When Not to Move

Countries and flags

Even the cosmopolis can feel confining.

I had harboured aspirations of striking out beyond the precincts of my ostensibly humble region and transferring my base of operations to somewhere fundamentally different; somewhere founded on a different design, a local perhaps perpetuated and driven by an ideology of a dissimilar tenor. The trajectory I envisioned, even from the point of my recent journey’s genesis—that first degree—took me up and out of my limited experience to environments diverse and challenging. Goodbye, Toronto! Goodbye, goodbye. Because really, how many jolly adventures can one have in the same local? Won’t the familiarity of a well-worn home lead to stagnation? Doesn’t the well run dry after ceaselessly drawing from it, year after year? And quite honestly, no one wants to be a parochial academic when the world beckons to ambition so compulsively. When you see yourself climbing up onto the shoulders of giants you imagine that giant standing at the epicentre of an unequivocally vital site, somewhere where they’ll see your banner snapping in the troposphere and it will mean something; the little people far afield might be driven to rally or flee.

Possibly, I exaggerate. If not, it’s still an indulgent fantasy. I came late to this.

I phoned a dear friend once many years ago, and I caught her at an unusual time. Her voice was thick with emotion, and as we talked she came to seem genuinely depressed. “My darling,” I said to her, “whatever is the matter?”

“Oh, it’s ridiculous,” she answered.

“Tell me,” I pressed.

“I’ve just finally realized that I’m never going to be a pop star.”

Hearing her articulate this epiphany was a minor detonation. There was a clear and lucid origin of perspective in its essence. Something had sunken in.

The allure of this particular pipe dream was relatively foreign to me. At that point in my life I saw myself as too unconventional, and too contrary, to be suited for any kind of status that relied upon mass appeal. The brand of success I entertained in my own reveries took the shape of a loving peer group and a chance to make a living creatively, but quietly and out of the way; and not so much out of pragmatism but rather an untrustworthy orientation toward brute reality. However, my friend’s realization, and what she was coming to terms with (however tongue-in-cheek) addressed a fundamental mythology that motivates a certain quantity of every project of self-determination. The spectre of destiny draws many of us forward; and it is seldom a modest phantasm that does the work within the formative imagination. Around the corner of the everyday is anticipation for a revelatory moment of discovery, a juncture where the avatars of forces which drive the world suddenly take notice, attend, and carry you off—transmute you from your station and install you within the charmed sphere of the relevant, respected, and adored.

The permutations of these fantasies are, of course, endless; and they drive the compulsive magnetism of celebrity. The public regards, but it also projects; and that delirious projection is a lot of what spurs much of the everyday toil through mediocrity. I suppose it’s most especially acute in the young, before the force of raw statistics begins to wear at your consciousness. However, at some point you have to mourn your chances.

I mourned early. I recovered.

And my ambition has evolved rather than degraded: I haven’t worn down—I’ve sharpened. I’ve fine tuned. This older self I have inherited, thanks to the inexorable dilation of time, entertains much grander designs than what my prematurely pessimistic ego made room for when I thought I was headed nowhere fast. I had always known that I would never be a pop star, but at some point I had become actually optimistic about the prospects of a more modest luminary position in the firmament. My dream machine has been steadily stoked these past few years, and where I would have been familiar tracing the inner contours of my psyche and discerning only resignation, instead I have adumbrated the shape and substance of actual desire; powerful objectives motivated. This is genuinely a surprise.

I blame positive reinforcement: the continuous encouragement of multiple successes after facing difficult odds.

So when my ambition to breach the national barrier surrounding me was forestalled last year, and my long range plans ran afoul of the very real odds stacked against me, I recalled my friend, anguished on the other end of the phone line. This will never be was stitched into the fabric of the sky, and I felt the destitution of a lofty dream aborted.

Never is a brutal oblivion; but never is also hard to ensure. In a universe that thrives on the proliferation of possibilities, of aleatory contingencies and powerfully interlaced probabilities, never is almost as unlikely as always. Not this one, no this time, is so much more palatable, and so much more credible, than never.

The dream can stand some adjustment. I do not need to be stationed in America to realize my ambitions. The well, here in Canada, in Toronto, has not run dry; and whatever arguments I thought made it imperative to shuck this city like an old skin have lost a lot of their validity under detailed scrutiny. Good things can come from familiar territories. Progress without movement can be an exciting way to examine personal morphology. One can trace new outlines over the old shapes on a map. The iterations might create a compelling palimpsest, a record and new manuscript simultaneously. The core of the exercise is solid, is estimable; familiar but still challenging. There are newnesses to learn from right here as much as there.

So I stay. So I commit to inscribing my mark with a fine point on a site that has asked me to use its surface. There are other ways to transcend boundaries and reach beyond one’s original sphere. The world becomes progressively smaller when it consists of continents of text. It can be nice to be at home and to travel without moving.

The Summer of “1984”

It was a surprisingly bright, English day; and swarming with crowds through London’s theatre district. My companion, whom I had come all the way across the pond to see, was providing the commentary, as my voice was out of commission. Just before all the fixed points of my life were upheaved and mobilized at the beginning of the summer, I lost my voice. Everything I wanted to express, direct, or exchange was throttled by a forced rasp that was all my ailing vocal cords could accomplish.

“It’s viral. Your body’s fighting it. That’s good,” said my doctor after I had submitted to her examination.

“I need to move cities and then leave the country within the next week,” I narrowly managed to convey to her.

She shrugged. Shrugged!

So, from my perspective, the visit to Britain was a little less convivial than I would have hoped; but ultimately the trip was already paid for and I wasn’t about to cancel. Sulking moodily in a newly acquired apartment, solitarily mired in an unfamiliar community, rather than exploring the banks of the Thames, wasn’t really how I wanted to spend the first half of July. So be it, I thought.

I packed up. I went.

It came to a frustrating result, but still, a rewarding one. It was a worthwhile visit: hanging out with physics nerds in the East End; frequently venturing out to buy bargain white wine from Tesco’s; navigating the Tube without being fairly able to ask for directions; wandering. England’s weather didn’t reject me—it was identifiably summer. There were lots of opportunities to rove about in the open air, and circumnavigate the kinks of London’s urban knot. It will be recorded as a cherished trip.

That day, though, frequently crushed by the mobile agendas of bamboozled tourists, we skittered past the theatre production of 1984.

“Everyone makes such a big deal out of that book,” my chaperone said to me. He went on to ask what I thought about it—does it predict a future we are on a collision course with? Or has it already happened?

“I actually haven’t read it,” I wheezed in a forced strain beneath the background noise.

He, the student of science, was shocked that I, the student of literature, did not have first-hand knowledge of the book. Although, when pressed, he admitted that he had only ever made it through the first 40 pages, and was basing most of his opinion regarding the interface of Orwell’s dystopia with our evident reality on hearsay. The conversation we managed to have about the novel’s lauded prescience in a way succeeded in spite of our mutual handicap. The upshot was the observation that, despite vocal remonstrations from the modern public concerning the erosion of confidentiality and the growing ubiquity of surveillance, recording, and monitoring technologies, it seems that we have in fact quite prosaically handed over the rights to our privacy in steady increments. Could we not say that we have already acquiesced to Big Brother? Has the revolution not happened around us? Isn’t Orwell’s future here?

Now that I’ve read the book, I see that there were some quite conspicuous lacunas in our unsubstantiated assumptions about the nature and character of Big Brother. As one of those frequently required schoolhouse texts, 1984 has a kind of imaginative currency that transcends the actual act of reading it. Having never cracked its spine I still felt familiar with the broad strokes of the text just by virtue of cultural osmosis; but that knowledge was a sketchy equivocation and did not adequately map out the content of the novel’s concerns. As a result our rhetorical questions about an already realized Orwellian present-future were fairly off base.

The omnipresent telescreens and the consequent obliteration of privacy; the techniques of doublethink and the reworking of language to delineate the boundaries of what is thinkable; the machinations of the Ministry of Love and its subversive agents; all these together produce a framework of technologies devoted to the subjugation and control of the very people who are at work maintaining that same control in 1984. The totalitarian regime of the Party in Oceania is indeed devoted to power: having it, exercising it, perpetuating its hold of it; and it does this largely through the management of information. The ultimate goal is to govern thought itself to render resistance impossible and secure the future of the Party indefinitely. The techniques are forceful, brutish, and conspicuous; but, more importantly, they only concern the 15 percent of the population who are members of the ruling class. The proles, the remaining 85 percent, remain relatively untouched by the social engineering, surveillance, and coercion techniques of the Party. The masses are simply kept poor, kept busy, and herded.

Orwell’s 1984 has not come to pass. The brutality and ham-fisted manipulation tactics of the Big Brother regime are quite self-evidently totalitarian, conceived and enforced by a relative few under the guise of a war-mongering communism. The conditions we live in are far more insidious, far-reaching, and all encompassing. The mechanisms of control that pervade our modern society bring to fruition the primacy of information that exists in Orwell’s vision, but they diverge sharply when it comes to concerns of centrality and complicity. We live in a network of coercions that lacks a definable centre: the nodes of power that continuously form and dissolve, while remaining continually mobile or nebulously defined, influence us from all sides. The agendas of human interests work to win us over through the functions of every design, every product of human endeavour. As we want, as we desire to interface, as we exchange and as we capitalize upon our options, we collaborate. Not only that, we proliferate the very forces which enact the processes of restriction and control that delimit us. The scale of our complicity in the management of human life does not confine itself to the ruling class—in this information age every participant in the circuit of feedback and interchange makes a tacit acquiesce to regulation, and in turn does their part in contributing to the policing of the comprehensive complex that overwrites the boundaries of our interconnectedness.

George Orwell didn’t predict this. We’re in a much more subtle mess than he could have envisioned.