We are tiny specks being humbled by something even tinier
Perhaps this is what humanity needed all along – a complete surrender of control
Every day this week, Times Select is proud to bring you insightful reflections and moving observations from five of Africa’s finest authors, who like the rest of us are locked down with their own thoughts.
When I boarded the plane at the Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo International Airport in Bulawayo on February 1 2020 and flew to the OR Tambo International Airport, I could not have known that a mere two months later there would be no planes in the sky. Such could be the beginning of a dystopian and (post-)apocalyptic work of fiction. But of course, it is not; it is the work of the reality we find ourselves in. When I boarded that plane there were about 10,000 reported cases of the coronavirus in the entire world. The virus was no longer contained in China, but was spreading throughout Asia, entering Europe and migrating to the United States, and the World Health Organisation had just declared it a global emergency. It was obvious something momentous was happening, although, of course, the sheer immensity of it was then not known and still isn’t. As I write this, there are more than two million confirmed cases of the virus, and it has become obvious to all that we are part of one of those rare truly global moments in history.
But even with the rapid spread of the virus, as I boarded that South African Airlink flight on February 1 2020, I had no inkling of what was to come in the not-so-distant future. All I knew then was that I was travelling to South Africa to be a writing fellow at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, where I find myself at this particular moment in history. And it is a very particular moment that we are suddenly in – a global moment that unites us, whether we want to be united or not. We are sharing in a common experience, and we not only know this, we feel it.
Is it not rather odd, paradoxical even, that we feel our moment in history only when we are relatively powerless?
Although in our everyday, very present and often seemingly mundane lives we are constantly making, and are a part of what will become for future generations, history, we hardly ever feel the moments that we are creating and often experience them as fleeting, almost ephemeral, occurrences that are only given weight, shape and body in retrospect. This is partly because certain ways of being in the world, of understanding the passing of time, of knowing our relationship to space and place, create a trajectory that clearly delineates the past, the present and the future. We cannot fully experience, understand, feel the moments that we are in because we are too busy creating them and being a part of them to fully know them and, for the most part, we accept this state of affairs. And we are so accepting of this because we know future generations will examine these moments we have lived through and approach them as near-objects, as almost tangible and observable things that can be more or less contained and comprehended. And so we allow the moments we live through to be fleeting, almost ephemeral, occurrences that slip through our fingers, leaving behind indelible stains that will be mulled over, but never truly known, by the inheritors of time. And so it goes on and on …
Until suddenly we feel our moment in history.
Until suddenly there is something moving among us, affecting us, infecting us, in some cases killing us, something that is not us, something that needs us to thrive, that does not recognise our greater intrinsic value, something that uses us the way we use most things, renders us dispensable, something that is to us what we often are to the rest of the world. It is this something that makes us feel history. Is it not rather odd, paradoxical even, that we feel our moment in history only when we are relatively powerless? Perhaps that is what has been needed all along – a complete surrendering of all semblance of control.
I have long been obsessed with history, by which I mean that I have been preoccupied not only with what happened in the past, but with how this “happening” has been remembered, misremembered, forgotten, silenced, erased. I see the formal creation of history (archives, national collective memory, historiography etc) as often, too often, being a violent act. In, through and with my writing, I try to right the many wrongs this violence creates. This, in all honesty, is not an exact or perfect science and, in “righting” history, I inevitably create small acts of violence myself. However, all that said, the one thing I have always held on to, where history is concerned, is the idea of human agency. We very well may not feel our making of history, but we do make it; our actions have consequences, those consequences create forces, those forces create history and that history in turn shapes us.
Looking at this understanding of history from the vantage point of week three of the coronavirus lockdown here in South Africa, it seems almost laughable how snugly the “human” is centred in the narrative of the world’s history, how very self-assured the “I” that writes or rights history appears to be, how very clearly agency is seen as an inherently human quality. There is enough hubris in all of it to make one feel that one can sprout a pair of wings and, like Icarus, fly too close to the sun. The virus is in the process of teaching us a very different way of seeing and experiencing our place in the world. We are being humbled.
We are actively being humbled.
As a writer all of this is very sobering. There are certain conceits that come with being a writer. The first is that a writer writes now for a future audience. To do so, the writer must subscribe to the linearity of time: past, present, future. But what does one do when the present is uncertain and the future more so? The second conceit is that a writer has the freedom to create a world of their own in which they create characters and determine their fates. But what happens when events and situations in the real world make humans the characters of a story they are not in full control of? The third conceit is that the writer can shut out the rest of the world and just focus on the world they’re creating. But how does one do that when even social distancing and self-isolation cannot stop the reality of the world from intruding on one’s lived experience?
The answer to all these questions seems to lie in allowing ourselves to be humbled by the times we find ourselves in.
There is a passage in The Theory of Flight that appears three times in the novel – near the beginning, towards the middle and at the end – that seems fitting and prescient:
You become aware of your place in the world … You understand that in the grander scheme of things you are but a speck … a tiny speck … And that that is enough … There is freedom … beauty, even, in that kind of knowledge … It is the kind of knowledge that finally quiets you. It is the kind of knowledge that allows you to fly. You have to experience it for yourself.
The coronavirus is letting us experience for ourselves the humility of being tiny specks.
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu, born in Zimbabwe and based in Johannesburg, has master’s degrees in African studies and film and a PhD from Stanford University. Her debut novel, The Theory of Flight, won the 2019 Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize.