Privacy is sacrificed unthinkingly to government and corporations; transparency and sharing trump depth and inscrutability; and we justifiably bemoan the death of privacy. Technology is blamed, but the truth is that privacy is being lost not because it can be, but because we have forgotten why it is important.Privacy is so easily abandoned to the NSA because everyone understands why the NSA wants to eavesdrop on our conversations but few appreciate what precisely is lost when our inner worlds are mapped and analyzed by anonymous bureaucrats. We give up our data to the corporate algorithms of Facebook, Amazon, and insurance companies both because we understand the value in optimizing that data and have forgotten or no longer understand what is lost by the making knowable of our inner worlds. So much is written about the loss of privacy, and so little about what privacy is and why it is important.We need to think and re-imagine what privacy is and why it is meaningful. So it is welcome to find Joshua Rothman exploring Virginia Woolf’s idea of privacy on in the New Yorker. Unlike the “citizen’s sense of privacy,” which is concerned with the rights to act and believe as one will free from governmental interference, Woolf’s novels allude to another, deeper kind of privacy that “preserves the melodies otherwise drowned out by words, stories, information.” Concrete and experiential rather than political, Woolf’s notion of privacy recognizes an inner core of self, a soul, that must be kept safe from one’s own compulsion to examine and analyze.Rothman begins his exploration of Woolf’s experiential idea of privacy with a passage from Mrs. Dalloway, a scene in which Clarissa, as a teenager, is walking with Sally Seton. Here is how Rothman describes the sacred, private, and transformative inner experiences that follow:
Sally is sexy, smart, Bohemian—possessed of “a sort of abandonment, as if she could say anything, do anything.” The boys drift ahead, lost in a boring conversation about Wagner, while the girls are left behind. “Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it.” Sally picks a flower from the urn and kisses Clarissa on the lips:“The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it—a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!”Woolf often conceives of life this way: as a gift that you’ve been given, which you must hold onto and treasure but never open. Opening it would dispel the atmosphere, ruin the radiance—and the radiance of life is what makes it worth living. It’s hard to say just what holding onto life without looking at it might mean; that’s one of the puzzles of her books. But it has something to do with preserving life’s mystery; with leaving certain things undescribed, unspecified, and unknown; with savoring certain emotions, such as curiosity, surprise, desire, and anticipation. It depends on an intensified sense of life’s preciousness and fragility, and on a Heisenberg-like notion that, when it comes to our most abstract and spiritual intuitions, looking too closely changes what we feel. It has to do, in other words, with a kind of inner privacy, by means of which you shield yourself not just from others’ prying eyes, but from your own. Call it an artist’s sense of privacy.
What Rothman calls an artist’s sense of privacy is not simply the right to opinion or speech or the right to be left alone by others. It is the raw experience of revelation and the intensity of religious feeling. It is the openness to the depth and transcendence, the connection to one’s own understanding or connection to the sacred.The importance of the “artist’s sense of privacy” may have a political significance, but if it does, that meaning is a strong sense of plurality and uniqueness rarely understood today. What meaningful privacy offers, as Hannah Arendt argues, is the access to the sacred, the dark, and the human world in which men and women can think for themselves and become unique, surprising, and self-possessed persons. “The sacredness of this privacy,” Arendt writes in a Woolfian register,
was like the sacredness of the hidden, namely, of birth and death, the beginning and end of the mortals who, like all living creatures, grow out of and return to the darkness of an underworld.… Privacy was like the other, the dark and hidden side of the public realm, and while to be political meant to attain the highest possibility of human existence, to have no private place of one’s own (like a slave) meant to be no longer human.
Like Woolf, Arendt insists that privacy is inseparable from having a home, a place of one’s own. Before one can enter the public world of politics, Arendt argues, one first must grown into a person, someone with unique and individual beliefs, and such maturation is only possible when one has a property; her own defense of private property comes from her belief that “without owning a house a man could not participate in the affairs of the world because he had no location in it which was properly his own.”Also like Woolf, Arendt associates privacy with artists. Artists are the last people in society who can articulate their meaning and sense outside of the societal demand that we labor in order to support our material wants. For Arendt, artists must completely remove themselves from the social realm, the realm of rewards, awards, fame, and renown. This removal is born not of asceticism, but from the desire for freedom. Only by living in private can the artist avoid the tyranny of the social, of mass taste, and of mass opinion. If the artist is to create something new, surprising, striking, and beautiful—something that might actually impact a people by powerfully showing them a new idea—that artist must live and exist outside of that society, protected from its tyranny by the wall of privacy that encloses the artist in a world of his or her own.What privacy offers, for Woolf and for Arendt, is the space where people—artists and others—can grow up to be different, free of social pressures, opinions, and tastes. As Rothman writes,
By learning to leave your inner life alone, you learn to cultivate and appreciate it. And you gain another, strangely spiritual power: the power to regard yourself abstractly. Instead of getting lost in the details of your life, you hold onto the feelings, the patterns, the tones. You learn to treasure those aspects of life without communicating them, and without ruining them, for yourself, by analyzing them too much.
The political importance of privacy is plurality. Only when people grow and mature in a protected world of home and hearth can they find the space and freedom to think independently and thus differently. But such independent thinking is dangerous, or at least disturbing to the demands for conformity and correctness of public society. The real reason privacy is in decline today is because the very fruits of a rich private life—uniqueness, difference, and plurality—are scorned by the insistence on uniformity of opinion and behavior in good society. What suffers in the poverty of a meaningful private sphere is politics.