Big Pictures, Small Moments

I’ve got a fascination with books that try to give the big panoramic statement–a big history, a big story. Lately, I’ve been making my way through Tom Holland’s Dominion, both fascinated by its scope and sceptical (in a way that’s difficult to articulate) of its ambition. The same push/pull dynamic was there reading Simon Reid-Henry’s Empire of Democracy, David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and John Keene’s The Life and Death of Democracy. The leaps across decades, centuries, and even millennia, a display of intellectual agility that solicits a desire to imitate their daring–but behind the exuberance a doubt lurks. Is there not too much showmanship in the scholarship, too much story-telling in the big picture spectacle. I’m infatuated with the sweeping story, and at the same time want to push it away.

Perhaps my conflicting responses have the same source. I am intimidated by the wide and deep learning on display, a type of learning I didn’t have access to, never had the chance to complete–or, perhaps, never had the discipline to begin. But while envy surely plays a role in my ambivalent fascination, it feels deeper. Reading the big statement feels like an encounter with another kind of mind, the apogee of a species of scholarly effort alien to me, less earth-bound than my own sensibility.

I still get stuck on individual tracks from Sam Cooke’s Ain’t That Good News (1964), the way his voice breaks in the refrain of “Meet Me at Mary’s Place”, the perfectly controlled distortion of his otherwise smooth tenor, building with each repetition and assuring us at Mary’s place we’ll find the space to release our worries. Cooke communicates the profane and transcendent promise of a good time with an ease that belies his genius. The plaintive but resilient quality of his sustained notes in “A Change Is Gonna Come” both acknowledge and bolster the enduring faith in freedom most obviously associated with the Civil Rights movement, but expressing a much longer struggle for emancipation.

I’m still getting my head around The Clash’s Sandinista! (1980)–a triple album that somehow expresses the corrosive power of imperial nostalgia, the violent dislocations of the only just emerging neoliberal world view, the paranoid political psycho-drama of the Cold War, all while somehow sounding utterly contemporary 42 years after its release.

The subterranean political significance of Season 1 of Stranger Things… the austere clairvoyance of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale… the revolutionary philosophy John Dewey articulates in Chapter One of Experience and Nature… the utterly groundbreaking beauty of Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments… when these kinds of moments feels so heavy, so in need of more attention, more careful reflection, how does one skip across the surface, painting another panel in the gallery of human culture? I intend no accusation of shallowness. I genuinely marvel at those able to resist the magnetic pull of the moment of insight and appreciation, a pull that has defined my entire life.

One snowy morning, more than thirty years ago, I can remember running to the front yard, clad in my snow gear, moving in a small gaggle of children, all of us excited by the freedom of a “snow day”. The snow glittered, unbroken, a crystallised monochrome world. I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7, but something in the frozen scene was so removed from the normal experience of my front yard, my suburban neighbourhood–I too froze, in inarticulate contemplation. I tried, pointlessly, to stop the other kids from running across the unbroken snow, was furious as they trampled and muddied it before I could take in what it meant.

I have always felt and thought slowly. Like a poet who thinks he’s a scholar, feelings and insights linger, inescapable, un-get-over-able, but I turn away from them and chase facts that will never stick to my being, never stay in my mind. I try to paint a big picture that I cannot imagine in my own head, too crowded with unorganised snippets.

And maybe I relive this contradiction because I’m scared of the poetry, not embarrassed of personal exposure, but scared the small things that seem precious, monumental, utterly defining to my sense of self and the world will seem dull, obvious, pointless, ridiculous. The self-protective emotional centre of my politics is a hatred of those who aspire to make others feel small, foolish, worthless; it is protective of the unique but easily-forgettable details that, for me, give meaning and dignity to experience.

The promise of the big picture statement is to give one’s thoughts and obsessions the grandest of significance, this is what infatuates, but at the same time the big statement crowds the scene, imposes upon other perspectives, running its muddied feet across someone else’s moment of ineffable experience.

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