Ever since I first came across them, I’ve been haunted by these words from Michael Ondaatje’s In The Skin Of A Lion: “the extreme looseness of the structure of things”. I can’t remember what context they were in – I can’t even remember very much about the book – but they emblazoned themselves on my soul with what has turned out to be pretty solid permanence.
To me, the phrase has always been about embracing uncertainty, about giving oneself up to not knowing, to an absence of control, to smallness, to transience, to greyness. And I suppose that’s why I’ve been dwelling on it a great deal in recent months. Because if there’s one thing the current pandemic has flagged up – and goodness knows, it’s flagged up more than a few – it’s that some people really can’t cope with uncertainty.
I don’t claim to know What Is Really Going On at the moment. I’ve read enough about history to understand that situations can’t always be taken at face value and that ulterior motives are as old as humanity itself. However, I have yet to find a conspiracy theory (for want of a less contentious term) about the situation that seems plausible and isn’t riddled with inconsistencies, gaping holes and dubious logic.
That is one reason why, for the last few months, as I’ve gone about my life and, more importantly, as I’ve interacted with others, I have erred on the side of caution. If I can’t be certain about what’s happening at the moment – or what the true seriousness of the problem is – then I have to take the safest route, in order to minimise the risk I may pose to others. And please notice that I say minimise, not eliminate. I fully accept that it’s impossible to eliminate the risk. But I don’t subscribe to the view that just because you can’t remove 100% of the risk, you needn’t bother to reduce 70% of it, or 50%, or even 10%. Surely any reduction is better than none.
I certainly don’t seem to be the only one for whom “I don’t know” has become the mantra of the moment. In many recent conversations, I’ve heard people say they “just don’t know what to think any more”, they “don’t know who you can trust”, they “don’t understand how any of this makes sense.” But the curious thing is that, for many of these people, the uncertainty they express with their words somehow gets turned into a certainty in their thoughts and actions. They claim not to know what’s really going on, but instead of embracing the uncertainty, they live as though nothing is going on, as though life is as normal as the mask-wearing rules let them pretend it is.
For some reason, they cannot accept the gaping hole of un-knowability, and they find a paradoxical comfort in the ‘certainty’ that they’re pawns in some nefarious machinations being played out on a global scale. As far as certainties go, this is one pretty horrific, but I’m convinced that for many people, even a horrific certainty is preferable to any amount of uncertainty. They need a scaffolding onto which to pin their lives, because they can’t accept that all of life is essentially a period of floating in an abyss whose dim boundaries we glimpse very rarely. “The extreme looseness of the structure of things.”
The clash between the certain and the uncertain is what has led to so much tension in recent months, because the former cannot bear to be confronted by the latter, and has to lash out at it, to belittle it, to deny it. The deniers mock the likes of myself, claiming that we’re allowing ourselves to become sheep, that we’re being “controlled” without realising it, that we’re accepting the creation of a totalitarian state right under our very noses (all issues which I would love to address in separate posts, because I have a great deal to say about them, but I fear I just don’t have the time at the moment to compose my thoughts on them into any kind of coherent shape).
I, for one, find it well nigh impossible to accept absolute knowledge of anything. I’m not even particularly interested in absolute knowledge; I usually find questions much more fascinating than answers, especially if they’re the sorts of questions that lead to more questions. But absolute knowledge is what many people seem desperate for at the moment, from those voting for Trump to those itching for Britain to leave the EU. And absolute, unbending knowledge is one of the defining characteristics of fundamentalism. Which is ironic, when you consider that fundamentalism is less than a step away from the very fascism the ‘deniers’ are claiming to fight against.
Beware those who claim they have all the answers. They’re probably operating in a world where “the structure of things” is locked in, sealed off and rigid.