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Friday, June 12, 2009

Only Connect


Nelson Mandela was held in prison on Robben Eiland (Dutch for 'Seal Island') by the apartheid government for over two decades. Not because he had committed any crime, but because of his beliefs. His jailers were working class Afrikaners -- the descendants of bywoners (squatters on farms), ignorant and uneducated, devotees of the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church, and among the most racist of white South Africans. Nelson Mandela was educated, civilized, brilliant and a Xhosa nobleman. Americans can, I think, understand the situation best by imagining some jail in the deep south staffed by white trash holding a upper class black who'd been to university, spoke three languages fluently, and who was in jail not because he was a criminal lowlife but because the state was afraid of his ideas and his magnetism.

And a miracle happened. Mandela and his jailers connected. I'm still amazed and moved at this. I knew these people. I went to an Afrikaans school. I knew their bigotry and narrowness, their extreme racism, their fear as a minority group in their own country. His warders came to him with legal problems, and he advised them. They came to him with personal problems and he suggested solutions. They called him 'nkosi'. My lord. My lord. White trash. The dregs of Afrikaner society. They trusted him. They admired him. They respected him. Isn't that absolutely amazing? And in the end that great man's capacity to connect led to the peaceful transformation of South Africa to the multi-party, non-racial democracy it is today.

Only connect. Of course, E M Forster wasn't talking about one person connecting with another. This is what he wrote, in Howards End:

"Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the gray, sober against the fire."

Oh yes.

I wrote a couple of days ago about the claymation film Mary and Max from the ppl who did the Oscar winning Harvey Krumpet. Two ugly misfits connect, by letter. They would not have connected in real life. Max has Asperger's syndrome. Mary is just 8 years old. And they become best friends, and their friendship lasts for 20 years. OK, it's fictional. So therefore not true :-)

So let me tell you of a true story, back from the days of snail mail. You remember how at the back of comics they had a classified section selling stuff to kids? Well, one of the things was to get a penpal somewhere. And so, way back when, a teenage girl in England started a correspondence with another girl in Canada. They wrote regularly to each other about their lives, they got married, they had kids, and all the joys and sorrows of life they shared. 30 years later (yup, that's right -- 30!) they met for the first time. Each other was, they said, exactly what they thought they would be. It was like 'coming home'.

Only connect.

Or take my mother. When I was, I suppose, 7 or 8, she had a job at the Northern Rhodesia Police telephone exchange. In those days, telephone exchanges connected calls with cables capped with small pegs which plugged into sockets. Her job was to take the call from the exchange down the line and connect it to someone there at Police Headquarters, or to connect it to the next exchange somewhere in British Africa or England. Sometimes I was taken to work (I suppose on the days when the babysitter didn't turn up) and I would listen to her connecting police from South Africa with police from Kenya or Tanganyika or London. She knew all the police telephone exchange operators. They would have a moment of chat while they waited for the Commissioner or the head of Interpol to pick up the phone. They exchanged Christmas cards and birthday cards. Occasionally, they'd meet. The telephonist from Gweru or Bulawayo might be driving through Lusaka (the capital) on the way to another town, and they would drop in. "Sometimes they'd look quite different from what their voices sounded like on the phone," my mum would say.

Human beings are programmed to connect. Even poor Max Horowitz, from Mary and Max, despite having Asperger's (which makes it hard for you to interpret others' facial expressions and emotions) connected, with Mary. By letter. I would go so far as to say that we are programmed to love. Not romance (never trust it, dearly beloveds) but agape or philia. We are supposed to have originated in bands, or tribes, of proto-humans wandering the veld 100,000 years ago. The band would have had to cooperate to hunt; to care for children (our species has the longest childhood as a percentage of total life span of any species on this planet, and there are extremely good evolutionary reasons for that); to drive off competing bands. Loving one another ("as I have loved you") is genetically programmed into us. Tribes which cohered survived.

Of course, the implication is that we are also programmed to hate. That damn tribe across the hill! Always stealing our melons! Fuckers! Redefine an insider as an outsider and it's easy to hate, to turn your face away when they suffer. Think of the Jews of Germany and Central Europe. Think of Matthew Shepard. But right now I'd prefer to talk about the love. There's enough suffering in the world, and I do not want to dwell on it. I know humans are capable of evil. But we are also capable of love, of loving long after it's pointless; of heroism; of self-sacrifice, the glamorous kind (saving a drowning child) and the unglamorous kind (working day after day to keep your family.)

Which brings me to email. Now email differs from snail mail in some critical ways. Obviously, just for a start, it's quick. No waiting for 10 days for the letter to be delivered. And, unlike snail mail, you don't know that the person you're "talking" to is who they say they are. Martin Bizzlewit might in fact be Marilyn Santana. And the address can be nuked in an instant, whereas you tend to live in a place (once you've settled down) for years and years. And, natch, you can't see faces, or expressions, so you have to deal with what a dear e-friend insists on calling 'texts'. At one level, email is no better -- perhaps in fact inferior -- to the communication we have with the guy who sells us coffee (he's cute!). Yet, even though we talk to him day to day, we never really tell him that we are afraid of the random pains in our gut, that we wish we'd made different decisions several times over the last few years, that we worry about our kids and our friends. Any more than we do with most of the (let me call them) e-acquaintances on line.

But email has advantages too. Most of my embodied acquaintances don't know I'm gay (or bi or whatever). It's too awkward to tell them. Most online do -- because after all they're here because of my writing. Always assuming I'm not in fact Mrs Euphemia van der Westhuizen, LOL. So if you start connecting to someone on line you can tell them about your secret fears and wishes, your sorrows and failures in a way that's hard with embodied acquaintances. Good --- and bad. For maybe, after all, intimacy too easily gained is a bit suss. Easy come, easy go.

Another advantage. There are many ppl I would never have met in my "real" life. I avoid sportsmen, for example. Being half blind, and in fact blinded by the jock bullies at school, I start off with a certain.... hostility. I can't play games, because I can't see where the ball is. More than that: I find the life of ideas and concepts much more interesting than sport. When I see a group of young jocks, I am still afraid enough of strange men to avoid them. But suppose you start to talk to someone on line, and you discover, after you have grown fond of him, that he's a jock? All your preconceptions are given a thorough shaking up. That would never have happened without email, or e-groups, which are in effect assemblies of pen-friends, would it?

I come back to all the examples of penfriends in the good old days of steamships and prop jets, and will end with this one.

Dirk Bogarde, the actor and novelist had a long correspondence with a woman he never met. She once lived in the house he bought in France, and on the strength of that, she wrote to him, and they became friends, close friends. His book, called A Particular Friendship is about it. Dirk Bogarde was gay, and lived 40 years with his husband. But he became very close to Mrs X. They became best friends. And consider: it was quite by chance. Mrs X saw an article about Dirk Bogarde in an English magazine while she was having her hair done. Maybe all the best friendships are by chance.

There are some who say that e-friendships aren't real, because they lack "body". Maybe. Yet I have and have had close and dear friends on line. Just like the penpals described above. Just like Dirk Bogarde and Mrs. X. My e-friends are real to me. My heart is engaged, bodies or no. The genes which make me want to connect with like-minded ppl work on line just as they did for my ancestors in Serengeti, making sure we build communities where selfish interests are balanced with altruism. They (the genes) don't know your friend is far away, unembodied. To them, he or she is a warrior next to you, defending the tribe against lions or rapacious neighbours, or joining in the hunt. To me, the point about affection and friendship isn't about embodiment. It's about soul and character. And soul and character come through in letters and emails. Sometimes, perhaps, even better than they might in real life.

Only connect. I think E M Forster would have approved of my hijacking of his phrase.

2 comments:

Adam Phillips said...

Hey. I resemble that remark.

Much of what you say is true, and I'll grant that The Way It Is probably lies somewhere in between your take on e-relationships and mine. If you'll recall, I've had some online experience of my own that have brought me joy and sorrow and have taken me across the whole range of human emotion and relating.

There are some inherent liabilities and some deficits, of course. And I continue to believe that "embodiment" is somehow crucial. Nevertheless, I know from personal experience now that it's not the case that online friends are not "real friends" or that online relationships are not "real relationships." They're just different. Once you take account of those differences, you're perfectly justified in talking about online "friendships," "relationships," and even "love."

At least that's how I'm feeling these days.

Oh, and sorry about the jock stuff that always ends up beating you down. :-(

Nigel said...

I think we've prolly moved closer together on our take on e-relationships. I think, as with "real" relationships, it depends critically on the person at the other end.

It was interesting meeting the people I work with at Wilde Oats. That was a case of e-relationships becoming "real". As with my mother, the people were somewhat different to what I expected. But you could see the e-person occupying the same space as the "real" one.

Jocks? Ah well, there are one or two I'm rather fond of, these days.