I’ve just watched The Banshees of Inisherin for the second time. I came away even more in awe than when I saw it the first time. I won’t go into the plot, except to say that it is about two friends on a small island off the coast of Ireland in the 1920s who have a falling out. It’s obviously a metaphor for the state of Ireland. There’s a civil war taking place across the water as the story unfolds. You hear the occasional crack of gunfire and explosions in the background, and once or twice the characters make explicit references to the war.
But it could also be seen as a metaphor for the state of the world today. It has the air of a Greek Tragedy, despite the humor. There’s a Sibyl-like character, a prophetess who makes increasingly portentous appearances throughout the film, intoning weird pronouncements about a forthcoming catastrophe. We can take it that she’s the Banshee of the title, although in the movie the title’s given a more mundane explanation.
A footnote to this is about a couple of friends of mine who ended up in the same small room watching the film. They too had fallen out. The showing took place in the back room of a club, a small space, and my friends were no more than a couple of seats apart. They were both very aware of each other. There’s a line in the movie where one of the protagonists says to the other, “I just don’t like you anymore.” It was at this point that one of my friends felt overwhelmed. The combination of the other person’s presence, the ongoing discomfort of their failed relationship, and the terrible synchronicity of seeing their own story being echoed in a movie was too much for her and she felt obliged to leave.
Watching the film reminded me of a story I read a couple of years ago, in Lewis Hyde’s brilliant analysis of the Trickster myth, Trickster Makes This World. It’s about Eshu, a West African trickster god, who decides to intervene in a friendship. The two men had taken vows of eternal friendship, but failed to take Eshu into account. The god decided to teach them a lesson.
One day the friends were laboring in adjacent fields. A road passed between the fields, which Eshu rode along on his horse. He was wearing a cap which was black on one side and white on the other. He waved as he passed by.
At lunch the men were discussing what they had seen.
“Did you see that man with the white cap who greeted us as we were working? He was very pleasant wasn’t he?”
“Yes he was charming, but it was a man in a black cap that I recall, not a white one.”
You can guess how the story develops. The men started arguing over whether the passing stranger was wearing a black cap or a white cap. The argument got more heated and the men began to insult and then fight each other. The fighting became more and more intense until there was danger of serious injury. The neighbors were alerted but were unable to do anything to stop the fight.
In the midst of all this Eshu strolled up, calm and unconcerned.
“What is the cause of all this hullabaloo?” he asked.
The neighbors told him what they knew and Eshu stopped the fight. “Why do you two lifelong friends make a public spectacle of yourselves in this manner?” he asked.
The men told him about the stranger who had passed between them, and about the cap he was wearing, the one insisting it was white, the other that it was black.
“You are both right,” says Eshu, bringing out the cap to show them. “I am the man who paid the visit over which you now quarrel, and here is the cap that caused the dissension. As you can see, one side is white and the other is black. You each saw one side and, therefore, are right about what you saw. Are you not the two friends who made vows of friendship? When you vowed to be friends always, to be faithful and true to each other, did you reckon with Eshu? Do you know that he who does not put Eshu first in all his doings has himself to blame if things misfire?”
When I first read that story the UK was in the midst of the Brexit debate. It seemed the perfect metaphor for what was going on at the time. The debate was getting noisier and noisier. There was an almost permanent presence at the Houses of Parliament, with people from both sides waving flags and shouting at each other through megaphones. Everyone was falling out with everyone else.
I wrote about this at the time. I told the story of a couple of friends who’d voted for Brexit, meeting another couple of friends who had voted for Remain. They went out for a drink and had what the Brexit friends thought was a civilized conversation. The following morning there was a text.
“There’s no room for Leavers in my world,” it said. As I wrote: “decades of friendship summarily ended by text because they voted differently in a one-off referendum.”
Since then the world has become even more divided. First was the pandemic, which I described at the time as “Gaia’s Revenge.” It was a provocative piece and I was attacked for writing it but, reading back on it now, I think I got it about right.
A number of my friends became increasingly nervous about the pandemic, fearful that they were about to die. Another set of friends were dismissive, referring to masks as “face-nappies” and to the pandemic as the “scam-demic.” They thought it was a charade, a conspiracy by a secret elite to control the population.
I almost fell out with a number of people from both sides of the debate. I never felt personally threatened by the disease, and refused the vaccination. This almost caused a rift with one of my friends as I chose to lie rather than go into complex debates about the issue. If someone asked me if I’d had the vaccine, I would just say yes. This was easier than trying to justify my reasoning, which sometimes caused a shocked reaction. One person on Facebook, for example, called me a “plague-rat.” So I got into my friend’s car one day, who asked me if I’d had the vaccine yet, and I said yes. It was only later that I regretted this. It was okay to lie to strangers, I thought, but not to friends. I confessed my lie and my friend was very angry with me, both for the lie, and for potentially putting him at risk. I had to swallow my pride and apologize for my lack of respect.
Later I started falling out with friends on the other side of the debate. It seemed to me that the conspiracy theorists were over-dramatizing the events. Is there a secret global elite who control the world? Yes and no. There’s an elite, and they control the world, but there’s nothing secretive about them. They’re called billionaires and you can find them in the Rich List published in Forbes every year.
The other thing I noticed is that every time I followed up on one of the conspiracy links it would, almost invariably, lead me onto a far-right site. It’s not that my friends are from the far right, it’s that the sites they choose to promote have far right material on them. Also the basis of their belief system has its origins in the far right, in the so-called Jewish-Communist conspiracy, dating back to the 18th century, and upheld by Adolf Hitler among others. The most common insult that most of these sites use against their enemies is to call them a “socialist.” As a self-proclaimed socialist that makes me the enemy.
Since then the number of issues that divide people has exploded. We’ve had Black Lives Matter and Trans-Rights. It’s not that black lives don’t matter or that trans people shouldn’t have rights, it’s that almost everyone seems to have a different take on both issues. I have friends from the radical feminist community who feel that the way the trans debate is being conducted is a threat to their hard won-rights as women, while friends from the LGBTQ+ community refer to them as Terfs—Trans-exclusionary radical feminists—dismissing their concerns. The debate can become very personal and very bitter, with both sides throwing angry, ugly insults at each other. Meanwhile white working class people sometimes feel threatened by Black Lives Matter, misinterpreting the phrase to mean that their lives don’t matter.
Part of the problem is identity politics. Everyone’s fighting for their own particular corner, their own sense of identity. Everyone feels uniquely oppressed. No one sees the bigger picture. We’re all oppressed, economically speaking. The shift in wealth, away from the population as a whole and into the pockets of the billionaires is ongoing, leaving us all feeling insecure and uncertain about the future. It’s like we’re treading on each other’s toes.
The other part of the problem is the internet, which amplifies our divisions. We’re in what the apocryphal Chinese curse describes as “interesting times.” The extinction of the world’s biodiversity continues, with many species under threat, and the planet in mortal danger. The privatization of public space is ongoing, with less and less space left for the public. The surveillance of every aspect of our lives, with facial recognition CCTV set up on every street corner, and AI on the internet, means that we’re never alone, while at the same time suffering from terrible loneliness. There’s an incipient fascism rising in the cracks between the parties in our mainstream political life. The politics of hate is on the rise. Sea levels are rising, and many of our coastal cities may well be underwater before the end of the century. Vast populations are on the move, fleeing war, ecological disaster, and poverty, while our politicians and the wealthy use them as scapegoats. People are poorer and more frightened than ever. Everyone is blaming everyone else while arguing about it on Facebook and Twitter.
Eshu’s trick reminds us that no one ever has the complete picture. His hat is black and white at the same time. It’s only our faulty perspective that makes us insist that what we see is the only truth.
—Follow Chris Stone on Twitter: @ChrisJamesStone