The Meaning of 2020

The World turns on its dark side… Man has measured the heavens with a telescope, driven the gods from their thrones. (Michael Tippett, A Child of Our Time)

In his powerful book “The Meaning of the 21st Century” the late Dr James Martin gave a wake-up call to the world. We have a choice, he says, between a dark future characterised by war, environmental disaster and (yes) pandemics, leading to the collapse of civilisation and possible extinction; or, alternatively, a sustainable renewal based upon the best qualities, ideas and achievements of humanity. All we need is to make the right choices.

Now we have a comparable but more urgent question to ask: what is the meaning of the year 2020? Is it a ‘lost year’ in our history, or something else altogether?

During these days of lockdown, many people are talking of the “new normal” that will, they assume, emerge from the upheaval of the global pandemic. This may variously be presented in terms of a bright future with benefits for the work/life balance, communities (put vaguely) and the environment; or in a bleaker view, as a future where we are all accustomed to perpetual isolation, social distancing, queues, limits on freedom of movement and assembly, and large scale surveillance, ultimately supporting and increasing wealth divides, populism, nationalism, protectionism, authoritarianism. New technologies, applications and ways of working may have seemed to liberate us during lockdown, but could increasingly isolate us through over-use and mission creep, creating long-term mental health issues and leading to increasing atomisation and anomie. James Martin’s alternative worlds in a grain of sand.

So far, so obvious. But underneath all this there is an inescapable sense of something more profound. We realise that we are living through a moment of history, but we cannot say what that means. In a storm, the waves break on the shore and cast up all kinds of flotsam and jetsam that in themselves have no meaning but are signals of vast, deep and distant ocean swells and currents: hard for us to discern directly or properly comprehend.

There are aspects to the public mood which suggest the kind of changes that might be coming, or at least desirable, at the end of the immediate crisis (if it makes sense to speak of an end at all). We might – or should – find ourselves in a society that is more caring, connected, cooperative (in other words, more of a society); where community is once again prized over the rampant individualism and consumerism of recent decades, and where profit is no longer the only motive of business. The politics of the libertarian right could be rejected. The positive role of the state may be acknowledged and valued: it has already shown its stabilising power and its ability to jettison the sacred cows of Mrs Thatcher (whether you regard her as sacred or a cow).

Moreover there is the greater crisis confronting the planet: climate change and environmental catastrophe. The lockdown period has at least shown us that we can make rapid and dramatic changes to our lives, to the way we do business, to society itself. We are looking at the world, already, from a different angle. Fewer car journeys, more cycling, fewer planes in the skies, noticeably clearer air in the cities. What if these changes could endure? Perhaps the Covid crisis may come to be seen less as an event per se, but as the start of a process to save the planet.

And yet…

None of that seems to go far enough in explaining what is happening and why, or in helping us to understand the deeper meaning of it all. Perhaps we are looking at it all the wrong way round. What if this extraordinary year is not a cause of things to come, but a symptom: an effect of a sea change that we cannot directly observe? The waves on the rocks and the deep ocean current and the pull of the moon: the chain of causation can only go in one direction. This is not to suggest that the virus is literally caused by something else, but that metaphorically the present stands in reverse causal relation to the future – and indeed that metaphor, not literal description, may be the only way to make sense of the time through which we are living.

These thoughts are provoked by two more exceptional books, very different from each other yet strangely complementary.

The Master and his Emissary by Ian McGilchrist is quite simply one of the most remarkable, erudite and profound works I have ever read. If not life-changing, then certainly mind-altering. It is hard to disagree with one reviewer, who said “McGilchrist might just be one of the most learned people in Europe”, and at times it is a difficult read, at least for someone not as fully versed as the author in neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, sociology, history, linguistics, literature, music and the arts. I would not presume to summarise it or claim to have understood even half of it. Yet it is full of light-bulb moments. In an absolute nutshell, it contends, in the span of 500-odd pages, that the history and culture of the Western world over the last 2,500 years can be explained in terms of a power-struggle between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, each with its own way of seeing and making the world; that at different periods of history, each has enjoyed periods of primacy; but that since the late 19th century, the left hemisphere has triumphed, leading us to where we are today.

To appreciate the intricacy of this hypothesis, all those 500 pages are needed, so if I oversimplify, it is perforce and knowingly. The left brain is characterised by methodical deconstruction, precision, abstraction, exclusion, literality, straight lines, clinical distance, calculation, willpower, and the inability to arrive at principles and truth other than by induction. It cannot see the wood for the trees, but it knows there is a wood, which it “re-presents” in its own terms.

“The left hemisphere loves straight lines, not curves or circles. It can approximate a curve… only by the expedient of laying ever more tangents. No straight lines are found in the natural world… Even space, it turns out, is curved.”

By contrast, McGilchrist shows (and clearly prefers) the right-brain world view: creative, passionate, holistic, inclusive, communal, connected, curvilinear, with a preference for metaphor, and rooted in the physical. It comprehends the wood, including all the individual trees.

Our humanity, of course, depends on the inter-operation of both these aspects, but they need to be in a particular balance, with the right side having primacy, in order to work properly in concert. The problems of our age are explicable in these terms. Left brain dominance gives rise to environmental damage, the blind pursuit of profit, the loss of community: “there is no such thing as society”, as Thatcher is reputed to have said.

It’s hard to find a more apt description of the modern / post-modern world than what the left brain produces:

“… a combination of urban environments which are increasingly rectilinear grids of machine-made surfaces and shapes, in which little speaks of the natural world; a worldwide increase in… the population who live in such environments… in greater degrees of isolation; an unprecedented assault on the natural world, not just through exploitation, despoliation and pollution, but also more subtly, through excessive ‘management’ of one kind or another… an extreme pace of change in the physical environment, fuelled by consumption…; the transformation of agriculture from an ancient culture into a business;… and the fragmentation of social bonds within communities… leaving us feeling less and less as if we belong anywhere”.

We are all familiar with the increasingly excessive bureaucratic and administrative demands  that prevail in all areas of work, and particularly in relation to third sector activity and funding. This too is a left-brain thing:

“The essential elements of bureaucracy… [are] the necessity of procedures that are known, and in principle knowable; anonymity; organizability; predictability; a concept of justice that is reduced to mere equality; and explicit abstraction. There is a complete loss of the sense of uniqueness.”

Things which cannot be measured are écarté, accorded no value: so across science, culture, education, social work and so many other fields, everyone becomes obsessed with measuring the inherently unmeasurable, or gives up altogether.

In terms of education, we see

“the substitution of information, and information gathering, for knowledge, which comes through experience. Knowledge, in its turn, [seems] more ‘real’ than… wisdom, which  [seems] too nebulous, something never to be grasped… Knowledge that [comes] through experience, and the practical acquisition of embodied skill… [is] replaced by tokens or representations, formal systems to be evidenced by paper qualifications… Skill and judgement, once considered the summit of human achievement, but which come only slowly and silently  with the business of living, [are] discarded in favour of quantifiable and repeatable processes.”

Ian McGilchrist is the champion of metaphor and the admirer of “Renaissance man”, of whom he shows himself to be the finest example. His description of the struggle between the two hemispheres, to which he attributes their own motives, should itself probably be taken as metaphorical, and therein lies the triumph of his book: it allows the right brain to speak unmediated by the left. The explanatory power of this is extraordinary.

Having breathed a sigh of relief and wonderment at getting through this demanding book, I turned for my next read to Robert Macfarlane’s “Landmarks”, which he calls “a book about the power of language… to shape our sense of place”. It is a celebration of the British landscape and the amazing variety of words that exist to describe its features – words which are mostly on the linguistic endangered species list. I expected something completely different from the cultural implications of the divided brain, but within just a few pages, I read:

“There are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a remote echo – or to which silence is… the best response. Nature does not name itself… Light has no grammar… Sometimes on the top of a mountain I just say ‘Wow’.”

Here we are again, unexpectedly but unmistakably, in the realm of the right brain, speaking in terms which Ian McGilchrist would surely approve and might indeed have quoted in his own book, had the two been written in reverse order. Macfarlane’s focus is our relationship with the natural world through, and beyond, language. He too presents disturbing evidence of our increasingly left-brain dominant view of the world, and a passionate if implicit case for reversing this trend. There could be no clearer sign of our deliberate disconnect from nature than his report that, a few years previously, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published which had omitted a large number of nature words (such as acorn, beech, buttercup, fern, kingfisher, newt, pasture – and many more) while adding a host of new information technology-related words in their place. This indicates

“an alarming acceptance of the idea that children might no longer see the seasons, or that the natural environment might be unproblematically disposable… [There were] numerous terms for file types but few for different trees and creatures. A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages”.

And Macfarlane continues:

“It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people able to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we further deplete our ability to name, describe and figure particular aspects of our places, our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted.”

Thus another marvellous, thought-provoking book unfolds. Taken together, these two inspirational works describe convincingly the world in which we have been living, a left-brain world that has broken down, suddenly, unexpectedly and irretrievably. 

It is only a small leap of imagination to say that this is the meaning of 2020: far from being a ‘lost year’, could it be the logical end-point of the left-brain world, the catalytic shock that enables the transition to a new age that future McGilchrists and Macfarlanes will show, was coming all along? The signs are encouraging.

This is a right brain vision, grand in scale, uniting humanity, reconnecting with nature, exalting all things curved, and appreciating metaphor. As Robert Macfarlane puts it:

“Metaphor is not merely something that adorns thought, but is, substantively, thought itself.”

The path is clear. We all need to start walking.

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