I used to spend a lot of time lying in the bed of whatever wretched bedsit I happened to be inhabiting at the time looking up at the corners of the 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 digital technology. I was in my 20s: excruciatingly sensitive but hopeful. I could spend hours looking at those corners, where two walls met a ceiling, where three clearly delineated lines converged into a spot that patiently bore the burden placed upon them. In a strange way, they were some of the most peaceful moments I have ever known.
What did I think about looking 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, as though I had glimpsed a geometric, futurist-style butt in them. It astonishes me to think that I could have spent so much time contentedly looking up at a corner of a ceiling. Like most people nowadays, my concentration has become 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, warily 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 to make me go “Ooh…”
When will WW3 finally break out? Will Russia invade the Baltic states and continue its war of disinformation with anyone who looks at it the wrong way? 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? And what will become of the poor 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 uneventful. And I love that about it. Going through a new roll of toilet paper is akin to tackling a classic 19th-century novel (Tolstoy comes to mind). Cooking dinner every day on the neurotically-decreed dot of 6 pm is accompanied by the sound of peeling church bells. Picking my nose as I sit at my desk 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, well, that is exactly what it feels like. 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 fiber-optic cables. And history is just that; a runaway train. Like the line it trundles along on, it is bound by 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, there, into the world. It is too much. There are too many things. The cost of all this ephemeral happiness is far, far 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 grumbling 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 going back 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, like my sadness-saturated flesh and time-laden consciousness.
At the height of my ceiling 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 age of the most spectacular, hyperbolic entertainment ever conceived (superhero films come to mind) when all the while we are surrounded by epic cracks (at least my crumbling old apartment is), dramatic creaks, thrilling leaks.
And 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 prophesy was mistaken for cheap entertainment.