Like 465,000 other people, I follow Douglas Coupland on Twitter. I like his writing. He remains best known for his first novel Generation X (1991), and I figure I have read at least seven of his novels and non-fiction works. Apart from his writing he is also an artist and a designer, and I appreciated his 2014 exhibit everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything at the Vancouver Art Gallery. In 2011 I attended an exhibit, also at the Vancouver Art Gallery, where he was one of three artists who engaged with Emily Carr. Coupland supports the Terry Fox Foundation and wrote The Book on that great Canadian. He is thoughtful, funny, creative, and a good observer of modern society. He’s a good guy.
On January 25 of this year (2017) he offered this tweet:
As you can see, 275 people “liked”this post, 55 retweeted it, and 182 responded. Many of the responses were comments thanking him for his writing; Many more were invitations for coffee and dinner from all over the world. People were reaching out and offering care. My reply was this:
If you follow the link it takes you to the pet adoption page of the Vancouver branch of the BC SPCA. This probably reflects more about me than any need on the part of Coupland, as my dog died in the beginning of December, so I am feeling a little lonely as well.
Honestly, my first reaction was uncertainty. Was this Coupland speaking in his own voice? Was this some kind of quotation from a character in one of his novels, representing the zeitgeist of our technological era? I wasn’t sure, but I took it at face value and replied as I did. I’ll assume that Coupland read my reply, but I have no idea if he followed the link, much less got a pet (for all I know he already has two dogs, three cats, a parakeet, and a breeding pair of Vancouver Island marmots).
Today Coupland posted this:
The link leads you to a column that he writes for the Financial Times. The article is a personal essay about identity in general and his in particular. He starts by saying that he once identified himself as “Moi” which an American did not understand and asked “Who is this Moy?”. He writes in the article, “Hi. I’m Moy and I never write about myself,” and then proceeds to write about himself, more or less for the first time in thirty-five years of publishing. The autobiographical, confessional style of Augustine never appealed to him before, but he felt moved to do so in this short column. He writes about his ambivalence about fame, and giving interviews, and change. Towards the end he writes that he became single six months ago after twenty years of being in a relationship. This created a sense of isolation and loneliness which was not helped by new technology. He writes:
The past half year has been a series of nothing but crises for me, one after the other, and that’s life, so I’m not complaining. But what has surprised me is that the past half year has left me unsure if I believe in God and I wasn’t expecting that. All of us want the universe to be more than a cold dark void filled with frozen planets, dark matter and space junk. It has to be. To this end I felt the need to howl out into The Void, and so a few days back around 11am Pacific time I put a tweet on Twitter saying: “Dear God. I am so lonely.” I did this because I genuinely am so lonely — and also because sometimes we all need to howl.
What is nice is that The Void howled back, and The Void is not a void. I may be unsure about God but The Void is all of those Moys out there who wrote back to me, Moys who insist our lives have meaning, all those Moys who want you — me — and all of us to know that we are all real and that we will all, in some way, live for ever. And I wasn’t expecting that.
This got my attention. When a keen observer of modern society muses about God, as Coupland has, I tend to yake note. But he’s also commenting on how “The Void” – how some of the people following him on Twitter – replied with compassion and care.
To today’s twitter post I replied:
Twitter doesn’t allow for expansive explanations, so let me do that here.
Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) was a philosopher born in Lithuania under the Russian Empire and moved to France for university, where he became a naturalized citizen, and eventually a professor at the Sorbonne. He wrote two major books, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (1961) and Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (1974). He argues that philosophy needs to start with ethics, instead of the usual entry points of epistemology, or metaphysics, or theories of being. Levinas describes the self as being in an asymmetrical relation with others. He makes it very personal – I, who am sitting here, have a an ethical obligation towards you, whose “face” is before me. I may respect that obligation and act, or I may choose not to, but the action that flows has an ethical nature. Levinas believes that this obligation is infinite, because the face of the other transcends my ability to know it. It has a profound height that creates a sense of awe, and a demand for a reply.
When Copeland posted his first tweet about being lonely it was addressed to God in form, but was communicated to his followers on Twitter. They felt compassion and an inclination to respond. This is really interesting, because none of these people presumably had any “need” to do so. I suspect that most of them do not know Coupland personally, but they heard a cry for help and they responded with, “Here I am”, inviting him for company and fellowship. And clearly it met a need that Coupland felt. He howled into the Void (shades of Ginsburg!) and the Void howled back with meaning (echoes of creation, the תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ there, whether intended or not).
Is there a God? Levinas was an Orthodox Jew, but he was the type that looked upon the mystical with suspicion. Following Kant and others he did not believe that one could prove the existence of God. Following his old teacher Heidegger (from whom he diverged and critiqued significantly) he questioned onto-theology, which sees God as Being itself and/or some kind of supernatural existant. In terms of philosophy Levinas believed that the only place one can rationally discuss the divine is in terms of the height of the other with respect to the self, the infinite incomprehensibility of the other which evokes an ethical response when needs are disclosed. Thus his statement in Totality and Infinity (p. 78): “The dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face.” If you want to understand God we could begin with metaphysics, or epistemology, or one could instead just look into the face of another. What people experienced in responding to Coupland was that experience of the holy. Coupland is not divine, but our sense of needing to reply to his needs at that moment was holy.
As the prophet Micah said 2700 years ago, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” or as James said 750 years later, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress”. Experiencing the divine can be as simple as holding the door for another, and it may be as complicated as sponsoring a refugee from Syria – or it may be a response to a tweet, as a self hearing a cry of loneliness. We can call it ethics, but if we believe Levinas, it is the trace of God in the world.