a small place for fugitives

I read a piece by (December 28, 2015) titled “A Small Place for Fugitives” about her reflections on losing a novel she had on a laptop stolen from her while she was a Peace Corps worker in Kyrgyzstan. The essay is worth reading in full:


Quotes from the blog are in red italics.

“I write to find the limits of my ability to understand things”

Writing keeps bringing me to my limits. It is as if at a certain point understanding, like a failed bridge, collapses. But the limit is also a kind of boundary where insight is possible: we know something lies beyond, we are simply unable to access that place through conventional means. it marks the point where apophatic knowledge begins, where there are no more charts, where the compass swings and the stars seem strange in the sky.

“You’re constantly creating a narrative for yourself that keeps derailing.

I needed to write to get out of my head.

“Out of”? There’s an interesting thought – writing as an exit from incessant thoughts…

“like all problems in Kyrgyzstan, it exfoliates outward endlessly, magnified and connected to sadnesses that I have no right and every right to feel.

Why would she have “no right and every right?” I have always felt this paradox living in South Africa: my existential difficulties seem negligible – even reprehensible – in a country where poverty and violence are so pervasive. A family is hacked to death with a machete not an hour’s drive from Johannesburg; a baby is raped to cure the perpetrator from AIDS; a body is found with eyes, organs and genitals removed in yet another muti-killing; a couple is gunned down in front of their children in the driveway of their suburban home. Often I feel I have no right to my own sadness, that I cannot own it with any sense of legitimacy, that I am like some prurient outsider looking in without any hope of ameliorating things for anyone. I invalidate my own perspectives, collapse their pertinence as if everything I have to say is suspect and smacks of the inauthentic. In South Africa you can quite easily feel Like a confused Christ rejected by a leper, chased off with reproach and scorn. The cup offered is knocked from your hands. Perhaps that is how it should be – if the hands that offer the cup do so to assuage some nagging guilt or to augment a savior-complex self-identity (here the Angelina Jolie’s, Brad Pitt’s and Madonna’s come to mind: anything for a photo-op with a wretched african orphan with a fly crawling across it’s face). Perhaps the savior-victim paradigm is just depleted of value.

In the 1982 movie Gandhi a young priest asks what he can do to ‘help’. “Leave,” replies Ghandi. Why does Gandhi meet the english priest’s offer with rejection? 

Frantz Fanon’s answer to this seems to lie in the essential rejection of a salvation which keeps reaffirming a condition of indebtedness and powerlessness, of unequal power relations. Gandhi’s reply to the priest is that India needs to save itself, not be saved by an ‘outside-other’ no matter how genuine or noble the intention.

” I haven’t been able to get around the wall of artificiality involved in relating a story.”

I feel this “wall of artificiality” every time I write, even in my private, handwritten journal.


train to wilhelmshaven

In 1984 I was on a train bound for Wilhelmshaven in Northern Germany. When the conductor came to my compartment, he checked my ticket and those of the two german lads in the compartment with me. The fourth traveller, a Turk of about 17, was soon being questioned by the conductor with palpable hostility. When I asked what was going on, one of the german lads sneered, “This Turk! He has not paid the correct fee!” Clearly they were enjoying this sad little spectacle and expected me to find it as amusing as they did. “How much does he owe?” I asked the conductor. “Forty deutsche marks,” he replied. There, I said, handing him the notes from my wallet.

With a Ja, Gud! and a whizz-click of his hand held ticket machine, he was satisfied, and suddenly the Turk was as legal as the rest of us.

A small gesture on my part had stunned two German lads into silence, while the Turk thanked me as if I had been sent from heaven. Had the germans not smirked and cursed, perhaps I would have just minded my own business; it was the petty human cruelty that got my goat. Coming from Apartheid South Africa I was only too familiar with this sort of small-minded, racist bullying. It was a lesson which has been reaffirmed many times in different ways since: prejudice and cruelty are not the predilection of any particular nation or people (though some seem to excel at it) just as insisting that our fellow men are treated fairly and with respect is a responsibility we all have.u

the narrow space

A review of the book, The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon:


Depression is a country that the undepressed can’t enter, but Solomon, who has travelled there and knows it well, bends all his energy and talent as a writer to sending us snapshots from this terrifying land…Solomon writes that depression can only be evoked by metaphors (the abyss, the edge, the darkness). The first that he uses himself is of a tree wrapped around by a vine; at some point, the vine squeezes the life out of the tree. Then he talks of angels and demons: grief is like a humble angel that leaves us with a clear sense of our own depth; depression is the (noonday) demon that leaves you appalled…

“In depression, he says over and over again, life loses its meaning; the ‘only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance’…

“Mild depression is gradual, like rust; it is too much grief at too slight a cause. Major depression is the stuff of breakdowns, not rust, but the startling collapse of the whole system. He has been gripped by major depression himself, when he was ‘asphyxiated’, ‘split and racked’, and ‘every second of being alive hurt’. There was not even enough life left for tears, just ‘the arid pain of total violation’. As you fall towards this living death, he says, the first thing that goes from you is happiness. The next is the sadness that led you here. Then your sense of humour, the belief in and capacity for love. You smell sour to your self, and thinned. Your face comes apart in the mirror. You have no ability to trust, to touch, to grieve: ‘Eventually, you are simply absence.’…

“Solomon’s experience of depression, which comes like a gale force wind and departs quietly, forms only part of The Noonday Demon, though it is the emotional undertow through the whole of it. He portrays the pain of others, in different cultures and histories, showing that far from being a disease of the wealthy and the leisured classes and of modernity, it has always been with us under different names. Hippocrates wrote about it, as did Homer, Galen, Thomas Aquinas, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Keats, Virginia Woolf and Freud….

“The poor feel it (but, although depression cuts across all the classes, treatment of it does not), as do the the war-torn. He goes to Cambodia (where he was ‘humbled down to the ground’ by the courage of the people he met) and meets people who have lived through war and loss such as he can hardly imagine. One woman teaches him that the way through the darkness is by ‘forgetting, working, loving’. He goes to Greenland, where up to 80 per cent of the population are depressed and the suicide rate is 0.35 per cent per year. He visits elderly people in homes; he goes to hospitals and slums.

He looks at the medical and alternative cures – anti-depressants, anxiety controllers, St John’s Wort, exercise, work, food, massage, homoeopathy. He tries out different therapies (psychoanalysis, he says, is good at expressing depression, not good at changing it – it’s like firing a machine gun at an incoming tide). He goes to talk groups. He gathers stories from all over the country, from sufferers and doctors, from people who have cut their flesh to ribbons and drunk themselves into stupors, from people who have been terribly abused, from people who have come out the other side.

More young people die of depression than of Aids, heart disease, pneumonia, cancer and strokes put together. One in 10 people in America is on drugs to help their moods. Five per cent of its teenagers are clinically depressed. Fifteen per cent of people who are depressed eventually kill themselves.

Some people kill themselves, Solomon says, to simplify things. He remembers thinking that he himself didn’t have the energy to wash the dishes or take a shower, so he might as well go and die rather than face the mundane tasks that make up a day, a life. But while ‘living death is not pretty, unlike dead death, it offers the hope for amelioration’…

“Solomon is inclusive in his theories as well as his stories. There has long been a discussion about whether depression is an illness or an extreme version of ordinary sadness, whether it reveals or assaults a personality. Both, he says. What are the boundaries of identity, what do we mean by ‘self’? If depression is ‘just’ chemical, so, too, is love. Medicine might release a sufferer from the trap, but it does not reinvent him or her. Depression springs like a beast from outside, yet is wired in the brain and runs through the veins. ‘The real me lives in the world; the self exists in the narrow space where the world and our choices come together.’ The depression he experiences is part of the man that he is.

‘Words are strong and love is the other way forwards.’…

“Solomon is well aware of the ‘preposterousness’ of his depression and the uselessness of tracking its causes…

“By the end of the book’s long journey, he claims that he has learnt to love his depression as a way of learning to love himself. He knows it is lurking inside him still, and will one day probably ambush him again, but he closes with ardent, melancholy optimism: ‘Each day I choose to be alive. Is that not a rare joy?'”


without dream or mercy

Capitalism as Religion

by Walter Benjamin

“A religion may be discerned in capitalism – that is to say, capitalism serves essentially to allay the same anxieties, torments, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers. The proof of the religious structure of capitalism – not merely, as Weber believes, as a formation conditioned by religion, but as an essentially religious phenomenon – would still lead even today to the folly of an endless universal polemic. We cannot draw closed the net in which we are caught. Later on, however, we shall be able to gain an overview of it.

Nevertheless, even at the present moment it is possible to distinguish three aspects of this religious structure of capitalism. In the first place, capitalism is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed. In capitalism, things have no meaning only in their relationship to the cult; capitalism has no specific body of dogma, no theology. It is from this point of view that utilitarianism acquires its religious overtones. This concretization of cult is connected with a second feature of capitalism: the permanence of the cult. Capitalism is the celebration of the cult sans reve et sans merci [without dream or mercy]. There are no “weekdays.” There is no day that is not a feast day, in the terrible sense that all its sacred pomp is unfolded before us; each day commands the utter fealty of each worshipper. And third, the cult makes guilt pervasive. Capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement. In this respect, this religious system is caught up in the headlong rush of a larger movement. A vast sense guilt that is unable to find relief seizes on the cult, not to atone for this guilt but to make it universal, to hammer it into the conscious mind, so as once and for all to include God in the system of guilt and thereby awaken in Him an interest in the process of atonement. This atonement cannot then be expected from the cult itself, or from the reformation of this religion (which would need to be able to have recourse to some stable element in it), or even from the complete renouncement of this religion. The nature of the religious movement which is capitalism entails endurance right to the end, to the point where God, too, finally takes on the entire burden of guilt, to the point where the universe has been taken over by that despair which is actually its secret hope.

Capitalism is entirely without precedent, in that it is a religion which offers not the reform of existence but its complete destruction. It is the expansion of despair, until despair becomes a religious state of the world in the hope that this will lead to salvation. God’s transcendence is at an end. But he is not dead; he has been incorporated into human existence. This passage of the planet “Human” through the house of despair in the absolute loneliness of his trajectory is the ethos that Nietzsche defined. This man is the superman, the first to recognize the religion of capitalism and begin to bring it to fulfillment. Its fourth feature is that its God must be hidden from it and may be addressed only when his guilt is at its zenith. The cult is celebrated before an unmatured deity; every idea, every conception of it offends against the secret of this immaturity.”


young frankenstein

There’s a hilarious moment in the 1974 movie Young Frankenstein when, after the monster has rampaged around the lab, Dr Frankenstein played by Gene Wilder asks his assistant Igor the name on the bottle stolen from the brain bank.

Igor replies, “A.B. NORMAN”, and of course that’s where the joke lies: he has misread the label “ABNORMAL”.

It’s New Years Day, and I find myself wondering how many frankenstein monsters will be created this year because we misunderstand one another. Of course, Igor’s mistake in the movie is an honest one; many of the misunderstandings this year will be deliberate and sinister, as machievellian politicians, terrorist organizations, governments and their military leaders distort meanings to serve their own purposes.

Gary Eberle’s book, Dangerous Words: Talking About God in the Age of Fundamentalism has fascinating insights about how words are hijacked and misappropriated, and the divisions and damage that result from this.

I am forever misreading the bottles in my own life, and I suppose we all do to a greater or lesser extent. The bottles I misread are just as likely to be misunderstandings with those closest to me as any geopolitical issue. Words are slippery things: their meanings shift and mean different things to different people. On top of that, they’re filtered through our emotions, our prejudices and fears, our distorted world-views.

We all need to check the labels carefully.

fragmentary knowledge

“Montage corresponds to what I consider to be the constructive element in historical studies: it makes it clear that our knowledge is fragmentary and that it derives from an open process.

It has always been my ambition that the uncertainty of the research process should come through in what I write – I try to portray my own hesitation, so to speak, to enable the reader to make his own judgement. Historical writing should aspire to be democratic, by which I mean that it should be possible to check our statements from without, and that the reader be a party not only to the conclusions arrived at but also to the process that led to them.”

– Carlo Ginzburg, historian


“Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present”

-TS Eliot

The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.”


“Then Helen, daughter of Zeus, took other counsel.
Straightway she cast into the wine of which they were drinking a drug
to quiet all pain and strife, and bring forgetfulness of every ill.”

– Homer, The Odyssey

The medicine for sorrow in the passage above is nepenthe in the original Greek.

Figuratively, nepenthe means “that which chases away sorrow”. Literally it means ‘not-sorrow’ or ‘anti-sorrow’ (Wikipedia)

Any guesses who said the following?

“Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to be included in the design of creation. it is only we, with our capacity to love that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying and even try to find joy from simple things, like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.”

The quote is by Woody Allen. His dark humour (whether you’re a fan or not) not only tackles existential issues but offers us the nepenthe of laughter. A bitter cup, perhaps, but an antidote of sorts nontheless. Perhaps every area of human activity – from religion to entertainment and the arts, from sex to sport and chess – though they may be many things besides, are expressions of our need “… to quiet all pain and strife, and bring forgetfulness of every ill.”