Somewhere Else

It was last April, in a piece titled “What is Essential,” we again mentioned John Cage, then in the context of the pandemic quarantine discussion:

In John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing,” we find the following comment: “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else.”

“What is Essential,” April 24, 2020

Of course, some places are more irritating than others, some conditions worse, but it seems common to living in any means people like to get away, out of town, go up to the cabin, drive out to the beach, go camping, sail the seven seas, see the world, go somewhere, anywhere, but somewhere else.

Not talking here about those forced to leave home, from war or famine or wildfire or flood, abuse or political upheaval. Catastrophes are not “irritations.” A catastrophe is sudden and overturning; an irritation is slow and creeping, an itch one can’t quite reach. An earworm. One can live with any number of irritations, but one can not go on as before during or after a catastrophe. “Would like” suggests preference, unrelated to need, not desperate, but a privileged choice.

“Where should we spend the weekend, in town or in the country?”
“I don’t know. I’m bored with opera.”

The COVID19 virus affects different people in different ways, depending on predicament, but literally everyone on the planet Earth has been affected, to one extent or another, slightly or severely. Wouldn’t it be nice to get away? Maybe that’s the attraction of Perseverance, of Mars, of space travel.

“Earth is irritating.”
“Let’s go to Mars.”
“Good idea.”
“I’ll book a flight today.”

Can a simple irritation, almost unnoticeable until all goes quiet, grow into a catastrophe? It seems unlikely. Irritations come from within; catastrophes come with the wind. There’s talk of getting “back to normal.” That too seems unlikely. In fact, in any case, wasn’t there something particularly irritating with what was considered normal?

In a Frenzy

Why are the TV newscasters shouting, frantic, frenetic, in a frenzy, like callers at auctions, preachers at land’s end, the newsboy on the corner hawking papers: Extra, Extra, Read All About It! It now being this constant state of emergency, impossible to keep up with, put on loops. Truth be told, it’s torture. Truth be bold, it’s boring.

The news so quickly grows old, must keep it from petering out. So stories and comments on loops, ostinato. Even when the story seems about to change, the background keeps looping, looping around the talking head, the face masked in makeup, the expert, the one we might trust, still wearing a suit and tie, a dress, symbols of serious purpose, uniform press. On location, back to you, Jack, in the studio. Thank you, Jill.

“Oh, when there’s too much of nothing
No one has control” (Bob Dylan).

Usually, ahead of disaster, a catastrophe, people go on the run, head for the hills, or run down to the water, pick up and go, evacuate. Or shelter in place until it’s passed – the hurricane, tornado, earthquake, battle, swarms of locusts.

But this one’s different. We are told to stay in, and if we do go out, to keep our distance. There is no safety in numbers. On the contrary. We must go it alone. When has there been a more existential crisis? We must decide for ourselves what to do, what’s news.

The Epic Virus and Examined Life

Nothing like an Epic Virus to remind one how connections work. Members of this current batch of humans share just about everything of themselves, like it or not, even their money, some more some less than others.

Life swarms with sounds we can’t hear, and teems down pouring itself empty with flying bugs and crawling things, birds and fishes, and the smallest creatures invisible to the naked eye that can make bread rise and turn grapes to wine and hops to beer, life that enters and exits the great smoking and stoking train of the body, riding one car to the next, to and fro, round trips, never holding an official ticket. Life is idiomatic.

In Astra Taylor’s film Examined Life, Kwame Anthony Appiah reflects on how the ways in which humans are connected have changed over time. Gone are the days, Appiah explains, when the only people you ever saw in your entire lifetime were the members of your own family or small tribe:

“As a species that was designed for living in bands of a hundred-odd people for much of its evolutionary history, we have to figure out how we’re going to live in a planet with 6, 7, 8 billion people. Billions not divided into lots of little bands of a hundred, but constantly interacting – and interacting in units of hundreds of millions. The United States, for example, has a population of 300 million right now. So as an American, you exist in this kind of virtual relationship with 300 million people. If you’re lucky enough to be Chinese, your virtual relationships are soon with 1.5 billion people or something like that” (p. 88, Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers, Edited by Astra Taylor, The New Press, 2009; Interviews from the film Examined Life, 2008).

Roofbug

– There’s a BIG BUG on the ROOF!
– Keep calm. It will go away.”