The Millennial Problem (?)

Posted in Worldly on September 6, 2015 by Daria

Тhere was a time when I wondered at what propelled people to spread religion, to work at converting the heathen and nonbelieving masses, and egged on crusaders and missionaries alike. Surely, I thought, why should you spend your time worrying about the souls of others, so long as you’re certain that your soul is going unto salvation?

Then, one day, pacing through the labyrinth of my family’s dusty apartment, I suddenly felt I understood them.

When we (and I pause here and wonder what exactly I mean by “we”; the Westerners, the higher-educated, the unpersecuted, the financially secure…?) speak of “progress” and “civilization,” we take our own (wholly secular) vision of things as they are and should be, and accept and project the idea that our values, our distinction between right and wrong, are universal. And to peoples who do not share these values, we extend a hand, in a fashion, and say, convert – and we can show you a better world. We can save you in this life.

When Vera Brittain in her Testament of Youth (having just finished the book and allowed Brittain’s thoughts and thought processes to influence mine over the past couple of weeks, her Testament has, admittedly, some connection with what I write here) calls the British Empire “that conveyor of civilisation to primitive peoples” (p. 586, Penguin), the reader of 2015 winces. In a world that has inherited the postcolonial legacy, such words and thoughts are inadmissible.

But I wonder if there still is a force in the world that considers itself – without qualms – to be a “conveyor of civilisation.” Certainly, such a force no longer possesses a distinctive national character – one may even call it a globalized force – but it exists, ready to propel its values of equal rights and individual freedoms onto all those who should wish to accept them, certain, like the missionaries of old, that it is doing good.

And perhaps it is doing good. I am not protesting that we (again, that elusive and incriminating “we”!) are making a mistake in believing equality and personal liberty to be of the highest importance. After all, our definition of a civilized world is probably not what it had been under Queen Victoria. I simply see that we echo the missionary rhetoric.

We echo the missionary rhetoric because we have found that we cannot be Crusaders, not anymore. To bring the world “onto the right path” by force would be tyrannical, despite the righteousness of the position, and we, remembering imperialism and fascism, and having tried and miserably failed to secure a stable world order by those very methods, are certain, at least, that such methods must at all costs be avoided. World leaders and international organizations are straightjacketed more than ever. It is the U.N. syndrome: good intentions all around, but an inability to act upon them, for fear of infringing upon the self-determining rights of another social or political body. Teetering between “progress” and powerlessness, the representatives of governments resign themselves to sulky sanctions and passive-voice speeches.

We, cosmopolitan citizens, don’t know what we want, of course. (I am drawing closer to the title and point of this post.)  At first there is a call that the West should stop its invasive tactics and leave other countries alone. Then the bodies of displaced peoples start washing up on European shores; now we say that the West must fix what it broke in the Middle East and make the place habitable again so that the migrants can go home and we can all live jolly and separate in this world.

Everybody is busy building walls at furious speeds, certain that if we push the uncomfortable, the terrible, behind the wall and leave it to sort itself out, we’ll be able to live in peace, each of us staring in opposite directions.

But walls will not work anymore – not when most of the human beings on this planet are connected by an instantaneous network that laughs in the face of spacial and physical barriers.

The famous commandment runs, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself – and in this brave new world, where we each have more than a billion neighbors, is it one’s duty to love them all?

And that, that is the millennial problem. The world has always been a horrid mess, but for the first time in human history we can see this horrid mess before us, every single day, on our virtual walls and newsfeeds and in 140 characters or less, and this proximity evokes a sense of personal, individual responsibility. The millennial problem is not arrogance, or cold estrangement, or superficiality.  The millennial problem is cognizance.

I wanted to say, originally, “the millennial curse” – but “curse” has a negative connotation. Perhaps this cognizance is a negative thing, but the immense power of cognizance, and the immense power of the tool that grants this cognizance, cannot be denied.

I don’t know what we’re fighting when we vacillate between philanthropic and Darwinian urges – a human condition, maybe, internal and external to ourselves. It’s the eternal question of whom we’re living for. Shall we stick to selfish survivalism? Or shall we give the coat when they have taken the cloak? Is there even a point to giving the coat – haven’t we, for so many centuries, across the dogmas of so many religions and so many civilizations, been busy confusing charity with change – and ought we confuse the two still?

I don’t understand why older generations should be surprised when the same social media that makes us feel responsible becomes our method of action, no matter how vain and senseless. Is it surprising that we should choose to express our concern, our guilt, maybe, through the “shares” and the “forwards” and the donations to the HONYs of the world? I have listened to my peers wrestle with the same questions I’ve posed – good, cognizant, worried people, who demand of themselves, “Must I care? Is it right to care? Am I guilty before somebody, or am I not?”

As I type this, I am angry with myself; I had let these thoughts simmer and linger for a couple of weeks now, and as I finish this post, I am aware that my writing is unorganized, my thoughts and examples vague (in that abstract,  polite fashion of politicians and government representatives who seek to offend no one and thus say nothing). I want to return to Vera Brittain for a moment, because she, at least, did not shy from directness and clarity in her opinions, and no matter how much I may disagree with some of them, I appreciate her ability to deliver an opinion so clearly that the recipient knows where she stands on it. Some of Brittain’s observations, now a century old, still apply today, as it often curiously happens, proving that human nature is unchanging, specially, temporally:

“Now, like the rest of my generation, I have had to learn again and again the terrible truth of George Eliot’s words about the invasion of the personal preoccupations by the larger destinies of mankind, and at last to recognise that no life is really private, or isolated, or self-sufficient. People’s lives were entirely their own, perhaps – and more, justifiably – when the world seemed enormous, and all its comings and goings were slow and deliberate. But this is so no longer, and never will be again, since man’s inventions have eliminated so much of distance and time; for better, for worse, we are now each of us part of the surge and swell of great economic and political movements, and whatever we do, as individuals or as nations, deeply affects everyone else. We were bound up together like this before we realised it; if only the comfortable prosperity of the Victorian age hadn’t lulled us into a false conviction of individual security and made us believe that what was going on outside our homes didn’t matter to us, the Great War might never have happened. And though a few isolated persons may be better for having been in the war, the world as a whole will be worse; lacking first-rate ability and social order and economic equilibrium, it will go spinning down into chaos as fast as it can – unless some of us try to prevent it.” (p. 472.)

This was post-war Vera, writing in 1925; in 1915, the bright-eyed centennial and her intelligent, academic peers concluded of the age they found themselves in:

” (1) The age is intensely introspective, and the younger generation is beginning to protest that supreme interest in one’s self is not sin or self-conscious weakness or to be overcome, but is the essence of progress.

(2) The trend of the age is towards an abandonment of specialisation and the attainment of versatility  – a second Renaissance in fact.

(3) The age is in great doubt as to what it really wants, but it is abandoning props and using self as a medium of development.

(4) The poetry of this age lies in its prose – and in much else that I have no time to put down since it is nearly 2 a.m.” (p. 125)

Such words, in their loftiness, in their 2 a.m.-ness, make me smile. Apply them to Brittain, apply them to us. Is there a difference? Perhaps there is, in fact, no such thing as a millennial… only youth.

Penny for your Thoughts, Pebble for your Wish

Posted in Abstract, Experience on June 16, 2015 by Daria

Rivane Neuenschwander’s exhibition at the Tate St. Ives draws on a Brazilian tradition. A wish is written on a ribbon; that ribbon is tied with three knots around a wrist or an ankle; when the ribbon falls, the wish is granted.

In the psychedelically bright striations of hundreds of hanging ribbons there live the wishes that others have left. We are invited to take one. Some are banal, others sage. A few are funny, all are sad. I wish for beauty. I wish to graduate. I wish for world peace. I wish wishes could come true.

***

A port is paradoxically stable and changing. It is an auxiliary of the sea: the tides are constant – what leaves always returns – and yet, no pebble on the shore is quite like another. And yet, there is the possibility of leaving, the possibility of motion. Ferries dock and disappear overnight, and the horizon, over which the sun rises with such regularity, hides ever-stranger lands from view and beckons, beckons.

***

Pebbles are strewn along the beach in a band like the multicolored stars of a galaxy. No two are the same. The sea has worked an exercise in infinity.

We walk along the water, and she looks for patterns – bold, exciting, marked-up things. I search for perfection of form. I realize this, and laugh to myself.

*

Where is the spherical stone?

Where is the thing without flaw?

*

In the hand of man,

In the eye of man,

In the mind of man.

***

It is time to go back. I have been living a life as if stolen, a sweet life, luscious, deep-red as wine, but if I drink any more of it I fear it will turn my head. In a landscape comfortable, beautiful, and delightful, I, estranged but loved, have floated in near-idyllic limbo for a year. Now there is a plane waiting for me, its engines already idling on the runway of my dreams.

Who knows! I may go back further than I intend. Time-travel is a perilous thing, best done rarely; it has adverse effects on the heart. The surgeon general recommends against it.

But it is time, I think.

I think of the wishing room. There was one wish I had particularly liked: 1) Know your next step. 2) Pay your debts. 3) Be in love.

They seem less wishes than words to live by. A good credo. I can approve of it. Me, I picked up the wish that had, for me, summarized all wishing: ‘I wish I had a turtle and there were no wars.’ Straddling both the realizable and the impossible, the understandably selfish and the dutifully philanthropic, it is a wish that makes me smile.

Daydreams

Posted in Abstract on April 16, 2015 by Daria

It seems to me that there are two ways to live, and we must choose one or the other. The first involves being the best person you can be – loving, forgiving, openhanded and openhearted – and risk being cheated, used, and trod upon, but hoping that your actions will shed some light, if only on one other life, if only in some sad corner; the second is to be cynical, to ossify your heart and to dismiss all notions of reform, all possibilities of redemption, and to guard yourself against the tempest that is the world.

Now, the problem is that we hardly choose definitively. I ricochet each day between the two, and most of us attempt to settle on a medium – we spread our love among family and friends, give to charities occasionally, distrust the government.

To be openhanded and openhearted out of wisdom, and not naiveté; to know that you will bleed, but permit yourself to be wounded, anyway; that is heartbreaking, that is admirable, that is Christlike.

I don’t think I believe in God, but I’m not too sure; I certainly don’t believe in heaven, hell, or purgatory, and I certainly don’t believe (and here I grow disdainful in tone) in the type of God that is an all-powerful being who has nothing better to do than test the allegiance of his puny devotees by ordering them to kill their children; I rankle at the idea that any source of knowledge should be denied to me, tree or otherwise; I am arrogant enough and narcissistic enough to tremble before nothing. I do believe that religious scriptures are the rules for a world order, created by humans, invented by humans, in an attempt to tie humanity’s hands behind its back, as our secular governments do today. I refuse to spend two hours of my life per week in a congregation being told that I ought to be good, when I can well enough figure it out for myself. I believe I have a soul that is separate from my body. I am vaguely curious about what will happen to it when I die, but refuse to accept any sort of explanation, for no one’s come back yet with enough empirical evidence to convince me.

I believe it is possible that the universe contracts and expands in a sort of giant heartbeat that lasts for billions upon trillions of years, longer than the human mind can comprehend. I also believe that there might be a being out there, somewhere, sometime, residing maybe in that place which is before life, after death, between worlds, for whom the heartbeat of our universe happens in the blink of an eye.

(Would such a creature be something akin to God? That is why I said before, I don’t think I believe in God, but I am quite intrigued and open to the possibility of such a creature existing.)

Perhaps our universe is this creature’s heart. Perhaps all of time and space is simply a body, within a body, within our body… perhaps inside of us exist other, infinite universes – which would explain why neurons, when placed under a microscope, remind us of some Hubble-reported nebulae. Perhaps the suspicion that this might be so gives us our concept of infinity. Perhaps numbers are the code which helps translate the nature of all time and space (alas, poetry, doomed to be forever second-best to mathematics and the concept of the zero!).

But I also believe in squares of chocolate, in lace curtains, in muddied boots left outside the door after having walked through the fields in March, and tiptoeing across wooden floors in muddied stockings. I believe in the smell of a fireplace and in the taste of cream. I believe in the sound of the a new book’s spine cracking open, the anticipation of it.

Travels, IV: Big City

Posted in Abstract, Experience on April 16, 2015 by Daria

March 17th. Today was the first time I went to London. But it was unremarkable, just as I thought it would be. I slipped into it like an eel returning into a warm, familiar pool. It closer over my head in opaque ripples, and I was at peace.

The city rejuvenates me, as the countryside rejuvenates others. Indeed, I wonder how anyone could ever feel stifled in a city, while I myself am soothed. Here, I relax into easy anonymity. I float along the avenues, faceless, voiceless, completely free. I owe nothing to anybody. I do not need to be complaisant, pleasant, nor wait politely for the crosswalk to change.

In this place the sky never grows dark. It is lit up from below. Twilight falls over a park like a cloak, a silk one that a child would throw up into the air to watch it billow back down, serenely, soundlessly. I walk among lawns, the colors of pastels in shadow, and, in the distance, glittering like a chain of bright, round beads, a boulevard hums. That shushing sound is dear to me – it is the movement of a thousand cars down one great street, sounding somewhere on the periphery of my being, soothing as a lullaby.

My mind is pleasantly separate from my body, a body whose feet ache in a most familiar fashion, having stamped their way across miles and miles of cement. I have felt the hard sidewalk crawling up my ankles, burrowing into my shins, splinter by splinter. For an instant all worry and care is remote. Only the body yearns for rest, but the evening is purple, silken, eternal.

The Right to Tell Stories (Even the Cruel Ones)

Posted in Experience, Literary, Worldly on February 21, 2015 by Daria

I was sitting in a chapel today (with the wholly secular purpose of listening to some good music) when I reminded myself that I’d dashed down some thoughts about a month back with the intention of posting them. The killings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris were on everybody’s mind, and, by strange coincidence, I had ended up on Youtube one evening, watching the provocatively titled “JOHN CLEESE DESPISES CHRISTIANITY.” 

In the clip are gathered John Cleese, Michael Palin, Malcolm Muggeridge, and the Bishop of Southwark in a post-Life of Brian interview. In 1979 the (acerbic and utterly fantastic) film had gotten itself banned in various countries, and everybody was excited to throw in their two cents into the sort of debates about blasphemy and religion where tensions run high but nothing really gets resolved. The short of it is, Cleese and Palin protest against the accusation that they’re satirizing Christ and the life of Christ in Life of Brian; Muggeridge and the Bishop take offense at the lighthearted portrayal of a crucifixion (stubbornly ignoring the point that it’s not exactly the Crucifixion) and repeatedly make their taking of offense known. The “debate” continues in this vein for some time.

Now, whether Life of Brian is a satire of Christianity or religion or merely first-century society, I don’t really care. (I do think it’s phenomenal satire, and Monty Python’s best work to boot.) But what this clip of the interview got me thinking about was the untouchability of some subjects, the restrictions on some stories.

The 1979 response to a received parody of Jesus conflated, for me, with the 2015 response to a received parody of Muhammad. I had on my mind, also, David Brooks’ New York Times Op-Ed, “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo,” where he argues of the Charlie Hebdo magazine: “…if they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.”

Well… why? If a 2015 caricature of Jesus had been circulated on an American university campus, would it have gotten accused of hate speech and shut down? Probably not. How silly Muggeridge and the Bishop appear to us today: we would argue that these men have no true argument, that they are incapable of understanding that their holy idol is not, in fact, untouchable, not above jest or satire.

But Muhammad appears to be. Funnily enough, Muggeridge points out in the interview, in reference to 1979 England, “If you’d made that film about Muhammad, you see, it would have been an absolute hullaballoo in this country… and all the sort of, you know, anti-racial, anti-racialist people would have risen up in their might.”

There’s a question of “our-ness” and “their-ness” here, it seems to me. Jesus is fair game because he is familiar, he is white, Western man’s territory – and one can deform one’s own possessions. Besides, you’d say, Life of Brian is acceptable because the West has gotten a lot more relaxed about Jesus’ untouchability (John Cleese quips that nobody got burned at the stake for the making of the film – an “advance,” he calls it). You just can’t do that with Islam, you’d say. You can’t toss the idea of the Qu’aran as lightly as you toss the idea of the Bible. That’s cultural insensitivity.

Permit me to add another, seemingly irrelevant, anecdote. Sometime back I overheard, at university, the complaint that Macklemore, with the song “Same Love,” was so prolific in representing and supporting the gay community – even as there were so many other artists who were actually gay and could and ought to take up the cause.

Isn’t there a common thread here? Sure, the defense of Mohammad and the condemnation of Macklemore are of two different registers, no doubt about it – but both seem to be denying the idea that the human experience is universal. And freedom of expression, if it is to be universal, means that – regardless of one’s condition, birth, upbringing, nationality – an individual has access to the totality of human experience, planar and temporal.

If you were to say that I – white, Western, female, straight – ought to not tell of the Prophet Muhammad, or a homosexual man’s life, or the state of Biafra, or Bhutanese refugees – and that I, overall, have little to no right to the things that my existence has not directly touched, to the histories I have not inherited, to the lives I have not lived – then I would be very saddened. For what use is liberty of expression then?

Tell whatever stories you want, you’d reply, as long as they paint cultures and peoples in a good light.

But then we’d live in an idealized world, blind to everything: the grass would always seem more respectable and austere on the other side of the fence. What if I need to paint someone in a bitter light in the hopes that such a portrait will open up more avenues, more discussions, that will, eventually, lead to development, perhaps even to truth?

It makes me anxious, mulling over this idea of a right to stories, to history, to lives – to truth; this right to be cruel – to make language cruel, to make pictures cruel. Hate speech is a crime, and well ought to be – but the task of funambulism with which governments and societies have been dedicated, teetering between “freedom of speech” and “hate speech,” is not an  easy one. For if I say something, doubtlessly someone, somewhere, will be offended. Ought I take that someone’s sensibilities into account? An expression can wound as sorely as a bullet – but if we are never wounded, if we never doubt, isn’t our concept of truth horribly coddled and limited?

I’ll leave with a fragment of the John Cleese interview which had struck me and warmed me, because it resonates today and will always resonate. The Bishop says, “We are deeply disturbed by what is going on in the world, and in this country; now, there is a desire to find truth, to find some answer to our problems; now, the question I would put to you – could you really put your hand on your heart and say that that film is going to help the younger generation in its pilgrimage for truth?”

And John Cleese interrupts to answer, “Absolutely.”

————————————————-

For something cheerfully optimistic, here is a response to the Life of Brian controversy:

 

 

Travels, III: Displacement

Posted in Abstract, Experience on October 10, 2014 by Daria

At daybreak the fog is three feet off the ground. The train rockets through the countryside, through the mist, through the dawn. Trees and posts and sheds appear, sometimes, like cutouts in a silhouette film. Beyond them all is lost country.

And the sun rises, orange, blistering. In the faint fog, wind turbines form graceful lines; I count one, two, three silent giants and the rest dissolve… Their blades rotate in the pink landscape slowly, serenely. At the apex, they catch the orange light, gleam once, and keep turning.

The train whirs, very soft. The turbines whir. The whole world whirs, the sun is proof of that, in its quiet, unassuming, inconspicuous way. Blink once, yawn, and suddenly it is no longer morning, and you wonder how it has crept past you, the sun, the day, everything.

I want to run across these fields, flat and beautiful, at the speed of this bullet train, to kick up the tilled dirt, disturb the harvest. I want to, for the sake of running, for the love of motion, for the love of flying; for stung lungs and numb fingers – because, really, what else can there be? Stand still and watch the world spin around and around and you’ll realize that there is no point to anything at all, no goal, no end, no grand scheme of things. Once you stop running from place to place you realize that you are already being carried, through space, through time, hurtling at unimaginable speeds in unimaginably great circles; and perhaps it is better not to resist that motion, to simply stop and watch and hurtle on.

There is something infinite and perfect about all travel, all passage, all movement. The body in transit cannot see its own end, it has not yet arrived, and so its destination – imagined, conjured, unrealized, intangible and of the future – takes on a million forms, incarnates everything, is all-comprising and therefore, in a most soothing fashion, perfect.

The paradox of cars and trains is the love of displacement and the strange, secret desire not to arrive. Let the roads be long, let them be circular and without end; there is great comfort (and perhaps it is a childish comfort) in the steady drone of an engine, the gentle rocking of wheels, the lights flashing by with precise frequency… such comfort in being passive, being carried, being inactive – and yet moving all the same.

Meanwhile, the train enters the valley – bright valley, so clear and cold in the morning air! – and I think to myself that I ought to stop taking life so seriously.

Autumn, A Memo:

Posted in Poetry on September 23, 2014 by Daria

Autumn is a most excellent season,

Graceful, like a lady in her later years –

She is cool and sad, a little,

As she walks the swept boulevards

Of public parks in an ungarish garderobe

Of brown and gold. A lady

With grown children, who, at supper,

Looks for too long out at her auburn garden,

Becomes preoccupied

With her reflection in the window,

And lets her tea grow cold.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.