Philosophies of Distance and Proximity: Who Are We When We’re Alone?
Corina Stan on Orwell, Murdoch, Canetti and Experiments in Isolation
“In a strange room, you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were.” I am not in a strange room, but my familiar room is in a strange world, and this passage from a novel by William Faulkner haunts me.
Having lived abroad for all of my adult life, I have been thinking about the effects of distance for years. My family, several friends and I live on different continents, and most of the time we meet online, and in person only in the summer. So whenever we see each other in the flesh, we take in quietly the subtle differences between who we are and the versions of each other we’ve lived with in our heads, a little abstract for lack of contact: a tighter or more relaxed smile, a few more white hairs, children who look a little more grown-up, a pale complexion that might suggest illness, a deeper quality to someone’s silence, an averted gaze when a particular topic is mentioned… All point to the thick accumulation of days, of every day we have not been together.
Now I have to pretend that my friends here, my colleagues and students also live abroad, and that my neighbors are glass-shielded in an intangible dimension. It feels odd to live in exile from almost everybody, as if we had each been sucked through a portal to a remote island, or a distant planet.
When you empty yourself for sleep, at the end of a day populated so sparsely by actual persons, but overflowing with abstracted silhouettes—of people who have lost their jobs or who couldn’t bid a final farewell to their loved ones, of friends who wave from a screen and give you news you can’t do much about, of family far away who will remain so far in this long present—what are you?
There is hardly a reason, and often no time, to think about our everyday life when we are in it. The rituals we engage in without thinking, the distracted habits of thought; they are unfamiliar through excess of familiarity, like the shape of our shoes molded onto our feet, or the intimate space of the night table where we reach without looking.
There is something of that taken-for-granted involvement with the world in the sphere of social relations too: not only the family and friends we usually choose to hang out with, or the colleagues we work with, but all those people we might run into on a daily basis in the improvised sociability of ordinary life—people we see only from the corner of the eye, or even not at all, but whose presence gives us a sense of life unfolding.
Such presence is felt in the electrifying energy of a crowd that dissolves you—in a stadium where hundreds or thousands of gazes are tethered to a basketball, or in a concert hall, tuned with hundreds of people to the rhythm of a performance. I both know and ignore what I’m missing these days. I suspect my unease has something to do with not being able to interact with my students in person. The energy they give me in the classroom is hard to retrieve from pixelated smiles, the end of each session slightly disconcerting, given everyone’s abrupt disappearance at the push of a button.
I miss the carefree exuberance of the playgrounds where I take my daughter to play alongside other children, and the cozy cinema in my neighborhood where I used to go every now and then just to watch a movie in the quiet company of other people. It’s as if all these venues were hosting a version of John Cage’s 4’33”, rendered meaningless by the lack of closure.
A few years ago I finished working on a book called The Art of Distances, which became my baseline for trying to understand the meaning of this episode we’re all writing together, through our collective experiment in social distancing. What value can one ascribe to distance? What insights do we gain by staying away from others, and at such close quarters with ourselves?
The question of the right distance between oneself and others has especially preoccupied philosophers and writers during and after moments of social disruption, when life as they knew it seemed to morph under their own eyes. Less than a century ago, Eric Blair was returning to England, disgusted by the “dirty work of Empire” he had done as a colonial administrator in Burma. Determined to “get right down among the oppressed,” he turned his back on his middle-class family, donned the garb of a tramp and lived for a few months with the homeless; then he crossed the Channel and worked as a dishwasher in Parisian hotels.
The record of these experiences, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), was Blair’s first book, published under the pen name we now know him by, George Orwell. Down and Out inaugurated Orwell’s literary career with an experiment in reducing distance. With the relentless sincerity that became his signature, in his next journalistic work he denounced his own experiment as “a masquerade,” having learned that social distance was no trivial matter, and that abolishing class distinctions demanded nothing less than a complete transformation of one’s “attitude to life.”Many of the thinkers of the past century have couched their diagnoses of the contemporary world in a vocabulary of distance and proximity.
Around the same time, his contemporary Elias Canetti began the anatomy of human modes of separation that became his life’s work. A German-language writer born in Bulgaria into a family of Sephardic Jews, Canetti spent the last decades of his life in England, “where social life consists of futile efforts of proximity.” He was obsessed with crowds, convinced that the ideologies that shaped the 20th century—communism and fascism—and the human disasters that ensued could be explained by people’s overwhelming desire to be part of a crowd and thus cancel the distances of everyday life.
When he finished his ambitious tome Crowds and Power (1960), which took 30 years to complete, he sighed with relief that he had “succeeded in grabbing the century by the throat,” having understood it better than anyone else. The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, with whom Canetti had a brief affair, was also a thinker preoccupied with how people live together, and much of her fiction can be read as an extended meditation on ideal distance.
In her view, one of the greatest challenges of moral life was to take the full reality of other people seriously—and that means understanding the other as not just an extension of oneself. One of the most exquisite episodes in her 1958 novel The Bell features a young woman visiting the National Gallery in London and discovering in the contemplation of paintings an instance of this perfect remove:
Here was something which her consciousness could not wretchedly devour, and by making it part of her fantasy make it worthless. … She looked at the radiant, sombre, tender, powerful canvas of Gainsborough and felt a sudden desire to go down on her knees before it, embracing it, shedding tears.
These three vignettes—Orwell, Canetti and Murdoch—are grounded in their respective historical moments: colonialism and the Great Depression, the “world of banished people” left in the wake of Nazism and the atrocities and destruction of World War II. But even in quieter times, there are those who have given much thought to the matter of interpersonal distance. In a parable loved by Arthur Schopenhauer and Sigmund Freud, some porcupines huddle together in freezing weather, trying to stay close enough to keep warm, yet also far enough so they avoid pricking one another.
Citing this parable, the French semiologist Roland Barthes formulated his course of lectures, How to Live Together, around a question: “At what distance should I keep myself from others in order to build with them a sociability without alienation and a solitude without exile?”
In fact, many of the thinkers of the past century have couched their diagnoses of the contemporary world in a vocabulary of distance and proximity. Under the auspices of Barthes’s declaration that “we need a science, or perhaps an art, of distances,” a region of thought opens up where we might find some bearings, now that what we usually take for granted as our everyday life has been disrupted.
Barthes confessed in his inaugural lecture that his course originated in a personal phantasm: eight to ten individuals living together in a community small enough to allow personal connections and respect for everyone’s singularity, but also large enough for it to be diverse and interesting. Barthes avoids the term “community,” preferring to speak of “living-together” (i.e. vivre-ensemble), often capitalized; what matters to him is not who is in and who is out, but how the individuals involved calibrate distance—not once and for all, but moment to moment.
This utopia straddles two intersecting realms of human experience, friendship and community, where the problem of distance bears on questions of space, values, foundational myths, notions of identity and difference. For the most part, the Western philosophical tradition has placed friendship at the heart of a happy life, a similarity of interests, habits and values being considered nurturing for those involved.
Yet Aristotle’s paradoxical apostrophe—O my friends, there are no friends!—famously highlights the impossible demands of authentic friendship, and the fact that it can perhaps only exist as an ideal on the horizon of our social interactions. For Ralph Waldo Emerson, a friend must remain a spirit ensconced in distance, “forever a sort of beautiful enemy, untamable, devoutly revered, and not a trivial conveniency to be soon outgrown and cast aside.”Nietzsche thus turns his back on an entire tradition of thinking about community that prized a shared history, myths of origin and common rituals.
In other words, there is no genuine friendship without separation. My friend shouldn’t be so close to me that she can’t point to my failures; and I can’t be so attached to what we have in common (and to the image of myself mirrored in those shared traits) that I can’t change my ways and become a better version of myself.
Nietzsche, famously a reader of Emerson, pushed this logic even further. In passages that echo the American philosopher’s portrayal of the ideal friend as a “beautiful enemy,” Nietzsche’s Zarathustra goes so far as to denounce the love of the neighbor commended by Christian morality as the “bad love” of oneself. He advises, rather, “love of the farthest”: instead of cultivating bonds with those closest to us, we should seek connections with those who are different, those who can help us broaden our horizons.
Nietzsche thus turns his back on an entire tradition of thinking about community that prized a shared history, myths of origin and common rituals, blaming Judeo-Christian morality for encouraging the cultivation of a “herd mentality” that denied the diversity of life forms. Instead of docilely conforming to rules and expectations that fence us in a community of like-minded individuals, one should seek that region where difficult and surprising encounters are possible. Nietzsche reminds readers that all strong epochs cultivated a “pathos of distance.”
This may sound like a recipe for individualism and anarchy. Surely there are life forms that are more valuable or significant than others—and don’t some of us need the crutch of moral systems to help us resist our worst impulses? Isn’t it only human to fasten strong affection to those closest to us? Yet much of the philosophy of the past century has followed in Nietzsche’s path, mounting a relentless critique of the “community of proximity,” understood historically as a group of people living together in a bordered space, where they occupy a certain place and role in the social hierarchy.
The defining gesture of such a community is drawing a circle around those who belong (that is, who share certain traits) and its most obvious example is the nation-state.
The paradox is that “communities of proximity” are affected by a troubling kind of distance, precisely because they are premised on life-scripts that compel their members to evaluate themselves through comparison with others. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger refers to this aspect with the term “distantiality” (Abständigkeit): the nagging care about how one differs from others, which manifests in an “ambiguous watching of one another, a secret and reciprocal listening-in,” antagonistic rather than benevolent.
Canetti echoed this thought at the beginning of Crowds and Power with the axiom: “All life … is laid out in distances—the house in which [man] shuts himself and his property, the positions he holds, the rank he desires—all these serve to create distances, to confirm and extend them.”
Caught in the busyness of life, such habits might remain unexamined. But what about a situation such as ours, when we are at a remove from the sociability of the everyday, its planned and noncommittal encounters: Are we closer to a life of authenticity? Or if we were to set aside, as an intellectual exercise, community as we know it, what would the alternative look like?
In the company of Barthes and other thinkers invested in this problem, the question of community becomes: What is an ethical way of relating to other people? And what happens when we find ourselves in isolation, contemplating not only our distance from others, but also distances within ourselves?
Excerpted from The Point: Issue 22 (Summer 2020). Reproduced with permission. Copyright © 2020 by Corina Stan.