The Fog of Change
So, here we are. I’ve been musing for two months now how to get started, how to give account, how to bear witness. At first it’s always hard to talk about it. I once survived a fire, in London, found myself out in the parking lot in the middle of the night, clutching my passports and my laptops, and my laptop cables for Christ’s sake, while the apartment next to ours burned down, became a black hole, a cross-draft, gaping, with the tenants helplessly watching. It was then, in that frantic, furtive, levitative state that people would speak like they are now, breathing out words as if they had woken up to suddenly speaking a new language, and even they couldn’t understand the speech coming out, you open your mouth, it’s like you’re being dubbed in a foreign movie. You’re shaken, physically, the tendons, the spine, you grow conscious of the hardware. Things burn, things break, words come out as just sounds.
I know that, technically, whatever “things” may be they’re always changing. Life’s a running river, ideas are born, loves die, children grow, and we grow old. But if I use my self, my perception, my body, as a barometer of sorts, if I push them outward like I stood and felt things shaking on that night of the fire, then I seem to know, and I hear it from you, and from everyone that comes to speak to me, that we’ve entered a major shift. You’re looking to verbalise a knot in your stomach, a tremble under our feet. Because sure, there’s always some change going on, we ourselves are endless processes, but no, it’s not every day that eras end, it’s not always that we’re waiting for a beginning. Not every age group governs through a reboot. An era is a home of sorts, and we’re becoming homeless.
I keep telling people we’re in an interregnum, that I too am in a crisis, within a crisis, because of a crisis, that two months ago, in February, what you knew “things” to be was overnight over, and I hope they can tell that I had studied Latin, that I have a hunch, that I am astute, but beyond the vanity and the self-pity, beyond the localised paranoia, and the feelings of smallness and of linguistic failures, I know this to be true, that my life which began at the end of 1983 will be spent mostly in a transitory era, it will run into the unknown, and so will yours, and it has become clear now, to my adult mind, now that my generation has become the adults in the room, with no one to turn to, with nothing to learn from but the present, that the gaps between eras you read about in history books are real, and that for better or worse we’re currently in a big one, and that our responsibility has become very serious.
And so I decided to sit down, at night when I have some time, to write regularly about change, or Change, about the crisis of words and bodies, and shocks and generations, about our sins and our spines, and of loves dying, and of children leaving, and the will to live, wait, and hold together that remains so strong. I’m an aesthete and dramaturg, I run a culture startup, I know only what I know. But I go out and poke, I listen, and so this is me sharing with you whatever I find.
In this new publication, I will mainly talk about ten things. I have a personal stake in and many priors about each of them, I will own up to my biases and try to work through them.
The main reason why I decided to launch Inter-Era is so I can begin to understand. We talk about “fog of war”, but the “fog of change” is just as disorienting. Amid political, economic, or public health upheavals our stress response makes us forgetful short-termists, we rush, we amass, we eliminate too quickly, we flake out, we withdraw. Absolutely no one likes to change. We pour innumerable dollars each year into “improving” our lives relationally, physically, financially, intellectually, but deep, elemental change causes us fear, it tends to be a product of fleeing, or mourning, or divorce, rarely ever good news. No one wants to learn themselves all over again, from the ground up, post-disaster, no one wants to have to rewrite their narrative. So when inside a big shift, we freeze in a gold-fish stare, we hope to wait out what we pray is a brief storm, and then go back to business as usual.
In the forever-present of the fog of change it’s hard to spot nuance, hard to see the chain of chapters in which the story really unfolds. So I’ll write here, around once a week, to try and click some puzzles together, to outline what does matter, to calm my mind. Leave me a comment if you feel I’ve missed something.
Ten areas of focus – and the why:
1. Authority: City vs Field
We’d been hearing about an authority crisis for as long as I can remember but even the darkest days of expert-distrust during the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t conjure such a hierarchical nihilism as the start of the Ukraine War.
Authority has a strong vertical axis: you need time for it to build up. This is true individually: you either need the moral luck to be able to prove yourself and then you stay consistent in time, or you need to get older, accumulate knowledge, grow into your respectfulness. And it is true communally: in order for real authority to be established, humans had to settle down, invent literacy, erect ziggurats, and to last. In a fast-changing situation, authority is replaced by assessment, you look at sources on the ground and those who can synthesise what the sources are saying, you pull the information together yourself, you trust your own judgement more than before. We talk about atomisation through technology, in society, but there is no greater atomisation than this.
There is also the question of acceptance. Richard Sennett elaborates on Hegel saying humans accept authority because it comes with attention, as with a strict parent (see Lakoff et al.) we learn to be happy to sacrifice some autonomy in exchange for the leader’s love. This means that when leaders are busy, the indifference becomes mutual. Hierarchies also contain a moral arc: we look up to authority that we feel was won within a system we see as legitimate. If we think our classmates are scheming jerks, their alpha won’t be a beacon of respect in our eyes; look at the people who raised him/her within their ranks! If we think our election was rigged, its outcome will be meaningless. But we too exist within one hierarchy or another, and so scepticism about the whole spiel fuzzies our life plans. Read about the dilemmas the intelligentsia faced during the East Bloc decades, the terrible choices of success vs hunger in a system that didn’t even pretend to be fair or transparent about its values or its rules for advancement. Listen to your friends listing their unanswered questions about their town or their workplace. See if you can spot the similarities.
As I said, I’m far from neutral about any of the ten topics I plan to cover, for me personally the Ukraine War did kick off six weeks of profound authority crisis, and I, really for the first time in my life, felt absolutely leaderless, even role-model-less, while some older than me pragmatism popped up as an inner voice, that OK, nevertheless, all that belief in ordained order was really just an extra coating over the basic facts of life, let’s survive. You sell things, diversify your assets, and abstain from judgement, or at least let your yes be yes and your no be no, you watch other people’s actions very carefully, now their old quarrels seem so beside the point, no one knows what they’re doing, I disagree, we’re back in some older than history time which means we know very well what we’re doing, all of us, and that’s a kind of equality only an extended present can allow. I’ll write about this new flat system of respect to find out how it works, and what it means.
2. Life as Art: Fiction vs Nonfiction, Onstage vs Offstage, Public vs Private
The few of you who read my earlier pieces (especially this and this) know that I grew up in show business and have a lot to say about the proscenium and what goes on behind the curtain, both literally and metaphorically, and not just good stuff. Most importantly to us now, these binaries, in my time-tested opinion, only really exist in dialectic, there’s no stage without backstage, no private without public, no performer without an audience. No you without me, in order for you to be able to live your life and sleep soundly, knowing where one ends and the other begins is a useful source of certainty.
I’ll quickly resist the urge to apologise for going all Mitteleuropa on you, for getting all Continental, and continue. Yes, as you can read in the established newspapers, and in my investment decks, the internet and especially social media have changed the public square and fragmented some communities while creating many others. The 19th-20th century content machinery of the media, in which there were those who wrote the news and everyone else could consume it or become news themselves, is over. We all have unlimited access to knowledge online, and almost unlimited access to means of creation and monetisation through which to participate. (Companies like mine attempt to add the missing layer, curation based on good ethics.)
I used to joke to friends when such joking was still possible that humans might not be as attached to their privacy as the 2016-2017 social media scandals would have you think. We spent almost all of our history performing all of our life functions and experiencing all of our life events in close proximity to each another. If we can believe James Burke, even solitary reading and thinking only really became a thing with the invention of the fireplace, in the 1300s. I like to say what people want is not privacy but control: to know what photo, text, personal object is shared where, to not be caught surprised. It is now that I realise what I intuited with my emphasis on control was a need for the binary mentioned in this section’s title, what we want is to understand what the stage is and what it is not, what public is, what is not. Even if “my place”, where I’m left in peace, is only a branch on a tree in front of our tribe’s cave, I don’t want to find other people sitting on it when I wake up. What we bemoan about social media is really the destruction of the binary, the control dividing public and private, for which we all, posting online, breaking the wall, are personally responsible.
Traditional knowledge brokers try to hold up boundaries. Every self-respecting bookstore has a separate fiction and nonfiction section. Looking at the books, I often feel the distinction is contrived. Sure, a lie about the past or the present is plain falsehood, but what about the moments that come after this? Don’t we all weave our lives more or less like artists, the threads of our thoughts, our tastes, ambitions, fears, and preferences flowering into actions that were untrue mere moments ago? My native tongue, Hungarian, calls a bonvivant an “életművész”, a life-artist, our lives as a Gesamtkunstwerk, why not. What social media really did was to give both props and an audience for this next-moment-creation, at a scale we probably hadn’t seen since we fought over tree branches in our ancient home, where everybody knew everybody. If right now everybody’s online, and to juxtapose my Twitter pal Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, online everybody lies, that means we all lie ourselves ahead into existence, at least partly publicly, and we’re succeeding at it, and we love it.
And so I think people mix up the causal structure of why disinformation is such a tough problem. It’s not that a proliferation of untruths leads us to question reality and order, on the contrary, it’s that with the deep empowerment we gained through the internet and especially on social media, our own experiences of life-creation-as-fiction have already changed our epistemological relationship with truth. And if we, individually and as a community, are unsure how much of what we say is true, charges of something outside of us being “untrue” will also be very hazy epistemologically. When both the audience and the performer are at least at times dishonest, we need new epistemological faculties to test for public truth, we need a new binary.
3. Self-Tooling: Utility and Productivity
This is a tricky one because when one speaks up to criticise the utility tyranny, or productivity porn, that characterises the year 2022, and the accompanying mostly meaningless mindfulness movement which, to return to the dialectic, only ratifies and reinforces the neuroses of overwork culture, one risks coming across as lazy.
I am very lazy. Like all lazy people, I work a lot. I know if I stop I’ll just laze my ass around the apartment, flip into books, and think big thoughts. Who wants that. To add to this, I definitely exhibit the Chekov-heroine streak of the moderately orderly ex-Catholic and think hard work will redeem me (especially from my great sloth).
So within these parameters I find most tweetstorms, and bestselling books, on productivity very funny, it being clear as day to me that the keys to success are a combination of luck, self-maiming stubbornness, and historical luck, if you trained me to be a highly productive ballerina I would probably still not make it into the Royal Ballet, but putting aside the absurdities and substitutions of productivity literature, the fact that instead of trying to raise the collective productivity levels of the West, we go and drop the macro altogether and turn the matter into personal stressors, is very telling. What if, instead of trying to be the most skilled violinist on the Titanic, we instead tried to not hit the iceberg? Imagine that.
But unless you’re a DAO person, the 2022 version of you will find coordination problems unsexy, the world is on fire so you’re clutching your own gadgets and enduring alone. When you feel alone, your own skillset, discipline, and competitive edges will of course seem madly important, there’s no one to rely on but stretched-out you. And you’ll read Horkeimer and Arendt and Paglia in your private time which you don’t have, to learn that it has happened on multiple occasions before, the individual got exhausted but there was no community to turn to, and then someone came and started shouting from a stage, and you couldn’t tell if it was true or not really, and you decided to follow, as following felt, at last, like rest.
I have not given up on the macro and the coordination problem. You can give me the most productive schedule if my output is nothing. I don’t like nothing, how Baroque of me. But if we’re indeed in the middle of a crisis that means, historically and based on all prior evidence, that we’re busy collectively making something new already, with the labour and the pain, etc., included. I’d say I want to find the right words to describe it, but that wouldn’t be true. In fact, I want to understand what we’re already saying, what we seem to already know, the Great Resigners and the Tech Nomaders, the mushrooming communities starting anew.
Also, guys, I want to celebrate idleness. I haven’t had a single good idea in my life when I was busy. Interintellect, as all rituals, is all about uselessly spent time—the decadence of conversation and friendship, creating an empty space, a void of production, so meaning can arise, in the collective knitting together of stories until we spot the pattern that unites. You’ll find that you don’t need a top athlete’s discipline to accomplish the most important things that happen to you in your life, in fact, they’ll all feel like something that just happens.
I’ll write about self-observation as well, being a great believer in “what you want is what you do”, when you don’t know what you want, just watch what you do, on a Sunday or after hours, what you read, whom you call, there’s your answer.
4. Battles Royales: Urgency and the Longterm, Sprints vs Marathons, Building the Future
When I was around 30, time sped up for me. On the one hand, I had turned 30, that was weird. I’d heard that for a woman that was kind of it, arrivederci, life! In my twenties time didn’t exist, I was flaking about in my energetic way, in and out of jobs in the media and academia, always broke, always waiting for—I wasn’t sure what. I daydreamed, I devoured fiction. When I turned 30, I realised what I had been waiting for was to get married, and because that had not happened, I found that all my cultural prescriptions had expired, and I was completely free. So the sped-up internal deadline for old-lady me to get my shit together and the intoxicating freedom of what expanded in front of me indefinitely led to the surprising twist that, unlike my original plan to party in my 20s and then retire like Proust to write about it from bed, I found myself, unexpectedly, as an immigrant and a breadwinner, a rebel against violence I had always seen as normal domestically, and, in general, someone who started over so late.
When I became, three years later, a startup founder in London, the manic timelapse of building technology made perfect sense to me. I stopped sleeping and got busy, self-scolded for a lost afternoon, I stopped writing and reading fiction, I grew dynamically depressed, depressedly dynamic, I had a blast. When I was young, people would see me as flighty and capricious, now there I was to prove my iron will, my epic perseverance. The strength and self-preservation that I developed to manage intrafamilial catastrophes was now freed up to serve my career, to serve other people. I surprised people. My father, the last time that I saw him, four years ago, while repeating that I was a “fuckhead” and a “soulless c––” in an outdoor restaurant, expressed respect for my sudden professional aptitude. Startup founders understand the fog of change, the power of the present. I’ll venture that the startup founding trend is in part a product of an unwanted familiarity with constant crisis and an already warped time.
I’m lucky to have friends with whom one can quote Leonard Cohen, and I often do, the lines I’ve never liked it fast / You want to get there soon / I want to get there last, and while I pride myself and my generation on thinking fast when necessary, the wit, the Snaps, the crowdfunding, the TikTok response videos, the adaptability, building for the long-term is becoming increasingly important to me. And since I am like everybody else, I assume that if I, despite trying to not waste even one morning, or at least feeling very guilty when I do, really think in expanses of unknowable future decades, engaged not in sprints, whatever your product manager says, but in marathons, then this is likely a more common than assumed internal rhythm for us all. How we talk about personal and professional time today oscillates between extremes: there’s the day to day rush and then the unfathomable, never before this long lifespan. Students think in semesters, startup founders in quarters, parents in years… I want more era-based thinking, intuitions formalised into narrative, the where this is going over the how fast.
The talent, luck, and stubbornness discussed in the previous section all unfold in time. Stamina, especially when combined with enjoyment and a choice of goal, trumps most other strengths. One danger of an ever-still present, and a moral loosening of hierarchies, is that we forget about stamina. But stamina is worth building even blindly. To quote a smart friend of mine, any decision is better than none, any direction is better than stopping. It is a fact of life that if you think long-term, you will eventually outrun a lot of those competing for the same loot. Yes, you will need to deal with how that feels when it happens. Maybe this is why startups, academics, journalists, scientists seem hurried around like horses at some race without leaving them much time to think, no one has the right story for why winning in the end will feel legitimate to you, or what winning even is.
I’m not the first one to point out the Inter-Era’s internal conflicts over excellence. As discussed before, we strive for self-improvement, a self-fulfilling self-branding, productivity prowess, but what happens to those who make it to the top is a whole other matter. We used to envy those in the limelight, I doubt this is still the case. The public scrutiny, even hatred, toward those who rise in the ranking system we’re also part of betrays our frayed relationship with it and I assume discourages some types of ambition. I have great trust in the moral immune system of communities, I trust our meaning-making and know we can build new arcs, but the fact remains that we’re deep in the interregnum, and if we want the excellence of those who can contribute it, and to extend who can strive for excellence in the first place, then the sacrifices this work requires need to resume being socially attractive. We will never find perfect people who can become excellent, but we can agree and decide on what imperfections we’re OK with, and then let those who can do the inventing, organising, analysing, and funding required for any production do their jobs. I want good books, good administrators, good food, good music, good childcare, good churches, and so do you. I want to be able to be good at what I do, and so do you.
5. Language and Systems of Meaning
It happened late for me, it was only when I emigrated for good, and stayed abroad for good, that language and reality started splitting for me. I’d read Stanislas Dehaene and observe my brain that still only remembers and counts numbers, and number-meaning formulae like F=ma, in Hungarian, with whole areas of my brain inaccessible to language however well I can speak it. I touched the surface of things, the edges, and I wondered.
Most of 2022 life, of course, sprouts ahead intangibly, on keyboards and on screens, as data, and you’d think words would fail to keep up with this, but I don’t think so. In fact, words have found a very cosy container in code, something they’ve been waiting for since the first type became moveable, this world of unfurling fiction that is technology has captured the human language.
When we talk about the meaning crisis, the staring at the phone, the empty I love you, the bowling online alone, what we describe is not really a vacuum, but rather a Wordle of horror vacui, new stacks of constant, thickening speech, we’re in Signifier Land, the semiotic orgy that is the Absolute Internet, soon we won’t even say “internet” or add “online”, it will just be where you live. (When NFT people talk about online postcodes, don’t think they’re kidding.) It is the touch that has no name now, there are too many names around, they rotate until they give out, the very few things that matter become quiet, they’re left out of the noise.
All this is probably fine. Remember, we’re in the Inter-Era, this too shall pass, we’ll figure it out. Whether you put a “ugh” in doughnut, offer your preferred pronouns or not, you’ll admit that every system of meaning we’ve ever come up with was the result of some rite of agreement, of synods, and talmudic commentaries, constitutional conventions, peace accords. There’s a symbolism metabolism to the collective mind and I see no reason why it should be different now. I know some think this is our doom, I don’t think so, I think this is an honest moment, a moment of quality in the chaos. Your human brain is eminently capable of learning a new language, even when the one who speaks the new language is you. Even when you happen to be learning silence.
We’ll talk about this some more. The old words invented to aid a life on Earth, now hijacked by a new world built of symbols. The real important things for which we need real important names that don’t become routine, or code. The meaning-refilling we’re better positioned than ever to turn into a collective act. I told you I haven’t given up on coordination problems.
6. Love and Community
The caveat is this is my job. I know—the irony of a highly disagreeable hermit sitting in Europe running a delightful American online community. Life’s like that. I used to think my personal experience as a journalist in Budapest, my first organisation which introduced popular feminism to the public consciousness in Hungary, and then my film work in the UK which focused on the great human agonies of history, would predestine me, within my chosen life field that is technology, to create self-protective and soothing connection products, to prep for the drama. But after a couple of years of independent research and bootstrapping, I closed my first startup which was trying to build a linguistically mediating AI for online chatters, looking to prevent internet wars one personal conversation at a time, and started the movement which I lead now, an open, trusting, breezy weak-ties bet on how the liminal space between public and private—we run small, paid, online cultural events—glues together a healthier society.
People in my community, members, audience, hosts, my team, are geographically remote, linguistically diverse, politically uncategorisable, and usually have experiences of outsiderness, whether through immigration, political soloing, or belonging to a cultural minority.
I was scared when I started my first startup and listened to messages that confirmed my apprehensions. I’d been told by the establishment of the time that the internet was a toxic shitshow, and so, to assuage my fears, I tried to code a shield that people could use to not get hurt. I was so wrong. After 1,500 conversations in Interintellect, how we can create environments of peace through rituals and incentives people love and espouse is clearer to me. It keeps me thinking what else I might be so wrong about. People do find community and belonging on the internet. Instead of radicalising, they change careers to something they love, move countries to follow their tastes, and fall in love and get married to people they met on Twitter, in Interintellect, in the comment sections of Substack. When I left my family and restarted my life with a couple of books and a suitcase, having left my good name, my apartment, my entire social capital, the value of my three master’s degrees, and my dignity behind, it was the internet that gave me a chance, for the cost of exactly 0 dollar, to quickly rebuild my network, skillset, and status, relying solely on my own knowledge, ideas, and social instincts. I met all of my non-Hungarian friends on the internet, I built my company there, have revenue, raised capital, traveled, experienced personal breakthroughs, even fell in love a few times. What cities used to be, today online communities are. My story is more common than you think, come to an Interintellect salon and hear how people’s lives open up, turning toward the people they’ve looked for and finally found, like the sun.
There are other things that mainstream narratives misrepresent. Take, for instance, our love lives. I will talk more about this if you’re interested. The caveat is—well I am far from neutral. Are you? I’d volunteer that 70% of the political reactionaryism of Millennials and GenZ are just people wanting a loving relationship and to settle down. We talk about people trying to find their dignity, lost, as discussed earlier, for words, living through an Inter-Era when solving the ailments of the superstructure keeps falling on the individual. Based on what I can observe, the much reproached “prudery” of our generation seems to just be wanting more. Having grown up as the child of Boomers who’d burn down families and livelihoods in recurring bouts of carpe diem, and adding my personal experiences of constant harassment (and fear) that I took for a normal part of life for so long, I can’t really blame them. Again, I posit that my life story is quite common, if our words are standing out there waiting for new meanings, then “relationship” sure seems to be one of them. And, as someone pretty fixated on the scope of my hard-earned freedom, I’d like to include a shoutout here to the psychedelic-polyamory contingent within our midst, and the alternatives they represent and experiment with, making me more hopeful that individuals can re-learn how to form couples, and then families, in a way that matches their personal tastes best.
Coincidentally, we’ve just hosted an Interintellect salon with the WaPo columnist Christine Emba, who goes full Aristotle (“willing the good”) when talking about better relationships. I’ll use the word dignity. For self, and for Other.
7. Immigration, Identity
When I arrived in London in September 2013, I found myself a part of a multimillion-sized Eastern European exodus but no story. It would have felt less lonely if there was a story. I lived there for over six years, feeling completely invisible. I knew that my accent was “bad”, that the guy from The Economist called me up after he liked my writing, but hearing my voice he quickly hung up on me. I knew the guys who’d hit on me went for an easy score, since in their cultural hierarchy I was equal to nothing. When I lived in London I ended up choosing to not date anyone for four years. I would take the Tube to my customer service job at 5 am, reading almost as much that year as during my undergrad, it was still dark outside, I’d ride with a small assortment of workers up to Wembley, feeling there should be a tale that explains us. A song on a guitar. An art-house movie with shaking camera. A memorial and a name.
I was translating young adult novels at the time, and saw my language fall apart in front of me. Into bits. They say community founders and joiners come from the outside, they who have lost forms of belonging see them as a construct not as a given, they know you have to, that you can, build this. The transition from world user to world builder was a painful one for me, I wouldn’t have ended my intellectual’s meta-existence if it hadn’t been for the general turmoil of 2015-2016, when I felt my personal weaknesses simply no longer mattered, I looked at my CV to see how I could help, and got started. In moments of linguistic chaos you need the immigrants. In gap-eras you need the outsiders’ unbiased view. It’s not only children who are surprised by every little thing, so are the newcomers, those fresh pairs of eyes. We see beauty where you don’t, we spot solutions where you can’t. If we’re rebuilding language now, I want us, the aliens, to whom everything sounds so very strange already, to offer our help.
I want to counter the chronicled loss of communities with the building movements of those who had to restart, who rethink what “ties” mean, who have reverse engineered attachment. If our generation will have to be leaders through a reboot, let’s hear out those who have done it personally before.
Being a cultural alien, I’ve remained largely outside identity politics so I won’t be able to comment much on that. But personal identity interests me, mainly because, being in a shift within a shift (within a shift within a shift, etc.), I feel like mine is changing. I’m 38 and this is the first time when I feel I have a personal identity, if not fully un-memetic then at least a collage from sources of my own choosing. Before I left my family, my actions were rooted in my negating whatever they would do, I was bound into a binary, locked into dialectic. The ensuing feeling of liberation led directly to my daring to start a company and build a semi-public profile. But launching a career calls for new allegiances. Now I am old enough to know when someone in my industry—mostly tech, libertarian, American—thinks something about me is “special”, whether that thing really is just a legacy of, say, my Budapest university education, and all my former classmates would in fact say/think/know the same, or if it’s something that I truly, personally, originally, have come up with, through my life experience, intelligence, or mistake. So I will try to talk about that, what kind of identity comes after the immigrant’s strange anti-identity, when you’ve become free, when your identity has left the dialectic.
8. God and the Self
The caveat is this is so complicated. How dare I. My smartest friends chase ego death and seek salvation in one another. I remember feeling uncomfortable in therapy, the very setting blocking the fluctuations that is our self, every question addressing an earlier you, who’s to respond a moment later? I kept remarking to my therapist that this is just my side of things, that it feels unfair to sit here with my colourful descriptions of all the wrongs I have suffered. I recalled Catholic school, the confession, how weirdly intimate it all was, how much the priests seemed to enjoy it. The absolute power over another’s soul, the kneeling girl. I wrote about this before, it’s not a secret, that when I was around 11, I was in a Catholic church listening to a Poor Clare novice recounting her pilgrimage, and I had an epiphany, my skull opened to light, and I changed right there and then, and I am the same person now as who came to be on that day. I come from a mostly Jewish family of social adventurers, academe, showbusiness, no God.
Later, researching other religions and religiousness in general, I of course understood that my rapture was religion-independent, that there are many portals through which one can go up, some more enriching than others. It was only much later, in my late 20s, that I understood the matter and the atom too, and the maddeningly bipedal existence of humans, in depth, and I grew sad.
Before the Inter-Era, politically I counted as a religion-tolerant leftie, I think, I’m not sure if that category will survive the shift. I do think with prosperity comes gratitude, and I believe strongly that most religions arose not from fear but from gratitude, and guilt. Cain and Abel gave back to the Earth, to its assumed ruler, the surplus they felt they had taken, the animals that only existed because they’d bred them, the plants that only grew after the sons’ planting and care. It has long been my theory that the guilt felt over the surplus, over our intervention, over messing with the natural, led directly to appeasement and to sacrifice, and then to ritual, and then to religion. Based on this logic, I can’t agree with the anti-religion part of the progress movement: the more we’ll grab and in the more unnatural ways, the bigger the religious backlashes will continue to be. If you believe in balance, and the mental metabolism of the human collective, you might feel this is acceptable. You might think no hatha yoga Zoom class can suffice to replace the inner urge of a sacrifice of giving back.
Since Derek Parfit died without my ever meeting him, I keep shamelessly emailing thinkers who matter to me, thankfully my current job enables this, I’d rather make an idiot of myself than to miss out. I’ll talk a bit about Parfit’s tunnel analogy, and the blurry lines around our selves, and the glory of occasional surrender to the inexplicable, the irrational.
9. Trauma and Truth
When I was a child a war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, and then went on for nine long years. At the time, my family was wealthy and cruel and quite desperate, and I remember watching on our TV the cruelty suffered by those who’d lost everything and were also desperate. In high school, I understood where my interest had sprung from, and I went and read everything I could about the Second World War. In my 20s, I built relationships with estranged branches of my family in Budapest and in Israel, and interviewed older relatives who survived the Holocaust. I’d read the Auschwitz memoir written by my grandfather’s little sister, Alíz, Branches without Root. I would never look at the role of stamina and luck the same way again. I had never since then taken any of my possessions for granted.
We like to forget that the world is a very violent place. We shroud our violence in the social graces then rush into therapy wondering why we’re so agitated and hurt. Without asking to change the law, I do know that words can kill when someone’s only weapon is words, and when they really want to. Authority breeds hierarchy breeds social order breeds safety from violence, so if we go back to my first point in this piece, the authority crisis, the stakes should be clear. The Ukraine War has to remind you that the violence of our species can’t be geographically contained, not every aggression will take a proxy, as every woman knows.
When things get too real, I turn to fiction, I heard recently that fiction is where reality goes to practice, that it’s a laboratory for reality, how accurate, I thought of my hero Margaret Schlegel, with her books and translations, her life of lettres, and the violence protruding into her home, through her walls, her affiliations, and her blood, and love. I always envied her as I'd had home-grown violence myself, her lace collar, the brooch, the Edwardian, momentary, respite. I remember first seeing the genius Audiard’s unloved The Beat My Heart Skipped, so close to home I could barely watch it, the son of the petty, pitiful criminal learning concert piano, feeling the purpose and catharsis of the high art all the more with his experience of the brutal streets of Paris. One of the best pieces I’ve ever read on movies, by Ebert on Scorsese, describes how the drawing rooms of The Age of Innocence were just as violent as the world of Raging Bull, it is the same thing, the killing, the eloquence, the fish knife, and the mouthguard, Wharton’s willowy creatures would mob up on their enemies just the same, they would drop their corsets without thinking, if they could, in their plush-cushioned Rhythm 0. The best line I’ve ever read about astrology was that a Libra is an Aries wearing a glove, how accurate, aren’t we all.
I made a strange zigzag when establishing my personal safety, I’d first started a company and community to build a better, safer pocket for humans to experiment and to grow, and only then did I move myself too, in the service of the bigger plan, to a safe location. I live today among my books and my vases of flowers, the sun is shining, my balcony is warm. I flew back to Budapest a few days after the Ukraine War started, found knowledge in some old boxes after four years away, saw how industrious and disciplined I was as a young writer, how much I dismissed my own efforts as a dilettante, a fake. On the way back I flew via Zurich, flew into that fortress of mountains, so uninvadable I was moved. Then I took yet another plane, flew even further into the West, I went on a walk in Brussels, reached the Jean-Félix Hap Park, looked at the flowers in the early March cold, and I cried. We always forget about the glove. I watched peace uncurl at my feet. I flew twice to sit there, and not be hurt.
It remains my conviction that only people who understand violence can build safe places, that peace is always kept by armies. After I had to leave my family, I had PTSD for nine months, I didn’t have any thoughts for nine months, I read hard science books and suddenly understood them, I listened to Chopin on high volume and all of Bob Dylan to have something in there maybe stir, I was sitting in my London room and I could literally feel my brain getting rewired—some things getting lost, how vulnerable, some things being opened up like new rooms—and my whole self changing. I had always been fascinated by whatever happened in those months, to my memories, my fear response, my occasional urge to hide. So many startup founders I talk to went through something similar, you can’t do great things unless it’s only the second hardest thing you’ve ever done. It was around that time that I first read about Garmezy, and about the strategies of resilient children, the learning from adversity, the seeking out mentors to replace absentee parents, I’d done all of that, I would read about it and cry. When I had PTSD, I had no concept of the future. During the first year, I couldn’t even visualise the next day, it was very limiting, then it gradually expanded back to near-normal, took me five-six years, this is all pretty recent, it was the price of freedom. I find the knowledge built during that time useful in a fog of change, the stillness of the abuzz present to me feels familiar, the invincibility that your scars give you, the pity for others born out of your pain.
Trauma gives us insight into how the most extreme subjective experiences relate to objective wrongdoing, the alignment between the inner feeling and the external judgement, which is indispensable for justice. The core of the self, however fluid we might feel our other parts to be, stands untouchable, inviolable, full of promise of recovery. I wonder whether peace is part of an indissoluble dialectic, always a negation of the swords in flames, the park where you sit down, the flowers you watch over, the others you invite in to show them it's safe.
I will write about the limits I fear exist to what we call peacetime, what you carve it out from, what you protect it from, and my personal and professional strategies for living unhurt.
10. Virtue and Sin
I must have gone crazy. The caveat is I have no idea. Like all of you, I’m also in an ethical cha-cha between Kant and the utilitarians, like all of you, I also can’t make it work. I’m adding here, because you keep talking about it, the EA movement and Aristotle and the good life. Because I too want a good life, this of course concerns me. But here, your mileage varies. It seems like people who feel they live virtuously, feel happier. People who feel anxious, you tell me that straightening out your life, whatever that means to you, will help you to clear out your mind, too. There’s research to agree with you.
But personally, I’m on the fence about happiness. I know revelling doesn’t make me longterm happy, I worked in the music industry, I partied in my own half-assed way, I felt the ecstasy, I felt the mind-stretch, but I was not happy. And I did the Apollonian retreat, moulding at home without sunshine, reading and working, I was not happy. I did the cool girlboss thing too, went into fancy meeting rooms in tight pants, got the All Access pass, it felt pointless. I largely agree with the conservative strain of thinkers who dig up the old wisdom of how self-inflicted responsibility makes you happier, our gardens that we care for, I think that must be true. Starting a family, a company, does that to you. But perfect happiness in my life I have only ever felt in moments of utter peace, that transcendence, all worldless, in nature. Those brief moments of being a woman out alone, unbothered, watching a lake. Sitting on my carpet in my free time, realising it’s nearly morning, my neck stiff over a book, some unreal wall of reality broken down. A glint of grace covering all of the world.
I will write about goodness and happiness, I have more questions than answers. I’ll touch upon things that you ask me, like how much should you hate your job, how much should you give to charity, what if you turn into your parents.
I have no idea where it’s all going, this text is already very different, going its own way, from what I expected. There is virtue to writing honestly, to bet in public with naked opinions, to offer life details, and there’s a sin to it too, exiting the CEO language, talking about others who might recognise themselves. Perhaps that’s my only current fixed take on virtue and sin, that it’s always some mélange of wrong and right, all we can hope for is to set the ratio right. Like you, I have also loved monsters, like you, I have also been wrong, aimed for good and caused much harm. I’ll try to keep those contradictions in mind, writing from a place of peace about war, from my living room filled with pillows and tulips about rage, while drawing up the future revealing the past.
Bear with me.