Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Murk outside; murk inside

The plot of the science fiction novel A Scanner Darkly incorporates drugs, undercover policing, surveillance, paranoia and betrayal. But it's the novel's humanity and melancholy that make it the masterpiece it is.

The novel is based on author Philip K Dick's experiences of the effects that drug use had on his circle of friends in 60's America. A list of the real-life dead and damaged in the novel's epilogue is the final nail in the coffin for drug use as escapism.

But the novel is also suffused with pessimism about life even for "straights" who haven't suffered the effects of drug misuse. Dick says in the epilogue that drug misuse is "a speeding up, an intensifying, of the ordinary human existence". So the novel also speaks about that ordinary human existence, and what it says isn't pretty.

Those people burned out by drug misuse in the novel become like "an insect that clacks and vibrates about in a closed circle forever. A reflex machine, like an ant. Repeating his last instruction." Burned out "heads" endlessly throw balls up in the air in futile attempts to juggle them, or forever fail to figure out how to wax a floor.

But how different is this from ordinary human existence? We straights also repeat the same actions over and over in futile hope of miraculously achieving a desired outcome that we never attain. We get shitfaced in the pub on Friday night. We go clothes shopping. We ditch our partner and find someone new. We read the next book. We visit the next country. Does any of it help?

The novel's main character, undercover cop Bob Arctor, hopes that surveillance equipment installed to monitor the people he's living with will do a better job of understanding them than they themselves can manage:

What does a scanner see? he asked himself. Into the head? Down into the heart? [...] I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can't any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk.

How clearly do any of us see ourselves? Aren't we all always searching for someone to explain us to ourselves, in the form of self-help books and tutorials and TED talks? And novels?

In this novel, dealers prey on or co-opt users for their own ends, and users similarly prey on each other. But capitalism more broadly is also implicated in the same process: Arctor muses that "Someday it'll be mandatory that we all sell the McDonald's hamburger as well as buy it; we'll sell it back and forth to each other forever from our living rooms."

How far removed is this from modern capitalism, in which person A convinces person B that they really need the sofa person A is selling, so that person A can afford to buy the new suit they really need that person B is selling? Or person C's cocktail, or person D's holiday.

The novel isn't proscriptive or prescriptive about any of this. As Dick says in the epilogue: "it does not say they were wrong to play when they should have toiled; it just tells what the consequences were". Nor does it offer an alternative coping mechanism to drug misuse or consumerism more generally. It doesn't pretend to have better answers. It's too honest for that.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Deadly urges

I have a thorn in my side. Not metaphorically, you understand: I literally have a thorn lodged in my side.

It's been there about 14 years. It's in my back really, but just at the point where my back starts to curve around, so I can legitimately call it my side.

How can it have been sitting there under my skin for all that time? Well, it entered with a lot of force: all the force my body had acquired in falling for about six feet.

What happened was this: I was exiting the block of flats I lived in in my first year of university, which entailed descending a set of steps. The steps had a wall or barrier at about waist height, and without any consideration, without any thought of how high the steps were or what might lie on the other side, I vaulted the wall - surprising myself as much as my two friends - and a short while later landed feet-, hands-, arse- and back-first in a thorn bush or two, with about a dozen punctures as a consequence. The thorn in my side went unnoticed at first, and then resisted persistent efforts to squeeze it out.

I wouldn't be writing about this if the incident had been a one-off, a youthful quirk or spasm never repeated. On the contrary, that occasion marked the first instance (as far as I can recall) of something I've since become intimately acquainted with: the near-irresistible compulsion to vault waist-high barriers between myself and a drop or otherwise dangerous location.

I don't know if there's a name for this specific urge. Google informs me that there is a name - the high place phenomenon - for the urge to jump from high points, but I don't get this feeling with heights in general: drops without barriers or with say 6-foot glass windows cause no such urges. It's only waist-high barriers, on bridges, steep slopes, buildings, metro platforms, etc, that bring it powerfully forth. Maybe I was a hurdler in a former life.

Hungerford bridge in London, which joins the popular South Bank cultural area with its more hinterlandish partner on the other side of the Thames, is one of my favourite spots because of its views of buildings like the Gherkin in The City, but I often have to avoid the edges or take firm hold of my consciousness when I'm crossing it because of what I might do otherwise.

The thorn incident is the only occasion I've actually succumbed to this urge, but if I ever do again it'll probably mark the last time I ever feel any urges of any sort, given the likely outcome.

Fireman, doctor, astronaut

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Lots of people struggle with this question, and it causes no small amount of anxiety. There's a lot of pressure to settle on an answer - first from our parents, and then from prospective and actual partners, who often want us to know what we want from life.

And not entirely without good reason: thinking about what you want from life early on is doubtless good for increasing the chances you'll study something relevant to your future career, and thereby not waste money, for example.

But the amount of pressure on people to answer the question, and the very ubiquity and acceptance of the question itself should be examined, I think.

It is, like much of what I've written about recently, a product of the West's dominant liberal humanist ideology. Hunter-gatherers didn't ask their children what they wanted to be when they grew up: if they were male they would be hunters; if they would be female they would gather (maybe not strictly true, but you get the point).

Hell, even in the early days of capitalism the working classes didn't ask their children what they wanted to be: it was accepted that children would follow in the footsteps of their parents.

Both of which might seem obvious, but why then is it taken for granted these days that we should want to be anything at all, in the sense of assigning ourselves a particular career-as-life-defining-characteristic?

Do infant chimps ponder how they will spend their time once they become adult chimps? Do the infants of indigenous tribes-people?

No. So why should we expect five, seven or even thirty year-olds to have the inherent desire to want to be accountants, surveyors or HR managers?

We want to eat, fuck and sleep. Beyond that it's just how we twiddle our thumbs until we die.