I have too many windows open.
Thirty years ago, that sentence meant something very different. Perhaps a draughty house. Maybe it was a bit cold.
My desktop is cluttered.
Again, thirty years ago, the problem might be tackled with an actual in-tray, an actual out-tray and a jam jar to put your pens in. Nowadays, all you can do is create little virtual blue pretend folders on your pretend desktop and ‘drag’ and ‘drop’ ‘files’ ‘into’ them.
If you try to hold these two things in mind – the real and the virtual – pretty soon you run out of inverted commas: every other word is metaphorical. So we dispense with the ‘rabbit ears’, (kindly) adjust our mental sets, and are now so accustomed to our digital lives that wizardry beyond the wildest fantasies of the Mighty Oz Himself is utterly humdrum.
Sometimes, though, it’s good to be reminded of just what a peculiar thing the modern mundane is. In How to be Both, Ali Smith conjures up the spirit of a fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance painter who floats, disembodied, around contemporary London. Here he is trying to describe a young lad taking a photo of on his phone:
“The boy … holds his holy votive tablet up in both hands as if to heaven, up at the level of his head like a priest raising the bread, cause this place is full of people who have eyes and choose to see nothing, who all talk into their hands as they peripatate and all carry these votives, some the size of a hand, some the size of a face or a whole head, dedicated to saints perhaps or holy folk, and they look or talk to or pray to these tablets or icons all the while by holding them next to their heads or stroking them with fingers and staring only at them, signifying they must be heavy in their despairs to be so consistently looking away from their world and so devoted to their icons.”
With his sharp, five-hundred-year-old eyes, the painter observes how the people in this strange world “dance by themselves in empty and music-less rooms … by filling their ears with little blocks and swaying about to a silence, or to a noise smaller than the squee of a mosquito that comes through the little confessional grille in each of the blocks.”
If Ali Smith were a superhero, her power would be defamiliarisation. She looks at things like they genuinely have never been seen before. She writes like each sentence has just this minute been invented, born on the page still wet from gestation. Reading How to be Both is less like listening to a story than watching a mayfly pupate.
Which brings me back to my opening conundrum: too many open windows.
I want to close them – I do, really I do. And it would only take a little click of the cross (now there’s an icon if ever there was) in the corner, but I just can’t quite bring myself to. My desktop is cluttered with reminders – star that, bookmark the other, mark as unread, add it to the favourites… it just piles up (if something so featurelessly flat can pile) day after day, a ghastly indictment of my butterfly, flutterby, monkey, magpie, gadfly mind…
But if there’s one thing that How to be Both teaches us, it is that there’s no need to be one thing. We are dual creatures – who can be male and female, dead and alive, haunted and haunting, connected and isolated, delighted and overwhelmed, ancient and newborn, both seed and tree… simultaneously.
So perhaps there’s a way to be both delighted by the hyperconnectivity and properly swept away by it. Yesterday, I went down an unexpectedly rich rabbit-hole vortex – that led from an email about a writer’s residency in Switzerland to podcast on ‘slow art’ to a British woman who is writing a series of scrolls in the longest written artwork ever, who happens to have been a ‘hospice lifestory scribe’ (totally made up job, which sounds like the best thing ever), to a film about a Canadian man whose life’s mission has been to ‘to turn the act of dying from denial and resistance into an essential part of life’: in other words, the ultimate ‘both’ – both living and dying – which is what it means to be mortal.
I leave all those windows open, while I Google the name of the painter from Ali Smith’s book. The screen fills with thumbnail frescoes – the aliveness of the brushwork deadened by digitisation, so that they appear both flat and three-dimensional at once. The palace in Ferrara whose walls they adorn is called Palazzo Schifanoia: literally, ‘the palace of not being bored’. I think I have found a new name for my laptop – maybe even for the internet itself.
Except that as we wander from room to room in our iPalaces of digital delights, it does become all a bit samey. There’s only so many times you can say ooh, shiny! before it begins to pall. We need books, like Ali Smith’s, to sit us down and remind us to stop talking into our hands, to take the little blocks from our ears, and look up from the screens and out into the world. Perhaps even opening a window to see outside.
First published, The Hindu Business Line, BLInk supplement, 17.6.18