.”
“Thank you very much,” she said, nodding vigorously. Then she headed quickly down the stairs. Making friends during a pandemic might be hard, I thought to myself, still standing in the hallway. (Later edit: we met again a few weeks after that first awkward exchange and had a normal conversation. Jasmine and I are now friends.)
I listened to an In Our Time podcast about Albert Camus the other day. Melvyn Bragg and his guests talked about the way that Camus’ philosophy shifted from an existentialism of highly individualized, solitary absurdity in The Outsider, to a belief in the idea of unity and community in The Plague. What did not change for Camus was his underlying sense of the world as a place devoid of innate meaning. Ultimately, whether we like it or not, we project meaning onto the world: a sense of order, narrative, fate or destiny, filtered through extensive layers of conscious and unconscious conditioning, i.e. through religion, education, culture, neurochemistry, and our genes. If Camus still believed that life had no objective meaning, why did his philosophy shift to an emphasis on interpersonal connection?
Well, it seems to me that Camus realised that in spite of the impossibility of attaining a truly objective understanding of life, we must, as human beings, still walk the long, terrifying, blissful, perplexing and painful journey from life to death, and we must experience these sensations and feelings through our frail and fallible biological bodies and psychologies. And if every person simply looked out for themselves and disregarded the consequences of their own actions, then the time spent here on earth would be collectively intolerable. Besides, being kind, generous, gracious and empathetic often feels very rewarding. And isn’t that a way of turning our selfish drives towards the Greater Good? Further, the ‘rules of the game’, i.e. society and culture, are constructed in such a way as to protect a powerful minority of individuals at the violent and dreadful expense of the majority. Cooperation among the majority is the only way to combat tyranny.
Having grown up in a poor, fatherless, Algerian family, Camus had intimate experience with the class of people most likely to suffer under the tyranny of oppressive regimes: working-class people who had been colonised. These formative years led Camus to his understanding of community as the reason for living. Ultimately, he ended up becoming incredibly famous and relatively wealthy. This success gave him a lavish Parisian lifestyle that left him in a limbo of radical ambivalence about the French subjugation of Algeria. Camus’ failure to condemn French colonialism is a topic for another day. But the point I want to make is that for me personally, and for many people around the world this year, there has occurred a paradigm shift in understanding the role of community and connection as fellow citizens of this global village. So many of us have been wrapped up and deeply distracted by the disneyfication and narcissism of the bright sparkling ubiquitous money-machine of capitalism. So many of us have believed the lie that ‘all you need is you’, the lie of ‘be your own hero’, the lie of ‘maybe this next pair of shoes, next retweet, next Tinder match, next Instagram-able holiday package will make me happy/popular/adored’. And so many people have been shaken rudely awake from this sugary anesthetic.
This awakening is potentially good. But it seems to me that capitalism gobbles every movement up and commodifies everything. I worry that these paradigm-shifting realisations will end up on t-shirts, hashtags and TikTok filters, without enacting any real change. Does this process of transforming movements into products happen because capitalism, through the alienation of private property, turns every person into an individual competing for resources? Can we rebuild and protect communal living within the system of capitalism as it currently exists? How natural is our capitalistic drive to be individuals over being members of a community?
Perhaps this reawakened desire for community is not only occurring for social or political reasons, but because on some deep biological level community is hardwired into our DNA. This thought reminds me of Father John Misty’s song ‘Pure Comedy’. Here are the opening lyrics:
The comedy of man starts like this:
Our brains are way too big for our mother’s hips
And so Nature she divines this alternative:
We emerge half-formed and hope whoever greets us on the other end
Is kind enough to fill us in
And, babies, that’s pretty much how it’s been ever since.
Now the miracle of birth leaves a few issues to address
Like, say, that half of us are periodically iron deficient,
So somebody’s got to go kill something while I look after the kids…
In the roughly 200,000 years of homo sapiens existence on earth, we have, in geological time, only very, very recently diverged from the prehistoric, time-worn traditions of small nomadic clans living in intimate relationship with each other and the earth. In geological time it’s been a hot minute. (In cosmic time it’s been a split second). And within the last few moments, we have drastically altered the course of our futures and alienated ourselves from one another. This whole modern world we are living in is one big, messy experiment. Let’s not forget that.
And let’s not forget that it’s up to us to save ourselves from utter annihilation. There is no evidence that some Almighty Being is going to swoop down and save the day. Almighty Beings have been awfully quiet while billions of innocent creatures (human and non-human) have suffered and died throughout history. From large scale horrors such as slavery, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, down to the untold personal hell of a little child suffering domestic abuse behind closed doors—where was God? The Epicurean Paradox sums this up well:
If God is willing to prevent evil, but is not able to, He is not omnipotent.
If He is able to prevent evil, but not willing, He is malevolent.
If He is both able and willing, then where does evil come from?
If He is neither able nor willing, then why call Him God?
Now, this formulation is not without its assumptions, and ultimately, any arguments for or against the existence of a god (or gods) arise within a very subjective discourse, in a clumsy language system invented by imperfect mammals. In other words, we are unable to step outside of language to describe reality in an objective light. I must also mention that I can only address my personal issues with Christianity, the belief system I grew up in. I don’t know enough about other religions to comment on their world views. But I’m getting off track. Whether or not there is a god doesn’t matter, since all evidence points to a lack of heavenly intervention regardless. Therefore it’s up to us to save our species and the planet we inhabit. And we will only save ourselves through some form of unity. Will this pandemic be a turning point in our history? The turning back towards each other from the giddy mirrors of our screens, our boardroom gleam, our social prestige?
It seems, on one hand, that the increased screen-time and increased isolation are reminding us of the value of community and the value of face-to-face human contact we are missing so much. Yet at the same time, social media creates (or at least exacerbates) a terrible dichotomy of us vs them, an inability to accept that many issues require nuance and empathy and healthy doses of doubt.
Camus’ The Plague is the fictional story of an Algerian town in the 1940s that goes into lockdown because of a highly contagious virus carried by rats and transferred to humans. Only by bravely working together, only by not being greedy, can the decimated population hold out and survive the period of uncertainty, death, fear and loneliness. Camus had realised that apathetic selfishness was pure cowardice and surrender. He saw that living for your own pleasure was ultimately not really even living, and that courage in the face of death, looking out for one’s fellow humans, and working together to keep the world from unraveling—that these were principles worth striving for. If life had any meaning at all, it was a meaning carved out of a desire to help one another.
There is so much more I wanted to say about community in this final piece for Writer’s Block. I planned to write about the joy of reconnecting with old friends in faraway places; and how technologies such as voice notes and video calls have altered the way we communicate; and the privilege of isolation; and the myth of truly understanding other people; and so many other things. I have not proposed much in the way of solutions to the issues we are facing. I have simply said that we need more unity, and raised a few questions that I think need answering. I’m ready to listen to the ideas of people I love and respect. And I have already taken up half an hour of your time, dear reader. I know you’re trying to deal with the totality of what the world is currently going through. Thank you for your time and patience. Thank you for reading my work. Please bear with me just a little longer. I want to end on two points.
Firstly, I have been working very hard to be more open to deeper friendships and stronger community bonds. I have, since I first started taking notes for this essay three months ago, made some deep and genuine bonds with people in my building, and elsewhere in the city, and even online. I now feel a real sense of community again, and for that I am so grateful. But making the initial connection is only the beginning. You have to work hard to accommodate other people’s needs and complexes, while navigating your own issues, all during what often feels like a global meltdown. Sometimes I feel myself closing off again, shutting people out. And I have to strive to find the balance between openness and self-protection. But I won’t give up, because I now understand the vital importance of community and interpersonal connection.
Lastly, I must admit that I have found this essay extremely hard to finish. I am dealing with a lot of uncertainty in my life right now (like so many other people), and sometimes I’m not even sure how I’ll make it to the next week, let alone belt out a 3500 word essay. But I also found this essay hard to finish for the reason that it’s very difficult to talk about community and global togetherness when there is so much inequality and discrimination in the world. So many people suffer immense pain and fear, on a daily basis, because their skin is Black or because of their gender identity, or their body shape, or their inability to fit into so many other normative standards, standards that are harmful and ultimately arbitrary. And what about the systemic brutal slaughter of millions of sensitive non-human animals, just because we like the taste of bacon? What about the fragile ecology of our precious planet? As Audre Lorde writes in A Burst of Light: “[I]t’s not enough to say I believe in peace when my sister’s children are dying in the streets of Soweto”. How can we allow ourselves to feel comfortably satisfied with our own little slice of the pie when the planet is in flames?
O.K., I hear you say, but does this seemingly perpetual injustice mean that we shouldn’t experience joy or pleasure or hope in our daily lives? No. What we need is a form of negative capability. By negative capability I mean the ability to hold seemingly contradictory thoughts or feelings in our minds without rushing to choose one at the expense of the other. Let us acknowledge the injustices of the world and understand that fighting against them will ultimately improve everyone’s quality of life. For the sake of our children and our children’s children, let us work together to save each other and our planet. Join local activist groups, or start your own community projects, get involved in local politics, boycott giant corporations that are destroying our planet to line their own pockets. These are all activities requiring community, unity, collective action. But at the same time, let us hold onto joy, hope, wonder, love, curiosity, empathy for those who think and look differently than us, and humour, let us hold these values up as shields against hopelessness and despair. Let us bravely fight for each other and enjoy the thrill of this surreal experience of life. These two aims are not mutually exclusive. As Hunter S. Thompson famously said, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!’”