This piece is from 1843, our sister magazine of ideas, lifestyle and culture.
IN APRIL I was supposed to be in New York for the American launch of my new book, whose subject, you may be amused to learn, is apocalyptic anxiety. Obviously I didn’t go to New York. But I did have a book launch of sorts, in the form of a Zoom webinar hosted by the bookstore where the irl event had been scheduled to take place.
So one evening I sat in my living room in Dublin, while an editor I work with at an American magazine sat in his living room in Brooklyn, and we both drank our beers while having as free-flowing a conversation as the situation permitted. The event was deemed a success, given the circumstances. But it was hard not to experience a Zoom webinar as a somewhat flat and dispiriting substitute for a real gathering, in just the same way that everything these days seems a flat and dispiriting substitute for real life.
After the live-stream ended, I was sitting in front of my laptop with most of a beer to finish. I felt a nervous energy coursing through me but had nowhere to go. So I went onto Google Maps and parachuted into the exact location I should have been that evening using the little yellow flailing man that summons up Street View, Google’s immersive photographic panoramas of the world’s roads.
All of a sudden I was on Flatbush Avenue. It was a bright summer’s day and there was traffic on the street – school buses and delivery trucks, vans and yellow cabs. I could almost feel the heat coming off the pavement as I drifted insubstantially northward towards Prospect Park, ghosting through oncoming cars and ups trucks, idly looking out for a bar where we might have gone for drinks once the launch wound down.
I opened another beer, and as the night deepened into early morning I found myself returning to places I remembered from previous trips to New York, places I would have revisited had I been there now. I wandered around the Meatpacking District, trying to find the spot where, on my first trip to the city 20 years ago, a friend and I, after leaving a party, happened across an abandoned sofa on a pier, which we sat on while smoking a joint and looking out over the Hudson river as the sun came up. I made my way towards Chelsea, but couldn’t find the pier, and wasn’t sure I would have recognised the place anyway, not without the abandoned sofa.
In the following days, I found myself returning to Google Street View, haunting the digitised landscape of my memory. It was an exercise in nostalgia, obviously, but it was something else too. I was entering a kind of crude, 3d rendering of the way the world used to be, open and accessible and alive. All those people out in their shirt sleeves, their faces algorithmically blurred but unmasked, all those cars and vans and trucks hustling people and goods from one place to another. In the next few days, when I should have been in New York, I kept returning at odd moments to the Street View version of the city, re-enacting walks I had once taken, exploring neighbourhoods I half-remembered from previous trips, wandering through the mists of memory.
It struck me that I was engaged in a pale online imitation of a habit I have cultivated when travelling. Whenever I return to somewhere I haven’t been to in years, it has long been my custom to return to places I have visited before and whose memory persists. Like all the best pleasures, my satisfaction is elevated by an element of shame. Isn’t travel supposed to be about new things, new places, about annexing unexplored realms to the empire of personal experience? What a ridiculous thing to do, when you think about it, to return to Amsterdam or Los Angeles or Berlin or Milan and, instead of finding fresh parts of the city to encounter, to set a course straight for the one place you remember from the last time you were there.
“YOU ARE NOT VISITING A PLACE YOU REMEMBER FROM YOUR PAST; YOU ARE VISITING THE PAST ITSELF AND A YOUNGER INCARNATION OF YOURSELF”
When I was writing my first book, a non-fiction account of the transhumanist movement in Silicon Valley, I made a number of trips to San Francisco. I had spent some time there in my late teens and early 20s – my grandmother was from there and I still had family in the city. Whenever I had time free from researching my book, I would hunt down the places I remembered from previous visits. Amoeba Records on Haight Street, the City Lights bookstore in Chinatown and the nearby Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, which has a clock tower inscribed with a biblical quotation that had always haunted me: “Son, Observe the Time and Fly from Evil”.
The appeal of this has, in one sense, less to do with any special quality of the location per se than with the vertiginous thrill of time folding in on itself. You are not visiting a place you remember from your past; you are visiting the past itself and a younger incarnation of yourself. In another sense, though, the impulse to loiter in old haunts feeds off a tension inherent in travel between the desire to discover unpredictable and exciting things and the desire to take some ownership over a place – to forge a connection between the foreign and the familiar.
One of the strangest aspects of life in our new viral reality is the relentless sameness of every day. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think at least once of Estragon’s line in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!” In life, as in theatre, things happen in the form of people coming and going, and one of the great pleasures of travel is that it creates a sense of plot. Right now, like most of us, I am going nowhere. Not only can I not go to New York, I can’t even go to the other side of Dublin. There is no coming, no going, no event of any kind.
But there is a sense in which I have, in fact, been able to travel. Within the five-kilometre radius around my home, to which I was confined for a number of weeks, I began consciously to explore an area I have lived in for most of my life. Taking advantage of the reduced traffic on Dublin’s roads, I cycled around the quietened landscape of the city.
I live close to Phoenix Park, a huge inner-city park with long tree-lined avenues, large wooded areas, lakes and wild deer. Before the virus struck, I had never ventured very far into it. I had gone there mostly to visit the zoo or one of the playgrounds with my kids, or for a brief run on one of its peripheral pathways. Now, almost every day, I cycle around the park, discovering regions of its sprawling interior I’d previously left untouched. There are ponds and streams I had never seen before, paths I never knew existed, a large but unremarkable house I had not known Winston Churchill lived in as a child.
Recently, having read in the Irish Times about a small dolmen, a stone tomb that had been hidden away on the far side of the park since the Bronze Age, my family and I went in search of it and eventually found it in an area whose existence we were previously unaware of. Granted, it wasn’t exactly the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. It was small enough for my children to sit on like a bench, and unremarkable enough that we would have passed by without noticing it had we not been looking out for it. But it was worth seeing, and the pleasure, in any case, was in finding it.
This strikes me as a strange inversion of my old compulsion, when travelling, to return to places remembered from previous visits. I have become something like a tourist in my own neighbourhood, finding the unexpected in the familiar. The place I live in feels uncannily new, the streets and buildings different now, as though I am seeing them for the first time. Sometimes it feels as though I am in a city I remember from a dream I thought I’d forgotten. Maybe I’ll miss that strangeness too, when the bustle returns.
I do miss the world beyond my radius: the old world, where I could visit foreign cities and retrace my steps to familiar places. But I have learned, in the meantime, to look for the foreign in the familiar. And I have learned that you don’t have to go very far in order to find it. You don’t even have to leave your neighbourhood.■
Mark O’Connellis the author of “Notes from an Apocalypse”