Beautiful World, Where Are You

Sally Rooney


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I was in the local shop today, getting something to eat for lunch, when I suddenly had the strangest sensation – a spontaneous awareness of the unlikeliness of this life. I mean, I thought of all the rest of the human population – most of whom live in what you and I would consider abject poverty – who have never seen or entered such a shop. And this, this, is what all their work sustains! This lifestyle, for people like us! All the various brands of soft drinks in plastic bottles and all the pre-packaged lunch deals and confectionery in sealed bags and store-baked pastries – this is it, the culmination of all the labour in the world, all the burning of fossil fuels and all the back-breaking work on coffee farms and sugar plantations. All for this! This convenience shop! I felt dizzy thinking about it. I mean I really felt ill.

At the moment I think it’s fair to say we’re living in a period of historical crisis, and this idea seems to be generally accepted by most of the population. I mean the outward symptoms of the crisis, e.g. major unpredicted shifts in electoral politics, are widely recognisable as abnormal phenomena. To an extent, I think even some of the more ‘suppressed’ structural symptoms, like the mass drowning of refugees and the repeated weather disasters triggered by climate change, are beginning to be understood as manifestations of a political crisis. And I believe studies show that in the last couple of years, people have been spending a lot more time reading the news and learning about current affairs. It has become normal in my life, for example, to send text messages like the following: tillerson out at state lmaoooo. It just strikes me that it really shouldn’t be normal to send texts like that. Anyway, as a consequence, each day has now become a new and unique informational unit, interrupting and replacing the informational world of the day before. And I wonder (you might say irrelevantly) what all this means for culture and the arts. I mean, we’re used to engaging with cultural works set ‘in the present’. But this sense of the continuous present is no longer a feature of our lives. The present has become discontinuous.

Each day, even each hour of each day, replaces and makes irrelevant the time before, and the events of our lives make sense only in relation to a perpetually updating timeline of news content.

Presumably, remembered suffering never feels as bad as present suffering, even if it was really a lot worse – we can’t remember how much worse it was, because remembering is weaker than experiencing. Maybe that’s why middle-aged people always think their thoughts and feelings are more important than those of young people, because they can only weakly remember the feelings of their youth while allowing their present experiences to dominate their life outlook.

I have been reading a lot about ‘stress’ in the medical literature. Everyone seems to agree it is about as bad for your health as smoking, and beyond a certain point practically guarantees a major adverse health outcome. And yet the only recommended treatment for stress is not to experience it in the first place.

I only feel, rightly or wrongly, that there is something underneath everything. When one person kills or harms another person, then there is ‘something’ – isn’t there? Not simply atoms flying around in various configurations through empty space.