004 Connection

"They're dying to add me to their collection / And I don't know if they'll let me go."

I wrote in my last installment that my impulse to connect is stronger than my impulse to cultivate my inner life in solitude. There’s a lot to be said in the wake of this issue; for starters, why can it feel, at times, both so easy and so hard to find community or friendship—deep forms of connection—through online means? To the extent that voluntary communities form, I’ve seen and participated in rewarding interpersonal webs with people; it’s always interesting to see how things play out beyond the reason for being. (Say, a Facebook group or a discussion board or a Discord server dedicated to a sports team, where people end up discussing many important and even intimate topics other than the team.) But alternatively, often, even when all the ingredients seem to be in place, the necessary chemical reactions don’t occur.

I’ll say this much, albeit cryptically: the fact that algorithms and platforms are so suggestion-driven, and that people are encouraged to stay in certain lanes once they’ve been put there, is a serious obstacle to a free life and also to spiritual health.

But that’s a big question and I’m interested right now in sketching out a few contours of something closer to everyday experiences.

Sometimes talking lovingly about old or unmarketed movies makes me feel a bit like the German officer in Le silence de la mer (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1949), who is met by his French hosts with an almost total silence and recalcitrance. It’s the loneliness of a monologue that only pretends to be a monologue when it’s clear that no conversation is forthcoming to make it all into a dialogue. In Melville’s film the officer is the powerful one in the room, the occupier, and yet he is treated as if he were not there. He fills his time in their parlor talking at length about French and German culture. The film has a very brief, humane moment of relent; not forgiveness, not reconciliation, just a word of recognition in a lonely place. This occupation was temporary, and the film doesn’t leave one with hope, but does leave one with the sense that something is, and could be, left over. Writing criticism or teaching people about movies can be a bit like this: blank stares, stubborn and uncaring … people have other places to focus their attention, better or more pressing causes. And yet, sometimes, there is a word spoken—a common ground acknowledged—something to build on.

So long as there is tomorrow, you still have to continue living with the people around you.

I compare this with the less pervasive but bleaker fate awaiting one character in The Secrets in Their Eyes (Juan Jose Campanella, 2009), where the refusal of a human voice and conversation become a method not only of resistance, but harsh justice—and, even, torture. My dystopian fear is that we might end up existing in this kind of a void, but not knowing it. (I’m describing a feeling, not arguing for a conclusion.)

The other night I had a dream that I was in an environment of zombies, and as long as I behaved as they did, they didn’t suspect I was different, and I was in no immediate danger. This proved to be both sad and exhausting.

It’s rough when ambient conversations replicate the same kinds of meme-thinking, the same approved territories, the same handful of references and values. People’s personalities are not reducible to popcult meme structure. Or maybe the scary thing is that for some people, they might be; but I don’t think they should be, and I think that in a better and more just world, they wouldn’t be. The concept of the “NPC,” itself memed, gestures towards this same concern, and stems from a history of skeptical-to-hostile theorization of the masses and the “mass” person. I don’t buy in to the concept, exactly, but I think people wear a lot of behavioral and cognitive armor and don’t realize it. This is why I love cranks and autodidacts: they are, at least, thinking for themselves and willing to do so even if it works to their social disadvantage.

One of the most touching and bleakest movie portraits of depression and loneliness is Maren Ade’s The Forest for the Trees (2006). Ade’s subsequent films are also about forms of social disconnection but nothing, for me, hits as hard as her first feature. I think it’s because the protagonist comprehends, on a gut level, the fact that she is painfully awkward, but she is powerless to change it. It’s like existential rubbernecking.

The integrated personality seems to be just sitting there, beyond the pale, mocking everyone who is then advertised and sold innumerable cures. In the meantime, I want to keep thinking about the breaks and the broken.