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8 April 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 1:01pm

Private parts: writers and the battle for our inner lives

Imaginative writing is tied intimately to privacy, to the struggle to tell this story, to convey the singular texture of this experience, and no other.

By Josh Cohen

At the end of last year, an international group of writers drafted a petition decrying the escalation of state surveillance and calling for a digital bill of rights to protect the privacy of all global citizens. Scattered among the numerous expressions of solidarity in the online comment boxes were a good few barbs aimed at the presumption of a self-appointed elite of “arch-pseuds” that their writerly status conferred on them some special authority to speak on this question. Why, after all, should a petition of writers carry any more weight in the debate on privacy than one of welders or florists?

A few weeks later, I had an encounter with an author that brought to life the specific and urgent link between literature and privacy. The writer was Otto Dov Kulka, the winner of this year’s Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize, for which I was on the judging panel. A distinguished Czech-born Israeli historian of the Nazi genocide, Kulka received the prize for Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death (2013), a personal and philosophical meditation on his experience as a child survivor of Auschwitz.

Receiving the prize, Kulka spoke of having dedicated his life after Auschwitz to documenting Nazism’s crimes in the rigorously disinterested language of the historian. But alongside this contribution to the public record, he had silently amassed a personal archive of memories, dreams and images of his time as an inmate of the so-called family camp at Auschwitz, which he called his “private mythology”.

No one could fail to be moved by the undisguised delight and incredulity with which this slight yet robust old man received the award. The source of that incredulity was not false modesty but the genuine conviction he’d had when writing the book that the experience to which he was giving voice was too private to be shared – echoing the terrible recurring dream related by Primo Levi, of telling his experiences of Auschwitz to a group of oblivious listeners. Landscapes is the fruit not of any long-held literary ambition on Kulka’s part but of his search for a language that would do justice to the terrible singularity of his story. The form of the book wasn’t so much chosen as imposed on him by the privacy of the experience he sought to convey.

Freud suggested something similar when he wrote of being struck by the impression “that the case histories I write should read like short stories”. There is no way of rendering the detail of the inner life without falling into ambiguities and complexities, “such as we are accustomed to find in the works of imaginative writers”.

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Imaginative writing, in other words, is tied intimately to privacy, to the struggle to tell this story, to convey the singular texture of this experience, and no other. And this may be why the defence of privacy is such an urgent imperative for contemporary writers and artists. At stake in the incursions of the state, the media and corporations into our everyday lives is the right to an inner life as much as to the protection of our personal data. A self coerced into permanent visibility will come to feel constrained not only in what he can say but eventually in what he can think and imagine. In externalising the self, a surveillance society – not only the persecutory monitoring of the totalitarian state envisioned by Orwell but the more tacitly imposed, pseudo-benign mutual monitoring of our social media culture – threatens our interiority, our right to a private self that ensures we can never be fully transparent, to others or to ourselves.

In a culture driven to render us ever more transparent to one another, literature and art may be among the few spaces in which to keep hold of this understanding of the private self. Without an implicit claim to privacy, to an external and internal room of one’s own, there can be no literature. A self without privacy is a flattened self.

Literature’s concern with privacy is not new. Milton portrays Adam’s new-found capacity to hide from the all-seeing gaze of God as the birth of the human being. In the work of Shakespeare, Rousseau, Hawthorne, Henry James and Virginia Woolf, the drama of selfhood is rooted in the division between light and darkness, between a knowable face and an unknowable heart. And modern fiction is filled with dystopian visions, most famously Orwell’s and Huxley’s, of the violent or surreptitious drive to destroy that hidden dimension of the self.

The most explicit recent fictional exploration of the state of our privacy locates this eclipse of the concealed self not in some ominous future but in the recognisable present. Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle envisions a northern Californian tech corporation – a monstrous condensation of Google, Facebook and Microsoft – that has acquired a monopoly on its users’ identities: “Your devices knew who you were, and your one identity – the TruYou, unbendable and unmaskable – was the person paying, signing up, viewing and reviewing, seeing and being seen.”

The novel’s protagonist, the new “Circler” Mae Holland, rises to become the poster girl for the corporation’s world of total and permanent visibility, agreeing to submit herself to the perpetual gaze of the world by means of a wearable camera (a scenario Eggers has no need to imagine – the web is already home to many “lifeloggers” recording and broadcasting their every waking and even sleeping moment).

The book’s pivotal scene is a sly rewriting of Wordsworth’s “act of stealth/And troubled pleasure” in the stolen boat episode of The Prelude, in which his younger self, rowing in the lake under cover of darkness, finds himself overwhelmed by the sudden appearance of “a huge peak, black and huge”, and hastily steers the boat back to the willow tree on the bank where he found it. The inhuman sublimity of the peak sends him for days into the despondency of disturbed dreams and dim waking perceptions.

In Eggers’s version of this scene, Mae makes an impromptu nocturnal stop at the kayak-hire beach hut and rows herself out to a rugged island. The journey into the bay leads to a blissful solitary epiphany, a communing with the depths of marine life and of her sense of self, a moment of redemption from the Circle’s imperative to be visible at all times, in which she can “take comfort in knowing that she would not, and really could not, know much at all”.

Where Wordsworth’s act of stealth is allowed to remain concealed in the privacy of his memory, Mae’s moment of stolen solitude is swiftly discovered and criminalised. When she is caught handling the kayak by the police, her act of petty larceny and personal risk is pounced on by the Circle as a “teachable” error, an object lesson in the dangers of privacy that will result in her consenting to submit her waking life to the eyes and ears of millions of global watchers.

Eggers’s novel is infused with a spirit of menacing cheeriness, encapsulated in the slogans that are projected across the Circle campus’s glass surfaces: “SECRETS ARE LIES/SHARING IS CARING/PRIVACY IS THEFT”. It projects a world bent on eliminating any residues of Wordsworthian darkness or ambiguity.

Published a year before The Circle, Ben Marcus’s novel The Flame Alphabet offers a still crueller vision of the fate of privacy, a kind of demonic mirror image of Eggers’s phoney paradise of transparency. The family at its heart is riven by a virus carried not by birds but by language. The words of children, who are themselves mysteriously immune to the virus, ravage the bodies of their parents, turning the home into a place of primordial enmity and danger. As the plague spreads, it amplifies its reach and virulence, so that eventually all language, spoken, written or gestural, becomes toxic to its users.

“This crisis is different,” the sinister survivalist Murphy tells the protagonist. “It will be met with muteness . . . This is a plague among cavemen, and soon we’ll only be grunting to each other about it. You can’t exactly describe a poison with more of itself, write about how poisonous writing is.” If the horizon of Eggers’s dystopia is the fully externalised self, in Marcus’s book it is this consignment to an exitless prison of interiority, the self abandoned to its own incommunicable thoughts. Perhaps, wonders the protagonist towards the end of the novel, thinking will be the next casualty of this creeping toxin, “another basic human activity that will slowly be taken from us. Oh, I fucking hope so.”

The contrast between these two fates – the loss of a private self in Eggers and of a public self in Marcus – masks an underlying affinity. The loss of one impoverishes the other. Selfhood is made meaningful by the play of revelation and concealment, by the paradox of what the British psychoanalyst D W Winnicott called “the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found”. The reading and writing of literature demands both the solitude of the “unfound” state and its communication to others. A culture of permanent visibility may herald the externalised self imagined by Eggers. But it may also give rise to an atomised privacy as the only possible refuge from the toxic noise of coerced sharing.

A purely public self is empty, while a purely private one is blind. Each needs the other in order to preserve and cultivate itself. The delicacy and precariousness of this relationship is central to perhaps the most powerful contemporary fictional treatment of privacy, Javier Marías’s monumental trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. Recruited to a nameless branch of the British security services, the Spanish émigré narrator and protagonist, Jacques Deza, is tasked with interpreting and predicting the behaviour of the random stream of individuals he interviews or covertly watches, so as “to know today what face they would wear tomorrow”.

This pointedly low-tech and seemingly harmless mode of surveillance involves an incursion into the heart of the other. The latent brutality of this operation is embodied by Deza’s sinister recruiter Bertram Tupra, a master of controlled psychological and physical violence. The counterpoint to this malignant father figure is the quiet indifference to power of Deza’s father. In the first volume of the trilogy, the latter recounts his devastating personal and political betrayal by a close friend during the Spanish civil war. How, his son wonders, could he have failed to discern his friend’s impending betrayal in his face? Didn’t he suspect anything? “No,” his father replies, “I simply found it incomprehensible, inexplicable.”

The elder Deza’s willed ignorance of his treacherous friend’s soul offers a profound ethical contrast to Tupra’s ruthless psychic mastery of others. It hints that we can renounce as well as exploit the powers we have to penetrate the other’s private self.

If “surveillance is theft”, in the words of the writers’ petition, to which Marías, Eggers and Marcus are all signatories, it threatens the robbery not only of our personal data but of our imaginative freedom.

Josh Cohen is the author of “The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark” (Granta Books, £20)


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