Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Human Problem of Modern Capitalism

The Art of Loving is the title of a book by Erich Fromm, a social psychologist, and is certainly one of the sappiest titles for a book that I've ever come across. At first glance it appears to contain some mushy bullshit about love and what have you, but after inspection, it contains some deep psychological and philosophical analysis of humans from a lot of different angles. It covers many topics I've often thought about and has expressed in words a lot of thoughts that were in my head but never made their way to paper.

This is an extract on one of the issues of the modern capitalist society that I've observed, and this was written in the mid fifties! How far along have we come along from then? Note that because the book was written in the mid fifties, I forgive its really sappy name. At that time the name would have sounded better I suppose not having been distorted by all these chicken soup for the soul and power of positive thinking corny crap.

The human problem of modern capitalism can be formulated in this way:

Modern capitalism needs men who cooperated smoothly and in large numbers; who want to consume more and more; and whose tastes are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated. It needs men who feel free and independent, not subject to any authority or principle or conscience - yet willing to be commanded, to do what is expected of them, to fit into the social machine without friction; who can be guided without force, led without leaders, prompted without aim - except the one to make good, to be on the move, to function, to go ahead.


Modern man is actually close to the picture Huxley describes in his Brave New World; well fed, well clad, satisfied sexually, yet without self, without any except the most superficial contact with his fellow men, guided by the slogans which Huxley formulated so succinctly, such as: ‘When the individual feels, the community reels’; or ‘Never put off till tomorrow the fun you can have today,’ or, as the crowning statement: ‘Everybody is happy nowadays.’

Man’s happiness today consists in ‘having fun.’ Having fun lies in the satisfaction of consuming and ‘taking in’ commodities, sights, food, drinks, cigarettes, people, lectures, books, movies - all are consumed, swallowed. The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the suckers, the eternally expectant ones, the hopeful ones - and the eternally disappointed ones. Our character is geared to exchange and to receive, to barter and to consume; everything, spiritual as well as material objects, becomes an object of exchange and of consumption.

~ Erich Fromm

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Big J

What do you do when a friend stops to care? What do you do when you can tell that this friend is drifting, and that they aren’t even honest with themselves or with you to explain what’s going on? The problem is that you know this friend so well and you understand their every move, and their motivations and you can understand that they’re drifting away.

It’s just the little things you know. They may forget my number after a while, forget which floor I live on, forget things I’ve mentioned about myself. They’re very small things, and inconsequential, but they point to a distance that is growing within them. They can choose to act casual or forgetful by nature, but the trouble is that I’m not. I remember that during our close friendships they remembered very specific details that I could have mentioned in passing. They remember events and remind me of them. But when they’ve drifted, they act like it’s normal to forget these things, and they believe it too, because they don’t even remember that they used to remember.

When friends drift, they ask about you more casually than before, you sense it in the tone of speech and their facial expressions. Sometimes you’re not even consoled by a pathetic effort to fake interest. It’s just a drift that starts slowly and takes on a form that they might not even identify but you can clearly see.

I recall once a very close friend asked me how old I had become a few days after my birthday. A year earlier she had celebrated my birthday on time and sent me a card and bought me a gift. You can imagine the message it sends out when I get a brief phone call many days after my birthday with a question of how old I’ve become. The call meant nothing to me and I wish she hadn’t even bothered. It was more painful to be wished a happy birthday carelessly and so late, than not to have been wished at all.

It’s not that I want people to remember things about me, not at all. I’m not the kind of guy who takes birthdays, events, information too seriously. I don’t keep track of a lot of it personally, and I’ve never seen this as a big deal. I’m not into blaming people for not remembering details or events, but the inconsistency of care is what can hurt sometimes. To see someone you care about drifting away and shifting their care away is a bit like that slow painful stab at the end of Saving Private Ryan.

The way I see it, you have no choice but to let them go, only that I wish they’d drift away quicker. You have no choice but to let them go their own way, and feel their own feelings and do what they need to be doing. Friendship is mutual, and it’s based on both sides giving. No amount of giving from one side will force the other side to give again sometimes. What can you do when you can no longer get what you always wanted from your friend?

Your hand is forced and you have no choice but to let go. I’ve been accused of being cold or without emotion, and yet one of the strongest feelings I’ve had was towards friendships. It’s rather unfortunate that I’ve experienced a lot of friendships breaking. Do I need to get all emotional and broken up over someone who decided to break a mutual bond?

I adapt, and that’s all there is to it. I try to keep my face expressionless and isolated from an aching soul. I try to be strong because being weak helps no one. It’s not that I’m pretending to be strong or that I’m naturally strong by nature, that’s not it, it’s that I’ve discovered that I have the potential to be very strong in my character and all I’m doing is utilizing that potential. Needless to say that having the potential and using it are entirely different things. There’s sometimes a choice not to be strong, and it has it’s own set of returns.

I know why people call me cold, because I can hide what I’m thinking and what I’m feeling. And why should I show feelings of being hurt or troubled when it will be probably at times where the person in front of you couldn’t care less. People do reach this cruel state sometimes when they are unable to sympathize with what you’re feeling or understand what you’re going through. Friends can sometimes become less sympathetic with you than a total stranger, and you can become more pitiful than what remains of the friendship is worth.

So to all those who say I’m cold, I say, I’d rather be cold than have to deal with the mushy bullshit that comes along with expressing exactly what you feel to exactly the wrong people. I’ve seen too much psychological bullshit going on with people to believe that you should allow yourself to be vulnerable with just anyone. I was talking to one of the few remaining very good friends of mine Big J and telling him about Hisham and how our friendship was suddenly and magically severed, and then I thought I’d test him. He’s a stable solid guy who has a good vision about life, and he’s a realist, practical and easy going. So I asked him if our relationship can someday be severed in that same odd dramatic manner, and his answer attested as to why we’re still very good friends. Big J said, “In this life, anything can happen. I don’t think we can ever say that something like this can’t happen with us because we never know what life may bring.”

Thank you Big J, that’s the right answer, that’s the real one. Too much can happen that we can’t foretell. Life’s just that way, it’s full of surprises in its own mundane way. Who knows what can make people change? I try to fight it, but I do accept I can change dramatically through something I just can’t anticipate. I can end up being exactly what I’ve resented being. I can be a liar, I can change my beliefs, I can change to believe that all I had wanted to be was not worth anything.

It’s the tough equation, to care enough about a friend to be a good friend to them, because I believe that being a good friend means something, it’s worth something; and to be able to let them go when they choose to end the friendship. It’s an odd contract, friendship that is. It’s a contract whereby both parties get great benefits but any one side can unilaterally end this contract or amend it or change it.

I think we all lose people along the way, it’s not like I’m cursed or anything, but perhaps I feel I lose more because of how much I’ve valued friendships and how strongly their loss has impacted me. I really hope I’m not making it sound like marriage or the love that comes with a relationship, because unlike what people seem to want to believe, love exists outside that realm in a very strong manner that gives great returns.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Another Day

So once more it’s my birthday, and things this time aren’t looking so bad. Yet a feature of my birthday has always been being alone. I don’t mean alone in a bad way, it’s just a state of mind I’m always in during this day. I think it’s a healthy thing sometimes. The things is, being alone gives you perspective… no, let me correct that, being alone gives you a perspective. Because you’ve always got a perspective whether you like it or not, and I don’t think that when you’re alone it’s any truer, it’s just different. It can lead you to something truer, but it in itself cannot be the absolute truth.

You see, if you can’t carry that perspective with you to when you’re with others, then it means nothing, then it was just in your head, an imagination. Tonight I decided that despite everything I will go out and celebrate. In a city I barely know and a city where I barely know anyone, alone is all I could have chosen. I went to a roof top bar and let me tell you the place was amazing. It was a bit like Sequoia meets Nomad, but with great service and great atmosphere and perfect audio levels.

Anyway, I was surrounded as you would imagine with shiny people and I enjoyed my drink watching all those people. It’s nice to watch people around you, but at the same time it was good to watch with someone. Why don’t I do this more often, I thought to myself, and it seemed clear, but if I can’t feel the same when I’m back with people I know, it doesn’t become real.

I love strangers, they’re so much easier to get along with and it’s much easier to have fun with them. There’s none of that dreaded history, especially if it’s bitter; everything said is new and interesting, and everything is not as yet misinterpreted. Sometimes I wish that I can have the closeness I have with people I already know with the novelty of strangers. It’s not that I don’t want to exchange deep genuine care but it’s that I also want that superficial kind that means nothing but can give you a tingly feeling of fulfillment.

But who am I kidding? I’ve stopped feeling that I needed that from anyone a long time ago. I sometimes think I’m immune to hurt and praise and yet I know they somehow scar my defenses ever so slightly, like a vibration you feel in a concrete building from a powerful thud a few floors above you.

The point is that our ideas while being alone have no meaning if they fail to work when scrutinized by reality. The reality is that it’s difficult to apply people to your ideas, they have their own. They can’t imagine being with you and enjoying a view, and they can’t imagine a scene that’s in your head.

People you know don’t have the ability to become strangers or do things your way or even reciprocate. People are never who you want them to be when you want them to be it. In my experience, people can be who you want them to be, but not necessarily at the time you want them to be it. You can almost always count on people saying something you’ve been dying to hear just after you’ve given up hope on them saying it and that something loses its power over you completely. You can usually count on them to change into what they were heading towards after too much time has passed for that to matter.

That’s the way with people, they can only become strangers, not when they’re close and you want a certain part of that stranger to deal with you, but rather when they actually do become strangers and their closeness means nothing to you anymore.

You can’t expect people to remember your birthday when you remember theirs, or to want to communicate when you want to. You can’t expect people to want to let it all go when you do, or to talk it out when you want to. All I’m saying is that all your expectations are your perspective when you’re alone, and while in them there’s lots of hope or bitterness or just plain anything you may want, there’s lack of reality or more accurately timing.

Timing is everything in this world. Opportunities mean nothing without timing. A lovely place with great atmosphere and with money to spare means nothing if it comes at a time when it can’t be shared. A great idea can’t make it into the world if it isn’t born at the right time, or presented at the correct time. I think Thomas Hardy once said it in Far from the Madding Crowd, that it’s better to see what opportunities present themselves at this time rather than have an opportunity that requires the right time, something of that sort anyway.

Anyway, an inopportune time to celebrate my birthday, but it seems fitting what I’ve decided last year, to celebrate the first good day nearest my birthday as my birthday. Of course this year isn’t half as bad as last year nor as melodramatic, but it’s just that for some odd reason, owing to how I’m built most likely, my birthday is surrounded by way too much contemplation.

I’ve wondered why people say Happy Birthday, why is it that this day out of all should be wished to be happy? Could it be that it is particularly because of the potential of this day not to be? Or is it because you owe yourself at least one day of happiness a year?

Well, I know that for me, birth is somehow equivalent to life, and on a day like this I really have to think about what life means, and what living it is all about. It’s such an important day to split your life between past and future. It’s a day when you can say to yourself, look, you’ve been living, is that what you want to do in life? It’s a day when you can talk to a self that so lost in every day things that it has forgotten that it’s actually alive. This is all you get, these small moments that make up a life. I think we’re always waiting for the wrong things in life, waiting for life to start, though I know for sure that it is ongoing.

I’ve decided long ago to spend the least amount of my time doing things that I dislike doing. I don’t want to spend my time talking to someone who bores me, I don’t want to sacrifice my time to please another unless their pleasure pleases me. I will let things that I don’t feel like doing pass me by even if they’re things I want to do later. Opportunity cannot compensate for timing no matter what. That the things are an opportunity cannot make them enjoyable if the mood (i.e timing) isn’t right.

Lately, I’ve been losing myself in the unimportant things, the things you need to get by. But now I’ve left my other outing for a solitary drink to write this here. I really need to write it, not sure if it makes any sense, I’ve been hacking away at it continuously and the thoughts are connected a thread too thin to see for anyone but me and only me in the state that I’m in. I just want to write these thoughts and look at them and think about how silly they might have been or how true they were.

There’s not much to me is there? If these are my thoughts and I’ve written them all down… I guess that’s what I’m all about. I’ve been told that I attempt to be mysterious, and on some occasions that I am, but that’s what I’m thinking now, it’s raw and unedited. It’s my thoughts flowing directly from my brain, as fast as my fingers can type, translated in to words.

I think I’ve just taken a trip that goes nowhere inside my head. There are so many places I could have gone to, but for today, this was the trip. It’s meaningless perhaps to go around in these circles, trying to decipher life through a set of recycled words and recycled thoughts. I add nothing, but all that’s here is mine.

I’m going for a drink..

Back from the drink..

I didn’t enjoy it much. I had a drink in the hotel, and I was able to get in only because I’m a guest. That place is a nightclub with bouncers like those brutes you find in the Cairo Jazz Club. I don’t know how easy it would have been for me to get in if I were a visitor, but it seems that knowing someone is the way to go about it or at the very least have an attractive female by your side.

Isn’t it funny how we’re always evaluated and judged as we walk through life? The key to my room was also the key to my entrance, and it was the key to the really good treatment I got from the bouncer. I can understand a little of that lust for power, to have power over someone, to stand out and be recognized as someone with influence. Of course I had none, I was just an ordinary person with a room key.

How is it that people become important in life and do I want to be one of them? Glamour is fleeting, obscurity is forever. I like obscurity, and I’m not just saying that because I have no choice about it. I really think it’s valuable to hide in the crowd, not to be spotted, not to be monitored for every move.

It was really smoky in that night club. The dark atmosphere was Dostoevskian as that of a poor dark lost Russian brothel in the 1800s; the people from a cheap horror movie. They danced and drank to have fun. There was something hopeless in what I saw, very unlike the elegant rooftop bar I had been to earlier. The characters were all doomed and they did not even know it. It was as if I’d descended into a limbo.

I wonder if someone had looked at me and thought the same thing of me too. I wonder if someone things the same thing too, I’d like to meet them and exchange these odd and dark thoughts.

My birthday’s over, and I’ve gone over a lot of things, but I must return to my friends. I go through the list of friends in my life who have been close and most of them lost. Childhood friends are so easily lost, but my best friend even back then had been lost way before our childhood ended, and as time goes by, those closest drift farthest.

My friends, these will require another session altogether. I had decided to send each person a letter, a letter that he/she will never comprehend when they read it; a letter that I must write and should not be read by its alleged receiver. I should send it to my friends, those who exist and those who don’t, and to those who don’t even know I exist. I have letters to those whose hearts have been hardened, conscience killed, faith destroyed. I have letters to the merciless and the deaf and the blind. I have letters for everyone whose life or decisions have affected me.

It was a good birthday, I’m alive and not doing much of what I don’t want to do. That will suffice for now… until the next time I’m reminded I was born and I’m now alive.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Mark Twain in Egypt

Was Mark Twain in Egypt when he wrote this?

You see my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one's country, not to its institutions, or its office holders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags--this is loyalty to unreason, it is pure animal; it belongs to monarchy, was invented by monarchy; let monarchy keep it.

"...all political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their benefit; and that they have at all times an undeniable and indefeasible right to alter their form of government in such a manner as they may think expedient."

Under that gospel, the citizen who thinks he sees that the commonwealth's political clothes are worn out, and yet holds his peace and does not agitate for a new suit, is disloyal; he is a traitor.That he may be the only one who thinks he sees this decay does not excuse him; it is his duty to agitate, anyway, and it is the duty of others to vote him down if they do not see the matter as he does.

And now here I was, in a country where a right to say how the country should be governed was restricted to six persons in each thousand of its population. For the nine hundred and ninety-four to express dissatisfaction with the regnant system and propose to change it, would have made the whole six shudder as one man, it would have been so disloyal, so dishonorable, such putrid black treason. So to speak, I was become a stockholder in a corporation where nine hundred and ninety-four of the members furnished all the money and did all the work, and the other six elected themselves a permanent board of direction and took all the dividends. It seemed to me that what the nine hundred and ninety-four dupes needed was a new deal.

Needless to say I share this view and my loyalty can be expressed in the same manner as his. It's funny though that by his standards we're all traitors, or at least most of us anyway.

This was an excerpt from 'A Connecticut Yankee In King Yankee In King Arthur's Court' in case you were wondering

Saturday, June 07, 2008

On a Treadmill

Being alone on business is not so bad, it has its perks. I won’t consider travelling itself a perk in my situation because it really does depend on where you’re travelling to, and in my case there’s certainly no joy in where I’m at. You’d really have to see the silver lining and examine it with detail if you want some sort of benefit from my sort of travel. Perhaps this detailed examination or quest itself is what I gained out of this trip.
I’m no stranger to living all alone, and I’ve always found it enjoyable. There’s more clarity in things I see and I always have more time to observe and contemplate. On this trip I’ve been trying not to waste my time too much and I decided to do something I’ve never done before in my life, which is run on a treadmill. Oh how I hate running, it’s one of the most mundane things anyone has to endure. Ironically running for a long time is about endurance as well. So being a novice at running for a boring span of time just under an hour, I had to figure out ways to fight this boredom.
I decided that an MP3 player would help so I stuffed it with some of my favorite songs that I haven’t heard in a while and got started. The amazing thing is that when I tried to focus on the songs to get away from the utter boredom of just running, I actually noticed some lyrics with more clarity. One of the songs is called Keep Talking by Pink Floyd and it starts with a mechanical voice saying,
For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals
Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination
We learned to talk.
Irrespective of how long mankind lived just like the animals, I suddenly recognized the importance of words. Words express things that were never meant to be expressed in such a manner, they express feelings and emotions that go on inside us internally and really have no way of being communicated to someone else. It’s just that we can never tell what exactly is going on through an animal’s mind, and to be so isolated from feelings we can express today is a little scary. It’s such a great gift to be able to express that which exists in a non audible realm, that’s why it’s important to keep talking, to communicate, to understand that we can understand what goes on inside us and that we share a lot of it.
I'll sit in the corner
No one can bother me
I think I should speak now
I can't seem to speak now
My words won't come out right
I feel like I'm drowning
I'm feeling weak now
But I can't show my weakness
I sometimes wonder
Where do we go from here
How many of us sit in the corner, feel like they’re drowning and just can’t seem to speak now? I’m not saying anything new, but I was visited by a moment that showed me how to appreciate words.
After my successful attempts at distracting myself from the boredom of running using old songs, I began to tire. I looked for new music, but couldn’t accumulate enough music of great quality to last me the sessions, so I turned to television as a catalyst while listening to the same old songs. The interesting thing is that I started to notice the picture and the scenes; devoid of sound, the camera says a few things of its own and even in a lousy action film, there’s a lot of work done by the camera that’s just aesthetically appealing and greatly overlooked. It seems that sometimes art slips us by distorted by things around it.
On a related note I’ve realized for the first time how brilliant the shots are in the movie The Aviator when watching it in a loud noisy café with a big screen unable to hear clearly the music or words. The scenes with the planes were so well done and particularly that of the crash was so well constructed.
I know it’s crazy taking note of these details just because I’m on my own, but they’ve become clearer for some reason. The interesting development though was when I decided to watch television and listen to what they were saying. In the hotel gym the television is placed behind the tread mills and you can view it by looking in a mirror. As I struggled to watch the shows I realized I wasn’t able to read the translation or listen to the sound as my legs pounded heavily on the noisy treadmill. I realized everything was inverted; the American movies looked like the English movies and the English ones looked like they were American. Everything was off, everything was distorted audibly and visually.
I couldn’t help but wonder if this is how we let life pass us by in a similar manner to how I observed the television; running constantly on a mindless treadmill, observing our lives in an inverted manner, the sound of our lives clamped and distorted by the pounding of our feet in a mindless chase. I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s the reason we can’t read any of the signs we’re presented with, like the translation on the television they’re inverted in our eyes and we’re constantly running in the other direction looking at things that matter in the rear view mirror of our gym.
Our lives are in the background and we’re content to look at our lives through a mirror rather than confront and give the things that matter our full attention. In the back of our minds we’re satisfied to look at a reflection of our lives, but we don’t really realize that while we can see things clearly in a mirror they will always be inverted. We spend half our lives trying to re-invert things in our heads to make sense of them, all the while running on the treadmill. You see, when you’ve seen things clearly once, it may be easy to spot the distortion, but if you’re on a treadmill all your life, how can you be sure that what you’re seeing is true.
We look at ourselves through mirrors and I can no longer be sure how well we can see ourselves. I don’t think I can trust mirrors that much because while it’s true that I can see myself with clarity looking at a mirror, I have to stop and wonder how much of that is inverted.