The latest in a series of notes on the self, written from not-so-splendid isolation
After the success, a few weeks ago, of reading about an Austrian genius with evident mental-health issues who eventually starved himself to death, I returned to the scene of the ‘crime’ and picked up a Stefan Zweig novella. (The first Austrian was Kurt Gödel, for those of you who missed it: the genius revolved around his incompleteness theorems; the starving was a result of his inability to deal with daily life. Both were comforting to me in different ways, hence the success.) Zweig’s work is frequently cited by Gödel scholars attempting to describe the ‘atmosphere’ in Vienna at the time when the logician was studying there. The novella is about a man who has been imprisoned and interrogated by the Nazis, but who manages to steal a book, build an alternative mental universe and then disappear into it. You don’t need to know the details, really. Except that the book is about chess, which initially seems a curse, because the man isn’t that interested in the ‘sport’. But it becomes a blessing once he realises that he can play the whole game in his head. The man slowly develops a split personality that allows him to play himself. Even though he recognises that this is both a ‘logical absurdity’ and the road to madness. Because, as with Gödel, his imaginary world is too complete (even if for Gödel that completeness involved it being incomplete). It leaves him too far removed from reality ever to go back. In 1942 Zweig and his wife killed themselves while in exile in Brazil. ‘My inner crisis consists in that I am not able to identify myself with the me of passport, the self of exile,’ he wrote shortly before the end.
It took a new reality – a Zoom panel discussion – to remind me that what’s important now might be what I’m not seeing rather than what I am seeing. And that the whole seeing and not seeing thing might be part of the empathy problem I keep returning to. The seeing business was one of the subjects of the discussion, between the writers Kiese Laymon, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Arundhati Roy, and hosted by Kimberlé Crenshaw. Although the fact that Crenshaw was using a Zoom background into which parts of her head kept disappearing made the ‘what we see/what we don’t see’ stuff come even more to the fore. The writers talked about various issues – broadly concerning race, class and poverty – that were being buried amid the current crisis. It served as a reminder of how, now that I’m being bombarded by other types of lectures about all other bodies being potentially toxic, I’m slowly being trained to avoid them. The bodies, not the lectures. Although I tend to avoid those too.
Live bodies are obstacles; the bodies of the dead are hidden. Behind numbers and statistics, graphs and comparative studies. (I’m fortunate enough not to know anyone who has died of COVID-19.) I’m also being trained to accept, not to enquire. And, in a way, to avoid the very thing that an art critic is supposed to do. Assuming that you consider the visual, and the act of seeing, and then the interrogation of what you see to be something essential to the role of the critic, that is. Sinister stuff. When you think about it. I worry that, generally, I don’t. Unless it’s got something to do with my Sri Lankan or Jewish ancestors being marginalised in or omitted from an image or account of an episode from the inglorious colonial past. Which, in any case, perhaps serves my own narrative more than it does theirs.
I watched a three-part documentary about wildlife in Arabia. It started off innocently enough. Birds, snakes, lizards, oryx, dromedaries, the odd scorpion – that kind of stuff. The general vibe seemed to be about showing how the desert actually contained so much, despite appearing to contain so little. In that sense it worked like a media briefing by the UK government (that’s where I’m hiding for the moment, btw: in the UK; not the government) or a press release for an exhibition. Naturally, there was a subcurrent about how life carries on even in the harshest of environments. I wondered if that was why the BBC was broadcasting it now. (It originally aired in 2015.) And then I wondered if that was why I was watching it. Then the mood began to switch. Because of the programme’s content; not because of me.
It gradually emerged that the documentary was, in fact, something of a propaganda vehicle for Dubai. About how people who consumed quite a lot (of water and energy) were in fact helping creatures used to surviving on not a lot. What looked like greed was in fact generosity. Suddenly oil rigs in the Gulf had been reframed (for the purposes of the nature documentary) as sites of ecological splendour. They were breeding grounds for fish and thus magnets for whale sharks hoovering up eggs and plankton. And, in that way, they were helpful to scientists studying marine giants. Scientists who, one presumes, are environmentalists of some sort. The oil-rig workers were reimagined as helpful whale-shark spotters. Suddenly the water-intensive crop farms (so water-intensive that they have a limited lifespan) that had popped up in the middle of the desert were nature parks. Luxury stopovers that gave tired birds a break and a bath on their migratory flights. Like the way stations that were rapidly constructed by switched-on entrepreneurs when the Silk Road became an actual road. Did the people who funded the programme only show the nature people what they wanted them to see? Did the nature people only see what they wanted to see?
I followed that up with Zhao Liang’s Behemoth, a surreal documentary about the environmental, societal and personal damage effected by coalmining and related industries in northeast China. In it, horror is mixed with a certain poetry – gently riffing off Dante’s Inferno. Most of it comprises footage of people doing what they are forced to do to exist. And the effect on the landscape of what they are forced to do in order to exist. But then I felt a creeping annoyance at the way in which the poetic interludes (often accompanied by a nude male body curled up in the scarred landscape) kept interrupting the unrelenting misery of watching miners dodging explosions in claustrophobic hells, families foraging for coal scraps on slag heaps under the cover of darkness, shepherds rounding up flocks while a constant stream of trucks poured out rubble and dust to create the heaps, and people who were now hooked up to oxygen tanks because of the rubble, the dust, the chemicals and the heat. One of the things seemed real. The other did not. Although ‘real’ takes on a totally different meaning when all you’re really doing is wearing out a sofa in a relatively spacious London flat. The ‘heaven’ in Behemoth, by the way, is a new-build city in which no one actually lives; but about which people can dream while they live, hand-to-mouth, somewhere else. If you’re someone like me, watching Zhao Liang’s movie elicits a healthy dose of guilt. Which is, I guess, a form of empathy that cancels itself out. A zero-sum game.
For the record, both the nature documentaries and Behemoth were ‘research’. Not the fruits of an idle channel surf. For ongoing ‘projects’. Which is to say that it’s not without purpose that I’m watching these things. It’s important to hold on to your agency. Although it’s important too not to delude yourself about that. Increasingly the watching and the reading that these columns encompass seem to be a way of looking sideways at what’s really going on. I’m starting to think that it’s not having a sense of empathy but doing something with it that counts.