The past few years i decided not to go to the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Not anymore. It is expensive. I love films, sure. From the late 80s going to the IFFR was a staple in January. For around ten times i volunteered. More times even. I never counted them.
But it has changed. Streamlined. Commercialized. That is not a bad thing. But i do miss the old IFFR. Dancing n the Hilton.
So yeah, time doesn’t stop. Things keep changing.
It has vanished from my awareness.
But today i went with Henja to the IFFR. The Doelen, KINO, Lantaren Venster. Coffee in the Doelen, lunch in Lantaren Venster. Walking through this city with Henja who is still relatively new in Rotterdam. Made me realize how this city is soaked in my memories.
Happy to see small pink flowers in a garden along the way. And snowdrops!
It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within. And yet, the terror within is far truer and far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant. And this terror has something to do with that irreducible gap between the self one invents — the self one takes oneself as being, which is, however, and by definition, a provisional self — and the undiscoverable self which always has the power to blow the provisional self to bits.
Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be. One hasn’t got to have an enormous military machine in order to be un-free when it’s simpler to be asleep, when it’s simpler to be apathetic, when it’s simpler, in fact, not to want to be free, to think that something else is more important.
An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are. He has to tell, because nobody else in the world can tell, what it is like to be alive. All I’ve ever wanted to do is tell that, I’m not trying to solve anybody’s problems, not even my own. I’m just trying to outline what the problems are.
I want to be stretched, shook up, to overreach myself, and to make you feel that way too.
Art has a social purpose [and] art belongs to the people. It’s not something that is hanging out there that has no connection with the needs of man. And art is unashamedly, unembarrassingly, if there is such a word, social. It is political; it is economic. The total life of man is reflected in his art.
I still feel ridiculously happy. After a fab weekend with two parties, today was a bit quieter. I watched three episodes of the new season of Stranger things. I watched the first season a year ago. I love the kids playing the lead part. Eleven is wonderful. And of course i know the 80s well, i lived through it.
I’m only halfway the new season episodes, it is hard for me to have a clear perspective on it. I do enjoy it. Thoroughly.
Later in the day, after i updated the operating system from 10.8 to 10.13, i watched an episode of the Filosofisch Kwintet. How do we deal with the current technological giants and their commercial use of our data? Is there a good way to deal with it? On a personal level, a social and a political level.
The episode is in english with dutch subtitles.
I’m gonna watch some more Stranger Things for now.
Two weeks ago my internet and television was cut of. I really missed it. I know there is wifi in the library, so i went up there and asked about it. They offered me a trial subscription of three months for free, with which internet access is free.
I took it. Of course. I used to be a member of the library years ago. Ten years ago? Maybe even longer? I started to look for books i would like to read. And ended up in the young adult section, foreign languages. Yay! I read The Hunger Games Catching Fire last week. Yesterday i finished The Maze Runner. I watched the movies after i read the books. Some differences. But still. Today i burrowed two new books. Capital in the Twenty-First Century written by Thomas Piketty, in Dutch. Lets see how i deal with that one. And the Endgame: The Calling written by James Frey and Nils Johnson-Shelton. I did read a bit in both books already. But, judgement is still out.
I also started to watch the chess game played in the big hall of the library. I started to talk a little to the people around the game. And last week, i actually played a game! I lost, of course. Still so used to playing to a computer, still very much better in defensive play than agressive play. I do love to watch it, look at all the moves people make, trying to figure out the thoughts behind it. Hopefully i will get a bit better. And play some more.
Do you remember a guy that’s been
In such an early song?
I’ve heard a rumor from Ground Control
Oh no, don’t say it’s true
They got a message from the Action Man
“I’m happy, hope you’re happy too
I’ve loved all I’ve needed, love
Sordid details following”
The shrieking of nothing is killing, just
Pictures of Jap girls in synthesis and I
Ain’t got no money and I ain’t got no hair
But I’m hoping to kick but the planet it’s glowing
Ashes to ashes, funk to funky
We know Major Tom’s a junkie
Strung out in heaven’s high
Hitting an all-time low
Time and again I tell myself
I’ll stay clean tonight
But the little green wheels are following me
Oh no, not again
I’m stuck with a valuable friend
“I’m happy, hope you’re happy too”
One flash of light but no smoking pistol
I never done good things (I never done good things)
I never done bad things (I never done bad things)
I never did anything out of the blue, woh-o-oh
Want an axe to break the ice
Wanna come down right now
Ashes to ashes, funk to funky
We know Major Tom’s a junkie
Strung out in heaven’s high
Hitting an all-time low
My mother said, to get things done
You’d better not mess with Major Tom
My mother said, to get things done
You’d better not mess with Major Tom
My mother said, to get things done
You’d better not mess with Major Tom
My mother said, to get things done
You’d better not mess with Major Tom
Several science fiction creators commented on the film. Author William Gibson, a key figure in cyberpunk fiction, called the film “an innocent delight I hadn’t felt in a long time,” and stated, “Neo is my favourite-ever science fiction hero, absolutely.” Joss Whedon called the film “my number one” and praised its storytelling, structure and depth, concluding, “It works on whatever level you want to bring to it.” Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky commented, “I walked out of The Matrix … and I was thinking, ‘What kind of science fiction movie can people make now?’ The Wachowski Brothers basically took all the great sci-fi ideas of the 20th century and rolled them into a delicious pop culture sandwich that everyone on the planet devoured.” Director M. Night Shyamalan expressed admiration for the Wachowski Brothers, stating, “Whatever you think of The Matrix, every shot is there because of the passion they have! You can see they argued it out!”. Actor and screenwriter Simon Pegg said that The Matrix provided “the excitement and satisfaction that The Phantom Menace failed to inspire. The Matrix seemed fresh and cool and visually breathtaking; making wonderful, intelligent use of CGI to augment the on-screen action, striking a perfect balance of the real and the hyperreal. It was possibly the coolest film I had ever seen.” Director Quentin Tarantino counted The Matrix as one of his twenty favourite movies from 1992 to 2009.
One of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, Allerleirauh. In Dutch the title of this story is Bontepels, in English All-Kinds-of-Fur, sometimes translated as Thousandfurs. The three dresses in this story had stuck with me.
… three dresses, one as golden as the sun, one as silvery as the moon, and one as bright as the stars; besides this, I wish for a mantle of a thousand different kinds of fur and hair joined together …
I did search for a moon dress this Monday morning. I came across an Alexander McQueen dress. Beautiful. I also found a lovely golden dress and one which to me resembles a star in a way, both from McQueen as well. The mantle of a thousand different kinds of fur i didn’t find. But another fur mantle did pop up which looks lovely.
In another post i will dive deeper into McQueen’s work.
You may read the fairy tale Allerleirauh here, and listen to me reading this aloud. Enjoy!
There was once on a time a King who had a wife with golden hair, and she was so beautiful that her equal was not to be found on earth. It came to pass that she lay ill, and as she felt that she must soon die, she called the King and said, “If thou wishest to marry again after my death, take no one who is not quite as beautiful as I am, and who has not just such golden hair as I have: this thou must promise me.” And after the King had promised her this she closed her eyes and died.
For a long time the King could not be comforted, and had no thought of taking another wife. At length his councillors said, “There is no help for it, the King must marry again, that we may have a Queen.” And now messengers were sent about far and wide, to seek a bride who equalled the late Queen in beauty. In the whole world, however, none was to be found, and even if one had been found, still there would have been no one who had such golden hair. So the messengers came home as they went.
Now the King had a daughter, who was just as beautiful as her dead mother, and had the same golden hair. When she was grown up the King looked at her one day, and saw that in every respect she was like his late wife, and suddenly felt a violent love for her. Then he spake to his councillors, “I will marry my daughter, for she is the counterpart of my late wife, otherwise I can find no bride who resembles her.” When the councillors heard that, they were shocked, and said, “God has forbidden a father to marry his daughter, no good can come from such a crime, and the kingdom will be involved in the ruin.” The daughter was still more shocked when she became aware of her father’s resolution, but hoped to turn him from his design. Then she said to him, “Before I fulfil your wish, I must have three dresses, one as golden as the sun, one as silvery as the moon, and one as bright as the stars; besides this, I wish for a mantle of a thousand different kinds of fur and hair joined together, and one of every kind of animal in your kingdom must give a piece of his skin for it.” But she thought, “To get that will be quite impossible, and thus I shall divert my father from his wicked intentions.” The King, however, did not give it up, and the cleverest maidens in his kingdom had to weave the three dresses, one as golden as the sun, one as silvery as the moon, and one as bright as the stars, and his huntsmen had to catch one of every kind of animal in the whole of his kingdom, and take from it a piece of its skin, and out of these was made a mantle of a thousand different kinds of fur. At length, when all was ready, the King caused the mantle to be brought, spread it out before her, and said, “The wedding shall be to-morrow.” .
When, therefore, the King’s daughter saw that there was no longer any hope of turning her father’s heart, she resolved to run away from him. In the night whilst every one was asleep, she got up, and took three different things from her treasures, a golden ring, a golden spinning-wheel, and a golden reel. The three dresses of the sun, moon, and stars she put into a nutshell, put on her mantle of all kinds of fur, and blackened her face and hands with soot. Then she commended herself to God, and went away, and walked the whole night until she reached a great forest. And as she was tired, she got into a hollow tree, and fell asleep.
The sun rose, and she slept on, and she was still sleeping when it was full day. Then it so happened that the King to whom this forest belonged, was hunting in it. When his dogs came to the tree, they sniffed, and ran barking round about it. The King said to the huntsmen, “Just see what kind of wild beast has hidden itself in there.” The huntsmen obeyed his order, and when they came back they said, “A wondrous beast is lying in the hollow tree; we have never before seen one like it. Its skin is fur of a thousand different kinds, but it is lying asleep.” Said the King, “See if you can catch it alive, and then fasten it to the carriage, and we will take it with us.” When the huntsmen laid hold of the maiden, she awoke full of terror, and cried to them, “I am a poor child, deserted by father and mother; have pity on me, and take me with you.” Then said they, “Allerleirauh, thou wilt be useful in the kitchen, come with us, and thou canst sweep up the ashes.” So they put her in the carriage, and took her home to the royal palace. There they pointed out to her a closet under the stairs, where no daylight entered, and said, “Hairy animal, there canst thou live and sleep.” Then she was sent into the kitchen, and there she carried wood and water, swept the hearth, plucked the fowls, picked the vegetables, raked the ashes, and did all the dirty work.
Allerleirauh lived there for a long time in great wretchedness. Alas, fair princess, what is to become of thee now! It happened, however, that one day a feast was held in the palace, and she said to the cook, “May I go up-stairs for a while, and look on? I will place myself outside the door.” The cook answered, “Yes, go, but you must be back here in half-an-hour to sweep the hearth.” Then she took her oil-lamp, went into her den, put off her fur-dress, and washed the soot off her face and hands, so that her full beauty once more came to light. And she opened the nut, and took out her dress which shone like the sun, and when she had done that she went up to the festival, and every one made way for her, for no one knew her, and thought no otherwise than that she was a king’s daughter. The King came to meet her, gave his hand to her, and danced with her, and thought in his heart, “My eyes have never yet seen any one so beautiful!” When the dance was over she curtsied, and when the King looked round again she had vanished, and none knew whither. The guards who stood outside the palace were called and questioned, but no one had seen her.
She had, however, run into her little den, had quickly taken off her dress, made her face and hands black again, put on the fur-mantle, and again was Allerleirauh. And now when she went into the kitchen, and was about to get to her work and sweep up the ashes, the cook said, “Leave that alone till morning, and make me the soup for the King; I, too, will go upstairs awhile, and take a look; but let no hairs fall in, or in future thou shalt have nothing to eat.” So the cook went away, and Allerleirauh made the soup for the king, and made bread soup and the best she could, and when it was ready she fetched her golden ring from her little den, and put it in the bowl in which the soup was served. When the dancing was over, the King had his soup brought and ate it, and he liked it so much that it seemed to him he had never tasted better. But when he came to the bottom of the bowl, he saw a golden ring lying, and could not conceive how it could have got there. Then he ordered the cook to appear before him.
The cook was terrified when he heard the order, and said to Allerleirauh, “Thou hast certainly let a hair fall into the soup, and if thou hast, thou shalt be beaten for it.” When he came before the King the latter asked who had made the soup? The cook replied, “I made it.” But the King said, “That is not true, for it was much better than usual, and cooked differently.” He answered, “I must acknowledge that I did not make it, it was made by the rough animal.” The King said, “Go and bid it come up here.” When Allerleirauh came, the King said, “Who art thou?” “I am a poor girl who no longer has any father or mother.” He asked further, “Of what use art thou in my palace?” She answered, “I am good for nothing but to have boots thrown at my head.” He continued, “Where didst thou get the ring which was in the soup?” She answered, “I know nothing about the ring.” So the King could learn nothing, and had to send her away again.
After a while, there was another festival, and then, as before, Allerleirauh begged the cook for leave to go and look on. He answered, “Yes, but come back again in half-an-hour, and make the King the bread soup which he so much likes.” Then she ran into her den, washed herself quickly, and took out of the nut the dress which was as silvery as the moon, and put it on. Then she went up and was like a princess, and the King stepped forward to meet her, and rejoiced to see her once more, and as the dance was just beginning they danced it together. But when it was ended, she again disappeared so quickly that the King could not observe where she went. She, however, sprang into her den, and once more made herself a hairy animal, and went into the kitchen to prepare the bread soup. When the cook had gone up-stairs, she fetched the little golden spinning-wheel, and put it in the bowl so that the soup covered it.
Then it was taken to the King, who ate it, and liked it as much as before, and had the cook brought, who this time likewise was forced to confess that Allerleirauh had prepared the soup. Allerleirauh again came before the King, but she answered that she was good for nothing else but to have boots thrown at her head, and that she knew nothing at all about the little golden spinning-wheel.
When, for the third time, the King held a festival, all happened just as it had done before. The cook said, “Faith rough-skin, thou art a witch, and always puttest something in the soup which makes it so good that the King likes it better than that which I cook,” but as she begged so hard, he let her go up at the appointed time. And now she put on the dress which shone like the stars, and thus entered the hall. Again the King danced with the beautiful maiden, and thought that she never yet had been so beautiful. And whilst she was dancing, he contrived, without her noticing it, to slip a golden ring on her finger, and he had given orders that the dance should last a very long time. When it was ended, he wanted to hold her fast by her hands, but she tore herself loose, and sprang away so quickly through the crowd that she vanished from his sight.
She ran as fast as she could into her den beneath the stairs, but as she had been too long, and had stayed more than half-an-hour she could not take off her pretty dress, but only threw over it her fur-mantle, and in her haste she did not make herself quite black, but one finger remained white. Then Allerleirauh ran into the kitchen, and cooked the bread soup for the King, and as the cook was away, put her golden reel into it. When the King found the reel at the bottom of it, he caused Allerleirauh to be summoned, and then he espied the white finger, and saw the ring which he had put on it during the dance. Then he grasped her by the hand, and held her fast, and when she wanted to release herself and run away, her mantle of fur opened a little, and the star-dress shone forth. The King clutched the mantle and tore it off. Then her golden hair shone forth, and she stood there in full splendour, and could no longer hide herself. And when she had washed the soot and ashes from her face, she was more beautiful than anyone who had ever been seen on earth. But the King said, “Thou art my dear bride, and we will never more part from each other.”
Thereupon the marriage was solemnized, and they lived happily until their death.
A dystopia (from the Greek δυσ- and τόπος, alternatively, cacotopia, kakotopia, or simply anti-utopia) is a community or society that is undesirable or frightening. It is translated as “not-good place”, an antonym of utopia.
Images of a dystopian future are custom in futuristic scifi blockbusters like The Hunger Games, Blade Runner, the Terminator series, RoboCop, The Matrix, The Island, WALL-E, Snowpiercer, Divergent and The Maze Runner. And so many many more.
The one book on my reading list, Infinite Jest, is a dystopian novel. Dystopian books are a big theme within young adult fiction.
I have grown up with dystopian stories. Science fiction, as a genre focused on a future in whatever shape, has many dystopian stories. The main story of our present earth right now in 2017 evolves around climate change, war, globalization and post-capitalism. There are many forces going against each other. One time one party seems to be gaining ground, the next time another party wins a fight.
Looking at our planet as it is right now, it is hard to see what path we will take. Nature, the woods, the rain forest, the mammals, fishes, insects, birds: they are taking a beating. But they still survive. And life on this planet is on a ever changing path as it is. For millions of years.
The Maze Runner
It is impossible to predict the future.
Dystopian stories are our dreams of a possible future. Dystopian fictions invariably reflect the concerns and fears of its contemporaneous culture. We can fight. Fight the armies of the rich and powerful. As we do in the stories. We can dream. Dream our live away from our present world. Dream our wishes away in a thought out world in which we are able to stand up. As one amongst many. To get back to living our ordinary lives in our ordinary world the next ordinary moment. It is like we go on a holiday for a couple of weeks to a sunny bright beachy hotel right next to the sea. To get back home and start working again. The ordinary life.
Dystopian stories are a relief from our ordinary lives, a relief from our ordinary work. A way out of our world, dreary as it seems. Dystopian stories are related to our world. It does reflect concerns and fears of our world, as it is today. Yes. A scary story with a true hero fighting for a good cause against the evil enemy.
The increasing interpenetration of government, university, and private firms has led everyone to adopt the language, sensibilities, and organizational forms that originated in the corporate world. Although this might have helped in creating marketable products, since that is what corporate bureaucracies are designed to do, in terms of fostering original research, the results have been catastrophic.
I love several dystopian stories. A few weeks ago i posted about The Handmaid’s Tale, a television series i really like and admire. In the scifi books i have there are many dystopian elements. It is a good area for people who think and dream about our current society to tell a meaningful story. To make up a new world, to set out its details and idiosyncracies and interconnectedness.
But right now, i am more interested in our present world. In what constitutes power. Where are the details here, in this world we live in.
It is so easy to look away. It is so easy to hide within your own cocoon of work and friends and facebook and home. It is so easy to not think about this world where we are right now and which way we are headed.
Our world, this planet we live on, is a wonderful, glorious, beautiful place. We are messing up things, yes. But it still is beautiful.
We should do our most urgent best to make it better again. And many people are doing exactly that. Working in other countries to save chimps or ants or dolphins or whales or the rain forest or the Antarctica or poor hungry people or whatever needs saving.
I’m not believing in all the dystopian stories there are about. No. But i do believe there is something really wrong in our current world. I can not point it out directly. I am thinking of the rich people. Thinking of the powerful people. Thinking of the people telling us what to think, what to feel. But i don’t know for sure.
I’m thinking of the news this evening telling us the economy is doing well this year. Showing images of people walking in shopping streets and spending money. It will rise with 2,4%. Yay!
Which is ridiculous. Stupid. What are people buying? What are they spending their money on?
My mind is not clear about these things. But i am thinking. And talking with friends. And moving my life away from the way of life we are told we should live.
A new story. Not dystopian. Not utopian. Not a dream world, but a world we work hard in. A world in which we are going to miss many of the things making our lives look pleasurable. That is the way i think we should move in.
I should talk about this with other people. Of course. Talk, fight, argue. Make myself clear. Listen to what other people have to say. There are so many things i don’t know anything about.
Because this is an enormous fight. No mistake. Huge!
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
If you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude – but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let’s get concrete …
A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real – you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues”. This is not a matter of virtue – it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.
By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home – you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job – and so now, after work, you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out: you have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.
Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your cheque or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etc, etc.
The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people.
Or if I’m in a more socially conscious form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUVs and Hummers and V12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just 20 stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks …
If I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do – except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible car accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a much bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am – it is actually I who am in his way.
Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat-out won’t want to. But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line – maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible – it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important – if you want to operate on your default setting – then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: the only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.
Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness – awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”
I still have Infinite Jest lying in my bookcase, for the most part unread. I made posts about the book here, on this blog. But it is hard. For me right now. I want some lighter reading.
But i will read it, someday!
This commencement speech is very well thought out. It is almost hurtful to hear the audience laughing at certain passages. Maybe because they recognize something? Something they do experience in their own life?
I don’t know.
I only know myself. The past two and a half years i’ve been working hard on myself. The work is never done. There are failings – times i don’t want to bother – times i’m occupied with myself. Any excuse. Really. But yes, working hard. Smiling at people i walk by on the street. Helping people as much as possible.
Helping a lady at the check-out counter in the supermarket, to get her groceries on the band. And when she is finished helping her to get her stuff in her rollator.
Helping a woman to get a parcel in her bag. I saw her standing at the side of the pavement struggling with it. I simply asked her. Do you need any help?
Talking to a man shouting in the city center, about how people hate him. Walking up to him and telling him: I don’t hate you. What you say doesn’t count for me.
Simple things. Not things i am proud of. Because i see so many more things. So many more people asking for help, and not getting anything.