from big cities to beach boulevards and small town basement bars // nomadism as a cure for existential anxiety

The topic of my Masters thesis is a feeling that is associated with existential anxiety and often in both psychology and philosophy considered an inevitable part of human life: not feeling at home in the world. I’ll skip elaborating on the theories behind that feeling here because I’ve been writing about it all summer and felt it for 95% of my adult life, but instead would like to talk a little bit about its opposite, because even in an anxiety-filled world it is possible to feel a different way.

Not feeling at home in the world,  or the uncanny feeling, is that weird moment we all get sometimes when something familiar looks odd, existence itself feels suddenly absurd or even a word you repeat ceases to look like a real word. Looking at familiar things too closely reveals how strange and unfamiliar they in fact are, and accodring to philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, this feeling discloses some fundamental information about the world. In this mood you distance yourself from the everyday mode where you take things for granted. It is possibly only in this mode that you can truly become aware of the wrongs and injustices of the world. After sufficient education and reflection it might switch on somewhat permanently, as though you’re stuck in an unending Brechtian verfremdungseffekt-drama and can’t feel involved with anything anymore because at every turn you wonder why things are as they are and why you feel like a complete outsider in the world and why nobody else seems to see how strange everything is. Recently a family member told me I must’ve become wiser after a year of postgrad study of philosophy, and I regretted to tell them I’d only become a little more cynical, and aware of how much there is in the world that I don’t understand, and how utterly I lack any practical skills because at the end of the day being able to discuss the implications of affective ontological reality isn’t going to pay the rent.

Yet despite all this, I felt the opposite of the uncanny feeling just the other day. Uncanny literally means unhomely, so its opposite would be “homely” although this word must be considered through a more complex set of associations than just feeling that you are comfortable and in a safe, familiar place. The homely feeling is one where life feels meaningful, but not in the sense that there is a set goal that makes life meaningful, as when one in bad faith believes that career progress, maximum financial profit, home ownership, marriage and children are predetermined goals everyone should strive for and are the meaning of life universally. In contrast, in the homely feeling, you are perfectly aware that the world is what it is, with its finitudes, uncertainties, evils and shortcomings, and that you are free to create your own life to the extent based on your possibilities and circumstances, and knowing all this still feel that being alive is in itself worthwhile. For some lucky it might be a permanent state of mind, while for most of us it’s a fleeting but wonderful feeling often prompted by a good experience, good company, good food and wine.

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Personally, I’ve only ever had a proper homely feeling in the sense described above when I’ve been travelling. Just last Friday I felt that way when I was all by myself in a small town in Italy where nobody spoke English, and I was learning my way around a new place in a language I barely spoke. The novelty of the experience and the language barrier would, you might think, act as an imaginary wall between my self and the world, and make me feel like a stranger  in a strange town, but it turned out to be the opposite. I’ve rarely felt that level of connection with other people, the world and my sense of self. Every human interaction I had on Friday, despite the limited ability to express myself, was genuine and warm. I felt that the people I met saw me as the kind of person I want to see myself as, and was perfectly comfortable in my skin the way I haven’t been in a very long time. Eventually this comfort dissolved my usual excessive self-awareness, and I stopped worrying about how I come across and focused instead on other people and the world around me, and learnt and noticed things on a whole different level than is possible when stuck inside your own head. How strange that I would feel so at home in a place that was as different from my official place of residence as is possible to be.

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Yet it’s not that suprising, come to think of it. The uncanny feeling is paradoxical because you often get that overwhelmingly unfamiliar feeling about things that are already familiar, perhaps too much so. Maybe places aren’t meant to be familiar. My Nordic ancestors would travel around in search of food, shelter and warmer weather, and throughout human history it has been the norm for tribes to move around. It is strange and sad that in recent years possessiveness of one’s claimed living space and fear of difference has led to such resistance of even the simple human courtesy of giving refuge to people whose home is at war. I believe the presence of foreigners in a place one considers home causes anxiety in many because they expect a certain spatial reality to remain familiar but the presence of people Othered by cultural norms uncannily reminds that nothing is or can stay familiar. Only change is real. Movement of peoples and the chaning of the world is the only truth about homeliness, and the homely feeling must be found by other means than by controlling one’s own physical location.

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When things make more sense on the move, I believe it’s residue of a nomadic ancestry, a past when things were simpler on the whole and the constant becoming of finite and time-bound existence was mirrored in the unending physical relocation through space. It may no longer be possible to fully return to this, but to accept that location is as transient as time and then to live through the anxiety that this realisation causes is a good step to take on the road to true existential freedom.

 

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A North London Love Song

London6

London4

London3

London2

London1

 

i sought shelter here

as a poor poet once

a wealthy nook where hipster youth

are stuck in ghettos beneath a posh veneer

we had rowdy parties with live music

and red wine drunkenness still visible on

our faces several days after

we’d read shakespeare and drink

until three in the morning some nights

our self-appointed genius was carved on this place

and our legacy on the house rules for future tenants:

No Musicians Allowed

anymore

 

every now and then i revisit

the old existential space

and secretly hope to run into

my nineteen-year-

old self who is probably seeking vampires

in the burial ground or sadly looking

down from the Suicide Bridge

or sitting in a bar in a long

black dress pretending to be

Baudelaire reborn.

I’d tell her not to move out

quite so soon.

 

 

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The Subtle Beauty of Domestic Aesthetics

Over the past few days I’ve enjoyed three works, of film, theatre and creative non-fiction respectively, all of which had one thing in common: a preoccupation with domestic objects. Following this unexpected conflux of images from various sources, the role of domestic imagery and paraphernalia, both as theatrical setting and as part of one’s everyday life, is on the top of my mind right now. There is much philosophy out there about the fusing of the human being with smartphones, smartwatches and robotic arms into a cyborg; that is not of my interest or specialisation, apart from mocking people who are so addicted to their stupidphones they panic when they can’t find a plug socket or WiFi signal. No, I’m more interested in bed sheets and saucepans, picture frames and pencil cases: items that are by no means extensions of our body or our communicative faculties, but still an inseparable part of our existence. The first item in the domesticity-Zeitgeist was Ettore Scola’s 1977 film Una giornata particolare, an overall uncomfortable piece of cinema with Hitler’s actual recorded voice constantly in the background and Sophia Loren’s uninvited sexual advances towards Marcello Mastroianni, but a beautifully filmed work of art with exceptional camera angles and fantastic aesthetic harmony. One of the most beautiful scenes portrays the main characters folding bed sheets. (TW: Sophia’s character gets rapey at 4mins 30sec of the video.)

The way this films deals with the domestic space is accentuated by the fact that there is a major bit of action going on well outside of it. Hitler is visiting Italy and almost everyone is out to catch a glimpse of him, except the main characters. The main action is suggested through Hitler’s speech on the radio, but the visuals are attached to the supposedly docile and uneventful home environment, which in this instance does turn out to be quite eventful. The main appeal is, however, that it’s simply interesting to see how another person lives, how they fold their sheets and wash their plates, what kinds of coffee cups and photo albums they have in their home. You know the feeling when you visit the house of a new friend and find out what kind of a mug they drink their morning coffee from and what shampoo they use, and the friendship suddenly feels more intimate? This is because a person is not just a body and a personality, but a complete and complicated existence, and everything from their morning routine to the organisation of their linen cupboard is part of this existence; as are the places they visit, books they read and other existences they interact with. This idea is at the heart of Heidegger’s dismantling of the subject-object polarity of traditional philosophy. Rather than me being a subject and my coffee cup being an object, my existence at the moment of drinking is the experience of drinking coffee. I’m attracted to this aspect of existential philosophy because it takes attention away from the individualistic cult of personality, and is closer to the yogic thinking of the Orient, where all is connected. And as Sartre wrote later, “existence precedes essence,” which can be an incredibly liberating and empowering thought if you look at it right.

On Tuesday I saw Old Vic’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker.

 

This was also no comfortable performance to watch (poor Jenkins!) but again, I immensely enjoyed the multitude of props on the stage. The focus of much of the dialogue is explicitly on domesticity, although in many cases the talk about decorating and building and vacuuming is in order to conceal something that is much harder to talk about. Since I respect the existential wellbeing of my readers and wish no excess anguish on anyone, I’m not going to recommend anyone seeing a Pinter play live, but if you’re interested it’s still running another few weeks. One of the characters, Aston (played by Daniel Mays), is constantly fixing a plug or looking for another appliance to buy, although his place is already crammed with paraphernalia, including a loose sink and an idle gas stove. Aston keeps talking about building a shed in the garden but never shows any genuine attempt to do so; same goes for fixing the leaking ceiling. The sheer volume of stuff in his living space is a perfect visual representation for the disturbances in his mind and the traumas from his past.

And in theme with all this, I’ve been reading Marie Kondo’s bestselling self-help book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It’s been out a few years already and the author has been an international celebrity for a while, so I doubt I’ll have much new to say about her ideas, but it has been fascinating to read her book alongside thinking about the portrayal of domestic space in art, and reading Heidegger’s philosophy of being-in-the-world and the role of objects in it. The most striking aspect of this book is animistic thinking, which involves treating clothes and handbags as living beings. For example, Kondo reveals her habit of thanking her handbag at the end of the day for the hard work of carrying her stuff, and emptying it in order to let it rest. I don’t have a huge problem with personification or animism, but I was horrified at the suggestion of the effort of emptying my bag at the end of the day. Doesn’t she realise how much stuff I carry around every day? Right now my bag is crammed with several notebooks, a few paperback Nietzsches and Marcuses, the empty Tupperware that carried my lunch, innumerable pens and pencils, various cosmetic products, an umbrella, an extra scarf in case it gets colder in the evening, keys, wallet and phone. I’m going to need all of them tomorrow anyway (except the Tupperware which I’ll wash, of course), and where would I put all of it at home? Student budget rental rooms have limited space, OK? But on the other hand, I really love the idea of showing extra respect to possessions, and another thing Kondo recommends and that happens when emptying a bag is paying attention to your things and being aware of what you have. I can think of one very tangible benefit of knowing what is in your bag at all times, because once (about 15 years ago, and I’ve learnt my lesson since) I left a banana at the bottom of a backpack for a rather long time. I’ll leave the details to your imagination. It is also beneficial to have an idea of what you own in general and to actually use the things you own rather than leave them to mold in storage or dust at the bottom of a cupboard. Many practical reasons for this are listed in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, such as finding important documents more easily and avoiding needlessly buying a new item because you can’t find the one you already have, but if we consider everything one owns and does an inseparable part of their existence, that gives added power to the theory, because you wouldn’t want your existence to include clothes you don’t wear, boxes whose contents are a mystery, or a hoard of broken gadgets like poor Aston in The Caretaker.

I have a complex relationship with possessions as I have previously written here and here. On one hand, I like having lots of different clothes, owning books because I can’t write ideas and comments on library copies, and my hobbies require lots of materials and equipment. On the other hand, I want to live an eco-friendly life in a tidy, minimalist space. My compromise so far has been to buy everything second-hand, and to donate my old things to charity shops at an equal rate. My existence has been in a constant flux with three international moves in the last seven years, and I have only a few things left that I have owned for several years. I still have a pocket mirror I bought when I was 11 years old–I’ve dropped and nearly lost it several times but it’s still fine so I’ve never needed to buy a new one. I have a t-shirt that once was black and my Mum’s but is now a faded grey and stretched out, but I love it and have no intention of letting go of it for as long as it’s in one piece. Other precious items that have survived many overseas flights are a Ganesha statue I bought as a hippie teenager in Cape Town; a collection of e.e.cummings’ poetry I received as a gift from an important poet mentor; and a framed photo from c. 1960 where my late grandparents are smiling as a happy young couple with my Mum and two aunts as toddlers at their feet. These few, small, easy-to-move things I will hold onto for as long as I can; everything else is expendable. Everything else is expended, indeed, as electronics need upgrading, fashions change, passports and bank cards are renewed–and the spring clean inspiration sets its eye on everything that I no longer want as part of my existence.

bookshelf

I’m quite happy to consider the contents of my bookshelf part of my existence. Being and Time is the thick brown-backed one.

What I’m getting at with this long-winded chatter is that domestic space and the things in it are interesting and relevant, and as setting and characterisation device in film and theatre, an immensely useful way of conveying information. The one time I had a play I’d written performed for the public, practicalities such as limited space on the bus forced me to realise the play with minimalistic setting: literally four chairs and a box. The script had involved a piano, a dining table and various objects which were all available in the rehearsal space, but when they couldn’t be taken to the final performance venue, the characters’ relationships with the objects the actors had to mime became more important. It was great in the sense that it brought out something very interesting in the actors and highlighted movement and dialogue, but if I get to do it again I will fill the stage with stuff with at least as much significance as the coffee grinder in Una giornata particolare. The items on the stage are not mere props; they are the characters’ world that is as much part of their existence as the body of the actor portraying them.

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Poem: Swans

Swans
(after Lawrence Durrell, kind of)

when news headlines
scream bloodbaths and terror threats

when people grow fearful and cancel holiday plans
when armed guards patrol every threshold
when social media trends augur #WW3

the only thing left to do

is walk to the river
where swans float by and viciously
war over breadcrumbs

is to remember that this was always
the way of the world and it won’t stop

is to be sure never to pass by
a chance to declare love or have
wonderful food and a long lunch break

and know that wherever you are in the endless
chaos of the world, you can, in your mind,
return to the river and sit with the swans.

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Let’s Get Metaphysical

My next performance will be at a reading inspired by Metaphysical Poetry next Friday, March 11th, at the Poetry Café in London’s Covent Garden. The event is organised by Anouche Sherman and features (alongside myself) Nicki Heinen, Tom Bland, Isabel del Rio, Anthony Howell, Cameron Uzoka, Stephen Watts, Ziba Karbassi, Michael Wyndham, George MacBeth and Woldek Fenrych–all incredibly cool and talented people. Please join the Facebook event page here, or check out the website of the venue.

metaphysical

When I first started advertising this event, a friend texted me one afternoon asking, “what does ‘metaphysical’ mean?” Incidentally I had spent all morning discussing Nietzsche’s project to overcome metaphysics, and knowing that this was rather different from the dictionary definition of the word as well as what is meant by the genre of poetry, I failed to give a proper answer. I’m still not sure. Metaphysics as a branch of philosophy can be criticised for pursuing abstractions detached from their context in the everyday experience of life, which is what phenomenology and existentialism react against. I agree that when answering the big questions such as what should we do with our lives, it’s useful to focus on the tangible realities, but if you’re ever going to get metaphysical, poetry is the place to be.

What I do know is that one of the reasons Metaphysical Poetry was called as such was the literary device of a metaphysical conceit (old word for concept), popular among the poets now called The Metaphysical Poets, including John Donne and Andrew Marvell. Poetry Foundation’s excellent glossary of literary terms describes the conceit as “an often unconventional, logically complex, or surprising metaphor whose delights are more intellectual than sensual.” Donne’s poem The Flea does indeed surprise by using a flea sucking blood as a metaphor for…sexual intimacy? That’s how I interpret it, at least, when the speaker is jealous of the flea for getting physically closer to his woman than he could be, by containing a bit of her (blood) inside itself. Or maybe it’s a reference to vampires?  Anyway, another beautiful one is Marvell’s The Garden, where trees are, well, kind of sexualised, too. I’m trying to think of an exception but from what I’ve read by the most famous metaphysical poets, they were basically frustrated men who saw everything from fleas to trees to compass needles as metaphors for sexual desire or possessive greed (for a woman). But the readings at the Poetry Café on Friday will be about being inspired these guys while coming up with novel and broader ways of using the conceit–or, indeed, metaphysics. Metaphysical Poetry is a rather narrow genre, but poems about metaphysical topics are endless. I’m looking forward to hearing the different ways in which everyone will interpret the theme.

There will also be an open mic, so please turn up at the venue well on time to get your name on the list. Hope to see you there!

 

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Mess is Holy // On Regrets Regarding Quitting Painting

My favourite part of any life stage is the one when I toss lots of stuff, give away bags of clothing to charities and recycling centres, take what I need in a couple of suitcases and go live somewhere else. I’ve done that quite a few times by now, and it never loses its appeal. However, the other day I began to regret selling (for way less money than it was worth) an item in a flea market years ago, while reducing my worldly possessions in preparation for moving to the UK. Let me emphasise here that I’m not someone to care for stuff and that the item in question was a perfectly ordinary, replaceable one—it was the symbolic significance of giving it up that I came to grieve almost four years later. It was an easel. By selling it I admitted that I was not, and would never be, a painter.

papagaios

(All paintings featured in this post are by me. I would flatter myself assuming a copyright disclaimer was needed, and anyways, I’ve got the originals)

I told myself and others that the quest to give up stuff was only practical. In fact I could have, as I did with many other things, left it in my parents’ house. Although they were planning at the time to move to a smaller one, an easel and a few brushes wouldn’t have been a big deal in the moving process, and since it was foldable, probably not taken too much storage space either. Practicalities were excuses. The truth was that I had a lot going on with everything that does go on when moving to a new country, I was a bit anxious, and giving up painting felt like a way to clear up some of life’s inherent messiness. Painting equipment simply took up space, risked carpet stains, cost money—and I think one of the main reasons I gave up was because I wasn’t gaining technical skill quickly enough and therefore decided that my shit paintings would always be a waste of space and natural resources.

oranges

I’ve been an advocate of the minimalist lifestyle for a while, but on some level, I guess I’ve misunderstood the philosophy. If a house is too messy and full of stuff, donating some old clothes and books and throwing away broken gadgets solves the problem. When human life is messy and full of stuff? I used to think the solution was similar. Messy relationships? Cut contact. Too many projects going on? Abandon. Conflicting worldviews and beliefs? Choose one. Mismatched aspects to personal identity? Simplify. Hobbies require too many materials and create mess? Give up.

And then I made friends with another dead guy, and read in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra words that made me question everything I had considered the correct conduct for a respectable, minimalist life. Be on thy guard against holy simplicity! At the heart of Nietzsche’s early work lies appreciation for the complexity of existence, Dionysus, and the composure of the human being of many souls and sometimes conflicting drives. Reading him I realised I had turned my unhealthy, skewed idea of minimalism into a completely unrealistic life goal. Decluttering a storage space is one thing; decluttering a life is not possible, at least without serious consequences. Who would want an empty life? I certainly don’t. The steps I’ve taken towards one have been anxiety symptoms, desperate attempts to control mental space through methods that have proved successful with physical space. Be on your guard against holy simplicity, because life is messy. If anything in this crazy world is sacred, it is the beauty that comes out of mess: a beautiful painting after years of crappy practice ones emerging from a room full of linseed oil grease stains and loose brush hairs; a novel composed from the chaos of handwritten notes in dozens of notebooks and torn bits of paper; a moment of joy from the intersection of innumerable experiences, memories and sensory perceptions within the incomprehensibly complex human consciousness.

lighthouse

To be honest, I doubt I’ll ever be an excellent painter. But I have to paint, just as I have to write poems (the quality of which isn’t guaranteed, either). If I stop doing either, I become even more anxious, and sometimes apathetic, and lose touch with everything that is good in this world. Both activities are storm drains for my craziness, which will have terrible consequences without a healthy outlet. Human life is messy, uncontrollable and sometimes a bit crazy, but it is only by embracing mess that it can be channelled into something beautiful.

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A Film Review in Retrospect: Thelma and Louise

Once every two or three years I’m overtaken by the urge to watch Thelma and Louise, and yesterday was the occasion of the most recent re-watch. It’s a classic that never gets old and its philosophical dimensions are as relevant as ever, but as a student of philosophy I found the film resonating with me more deeply than on the previous three times I’ve seen it (2008, 2011 and 2013). All those times I watched the film in company; yesterday evening was the first time I saw it alone, and that may have been part the reason why my emotional reaction was so strong.

The film’s plot (SPOILER ALERT) is an affirmation of a nihilistic disposition according to which it is better to be dead than to vainly attempt leading a dignified life within a capitalist, heteropatriarchal domestic prison. The ending is a happy one because the protagonists escape the aforementioned prison; it is tragic because such a prison existed in the first place. Making it to Mexico and drinking margaritas by the sea is never an option because of the premise of the story-world–a society where all dominant forces are joined in the effort to eliminate or imprison the free spirit.

It would probably be impossible not to have an emotional reaction to the ending of Thelma and Louise but the strength with which it hit me last night was absolutely disproportionate. Of course I wasn’t just crying because two fictional women fail to escape to Mexico. I was simultaneously mourning for the state of the world that is so accurately reflected in this film’s story-world, one where the law is often not in the favour of a victim; where everyone’s personal freedom is limited; where those who guard the law have such excessive resources in their use that rebellion of those who disagree with the law is easily got rid of; a society where it sometimes really is better for the free-spirited individual to die than to conform.

Thelma and Louise are driven to their tragic ending because they are unfit for the society as it is. One could argue that the world is what it is and those unfit for it deserve to be eliminated; and perhaps it is so in natural ecosystems. That’s just basic Darwinism. However, civilised human society is not a natural ecosystem. It is a construct based on the values decided by the elite. Does the world not belong to the rest of us just as much? Not if you ask the elite, but that’s what they would think, wouldn’t they? We can pretend to live in a democratic society where everyone must act for the good of the group, but this is not true democracy since someone else got to decide long ago what is meant by “good” and what constitutes a good way to act. We’re brought up on these values and are given very few opportunities to critically reflect on them. Lacking the vocabulary to disagree, we’re left with a lingering sense that there is something wrong with the world and perhaps it should not exist at all; this drives us towards nihilism, the unproductive kind, the one Nietzsche tried so hard to overcome only to fail and to stay alive long enough to become its embodiment. We will also find that those around us who benefit from the world as it is will go to any lengths to convince us that there’s something wrong with us, not the world, and that we must either conform or disappear. But what if we refuse to do either, and liberate ourselves while articulating that we are living, breathing things who have just as much right to this world as any other being that ever lived and breathed, and should have just as much right to shape the world towards one that we’re capable of existing in? Thelma and Louise do this by taking the law into their own hands and defend their rights to exist in the world in their own way for as long as they can. This is why, on the other hand, the ending is also a happy one: they will neither conform or be silenced, and when the dominant forces get them in the end, they go out loudly, by their own choice, on their own terms; demonstrating in their final moments that even in a world such as this one there can be found at least occasional spaces and moments where the dominant forces cannot reach and the free spirit is allowed, if reluctantly and temporarily, to exist.

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