I used to spend a lot of time lying in the bed of whichever wretched bedsit I happened to be inhabiting at the time staring at the corners of ceilings. One corner was much the same as another. Sometimes the cracks surrounding it were more dramatic (you could see thunder bolts, spiders, mosaics of parched earth). Sometimes the dreary white paint was greyer or blotchier. This was before the internet, before mobile phones, before binge-watching entire series in a day. I was in my twenties: excruciatingly sensitive but hopeful. I spent many hours gazing at indeterminate corners, where two walls met a ceiling, where three clearly delineated lines converged into a spot that patiently bore the burden of expectation placed upon them. Perhaps sadly, I now look on those moments (states of mind) as some of the happiest of my life.
What was I thinking as I looked up at those corners? Nothing, probably. I only know I found the lines extremely soothing (or else I wouldn’t have spent so much time staring at them). I also found them physically exciting (I discerned a geometrical, futurist-style butt in them). It astonishes me to think that I once spent so much time contentedly looking at a corner of a ceiling. Like most people, my concentration is now a cause for concern: it is pathetic.
I don’t want to get into the time-warping perils of cyberspace. Suffice it to say that my attention-span can barely endure a film without an abstract restlessness setting in, which wriggles my butt around on my swivel chair, impatiently glances at the time, incredulously rubs my eyes at this glowing glut of continual self-diversion. I am niggled by a vague feeling that I am missing something more interesting. Maybe someone has written to me. Maybe I really exist in the eyes of others. Maybe if I nip to the Guardian website there will be some dramatic breaking news.
When will WW3 finally break out? Will Russia invade the Baltics and continue its war on reality? When will the inevitable confrontation between China and the USA happen? Will Islamic extremists continue to terrorize Europe? Will artificial intelligence revolt and take over smart kettles and fridges? Will our current socio-economic system continue despite its devastating environmental, social and personal cost? When is the next (long overdue) epidemic? Will we ever curtail the power of corporations? Will I ever be able to browse online without being paranoid that someone is spying on my every move? What about refugees? The future of the EU? Resurgent nationalism? Food production? Toxic oceans? Polar bears?
The constant worrying and uncertainty is enough to make you ill. I would renounce the news and look away but then I wouldn’t know when to pack my bags and make a run for it. Besides, I feel like it is a moral obligation to keep abreast of this madness, despite the tsunami-like swell of events that is notionally carrying us forward.
Otherwise my day-to-day life is laughably and reassuringly uneventful. Going through a new roll of toilet paper is akin to tackling a 19th-century novel (Tolstoy comes to mind). Cooking dinner every day on the obsessively-decreed dot of 6 pm is accompanied by the sound of peeling church bells. Picking my nose feels like prospecting for gold in the Klondike. Shitting is an epiphany. Taking a shower is divine revelation. My mid-morning coffee and biscuit break feels like I have just reached Oklahoma in the pioneering push westwards. And as for going to sleep, that is a blissful respite from life; a little death.
The everyday is epic. Every ostensibly trivial act – stirring a cup of coffee, washing the dishes, chopping an onion – resounds with the epic, the mythic, the teleological. So, why all the drama? It is maddeningly pointless. It is suicidally destructive. I blame Jesus, personally. He introduced the notion of linear time, with its implicit end-time, now smoothly serviced and facilitated by high-speed train lines and optic fibre cables. And history is just that; a runaway train rattling along on the misguided binary logic holding it together.
One of the proudest achievements of my life was learning to tie my shoelaces unassisted when I was a kid. I still feel a childish surge of pride every time I bend over to tie them. Except that now it is accompanied by a general unease, a sense of foreboding. I feel uncomfortable going out into the world. It is too strange, too deranging. The cost of all this ephemeral happiness is too great.
Back at home, life is comprehensible. My misery is old-fashioned, like a quaintly old-fashioned 19th-century scream. The monotony is reassuring, like the drone of an old fridge. My anxiety is almost laughable in the way it manifests: the odd creaking floorboard, the occasional mysteriously missing sock, the quality of my stool.
There are no lessons or sermons here. No retreating into the wild. No rejecting the modern world. No going back to basics. My pathetic, atomized little life will go on as it is. I will continue to colour-in white spaces framed by thick lines with colourfully futile words. Hopefully, I will remember, from time to time, to stare up at the corner of the ceiling, where three lines converge into a sort of skewed T, a cross of sorts, bearing their burden, which for once isn’t metaphysical, but purely physical (sorrow-saturated language and time-laden consciousness).
At the height of my corner-gazing years, a Japanese girl gave me a present: Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke. I read it and was pleased to find that he recommended the poor soul who dreamed of becoming a poet to intimately acquaint himself with every detail of his home. It is some 25 years since I read that book so I might be completely misremembering it. Nonetheless, the idea was, and remains, a lovely one. We live in an age of the most spectacular, hyperbolic entertainment ever conceived (superhero films come to mind) when all the while we are surrounded by epic cracks, dramatic creaks, thrilling leaks.
The worst thing is that this absurd apocalypse wasn’t foretold by scripture or tablets. Well, it was, but they got the details wrong. No, it was foretold by badly written science-fiction books and poorly acted films. The writing was on all the wall all along but no one paid any attention because the prophesies were mistaken for cheap entertainment.