It seems right now, owing to the fatigue of ongoing isolation and the relentless catastrophic news, an act of doing feels more achievable than an act of thinking. We want evidence of connection, of achievement, something solid to show we have done something. If we are fortunate, we make things, we donate money but we struggle to write. Who wants to sit down, alone, with our thoughts right now? Isolated, starved of new experience and of touch – what we require is commune.
Eudaimonia translates as ‘human flourishing’ or ‘happiness’ from the Greek –eu (good) and –daimon (guardian, spirit). In the Handbook of Eudaimonic Wellbeing, Blaine J Fower explains that ‘eudaimonia is a unified way of life, but it has multiple constituents (eg, belonging, justice, and social harmony). Eudaimonia is related to, but distinct from pleasure (hedonia). Human flourishing is a matter of a complete life that encompasses virtue or excellence, and Aristotle saw it as the ultimate aim of human life.’
Writers have examined what eudaimonia meant in their time. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy explores the central theme that a life well lived is a life of meaning. Levin finds meaning in the symbiotic act of farming: the physical labour, the relationship with the peasants and the land and through his marriage, which teaches and requires of him inner goodness. In Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game the idea of transience and its acceptance is presented. Castalia, the idealised world of spirit and intellect, is in decline. Its seeming permanence cannot be sustained. The idealised, creative world of thought will decline if divorced from the living world of experience. Writers know this. Theory must apply to life.
Much advice on how to manage lockdown points to commune with our surroundings and with our shared experience. In her essay Letter of Recommendation: Candle Hour, Julia Scott writes vividly about a blackout in her childhood and the attention to the acts of living that it brought about. The candlelight meant a savouring of the small acts, such as climbing into bed, watching the dance of a shadow, distinguishing a flame. It brought consciousness and gratitude to the everyday. After reading it, I resolved to live more carefully, mindfully. Other articles put forth mask-making for charity, nights marked out with new activities – an hour set aside for listening, the ancient art of storytelling. Musicians are using technology to put together dream collaborations with other artists in far flung locales that they might never have had the opportunity to work with.
A life in isolation is teaching us about what it might mean to live in commune. The media fills its pages with disaccord but the truth is, in many of our neighbourhoods we have never been kinder, more aware and careful of the other, and of ourselves. We are drawing out what it might mean to live well, to live better.
Social scientists have linked eudaimonia with narrative identity – the stories we construct about ourselves in order to frame our lives. In Narrative Identity And Eudaimonic Well-Being, Bauer et al assert that people whose narrative identity is strong in eudaimonic well-being place emphasis on transformation. Through suffering they find a way to gain insight. For Aristotle, eudaimonia was the highest cultivation of personal character. It was a life that cultivated high degrees of virtue. Higher degrees involved not only a life of meaning but a life of complex meaning, with a richer, more developed understanding of the self and the self’s relation to others and the natural world. This evokes aspects of Indigenous cultures such as living in concert with surroundings, practising land management, understanding natural phenomena, and living in commune with others.
The physical act of writing gives me great joy. Back straight, butt out, elbows leaning on the desk, fingers hovering over the keyboard. I watch the white page fill with black figures – the Latin alphabet. Proper nouns, categorical nouns, compound, concrete, countable, collective and possessive, along with their accompanying verbs, modifiers, adjectives and the shunned adverb. It continually feels transcendent that once the letters are placed carefully, these words and this meaning, remain. In printed form, perhaps, for many years to come to be shared by anyone regardless of age, gender, culture, or political persuasion. Words are treasure.
I consider the preciousness of words. I love the word ‘bark’. I can’t hear it without seeing the macrocarpas of my youth, grey bark twisted into faces, fringes of leaves drawn back by the wind, roots grappling with the lip of sea cliff. Then I go on populating the world: corrugated iron sheds huddled on clay cliff tops, antique ploughs half-submerged in black earth, scent of pine needle and sea froth fog. Bark is a thing of beauty, of stark variation, achingly smooth, grating and rough. Appreciation of bark requires attention from all the senses. That is how I want to live; in a manner that requires attention from all the senses. I will live with curiosity and awareness and I will write.
Yet, at present, just processing the amount of information I encounter in a day feels overwhelming. The march of words, of opinion. It can be hard to then sit down and dare to add more. Right now, writers everywhere are struggling to write. But we must, add to the pile of words, hoard the treasure of them. In Dreamtigers Jorge Luis Borges presents an image of the books he’s written piling dust in the corner of a room, evidence of a life misspent. I would yell across time (which does not exist) ‘those books are mine too’. I carry them inside. I talk about them. I write their words, sixty years after. In the epilogue he states:
A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Through the years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face.
We must write. It’s too late for us. For, without writing, we do not know how to live. The more you write, the less of a choice it becomes.
Despite my ideas about living more mindfully, on July 19th, twelve days into the second lockdown in Melbourne I fall into a slump. It’s the same disappointed, hurt that happens every time. I grew up in New Zealand, have lived in Melbourne for six years, and before that in other countries. I told friends and family in New Zealand that phone calls would be greatly appreciated. Not one in twelve days.
Deep in my slump I come across Australian writer, Nigel Featherstone’s, list about writing. ‘It is better to make art that no one sees than to have not made the art’. I feel the truth of it. I have felt it before. Even if it is just for me, each and every creative act changes me. There is no way of measuring that power.
One evening, ten years ago, I was held captive by that power. I was teaching English in Zacoalco de Torres, a small town about an hour from Guadalajara, Mexico. It happened at a party, deep in the dusty, adobe-walled neighbourhood of Barrio de las Cebollas (‘neighbourhood of the onions’). A family, whose son I had been teaching, invited my Mexican partner and I to a celebration at their home. We were seated in the yard in a circle of white plastic chairs. As we discarded our polystyrene trays that moments ago had been filled with exquisite pipian – a mole made from ground pepitas – the night intensified. The wind through the trees hushed, the roosters crowed one last time and the air thickened. My eleven year-old pupil leaned in.
‘Time for a joke.’
He told an elaborate, perfectly constructed joke with no small measure of feint and chicanery. Surprisingly, my partner returned fire.
‘Have you heard this one?’ As the night wore on the duel grew tight. Riposte after riposte, they returned fire, pulling the listener along. Adding to the amusement, the child’s religious parents sat to either side of him. Before delivering a particularly salacious joke, he’d issue a quick, and sincere apology behind his hand, and then lean in to the group.
Sometime after midnight, owing to his flawless memory, the eleven-year-old triumphed. To the awed haw-hawing of the group, the exhausted adult ceded defeat.
Here were two who knew their form, when, how and with whom to use it. I try recall that power when I write. Few things hold us together in commune, as art does and as shared stories do.
Right now, the interconnectedness of life is more undeniable than ever. We do not live as individuals; we overlap in every aspect of our lives. In his 2019 novel The Overstory, Richard Powers explores human dependence on trees and the interconnectedness of living systems. Powers has since discussed the tradition of the humanist literary novel and spoken of a type of story that has largely disappeared from Western literary fiction – that of the drama that enfolds when humanity desires the living world to be a certain way which is in opposition to the elements. His contention is that in Western culture we stopped telling this story because, ultimately, we imagined we had won the battle. This is what makes works such as Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other so precious, by centring those often absent in literature. The world has changed. We must learn to tell bigger, broader stories, that make sense of interconnectedness.
Social scientists have found that life stories of personal growth and redemption reflect prevailing cultural narratives. Narrative identity stories with communal themes such as intimacy, sharing or a focus on greater good, have a stronger correlation with high levels of eudaimonic well-being than stories with individualistic, agent-driven themes. Richard Powers says what most of us know, that there is no ‘us’ and no separate thing called ‘you’.
When my life is not how I want it to be, that idea gives me comfort. And when the media gives me difference, I resolve to find similarity. And write about it. For writing is an act of great commune.
Image: Illustration by Norah Borges for the cover of Jorge Luis Borges’ Adrogué (1977)