When I was in England recently I ate a lot of sponge cake, because that is what they do there. And when I returned, I missed the sponge cake, and was overcome with warm feelings of nostalgia for having tea with my grandma. I resolved, therefore, to make a Victoria sandwich, and then to eat it.
I am not a baker. I am not a cook. I am not a person who can do much more than defrost a premade burrito, and I don’t even do that well. I am also, however, a very determined person, and once it gets into my head that a cake must be made and will be good, then a cake will be made. Unfortunately, when they say that baking is a science rather than an art, they are quite right, and my first attempt at a Victoria sandwich ended in the production of two flat discs with both the texture and the taste of Frisbees.
I am undeterred. Cake #2 is in the oven as I write, undoubtedly rising magnificently. I have a pot of jam waiting to be used as the filling, and a small bowl of buttercream frosting that actually looks like buttercream frosting. (Frosting #1 had an alarming greenish hue.)
I don’t often attempt to make food, but I should do it more, because every time I do I get a heavy case of the Childlike Wonders. Mostly about eggs. God, they really are something, aren’t they? Just look at their parts:
What an elegant piece of work the egg is. What a good job the chalaza does at suspending the yolk in the center of the albumen. (I just learned what a chalaza is and I am very impressed with it.) And the things they can make! Meringues! Quiches! Omelettes! Huevos rancheros! All from the moist cloaca of the humble barnyard chicken. So versatile, that egg, and so delicious. (Industry group the American Egg Board hosts a propaganda website called The Incredible Egg that contains many impressive facts and encourages people to eat as many eggs as possible. As you peruse, please do your best to remember all the chickens that are tortured and killed in the process.)
Actually, I have only really developed my childlike wonder as an adult. When I was small, eggs bored me. Everything bored me. I remember constantly being in search of things to do, and never being satisfied. Since then, I have realized how utterly fascinating and magical every single object, person, place, and sensation in the world is, and nowadays I could spend an hour staring at a bottle of dish soap and not stop being mesmerized. (My colleague Cate brought me a tiny potted succulent recently and I wanted to gaze at it for hours.)
There was a moment in my childhood, as there may have been in yours, when I became disappointed that magic wasn’t real. The laws of the physical universe seemed to hold absolutely, and that was a shame. Wouldn’t it be nice if magic of the wand-waving and talking-animal kind was real?
Maybe it would be, but thinking that way eventually came to seem like the most ludicrous form of ingratitude. The miracle of life isn’t enough for you? The existence of elephants isn’t sufficiently fascinating? They have to talk as well? Wishing the world to be more magical than it already is felt downright lazy. We can do magical things, after all. We can fly! It just took a lot of thinking and effort in order to figure out the secret. What else can we do? We don’t know. It requires investigation, curiosity, imagination. If you thought the secrets of the universe would just be handed to you, you would be mistaken.
I feel a little bit like I have been handed a cursed gift, granted a wish with a catch. You will never be bored by anything ever again. Unfortunately, you will also be unable to stop thinking about things, and the world will seem strange and terrifying to you, and all of the things that were once perfectly ordinary will become unfathomable.
For this, I blame Chomsky, who encourages people to look at Earth from the perspective of a Martian who doesn’t take anything for granted. When you do that, when you see this as an alien planet you have crash landed upon rather than just the boring old World you’ve lived in since birth, several things happen. First, human conflict begins to appear downright ridiculous, and humans seem insufficiently awed by the fact that they inhabit a Garden of Eden in the middle of countless lightyears of barren cosmic wasteland. Second, things that seemed quite mundane are suddenly very exciting. Supply chains, for instance: the endless amount of coordinating it takes to get the stuff necessary to make the rest of the stuff. The lives of pigeons, the chemical properties of food, the patterns of the climate, the physics of bouncing balls, the engineering marvel of bridges, the biology of my little succulent. Everything is so fascinating that the real difficulty is not what to think about or do, but where to start.
You may well be familiar with the studies showing that most people think they know how toilets and zippers work, or how the basic parts of a bicycle are arranged, but when we are challenged, it turns out we’re thumpingly ignorant and can’t actually explain it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing or proof that we’re “stupid,” because in fact knowledge is just distributed across the community and we all learn the things that we need know. But it does show that we’re not very curious and we take for granted thousands of things whose origins and workings we do not understand or wonder about. Every item in my office was made by people, but I couldn’t tell you who they are or where they made it.
The fact that there is so much to know, that there are millions of books to be read and no time to read them, is what makes me hate politics. I do not enjoy thinking about or writing about politics. It feels “obligatory,” something that must be done in order to get to the “good stuff” like learning gardening and history and astronomy. The fact that human societies have managed to despoil our garden, and people suffer because we are incapable of fulfilling the basic first duty of providing a decent life for everyone, makes it morally necessary to get involved in politics. But I’d much rather learn how to paint or sample a million cheeses than have to solve problems that shouldn’t exist in the first place.
I am for a “luxury leftism,” but you can only really justify frittering away your time if other people aren’t suffering. And it’s absurd to start raving about how people should look more at eggs, or pick flowers, if they are occupied with far more immediate concerns like paying the rent or feeding their children. We need socialism so that we can justify spending our time in wonder and contemplation.
(Quickly: an update on Cake #2. It, too, was calamitous. It did not rise magnificently. Or at all. I am undeterred.)
There’s an excellent passage in George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air that shows this same process of feeling wonder then being reminded of the material reality of people’s lives:
Farther down the hedge the pool was covered with duck-weed, so like a carpet that if you didn’t know what duck-weed was you might think it was solid and step on it. I wondered why it is that we’re all such bloody fools. Why don’t people, instead of the idiocies they do spend their time on, just walk round LOOKING at things? That pool, for instance—all the stuff that’s in it. Newts, water-snails, water-beetles, caddis-flies, leeches, and God knows how many other things that you can only see with a microscope. The mystery of their lives, down there under water. You could spend a lifetime watching them, ten lifetimes, and still you wouldn’t have got to the end even of that one pool. And all the while the sort of feeling of wonder, the peculiar flame inside you. It’s the only thing worth having, and we don’t want it.
But I do want it. At least I thought so at that moment. And don’t mistake what I’m saying. To begin with, unlike most Cockneys, I’m not soppy about ‘the country’. I was brought up a damn sight too near to it for that. I don’t want to stop people living in towns, or in suburbs for that matter. Let ’em live where they like. And I’m not suggesting that the whole of humanity could spend the whole of their lives wandering round picking primroses and so forth. I know perfectly well that we’ve got to work. It’s only because chaps are coughing their lungs out in mines and girls are hammering at typewriters that anyone ever has time to pick a flower. Besides, if you hadn’t a full belly and a warm house you wouldn’t want to pick flowers. But that’s not the point. Here’s this feeling that I get inside me—not often, I admit, but now and again. I know it’s a good feeling to have. What’s more, so does everybody else, or nearly everybody. It’s just round the corner all the time, and we all know it’s there. Stop firing that machine-gun! Stop chasing whatever you’re chasing! Calm down, get your breath back, let a bit of peace seep into your bones. No use. We don’t do it. Just keep on with the same bloody fooleries.
There’s one argument I sometimes hear that I have never understood. If we eliminated work, someone will ask, wouldn’t life be boring? What would we do if all our needs were provided for? To which I could only say—how could life ever be boring? Life is boring when we are trapped in tedious toil. If we’re freed from it, we have the privilege of finding life utterly fascinating. We can spend an entire day on the shore watching the waves roll in, just staggered by elaborate processes that can unfold without any conscious hand guiding them. (Yes, I think godlessness makes the universe infinitely more interesting.)
The end of work would not be the end of activity. Some people think having a Universal Basic Income would lead us all to sit around watching Netflix all day. Unless we think that watching Netflix is the most rewarding activity a person can engage in, I doubt that very much. Instead, we can go ballooning, act out plays with friends, read stories, roast marshmallows, pet cats, grow flowers, and build giant playgrounds for adults and then run around in them. When work is over we can play, and stage elaborate games. If the robots can do anything we need, then we get to choose which activities we’d like to do. Just as the existence of chess-playing robots hasn’t stopped people from playing chess, and the existence of tanks hasn’t stopped people from wrestling, we will get to pick and choose the experiences that give fulfillment and have the robots perform the ones that don’t. There is no shortage of experiences to be had, believe me, and the real problem is that life simply isn’t long enough. If you’re worried about boredom, it’s work, not its absence, that should concern you.
We live in a world of everyday magic. And the tragedy is how few of us are given the luxury to spend our days contemplating and practicing that magic. Life on earth is such an improbable and wonderful thing that we should detest those responsible for giving people hopeless and miserable existences. What fires my politics is not just outrage at the fact that things are so awful, but frustration because they could so easily be so great. It seems ridiculous to rave about the contemplation of eggs. It should not, and we will know we’ve succeeded in making things better when all of us spend our days overwhelmed with awe at everyday magic.
Update: My third cake was much more like a cake. Not the prettiest in the world, but definitely scrumptious. Successfully replicated the experience of having tea with grandma, and produced warm feelings of nostalgia. A photograph: