Magpie, definition, Cambridge Dictionary: 1) a bird with black and white feathers and a long tail, 2) someone who likes to collect many different objects, or use many different styles
The Magpie is frequently confused these days. Existence is bewildering in and of itself, of course, but this moment feels particularly opaque and strange. It sometimes seems as if there is a very large animal, or several of them, pushing on reality from behind the panels of the everyday. It’s hard to tell what they are. They make shapes and sounds, but is that a tusk or a hoof? A threatening bellow or the cry of a calf? I see the big signs: the indices, the civic battles, the continuing violence. I hear the debates. I jump in.
But there is something else I want to understand, the sound within the sound: the zeitgeist. And, of course, one can well ask, Whose zeitgeist? Where? The zeitgeist of Moscow? Of Antarctica? Of Nigeria? Of Beijing, where the dust was recently so thick and hazardous that people were warned against breathing outside?
Fair enough. So let us just say the zeitgeist of a certain left-leaning, well-educated, cosmopolitan group of American folks—the losers. We still think we won the culture wars, and maybe we did, maybe we’ll keep the cultural capital if not the financial capital, which is another reason to try to catch the subtler signals that might reveal our emerging tendencies. So I’ve been listening to the other talk, i.e., the stuff we talk about after we finish with our weekly outrage.
One friend says, “All my technology is breaking, and I don’t even want to fix it.”
One friend says, “I’ve been making my own cosmetics that don’t have all those chemicals in them. I give them to friends.”
One friend says, “I Twitter and I Facebook, but I don’t Instagram.”
One friend says, “I only Instagram. That’s the only one I can stand.”
One friend says, “Only analog. I’ve had it.”
One friend says, “We got rid of, like, half our stuff and it was totally liberating. I know she’s crazy. But I love that book.”
One friend says, “I secretly read Goop.”
One friend says, “I do, too.”
One friend says, “There’s so much I can’t say—I can’t say it in public. I would definitely never say it on Facebook. But I can say it to you.”
One friend says, “I don’t read the news. I just watch Mozart in the Jungle .”
One friend says, “I keep feeling like I need a cool drink of water.”
My friends, maybe like yours, are active, engaged people. They sign petitions and march and organize and create things. They are not all one kind of person. And yet, the sound I hear, the sound I think I hear, is the sound of a modest fountain in an interior courtyard. It is the sound of the local, the understandable, the unlaced, the sound of the needle hitting the center of the record when the side is done playing. Visually, it is hand-drawn, maybe scrawled on plaster. It is a feeling of ducking into the doorway out of the shouting on the street, shutting the door behind you, and lying down on your back in the courtyard—a semi-tended courtyard of wobbly paving stones with grass growing between them—to look at the sky. If I listen to my friends, and to the friends of my friends, I hear two sides, always, these days: the side that is loudly vocal and the side that breathes on the other side of the door, or wishes to do that. They don’t have interior courtyards. But they are making them, or trying to make them, in the way they live now. Make that we . We are making them.
Amidst all the clanging geopolitical talk of borders and boundaries, of walls and barriers, there seems to be a sotto voce current of longing to protect the borders of our senses: what we see, what we hear, what we taste, what we touch, what we smell. My friends, maybe like yours, have concerns about privacy in our age of data strip-mining, but overall they seem to be more worried about what gets in than what gets out. There is a feeling of overwhelm, of oversaturation, of being bombarded, and a counter-longing for less. There is a longing for a home like a snail’s shell, intimate and protective.
A savvy designer friend says, “I’m so sick of all this fuss about kitchens and bathrooms. Why do all that? We don’t need it.”
Another friend says, “It’s time to do the vegetable planting.” He means in his apartment, in pots in the small kitchen.
The zeitgeist is schizoid: public fury, private retreat. You can get a good conversation going with nearly anyone these days by asking what they watch on television, a place of endlessly abundant and diverting seasons. It is now de rigueur to ask dinner guests what allergies or special food requirements they might have—eating has become a self-curated art for each particularly sensitive body, its interior space carefully guarded.
I don’t have an analysis of this in terms of left and right, of policies, of the probable outcomes of the midterm elections or questions of free speech. My friends, maybe like yours, tend to be on the left, but I wouldn’t say that this feeling, this vibe, is just a blue-state thing. Unscientifically, my magpie eye spies a wider trend that locates freedom in the enclave, not the public square. See: homeschooling, 4chan, the super-wealthy of all political persuasions buying up large tracts of land in New Zealand to build bunkers in case of total global chaos. That is different than, say, a zeitgeist of play, or thrill-seeking, or hyper-conformity, or ostentatious display, or even hatred.
Maybe it’s that people are killing each other in the public square. Maybe it’s that everything in the public square is being monetized, and the money isn’t going to any of us, the red hats or the blue hats. Maybe it’s internet trolls, fake news, Russian hackers, global warming, what agribusiness does to food that really does make people sick. Maybe it’s all of the above.
I don’t know the why, and it isn’t my primary question, anyway. It’s more to do with this: If the spirit of the age is Janus, two-faced god of thresholds, will inside and outside become ever more discrete? And then what?
One friend says, “It all happened so fast. Right?”