Anselm

Sometimes life just shoves you where you need to go. In my case, the taxi driver, skipping the throwaway words that most humans seem to prefer to silence, launched into an impressive rundown of the best galleries and shows in London, useful information during a drizzly, cold January week.

The precision of his east-Europe accented English, the mathematical way his discourse flowed, clicked with me. I followed his advice and walked, the next morning, bundled in feathers, wool and petroleum-sourced fabric, fighting to keep my umbrella from turning into a paragliding tool, towards the white cube in Bermondsey, a name that I had previously associated with houses for people who didn’t have the ambition to live somewhere with pretensions of poshness, or, funds failing, an edgy, grimy neighborhood, but settled, depressingly, for down-at-the-heels comfort. British secretaries serving the polyglot elite lived there once, now undoubtedly having been pushed out in favor of some beta elite, they faced life in another, even more mediocre location. Now, somehow having bypassed the grime stage in a kind of real estate sublimation, Bermondsey has become hip and nice. It remained vaguely depressing, as though that grime stage would have served like a peach-pit exfoliation and, having missed out of that scrub, the thin, barely visible gloss of defeat still shrouded the place.

The white cube itself, misnomer, a brown brick block barely distinguishable from the dirt on which it sat, contained a treasure of violent truth.

The name Anselm Kiefer, sounds familiar, but maybe that’s just my brain falsely connecting some other Kiefer, Sutherland perhaps, to the current situation. Still, name or not, I had no intimation of what I was going to see. The taxi-driver had left me intentionally in the dark on that.

First a hallway, filled with crushed and crumpled hospital beds, old fashioned frames metal, not plastic, covered in ash-grey material, the color of the London sky. The walls were slicked with a material that looked like very old zinc, also an ashen grey, slightly more brilliant though. The lighting almost extinguished, I thought this is what a hospital would look like after the war, after the wounded had died, the doctors had died, the janitors had died. This is what the hospital would like when the windows had all broken, all the dead people rotted, or buried, but not around to fix things. The burnt shell of our planet detached, deracinated from the earth’s surface by relentless, fire breathing winds and blown everywhere for so long that eventually every contour of the planet is covered in a totally uniform layer of the destruction we have wrought on ourselves and on the Eden we were given.

The ability of Mr. Kiefer to communicate the total self-immolation of the human race and its habitat (and the habitat of every living thing) in a desolate hallway of grey crumpled metal is breathtaking. In the exact sense of the words: my breathing became shallow and subdued as if to breath in the hallway would be to allow in the air of a destroyed world, to inhale that very destruction itself and have it become part of one’s being.

In one of the rooms my memory is of a pharmacy or office, also covered in the grey, entropic cinder-flakes. The previously useful place with its previously useful potions and previously useful documents made worthless not because of the dirt or contamination, but by the absence of fallen-man to need any of it, or want any of it. My normal reaction to scenes of human abandonment is curiosity, a desire to touch and examine, look for something valuable or interesting among the detritus. But here, the only wish I have is to not accidentally brush against anything. No danger of art vandals doing damage here. The art itself represents the total and utter vandalization of our own home. No criminal or thug could do a more comprehensive job of destruction or show more contempt for human efforts than Mr. Kiefer has already done. Perhaps the only way to destroy this art would be to repair it, clean it and paint it a nice bright orange color, hardly the stuff museum guards typically worry about.

In another room a spiral staircase, hung with threadbare, torn laundry, neatly suspended on hangers, suggests the death of the last traces of humanity. The staircase, leading nowhere, under a bright sky, serves as a reminder of human might and ambition. The worn clothes tell us about the crazed last days of hungry, ill-dressed survivors. Struggling to retain the vestiges of their humanity, but ultimately succumbing to the simple fact that not only was no survival possible, but doing the laundry was also out of the question. For god’s sake, there is ash everywhere, the water is sludge and the goddamned sun can’t reach the plants, the ultimate source of all life, the conduit that turns light into civilization.

In a large room, well lit now, some oil paintings. I am struck by one in particular that shows the world we have just wandered through, crumbled, pock-marked shells and skeletons of buildings, standing in the grid formation that suggests there were once streets between them. The same tale of utter defeat, the self-inflicted kind but with a difference. A blue, blue, blue sky. A blue that, by itself makes me want to cry. The feeling of my eyeballs separating from the sockets as the tears well up is overwhelming. I have to breathe again, that’s new.

That blue is the promise, shot straight from the artist’s, god’s heart to our own. The promise that although we will destroy ourselves, although nothing but a poison grey ash will remain of the garden we were given, there is still life and hope, perhaps not human life, perhaps not my hopes, but something. Humans can kill, commit suicide but we can’t fuck with eternity.

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The Mountain

Allow me to begin at the end. We left the Bertol hut after all the other groups had departed, but I have no idea of the time. It was probably 8:00, later than normal, because, unusually, our guide had overslept. We were in the habit of waking up around 5:30, eating around 6:00 and leaving around 7:00. There being little reason to stay up late, our exhausted bodies would gladly fade into sleep in the early evening and so the dawn awakenings came naturally.

The windows of the refuge were fogged over with condensation, but it was clear the weather was still terrible. We had climbed the 1400m up from Arolla the previous day in high winds and a blizzard. Nevertheless, hoping for a break in the weather, even a short lifting of the cloud to higher altitudes, all of us had set off to Zermatt via the Tête Blanche pass. I had a cold and a cough, and I was not far from the limits of my corporal energy reserves, but the climb was not too strenuous and there was the promise a 2500m ski descent over a glacier powdered in fresh snow with the Matterhorn as company. We trudged, slowly but purposefully upwards, with very little visibility but hoping against the odds for that break in the cloud.

 

The group that had set out just before us, suddenly appeared through the gusting snow, roped together. They had turned back; conditions were not safe for the descent down the crevassed maze of the glacier. Our guide considered out loud the options, while pretending to listen to our opinions, and then we continued on. On several occasions he expressed his doubts about continuing on, but he could sense our determination to get through this final stage of the six-day trek, and so continued. Finally, as we ascended into increasingly dense cloud, he pulled a fast U-turn and announced we were going back on our tracks.

At that moment, the weak thread that was all that remained of my strength and motivation snapped. Without the goal of completion, without the forward movement, I gave up. Sadness washed over me, my eyes tingled in preparation for tears. I was sad that we were not going to get to our ultimate goal, but mostly I was aware of the great hole left in me by the completion of the journey. My pace slowed, the cold started to penetrate my many layers of protection and my only desire became to get off the mountain, to go home, to allow myself to comfort the feelings of loss occasioned by having achieved my goal and therefore having lost it as a reference point in my life.

The first day of the Haute Route was the hardest thing I have ever done. I had been planning the adventure for a year. It had been, I realize now, the organizing principle of my life. It had been my motivation to exercise, train and, above all, it gave meaning to me in a way I would not realize until it was over. I have never been as fit as I was the day we started. I knew it would be difficult, but in the same way a 25km run might be difficult for someone who can run 15km. Manageably difficult.

I did set out with trepidation. I was expecting to be afraid, I was expecting to work hard, I was expecting to be cold. The reality was, that the mountain is endless, vast and unyielding. As the initial stage of the first day’s climb ended, and fatigue set in, I became aware that I was much less fit, much less adept than I had imagined. I had watched Ueli Steck on the North Face of the Eiger and imagined that I might be able to do five percent of what he could do, just by virtue of being human too. I was not correct in that judgment. After an exhausting first few hours, we put on our boot crampons and retrieved our ice axes. I contemplated the approximately vertical last stage of the pass. I started up, carefully installing my now lethally sharp boots into the small niches carved out by previous climbers. I planted the ice axe to the hilt with a sharp, scared, adrenaline fueled jab. My breath was the opposite of calm. My watch showed a heart rate of 176, the highest I had ever seen on the display. I stopped, breathed deeply, relaxed. As I started, one hard step up after another, my heart started to race again. My mind was a carousel of questions, one after the other, repeating. “Does this ice axe really work?” “Will my hand slip off the axe handle?” “Why am I not corded to this dumb axe?” “Are these crampons going to slide?” “Is my backpack going to pull me backwards down this wall?” “If I slip, how far will I go?” “Am I going to die here?” “Why did I do this?” “Fuck the equipment, I just want to get out of this alive.” And, as the shampoo bottle says, repeat.

Once at the top, having been a bottleneck for others, having watched those in front of me speed up the wall with aplomb and power, I did not feel very good about myself, but the feeling of safety at having arrived overwhelmed the negativity, I was bathing in Endorphins. We set out again, continuing upwards.

By this point I was struggling with basic physical exertion. Slower than the others, finding the air thin enough to handicap me now that we had passed 3000m, and not able to move any great distance without pausing to catch my breath. I resorted to my old standby of counting 30 or 40 steps and then counting 10 or 15 breaths. I started to feel the immensity of the task I had set myself, the even greater immensity of tasks that I would not even have dared set myself, but that others had accomplished. I began to feel that my pride in my fitness was misplaced, that I was weak, small and nothing special. I felt an immense crack in my self-image, but it was not the crack of something solid collapsing, it was the crack of something false being shed. I thought to myself:

“You are not exempt from the reality that faces everyone else. You did not try hard enough, work hard enough, to merit an easy success here. You misled yourself and tried to escape from the real work, the real struggle that you needed to do to be prepared properly for this challenge.”

The feeling of being put back in my place was not one of humiliation, because it was not another man doing it. It was the mountain. And the mountain had no opinion about me, had not asked me to come, did not care if I quit, would not congratulate me on success and would do nothing to accommodate me. The feeling of being put back in my place was akin to having my body pushed forcefully back into a perfectly fitting mold, it felt honest, right and accurate. My thoughts morphed from the experience at hand to something more general:

“You have made dangerous choices in your life, unsustainable choices and you know it, but you look away. You need to face the reality of the situation in which you find yourself, the truth about that reality, and make the right decisions, strip away the superfluous, get down to the basics of what you want, what you need, what you can actually obtain, how to make up the difference and what sacrifices need to be made.”

It was at once deeply frightening and totally liberating. Somehow, the mountain was blowing the bullshit out of my life the same way wind would blow dying leaves off a tree.

The first day of the Haute Route was a liberation and a purification. My mind was cleared, my muscles were washed from the inside out, my body felt as if it had been burned in a crucible, heated hot enough to burn away the dirt and by the heat also annealed, tensions released, injuries healed. Humbled but clean, I arrived at the Trient Hut and shouted Hallelujah and I meant it literally.

Beirut Christmas, 2015

Beirut, December 15th, 2015.

Winter, in places where Winter is cold, must have been a miserable time of buckling down and survival before the advent of central heating, supermarkets, primaloft and double glazed windows. Up in the Bekaa valley, there are a million and a half people for whom Winter is exactly that. I imagine them huddling around a primitive diesel burner (if they’re lucky) wrapped in the discarded, sweat-shop-produced rags of the better off, insulated from the wind by some UN-provided plastic sheeting and from the ground by planks of rough, cast off consturction timber, persistent coughs, persistent hunger and persistent fear their reliable companions.

While those mental images, fruit of facts and my imagination, occupy one part of my brain, another is filled with the longing for the modern winter that Western tradition and ingenuity has created. Starting with the Christmas feast, the full stockings, the piles of colorful gifts under the twinkling, ornamented trees and, for me at least, continuing to the snowy mountains, the toasty apartment heated miraculously by warm water flowing through the stone floors, the fire crackling and alive casting an orange glow of vitality and welcome around the living room. I look forward to the first storms, to the meter-tall snow dumps that make the mountains into a playground for me, wrapped in Gore-Tex and merino wool, using mountain conquering alpine tools to test myself against the steep, icy, cold, windy, potentially fatal edges of civilization that are by no means wilderness, but exist just on the wrong side of places that have been made safe for human amusement.

I cannot blind myself to this massive internal conflict. I recall the first year of the refugee crisis, catching myself cursing the warm weather (we had no skiing that year) and then berating myself for wishing snow on the heads of those from whom everything had already been taken so that I could have some fun on the pistes. I was never able to square the emotions or the thoughts that those two opposite situations stoked in me.

I cannot blind myself to the children who stand, sit, exist on sidewalks near traffic lights, wearing sandals and ragged sweaters against the rain and cold every day and every night while I sit inside my warmed vehicle, on my way to my warmed house, my full fridges, my hot shower, and my fluffy down-filled comforter. I cannot blind myself but I can also not do anything. I keep a big box of chocolate bars in my car and I give the kids chocolate when they ask for money. Knowing that the money will be taken from them if I hand that over, that I would be a consumer and financier of their sidewalk misery, whereas the chocolate at least might bring them a moment of what I imagine is sorely needed pleasure. But I am under no illusion that I am doing anything more substantial than salving my emotional need to give, to help these people in their brutal existence.

On a cold, clear night I drove past the freezing children towards the American University of Beirut to watch my daughter’s Christmas Choral Concert. AUB represents the best of so any things. Founded by Protestant Missionaries who, having failed to convert any of the local Pope-following Christians, decided to at least educate them; it is the best side of faith-inspired generosity. Later, supported and grown and led by various American institutions and individuals it showed the best side of America when America was her best. It became a place of liberal thought, academic excellence and freedom in a rapidly developing Middle East and fed off the huge desire of the Lebanese to be educated, the best of Lebanese ambition, welcome and open-mindedness, but also the seedbed of Arab modernizers. And today it is a haven amid the chaos of Beirut. It has no skyscrapers, no place for speculation at the cost of ideals.

We took our places in the old chapel, amidst a campus that looked almost as if it had been plucked out of Wisconsin and placed carefully on the Mediterranean seaside, almost, and settled in to listen to a bunch of mostly Lebanese kids, of at least four or five religions, educated by French, Lebanese, American and who knows what other kinds of teachers, singing Christmas songs in four languages, written, for the most part in Europe, about an event that happened a couple of hundred kilometers to the south in a place that, despite it’s geographical proximity, few or none of us had ever been to or could do more than dream of going to. I settled in and started wishing I had a book to read. Not all the carols qualified as entertainment.

There is a Lebanese drum and dance tradition called the Dabké (not to be confused with the candy bar of the same name), which has a fantastic ability to instantly draw in spectators and make them stamp their feet, clap or even get up and dance. When the singers got to ‘Deck the Halls’, a tune I personally like, somewhere in the middle of it, the music morphed into Dabké, with the drums and everything, before sliding gracefully back to the traditional song. It was an incredible moment for me.

In the US, there has been for the last twenty or twenty-five years, an increasingly intolerant form of tolerance. An archetypal rule resulting from that movement was one we had at Bear, Stearns, a now defunct former employer of mine called Elevator Eyes. The rule basically stated that a male employee could not cause discomfort to a female employee by looking at her in the elevator. This led to everyone, especially just before bonus time, studiously studying the stone floor of the elevator car at all times. Even thinking about this rule makes me furious. Women dress to be noticed by men. It’s a simple fact. Men notice them and look at them, another fact. I can understand that some men may gaze in a way that makes a woman uncomfortable. But making normal behavior illicit just drags us all further from the truth. Elevator Eyes as a rule is a hairs-breadth away from a burka. It’s a virtual Burka. Do not look at these women, look at the floor. Do not ascribe to women the ability to ask someone making them uncomfortable the maturity or strength to deal with the problem, assume, instead, that they are the weaker sex, unable to care for themselves.

Another thing that has flowed from the ‘tolerance’ offensive in US mores these days is the whole ‘Happy Holidays’ greeting. As if saying Merry Christmas to a Jew would somehow be the cause of great offence. In Lebanon we have 18 religions, countless different holidays and religious festivals each specific to one or the other religion, bar May Day and Independence Day. I make an effort to know which of my friends belongs to which religion and what they celebrate, that way I can be sensitive enough as a human being to wish them an Eid-Mubarak (Happy Eid) and not accidentally wish a Shia a Happy Ashoura (Ashoura is the commemoration of the slaughter of Hussein and wishing a happy one would be like wishing a Happy Good Friday to a Christian…not cool). And, for the vast number of acquaintances whose religion is unknown to me I don’t pretend to know or care. Wishing a Muslim Happy Holidays at Christmas has as little place as wishing him Merry Christmas, in fact less since many Muslims here celebrate Christmas in its pagan ritual, trees, turkey and the like and all of them recognize Jesus as a prophet.

By the same token, when I see a beautiful woman, I notice her, I don’t hide my noticing of her and I also try not to make her feel that my noticing her is some kind of prelude to rape. And if I know her, I might tell her that she looks beautiful, and she, having attempted to look beautiful, might appreciate the comment and smile. And none of that would be considered a prelude to rape either. Although both of us would be aware of some level from non-existent to very apparent of sexual frisson between us, because that is how Humans are made. That’s the truth, or the closest approximation to it I have been able to find.

Coming back to the Choral, to Deck the Halls, It was the seamless melding of a Lebanese tradition of uncertain religious origins, into a European Christmas song, the integration into the program of Arabic songs, French Christmas songs and American Carols, the unsurprising-ness of the mix, the total normality to the singers and the audience of the concoction, the appreciation for all the traditions and languages and the total lack of rules related to it all that triggered in me the deep love for this country. Here are Muslim, Christian, Druze, possibly Jewish, probably atheist kids all singing carols mixed in all these languages with all these musical stitchings together and all of it was natural, right and who we are as Lebanese.

What else are the Lebanese? We are the people who have accepted a million and a half refugees from a horrible war next door. One third of the country is foreigners, most of them destitute. We have had no incidences of violence against them, despite the fact that our infrastructure cannot handle them, our garbage dumps cannot handle their waste, our finances can not feed them. Of course we want them to go home. They want to go home. But we will not force them back to the misery they have fled.

And I watch the country of Elevator-eyes, I watch the country of droits de l’homme and all I see is places full of fear, hypocrisy, and stinginess, hate. The very places that stoke the war these people have fled refusing to help them. America, a country built on refugees, where half the population wants to send the Mexicans home. France, a country I have great affection for, dancing with Marine Le Pens ‘gentle’ fascism. And I want no part of it.

Strangely in this place, struggling, hard-scrabble, I feel the truth is close at hand. And somehow that truth in its allowance of the ugly and the bad, also allows love and not tolerance but something nobler, acceptance and appreciation of the other.

Killer

October 2014

Occasionally, rarely, I do something…actually no, that is wrong…I play a role in a series of events which ping something in my brain and cause ripples in my thoughts that won’t subside. Perhaps by organizing those thoughts, or writing them down, I will damp the ripples.

First of all I have to state that I have been in a very bad mood now for quite a while. I suspect that my greyish outlook is largely due to the consistently unyielding nature of several of my projects to effort and thought. Perhaps for the first time, I am faced with a prolonged feeling of powerlessness to solve my problems coupled with a maybe even more maddening inability to even see and clearly understand the problems. Suffice it to say that small victories, like the successful repair of my fridge defrost thermostat, have felt like disproportionally important successes.

Furthermore, I read, a week ago, a book by James Lovelock, which argues convincingly that Gaia will soon wipe the majority of humans off the face of the earth. He believes we should be preparing areas of the planet as lifeboats to survive. The problem is that I have had this feeling for years.

I believe the book “Mosquito Coast” with its central story of the destruction of a family’s habitat when a machine designed to make ice and cool the house explodes spewing ammonia and flame all around, is my minds basic allegory for modern civilization. Of course we risk Armageddon for humanity in pursuit of the perfect martini sipped on the top floor of a hotel, the air chilled to an icy 20 degrees, sipped while viewing a writhing metropolis through four-meter-high, laminated-for-safety, plate-glass windows.

So that’s the backstory on my crappy mood. Friday night I was actually in a pretty good frame of mind, I thought. I had a very tasty bit of (farmed) Salmon for dinner accompanied by two or three glasses of 2000 Bordeaux, also very tasty. I had a small errand to do, pick up my girlfriend’s daughter and drop her home. It was about 930pm and it had been lightly raining. The roads were fairly empty.

As I glided along the dark, wet road, following the gently curving Mediterranean, a black sedan with a handful of feral young men began indicating its displeasure at my stately pace with a flurry of winking headlights and some horn klaxons. My speed, being dictated by the car in front of me, there was not much I could do and so I did nothing. The other lane of the road was nominally available for him to pass me in, but given the number of double-parked cars, using it was a mugs game. Nevertheless the driver of the FMW (Feral Machine Werken) decided to pass me in the parking lane, almost causing me to wreck his rear end. Did I mention that his car had no license plates?

At this point I cannot rely on memory, logic or even a good guess to explain why I decided that I would not let his behavior wash over me. I chased him and eventually pulled up next to him, just before a large junction. I swerved my car hoping to push him into the line of parked cars. I wanted him to crash and I suspect that if the traffic signal had not turned red, I may well have succeeded. As it was we both came to a halt and they got out of the car. Presumably they expected me to do likewise, but I, unarmed and not skilled in the art of street fighting, demurred. Instead I pulled my car forward and then reversed into them aiming at their bodies, hoping to run at least one of them over. They flowed away, like the jelly-skirt of a jellyfish, and then, like the same skirt, flowed back towards the now stopped car. They started to bang on it. I pulled forward. This time I had decided to wreck their car and possibly one of them with it. I aligned the back of my car with the side of theirs. And just at the point when I had engaged reverse and was ready to hit the gas, a knock at my window made me look around. It was a policeman.

At this point I thought “I am cooked.” He said in Arabic what I thought was “Stop on the right.” So I did. I waited. Expecting to be taken to the Police Station. After a minute, when nothing had happened, I looked round and saw no police. I asked J, who was with me in the car, “Where is the Policeman?” She told me that he has actually said “Continue on your way.” As in Leave. I could not quite bring myself to accept that so I asked her to repeat it. And then I moved ever so slowly away.

My memory of the episode is dark and inundated with wetness. I see it the way I would a city through sunglasses, at night and under a driving downpour. And even more I see it through a mental veil, not the veil that drugs or alcohol would throw over things, more like a dreamlike confusion. My desires, my desire to attack those shit-bags, my desire to establish whose rules and behavior are correct, are clear in my mind, as I write this, like the taste of bitter morning coffee. Deep down from underneath my intestines, from my diaphragm, I still sense the wide open gust of hate-infused wind like a hurricane shout of anger driven with fierce strength and animal fury through my lungs and throat and then, not out of my mouth, but straight through my brain, removing it from contact with my senses, turned into simply a manager of weapons, a machine to destroy.

When I got home I showed J a clip from Gran Torino. The key line is:

Clint Eastwood (Walt): Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have fucked with? That’s me.

That, I explained to her, is the message I hope those pieces of shit took away from the encounter.

And as I wrote that, I can tell you my hatred for the unknown human occupants of the FMW is sharp and fizzy. I have, in my spinal column, a jazz of energy that I know is the unsatisfied remnant of the encounter. Unsatisfied because I did not actually damage them.

And no matter that my brain gives thanks to god, luck and that policeman for stopping things before I did kill one of them, perhaps bringing down the wrath of a whole clan on my head, perhaps changing the course of my life forever, perhaps ruining everything I hold important. No matter all of that, because the territorial animal within me is not satisfied. That part of me somehow knows that the situation around me requires violence.

And being a curious fucker, I want to know why my body is pushing me to violence? Why is my previously left wing, humanistic, goodie-two-shoes-self indifferent to death and suffering. I think I know. I think it is because there are too many goddamned people in this place. And I know that I should be arranging my ticket out of here. That the people and Gaia are going to conspire to make this specific place a graveyard for most of us. But it is hard to step so far away from the well-trodden path. Hard to step so far away when the catastrophic outcome I fear remains only a theory for now.

But my impulse to make space around me, to reduce the crowding is not theoretical. And it should be respected or, I suspect, bad things will happen.

Zeina

September 15th, 2012

Earlier today, around lunchtime I was browsing through Papercup, a bookstore in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood of Beirut. It is Saturday today, but because the Pope is in town trying to make the Christians feel like someone actually cares about their existence, here in the place where Christianity, and also Judaism and Islam, were born, it’s as quiet as a Sunday. Most of the shops and restaurants are closed and a beautiful calm has descended on the city. That bane of our existence in this metropolitan sprawl, automobile traffic, is blessedly absent today.

The white painted raw concrete walls of Papercup hold beech wood shelving. The shelves proffer books filled with photos of beautiful buildings, art, design objects and so forth. On the street side, a large glass window graciously welcomes the September sunshine indoors. At the back of the store, behind a defensive looking counter I saw my friend Rania and her assistant.

For some reason this bookstore, despite having a café and selling cakes, has the cold, stern atmosphere of a Church. Maybe the pope would like that. Nevertheless, I spoke for a while with Rania; she owns the place so I figure I am allowed to speak as loudly as she does. We discuss a few items of mutual concern, how Lebanon feels a bit more optimistic these days than a few months ago, and the pressure of her impending move to a new, expensive house. As I say goodbye, Rania’s assistant, whose name I do not know but whom I see here often, excuses herself to go have lunch. I snatch a last browse through an obscure design magazine on my way to the door.

Outside the shop there are some wooden benches for smokers to sit on snuggled in just under the shop front window. It is on those benches that I see Rania’s assistant sitting, alone, with her slightly nibbled rolled up sandwich in a disposable plastic box beside her. In her hands she held a plastic container of yogurt, not the kind you throw away, a reusable one filled from an economy size at home. She’s wearing a loose-fitting flowery top that manages, by the finest of margins, to be feminine and somehow makes me feel sad. Her jeans are loose and unflattering, almost a proclamation of her disinterest in looking sexy, which I am sure she could. Her hair is pulled back in a tight bun on her head and she isn’t wearing any makeup.

I sat down next to her and I said “You look lonely eating lunch by yourself.”

“I like eating alone sometimes. I’m ok with it.”

“I don’t know,” I said, “I live alone and do a lot of things alone, but when I saw you here, I just felt like I had to do something. It’s like hearing a baby cry, I think it touches on something deep inside us. It might be biological.”

“Really? I don’t mind much. Here people can never do anything alone, they live in groups, in Europe it’s different, people are more self-sufficient,” she said.

“You’re right, but restaurants in London or Paris still almost always have two or four people at them. I know here it’s more like eight or twelve, but still, people don’t eat alone all that much.”

Engrossed in her and my words, pulled in by her vulnerable self-assuredness, I hadn’t noticed a man and his son walk up from my left along the narrow sidewalk. They were now standing in front of both of us, having stepped onto the road between two parked cars to give us enough distance to be able to see them.

The father was dressed in pants that had once been tan colored but were now slicked hard with filth and grease in uncountable shades of dirt. His belt was pulled tight around his waist and though his clothes were not obviously too big for him, his body did not seem to contact the fabric except at his joints. The cracked and crevassed skin of his hands was also dirty. In one hand he was holding a metal rod tipped with a rag, in the other, his son’s hand.

The boy’s wardrobe was the same color as his fathers and, despite the heat, he was wearing some kind of pullover. His shoes had lost their toes. I felt tears behind my eyes imagining all the things he did not have and would never have.

The father spoke in Arabic, a language I do not master. He asked for money to buy his son clothes. I sat frozen, overwhelmed with the moment, unable to respond. I have a policy never to give money to kids or people who go around with kids. The logic is that if people don’t pay extra when they see kids, eventually the kids will be left at home. But logic is a weak brew when confronted with poverty, need and desperation at this level. For the contents of my wallet, which I would not miss, I might be able to fundamentally change this boy’s life. And a father begging in front of his son, how could I add to his humiliation by not responding, by not acquiescing.

In the time it took for me to have these micro-thoughts, Rania’s assistant had handed over her sandwich to the boy. The father looked taken aback, he had wanted money and here was a sandwich. She asked him whether he would like more food. She went back into the store.

While she was gone, I was left alone with this man and his son. I wanted to show him that in my eyes he was human, had dignity. I did not want him to feel a separation between us, or even a trace of humiliation or disdain. I wanted him to know that him and I are the same, when all is said and done. The enormity of practical distance between him and me (my phone bill was probably more than his monthly earnings) made my inability to even speak his language all the more disturbing. I could not sit mute like an impotent sheep of a human being.

“Heida Ibnac?” Is this your son, I asked him.

“Ay, ibnee.” Yes, my son, he replied.

“Shoo Ismu?” What is his name, I asked.

“Jumah.”

Rania’s assistant returned, handing him a bag with the rest of her food: a sandwich, two peaches.

“I never give them money,” she said. “But I always try to give them food. At least you know where that goes.”

The man and his son walked away from us. “Sharafna.” I said-nice to meet you. I did not hear his reply.

I watched him open the food, offering the best parts to his son first.

I looked at her. “That was a heroic act.” I said.

“It was nothing. It was the only thing I could do.”

“No,” I said, “you could have kept your lunch. You’ll be hungry now.”

“It’s ok. I had enough to get me to dinner.”

I wanted to hug her, to pull her to me and thank her. To thank her for showing me that there is hope, that there is good. I wanted to tell her about the joy she had given me at that moment.

She turned to me. “This yogurt is going to spoil, I am going to take it inside.”

“I guess I should be going too.” I said.

“You know,” she said, “it is better to eat with someone after all.”

I smiled at her.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Zeina.”

“Nice to meet you Zeina.”

Shitting and Eating

Last night I attended a conference held by the French Consulate in association with the Governate of Beirut and a couple of well-known Lebanese architects, Bernard Khoury and Youssef Tohmé. The subject of discussion was public spaces in Beirut, an increasingly pressing issue in that private development has been steroidal the last few years here and public spaces are limited, unappealing and increasingly encroached upon.

First, I think Tohmé’s definition of public space, as “the space where the individual and society encounter each other,” is both accurate and useful. A corollary of that is that public space is where the individual and society assert their respective natures; define the rules for interaction and borders between their domains. In a concrete way, in most places, it is the state that represents “society” most of the time and the individual who represents himself. Tohmé pointed out that what we see increasingly in the West is that public spaces have become more and more rigid in the rules of their use and individuals have, therefore, less and less space to express themselves. In Lebanon, it is quite the contrary. One notices that individuals express themselves to such an extent that they start to dominate the public space and the almost total absence of the state, authority of any kind and even agreed upon rules means that public spaces become the scenes for negotiations between various sets of users. That can be interesting but ultimately it leads to chaos.

In the same way, the increasing oppression of individual expression in some places and countries ultimately leads to chaos as well as, past a certain point, the lines that authorities are trying to hold break and mass expression, demonstrations and the like come into being.

As with most things in life it is about balance.

Another point Tohmé raised was the importance of the individual seeing himself and his values represented in the public spaces. This point triggered an interesting string of thoughts for me.

A couple of weekends ago, I walked along the white sand beach of Ramlet-al-Bayda near the southern edge of Beirut. From a small distance, the beach looks beautiful and enticing, but actually walking on it, one realizes that the crowds have disposed of their day’s garbage literally at their feet. Sukleen, the local sanitation company, cleans the beach regularly, so it is fairly clear that these people are not just sitting on a dirty beach, not are they simply littering (which in my mind is disposing of trash in a way that disrespects others), they are happily living in their own garbage. No, I do not see myself in these public spaces, but clearly many Lebanese do-the place was jam packed with people.

I started thinking that it was a shame that so many people were so uneducated and filthy as to be content to spend a day rolling around in their own waste. I wished for the power to force them to clean it up. And then it occurred to me, this public space does not only look like them, it looks like the elite Lebanese too, those who hold the reins of power.

When one considers the big land owning families that have, for several generations, presided over the destruction of the natural environment of the country and the uglification of the built environment, it becomes clear that those elites also don’t mind living surrounded by garbage. Of course they have armies of servants who clean up their immediate surroundings. Of course they would not deign to set foot on the public beaches surrounded by the hoi-polloi and its accumulated filth, but they don’t mind spending the day at a private beach, swimming in the sewage that drifts up the coast from any number of cities that do nothing to treat it. They don’t mind building over the last little bit of green, even if it is the last little bit of green in their own town, neighborhood or street. In a very simple way, they are also happy to live in their own garbage, their own shit (literally, they are swimming and water skiing in sewage from their own houses) and none of this seems to strike a false note for them.

Tohmé’s intellectual structure has given me the tool I needed to clarify one of the major problems facing this nation. It is that from top to bottom these people have not learned that basic piece American aphorism which contains a universal truth necessary for survival-don’t shit where you eat.

Only Say the Word

The title above is taken from a book by Niall Williams. That book, like most of my books, I bought many, many years ago, for reasons I don’t recall. It is a pleasant book, quite intense emotionally with perhaps not enough depth to balance the constant flow of feeling. I am not really interested in writing a book review, however. Instead, there are two aspects to the story that I found very intriguing in that they probe mysteries in my own life and they are written authentically and clearly by the hand of someone with experience.

To give some context, a brief synopsis will be helpful. The book is written partly in the present and partly in the distant past, each period delineated by a separate typeface. Some chapters recount the childhood, early adulthood and marriage of the narrator, others, on a roughly alternating basis, are written in the present tense by the narrator who has recently lost his wife and is struggling to adjust his life and his children’s life following that sad event. The Narrator is Irish, but emigrates at around the age of twenty to New York after meeting his future, American wife in Dublin. They return together to his home town after having been married for a couple of years.

He is an aspiring writer she dreams of becoming a painter. When they first marry, there is a period of idealism where he looks for copywriting work to sustain them while he works on his novel, and she takes a job laboring in a plant nursery in the meantime. He quickly gives up looking for work, going into New York and depositing his printed CV’s in the trash after spending the days reading in bookshops around the city. Eventually he does find a job, as a box boy in a bookstore. They move into a small attic apartment and subsidize the rent by doing landscaping work for the owner. At first the excitement of being alone, adult and in love sustains them even though they have no money and their work leaves them no time to pursue their respective ‘higher callings.’ But eventually they come to the realization that the fact of merely surviving is not enough. It is quite a sad and scary moment in the story. To me the most fascinating part of the book is then, at the moment when they come face-to-face with the potential for failure, with the impotence of their love to conquer the facts of the world, and in fact, with the power of those very facts to grind their love and ideas of themselves into dust, to destroy them as lovers and as individuals.

That moment in the story is so significant to me because I have two siblings who must have faced a time like that. Both of them have pursued a life of artistic endeavor. And I have always wondered what it must be like to stand at the point where one stands at a fork in the road, one path leading to a safe, restrained life the other to a precipice over which one must jump hoping that one’s talent is real and that an audience exists and that the fibers of one’s work will be able to make a net strong enough to stop the fall. What fear and what confidence someone would need to overcome the fear.

In the story, they leave America and go back to his hometown in Ireland, making a homecoming trip, reversing the tide of generations of emigration and nominally leaving the land of the free for the old country. In Ireland they find a different freedom, liberation from the money-drive of America, and the two of them manage, through tides of doubt, to make it. This homecoming is the second part of the story that resonated with me. His was a homecoming, a simple return to complicated roots. For his wife it was also an important transition, albeit in the opposite sense. At the surface level, she was resetting her life, tabula rasa. But at a deeper level, she also seemed to going back home, as if her time in America, the generations her family had been there, was a hiatus away from where she really belonged, where her roots were still buried.

That part of the story fascinates me because I feel like she must and at the same time the way he does. I feel the rootlessness of my American side, the rootedness of my Lebanese side. I feel a torrent of freedom when I contemplate the rootlessness but a meandering nihilism is just beneath the surface. The other half of me with its roots, provides just enough sense of place, belonging and feeling of meaning that the nihilism loses its potency. But, of course, that rootedness comes with a string attached, almost literally, a thread of attachment that provides security, but also limits flight and movement, and which carries a tinge of sadness and the burden of obligation. And to have these two vibrating contradictions is its own special kind of torture, providing access to a choice that almost no one has, that is almost impossible to make. Do you want to be at home, safe but caged or free but alone and faced with the ultimate pointlessness of life?

Postscript: I was thinking about the contrast between the experiences related in this book, the idealism lived, the fear faced with courage, and even the move to Europe implemented and not just dreamed about, and the events of Revolutionary Road, where a young couple who meet easier and more traditional early success and where the fear of losing position, safety and status ultimately overwhelms their vision of their future, and in some ways destroys them. The two books are parallel and yet in their key points take opposite turnings with opposite results.

That Fucking Bitch

For several days I woke up and all I could think about was that fucking bitch in Scarsdale (J). It all started back in July. My son and I were supposed to spend our only weekend in New York with her and, her Husband, who is my friend and ex-colleague. A couple of weeks before that, Israel had launched its latest war on Gaza.

Helpless as we all were in front of the spectacle of the latest Zionist massacre of the Palestinians, at least now there was Facebook so that I could ‘share’ my frustrations, bits of journalism I appreciated and, above all, photos showing the Palestinian side of the story.

I received a message from J a few days beforehand:

“X, I’m surprised given your great jewish friends, the level of anti semitism you show in all these posts.”

I decided, that after 15 years of friendship, the least I could do was review my posts and call. I did. I found them virulently anti-Israeli but not at all anti-Semitic. [To be pedantic, a Semite is pretty much anyone from the eastern Mediterranean, Arab world and possibly beyond, but I’ll adopt for this purpose the widely understood meaning ‘anti-Jewish’].

We exchanged messages and we talked and eventually, with I have to admit, some foreboding, not wanting to throw a real wrench in the works of our friendship, I took my son and we went to their house. It may have been just my sense, but the whole weekend had a chill to it. It felt to me there was an elephant following us from room to room. I spoke to J about the issue, she admitted she couldn’t argue politics, and we moved on to other things. Her husband did not mention it. However he did do one odd thing. At some point he mentioned his religion and my son, who had no idea what their religion was, asked him if he was Jewish. He said yes, and then rolled his head down and showed him the top of his bald pate “No little horns, see?” The presumption that I had educated my son to be anti-Jewish was pretty fucking offensive, but I let it slide.

Instead of realizing that I gave so little a toss about his religion as to never have mentioned it to my son, who had been to their house many times, he did not pick up on the meaning of his ignorance and chose to implicate us both as anti-Semites, and me as a professor in the field. Sunday afternoon came and I was happy to leave. It had not been an enjoyable weekend. The boredom that comes from a sense of being judged, of having to be careful, a lack of enjoyment, a lack of liberty had pervaded everything about those two days. And more than that, there was a funereal feeling as if we were at the wake of our friendship.

As a parting gift, she gave me a bag of flour to make arepas, a Venezuelan corn bread. I made the last batch a week ago. I went on Facebook thinking I’d see what was going on with her. I had been unfriended. I thought ‘what a slimy action, this unfriending after 15 years, with no attempt at discussion.’ A simple message saying that she could not face the stories and so would be avoiding me online would have been fine.

I sent her this message:

“This morning I made the second half of the arepas from the PAN you gave me. Reminded me of you and so I went into facebook to checkout what you’re up to. I realised after a few minutes that you’d unfriended me. I think that deserves some comment. 

The first few months I knew D I made it clear that I did not like Israel. In those days Israel was a deeply unpleasant state, an occupying power in my father’s homeland, and was already guilty of mass atrocities in Lebanon and elsewhere and had the blood of tens of thousands of Lebanese civilians, not to mention other nationalities, on their hands. In those days they pretended to be civilised and the world was mostly fooled. 

Today Israel has been unmasked to the world for what it has been since at least the 1980’s, a country that runs on apartheid principles, that has a fascist-religious leadership dominated by ultra-orthodox Jews, that makes no pretense of being part of a place that respects non-Jews and is the centre of a spider web of violence and disorder in regional affairs. The leadership is arrogant, and, in my eyes, worse than the Afrikaans ever were to the blacks.

However, I am not anti-Semitic. If I were, and I am using the incorrect but generally used meaning of Semite as Jew when in fact it means Levantine, I would not have been friends with you and D for 15 years. I would certainly not count among my best friends, Jews. But you have to realise something very important. Today most Jews and almost every Israeli is trying to equate anti-Israeli with anti-Semitic. Well I will tell you this: if Judaism is a religion whose philosophy expressed in action boils down to Israel, then Judaism has a major problem. If, on the other hand, Israel is a distortion of Judaism the way ISIS is a distortion of Islam (thank god we Christians have got our religion under control for now so there are no Christian analogs) then every Jew who is a decent human being should be opposed to Israeli behavior just like any Muslim who supports ISIS is a supporter of terror and barbarism but any Muslim who stands and disowns ISIS or, like the hundreds of thousands who are fighting them across the region, works against them, is actually helping his religion by showing people that this little pocket of ultra-extremism is not the only face of their religion.

And if you require me to a supporter of the murderous, disgusting, fascist, religious-extremist regime to the South of Lebanon in order to count you among my friends, well then, I guess we will not be friends.

You need to decide whether Israel is more important than being a human being. In the end, the choice has more bearing on you than anyone else because Israel itself in on the slippery slope to international pariah status, and I am happy to see the distaste in which the country is held, even in the one place where propaganda held off the truth for a long time, the US. 

Let me not mince words. Israel, under its current regime or under any regime similar to those that have ruled since 1980 disgusts me as a human being, and I will rejoice at its downfall.

Friend me, unfriend me…that is not the issue. Try being a human before a Jew, try being a Jew before a supporter of Israel.”

The ensuing to and fro involved her regurgitating some tired propaganda that I can’t believe is still spread by anyone it is so outdated and discredited, and, more importantly, calling me names:

Your pathological hatred towards Jews and Israel goes beyond any rationale or decency and equals that of the Nazis and their brethren. What have the Israelis done to you, a Christian Lebanese, besides assisting you against almost being expelled from your own country?

 Aside from the laughable claim that Israel has assisted anyone in the region, my favourite part is the jump to me being a Nazi. I am impressed the way someone who has known me well for 15 years can call me a Nazi and believe that I am a compulsive hater of Jews who may have a mental illness causing irrational hatred of Jews. Amazingly she let such a person into her home a few months ago. Wasn’t she worried that my illness might lead me to slit their throats in the night? Wasn’t she offended by my presence to the extent that she should have forbid me coming to see her family? Or was she one of those fearful, obedient Jews who would have followed Nazi orders and not raised her voice as she was shepherded to the death train, afraid to not invite me to her home?

This whole incident raises a lot of questions for me. Is the cognitive dissonance in a decent person who also supports Israel so high that they must isolate themselves from the anti-Israeli point of view in order to function?

Is the tossing away of a 15 year old friendship something that occurs naturally when politics gets in the way?

Is it really that J is an anti-arab, that cleaning me out of her contact list makes her environment more homogenous and tidy? The same way the Nazis wanted to purify Germany?

Will not the purification by Jews of their contact lists end with the inevitable anti-semitism that results simply by the natural tendencies of groups to hate outsiders, in other words they make themselves into a group of outsiders? Isn’t that a dangerous path to tread? The very path that some early Jewish anti-zionists feared, that by emphasising their Jewishness over their Englishness, they would end up viewed as Jewish and not English and eventually marginalised.

What should I think about the arrogance needed to exclude the counter-punctual narrative to that extent? Is it arrogance or just fear?

At this point I will admit that with all my Jewish friends there is a slight little something that doesn’t quite connect. I feel close, very close, but it’s like a mirror image, identical in every way, but not the same. Culturally we get along,  but I can never quite belong. Some of it comes from the fact that the social groupings do tend to be almost totally Jewish. I have often found myself the sole Goy, honored but separate. But that doesn’t mean I turn against them, actually it is like a wrinkle in a shirt, I look for ways to smooth it over.

I lived in England for 25 years and left with no English friends who were not also Jews. I lived in France too and only have one non-Jewish French friend. Maybe that is why the accusation has bothered me so much. It casts into doubt the reality of those relationships. Maybe also the fact that 15 years can be tossed aside like a bad lettuce leaf strikes fear into me about the value of those relationships, their sturdiness when put the test, their ability to handle stress and conflict. Isn’t it essential that in our handful of real friends we find people who are not only pleasant to be with in times of calm but will be there when the shit hits the fan?

Or maybe no friendship has that quality. Perhaps it is asking too much of others to plight their fate to yours through thick and thin. Maybe it’s even to much to ask of a wife. In the end, perhaps we are all better off relying on bits of gold in a safe deposit box or the insurance payouts guaranteed by contracts. But isn’t that a cold world, not worth living in. I once read that a corporation can be viewed as a nexus of contracts. If we, human beings, become biological nexuses of contracts, have we not somehow removed the only thing that matters from our lives, namely, love?

What hurt, hurt enough to make me take cover in anger, was her lack of knowledge of me. To call me an anti-Semite struck to the very core of who I am NOT. I should not have invested the relationship with so much value. They were not able to know anything about me after all this time.

Beirut Bereft

A few years ago I bought a photograph by a Lebanese photographer called Ziad Antar. The photo depicts a sort of landmark of unfinished construction in a city that was, until recently, awash in the incomplete. Specifically it is the concrete carcass of a hotel near the southern limit of Beirut right on the Mediterranean Sea. In the foreground is a palm tree growing out of a neat square in a nicely built, wide sidewalk. The sidewalk has other neat squares, but they are devoid of palms. The street is littered with debris, not just litter, but concrete rubble, stones and other heavy objects that speak of destruction and then neglect. The palm tree itself, the symbol of glamorous locations from Tahiti to Rodeo Drive, has not been tended to and has an unfamiliar cluster of dead leaves hanging down underneath the blossom of jagged green ones. The tree and the sidewalk speak of prosperity, strolls by the sea and exciting parties, the hotel carcass whispers forlornly of dreams interrupted and potential glimpsed but then snatched away, just out of reach. The hotel carcass has capitulated to events and no longer cries for the loss of what had been within its grasp.

The series of photos is called Beirut Bereft. And I can’t think of a more accurate word to describe the emotions stirred up by looking at the picture. Today I was sitting and wondering at how that image, the 1/200th of a second of existence captured on paper, of a concrete hulk and a little foreground could make me feel bereft. And it dawned on me that it is not so much creating that feeling in me as awakening it. Because Beirut has caused many of us to feel bereft.

The civil war created two large classes of people. There were those who left, who built lives in America, Africa, the Persian Gulf countries and elsewhere. They were often successful, they married and had children and they thrived in their new homes. But they were bereft. They had lost the soil in which their seeds had been planted and had grown. They had left out of necessity and could not return because of the danger but also because the soil itself had burnt and changed in their absence, unable to support their ambitions.

The second class was made up of those who stayed. Those who managed to live in the moment so effectively that they could convince themselves that war’s end was imminent. And so they stayed in Beirut, around Beirut, in the mountains moving as the battles moved. They survived through caution and luck. But they were also bereft. They lost their destiny, like the hotel carcass in the photo.

The war in Lebanon seems to me, at least, somewhat unique, in that it was more like a TV series than a movie. It progressed in episodes, there were cliffhangers and no one could know when the series would end. Almost every episode ended with the hope of peace, and the following episodes would herald rebuilding, new windows to replace the old shattered ones, but then darkness would return and the cycle would start again. It was easy to believe at each of these junctures, that peace would be durable. It was easy for the exiles to return, and many did, only to have to rip themselves away from their roots again. It was easy for the survivors to believe that their lives were about to start, finally, only to have to face the destruction of their dreams again.

In the series of photographs that comprise Beirut Bereft, it is the sight of concrete carcasses that date not only from 1974, the start of the Civil War, but also 1976, 1978, 1984, 1986 and many other moments, to realize that people so believed in the beginning of normal life that they were willing to start building, to invest fortunes based on their optimism at all those times. The fact that the carcasses were abandoned, tells of the pain and loss the interruption of war caused.

Now, since I have lived here-it has been around five years, I am happy to say that many of those carcasses have been completed. They have been completed during my time here meaning they have been completed almost twenty years after the nominal end of the war. Others have been destroyed and replaced with new structures, an even more total form of achieving their objective. I am happy to say it because I see in that completion the actualization of dreams. As I see in the people around me the actualization of their dreams, at least sometimes. I see around me dreamers who are thwarted only by the vagaries of life, not by the circumstance of civil dissolution, hatred and societal collapse. Ziad Antar is a case in point. His photographic career got its start when he was given a stock of expired film, pre-war pellicles, that had been damaged by water, time and neglect, to practice with. He used this war detritus to create a series of photos called Expired which subsume the faults of the film into the emotional content of the work. Ziad has taken the war-waste and done some phoenix-type rising from its ashes. Feeding on the ashes.

The same holds for the talented among Beirut’s architects who have been able to exploit the reconstruction, the chaos of the city to build some remarkable buildings and also their careers. For at least a brief period, Beirut has allowed and even fed the dreams and destinies of its inhabitants. The exiles have been able to return and absorb the nutrients of their native habitat.

And yet, there remain buildings, including the Iconic Murr Tower that, prod us to recall the dangers that are only just out of sight, historically speaking, and just beneath the surface of the society. The Lebanese people are knitted together by a very thin fabric. It is thicker than it was, perhaps it is thicker than it has ever been, but no one really knows if it is thick enough. Certainly there are constant situations that threaten to tear it whether Israeli Violence, the Syrian Civil war, various domestic political intrigues, sectarian tensions, family feuds and even traffic incidents.

While Beirut, for once in my life, did not feel bereft for a few years, the advent of terrorist states, the continual Israeli violence, the support of many countries for terror actions in the region, the sectarian discord, have brought the whole feeling of possibility and promise to a halt yet again. And I wonder now, when I look at the image of the Hotel that never opened, whether the deep feeling of loss and sadness is not for me and my destiny.

Beirut Bereft

placebeyondborders

Murr Tower (let’s hope it truly has expired)

Murr_Tower,_Wadi_Abu_Jmil,_Built_In_1973_by_Ziad_Antar

Fuck, He Has a Nice House

In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy. -Ivan Illich, philosopher and priest (1926-2002)

I was invited to dinner at some friends whose home I haven’t been to in a few years. When I had last been there, it had been a stunningly beautiful construction resulting from the fusion of a completely refurbished old Lebanese house and a modern wing. The décor inside was modern with a hint of French farmhouse with each piece of furniture having been carefully chosen and imported from Europe or Japan. No expense hand been spared, clearly, and the effect was at a sort of tastefully restrained decadence.

This time, there almost no trace of the original incarnation of the home. Everything from the ceilings to the lighting had been changed. The entire contents of the house had been sold off and replaced with excruciatingly well-designed and carefully chosen modern furniture. Additionally, the walls and floors had been given over to a large and well curated art collection including all the current must-have modern artists in the million dollar category.

My first reaction, my initial emotional response to this much less restrained show of decadence and the incredible idea that a brand new and undeniably beautiful house would be completely taken apart and replaced by an even more expensive and carefully studied creation was suffocation. Actually it was worse than that, it was a suffocation born of being crushed under a large weight. The weight was a Sisyphean boulder that had written upon it “in the competition for material success, whatever pathetic accomplishments you may have to your name have now been exposed as trivial. You should give up the race.”

I wanted to find a flaw, a weakness in the material display of wealth or in the characters of the people or at the very least observe them miserable. I wanted some sign that material had come at the cost of something more valuable so that I could at least pose one toe on higher ground. But honestly I knew that would be a cheap and unsatisfying shot. Their taste in art, furnishing and architecture was, to my eye, unassailable. They seemed no less or more happy than most people I know. They seemed no closer or further from understanding the meaning of life than most people. They were just in far more luxurious surroundings and facing the same imponderables as everyone else.

I was fascinated by my need to bring the owners of this museum-house down. How could that need immediately shoot up to the top of my internal to-do list. I sat with the need and am trying to understand it now by writing about it. At least I can be proud of the fact that I did not give into it, not yet anyway.

The problem with wealth, any amount of it, is that it tends to stratify populations. Is it a coincidence that Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are good buddies? Around me, and this is a very unscientific statement I am about to make, I have noticed that friends and acquaintances have increasingly sorted themselves into groups defined by their material success. The people who jet off on holiday to Namibia and debate whether to travel in first class or on a private plane do not have the same problems or interests, it seems, as those who scour the shelves of Tesco wondering which clothes detergent is the best value.

If the world was truly meritocratic, I suppose wealth and intelligence would correlate and so the stratification by wealth could be seen as simply a by-product of like intellects meeting. But I don’t believe for a minute that the wealth vs. intelligence relationship is that reliable.

Let me go back to Ivan Illich. We live in a consumerist society. I recall a graffiti scrawled near my university that said “Born, Consume, Die” and I think that, unfortunately, there is an increasingly truthful ring to that. It amazes me how little counter-culture there is when it comes to materialism. And perhaps that is society being honest with itself. We could not survive, all seven or eight billion of us on this planet without gulping down enormous quantities of fossil fuel. It was the steam engine that blasted the human race through the previous high points reached by civilization. By some measures human civilization is now 20 to 30 times more complex and sophisticated than it was at the peak of western or eastern civilization prior to the adoption of fossil fuel. So I guess we are all, ultimately, reliant on consumption, non-renewable exploitation of the natural world we were given. 

In the consumerist world, self expression is achieved through the transaction: the purchase and display of material goods. So to be unique and creative is to be able to find something new to buy, something that no one else has bought but that will inspire envy and desire in others. Leadership in the world of consumption requires careful digging through markets to find that thing that will both express your qualities but that is also rare enough to express your uniqueness.

Then those with large resources and refined tastes can lead where others will only struggle to follow. The leadership though, requires permanent change. If someone buys a new shirt from an obscure Japanese brand which only sells their goods in Tokyo, he is a leader. But his leadership falls away when other people start to imitate him or, god forbid, the brand goes mass market. So he must constantly be on the move. Even if his purchase were of something insanely expensive, a ridiculous piece of modern art, for example, that others could not easily imitate, he would lose his leadership with the passage of time because people would digest and become accustomed to the no-longer-new acquisition. So the addictive nature of consumption may come from the need for status, the need to be moving to be seen or maybe the need to constantly refine your expressed image of yourself to the world.

And for the rest of us who cannot follow, the world is simply a source of envy. The person with the newer television, the sleeker kitchen appliances, the larger Anthony Gormley sculpture or the longer range private jet makes us feel inadequate. And there is nothing most people can do once they are in that dynamic. The material resources will, by definition, not be available to all. The ability to lead by consumption, to express oneself through materialism, to gain status by showing good taste all fall away leaving a material world with only utilitarian possibilities and a sea of envy.

And knowing that such envy exists is one of the gratifications that the materialist leader needs. His leadership is in some way defined by it. However, at the same time that envy, that little hatred, separates him from others, making him a little bit more miserable. It has to. He needs to be envied by people that matter to him, so he needs, in a way, the hatred of those he values.

And that leaves only one sane choice, which is to opt out of it all. But boy, do that and you are on your own. No one likes the guy who leaves the game in the middle…he usually ends up sitting by himself.