When not performing charming monologues to an imaginary audience known only to herself, my eight-year-old daughter plays the piano. The afternoon molds itself onto the comforting regularity of scales as her fingers saunter up and down the keyboard. She slips into the most recent tune in her repertoire, but plays it at such an extravagant tempo that one can barely recognize the original. There’s a burst of laughter, then another melody forms itself, something she heard on the radio. I can almost hear her frown as she tries some simple chords in the left hand. Mom. Time to practice. I have been expecting her to summon me, but I am unsure how close she needs me today. Sometimes I sit on a chair next to her, and we decipher a new piece together. Other times I remain farther away, on the couch, still close enough to see the score. And then there are days when she only wants my ears, so I pace slowly through the room, perhaps pick a book from the shelf and read a passage or two, while listening for a missed rest, an awkward dynamic, a misshapen phrase—what is the right distance today?
This question is on my mind as I write, trying to find words that would intimate both her exacting reality in a room and her diaphanous presence in my life. She seems to inhabit a dimension of pure grace, in which “I love you” feels good and simple, like freshly baked bread. I love her from afar, while she makes clothes for dolls in her room out of leftover fabric scraps. She will “tidy up” too, creating an ordered mess so fragile a light breeze would topple everything over. I hear her tell stories to her plush animals and slow down as I walk past. Perhaps she will call out that she wants a hug, or continue to play until she’s feeling hungry. Only a few days ago, I would have heard, over dinner, news of her school friend Heidi, who was moving to Atlanta and it’s so exciting that she will live in a condo. “What is a condo?” I would ask. I don’t know. But did you know Matthew lost his third tooth today? Miss Sarah wrapped it in a tissue for him and put it in a little box to take home. Then she would ask, endearingly, And how was your day? and in answer I would wrap the hours at work around some small but colorful kernel. These days, school is closed, so we reminisce over joyful moments in the past, which we connect, with the thin thread of hope, to future days when we’ll hang out again with Grandma, jump with cousins on the giant trampoline at the park and have real playdates. When I switch off the light in her room, the things she worries about come out in the dark, like delicate fireflies. We put them to sleep one by one, I kiss her good night, and retire.
“In a strange room, you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were.” I am not in a strange room, but my familiar room is in a strange world, and this passage from a novel by William Faulkner haunts me. Having lived abroad for all of my adult life, I have been thinking about the effects of distance for years. My family, several friends and I live on different continents, and most of the time we meet online, and in person only in the summer. So whenever we see each other in the flesh, we take in quietly the subtle differences between who we are and the versions of each other we’ve lived with in our heads, a little abstract for lack of contact: a tighter or more relaxed smile, a few more white hairs, children who look a little more grown-up, a pale complexion that might suggest illness, a deeper quality to someone’s silence, an averted gaze when a particular topic is mentioned… All point to the thick accumulation of days, of every day we have not been together. Now I have to pretend that my friends here, my colleagues and students also live abroad, and that my neighbors are glass-shielded in an intangible dimension. It feels odd to live in exile from almost everybody, as if we had each been sucked through a portal to a remote island, or a distant planet. When you empty yourself for sleep, at the end of a day populated so sparsely by actual persons, but overflowing with abstracted silhouettes—of people who have lost their jobs or who couldn’t bid a final farewell to their loved ones, of friends who wave from a screen and give you news you can’t do much about, of family far away who will remain so far in this long present—what are you?
There is hardly a reason, and often no time, to think about our everyday life when we are in it. The rituals we engage in without thinking, the distracted habits of thought; they are unfamiliar through excess of familiarity, like the shape of our shoes molded onto our feet, or the intimate space of the night table where we reach without looking. There is something of that taken-for-granted involvement with the world in the sphere of social relations too: not only the family and friends we usually choose to hang out with, or the colleagues we work with, but all those people we might run into on a daily basis in the improvised sociability of ordinary life—people we see only from the corner of the eye, or even not at all, but whose presence gives us a sense of life unfolding. Such presence is felt in the electrifying energy of a crowd that dissolves you—in a stadium where hundreds or thousands of gazes are tethered to a basketball, or in a concert hall, tuned with hundreds of people to the rhythm of a performance. I both know and ignore what I’m missing these days. I suspect my unease has something to do with not being able to interact with my students in person. The energy they give me in the classroom is hard to retrieve from pixelated smiles, the end of each session slightly disconcerting, given everyone’s abrupt disappearance at the push of a button. I miss the carefree exuberance of the playgrounds where I take my daughter to play alongside other children, and the cozy cinema in my neighborhood where I used to go every now and then just to watch a movie in the quiet company of other people. It’s as if all these venues were hosting a version of John Cage’s 4’33”, rendered meaningless by the lack of closure.
A few years ago I finished working on a book called The Art of Distances, which became my baseline for trying to understand the meaning of this episode we’re all writing together, through our collective experiment in social distancing. What value can one ascribe to distance? What insights do we gain by staying away from others, and at such close quarters with ourselves?
IN SEARCH OF THE RIGHT DISTANCE
The question of the right distance between oneself and others has especially preoccupied philosophers and writers during and after moments of social disruption, when life as they knew it seemed to morph under their own eyes. Less than a century ago, Eric Blair was returning to England, disgusted by the “dirty work of Empire” he had done as a colonial administrator in Burma. Determined to “get right down among the oppressed,” he turned his back on his middle-class family, donned the garb of a tramp and lived for a few months with the homeless; then he crossed the Channel and worked as a dishwasher in Parisian hotels. The record of these experiences, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), was Blair’s first book, published under the pen name we now know him by, George Orwell. Down and Out inaugurated Orwell’s literary career with an experiment in reducing distance. With the relentless sincerity that became his signature, in his next journalistic work he denounced his own experiment as “a masquerade,” having learned that social distance was no trivial matter, and that abolishing class distinctions demanded nothing less than a complete transformation of one’s “attitude to life.”
Around the same time, his contemporary Elias Canetti began the anatomy of human modes of separation that became his life’s work. A German-language writer born in Bulgaria into a family of Sephardic Jews, Canetti spent three decades of his life in England, “where social life consists of futile efforts of proximity.” He was obsessed with crowds, convinced that the ideologies that shaped the twentieth century—communism and fascism—and the human disasters that ensued could be explained by people’s overwhelming desire to be part of a crowd and thus cancel the distances of everyday life. When he finished his ambitious tome Crowds and Power (1960), which took thirty years to complete, he sighed with relief that he had “succeeded in grabbing the century by the throat,” having understood it better than anyone else. The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, with whom Canetti had a brief affair, was also a thinker preoccupied with how people live together, and much of her fiction can be read as an extended meditation on ideal distance. In her view, one of the greatest challenges of moral life was to take the full reality of other people seriously—and that means understanding the other as not just an extension of oneself. One of the most exquisite episodes in her 1958 novel The Bell features a young woman visiting the National Gallery in London and discovering in the contemplation of paintings an instance of this perfect remove:
Here was something which her consciousness could not wretchedly devour, and by making it part of her fantasy make it worthless. … She looked at the radiant, sombre, tender, powerful canvas of Gainsborough and felt a sudden desire to go down on her knees before it, embracing it, shedding tears.
These three vignettes—Orwell, Canetti and Murdoch—are grounded in their respective historical moments: colonialism and the Great Depression, the “world of banished people” left in the wake of Nazism and the atrocities and destruction of World War II. But even in quieter times, there are those who have given much thought to the matter of interpersonal distance. In a parable loved by Arthur Schopenhauer and Sigmund Freud, some porcupines huddle together in freezing weather, trying to stay close enough to keep warm, yet also far enough so they avoid pricking one another. Citing this parable, the French semiologist Roland Barthes formulated his course of lectures, How to Live Together, around a question: “At what distance should I keep myself from others in order to build with them a sociability without alienation and a solitude without exile?”1 In fact, many of the thinkers of the past century have couched their diagnoses of the contemporary world in a vocabulary of distance and proximity. Under the auspices of Barthes’s declaration that “we need a science, or perhaps an art, of distances,” a region of thought opens up where we might find some bearings, now that what we usually take for granted as our everyday life has been disrupted.
Barthes confessed in his inaugural lecture that his course originated in a personal phantasm: eight to ten individuals living together in a community small enough to allow personal connections and respect for everyone’s singularity, but also large enough for it to be diverse and interesting. Barthes avoids the term “community,” preferring to speak of “living-together” (le vivre-ensemble), often capitalized; what matters to him is not who is in and who is out, but how the individuals involved calibrate distance—not once and for all, but moment to moment.
This utopia straddles two intersecting realms of human experience, friendship and community, where the problem of distance bears on questions of space, values, foundational myths, notions of identity and difference. For the most part, the Western philosophical tradition has placed friendship at the heart of a happy life, a similarity of interests, habits and values being considered nurturing for those involved. Yet Aristotle’s paradoxical apostrophe—O my friends, there are no friends!—famously highlights the impossible demands of authentic friendship, and the fact that it can perhaps only exist as an ideal on the horizon of our social interactions. For Ralph Waldo Emerson, a friend must remain a spirit ensconced in distance, “forever a sort of beautiful enemy, untamable, devoutly revered, and not a trivial conveniency to be soon outgrown and cast aside.” In other words, there is no genuine friendship without separation. My friend shouldn’t be so close to me that she can’t point to my failures; and I can’t be so attached to what we have in common (and to the image of myself mirrored in those shared traits) that I can’t change my ways and become a better version of myself.
Nietzsche, famously a reader of Emerson, pushed this logic even further. In passages that echo the American philosopher’s portrayal of the ideal friend as a “beautiful enemy,” Nietzsche’s Zarathustra goes so far as to denounce the love of the neighbor commended by Christian morality as the “bad love” of oneself. He advises, rather, “love of the farthest”: instead of cultivating bonds with those closest to us, we should seek connections with those who are different, those who can help us broaden our horizons. Nietzsche thus turns his back on an entire tradition of thinking about community that prized a shared history, myths of origin and common rituals, blaming Judeo-Christian morality for encouraging the cultivation of a “herd mentality” that denied the diversity of life forms. Instead of docilely conforming to rules and expectations that fence us in a community of like-minded individuals, one should seek that region where difficult and surprising encounters are possible. Nietzsche reminds readers that all strong epochs cultivated a “pathos of distance.”
This may sound like a recipe for individualism and anarchy. Surely there are life forms that are more valuable or significant than others—and don’t some of us need the crutch of moral systems to help us resist our worst impulses? Isn’t it only human to fasten strong affection to those closest to us? Yet much of the philosophy of the past century has followed in Nietzsche’s path, mounting a relentless critique of the “community of proximity,” understood historically as a group of people living together in a bordered space, where they occupy a certain place and role in the social hierarchy. The defining gesture of such a community is drawing a circle around those who belong (that is, who share certain traits) and its most obvious example is the nation-state.
The paradox is that “communities of proximity” are affected by a troubling kind of distance, precisely because they are premised on life-scripts that compel their members to evaluate themselves through comparison with others. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger refers to this aspect with the term “distantiality” (Abständigkeit): the nagging care about how one differs from others, which manifests in an “ambiguous watching of one another, a secret and reciprocal listening-in,” antagonistic rather than benevolent. Canetti echoed this thought at the beginning of Crowds and Power with the axiom: “All life … is laid out in distances—the house in which [man] shuts himself and his property, the positions he holds, the rank he desires—all these serve to create distances, to confirm and extend them.”
Caught in the busyness of life, such habits might remain unexamined. But what about a situation such as ours, when we are at a remove from the sociability of the everyday, its planned and noncommittal encounters: Are we closer to a life of authenticity? Or if we were to set aside, as an intellectual exercise, community as we know it, what would the alternative look like? In the company of Barthes and other thinkers invested in this problem, the question of community becomes: What is an ethical way of relating to other people? And what happens when we find ourselves in isolation, contemplating not only our distance from others, but also distances within ourselves?
Such questions flow like a creek in my mind, along the trail my daughter and I follow in the woods. (Writing happens mostly at night, in dark interludes.) We’ve discovered this one recently, and the wilderness offers a welcome respite from the torrent of somber news. Isn’t this a great place to wade in the water? I smile, remembering the first time I encountered this word in English, in a poem by Hope Mirrlees: “I wade knee-deep in dreams…” The babbling mass is loud and soothing and cold. Look at this cool stone, it’s so smooth! She lands it on the island in the middle of the creek, a small kingdom for a contorted tree with spiraling branches. The improbable hole in its trunk frames the drops we raise with our feet, too many to count, a stream of liquid sunshine. My daughter is full of riddles that I somehow always forget before they resurface. Do you know why six was afraid of seven? Because seven eight nine. Get it? And do you know what compliment zero paid to eight? Nice belt, sir! I am amused, as we walk home, by the habit she has developed of looking at each hiker in the short interval we take to grant each other safe passage and finding something to compliment them on—Cute dogs!—as if each encounter, in these times of social isolation, were a small event, eliciting a fresh sense of wonder that she has to acknowledge by extending herself toward others. I like your hat! I feel a little awkward because the woman had been looking away, waiting for us to pass. But now she meets my daughter’s gaze with a smile, taking a little bow, like a curtsy to a dance partner in a historical drama. I remember we saw you before. Glad to see you again! She basks in the reactions, telling me, with the important air of a new decree, that everybody deserves a compliment. The woods agree with her, full of offerings: birdsong is clear and colorful, a collector’s dream; a few weeks ago, some exquisitely crafted birdhouses were hung up in the trees, impossible to know by whom; and the other day someone was playing the bagpipes in a clearing, for no one in particular, which gave the leaves a little tremor. My daughter walked on, quietly.
SINGULAR PLURAL: A CONJOINING OF DISTANCES
“Everywhere we look, new walls, new blockades, and new dividing lines are erected against something that threatens, or at least seems to, our biological, social, and environmental identity.” On reading the account of modern life offered by the Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito, one must remember that he is using the vocabulary of immunization metaphorically, to signal that we behave in normal times as if we were always in the state of exception we are experiencing now. Esposito offers a robust critique of community, shifting the weight from the familiar root, “common,” to the etymology of “co-munus,” where munus means debt and openness to others; in fact, he writes, if we share anything in a community, it is an acknowledgment of our debt to others.
Esposito’s view is part of a radical rethinking of community and selfhood by some of the major philosophers of the past century, all of whom took their distance from the Cartesian understanding of the autonomous individual self: I think, therefore I am. Human existence, Heidegger insisted, is always already a being-with-others: Mitsein. In coining such a strange word, which places the preposition “with” (mit) before the verbal noun “being” (Sein), the German philosopher reminds his readers that everything we learn in and about the world, beginning with our language and including our understanding of what it is to live a human life, we learn through involvement with other people. And so we are not simply in the world as we would be in a sort of container, because the world is in us, too—even before we are fully ourselves. Some of the major philosophers of the past century (Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Nancy, Roberto Esposito, Peter Sloterdijk) agreed with Heidegger and placed his insight at the center of their own philosophical projects.
At the same time, Heidegger’s ideas about what an authentic being-with-others might look like deeply troubled some of these thinkers, particularly in light of the German philosopher’s support for the Nazi regime when he was rector of the University of Freiburg. Heidegger later disavowed his endorsement of Nazism, but his identification of an authentic life with a type of collective destiny which reveals itself only in “communicating and struggling”—where a people (Volk) spontaneously comes together to fulfill its historical fate—continued to haunt many of his later commentators. Can philosophical ideas about the importance of the “we” be untangled from the political implications of totalitarianism?
In a series of book-length philosophical essays—The Inoperative Community, The Disavowed Community, Being Singular Plural—the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy located the problem in Heidegger’s overly static account of Mitsein. Heidegger was right, Nancy claimed, to emphasize our fundamental condition of being-with-others, but he failed to give a compelling account of human sociability. Both the authentic synthesis of the historical “we” and the inauthentic slide into the anonymity of the “everyday” failed to account for the “intimate discord” of life itself, which Nancy describes using a vocabulary of differentiation of atoms, detachment of molecules and the inclination of bodies. Nancy seeks “a very peculiar species of space,” in which the word “space” addresses the question: “What is happening between us?” This would be a space that protects the singularity of each being, a third sort of “common” (mit) that does not level down differentiation in democratic averageness and indifference, and would also avoid its obliteration in the uniformity of totalitarianism. Nancy thus replaces an ontology of being-in-common with an ontology of relation; the reifying term “community” gives way to the idiom of singular plural.
In contrast to the circumscribed geography of “blood and soil,” Nancy likens his idea of singular encounters to the neighborhoods created by the twisting and looping of a Möbius strip. Nancy speaks of “unworking” the community, alongside individuals who are singular, aware of their finitude and their shared vulnerability. Here, the “with” morphs open to unexpected possibilities of encounter: just as a door opens onto a garden, one opens oneself to others. Nancy thus rewrites in an ethical key the inauthentic curiosity criticized by Heidegger—that “frantic activity of passing from being to being in an insatiable sort of way, without ever being able to stop and think.” He describes instead a sense of wonder, elicited through the contemplation of a newborn child, a face encountered on the street, an insect or a pebble; this fresh curiosity, he proposes, is “being intrigued by the ever-renewed alterity” of the world.
If Nancy’s rethinking of community has, especially in translation, a rather abstract, even ethereal quality to it, I would suggest that it acquires a special significance in the context of the pandemic. Ours is a time of exposure to vulnerability and death, when loss of life brings to consciousness the precious singularity of each person lost. Countries might have closed borders to stave off contamination, but the lack of immunity highlights everywhere the fragility of life. Moreover, our longing for others, coupled with the sense of time in slow motion, in which the natural world discloses itself in its carefree splendor, gives renewed access to Nancy’s musings on wonder. Nancy does not make a distinction between human and nonhuman beings, and I suspect I might have had a fugitive intuition of what he has in mind when he speaks of “having an affair” with the world when I was wading knee-deep in the creek in the company of my eight-year-old daughter, basking in her sense of wonder at a cool stone, some cute dogs or a lady with a hat. As if each had been the first of its kind. As if each had disclosed a face of the world never seen before. The old lady’s curtsy seemed the perfect illustration of the inclination of a body toward another, when her path momentarily intersected with ours.
THROWN BACK UPON OURSELVES
In 2015 and 2016, when I was living in Europe, the “refugee crisis” showed the resilience of the “community of proximity” in the European mind. The conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Syria were far away, and for some the solution was to build walls or change laws so they would stay that way. Our current predicament, however, illustrates what a wall doesn’t and couldn’t possibly keep out. All life in the 21st century—the way we travel, work and consume—is predicated on interconnection. The contagion of this virus draws, in unexpected ways, the map of our shared vulnerability, exposing the fantasies at the heart of the twin notions of autonomous selves and closed communities. Will it reshape the ways we live our lives? Will our collective experiment in social distancing have effects beyond limiting contagion? We are still too close to this pandemic to answer.
But for all of us today, distance is more than a topic for philosophical or political reflection; it has become an injunction, one that contradicts our fundamental inclinations and habits. As proximity becomes associated with the danger of contamination, and distance with protection, affection and love, we are compelled to rethink the simple facts of proximity and distance. We may wonder why, without the others, it seems harder to tell the days apart, and why images of strangers isolated in their homes in faraway countries are comforting (they too…) but also disquieting (they too…). We may learn from our own experience, in short, what the philosophers also teach us: that when we are driven back onto ourselves—in a strange world, when we empty ourselves for sleep—we carry our relationships to others within us in complicated ways.
Since friends and family appear these days mostly on screens, the same screens that bring into our lives news of people faraway (familiar or not), at the end of the day the world exists in my head like in a strange building in M. C. Escher’s lithograph Relativity (1953). Witty and meticulous, Escher was obsessed with the Möbius strip and other such curiosities. In Relativity, stairs ascend and descend at implausible angles; people come and go in defiance of gravity, walking toward and away from one another, with mindful observance of respectful distance. For a fleeting moment, one might hope that it prefigures a new way of seeing the world: there is clarity here about how various perspectives open onto others; how each can maintain its integrity; and how the world can hold everyone, without anyone falling out of it. Notions of proximity and distance, of contiguity and apartness, up and down, left and right, are all scrambled and reconfigured—an illustration of the “very peculiar kind of space” imagined by Nancy, more welcoming than the exclusionary circle of the closed community.
But the realization that the mannequins in Escher’s lithograph—and in my brain—are faceless ghosts dispels the vision: as Iris Murdoch warned, the reality of other people should always remain in our sight, to counter the danger of solipsism. Artists can offer us fantastic symmetries of tamed discord, but these remain silent, beautiful objects unless we put into practice their wisdom—the wisdom we gain these days from the practice of social distance. What will we take with us when we return to the world of people?
A triangle-shaped Möbius strip will serve as my memory palace, each of its three sides carrying one thought. There is no privileged vantage point to approach a Möbius strip, so how we start depends simply on where we set our eyes first—and everything is connected.
Distinction/distantiality/inequality: Less social interaction has meant fewer opportunities for the games of distinction, and the pandemic has cast a harsh light on the raw consequences of the most jarring form of distance: economic inequality. Orwell’s lesson is that such distance ought not to be trivialized through exercises in empathy. The challenge, rather, is to create a social world that reflects what the virus has also made evident: our shared vulnerability to nature and to one another.
Distance and ecology: As has been noted, the side effects of this counterintuitive exercise in slowing down are cleaner air, louder birds and a reduced carbon footprint. But perhaps we might also discover an enhanced appreciation that simple pleasures like walking in the woods, watching birds and listening to the creek are free, and that their only demand is the practice of a quiet restraint, of resisting the impulse—where it exists—to incorporate the world.
The ethical and political value of distance: This is perhaps the point that philosophers have most painstakingly tried to articulate. When we are thrown back onto ourselves, the recognition that we are porous and multiple must be made on behalf of others as well: distance allows for the respect of singularity and difference, for that form of love captured in Augustine’s formulation: “I want that you be what you are.” Love here refers both to interpersonal bonds and to our political life, where a recognition of mutual vulnerability is foundational: people need to be supported in order to be what they are.
My daughter’s name is the anagram of a warm wind, and she is indeed like a breeze that rearranges everything in new patterns; in her company, the world is a perpetually rotating kaleidoscope. Just as this thought was taking shape in my mind this morning, she emerged from her room grumpy and inconsolable. There was no point in changing out of her pajamas, having breakfast or doing schoolwork, she said, and virtual playdates only made her sad. We sat down on the carpet in silence, my arms wrapped around her. After a while, she asked, What’s your name? (I was glad it was not the more unnerving version of the game: Mom, are you really my mom? That question creates countless ripples in me, like a cool stone.) This time I introduced myself as Maskantoo, which made her smile:
My name is Maskantoo too.
Nice to meet you, Maskantootoo.
She stood up, hopped in the numbered squares of the hopscotch woven in the fabric of the carpet: 1, 2, 3-4, 5, 6-7 … 8. I thought she would turn around. She walked away instead, into the living room, and started playing the piano.
Art credit: Cinta Vidal