January. On an otherwise featureless midweek day of the new year, it’s 3.30 in the morning and I’m awake and there’s a storm outside.
The storm outside isn’t why I’m awake, but now I am awake I start to feel part of it, the way you feel a storm at night, a sense of being protected and exposed at the same time. Tree branches dance back and forth, the street lamp throwing silhouettes in 3D on the curtain. Rain hits the glass of the window. The wind swirls in surround-sound against whatever stands in its way. The sound of the wind is really the sound of surfaces, of corners and gaps, the sound of resistance as air skirts the edge of the house and bounces inside the chimney walls. The whistles and the occasional scream echo from the fireplace of this bedroom.
I hear rattling behind me too. From the bathroom, a sash window shifts nervously back and forth as if shaken by a giant trying to break in. Wood hits wood, loose in its frame, as storm air rushes down the side of the house. I imagine the bathroom itself, dark, with its cold tiles and enamel night-time white to the touch. I think of the children, oblivious to all this, deep in the well of sleep, where I am not.
The storm outside isn’t why I’m awake, but now I am awake there’s too much to notice and too much to think about. Now I am awake whatever the inside switch is that came on an hour ago won’t turn off. I’m loath to call this insomnia, or anxiety, because I think of these things as chronic disorders, or as states that should be diagnosed by an expert. I’m not saying it isn’t one of those things, just that a) I don’t know b) I’m not one of those experts and c) I’m probably clinging to the notion that it’s possible to feel anxious without having anxiety, or to have problems sleeping without suffering from sleeplessness. It is possible, isn’t it? I presume it is and I don’t know when one becomes the other. Maybe there is no difference. Maybe these things are self-ordained and I’m perfectly entitled to call it whatever I want but I’m scared to say it out loud. Like calling myself a writer when the phrase ‘someone who writes’ feels safer. Sure it’s clunky, but it’s not as presumptuous and my inner critic lets it pass. Make things official and that guys starts to get tetchy. So maybe it should all stay unofficial. It’s just easier that way. Not a writer with anxiety but an unofficial someone who writes unofficially feeling anxious.
Whatever, I’m awake.
Now it’s February I’m OK but in January this was very much A Thing. Or rather, for a while - like, all my life so far - it wasn’t happening, and then it was. I’d assumed this was the case for many people, because how could it not be. There’s economic anxiety, concern for our families, isolation from others, grief, loneliness, boredom, fear. We’d had Christmas to look forward to and then it passed and then it was meet the new year, same as the old year. It’s easy to feel trapped. Many people are, literally, locked in toxic situations and relationships they can’t leave. Whatever our means of processing all this dread, some of it must find its way into the night-time, into the quiet moments when the storm brews outside and in and it all feels like a reckoning.
Even if we’re ok really (and I am) and privileged (which I am) and happy with the people I live with (definitely) and aware of our privilege (which I continue to try to be) - this thing can be hard. Part of it, as Nick so brilliantly described, months ago, is that with so many of the usual communal activities gone - commuting, office chat, plans, fun - we’re being forced to Face Things. Our attention has nowhere left to go but on ourselves. Who we are. What we want. Never mind, we might have thought to ourselves back then, today might have been not so great, but tomorrow can be better. Because each day brought a new start. Only now it doesn’t. Each day is the same as it ever was. The distractions and outlets we used to help us avoid difficult questions have all fallen away. We have no choice but to think about it.
The Kindly Ones is a novel by Jonathan Littel about a Nazi SS officer called Max Aue. Aue is older now and hidden away in rural Germany, looking back on his past and recounting his experience of war. It’s not a life many of us could identify with, admittedly, but in the opening pages, before we really know much of what he witnessed, and did, he describes what it was like to carve out the time to reflect on his past.
“What turned out to be so disturbing, so oppressive, was to have nothing to do but sit around and think. Ask yourselves: you, yourselves, what do you think of, through the course of a day? If you put your work, your ordinary activities, your everyday agitation, on hold, and devote yourself slowly to thinking, things go very differently. Soon things start rising up, in heavy, dark waves. At night, your dreams fall apart, unfurl, and proliferate, and when you wake they leave a fine, bitter film at the back of your mind, which takes a long time to dissolve. Don’t misunderstand me: I am not talking about remorse, or about guilt. These too exist, no doubt, I don’t want to deny it, but I think things are far more complex than that. Even a man who has never gone to war, who has never had to kill, will experience what I’m talking about. All the meanness, the cowardice, the lies, the pettiness that afflict everyone will come back to haunt him. No wonder men have invented work, alcohol, meaningless chatter. No wonder televisions sell so well.”
Oof. I think Aue’s right. The opposite of distraction isn’t boredom. The opposite of distraction is whatever your mind occupies itself with when it has nothing else to do. The opposite of distraction is meanness, cowardice, lies and pettiness. Lose the ‘everyday agitation’ of life and you’re left with anxiety and past fears and embarrassing memories and guilt and wanting to relax but you can’t. Compared to this, boredom would be a fine thing indeed. It would be a very fine thing to be bored. Actually nothing to think about. Imagine that.
It can be done. For me, yoga helps. So does meditation, when I can manage it. Writing too. Each is a way of finding a flow and a mode of thinking that might withstand the silence that now confronts us and the quiet storm we may now hear. As Littel’s character reminds us, silence turns the volume up on our own thoughts. Without the usual background noise we’re forced to listen. Like we’ve cut the car engine and the music’s got louder by comparison. Strange, isn’t it, how noise can be so comforting, and silence so loud in what it reveals.
Sometimes, like at night for instance, in January, when a real live, significantly louder storm is beating at the window, what’s been revealed feels convulsive, violent even. The invasive noise fills the absence of our everyday agitation, and it makes for a very particular and uncomfortable kind of sleeplessness. The wind and the rain and wood on wood and the dancing silhouette all seem bigger than they really are. Maybe if I was a writer rather than merely someone who writes the pathetic fallacy of this storm would seem too obvious. I’d probably ignore it. But what if it’s telling me something? Maybe the swirl of internal and external movement, bubbling up from inside and rattling the windows, is driving at something. Something to be dealt with.
In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Le Carre’s hero George Smiley recalls the time he met his Soviet counterpart, Karla, then known by the pseudonym of Gerstmann. The Russian didn’t utter a word. Smiley explains how he first rationalised Karla’s behaviour, before this other man’s silence forced Smiley to confront the burdens he himself was carrying.
“‘At first I put his silence down to shock. But this stillness, this intense, watchful stillness, was a different matter. Specially when everything inside me was so much in motion: Ann, my own heartbeats, the effects of heat and travel...’
‘I can understand,’ said Guillam quietly.
‘Can you? Sitting is an eloquent business, any actor will tell you that. We sit according to our natures. We sprawl and straddle, we rest like boxers between rounds, we fidget, perch, cross and uncross our legs, lose patience, lose endurance. Gerstmann did none of those things. His posture was finite and irreducible, his little jagged body was like a promontory of rock; he could have sat that way all day, without stirring a muscle. Whereas I-’ Breaking out in an awkward, embarrassed laugh, Smiley tasted the wine again, but it was no better than before. ‘Whereas I longed to have something before me, papers, a book, a report. I think I am a restless person; fussy, variable. I thought so then, anyway. I felt l lacked philosophic repose. Lacked philosophy, if you like. My work had been oppressing me much more than I realised; till now. But in that foul cell I felt aggrieved. I felt that the entire responsibility for fighting the cold war had landed on my shoulders. Which was tripe, of course, I was just exhausted and a little bit ill.’ He drank again.”
At times during this pandemic, I have like Smiley felt the extent to which work - or any number of apparently important but ultimately circumstantial things - had previously been ‘oppressing’ me. I have longed for papers, a book, a report (yet also lacked the will to live with them for very long), have craved distractions I couldn’t keep. Maybe we all have. Were we people who in the midst of all those previous distractions “lacked philosophy”? Did we know who we are, and why? Do we now? Perhaps the discomfort we feel is the feeling of working this out. Smiley is astute enough to see the same reliance as Aue did on “work and meaningless chatter”, yet he also noticed we all “sit according to our natures.” When asked to do nothing, we reveal something of ourselves. It’s only when caught in the gaze of a man whose “intense, watchful stillness” so unsettles him that he begins to see himself as he really is. Faced with a promontory of rock, the edifice begins to crumble.
I suspect most of us are - or were - as fidgety and unstill as Le Carre’s character, and now we face something unmovable too. Caught in its gaze, we may ourselves begin to crumble, or at least hear for once what noise it is we build around ourselves. Perhaps, if we are still, we may experience Smiley’s notion of “sitting as an eloquent business”. We may discover something of our nature, reveal it as we navigate the silence. Maybe whatever quiet storm is brewing - whether inside or out - is something we should listen to. This is what midweek sleeplessness tells us. This is what facing things feels like.
So how do we do it? How do we navigate the silence and the storm, the inside and out? We learn, I think, to take control. To pay attention to what matters. This involves two opposing impulses. Cut the extraneous noise, and listen more closely. Strip away what’s unimportant, and let what wants to emerge come out.
Unfinished Sympathy by Massive Attack came out 30 years ago this month. It’s a controlled masterclass in each impulse. Interviewed about the record years later, 3D said “a lot of the beauty of Unfinished Sympathy was in the editing of ideas.” The song started as a jam, “just breakbeats and a percussive line” that grew organically from something unformed Shara Nelson had been singing during a tea break. It was allowed to emerge, gently but enthusiastically, nurtured from a quiet moment of genesis that almost went unnoticed. You know the song. It’s rich, moving, enveloping. It’s both slow and busy at the same time. Notice how the strings swell slooooowly, how they glide, while underneath it all the breakbeat skitters away. Somehow there’s room for both planes. The production knows what to leave out to keep the music sounding full.
“That was the way we first made music,” 3D said. “Keeping a lot of space in it, using very sparse arrangements and production.” This is where great art - any art - comes from. Nurture, then edit. Unfinished Sympathy’s eloquence speaks to us across three decades not only because of what’s in it, but what’s not. It dares to sit according to its nature. It is vast, yet quiet. The space it creates is unique. Asked why there was nothing else like it, 3D had the perfect asnwer. “Everyone’s lost the sense of how important silence is.”
Not any more.