The existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre famously said ‘Hell is other people’. The quote originated in his play No Exit with the scenario of hell being trapped for eternity in a room with two other people.
This quote came up in a recent Zoom conversation I had with an old friend. He immediately responded with the opposing claim that ‘Heaven is other people”. My friend is an urbanite who lives in a fashionable part of a big city and spends his days in restaurants, theatres and galleries. Although I used to enjoy that kind of lifestyle years ago I’ve since voted with my feet and moved to a village in a remote part of the UK. Here I prefer the company of wild birds and animals to people and I limit my social interactions to mostly online. I have turned into a recluse for sure!
So I kept thinking about why some of us seem to need people more than others. Which category do you fall into? Are other people hell or heaven to you or a bit of both? Is it simply a matter of introversion or extroversion or the conditions of our early childhood?
I was an only child and spent time in an isolation hospital at the age of three. So being alone feels safe to me. My happiest memories revolve around nature and my wonderful animals. Not people. My parents were unhappy dysfunctional people and I have survived two marriages to men who turned out to be abusers. This is a common experience. We often talk of humans being a social animal but just look at how many notable people became happy recluses in the later part of their lives:-
Brigitte Bardot, Carl Jung, Marlon Brando, Greta Garbo, Michael Jackson, Caryll Churchill, Paul Cezanne, Emily Dickinson, Arthur Scargill, Brian Wilson, Marcel Proust, Yves Saint Laurent, Harper Lee, Michelangelo, Stanley Kubrick…
So who are you? Do you prefer a mad social whirl or talking to trees? ARE OTHER PEOPLE HEAVEN OR HELL?
This weekend I discovered the most marvellous novel that I’d never heard of before. Its called The Wall by the Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer, first published in 1968. Although classified as science fiction and ecofeminist it is really a profound philosophical meditation on solitude and the relationship between humans and the natural world. It contains beautifully intense descriptions of the close bonds that we can form with animals without being sentimental. The story is set in the Alps and recounts in diary format one woman’s struggle to survive in total isolation. The mysterious transparent wall that appears over night is a metaphor for the divisions between us all in a time when we interact with screens more than other living beings. The book was ahead of its time in anticipating many social and environmental issues we struggle with today. The Wall is one of the most powerful novels I have ever read and I would absolutely recommend it particularly if you are a person with a love for animals and nature.
My day begins pixelated. Needle sharp shards of light refract like monsoon rain in tropical forest, bending breaking leaves out of shape with the violence of descent. Little red icons beckon. Visions of perfection macerate the eye beyond screens of polish. Hey, look at me! Me! Picnics, reunions of red lipstick with star spangled skirts, blossom trees, blooming babies, birthday balloons, home -baking, sunsets and fragile creatures perched on the edge of a black canyon. So smiley. So breakable. So sad your dog, granny or dahlias passed away. So happy you are happy or not. Who loves ya, baby? Not enough likes today? Do you exist today? Click refresh or exit.
My therapist’s room has lofty ceilings and a view across rooftops to the sea. A row of potted geraniums line the sill and a tribal mask hangs over his desk. My therapist says I must remember.
My therapist likes to shop. He’s a snappy dresser. Today he wears orange trousers with a button down shirt in lemon. He sips tea from a turquoise mug. My therapist says I remind him of his dead grandfather.
My therapist composes poetry in his head as he walks along the seafront. He recites a poem about a man sleeping rough outside Habitat. My therapist suggests a poem about planting a seed of anger.
My therapist has green fingers growing houseplants with pink flowers. He displays a cactus with fuschia spikes that remind me of my dead mother. My therapist says I am a rose without thorns.
My therapist has cold sores and doesn’t feel like talking. He missed his train, feels stressed. I suggest homeopathy. He asks how I feel about him. I say he is amazing. We are both wearing yellow jumpers. My therapist says
we are synchronised and sends photos of tulips. My therapist suggests letting go, forgiveness and voluntary work. He says my perception is flawed like rippled glass in a old window pane. My therapist asks, are they out to get you?
Our last session he complains of food poisoning and a dodgy meal in Chinatown. I suggest ginger. My therapist says I have too much empty space in my head, sniggers at my leopard print hoodie. Perhaps you’ve shot yourself in the foot?
A crisis is like an x-ray. It shows us who we really are. In the case of the UK government the Coronavirus crisis has revealed incompetence and deceit. In the case of the British public however, the picture is more positive. Communities have come to the rescue where the State has failed.
As individuals we are dealing with this new existential threat in various ways. Here’s a light-hearted analysis of the different strategies we are using to cope with strange times. So read on if you want to know if you are an Ostrich, a Doomer or a Happy Clapper.
This group includes all essential workers including health and social care, cleaners, truck drivers, supermarket staff, delivery drivers, police, community volunteers and the invisible people who maintain electricity, water and sewage systems. This group gain strength and meaning through helping others. They enjoy being busy and have a positive, practical attitude to life. Their hard work and self sacrifice must be rewarded and respected.
Unlike the heroes Ostriches think only of themselves and their own needs. They have difficulty facing up to reality and are afraid of change. They admire Donald Trump and believe the virus is a Chinese Hoax. They often have narcissistic tendencies and think the world owes them. During the Pandemic they are out on the streets flouting lockdown rules or on Facebook posting photos of their dinner and complaining of boredom. They have a deep seated fear of death hidden beneath a superficial bravado.
The Happy Clapper
This group have an optimistic trusting attitude. They believe all will be well if only we listen to the authorities. They spend lockdown time painting rainbows on windows, organising sing-songs on Zoom, doing sponsored knitting for charity and making masks out of cotton knickers for health workers. They clap so hard and so long their hands hurt. They are a contented bunch who never ask difficult questions. Sadly I am not one of them.
The Doomer is the opposite of the Happy Clapper. They are pessimists and give up on every project after five minutes. They believe the Pandemic is the beginning of the end of the world and nothing can be done to stop it so we may as well not try. They disagree with Lockdown, thinking they might as well die sooner but on a good hair day and in a nice restaurant. They brood indoors and do nothing constructive, spending time instead watching the 24 hour News Channel and drinking gin. They take their allocated daily exercise strolling around the local cemetery. Doomers are to be handled with caution as they can damage your mental health.
This group are going strong while others struggle. They have been preparing for the Pandemic or some other existential crisis ever since they first saw George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. They may have an underground bunker in the back garden or a basement filled to the brim with essential supplies, hand sanitizer and Hazmat suits. They have an emergency generator in the shed and a very sharp axe by the front door. They are now smugly observing from a safe distance as lesser mortals fight for toilet rolls.
The Creative Revolutionary
This group sees the Pandemic as a chance to change the world for the better. They are idealists. They believe people are basically good and that a new order with humanist values will rise as the virus demonstrates the failings of capitalism. They are using Lockdown time to organise community groups and post provocative messages on social media. They believe art can bring change and they may be artists, musicians, writers or gardeners who leave boxes of vegetables or poems at the doors of needy folk. This group are an inspiration to us all and we must hope they’ve got it right.
In the topsy turvy world of the Pandemic where social distancing is paramount, the news media and politicians are broadcasting from their home environment either by Skype, Zoom or other technological wizardry. This is fascinating as instead of a neutral studio backdrop we get a glimpse of the real personalities behind the public image. Or do we?
The funny thing is the majority of such broadcasters are careful to arrange themselves in front of their vast book collections reminiscent of a city library with thousands of resplendent volumes on custom-built floor to ceiling shelving. It’s as if they have to prove to themselves and to the audience just how intelligent and ‘expert’ they really are. I would love to know how many of those books they have actually read and digested or are they merely status symbols signalling their supposedly superior social class. The tasteful middle class interiors with designer accessories and original artworks are a universe away from the average person’s home, that is if they’re lucky enough to have a home at all. I have yet to see an ‘expert’ speaking from a cluttered bedsit or a small kitchen with dishes draining by the sink. Perhaps we would trust these people more if they showed their human side. They’re keen to prove how intelligent they are but books are not the only marker. There’s something called “common sense” which has fallen out of fashion in recent years. And there are different types of intelligence, not just the academic sort with its focus on science and rational thinking, there is also emotional intelligence, the intelligence of direct experience. There is intuition, gut intelligence, survival instinct, body intelligence.
According to Howard Gardener, the American developmental psychologist there are nine different types of intelligence, all equally valuable. Which one are you? I am probably a cross between interpersonal and existential but perhaps that’s something for someone else to judge.
So back to the Pandemic crisis…perhaps we would be coping better with defeating Coronavirus if we relied on people with different perspectives on life, different skills and different types of intelligence. A footballer, a psychotherapist, a musician, a poet, a plumber, a mother of six, a gardener..they all deserve the same respect. Their insights and skills are just as useful as any so-called expert with an impressive book collection and a David Hockney on the wall.
The Coronavirus pandemic is being widely compared to a war, a war between humanity and an invisible, mysterious enemy – the virus. There are many weapons used in a war and propaganda is one of them.
The word ‘propaganda’ was derived from the verb ‘propagate’, meaning to spread. It can take many forms including the withholding or distortion of information, the dissemination of fake news, emotive language and subliminal ‘brainwashing’ techniques which pass unnoticed, for example, the repeated use of suggestive images and slogans. Since the early twentieth century propaganda has been used to persuade or manipulate an audience into behaving or thinking in certain ways. If you think that kind of thing couldn’t happen in a Western democracy, think again. Look at Donald Trump’s election campaign and Brexit. Look at any advertising campaign. Democracies depend on the cooperation of a compliant population. We are told we are free so we believe we are free, but how free are we really?
In 1929 Everett Dean Martin argued that, “Propaganda is making puppets of us. We are moved by hidden strings which the propagandist manipulates.” In his book ‘Propaganda’ Edward Bernays wrote “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”
Back to the Coronavirus pandemic and the British government’s response (or lack of it). Think of the slogans and language used repeatedly.
STAY SAFE ………STAY AT HOME……..STAY 2 METRES APART…….STAY….STAY…..
STAY is a command used in dog training. Stay safe is a pat phrase we all say to each other now as we become ever more fearful and ever more passive, meekly accepting the nonsensical titbits of information about the virus that the government doles out. We are treated as sheep not equals.
FOLLOW THE SCIENCE, follow the yellow brick road, follow the Pied Piper…
At the start of the pandemic when the British government were wallowing in sloth and denial of the seriousness of the situation, doing fuck all to protect the public and wasting precious weeks, the Prime Minister would appear on his podium flanked by two government scientists. He claimed his decisions were based on ‘science’. There is no one science. Science is not God. Every country has its own scientists and experts with widely divergent views on this unknown virus. Even within the UK there are different opinions. While harbouring their covert dark agenda of ‘herd immunity’ and protecting the Capitalist economy at all costs (elderly and vulnerable groups considered collateral damage) the British government hid behind the veneer of so-called science. As a result, several weeks later the UK has the highest death rate in Europe and the mortality figures are ‘massaged’ to exclude deaths in the community.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of lockdown. We must take strict precautions. But we need other State measures to successfully eradicate Covid 19. Testing everyone, not just those with symptoms or in hospital, adequate PPE for all care workers, a safe vaccine, antibody testing, anti viral drug treatments, research into why some but not others succumb to this disease apparently for no rhyme or reason, proper financial support for self employed so they are not tempted to go back to work. Instead of throwing every resource into those measures the Government have been working behind the scenes; giving new powers to the Police similar to those in a Fascist state, the Care Act has been suspended, mentally distressed people can now be sectioned by just one doctor for example. And God knows what else has been going on behind our backs…
People are snitching on their neighbours. Poor Mrs Wigglesworth from No 19 is being blamed for the collapse of the health service and the spread of the virus because she took her dog Bowser for an extra walk! The public are told to stay home and if they don’t behave like good little children many will die. Like any skilled magician the government is making us look one way while they perform their dirty tricks. The health service and social care would not be in such a fragile state if it hadn’t been for years and years of cutbacks and austerity. Now the public are deemed responsible if the NHS can’t cope. Parents are scared to take their sick children to A and E as they don’t want to burden the system. Many people are dying unnecessarily and not just of Covid 19.
So please, please, those of you who have persevered and read as far as this….thank you and next time you listen to a Government briefing, or a media report or any ‘expert’ holding forth…think what language they are using, what are they choosing not to tell you? What might lie behind those smug assurances and token gestures? What are they really saying with those snazzy slogans. Look at the wider picture and think for yourself.
This is not just a war against a pandemic – it’s an exercise in social control. It’s amazing what fear will do to a population. Fear and sex- the primal instincts.
So I won’t say ‘stay safe’ but I will say Keep Well and trust only yourself.