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William Boyd: how mortality shapes our existence

What makes our species unique is that we know we are trapped in time, caught briefly between the prenatal darkness and the posthumous one. 

Relative value: chimps may be the only other animals on the planet that know instinctively that life is finite. Photo: Peter Eriksson

I want to start with a luminously beautiful – and luminously profound – quotation from Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory. He writes: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

“Common sense”. I believe that the knowledge of this state of affairs is the fundamental truth about our human nature: the fact that our lives simply amount to our individual occupation of this “brief crack of light” between two eternities of darkness shapes everything that makes us human and is responsible for everything good – and everything bad – about us.

You might argue that if you believe in a religious faith, where life and an afterlife are ordained and somehow controlled by a supernatural being – a god or gods – then this awareness of our temporal, bounded existence in time doesn’t apply. In response, you might counter-argue that religious faith  is created expressly to confound and disprove this primordial conviction: a faith created, as Philip Larkin put it, to “pretend we never die”.

But whatever the nature of a faith in a supernatural being, or beings, and whatever its unprovable postulates, I am convinced that what makes our species unique among the fauna of this small planet circling its insignificant star is that we know we are trapped in time, caught briefly between these two eternities of darkness, the prenatal darkness and the posthumous one. That consciousness we possess – that this is it, that the time we have on earth is not a dress rehearsal for immortality in some notional heaven, nirvana or paradise – is hard-wired into our very being at an elemental and immovable level.

None of the other animals on this planet shares this self-awareness, this consciousness – except, perhaps, chimpanzees, our closest cousins, separated from us by the tiniest difference in our DNA. No one can yet scientifically establish that chimpanzees possess a kind of self-consciousness like our own but the fact that chimpanzee society is as Manichaean as our own, and spookily similar – light and dark, very altruistic and loving and simultaneously very evil – backs up the supposition that what we share in our genetic make-up may include a form of time-awareness: that we know instinctively our lives are irrevocably finite, and that therefore determines what we are and how we act.

Is our viciousness, the manifest, unspeakable evil in our behaviour, as much a sign of that self-consciousness as the unselfish, sacrificial good we are also capable of? Only human beings and chimpanzees gratuitously and knowingly inflict pain on themselves and other species. Only human beings will knowingly sacrifice themselves for the greater good of others. Recognising these opposing tendencies in ourselves, we – Homo sapiens – have evolved, over centuries, moral codes to try to check our worst excesses. To a significant degree these self-imposed edicts of behaviour work, broadly, in our various societies – though you just need to switch on your television set or open a newspaper to see where and how they can lapse all too easily.

“The prison of time is spherical and without exits,” Nabokov says. What to do in the face of this universal, inescapable penal servitude? My own feeling – and this again is what makes us human – is that we all yearn for one thing. Just as it’s hard-wired into our consciousness that we live between two eternities of darkness, so we search for some factor to alleviate and compensate for that brutal reality. And the compensation we seek, I believe, is love. We want to love and we want to be loved, every single one of us. As the song says: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn/Is just to love and be loved in return.” That’s what makes our sojourn in the time-prison bearable – more than bearable: redemptive – life-enhancing, time-evading. If you’re lucky enough to experience that emotion then you’ll have savoured the best, the ultimate, that the human predicament can offer.

This series is run in association with the “Jeremy Vine” show on BBC Radio 2

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times