Can’t Get There From Here

I find that I’m far too busy to write on here these days. But today I have a couple of free hours and some scattered thoughts so here goes.

I’ve been thinking about Julian Morrow’s speech in The Secret History, when the plot is kicked off by the lecturer’s monologue about ‘the burden of the self, and why people want to lose the self in the first place’:

Why does that obstinate little voice in our heads torment us so?… Could it be because it reminds us that we are alive, of our mortality, of our individual souls – which, after all, we are too afraid to surrender but yet make us feel more miserable than any other thing?… It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from the world, that no one and no thing hurts along with one’s burned tongues and skinned knees, that one’s aches and pains are all one’s own. Even more terrible, as we grow older, to learn that no person, no matter how beloved, can ever truly understand us. Our own selves make us most unhappy, and that’s why we’re so anxious to lose them, don’t you think?

As Don Draper says in Mad Men: ‘You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts.’ The individual self is a constant reminder of the fact of our own impermanence and that one day we will not be. Human behaviour can be seen as an attempt to ‘lose this maddening self, lose it entirely’ in some greater whole. It is the religious impulse. To have the self extinguish in the fire of a loving God. It is the political impulse. The self subsumed into a great chanting mass. O’Brien, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, believes that he has escaped death by total immersion in the Party’s totalitarian dream. ‘The weakness of the cell,’ he explains to Winston Smith, ‘is the vigour of the organism. Do you die when you cut your fingernails?’

You can go on like this. The nationalist impulse. The corporate vision. Wars and sports. (‘One can lose oneself in the joy of battle, in fighting for a glorious cause,’ Julian says, and adds a rueful caveat: ‘but there are not a great many glorious causes for which to fight these days.’) The urge to love, the desire to be loved, to disappear in the arms of the Other. Humanity is a quest for the higher authority and the Great Belong. And you never find it. Compounding the pointlessness is the fact that we don’t know even who we are half the time. Again from Don Draper: ‘I hate to break it to you but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent.’

I’ll try and segue now to Cameron’s speech over the weekend. It’s worth reading the whole thing. There is a lot of good in the speech  but Cameron’s argument is flawed. What’s missing is the recognition that Islam itself is cruel and totalitarian in nature. Until this fact it is acknowledged no progress will be made. This sounds like a bad thing to say, but it’s not. Religions, after all, are just ideas. And some ideas are better than others.

The other big weakness is that Cameron frames his argument as an attack on multiculturalism, when the problem is not multiculturalism but fascists of the EDL and Islamist variety who believe in a pure and changeless monoculture and insist that the rest of us must live their sinister dream. Islamic fundamentalists hate multiculturalism: abominate the decadent, godless, cosmopolitan, occidental city. This, too, they share with neo-Nazis and other white fascists. The rage of the EDL Spode crew against Islamic fundamentalism is the rage of Caliban looking at his face in the rockpool.

Cameron’s speech will trigger the predictable argument. The silo nation right and a great deal of the public will jump up and down and say that all would be well if we got rid of the migrants. The left will fall over itself to defend the right of Islamic fundamentalists to put British Asian women through genital mutilation, forced marriage, and a lifetime of subservience and repression.

What will be overlooked is Cameron’s grief for ‘the weakening of our collective identity’. That is the silo nation lament – the song they’ve been singing for half a century or so. They say there is no such thing as society and yet piss and moan for the death of a collective soul. Again, we’re back to the burden of the self. We want to lose ourselves in the flag but we don’t know what the flag means. We want to lose ourselves in a pure and changeless silo England when we can’t remember the last time such a place existed, or even if it ever existed in the first place – or if anyone would really want to live there. The impermanence of our common culture reminds us of the impermanence of our physical lives.

No one ever asks: do we actually need a collective identity? It is hard enough, after all, to define any one human being (with all the desires and elegies and complications that make up a single identity) let alone an island of sixty million flawed and careless souls. We should celebrate the fact that we live in a society that is in a constant flux. The image of the urban hipster is so often ridiculed – particularly by urban hipsters themselves – yet the freedom to be postmodern and metrosexual and self-obsessed is something we should cherish, not mock. I mean, what would you? Get up at four in the morning to feed chickens? Christ no.

Standing up for the occidental city and the cosmopolitan England would be the first steps towards a human patriotism. To regain an identity you have to recognise that we have no identity. Like Don Draper, we’re living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one. Like Whitman, we contradict ourselves: we contain multitudes.


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