In this post, I feature my first ever guest blogger, Ray Hecht, an American writer who has published books about Ohio, California, Hong Kong and Shenzhen, where he has been living since 2008.
You can find out more about him through his blog: https://rayhecht.com/
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”
The quotation above is taken from the end of a novel titled Howards End, written in the 1920s by the British novelist and critic E. M. Forster.
It is also exactly the kind of quotation that gives literature a bad name.
Unlike Dickens, it is sentimental eloquence without human agency; unlike Nabokov, it is purple prose absent of brainteasing allusions; unlike Bellow, it is highfalutin didacticism sans emotional fervour.
And yet, for the longest time, I’ve held it to be my mission statement, as someone who has always believed in the power of words to fine-tune the tendons of our empathy, and to move closer the tectonic plates between you and me in what seems like a gradually fragmenting world.
I know what you’re thinking: There she goes again, ‘sermonising’ with her lofty platitudes when all she’s really doing is spitballing behind a screen and doing very little by way of action.
And you would be right.
This is why, as a fellow lover of words and a hopeful advocate of literature, Forster’s quote at once resonates and despairs, because the global developments in the past and present century have exposed the idealism in his belief, the belief that “human love” could be elevated simply by connecting the prose with the passion.
This is especially so in our digital age, for why do we even need ‘passionate prose’ when typing out a stream of emoticonsciousness (red heart smiley face green heart purple heart monkey palms over eyes red heart) makes you far more endearing to the person on the other end?
Mind you, this isn’t one of those ‘O what has the state of modern culture come to’ lamentation posts, so I’m just going to leave this question here for us all to mull over while I refresh my latest Instagram feed and feel bad about my puny follower count.
Facebook, the networking behemoth of our generation, makes ‘connecting the world’ its guiding imperative, but let’s not be fooled: Zuckerberg is no inheritor of Forsterian humanism. This is because technological ‘connection’ stands in contradistinction to the kind of human ‘connectedness’ Forster writes about, which stems from one’s internal energy and exudes beyond into the world, and is a local before global, felt but not ‘friend-ed’ principle for community building.
Friendship in the real world is not the end product of a click, but an organic, time-intensive process that requires palpable and emotional investment. This process exposes one to the fear of being exposed, hurt or shunned, but while the result may at times be ungainly, what is at least guaranteed is the promise of authentic intimacy, which I suppose always brings with it a certain amount of risk and pain.
To me, writing, especially about human relationships, is what offers a comfortable middle ground to navigate between the rigours of real-world connection and the limitations of virtual ‘connectedness’.
A while ago, I was introduced to the writer Ray Hecht through a friend and colleague. Hecht’s novel, South China Morning Blues, is a unique take on the cultural and romantic intersections between ‘expats’ and ‘natives’ living in the Pearl River Delta region, where the author himself is currently based. He has also recently published a new e-book titled This Modern Love, which touches precisely on the gives and takes of forming human bonds in an era of digital communication.
Curious about how a fellow (but far more accomplished!) writer and cross-cultural enthusiast understands the idea of human connection in the 21st century, I decided to ask Ray to share with me his thoughts in the form of a guest blog entry, the result of which is his insightful post below. Enjoy!
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What is it about connecting that is so important to the human experience? Why do we need these things?
There is no question that humans are social animals. Things like hierarchy, family structures of various kinds, and romantic entanglements seem to be wired into our primate DNA. On all sorts of levels, nobody likes being alone.
As a writer, it often surprises people when I explain how important it is to be left alone for very long periods of time. The ‘civilians’ out there often don’t understand that. At this point in my fledgling career I have written a few book-length works, and each one took countless hours alone in the silent late hours past midnight to accomplish the feat of completing an entire novel. It’s not easy.
So why was I drawn to a lifestyle that leaves me seemingly so unconnected? Part of it may simply be explained by the classic ‘extrovert-introvert’ dichotomy. Extroverts, as we know, get their energy raised by being around groups. Introverts, who are not necessarily shy people, can stand to be around others, but need to ‘recharge their batteries’, as it were, by being alone. For me, the latter has always been the case. Taking up the hobby of writing somehow came naturally to me; although let me be clear: writing well may not come naturally – I am referring to the mere act of putting pen to paper.
For me, part of the dream of being a writer or an artist has always been to make a living by working at home all by myself. Just definitely not in an office!
The ironic thing is, once I started my professional path, I did end up working in an office for a newspaper company. Even worse, once my first book was published, I discovered that I had to go out and *shudder* promote. I kid, it’s not that bad promoting at book festivals by selling oneself in front of a crowd, as it can be very rewarding to interact with readers. But it was interesting to find how the traits of writing in private and the skills of self-promotion in public could be so completely different.
All that being said, I believe that writing is, on a deeper level, very much about forging intense human connections. Instead of having a usual group of friends to meet up in person, writing is about broadening out to the whole world in many other ways. I think this is important.
If nothing else, the act of writing – at least, writing with the intent of sharing – is one of the most powerful methods there are to connect. An author creates worlds from his or her own imagination, and then shares it as directly as possible with potentially hundreds and thousands of readers. This creation may not be given face-to-face, but in a way, its value could be so much more communicated via the powers of two minds – those of the writer and the reader.
I believe this is the key takeaway of all art. To communicate the important things and not just tell those we are close to but to tell the entire world what we deem important. Record a song. Publish a poem. Exhibit a painting. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t always work. But it’s worth a try, to remember that we are not alone in the universe and that human minds can share something meaningful.
My latest book, called This Modern Love, is about these very challenges, all heightened through the access of modern technology. It is about how our phones, websites, and all forms of media have made the 21st century such a hopeful, yet terrifying, place. These things can both help and hinder the possibilities of finding someone to connect to. Told through the prism of love and sex, the story revolves around four people: two men and two women. Each person represents a unique demographical archetype of new, tech-savvy citizenry who all strive to connect in unique ways. Introverts and extroverts, seekers of love vs. partakers of “hookup culture.”
Jack is the kind of man who utilizes every app to meet women in the most shallow way possible, which he does in an attempt to fill the void within his soul. His roommate, Ben, is the kind online dater who looks for deep relationships, yet can’t ever seem to get it right and only feels all the more ashamed after failing each time. Over on the other side of town, Andrea is a cynical woman who takes advantage in any way she can in an attempt to quell her nightmares. Her younger sister, Carla, is a different sort, a blogger who tries to remain true to herself and grow as a person despite all the challenges of the modern era.
As Jack, Ben, Andrea and Carla pass each other by throughout the day, they miss opportunities to forge connections while the hectic pace of life constantly distracts. Conflict ensues and hearts are broken. And yet, whether they fail or succeed, at least they tried.
Because it’s always worth a try.
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You’re killing the moment
The window is closing
It’s only supposed to be two of us
Put that phone down
Please, put that phone down