Twenty years ago I wrote a story in which a man in San Francisco leaves his lover’s bed at 3 AM to go into his basement and talk to a woman in Denmark “on the Web.” My readers frowned and asked, “The Web? What is that? You’ll have to footnote that because no one will know what you’re talking about—we certainly don’t.” It may be difficult to believe, but there was such a quaint and innocent time and I was privileged to be, for ten minutes, ahead of the curve. I did not know, as I put the story away unfinished, that the footnote was in fact the story.
When that man “logged on” he entered the beginnings of a metaphor most of the modern world lives in now. He looked transfixed at the picture of a woman’s bare shoulder and the pink and black tattoo winding down her back. He wrote sentences, and sentences came back. He was “here” and he was simultaneously over there in a way he had never experienced before. He went back to bed just before sunrise.
Sunrise, coincidentally, is when the original prototype of the Web becomes most visible. The highwire paths run from hydrangea to pine, from the fern to the apple tree; the circular weavings hang briefly intact. A friend told me of waking on an August morning in a fugue state, trying to puzzle out a difficult problem. She walked into the garden and the sight of spider webs strung with dew and shimmering like shields stunned her with beauty. She walked a few paces to the left, and they vanished. She walked to the right and they reappeared. And so for a long while she walked back and forth observing as the webs came and went depending on the light. And then she turned around and walked right into one she could not see, and it broke.
This struck me as metaphorically accurate on many levels, and stayed with me so strongly that when, a few weeks later I walked into my own spider web, even though I am a confirmed arachnophobe and shrieked hysterically, I did not immediately wipe the web off my glasses. Instead I took my glasses off and marveled, for the web had transferred perfectly to the lens. If I wanted to I could let the pattern remain indefinitely, and walk around the world quite literally seeing “through” the web.
Since that moment I have been thinking about the way we live in metaphor, and how, depending on whether or not we actually see it, our world changes in response. Words shape our consciousness and visa versa. They are neither incidental nor random. When we go on the Web it offers us a choice of roles: we navigate, following threads; we get lost, falling through the spaces; or we are “caught in the Net,” prey just as the fly that hangs in a pale skein outside my backdoor. The words are not innocent. A “net” is only welcome to the hunter or the trapeze artist or the person dangling from a bridge. The butterfly and the fish have quite a different perspective. [Read more…]