PART ONE: Lethargy
I feel like I’m slouching awkwardly on an old deflated beanbag watching one of those big 1990s televisions, those ones with faux wooden panelling on the sides, channel changing nobs on the front and big rabbit ear aerials on the top. My stomach is full of beer and ice-cream, my sweaty back is slipping against the beanbag’s plastic cover and, instead of resting on its cabinet, this big, old, clunky TV is just sitting on my chest like an ineffective torture device, suffocating me – not killing me – but gently draining the blood from my brain. The blaring ads on the screen (which is close enough for me to lick) are giving me a thudding headache. Chanel 9 wants me to consider buying Poweraid so I can replace the essential fluids I’m losing – and I can’t, for the life of me, muster up the energy to get out of this depressing situation.
I can’t explain this deep, oppressive lethargy which suffocates me like a televisual torture device. I feel a little like a mumbling, lazy teenager; one who sleeps until midday and drags his feet along the ground. His hair’s a mess, he can’t be bothered to brush his teeth and he lacks the drive to complete even the simplest of tasks: keeping his head off the table during class, for instance, or taking out the garbage.
A teenager can’t explain to anyone (especially to his parents) why these simple tasks feel so pointless and insurmountable. Like me, he can’t explain the source of his strange exhaustion and can’t convey exactly how he feels. But I’m sure, like me, he feels a little like he’s on a beanbag, being slowly smothered by this blasted television. Why not simply throw it off?
Now, some teenagers get this feeling all the time. Lethargy, for them, is full time employment. I, on the other hand, only get like this on weekends – when I sit down to try and write a little about my own response to the confusing, decaying and stultifying world around me. Yes, whenever I sit down in front of a computer to conduct this simple task, this strange and indescribable lethargy washes over my entire being. The television lowers down onto my chest and I begin to feel incredibly exhausted.
The task seems simple enough: how do you feel about the state of the world, or Australia, or your local community? Just pick an issue you’ve seen on 6pm with George Negus for Christ’s sake! Mute. Nothing. Why can’t I do anything, say anything, write anything – why can’t I slide this television off the side of my chest? Like the teenager, there’s no explaining the lethargy that sucks away my power and prevents me from focusing upon the artistic, philosophical, profound and beautiful components of existence. Instead, my mind wanders along to other thoughts, mundane, superficial and ugly in nature – like the dirt under my finger nails or the knives they use on Masterchef… “Did I brush my teeth this morning?”
Perhaps you’ve felt this thing before. Just beneath the surface there are thousands of thoughts about everyday experience: “Why is every song I hear on the radio about love?”, “Why are Kirribilli’s lush parks shaded by monumental oak trees while, in Canterbury, broken down swing sets cast their thin shadows over parched, dusty, knee grazing ground?”, “What is money?”, “Do all the ads I see change who I am?”, “Is my salary a hazard to my mental health?”, “Are we getting dumber?”, “Are our representatives in government really talking wax-sculptures?”, “What’s the real purpose of ‘management’ or ‘advertising’ or ‘human resources’ – on top of that, why are humans considered ‘resources’ anyway?” The questions are infinite, powerful and meaningful. So why can’t I ever bring myself to write them down, to voice them concretely and publically?
Now when reading this blog keep in mind that yes, when writing appears on the site, the television has been removed (ever so briefly) from my chest; I’ve managed to find a brief reprieve from that infernal racket. And in moments of relief (like the one to come), I’d like to try and throw some light onto why it is that, when I’m asked to provide my genuine, self derived reflections upon the world, I feel so powerless and stupid.
Think of this blog as an experiment. In no way is it well considered, thoughtful or correct. It’s like being given some paint, after decades of artistic starvation, and being told to throw it up against a wall. To slide that television off my chest and go for a jog – to get rid of this bloated, unhealthy feeling, to run out the aches in my back and burn off some layers of fat.
Who knows how long these breaks from lethargy will last. How long is the window between bouts of chronic intellectual fatigue? I don’t know. But at least, for once, this time I’m going to dive right into the murky waters without concern – because at any moment I could be gripped, as if amidst a nightmare, with that debilitating lethargy that prevents me from wielding my arms or kicking my legs in order that I stay afloat.
PART TWO: Confusion
“I’m falling, falling, falling…. Might as well fall in”
James Blake, The Wilhelm Scream
I met a guy a couple of days ago. This guy had just signed a contract with some giant multinational to go and work in the Saudi Arabian oil fields. Quite a prospect! Desert – an endless sea of sand – as far as the eye can see, a luxury apartment – plasma screen and spa bath – in the middle of a void pervaded by the stench of a bubbling, sticky, lake of oil. Terrifying.
I wish you had met this guy: twenty-three and Lebanese he wears a leather jacket, has a wide (almost Texan) gait, a scruffy beard and a genuine smile; one of those smiles that (once he slaps you on the back to say hello) you know comes, unabated, from the heart. I like this guy a lot.
He’s just graduated from an engineering degree in France and is now returning home to Lebanon which is where he’ll spend his time when he’s not living in a luxury desert void. Returning home from France seems to have left him strangely aloof though; despite his warmth he seems somewhat reserved and quietly confused.
Talking to him, it’s clear to see that he has a deep affinity with his home in the Middle East. But, like many returning ex-pats, he seems to live in a strange kind of ‘in-between-world’. Although at home, his awareness of this fact seems slightly more aroused; it’s more a desire to be-at-home than it is a deeply imbedded sense of comfort and routine.
Anyway, we’re at this winery in the Beqaa Valley – one of those strange kinds of spots where Shiraz meets Hezb’allah (while the flags on the side of the road sport pictures of AK47s and Hassan Nasrallah, the winery pumps out around a million bottles of plonk a year – the largest in Lebanon). Now, the cab sav just meets the sub-$20 requirement but the conditions are far from ideal. For starters, the reds are served (for tasting) at around 13 degrees and, like an apple that’s been kept in my fridge at home overnight (you know, one of those fifth-hand fridges which could easily pass as a slightly dodgy freezer), the wine loses much of its flavour. Even white wine, in my books, should never be served in this fashion. More disappointingly, the icy chills running through the drink have failed to dull the effects of a grating sourness which razors the palate as if a thousand tiny little, wrinkly, spikey-footed old men are dancing with their canes along my tongue. Half a Chowne.
So, we’re sitting at this winery sharing a bottle of wrinkly old men and something familiar starts to happen to my new friend; a silent, sad confusion starts to thicken in his being. I know this stuff. This confusing lethargy which flows, like sour honey, through many young adults I meet.
For my friend, the sour honey (the television sitting on his chest) seems to be his decision to go to work in these gargantuan Saudi Arabian oil fields.
As each glass goes down he begins to reminisce with sadness in his voice. During his time at university, he says, he imagined something more romantic of his life: “we all had great communistic ideals.” Another glass down – he leans back. “But now… I du’no.”
Everyone around him is eating plates of cheese, chatting away and laughing happily, but my friend inhabits a separate world of silence. Bewildered, his head points down towards the table. It’s shaking slowly, from side to side, and his eyes are pointing up towards his frontal lobe as if he’s searching for some answer that he knows should be there.
Now, with the image of this scruffy, genuine and confused Lebanese man in your mind, I want you to take a moment to listen to a song which, I think, has something interesting to say about the zeitgeist – this deep, sour honey lethargy, this stultifying television, this awkward, sweaty beanbag: The Wilhelm Scream by James Blake (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MVgEaDemxjc). Think of the relationship between this song and that image of my friend like the relationship between beer and a nut. A salty nut can never express its authentic flavour without the bitter compliment of a beer and, like the nut, the weird kind of feeling that I’m trying to describe here will never find full, authentic expression without its own artistic compliment.
Finished listening? Well, whether you liked it or not, I think a song like this can’t help but evoke feelings of alienation, cavernous in proportions; a loneliness and isolation not contemplated in years gone by. A kind of isolation from the world around us which, when we consider the growing pace at which our world is filled with ‘things’ (mission statements, facebook friends, phone numbers, hilarious images, cool identities, pictures from your holiday, career opportunities, sub-genres, DIY, self improvement, shiny teeth and neck thinning medicine), seems absurd.
In the face of all these things, The Wilhelm Scream speaks of something terrifying: your inevitable plummet towards death, and a frightening kind of absence which encompasses your journey. That moment when you look around, expecting to find a safety net – at least something in your busy, full-up, successful world – and the feeling of hollow terror when you realise that all those things and things and things and things and things and things slip, like the mist on a crisp Canberra morning, through your gaping hands.
This, too, is what my new friend speaks to me about. But he speaks to me without words. Only with the slow shake of his head.
He finally mutters, “But you can’t change the world…”
Ah – now I see where this is going. This is what the modern world tells people like me and my friend here: “If you don’t have something to say (or do) that will change the whole world (or at least apply universally to the world as a whole) then you’re not worth the dregs in this can!”
Why bother? The big minds, the game changers (Descartes, Newton, Hobbes, Rand, Friedman) all had something to say about everybody. We all think – we all fall – we’re all selfish bastards – we’re all selfish bastards – we’re all selfish bastards. “What can YOU say, now, my scruffy bearded friend, that’s important enough that I should listen?”
“I thought so… Go perform a function.”
This type of thing has always induced, within me, a strange mixture of confusion and intimidation (a common emotion among people I know my age). It’s a feeling that the world, in its complexity, enormity and inexplicability, is crushing down upon me and (unlike those disciples who are ‘smart’ enough to jump aboard an established, neater vision of the world) there’s too much out there that might not fit my picture – it’s only my perspective.
The ‘great modern thinkers’ seem, so often, to sit ‘outside’ the world, to comprehend it in its entirety, to hold it in a vice and crush it down to size, to wrap it in a bow and give it to a friend, or, as my new friend put it, to “eat the world.” Who, today though, has the stomach to eat the world when, all around us, it’s clear the world is eating us? On computer screens it flashes – earthquakes in China, gas deals in Kazakhstan, billion dollar election campaigns in the US, straight legged marching soldiers in North Korea, talking wax-sculptures in parliaments, towering shelves in Kmart – what the hell am I supposed to do?
In the 1960s your average self-doubting undergraduate could have stuck two fingers up at this confusion – just light up a joint and turn on some Dylan. But, today, what am I supposed to do? Crack open a mid strength beer, turn up my Bono CD and yell out “I am the 99%”? No, there’s no easy response to twenty-first century confusion. That is, unless you are a disciple. While my friend and I sit in silent anxiety or in cafes or in pubs, these disciples join political parties or climb the corporate ladder. And some of them, these disciples, look down on me and him, people who are openly confused about the world. In contrast to us they are loud and obnoxious – these mean, inbreeding student politicians and craven, one-dimensional vine leaves – they are often the loudest, most confident ones in the room. They’ve got the answers, we don’t.
So, as it is so often, my friend and I just sit there with TVs on our chests, licking McDonald’s advertisements. We can’t say anything. James Blake’s fragile, uncertain lyrics will never be heard over feverish congregations yelling jingles back to Bono. We are in no cult so why should we bother/risk walking the plank into the unknown?
This is a good question and perhaps I’ll finish this by suggesting a response because, in writing, one slowly walks, step by step, along this plank. I walk only to ensure that when the disciples – those mean politicians and vine leaves – look down me and my friend they see two fingers sticking up at them. I’ll be up from my beanbag, dancing to all sorts of music (James Blake and Dylan certainly included), I’ll be drinking home-brew – and they can go fuck themselves.