April 12, 2015
“Only connect” “ such were the famous (almost) concluding words of E. M. Forster’s novel, Howard’s Way. I think if Forster were alive today and still writing, he would end the book differently: “Only disconnect.”
It is very difficult to disconnect these days, psychologically if not physically. Although I think that the so-called social media would be much better and more accurately called the anti-social media (for which of us has not seen and remarked upon four people at a restaurant table ignoring each other and glued to their little screens?), I cannot claim myself to be so very different from my modern fellow men. If I am separated from my telephone or the internet for more than a few hours I grow anxious, principally that I will have missed the transformative offer of my life “ not that I experience my life as being in such great need of transformation. Still, a change is as good as a rest.
It is difficult to isolate yourself these days, though I know one or two admirable people who refuse to use the internet and have no mobile phones. I assume that they are resisting temptation, but perhaps they are not tempted in the first place. This raises the important question as to whether it is more morally admirable to be so perfect as not to be tempted by something, or to be perfect enough to be tempted by it but to resist.
Be that as it may, I have all but forgotten how wonderful it was to be out of contact with the people I knew (and liked) for quite long periods, sometimes for months. There was something luxurious about it; I was able to luxuriate in a certain lack of responsibility, for I heard no complaints and therefore had to suggest no solutions. “When two Englishmen meet,” said Doctor Johnson, “their first talk is of the weather.” When two friends meet, the first thing they do is complain; how wonderful I was to be free of all that!
I once crossed Africa by public transport. It took me about six months and in many places, indeed for most of the time, I was isolated from everyone I knew, without possibility of calling upon them for anything. In a small way I felt like Arthur Koestler in his condemned cell in Spain waiting to be executed; that is to say, freer than I had ever been before in my life. I was thrilled to be told in Equatorial Guinea that if anybody in authority there knew that I was a writer (of sorts) I would be killed, cut up and thrown into the sea: I had never been important enough to be worth killing before, and in a way I was flattered. This was all thirty years ago next year; the then president, who is still the president, had overthrown his uncle, the first president, in a military coup. The first president was known by the title of The Only Miracle, and certainly he had produced startling changes in the country: a third of the population had either been killed or had fled. Among other achievements, he managed to abolish the wearing of glasses, if not the reasons for doing so. He associated glasses with being an intellectual, and intellectuals with danger, having been a failed intellectual himself. The errors in his logic may explain why he failed as one.
It was exhilarating to be utterly incommunicado. One is glad to have survived only when the opposite has been possible.
Another time I went across the Chaco between Paraguay and Bolivia with smugglers. The Chaco is neither desert nor forest but something in between the two: at any rate, very inhospitable to man. If the smugglers had killed me and taken my possessions, I would now be but a parched pile of bones never to be discovered somewhere in impenetrable thorn and cactus bush. I was completely in their power, and they were very nice to me, sharing their food and drink. Isolation taught me trust.
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