Did I really spell your name wrong? How utterly mortifying. Or maybe my writing is simply illegible: for some reason, I never dot my I’s (or j’s). I think it was an aesthetic decision, once upon a time. All those little dots – so untidy. The result though is that, without that singular floating point, sometimes the I loses its integrity and blurs away into the surrounding letters. This is potentially symbolic.
Or maybe I’m just misreading your conditional clause. It’s hard to know. If speaking, as you say, is difficult and ambivalent, then so is reading sometimes. I love those lines by Denise Riley – the way they suggest correspondence as a circle of responses, not all of which need to be (or can be) articulated in language but which can /ought, each in turn, to modify one’s own response. One response conditions another, before either has even taken place. And in that elision between can and ought perhaps lives the ethics of response – back and forth, face to face. I to I, as you put it.
And yet, somehow I can’t help thinking of Ronan Keating: ‘You say it best when you say nothing at all.’ You write to me of Denise Riley. I reply with Ronan Keating. Oh dear. But maybe this is an interesting comparison. Riley recognizes that there is communication even in silence. And includes an ethical nudge to respond to the response of the other. (Incidenitally, do you know Michael Graziano? He suggests that consciousness originally arose – in evolutionary terms – as a way of modelling the attention not of the self but of the other. This is an appealing hypothesis I think.) Keating, however, does not respond but impose. He speaks at a ‘you’ that is always plural, generic, absent, mute. Keating sings a song of praise to gendered silence.
I think in a strange way this is roughly the difference we’re thinking around with this little word ‘we’. You’re right about triumphant individualism. I’d never thought that before, I think this is why your description of your flooded home in The Second Body hit me so hard. I love the idea of sharing my home with the nonhuman in an attitude of expansive hospitality – like Hundertwasser and the mould or Esther Woolfson with her corvids. An artist I know in Finland leaves the doors open for the squirrels and rejoices at every seed found cached beneath the pillows. ‘You imagine your home to be inviolable’, you wrote. ‘You have to – otherwise you wouldn’t sleep at night.’ My dreams are full of that very fear – of strangers breaking into my home.
Nonetheless, as requested, I will dare to disagree. The ‘we’ that you advocate is a speaking-with; the ‘we’ I am concerned about is a speaking-for. The difference concerns power and consent. Yours involves siding with the dispossessed and voiceless. The ‘we’ of, say, Gove, but also many others including those much closer to my own politics (those who speak of ‘we humans’ in the context of the Anthropocene, for example) risks preventing the voiceless from speaking for themselves by professing to speak on their behalf.
If it were simply a question of intention, then we could – you and I – distinguish one ‘we’ from the other. But intentionality has its limits. You say that you are not in favour of ‘patrolling pronoun borders’ but it must nevertheless be important to distinguish an expansive, collective constenting ‘we’ from a top-down, silencing, disingenuous ‘we’. But how else to distinguish the one from the other except through the kind of close reading that is maybe never that far from a police investigation?
Any yet maybe – and this is one of my (many) fears – it simply isn’t possible. What if one ‘we’ always conceals the other? Or to put it another way, how can I be sure that Denise Riley is not Ronan Keating? And if I can’t be sure, maybe it’s best to play it safe and avoid the word entirely.
There are a dozen other things I would like to ask but I will close with one: you write that ‘I sometimes feel like a “we”’.
Could you elaborate briefly on what this feels like? I can imagine it as a concept but I don’t think it’s something I’ve ever felt as an experience. Or maybe I’m just denying/forgetting it.
PS It was not until posting the first letter that I realised why I had suggested this format. Once sent, the physicality of the letter forms a kind of out-of-body experience, analogous to your definition of the second body, I think. I am with the letter as it wheels its way south: a division of triumphant individualism, or something …
Thank you for your letter about fear and Ronan Keating, and for describing Yorkshire as the South.
You say that you have bad dreams of an intruder in your house - I wonder whether you would be more or less terrified to dream of a house which was genuinely made safe from intruders - impregnable - all entrances and exits sealed up.
You’re right to emphasize that there is some real-word difference between speaking-with and speaking-for, but in both cases, what matters is whether and how there are conditions for response and who is empowered to talk back. There is no speech which exists on terms wholly of its own creation: all language is conversation. And so I can’t believe with you that the best thing a person can do is to play it safe by creating a cordon around volatile terms. Nobody who speaks is playing it safe.
Finally, in response to your question, I often feel like a WE. The first thing that comes to mind is the experience of rapture for e.g. watching football or listening to music, and the second happens in my understanding of the world, when talking to scientists about the microbiome or ecologists about biotic connections, or tracing the routes of global trade /hearing politicians arguing. Overwhelmingly what comes to mind is the experience of conversation (of different kinds). Listening to other people’s voices, reading what they have written - whether it’s in person, or travelling long distances - or watching somebody else, or sometimes coming into physical contact with another body. I’ve never felt the same as anything or anybody else, though - except maybe in bad dreams.
Yours, warmly, Daisy
Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh. He is the author of Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press, 2017) and editor of The Learned Pig.
Daisy Hildyard is from North Yorkshire. Her novel Hunters in the Snow won the Somerset Maugham Award and an honorarium at the USA National Book Awards. Her latest book The Second Body is an essay about humans and other animals in the Anthropocene.