“And that, my friends, wraps up the Arnolfinis, all six of them, and none younger than 55. They are so close to extinction now, that if you Google them, you will only come up with the art gallery in Bristol and a great deal of comment on the famous double portrait, some of which centres on the controversy of whether it depicts an Arnolfini marriage at all or that of Van-Eyck himself. This six-hundred-year catalogue of failed relationships and sterility explains why Benjamin Arnolfini has spent the last forty years desperately trying to impregnate anyone with the right complement of limbs.”
He lied. Not all babies look like Sir Winston Churchill. The one on my lap is definitely beautiful, very fine-featured and delicate. At just seven months, she already has that arch-browed, otherworldly look the Arnolfini survivors wear like a cloak to protect them from the harsh gaze of a pitiless posterity. But in Angelica Valentina Laetitia (born 14th February 2013, hence the second name, the third is to placate her great aunt, the only one in the family with any serious money), the characteristic spiritual aura is coupled with something so lively and intense, so ready to giggle as to inspire genuine confidence in the future of this line whose entire dynastic hopes are now centred in this one, angelic child. Of course, the other Arnolfinis, those crusty remnants of past glory, would have all preferred a son to preserve the name. But, as Beano insisted last night over very belated celebratory cigars on my terrace: “She’s not their baby! They all had enough bloody opportunities to get it right. My uncle Ludo has had nearly as many wives as Henry VIII. Why should Diana be expected to produce male heirs for a family so incompetent at reproduction that it now totals only half a dozen members after six centuries of vigorously poking the fire?”
That “the fire” has been most vigorously “poked” by Benjamin is a certainty. His most active years were spent behind the wheel of any number of draughty sports cars, usually bright red, in mainly successful attempts to capture the attention of a veritable almanac of suitable conquests, none of whom proved receptive to the Arnolfini chromosome. But that was before he met and even married Diana, snatching her in the nick of time from the padded paws of the highly eligible Podger, MP. And now here is their darling offspring, a family’s latest shot at perpetuity, wriggling around in my arms to try and pull off my reading glasses.
How strange life is, I find myself thinking. The only person in the world who thinks of me as “me” is me
. When I am no longer here, there will be no “I” anymore. Right now this “me” is experiencing the presence of another “me” who has not yet defined herself much beyond her most basic needs, whose journey towards identity is just beginning as her awareness of self develops. Soon enough, her own particular version of this “self and other” paradigm will have irrevocably shaped her mind. Does her beautiful mum – who, by the way, is sitting a few yards away, chatting with Mme Harker in the most delightfully broken schoolgirl French with a Welsh accent – fully understand that she probably occupies almost four fifths of her daughter’s consciousness? Soon this will change. Within a week or two, Angelica will start to show signs of panic if her mother leaves the room, as she begins to internalize the distinction between herself and the woman who brought her into the world. Seven months is about when that realization really kicks in.
Essentially, all the problems life throws at us, as well as all the solutions, stem from this single root of identity, this sense of being unique. Without it, neither selfishness nor selflessness, neither integration nor alienation, neither love nor hatred are possible. Empathy, sympathy, seduction and rejection … everything we do and everything we are that can be considered an inherent part of our humanity, even of our existence as a higher social species on a par with dolphins, great apes, meerkats, horses, rabbits or elephants, reflects this single truth: I am “me”, you are “you”, we are not “one”, though we sometimes touch oneness, neither can we ever be “the same”. Yet the best of us will spend our lives endeavouring to become more cohesive, mutually coherent, more firmly united; striving to maintain our various tribes, families, companies, institutions or cliques in the face of outside attrition and the depredations of time, distance, chance and a harsh economy.
Prior to 1844 and the invention of the telegraph, this creation and preservation of individual identity was a limited and mostly private affair. We left the room, like Darcy, and were gone, leaving others to fret about whether or not we even noticed them in that brief moment of potential intimacy. We wrote letters to express our inner thoughts and imprint them upon the “other”, letters that we entrusted to the vagaries of foreign postal systems. Nowadays, our identity, our essential “me”-ness, spreads in a vast and seamless web across continents and time zones. It is stored on servers and in clouds. It takes on form in tiny packages of electronic business, hastening at light-speed to a thousand destinations simultaneously. Our sense of self has become almost godlike in its scale; in the way it can impose our imprint, our image, our demands and our rules at a distance. It has become, at least potentially, a fully equipped avatar of the “you” that is you and the “me” that is me, enshrining all we know we are and probably a great deal that we do not actively know or really possess. This latter – the metadata of our behaviours and relationships, information on our states of mind, health, or wealth – can be accessed from anywhere by almost anyone unless we are very careful. No one needs to threaten to slit our fragile physical envelope open to get at it. No one needs to constrain or coerce us. Cunning alone and sufficient know-how, coupled with the right tools, will always suffice. We have become gods, yes maybe, but gods with porous borders and feet of clay, more perfect and perfectible, yet more corruptible and corrupting than we ever were.
As that which we know
and that which we do
becomes less and less distinguishable from the physical and temporal person we are
, the advent of fingerprint scanning technology to protect our privacy begins to look essential as well as long overdue. Such technologies as are just now appearing on the latest iPhone will usefully protect our hardware and its contents from theft, but the stable door is being locked long after the mare has bolted. Apple has placed a sentry at the tiny little wicket gate we hold in our hand, yet cannot ensure the security of the vast, virtual megapolis that lies behind it, a city whose portals are not all so well guarded and may even now be in the hands of the enemy … who, paradoxically, is us.
Because although vast resources are indeed deployed by governments and multinationals to exploit our meta-data as a means to predict and control our spending, our allegiances, our cultural life, even our emotions, yet far greater resources are being invested by each individual in the incremental seeding of hyperspace with our meta-sperm and meta-ovaries, our virtual pheromones and our cyber-DNA. We are becoming our own deus ex machina
. We are spreading ourselves so thinly here, that like the biblical Jehovah, who once walked and talked with his favoured prophets prior to withdrawing from the world of men to express his will only through his avatars, we risk disappearing altogether if we absent our physical intervention from the course of history. The science of quantum metrics tells us that the more we know about an object’s motion, the less we know about its exact location and, in corollary, the more we know about its exact location, the less we know about its motion. Similarly, we humans are in danger of becoming so ubiquitous as to lose all definition. We may make our “selves” as omnipresent as paint, only to end up being treated like wallpaper.
But there are many who say we should not fear. This is merely a phase of transformation. The civilization that is ultimately being midwifed by this new technology will be a meta-civilization. It will be free of crime, including identity theft, insofar as privacy and its pretended virtues, all the constraints of self and property, will cease to be of importance. We shall ultimately become a hive, no longer seeking to develop or preserve our personal boundaries, but entirely caught up in the aims and dreams of the public mind. Babies will no longer cry when mummy leaves the room. We will all be mother, we will never be alone. There will be no more “me” who is “all-the-me-I-know”. There will only be us. And although, in the nature of all things, our mortal unit will die, nothing, but nothing will ever be lost. We shall endure forever in the eternal now of our new reality. We shall be part of a pan-dimensional, boundless soul that will not even require religion to sustain it, for it will be our own spotless creation, nurtured by our own shining technology.
However, it is not the goal that scares me. It is the journey. I can see worlds of pain and depravity, seas of manipulation and exploitation between here and there. And even when my meta-self is entirely absorbed into the great “us”, the great United State (singular) of All, what will happen to that tiny flame of transcendent desire first kindled in my mother’s womb? Will the “road less taken” become impassable, so overgrown with thorns and briars until that other being – my individual, inalienable and indivisible soul, as created by the great Maker – is left deserted, an orphan in another country, to cry in the dark for ever and ever and ever?
Enough of such musing: Angelika is beginning to fret. Gently I hand the latest of the Arnolfinis, with all twenty finger and toe-prints, back to her proud mama and reach for the large pack of Plain Chocolate Digestives that Beano and Diana have so thoughtfully brought over with them. Ah, the pleasures of the flesh!
© Edwin Drood
, September 2013
PS: For those of you who care and knew him, my uncle, Haviland Drood QC (see Edwin Drood's Column, 11 June 2013
), passed quietly from this realm of being last Friday (the 13th, how appropriate). He left all his worldly possessions to an as yet nameless foundation for cryptological history. His obituary in The Times
this morning described him as a “great traveller and seasoned observer of his era” a man of “deep allegiances cloaked in the guise of insouciance” who had “successfully avoided a knighthood for the last seven decades”. As far as I can tell, all the rest was fiction. This Christmas Eve, Haviland would have turned 101, thus overstaying his own declared rendezvous with the reaper by nearly nine months … enough time to gestate a strategy for indefinite retirement. I imagine the whisky and cigars ran out before he did. I already miss him more than I thought I would.
Other chapters of the Arnolfini Saga can be found
in previous editions of Edwin Drood's Column:
Lock up your daughters, parts 1 - 3
Too many chiefs, no little Indians
The marriage of the Arnolfinis, part 1
The marriage of the Arnolfinis, part 2
Illustration: photo by © David John