Power

Bruce Chatwin was the internet before the internet existed

The legacy of the late British writer and journalist shows us how the internet could be — a place where reality is not distorted but enriched by its users.
Power

Bruce Chatwin was the internet before the internet existed

The legacy of the late British writer and journalist shows us how the internet could be — a place where reality is not distorted but enriched by its users.

At one point in Werner Herzog’s recent documentary Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, the legendary filmmaker claims that the British writer Chatwin — a close friend and kindred spirit before his untimely death from AIDS in 1989 — “was the internet.”

This is a claim that Herzog appears to mean quite literally — although, to be perfectly clear, it is also very much one he makes very much spontaneously, in the flow of conversation with Chatwin’s biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare.

“What I remember about the person,” Shakespeare says, is that “he was like a kind of fiery ball of light shedding flickering illuminations on obscure pieces of knowledge, connecting countries, people, books, texts... I’ve often wondered if he was a kind of precursor of the internet.”

“No,” Herzog interrupts. “He was the internet. He was the internet at a time when technically it did not exist.” Then finally, with full certainty: “He was the internet.”

But what could this claim possibly mean? What could it be for a human — any human, I suppose, but mainly Chatwin, who is best-known for The Songlines, an unclassifiable sort-of fictional-philosophical travelogue about the indigenous Australian understanding of space; nomadism; and the origins of human intelligence — to be the internet?

One way to approach the question of how Chatwin might have been the internet before the internet existed is to examine who the internet might be now that it does. The other week, the author/character behind perhaps the internet’s most-important Twitter account @Dril announced the launch of his Adult Swim web series, a controversial current-events show parody called Truthpoint.

“The Dark Web Hit Comes to the Regular Internet,” the show’s trailer goes — the “Regular Internet” here being, presumably, just ordinary, everyday, external reality. But this Regular Internet-ing of Dril requires him to have a much more definite visual and physcial presence, at least more substantial than his familiar fuzzy Jack Nicholson avatar. Dril appears in the studio in a horrible, uncannily static plastic mask of his avatar, his voice modulated to make him sound like he’s issuing ransom demands, as he declares his support for mandatory breastfeeding up to age 25.

Chatwin’s overriding interest was always a utopian investment in nomads, and what he considered to be the “nomadic alternative” to settled life in cities.

A lot of his trademark humor remains the same, but TV Dril can hardly be considered the same character as online Dril. As a result of the small screen’s restraints, Dril is forced to assume a single, distinct physical form. On Twitter, by contrast, he is in constant physical flux; the Dril-character contains multitudes. To quote myself from a March article on this website: “Dril is an entity alternately young and old; at once married and divorced (from the same essential ‘wife’)… Sometimes Dril’s ass is ‘tiny and malnourished’; at others it seems to be large enough to be struck by a meteor without killing Dril himself.”

In a way, the Twitter-Dril is, quite literally, the internet. As the poet Patricia Lockwood put it, Dril is “the anonymous psycho of the comments box. He has been banned from every forum. He is all-present, and nothing-knowing.” Dril’s oeuvre is almost epic in its polyvocal scope, the Greek tragic chorus reimagined as the below-the-line comments section.

Chatwin, for his part, cannot possibly have been the internet in this sense; he was, after all, a real man in a real body, a body that was for a time strong, and wiry, and which everyone who knew him says was physically beautiful until he got sick, and his body was reduced to a skeleton with his eyes bulging out of the skull. His eyes were the only part of him that really seemed to have been left alive; his voice strange and high and strained, unable to walk on legs that Herzog describes as being like “spindles.”

Moreover, there is nothing about Chatwin’s writing that may strike readers as resembling the comments section. Chatwin first experienced literary success with In Patagonia, his account of his journey to the southernmost reaches of the Americas, inspired by a piece of skin from a giant sloth that his grandmother had been sent from the region by her cousin, and that she kept in a “cabinet of curiosities” that Chatwin was fascinated by as a child.

Following this, Chatwin wrote a number of short, taut novels focused thematically on place, property, and the meaning of home: from The Viceroy of Ouidah, later adapted by Herzog with Klaus Kinski in the title role as Cobra Verde, about a Brazilian slave trader in West Africa; to On the Black Hill, about two twin brothers who pass their whole lives on a farm straddling the Anglo-Welsh border.

But Chatwin’s overriding interest was always a utopian investment in nomads, and what he considered to be the “nomadic alternative” to city life. Chatwin draws both on anthropological research and personal experience to declare that man was originally a “migratory species,” and that a good deal of our most urgent problems — existential anomie; the exhaustion of natural resources; racism and xenophobia; war — can be traced back to our unnatural insistence on remaining in the same place; cooping ourselves up in a particular location to maintain a territory we are desperate to feel is exclusively, insurmountably, “ours.”

“In one of his gloomier moments Pascal said that all man’s unhappiness stemmed from a single cause, his inability to remain quietly in a room… Diversion. Distraction. Fantasy. Change of fashion, food, love and landscape. We need them as the air we breathe. Without change our brains and bodies rot. The man who sits quietly in a shuttered room is likely to be… tortured by hallucinations and introspection.”

For Chatwin, the lifestyle of by pastoral nomads can offer a powerful example of how we might live better — although it remains to be seen how people raised in industrial modernity might best incorporate “nomadic” elements into their own lifestyle. Chatwin spent a significant part of his adult life trying and failing to write a book explaining his theories: Before he wrote In Patagonia, he drafted a book that was dismissed by his editor as “a chore to read.” Ultimately, it was only with The Songlines that Chatwin would succeed in setting down these theories in any detail — albeit in a way that is often rough, obviously unsystematic, and explicitly diaristic.

When Herzog calls Chatwin “the internet,” the explicit surface-level context is that his writing served to link certain otherwise disparate and unconnected things, that it in some sense served to unify the world. This might be true, especially given the globalist expanse of Chatwin’s fiction. But it’s also a bit trite image; after all, the internet hardly serves only to unite but also to divide. As Dril knows, the internet is an often needlessly confrontational place, where telling someone to “log off” often only serves to make their opinions worse. Chatwin’s nomadism preaches wandering as a way not only of seeing the world, but of outpacing ourselves. By contrast the internet is something that exists in the phones we take with us everywhere; social media is a bubble we can never escape, a space we are always forced somehow to be attached to.

On further consideration of the themes of Herzog’s documentary, however, a deeper understanding can emerge of what Chatwin’s ostensible internet-beingness might consist in. For instance, it is mentioned later on in Herzog’s conversation with Shakespeare that Chatwin was an exceptionally gifted mimic; that within his one person he could indeed seem to contain all the characters he had ever met. Meanwhile, in an interview with Chatwin’s widow Elizabeth, Herzog reminisces about Chatwin’s unique voice:

“He wanted conversation, he was into speech, as if by manic compulsion. To me, it was as if he was speaking to push his untimely death away.”

To which Elizabeth adds:

“He was always talking, talking... oh, (his laughter), his shrieks... I mean he would go to a party and walk in, with me trailing behind, and... immediately he was surrounded... with people who wanted to talk to him.”

The compulsion to speak is, of course, a key component of the online way of being. But perhaps there are still deeper layers to the internet-likeness of Chatwin’s voice. “He’d go into the house already talking,” says Shakespeare. In this, Chatwin’s voice can seem analogous to the rush of content that social media exposes us to every day, that we often struggle to in any way really understand. Herzog likens conversations with Chatwin to being like a “marathon,” and literally describes taking a nap in between anecdote sessions because he found talking with Chatwin so absorbing — and so exhausting.

Chatwin also had a notoriously liberal relationship with “the truth.” This indeed is one of the aspects of Chatwin’s work with which Herzog feels the deepest kindred. In Chatwin’s “non-fiction” works like In Patagonia and The Songlines, he was often related events that did not in fact happen, or embellishedanthropological details to make them fit his theories more closely. Of this, Herzog says:

“Bruce... would take facts but he would modify them, so that they would resemble more truth than reality.”

In this, Chatwin can be understood to have influenced Herzog’s theory of “ecstatic truth” in filmmaking: that documentary makers can draw out the deeper truth behind things by representing them in ways that are in some sense incorrect or exaggerated.

In Chatwin’s person, we have an image of the internet not as it is, but as it could be.

Distorting the truth is something that the internet does in generous quantities. Notoriously, the use of social media by the Trump and Brexit campaigns is supposed to have ushered in an era of “post-truth politics” in which politicians feel no particular compulsion to stick to the facts and viral news articles are often not what they seem. Meanwhile, “deepfake” technology is able to manipulate videos to make basically anyone seem like they are doing basically anything, with one deepfake artist recently speculating that “perfectly real” manipulated videos may be only six months away. The difference is that these various online augmentations and ignorings of factual reality rarely seem to have any higher artistic or philosophical purpose — beyond, I suppose, helping to further undermine trust in our media and democratic institutions.

Herzog’s declaration that Chatwin “was the internet” can thus be understood as an essentially utopian claim. In Chatwin, we have an image of the internet not as it is, but as it could be — a place where the voices we encounter are not the droning, hostile bores who will often flood one’s mentions, making the same bad joke or repeating the same stupid point, but unique characters we are transformed through the experience of meeting; where the rush of content we are exposed to is not an infuriating, bewildering torrent we can’t possibly hope to understand, but the enlightening discourse of a fascinating, brilliant friend. Where reality is distorted not in the interests of those in power, but enriched with fantasy to the benefit of all. Where our horizons are unbounded, and we can be taken beyond even the fixed point of ourselves.

Chatwin was the internet if we imagine that the internet could be a better version of itself; that it could meet a certain ideal that may well have existed, whether explicitly or in some Platonic heaven, when it was invented was just a few short months after Chatwin’s death, but with which any regular internet user must have long-since grown disillusioned. Dril, by contrast, is a great realist: he gives us the internet as it appears.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.