waiting to be claimed
September 28, 2009, 10:56 pm
Filed under: departure lounge | Tags: , , , ,

I have always found Pico Iyer to be dispassionate about his self described state of transience, moving about the world; my experience of growing up global is like an agony of yearning.  In the following excerpt from his essay Living in the Transit Lounge, there is the start of a nice ambivalence that begins to resonate a little more for me.  He describes how the refugee and exile have strong feelings for both the place they are leaving and the place they are going to, but the transit lounger, the global soul, is caught is a sort of limbo:  he has more questions than answers, nothing is definite, with indistinct emotions, and resolves to merely watch his own life and wait – like a samsonite on a carousel – to be claimed!

If I have any deeper home, it is, I suppose, in English.  My language is the house I carry round with me as a snail his shell; and in my lesser moments I try to forget that mine is not the language spoken in America, or even, really, by any member of my family.

Yet even here, I find, I cannot place my accent, or reproduce it as I can the tones of others.  And I am so used to modifying my English inflections according to whom I am talking to – an American, an Englishman, a villager in Nepal, a receptionist in Paris – that I scarcely know what kind of voice I have.

I wonder sometimes if this new kind of non-affiliation may not be alien to something fundamental in the human state.  The refugee at least harbors passionate feelings about the world he has left – and generally seeks to return there; the exile at least is propelled by some kind of strong emotion away from the old country and towards the new – indifference is not an exile emotion.  But what does the Transit Lounger feel?  What are the issues that we would die for?  What are the passions that we would live for?

Airports are among the only sites in public life where emotions are hugely sanctioned, in block capitals.  We see people weep, shout, kiss in airports; we see them at the furthest edges of excitement and exhaustion.  Airports are privileged spaces where we can see the primal states writ large – fear, recognition, hope.  But there are some of us, perhaps, sitting at the Departure Gate, boarding passes in hand, watching the destination ticking over, who feel neither the pain of separation nor the exultation of wonder; who alight with the same emotions with which we embarked; who go down to the baggage carousel and watch our lives circling, circling, circling, waiting to be claimed.

Pico Iyer, Living in the Transit Lounge, Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing up Global, Eidse and Sichel, editors.


a lot of the world left out
September 21, 2009, 5:23 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , ,

This is an excerpt from David Byrne’s book Bicycle Diaries in which he discusses how the Chinese in Hong Kong tend to destroy anything that has been designed and built for the public realm.  I grew up in India and have occasionally thought about returning there to set up life, but hesitate when I remember that India, like China it seems, lacks a commitment to the pleasures of public life.

Cafe culture and street life are good indicators of robust commitment to the good – public – life.  They barely exist in America – almost exclusively in New York – but thrive in Europe, the Mediterranean and large cities in Asia.

I was just in London and Paris – four days in each city:  the street culture exists in Paris but London is in the dark ages.  Why?  I think Byrne is exactly right:  the prevailing philosophy of any culture is made manifest in the building of its cities:  if all that matters is the king and the family, then public life will wither and die – or more likely be willfully destroyed.

I am reading Continental Philosophy by Simon Critchley who describes a sort of instrumentalist, get it done preponderance among 20th century English and American philosophers and contrasts this against the continental philosophers broader existential interest in what it means to live a fulfilled life.   If these are the – very different – preoccupations of the thinkers in the English and Continental traditions then I can see why their respective cities are so radically different.  And how the communist Chinese now running the British dependency Hong Kong, fall into step behind the instrumentalist Anglo world.

Here is David Byrne on Hong Kong:

I was recently in Hong Kong and a friend there commented that China doesn’t have a history of civic engagement.  Traditionally in China one had to accommodate two aspects of humanity — the emperor and his bureaucracy, and one’s own family.  And even though that family might be fairly extended it doesn’t include neighbors or coworkers, so a lot of the world is left out.  To hell with them.  As long as the emperor or his ministers aren’t after me and my family is okay then all’s right with the world.  I have been marveling at the rate of destruction of anything having to do with social pleasures and civic interaction in Hong Kong — funky markets, parks, waterfront promenades, bike lanes (of course) — I was amazed how anything designed for the common good is quickly bulldozed, privatized, or replaced by a condo or office tower.  According to my friend civic life is just not a part of the culture.  So in this case at least, the city is an accurate and physical reflection of how that culture views itself.  The city is a 3D manifestation of the social, and personal — and I’m suggesting that in turn, a city, its physical being, reinforces those ethics and recreates them in successive generations and in those who have immigrated to the city.  Cities self-perpetuate the mindset that made them.

-David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries, Viking 2009

beasts and lunatics
September 19, 2009, 11:15 am
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

Here is a quotation from Critchley’s Continental Philosophy in which he gives a kind of primer description of each of a half dozen or so significant 20th C European (non British) philosophers.

Critchley establishes a dialectic:  that an emphasis on knowledge leads to scientism and turns us into beasts and conversely an emphasis on wisdom rejects scientism, introduces obscurantism and turns us into lunatics.  But his broader point is that the Continental philosophers instruct us to return to searching for the meaning of life – by way of wisdom – and conversely to resist the reductive nature of mere knowledge.

My contention is that what philosophy should be thinking through at present is this dilemma which on the one side threatens to turn us into beasts, and on the other side into lunatics.  This means that the question of wisdom, and its related question of the meaning of life, should at the very least move closer to the centre of philosophical activity and not be treated with indifference, embarrassment, or even contempt.  The appeal of much that goes under the name of Continental philosophy, in my view, is that it attempts to unify or at least move closer together questions of knowledge and wisdom, of philosophical truth and existential meaning.  Examples are legion here, whether one thinks of Hegel on the life and death struggle for recognition as part and parcel of the ascent to absolute knowing; Nietzsche on the death of God and the need for a revaluation of values; Karl Marx on the alienation of human beings under conditions of capitalism and the requirement for an emancipatory and equitable social transformation; Freud on the unconscious repression at work in dreams, jokes, and slips of the tongue and what that reveals about the irrationality at the heart of mental life; Heidegger on anxiety, the deadening indifference of inauthentic social life, and the need for an authentic existence; Sartre on bad faith, nausea, and the useless but necessary passion of human freedom; Albert Camus on the question of suicide in a universe rendered absurd by the death of God; Emmanuel Levinas on the trauma of our infinite responsibilities to others.  This list could be extended.

-Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford

my gypsy childhood
September 7, 2009, 12:15 am
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , ,

This is excerpted from the article My Gypsy Childhood by Roxy Freeman in the Guardian.  She is a girl who never went to school, lived in a caravan, learned music and dance and how to cook and survive.  Eventually she decided she wanted an education and fought her way into a college.

These are the last three paragraphs of the article which describe her moving to a bricks and mortar place by the sea, and how removed she feels from nature and how constrained by her stable environment.

After completing my access course (thanks to a wonderful tutor, I got distinctions in all the units), I did a degree with the Open University, and that meant completely changing my way of life. Last November, at the age of 30, I moved to Brighton with my boyfriend and we live in a flat, which is bizarre and alien to me. My family are, admittedly, no longer truly nomadic, and my parents support my decision to transform my life, but I have never lived within bricks and mortar before, and I feel completely out of touch with nature now.

I can’t see or feel the change from one season to the next, I crave greenery, and I constantly wrestle with the emotion of feeling trapped. I spend half my life opening doors and windows, trying to get rid of the airless, claustrophobic feeling that comes with being inside. I get woken up by bin lorries, the rush-hour traffic and my neighbours shouting, instead of birdsong and the wind in the trees. I can’t sense when it’s going to rain because I can no longer smell it in the air, and when it does rain I can’t hear it landing on the roof.

I live near the sea because it gives me some sense of openness and freedom, but I don’t think I will ever feel truly settled here – or anywhere else. My instinct is to travel, and when you have grown up waking to different scenery every day, it’s easy to feel trapped. But to reach my dream, I have to put down roots.

into the arms of the priests
September 3, 2009, 12:33 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , , ,

Here is a bit of dialogue from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal in which Jons, the Knight’s squire asks a fresco painter in a church about his painting of death and the plague.

The Seventh Seal is about a Knight who is returning to his castle after spending time fighting in the Crusades.  He is devout, preoccupied, a believer.  His squire Jons is a much better source if you like your information straight up, as we see in this scene.

The Painter knows who butters his bread and is the conduit for a culture of fear used by a priesthood to control their people.  Of course, he won’t admit it, but the insightful Squire has no problem labeling the art as propaganda.

JONS:  What is this supposed to represent?

PAINTER:  The Dance of Death.

JONS:  And that one is Death?

PAINTER:  Yes, he dances off with all of them.

JONS:  Why do you paint such nonsense?

PAINTER:  I thought it would serve to remind people that they must die.

JONS:  Well, it’s not going to make them feel any happier.

PAINTER:  Why should one always make people happy?  It might not be a bad idea to scare them a little once in a while.

JONS:  Then they’ll close their eyes and refuse to look at your painting.

PAINTER:  Oh, they’ll look.  A skull is almost more interesting than a naked woman.

JONS:  If you do scare them …

PAINTER:  They’ll think.

JONS:  And if they think …

PAINTER:  They’ll become still more scared.

JONS:  And then they’ll run right into the arms of the priests.

PAINTER:  That’s not my business.