how it looks from here.
There’s something about the way they say OK around here—my German and especially Dutch friends—I couldn’t quite put my finger on how it differed from the USAmerican OK. Is it just more clipped in English—the “ay” dropped sooner—like two letters with periods between them?
This morning it dawned on me: they’re saying Okej. There’s a tiny “j” on the end of it, the first glimmer of the “ye” in “yes.”
My friend C shrugs when I caution against the use of a hot pink fruit-scented sparkling hand soap marketed towards little girls. I flip the bottle over, scan the ingredients.
This, I say, causes cancer. Party pooper, she counters.
The thing is, people here rely on effective regulation to keep them safe. Surely the chemical, or at least the dose, is nothing requiring worry***. That is the basic mindset.
There is the overall feeling here of the machine working well. It was well-engineered in the first place, and it is well-maintained. As my friend Van says, you do not experience the computer as stuck on the whirling rainbow.
When I visited the US after being here for 7 months, the sense of personal responsibility for well-being aka The Struggle and its attendant anxiety— it totally crashed down on me. It was a visceral sensation. And this was in Northern California, where there’s a good number of community-minded folks, co-housing, testing out the collaborative economy, bartering and carsharing and supporting local farmers and artisans…
Still, upon exiting the airport I felt the weight right away. It was up to me to save the world—first to the borders of my body, and then the world at large. I could not shake the panic, I merely adjusted to it, the longer I stayed.
This sense of personal responsibility leads, among other things, to my favorite kind of American: the worldchanger (aka activist, or superhero). Someone who is deeply engaged with the world as it is and could be.
The same sense of personal responsibility also leads to paralyzing fear, denial and inactivity, sleepwalking facilitated by massive use of legal and illegal brain-altering chemicals, as well as the holy trinity of television-advertising-shopping, all of which make reality recede.
This morning, descending the stairs to the Sbahn platform, I was heading against the stream. People who live in this neighborhood do not work here—in fact most no longer work at all— so the workers arrive via public transit in the morning. I’m one of the few who gets on at that hour. The visual made me laugh, seeing as how much I think about the issue of going with the grain vs against it here.
I get irate at the conformity all the time. But: it does keep the machine running nicely. Slower cars keep right so faster ones can pass them on the left. Pedestrians wait for the walk light, regardless of the absence of cars. Berlin’s transit system operates on an honor system—there are no barricades or turnstiles. Bicycles are parked here, but never here. Feet are not put on furnishings, not on transit and never in eating places. Loud talking and laughter is unseemly in a confined public setting. Walks in the woods are for Sundays after the main meal. Your choice of what to name your child must be approved by the appropriate department.
The rules keeps things clean, safe, and simple.
You see the same stuff in everyone’s homes because there is less choice in furnishings and dishes, and less ability to individualize. Less ability to, or interest in, individuating?
It can be tremendously boring. But there’s a way in which it’s tremendously liberating. It’s like the regulations make up a solid scaffolding, and inside them you don’t have to carry much weight, can instead focus on living. Nuns fret not at narrow convent rooms, and all that.
That image of Europeans sitting in cafes, breads and cheeses and wines spread out in front of them, everyone conversing, laughing…? That exists. That’s like, a thing here. People aren’t so worried: the machine is working. Healthcare, old age, education for offspring, unemployment—none of these things are precarious. They may not be flawless, or stellar, but the basics are definitely covered. (At least for now.) (I’m not speaking for Europe outside Germany, either, though I suspect this holds for much of Northern Europe and France.)
Sometimes my German friends listen to me getting all worked up about how we have to DO something to stop climate change and ecological devastation and economic injustice and toxic contamination and racism… and they entreat me to just calm down and enjoy the cheese.
Sometimes I am infuriated, and sometimes I enjoy the cheese.
***unfortunately, though better regulations against certain toxic things exist here, there are still plenty of nasties that haven’t been proven innocent, especially over the long-term or in chemical combination with other nasties.
A gorgeous full-figured woman, probably early 50s, gets on the full bus. There’s a seat open next to a spieszig-looking man.
(Spieszig- my keyboard won’t do the sz character—is something like uptight. Uptight, prim, petty, all rolled into one, is my best translation. Sadly, it’s used with terrible frequency, terribly aptly, here in Germany. Even in Berlin.)
She tries to take the seat but he has a bag in his seat with him, and she asks him to skootch over a bit.
“I’m only taking up one seat. It’s not my fault you’re so wide.”
“My goodness, when did German men get so charming?”
“When did German women get so fat?”
“It’s more attractive than balding.”
There is something I think you should know. On any day, under any conditions, but especially when it is pouring rain, or 16 degrees below zero, and I am crossing the street, and you come upon me, inside your cage of multiple tons of steel, where you are unlikely to be wet or cold, especially when that cage was made by Mercedes or BMW, as so many of them here are, and even if I were to be dawdling, which I never do, instead moving along at a fair clip, I expect of you, at the very least, if not to kindly wave me to of course go first, which would be the obvious thing to do, then at least to allow me to pass first, and not lean into the horn, and certainly not point churlishly at the walklight that has turned from green to red while I am mid-crosswalk, and furthermore I definitely expect you to not weigh down the gas pedal and gun around the corner across my path, privileging your turn before my crossing, especially if there are large puddles that your bulk will displace to cause a spray of sooty water, even moreso if the streets are slick underfoot though not perhaps under the deep threads of your fat winter tires, and also: you should know that when you defy these expectations, as you usually do, causing an aching in my heart, a bruising on my tender peach of an outlook towards humanity in general, you should know that you will certainly be met by my foulest mouthful of expletives, my most creative naming of you and your hideousness and your likely impotence as evidenced by your vehicle and your mother and your children born or unborn and the sad sap of a spouse you can only have pulled for yourself although I rather doubt you have, and that you will be met furthermore by my slowing steps and my painstaking turn to look you in the eye with disparaging venom at who the fuck you must think you are and how deluded you must be to think your speed to your destination more important than basic kindness and grace and compassion given the inclement weather, and finally you will be met most likely also by the unmistakeable raising of my middle finger unquestionably directed to you there inside your monstrous cage so that all can see, coupled with my utter indifference to any conservative onlookers who might erroneously think for a second that I am the impolite or even crude one, the one lacking grace, when it is clearly you, you unfathomable asshole, who will surely get what is coming to you in one way or another, at the very least a disastrous awakening, at some point or another, to the realization that you have missed the whole point of this blessed precious life which in fact you have just shat upon by moving through it in such an oblivious and callous and impatient and controlling manner. Yes. I thought you should know.
How birthing takes place matters; how infants are raised matters; having a rich and active dream life matters. Animals matter, and so does ontological security and the magic of personal interaction and healthy and passionate sexual expression.Career and prestige and putting a good face on it and the newest fashion in art or science do not matter. Coming to our senses means sorting this out once and for all. It also means becoming embodied. And the two ultimately amount to the same thing.
Something obvious keeps eluding our civilization, something that involves a reciprocal relationship between nature and psyche, and that we are going to have to grasp if we are to survive as a species.
-Coming to our Senses
Out of the stack of books I plan to tackle in these first preparatory months of 2012, I pulled Morris Berman’s Coming to Our Senses. This year it’s 23 years old, the book, and still breathtakingly pertinent; I think Berman’s a thinker for the ages. Here he accounts for the history of Western civilization as a systematic disappearance of our bodies’ experiences of existence.
Our bodies’ deep understanding is that we are whole and connected: to nature, to the planet, to each other, to flow/divinity. Today we most often sense this “undivided consciousness” with sex and inebriants; or when we fall in love with someone. (An echo: I was just listening to Marianne Williamson talk about love: how often we tell ourselves that it’s the falling in love part that is the delusion, and that “normal life” is the reality, when in fact it’s just the opposite: the experience of merging, of oneness, is the reality, and it’s the rest of the time we’re deluded.) We also feel undivided consciousness during ecstatic mystical/spiritual experiences, during which “everything is alive, quivering, embodied.”
While our bodies constantly provide us with this understanding of the fundamentals of what it is to be alive and present, our minds-egos-language-culture-history-institutions repress this knowledge, and put us in a nearly continuous past/future-oriented state in which the now is lacking. “We are asked to give up our basic, and most trustworthy, way of knowing the world in favor of a phony charade of polite agreement. This is a colossal mutilation, and it accounts for much of the rage and pain that all of us carry.”
Experiences of undivided consciousness are now fleeting instead, and the rest of the time we feel incomplete and separate; we feel the “continuum rupture.” This causes our fundamental anxiety. We spend the majority of our lifetime, if not all of it, “stuffing” this gap, or a-voiding this void, aka the “nemo.” “If you are in your body most of the time, the Void is not so threatening. If you are out of your body, on the other hand, you need a substitute for the feeling of being grounded. Much of what passes for ‘culture’ and ‘personality’ in our society tends to fall into this substitute category.”
On “nemo-stuffers,” Berman writes “ ‘Success,’ career, reputation, money and the accumulation of material goods are the most obvious forms…there are many more that are equally hollow and equally ‘sacred’: spectator sports, patriotism and war, organized religion, and even a good deal of artistic or creative activity.” “Capitalism,” he posits, “relies heavily around the anxiety centered around the nemo to generate sales.”
So the basic fault—self/other, body/mind —begun as separation but quickly becoming antagonism (self VS. other, body VS. mind) – led to every other “othering” we’ve created: human vs. animal, wild vs. tame, male vs. female, science vs. magic, and on to racism, classism, nationalism, etc etc ad nauseam. Religion, for example, “comes into being when the basic fault that arises in the human psyche is projected onto the external world, so as to create a corresponding gap, or fault line, between heaven and earth, sacred and profane.”
Berman goes on to argue that history, as a field, has failed to include the sensed, the body’s experience: the body is absent from (modern) history. When history became systematized like a science beginning in the 16th century, it went from being storytelling, with stories’ emphasis on emotions and felt experiences, to “the facts.”
So his thesis is “that the life of the body, and the emotions, and the subjective experience of how mind and body interact, constitute the real events of our lives, and they condition, if not cause, everything that happens ‘historically.’ The challenge for history (i.e. for historical analysis) is to start seeing the larger dramas in these somatic and ‘subatomic’ terms, and to come up with a methodology that convincingly relates the visible to the invisible.”
Berman argues that every heretical movement in history has comprised a reaching across the gap, a longing for the experience of undivided consciousness through the body “by means of certain somatic techniques of breathing, chanting, meditation and so on.” Mystical/ecstatic experience is usually understood as an “ascent,” a bridging of the gap between heaven and earth, human and divine, mortality and immortality. It’s heretical because the establishment wants to mediate the experience of undivided consciousness, otherwise their institution would be rendered superfluous. Hence repression by the establishment.
“The mind/body split that we live with, and individually suffer from, today is a direct legacy of this two-step process, i.e. using an occult or somatic insight to dislodge an old system, and then reacting with fear to the very tool that made this possible, dropping it like a hot potato, and erecting a new (rigid) system in place of the old one, a system whose very existence depends on the mystical insight now being rejected.” In this sense, science (the dominant Western philosophy aka “religion” since the 17th century) is just another calcified repression of those attempting to experience oneness (another “Transitional Object (T.O.), in Berman’s terminology.)
In conclusion: “The linchpin of the Western reality system, as I hope I have been able to demonstrate, is the split between “heaven” and “earth,” a split that is nothing more than a projection of the basic fault, and that can only be bridged by an ascent structure, an ecstatic journey capable of traversing transitional space. The religion or philosophy or social system that then gets organized around that vertical journey (or journeyer) then acts as a Transitional Object that holds the culture together for the next few hundred years…. There is another alternative to recycling the ascent structure one more time, and that is to finally abandon it once and for all. This means, at least initially on the individual level, learning to live with the abyss; recognizing the gap for what it is. Far more important than finding a new paradigm (T.O.) is coming face to face with the immense yearning that underlies the need for paradigm itself. This means exploring what we fear most: the empty space or silence that exists between concepts and paradigms, never in them. We are indeed in a system-break, and the temptation to stuff the gap is very strong; but the ‘road less travelled’ which is that of looking at the nature of paradigm itself, is the truly exciting and liberatory path here. There can be no healing of our culture and ourselves without taking this option, and it will not go away, whether we miss it on this ‘round’ or not. Nothing less is at stake than the chance to be finally, fully human.”
at the Winterfeldmarkt am Samstag. You know the one. Yelling out today’s offer like an auctioneer. Today’s offer was 20 tulips for 5EU, and he gave me 30. Berlin, you know who I mean, right?