essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Do you know the 1969 song Space Oddity by David Bowie?
“Ground control to Major Tom, your circuits dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?”
Sometimes a metaphor is the subject of its own illustration. I remember in 1985 when I saw Lasse Hallström’s film My Life as a Dog I knew straight away what the central character Ingemar was talking about. My parents separated when I was seven years old. I spent my first six watching them yell abuse and throw things at each other, and felt like I was in outer space. I was seeing impossible things. Little purple men in flying saucers would be next. One of my first memories is of screaming while one of these fights was taking place. I was four years old. I got into the fight that way.
“See what you’ve done to the child” my mother screamed.
“Fuck the child” my father said as he slammed the door and went to the pub.
I didn’t really hear what my father said, I made that up later. But he and my elder brother left and never came back, so I guessed they didn’t like me or my mother. I had to make sense of that.
Ingemar in Hallström’s film was concerned about Laika, the stray dog the Soviets sent into space on Sputnik2 in 1957. Laika didn’t do much for science, dying from heat exposure after only five hours, proving that we didn’t yet know much about space exploration and didn’t much care how we found out more, while Sputnik2 lasted five months then added to the debris we litter the planet with still. But big issues, the space race, the Cold War, ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ were involved, and Laika was only a little dog. But for Laika, she was the one that mattered. Ingemar had to deal with other issues too, such as the knowledge his own dog had been destroyed because it was inconvenient. That his mother was slowly dying. What the hell does death mean when you’re just starting out? It was only then, in 1985, that I realised I was on Sputnik too. And that it’s pretty tricky getting down.
Someone once told me that when he was little his father had made him kiss his dead grandfather on the lips just after he’d died. He remembers screaming “It’s not grandad!”. That made the adults uncomfortable. But grandad was the one he’d go to when he’d got in trouble and was going to run away from home. They’d go for walks, the old man and his grandchild. The old man would talk of the places he’d run away to when he was young until they both started to get hungry. And he’d go home and burst into the kitchen and ask “Mum what’s for dinner” and he’d feel a whole lot better. That was grandad. The man said it took him a while to realise those walks weren’t going to happen anymore.
One of the things a child has to do when growing up is make sense of the world. Children of parents who quarrel or dislike each other have to work harder than other children. I remember reading that Wolfgang Mozart, whose father made him practise and perform from the age of four, would often cry out in frustration, “love me!”. Instinct told him that’s what parents were supposed to do. Other children growing up in difficult situations develop a love of order. Keep it tidy and it might not bite you. Another snippet I retain from my reading was that the reason sailors who served on submarines were so tidy was that there was no room for mess. You literally tripped over it, so everything had to have its place. I’ve always admired the idea of the Japanese garden myself. What ideals do street kids have I wonder?
Reminds me of the Graham Nash song from Déjà Vu of 1970
“Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by”.
Nash said the song was inspired by a Diane Arbus photo of a child playing in Central Park NY with a toy hand grenade. Getting ready. Violence seems a way of restoring order to a disturbed person.
The thing is that as a species we all like to hurt and kill others. And that’s just the gentle ones. The violent ones go ahead and do it. Terrorist organisations like the CIA in America, KGB in Russia and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan operate independently of government and arrange opposing coups around the world in an attempt to enhance their position, power and budget, a grim example of Parkinson’s Law at work. No principle is involved save self interest, though much rhetoric is voiced about “freedom” and “democracy” (you only have to say it when it doesn’t exist). In 1973 for instance the US government worked to “disestablish” the government of Salvador Allende in Chile, and encouraged a military takeover by Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet ruled 1973-1990 and oversaw a massive violation of human rights and dignity in Chile that resulted in 3,000 murders, 30,000 people tortured and imprisoned, and 80,000 suffering deprivation and loss of civil liberties. All to avoid the election of a Communist government which had been a popular one. I imagine all the children in Chile who felt their life was like Laika, lost in outer space. Maybe Pinochet thought he was saving the world for democracy but I don’t think so. The Taliban is still working hard to reduce the population of Afghanistan and is the leading cause of civilian deaths in that country today. They want to make Muslims more devout. It’s hard though to be devout when you’re dead. I wonder if it makes more sense to their children.
One of the casualties in Chile was Victor Jara, a schoolteacher and theatre director who became a popular poet and songwriter. He supported the Allende regime, and tried to do something to inspire all the under-educated and poverty stricken people in Chile. Like all discerned Allende supporters he was rounded up, tortured and murdered by the Army which had taken power. One soldier whose life was deprived had suddenly the power to hurt and kill Victor Jara, and he took advantage of the opportunity. Who wouldn’t? Just press a button on the machine gun and watch him jump. They still play Jara’s songs in Chile, and they are still inspiring. His murderer is probably still an unhappy man.
One of the hidden costs of these encounters is that the people removed are often more imaginative than the ones that remain, more idealistic, more motivated. The ones that remain are the resentful, the inert, the easily manipulated. Fodder for dictators.
There is no shortage of dictators. Sometimes they are generals, or leaders of guerrilla groups (I don’t mean career soldiers, but pretend ones). If you were to investigate you would find that there are quite a few private armies in your locality, all armed and trained, ready to be led against someone as soon as the leader gives the word. Patriotic organisations, old soldiers groups, a name with ‘democratic’ or ‘freedom’ in it. So the deprived fend off powerlessness. Martial arts are misused the same way. Martial arts are a Far Eastern philosophy, taking a lifetime of training, surmounting self and discerning eternal verities through arduous discipline. The power is the power to concentrate, to be. It’s not the same as the power to beat up other people by occult mumbo jumbo, but some people think it is.
Others think that if you have a gun, people will fear you. You can kill them, so they should fear you. The gun doesn’t control other people. Other people are controlled by their fears, including the fear you might be a weirdo. You are controlled by your hopes, including the hope the gun may make you feared. I’m a fearful man. I wake up many nights because I see ghosts. If I ever saw a man with a gun I’d be very afraid. But some aren’t. They have a job to do, realise others might kill them, think it’s worthwhile to take the risk. Takes all kinds.
I think sometimes humanity is divided between those who despise anyone who doesn’t think as they do, and those who force others to think as they do. Two different forms of fascism. Fascism must be man’s natural state, urban tribalism. We work our way from this state to democracy, then elitism, then tribalism again. Us cynics are always proved right. But scratch a cynic and you find a disappointed idealist. Reminds me of that Apple Computer tag: “think different!”. And how corporations such as Apple are locked in to making us think the same i.e. buy their product (you only have to say it when it doesn’t exist).
History is a cyclic journey to and from the original tribal condition. We begin (anthropologists tell us) by defining our local group or tribe as ‘people’: others (humans and other species) are non-people and fair game. We work up to democracy in its various forms. But democracy is an unstable structure (an interesting story in itself) and self destructs periodically, and we go back to the tribe and start all over again. Begins when some pigs start saying they’re more equal than others.
Could it be, I ask myself, that this instability, this vacillation between integrity, and the huddling of armies, is because most of us are fatalities in the journey between childhood and maturity (bodily maturity I mean). Perhaps most of us have had to make sense of disturbing events encountered while growing up, and haven’t succeeded too well? Maybe more people worried about Laika than anyone realised.
The way we treat our children is linked inexorably to the way we were treated as children. If it was harshly, if we were frightened or outraged children, we have to make sense of that before we can explain deprivation and loss to children we come in contact with (and not with words). Otherwise, we just repeat the pattern. It’s all links in a chain, that stretches from a battered baby to a depressed mother to a victimised worker to a manipulative society to a greedy population to dishonest politicians to an exploited planet to a return to savagery. Victims of violence are a majority of the world’s population. From Voltaire declaring he disagreed with you but would fight for your right to say it, to Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street (1987) saying “Greed is good!”. Gordon had never heard of Voltaire.
Would he have cared about child abuse, or that a million children are homeless in America today, that 20% of children there are living in poverty, and will never have a decent job? The number is doubling every year, children who are denied play, who won’t develop in the normal way, who will be destabilised, and easily manipulated. It’s the Third World, getting closer, because we are the Affluent Society.
There’s a JG Ballard story called The Garden of Time, written in 1962. On a beautiful country estate a couple live an ideal, affluent and protected existence, till one day they notice a mass of people on the horizon, an unruly horde travelling with a pile of baggage and carts and horses, and shouting fiercely. The man who owns the estate goes to his exquisitely ordered garden and breaks the stalk of a wonderful crystal flower. Time moves backward, and the crowd disappears, and the couple resume their sheltered existence. But the crowd is back, shortly afterwards, and a little bit closer than when it first appeared. The man breaks another crystal flower, and the crowd moves back to the horizon, but is now still visible. Each flower broken gives the couple a reprieve, but leaves the crowd and its violence closer to their home. There is one final segment. The home is in ruins, all the beautiful furniture destroyed, the plants uprooted from the garden. Nothing remains of the things and occupations once so enjoyed by the couple. It’s a poem, and doesn’t need to be ‘explained’, but think of the aristocratic classes in France in 1789 insisting on the divine right of kings while the tricolour was being raised on the Bastille. Problems you ignore don’t go away.
When I was growing up I was in and out of boarding schools, orphanages and “homes” a lot, because my mother was ill and couldn’t afford to look after me. I was always the new boy. I was victimised a lot. New boys always are. I was disoriented, distressed, worried, insecure, and small, innocent and gentle. A sitting duck for tougher boys learning how to be leader of the pack.
Do you recall Robert Ardrey and the Territorial Imperative, his 1966 book? The hypothesis was that man survived as a species by acquiring aggressive hunting techniques learned from carnivores, including hunting in packs, and turning on weak, ill or incapacitated pack members, killing them or driving them from the pack so as to strengthen it. There’s absolutely no evidence for the theory. It’s a theory that seeks to find origins for perceived traits in present human behaviour in anthropology. It would have appealed to Adolf Hitler. In many ways Ardrey’s theory has similarities to those of Sigmund Freud. Both attempted to explain modern human behaviour by appeal to a scientific method, and both imagined an underlying drive in the human psyche that couldn’t be resisted, only sometimes controlled. Freud thought it was sex, Ardrey thought it was aggression. The two are related. Thousands of battered wives know that. Their tyrant is much more tractable after sex.
But Ardrey and Freud were pessimists, or at least pathologists (is that the word for dealing with pathology of behaviour?). In day to day living sex is often sublimated, but aggression is repressed. So whether mankind is a kind of killer ape is an important question. Either we fight till there’s only one left standing, or we co-operate. Aristotle was much more optimistic. He thought man was a social animal. Which is the truer estimation, social species or killer ape? Aristotle lived a generation after Sokrates and Perikles, two generations after Themistokles, maybe that made him optimistic (think about it: three men destroyed by democracy).
In actual fact the killer ape doesn’t exist in nature. Among primates aggression is ritualised. It is a matter of show, used to scare off rivals or predators. Killing never destroys the environment of food and prey, instead the birth rate fluctuates to retain a balance. We have some of these traits. As a species we bluff, all the time. We all wear a mask, and it’s not us. Urged to consume in the consumer society, we reduce our birth rate so we can consume more. And tsk tsk over the Third World, who produce children to ward off starvation in old age, but who eat the presently available food so that starvation is unavoidable. And tsk tsking is easier than shipping surplus to the hungry. If we’re aggressive it’s not our anthropological heritage, just that as a species we’ve grown neurotic. Remember the Arbus photo.
In boarding school I was the butt of the pack. When I read that Groucho Marx was rejected by the Beverly Hills Friars Club and quipped “I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would accept me as a member” I wished I thought of it in boarding school.
Most people seem to cope by adopting two personas, an inner self and an outer self. The inner one is where your fantasy life is held. There you curse Mr Potter and swing down the rigging with a knife between your teeth to confront him. Your external self merely mutters, “Yes Mr Potter. I’m sure you’re right Mr Potter”, and thinks of the next promotion in the corporate ladder.
It’s our outer self that retains the concept of ‘normal behaviour’. There are really no normal people. We’re all pretty eccentric. But socially we try to hide it when we won’t step on the cracks in the sidewalk, dodge ladders, insist on sitting facing forward in the bus, spend 45 minutes putting makeup on then change clothes five times before going anywhere. Fifty percent of men only pretend a passionate interest in football and the inside of motors, fifty percent of women find getting ready a tyranny and are only now admitting they cannot cook. It’s all show. Like yelling abuse at bad drivers and hoping they don’t stop and beat us up.
The inner self has greater troubles to bear than the attempt to be normal. The inner self has to put up with questions like: “What if I’m no good?”; “What if I fail?”; “What if they reject me?”. The inner self may have grown up with a sense of being unworthy, of not being loved. No amount of normal behaviour can save us. Nor can other people.
Ursula Le Guin wrote a book called A Wizard of Earthsea in 1968 about a world where magic had the place of science in our society. The young wizard Ged is pursued by a shadow which threatens him and which he flees in vain. When he confronts it finally, the shadow, he sees, is himself, his fears and doubts. The shadow lives with everyone, and running from it makes it strong. But it’s only our fears and weaknesses. It’s a hard thing to accept your weakness and limitations, but until you do you cannot know yourself, and cannot heal wounds suffered in growing up. Bandaids don’t work.
It took a long time for me to realise that. I was pretty extreme. I became afraid of being afraid. And yet, the man who feels no fear isn’t brave. He’s a brute. The man who feels fear and doesn’t let it stop him is brave. I’ve become brave by not being afraid of being frightened.
This probably seems a long way from Laika in Sputnik2. Laika was a stray dog on the streets of Moscow. She’d had a hard life, without a home, sleeping in doorways and eating from garbage cans. Human beings are much better off. In some places, and for a time. It has been estimated that by 2050 there will be nine billion people in the world, of which one billion will have no food, and these will starve to death. In a world of global markets this will destabilise every economy on the planet. It is likely the present situation, where food cannot be transported from glut areas to famine areas, will worsen as superstructures start to break down. This is the forecast reaction to climate changes and the effect this has on pests resistant to pesticides. Should there concurrently be a pandemic as microbes resistant to existing antibodies in the human blood return, the human race will be in a crisis situation. So far all we have shown ourselves capable of in a crisis is starting either a war or a riot.
Starvation kills, but the process of starvation is like AIDS, it weakens resistance to disease, so many more will die from infection and fever than hunger. WHO says currently 925 million people are at risk in this way, 13.5% of the world’s population.
To solve a problem you first of all have to admit it exists. No problem, no solution necessary. If there is a connection between our fear of admitting weakness and failure within ourselves and seeing this weakness arises through not understanding the world we grew up in, and our inhumanity to others, then we must start with ourselves. At the moment we haven’t got much further than we were in 1957, when we burned a dog to death to add to our knowledge of space exploration. That’s like the Jews burning an animal for Yahweh on the Temple altars to ratify the contract making them the chosen people. Two and a half thousand years and one small step for mankind. Physician, heal thyself.
©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.