Exactly three years have elapsed since I began this blog. And one or two of you may have observed that I’ve been posting less and less often. (If so, thanks for noticing!) Anyhow, my main motive for blogging persists: to liberate pressing ideas that resist integration into my fiction.
Initially, these rogue ideas spurted out in a weekly stream, eventually slowing to a fortnightly flow – in sync with the tidal cycle? – and then to a comfortable monthly routine. Why didn’t that prove sustainable? Well, despite the fact that most of those books credited with having changed the world aren’t officially classified as fiction (the Bible, the Koran, The Communist Manifesto, On the Origin of Species etc.), fiction possessed of emotional truth and free from dogma remains my first passion. And in my latest project – a short novella – some rogue ideas and a few core themes of my stories have come together, which makes the writing process more demanding, and leaves me with the confronting feeling of having all my eggs in one basket, though not the too-hard basket for a change.
Speaking of change, however, it’s a scary time to be an artist. Here in Oz, we’ve just had a change of government. A terrifying number of voters elected a conservative party, giving us a PM who doesn’t take global warming or women seriously, let alone any aspect of the arts, and whose coping style in interviews makes George W Bush look sharp. Australia, an ancient land with a young culture, is also a primitive backwater, a lucky country with room to spare yet full of racists, sexists and whingers – a place, like most, of contradictions. So here I am with all my eggs in one basket, a total persona non grata: that is, a woman who cares about the environment and lives to make art. (Once I hoped to make art for a living, but – and this isn’t whingeing, just stating the obvious – I find myself in the wrong time… or the wrong social climate?) Now where was I?
One cloudy sunset last summer, as my partner and I were strolling along the hugely popular if barren Bondi Promenade, the light began to intensify. Though the sun had dipped below the horizon, the sky above it abruptly blazed, its molten gold burnishing the ocean. Within a few minutes the colour grew brighter, until, all over the beach, park and paths, most people raised devices to the sky, recording this fleeting moment with what could have passed for communal religious devotion.
Sounds like a feel-good moment? And yet, isn’t the act of abstracting, the quest to capture, some dazzling phenomenon the opposite, or a negation, of true rapture? To be rapt (a word sharing its root with rape) is to be seized, transported, absorbed. So it seems to me that a strange reversal has happened: witnesses of heavenly visions now seek to seize and transport their impression. To be, like a true devotee, ecstatic means being unconditionally receptive.
My first steady partner was an accomplished photographer; to whom I was, at least for the honeymoon phase, unconditionally receptive (two years of photography classes at art school might have helped). Later, I’d ponder his need to mediate his encounters with life and love via technology. (My own methods of mediating reality were slower and less convenient: whenever I tried to paint or draw this genius, he’d fall asleep.) He seemed like an outsider back then, with his documentary obsession. But now, everyone’s a photographer – for little apparent reason other than that it’s become child’s play. These days you can be a musician without mastering an instrument, an artist weak on draftsmanship, an editor with only an average memory. Technology makes up for so many gaps, some quite tragic, in our skill sets.
As for our runaway rate of technological advancement, who hasn’t heard the analogy of the advent of the Gutenberg press? Yet that revolution pales by comparison. So, debates about content take a back seat to debates about (digital) media. And the fact that not everyone has something to say need no longer get in the way of their speaking (or shouting) out on the global stage. The social network offers us all a ready-made slot. As Marshall McLuhan famously said in the sixties, the medium is the message. According to this pioneer in the study of popular culture, the impact of various media on society has little or nothing to do with their content. Half a century ago, he foresaw the ‘global village’: the return of humankind to a collective identity, which is now emerging through online ‘social networking’ (or online everything).
This rise of connectivity coincides with a depression epidemic, which makes sense, given that artists and authors as a group have long been famous for high rates of depression and suicide, and technology has opened the gates for us all to create – to write (or blog), make movies (for YouTube) etc. Also, connecting to the new comes at a cost: loss of connection to so much else. I could posit the potential of a sunset or a chorus of frogs to catalyse an ecstatic reaction in all the cells of one’s body, but ecstasy these days is a term for a substance synthesised in a lab, and the only way many can now engage with nature is to commodify/record it – as if the human organism has lost its capacity for unmediated absorption. Lacking the rapturous openness to fully let nature in, the global villager captures the arresting hues and/or sounds in miniature, then heads off (or just hits ‘Send’) to share them with others who likewise weren’t there.
Isn’t this akin to what an author does – capturing experience in a medium that alters it, for the purpose of sharing it with an audience? I’d argue that a moonrise snapped on an iPhone tends to be diminished, while a dedicated author, through artistry, craft, discipline, sustained observation and depth of feeling, can offer a heightened take on life, leaving the push-button sharing of sunsets on par with emoticons for profundity.
Science and technology tell us that no two snowflakes are alike (wait, that’s not the case anymore – see Google – or at least it’s up for debate), which I’d have thought was because snowflakes are a product of nature. Meanwhile, we humans have been labouring under the illusion (as it might soon be proven) that we’re all individuals too. Yet less and less are we a product of ‘nature’, since we’ve stopped trusting it. Too many things can go wrong – more and more, it seems – if we don’t intervene: cancer, Down syndrome births, unchecked mood swings, needlessly protracted grieving and death by heart failure, dementia, diabetes etc. One result of our interventions is that more of us survive to adulthood (a word ripe for redefining in the light of our childish culture?), with a longer life expectancy. Aside from whatever havoc this is wreaking on the ecosystem, the more humans there are, the less room exists for uniqueness, which must be why everyone works so hard at it via social media, which reduces us to statistics for those who harvest our personal details. It’s as if, having emptied nature of value, we’re rushing to empty ourselves of same, each gesture of sharing with our networks empowering vast corporations. Hardly a happily-ever-after scenario…