“We ourselves are maps of strange and sinister districts of towns yet to be constructed…..”
Forgive the indulgence, reader. Our lives are the maps we should make account of, on occasions as fleeting and as fortuitous as this. I am twenty four now, not particularly an age one ever has feelings about. If anything the burden of age is lightest in these noon years. Our projects of early youth start to come to fruition: work, relationships, study, creative channeling of distracted adolescent habits. The fruits of youth come easier and with less trauma theoretically – things groove in whilst responsibilities are supposed to remain less settled. Light, with the pretentious or cynical sophistication of lemon mousse.
That’s the age in theory. If I could quote the age, its complacent and somewhat distracted response (imagine it flicking back its hair, its eyes looking up and right and rubbing its chin guardedly as some quote or truism is plucked from elsewhere – no honestly, those qualities are charming too). That above description doesn’t feel true or real to me. There are no overnight changes – only seasons and colours – and this one is less dark but untethered, effusive, self-consciously naive. But worth noting. Let’s not abandon the enterprise just yet.
Twenty four: the year I try to walk without my crutch. Falling is necessary if one is to learn to walk stably or not at all. For all of 23 and part of 22 I’ve relied on perhaps a placebo to maintain my mood and to take the venom out of sadness. Such things feel necessary when one is working and is overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility. But now the project, doomed from the outset of course, is living. Happiness is the yardstick of our advice to others.
A note on distracted adolescent habits: interests are no good. If you tell me you are ‘interested’ in something, or what your ‘interests’ are, then that is pointless and banal. It is precisely passive, a passing phase, a dithering dilettantism, not something that compels you or possesses you, not something you find yourself doing without any conscious decision. Interests are very dull things, a voyeurism without commitment, a person who tastes wine without getting drunk. Never be interested. Do.
A note on callousness, which seems to be in full synthesis in these noon ages too. Such a process has an organic purpose: callus is the Latin for hard skin, and with age our skin becomes tougher, wider, marked by freckles, blemishes, scars, signs of age. One finds grey hairs. The process of physical aging is fairly obvious, so let’s go gentle into that good night. Fine. I’m more interested in what happens internally.
We tell ourselves very bad things about who we are, negative and unhappy words that stick about what we cannot amount to, what we cannot deserve, or expect, or be capable of. These words we wound ourselves with are, at the time, necessary – the effects of sadness. But the skin hardens over of them, and without undoing their negativity – you are bad, selfish, deluded, stupid, hideous, incapable of happiness, goodness – all that rot, you say reader, and rightly so, but for a second admit on good faith that this can happen – these negative statements remain as they are.
But we have to get on with it, do we not? Yes. Life is for living. As the first flower of youth is shed, a new confidence now blooms. Self-inhibiting shyness is an obstacle to getting jobs; lack of ease no good for making reasonable friendships. A mask is put on, just for a moment, dressing up is great fun at first, and the skin’s touchiness blotted out with booze and the consolations of bad philosophy. The bad words we jabbed ourselves are defied: “I am an egotistical, miserable, neurotic, boring idiot…” and therefore fuck you! I’ll act like one, without impunity, for that is all that I am and can hope to be. Drunken middle-aged women and men in city-centre pubs. The sadness of adults in this new skin that seals them in and that won’t be shed.
Callousness is believing your own lies, be they your words or someone else’s. But it’s no inevitability. These are not life sentences.
Another enigma: narcissism and schizoid both seem inadequate terms for a larger form of self defence – note that both terms are stressed separately. Undoing the spell requires summoning all that energy – self-anger, self-hate, self-love and projecting it outwards. If you happen to live in your very own concrete island (and I have one person in mind here, but actually….more than one), try now to think of this intense internal life of yours – and project it all outwards. Reverse every inner feeling, and perhaps every outer one too. What you spend your time and energies doing for the outside world, and how you experience and live all this within your own mind – you know – for a second reverse both of these. Salt on a slug. Enough on this for now. At twenty four you can still I hope get away with this frustrating and curt pretentiousness.
“…there is no ‘being’ behind the deed, its effect and what becomes of it; ‘the doer’ is invented as an afterthought, – the doing is everything. ” – Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, I, (13).
Why quote Nietzsche? I am no longer sixteen, and the cliched rage against false idols that his thought represents has now subsided. The above sentence may at first seem fairly meaningless, or hedonistically amoral to the passing reader. Such a sentence like that can momentarily jolt through you. No doer, only the doing: ethics overturned for the good. Not words or PR but actions, creative, loving, helping, driving. This as a measure of what we are. Our happiness might be measured by our satisfaction with our personal computers, how much encroaching compromise and disappointing idiocy we accept as reality.
No! The doing. What are we doing presupposes this problem of affirmation I raised in the last piece on March 26th, and the problem remains unresolved. Doing requires knowing what one wants, and then planning in a practical way, using organisation and tactics, how one gets to this desire – be it effective political opposition or not living in a bad job. The vagaries of Communist interpretation deny this problem, returning focus on the doer and his theory, his personal history, his internalised sense of victimisation and injustice. Forget that. Doing. We do this and we live in the aim of doing this or not at all.
“What is to be done?” – Chernyshevsky’s novel set the gauntlet wonderfully in 1862. No more theory or conferences or bloody Zizek now. In fact I pose as a starting point – and as a reading group maybe – Chernychevsky’s novel of individual struggle to live entirely as revolutionaries and progressives against Marx’s machinic Das Capital. But this digression is digressing. This doer, the modern self-contained subject, becomes the ultimate nihilist: everything is lived and practised internally, never leaving or affirming the hardened limits of the body. It prefers ‘to will nothingness than to not will’. Effective treatment requires that the patient wants to get better in the first place.
No age is as confident as these words. Part of learning is that it’s ok to be wrong, to make mistakes, to trip up and fall and pick ourselves up anew again.
One never learns anything with age. It is rather a process of forgetting previous knowledge, as the insight and incisiveness of our younger selves is overlaid with the anxious dialogues of work and sex. This is a good thing. Our brains function best based on habits: both in the formation and maintenance of neurones and synapses, and in the necessary level of preconscious thought and muscle-memory involved in navigating daily perceptions, decision-making and social stimuli.
I had a particularly meaningful conversation with my dad as he gave me a lift back home this evening. What advice could he offer? At least, we agreed that I should take some time away, after everything else. I told him of my planned journey to the Faroe Islands, which on a map transpires to over 500 miles, plus at least two ferries. Surely madness – ? No. Reader – what wild hope do you entertain of the journey? Maybe none. Consider it though, allow it roll around for a little. My Dad told me he’d long planned to cycle to Mongolia.
Suburban panoramas from parked-car perspectives: grey dashboards, dark trees, the intimacy of words alone. A strange thought: swimming (followed by running – maybe any solitary physical exercise) is the most clear form of self-grounding I’ve experienced. Physical exertion is perhaps the key – speeds? So that communal physical expression, from football or dance to love all become forms of intense self-forgetting, or rather of immersion. And yet I only get this feeling of self-grounding again in the rare times I am the passenger in a night car journey. I said I’d try a week’s walk somewhere, at some point. Plans are still easily deferred even at this age.
“Don’t worry too much”. Apparently he used to say to me as a small child! I remember Mr Worry. It’s actually very funny – and of course true. And children are the hope of everything. I was walking today and I stumbled through the middle of some kids playing in the street, riding their bikes down the hill, hurrying across the road into their own worlds, some parts and gardens off-limits, others really exciting, their total involvement and sincerity in things, their absolute expression of feeling maybe. I was preoccupied with a now familiar worry. I passed these kids, and I don’t know why but I laughed to myself – just as above I could see the happiness of their worlds. And this kid said hello to me, and for a while the clouds opened, and I said hello back.
Reader, don’t get some naive or well-meaning impression of me here. The previous Friday night I was on a bus home in an area very close to where I live. Three youngish teenage boys ran upstairs onto the empty bus where I was, and started shouting from an open window at the front at some man who was pursuing them. I could hear the hoarse groans and roars of this drunk old man pursuing them from across the busy road. “Sounds like Shrek bruv! You’re a donkey bruv!” They’d either robbed this guy or pissed him off, but the source of the wrong was inexplicable, and the madness of this pissed-up middle-aged man, who resembled more like a classic street-drinker with his beard and devoted melancholy mongrel, brought his confrontation with bus-abusers to totally comic proportions.
The bus driver was getting nervous. What if this angry man got on the bus in his extremely drunken state and tried to hit the boys? The driver attempted to move away but the man was obstructing the bus, and seemed set to board it (and here I couldn’t tell who I was more concerned for), when bizarrely he fell over. But he didn’t get up. Instead, arching his body forward, he started groaning and shouting abuses even louder. It was brutally and very darkly hilarious, and the boys were in stitches, now throwing things to below from the safety of the bus. And I smiled, and then laughed to myself. And it was the same thing, a hello, and a hello back. Obviously that’s way more brutish, and brutal. I wanted to ask what had happened, but the boys saw a group of girls at the next stop and hurriedly got off again. I’d seen misery like that man’s, visited something like it in anonymous medical wards in anonymous hospitals. But everything I say is arrogant, complacent and … ugh. But like with interests: write and to hell with the process. I’ve also learned that notebooks don’t have long lives.
Long after actually, I imagined talking to a six year old about what was worrying me. (Six years old – one feels older at this age than perhaps many others). He gave me great advice, and we laughed light-heartedly about it. It is wonderfully absurd how serious one can be at these ages. Back to four and twenty.
Anton stares out blindly into the reflected noon-glare of the betting shop – half a can left, one can remaining. The sun brings everyone out, even those who were taught to cuss by a snake. People sit against the breeze, whilst shrunken men lift machinery or talk to the other side of the globe. Seventeen year old dads look for security work at the Brixton job-centre, talk of the old days in the ends, now refocused to new ends maybe. In the garden we never knew existed, you can stoop down from your sedate bench nustled right at the back, between the honeysuckle and the ivy, and feel properly the cow-parsley, the soil, the ant that runs across your forearm, the pollen that makes you sneeze. All this is like one life, reducible to the monumental beauty of the periodic table or to other blithe sentiments.
For a moment, life is good because I wanted it to be so and tried to make it so. There is no being, only the doing that the success of ourselves must be measured by. Let twenty four be judged on that.
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