Since becoming furloughed, I’ve taken up gardening to occupy what are becoming increasingly empty days. Discovering the new settings on my lawnmower kept me busy from Sunday through to Wednesday, but I had to stop out of fear for the health of the grass and my own fragile sanity. Time in the garden has been reminding me of Iris Murdoch’s encounter with a kestrel. The writer, like many of us, sits
… brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel.
The passing of nature seems to provide an immediate therapy, “a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones, and trees.” I’ve found this to be true during my attempts to wade through high grass near my house. The fact that the birds have no idea what’s going on in my mind has been reassuring; their indifference to our condition provides what Murdoch describes as “unselfing,” as I reposition my concerns in the wider world.
Returning indoors, I’ve arranged Zoom meetings with friends to pass the time, listening to their concerns and opinions on how this might all pan out. If they’re busy on another call, I’ve sat and wondered what they might be doing or might say if we were all isolating together. As time has gone on, I’ve found this more difficult. I’ve begun to forget the fullness of my friends’ personalities, their idiosyncrasies and their voices in my mind have slowly morphed into my own. In an anxious moment, this inward posturing becomes exhausting and adds to my restlessness.
Murdoch speaks also of art providing an opportunity for unselfing, “more edifying” than nature as it is “actually about human affairs in a direct sense.” I’ve found this also, watching recordings of National Theatre productions online, although I miss that immersive presence of theatre that is lost when watching on a livestream. The ability to halt the drama whilst I boil the kettle just lowers the stakes as I distance myself from the action. Perhaps this is true also of my video and phone calls with friends. They’ve provided some solace but all it’s really taught me is how they can’t compare to a real interaction. That I can just mute others when they get boring or hide my camera when I don’t want to be seen provides a degree of control I shouldn’t really have.
In The Tempest, a play I’ve returned to recently, Rowan Williams sees Prospero wielding a similar power. Despite being “supremely the magical architect of the lives and destinies of others” throughout the play, he is ”at the same time somehow trapped in the very exercise of that power.” He can’t be free until he abdicates control of Ariel and makes his final plea to the audience,
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
Watching from the comfort of home, I can’t set him free with my applause as that intimacy of the stage and audience has been lost. But Shakespeare’s own angst of “theatrical imagination” that Williams argues is represented here, is apposite when I consider those faded images of friends I’m holding in my mind.
The playwright, he explains, exerts control over characters and minds as he moves them around the stage. This power is seductive at first, but only leads to an isolation of the writer, unable to view anyone as anything but an object of his power. “One of the central paradoxes of Shakespeare’s drama,” Williams argues, “is that in the very depth and abundance of his creativity, his capacity to show how much we can imagine of another human subject, he reminds us that this very skill is what we use to imprison or destroy others and so to destroy ourselves.” Those characters, being nothing but a projection of his mind, imprison him within himself and can never truly replicate the true randomness of the world outside.
His only escape is to look to the audience, to truly be confronted by others in all their unexpected randomness; surprised by them and taken unawares by a spontaneity that he has no control over. Similar to Murdoch’s unselfing, it requires a surrender to what I can’t know and move away from my imagination, “unpossessive and unselfish.” Despite its brilliance, Williams reminds us that the mind “cannot truly imagine freedom, which is a way of saying that we cannot imagine the person,” however much I might want to hold onto their image. Zoom might be good for staying in touch, but as long as I hover my mouse over the controls, I will always fall short.
The sort of confrontation that both writers set out is difficult to enact at the moment, although Williams finds it in the “unplanned and uncontrolled” presence of grace. For me, it’s an intimacy I now have a new appreciation for, something I might share for the moment with the birds and bees in my garden and I now long for with my friends in the future. It is reassuring though, that however novel the “new normal” might claim to be, it will necessarily return to sitting across from one another, surprising ourselves by the differences we share.
Samuel Isaac is a recent graduate of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Cambridge.
Murdoch, I. (1970). The sovereignty of good. (Studies in ethics and the philosophy of religion): Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Shakespeare, W. The Tempest
Williams, R. (2019). Afterword: Finding the Remedy. In H. Hamlin (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Religion (Cambridge Companions to Literature, pp. 285-292). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.