Opinion //

Meaning-making in the age of collapse

Honi Soit Writing Competition non-fiction shortlist.

Before the pandemic hit, I researched and wrote about historical events in my casual work. I understand that the privilege of distance makes certain things inevitable and obvious. I trace the histories of political and artistic movements from hundreds of years away. I stand outside the maze, looking down from above, watching revolutionaries and nobles scurry about, my perspective allowing me to see the exit from catastrophe, clear as day. I can tut-tut at these historical idiots, chastising people who are long dead: What the hell are you doing? Can’t you see you’re just making things worse for everybody?

Right now I am the one trapped in a maze, unable to see the way out of seemingly inevitable collapse. I have begun reading 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline, which discusses the violent fall of advanced civilizations in the Late Bronze Age—the kingdoms of Mycenaean Greece and Egypt, among others, transforming into scattered and isolated villages in the first Dark Ages. Cline’s thesis was that there must have been a “perfect storm” of events that caused this collapse: “climate change; drought and famine; earthquakes; invaders; and internal rebellions.” That’s the Late Bronze Age, but it also sounds ominously like the present day.

Anne Helen Petersen wrote about “errand paralysis” and burnout back in 2019, or a thousand years ago in pandemic time. For me (and Petersen touches upon this in her essay), the root of this paralysisis existential. It is the loss of meaning. It is being faced with a world that no longer made sense, betrayed by the definitions that have guided me all my life. Just when I am about to find that definition, touch the edge of that word that will open up the world to me, the pandemic hits, my meaning-making disrupted.

Many times I would find myself pausing in the middle of (happily) proofreading an essay or poring over a sentence in a short story and think: What’s the point? What’s the point of caring about language when a political leader can say whatever he wants—and it is almost always a he—and be re-interpreted and defended by his supporters to the death? What’s the point of caring about facts and the effects of my words when political spokespersons can reply with toxic screeds filled with lies and be believed and applauded for it? What’s the point of doing anything right, if we’re all heading towards collapse anyway?

I once received a request for an email interview, and the first question was Could you share with us the exact moment (or moments) wherein you realised that you wanted to become a storyteller? Writing used to bring me joy but now it also feels like a chore, “a small act that create[s] order, temporarily, but seemingly amount[s] to nothing,” to quote writer Rachel Khong. There was a time when writing stories was fun, but I seem to no longer be able to access this happiness.

After weeks of trying, I wrote back to the interviewer with an apology: I’ve tried answering the interview but I’m having a difficult time, to be honest. I think I just feel uninspired, and I would love to answer the questions when I’m feeling motivated about my writing. They wrote back to kindly say they understand, and can they get in touch with me again? That email remains unanswered in my Inbox.

I could not even think long-term; I could only take this one day at a time. Revel in the little happinesses you find. I actually said that once, to a friend. In a Facebook chat. But I guess if you feel that the world’s falling down around your ears, you are allowed to be dramatic.

“Many begged for the help of the gods, but even more imagined that there were no gods left and that the last eternal night had fallen on the world.” This was Pliny the Younger writing to Roman historian Tacitus in his second letter about the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, which spewed out molten rock and buried Pompeii and its inhabitants in 79 CE. But before that, in his first letter, Pliny the Younger wrote: “My uncle soothed the fears of his companions by saying that they were nothing more than fires left by the terrified peasants, or empty abandoned houses that were blazing. He went to bed and apparently fell asleep, for his loud, heavy breathing was heard by those passing his door.”

Of course, it was not the world’s “last eternal night”. Pliny the Younger’s uncle managed to sleep because he was unaware that he was moments away from one of the most cataclysmic volcanic eruptions in history, unaware that he was in fact in the midst of history, as we all are. Pompeii was destroyed and frozen in time under layers of ash, but the world marched on—and perhaps will keep marching on, even if most days I feel it will not, or should not, or will, but not for much longer. Collapse also means to give way. Give way to what, I have no idea.

I want to return, not to the blissful ignorance of childhood, but to that feeling of gratitude and excitement I had when I was young, that moment when I can look up from my desk, see the leather-bound volumes of encyclopaedia and classic novels that my parents saved up and paid for, and think of all the empty notebooks I can fill with poems and stories, think that everything is new, that nothing is over, that everything is just beginning.

I am trying not to wave a white flag in the face of Disruption. I want to believe that this is just a pause, the way you’d stop to take a deep breath after an uphill climb. I’m tired, and I need to rest, but I’m still here. Just pausing in order to find the courage to continue, to write more stories, to listen and contribute to the conversation (no matter how painful) about identity and politics and finding meaning in the here and now. Just pausing to be ready for what happens next.