Departments

Small worlds

When I visited cities as a child, there would always be a moment, usually when I first came into sight of a block of apartments, when I would feel a mixture of panic and vertigo—horror. Ten thousand people could live in there! Ten thousand! More people than I could ever know in one lifetime or a dozen. More names, even, than I could ever know. Why should the world even include so many people? Wouldn't a more limited quantity suffice?

Were there even ten thousand kinds of people? How many were repeats? How many were redundant? That was a horrible thought: that most of the human race has no individual reason to exist and exists only to fill out the numbers for the workings of a smaller, real world. The converse thought was worse: ten thousand people and every one an end in themselves—every single one enough to justify the existence of the whole species—so that with just one brief look out the side of a van racing past, I encountered a world absolutely worth knowing ten thousand times over and ten thousand times over impossible to know.

Thus despite a love of the arts, my first ambitions were all scientific: I wanted, like Avicenna's God, to compass a universe of particulars by knowing universals.

And there are six billion people in the world!

We have tricks to evade large numbers of things; but they fail us with people. Six billion fish or flowers we know how to divide to conquer, cutting out bite sizes with the sharp 7±2 we're born with. But we cannot use the same trick with people. True, we have a neurological constant for numbers of people, about 200, the psychologists' cohort; but that is a limit in simultaneity for a single group: we can belong to multiple groups, and we do not cease hearing new names, seeing new faces. No one so old or so nobly busy as to forgivably say: "I know too many people; let me meet no more."

How, then, to evade the vertigo of living in a world of six billion people? But no one lives in that world. The evasion is qualitative. We make our own worlds, our own small, manageable worlds: family, friends, faces that dwarf crowds. In the foreground, your world comprises people significant in your personal history or netted by your routine; in the background, those made (note the etymon) familiar by news or entertainment, by admiration or reputation.

Small worlds vary in two dimensions: whether they are closed or open, and whether they face inward or outward. In a closed world, role and person are identical; in an open world, the cast changes. (But note that the distinction of role and player is never absolute: there is always a dialectic.) In an outward-facing world, the population screen each other from society; in an inward-facing world, the population are the eyes of society on each other.

Of the four possible combinations the two most easily understood are the closed & outward-facing world (the most historically common, and perhaps the only one possible outside of towns and cities) and the open & inward-facing (the world of the social networker, where direct ties are always weaker than abstract commitments. The others have never distinguished whole societies, but are always present. The close & inward-facing world is the world of the cadre, the team, the colony; the open & outward-facing is the world of the movement, the religion, the institution, and the corporation.

Of course, one can live in different worlds in sequence; but only one at a time. I would say that you must choose, but the choice will probably be made for you. You were born into one kind of world; and you are unlikely to move from one to another except at some socially oiled articulation of the lifespan.

The world is now, and has always been, beyond comprehension, and beyond recognition, beyond reach. We do not have the choice to know the world. We have only three choices: to hide from the world, filtering it through stereotype and prejudice; to dilute ourselves in the world, pictures of a monstrous and centerless sanity; or to trust that the extremities of the particular and the universal touch—to trust that human nature is best read in a human being's nature, that human diversity is mirrored in a human being's variety, and that the beginning of human kindness is kindness to a human being.

To say simply that we should first love all, even our enemies, presupposes that it is easy to love our friends; but it is not so. The mind is full of passionate poisons, resentment and shortsightedness, which work to confuse us. How many keep a leashed civility with their enemies who love with snarls and teeth? How many who pity the unfortunate stranger are shamed by and despise the weakness of their own? How many take the implications of envy over the bond of blood? How many fear more to be thought by strangers to love too well or too openly—to be weak or soft or fond—than to be thought by loved ones not to love, or to love less?

All this sounds very bourgeois, very gemütlich. Certainly it is neither classical nor modern: it does not stipulate Virtue or Community. These are both real, and both necessary; but to be necessary is not to be primary. To credit Virtue implies that you are what you say you are; to credit Community implies that you are what others say you are. If both are fundamental, both could not be true; but both are true—there are great men and timely men, and some who are both—which means that both are capacities, not states and not things; that both ways of living in the one world presuppose the life of a world that, like a lens, curved one way, sheds your light and, curved the other way, concentrates light onto you. But the lens is required: a small world, representing and answering the animal and human conditions of life, spares you the freedom, clothes you enough, to move in the great world.