24 Sep

Life in a Muddle

Posted By Politybooks

By Tim Ingold

I could not have known, as I composed the miniature essays assembled in Correspondences, what troubles this year would bring. I didn’t even know, while putting the finishing touches to the text in the days leading up to last Christmas, that the mysterious fever I had suddenly contracted, accompanied by a dry cough, was caused by a virus that would go on to kill close to a million people around the world, and counting. Nor did my fortuitous and, at the time, inexplicable discovery that I couldn’t smell anything, even when I had accidentally left the gas on in the kitchen, prevent me from sending off the manuscript, done and dusted, in mid-January. I was lucky, and made a quick recovery. Yet over the subsequent nine months, the world has been given such a jolt that looking back over my correspondences today, they seem to glimmer like beacons from another age. As you, my readers, come to these essays for the first time, I wonder whether they will beckon to you likewise?  

It is inevitable that the experience of the pandemic will be at the back of your minds. Right now, it is at the back of everyone’s mind. Had I been completing the book now, rather than nine months ago, I would doubtless have been expected to include some reflections on the topic. So what would I have written? What words of wisdom might I have had to offer? None, really. I am as confused and anxious as anyone, not to say irritated by the prognostications of academics who profess, almost overnight, to have become experts on the subject. I would however raise one question, since it goes to the heart of what Correspondences is about. We are repeatedly told, by government and policymakers, that we are suspended for a period in the interval between a pre-pandemic past and a post-pandemic future. The challenge is to make it across. But what if the interval were not a gap to be crossed in time but a milieu to be inhabited for as long as life goes on?

I hope as fervently as anyone that science will ride to the rescue with a cure or vaccine for Covid-19. It cannot come soon enough. But in the meantime, we muddle along. Come to that, we were muddling along before this latest affliction arrived on our doorstep, and we’ll no doubt be muddling along for ever after. ‘Muddling’, indeed, is as good a word as any to describe what it means to inhabit the interval. Literally, to muddle is to root around or dabble in the mud. Wedged betwixt sky and earth, mud is the rain-soaked, wind-dried or sun-cracked soil that sticks to your boots and carries the imprint of your steps. It offers no firm foundation on which to build, and can slide with devastating consequences. But as the Ancient Egyptians knew, in their veneration of the hippopotamus, it is also from mud that everything grows. It holds the key to the regeneration of life. So to muddle along is to be in touch with life or even, like the hippo, to wallow in it.  

If there is any consolation to be had in these pages, it is that there is more to life than shooting at targets. To those who go on about the ‘end-game’, or resort to the military metaphor of conquering an invisible foe, let us answer that life is not a game, nor do we want it to end. We want to correspond with people, with things, with the earth, despite all the toil and trouble they bring. We want to live in the moment. This doesn’t mean being stuck in a halfway house of the present, between past and future. It means responding to more enduring rhythms of time, joining with wind and weather, with the seasonal growth of plants and the comings and goings of animals. Muddling along in the interval, we don’t see a future heading towards us but one that extends as far as we can see. It moves as we do. We’ll never get there. But so long as we can on keep going, there is reason for hope.

Tim Ingold is Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, and a Fellow of both the British Academy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His book, Correspondences, is available from October 2nd in Europe and November 27th in North America.