I select a song on the stereo and slip into its movements.
The pace is slow and deliberate. An ethereal voice, suspended in reverb, hovers above slow, grinding of the drums. Guitars strike occasional, unhurried chords, rising only to decay once more.
Then the realisation strikes me: I am listening to the voice of a dead man. A shiver runs down my spine as the track continues to unfold, burrowing deep into the earth amongst peat of pain and grief. The full realisation of it’s futility grips me completely.
This man practiced his art as catharsis. The tragedy is that, for him, it wasn’t quite enough. I am honoured to be able share and absorb the music he left behind.
Despite what many existentialists have said, the greatest threat to humankind lies not in the void and vacuum of nihilism; it is of death by a thousand cuts. Too easily are we consumed by pettiness. Too often we build barriers up not only against strangers, but also those we love.
We all struggle alike, fumbling for meaning and purpose, or merely struggling for survival. We crave brief moments of solitude where the roar of the world and noise of our minds are silenced for an instant. To this end we pray, drink, fuck, smoke, and retreat.
We seal ourselves off inside psychological cages of our own creation. This is what we truly need to overcome, for if we could only drop the illusion of separateness created out of fear and ego, we would finally be able to recognise each other for what we truly are: brothers and sisters who struggle the same.
The veil has dropped for me in this brief moment. Even now my psyche scrambles to reassemble it’s defences: the insidious delusion that the preservation of the self necessarily excludes all others.
The finest moment of our species will come when we rid ourselves of this delusion for good; to recognise and love not only each other, but the entire universe in all it’s unfathomable mystery.
For now we can but try not to be consumed by our own pettiness.
May we all get better together.
I am dropping by to inform you that I am still writing, and writing often – just not on this particular site.
For the moment my focus has shifted from philosophical introspection, to an attempt to engage with the outside world.
I will return to these pages for more personal exposition some day, but for now the best places to keep track of my regular entanglement with words is over at my new website, at this Facebook page, or via my Twitter.
I have begun to write a book about my travels in Myanmar, but more about that some other time.
Friends, I now have a new home on the web: lachlanrdale.com
I’ve been trying to write on a wider range of topics, and slowly inch towards my goal of writing for respectable publications.
Philosophic musings and book reviews will still feature, alongside pieces on politics and music.
Check it out. I hope you enjoy. xx
In a land of some other order
Rum soothes the soul while
The heat of the day drains away
Both motion and motivation.
Beasts of iron rumble by as,
Breathless and bleary-eyed,
I walk through streets of stone.
Strain as I might, I see only surface light.
Oblivious to pulse and warmth,
And weightless in my sense of self,
The vacuum of language encloses
Like a shawl.
I drift through the city.
As stray dogs scavenge and
Street hustlers hiss, I hear
Only noise and non-sense.
No one pronounces my name.
Welcome to a journey into the gruelling, spiralling bureaucracy of Los Angles airport.
We began our long-awaited holiday dazed and confused at a little after four in the morning en route to Sydney airport. Our path to Cuba was not a simple one. First we had to fly to Brisbane; then to LA; then to Cancun, and then, finally and after an overnight stay, we would fly from Cancun into Habana, Cuba.
Things did not begin well.
I’d heard many tales of caution and woe coming out of LAX; cocktails of excessive airport security and a complete disregard for the comfort, hopes or dreams of the humans who pass through it’s gates. This had me nervous. Despite numerous bored assurances from our travel agent, the timing of our connecting flights looked dubious. Our agent thought it completely reasonable that we would land (hopefully on time) in LAX, clear immigration and customs, collect our luggage, get to the transfers desk, re-check our bags, walk to another terminal and then board our departing flight within a ninety minute timeframe. What she failed to appreciate is the subtle but important difference between a flight’s departure time, and it’s boarding time. We were scheduled to land in LAX at 6am, and had to board our next flight a few terminals away a little after 7am.
Sensing forthcoming doom, I repeatedly asked ground staff at Sydney and Brisbane, as well as hostesses en route to LAX about our chances and best strategy to make our connecting flight. Certainly no one thought we could make it, but they told us we’d simply be put on the next available flight. That seemed no cause for panic.
We hit LAX at 6am as planned, but were forced to sit on the tarmac for half an hour (it turns out LAX Customs don’t actually start work until 6:30am). My sense of doom thickened. With increasing nervousness I consulted a hostess once more. She smiled knowingly and told us to look for ground staff in orange coats at the top of the gate – they would give us an Express Clearance Pass to get us through America’s ridiculous level of security as quickly as possible. Sure; splendid; gracias.
As we hurried off the plane I inhaled deeply to slow my heart. We reached the top of the gate only to find that this orange human did not actually exist. No one was waiting for us. Ominous.
We proceeded, by now slightly panicked, to immigration. Humans amassed like insects, creating long lines with which fate mocked us. Customs were absurdly understaffed. Perhaps this was all intentional; a strategy to sweat out the dealers and mules, to observe with unblinking and binary hawk eyes the body language of all who wished to pass on US soil.
We approached a stone-faced lady who bellowed out monotonous commands to jetlagged travellers. Her job could have been done equally well by a looped and especially obnoxious recording. We asked how we could better our chances of making our transfer. She barked at us to either get an Express Pass, or wait in the longer lines. She showed not single a trace of human empathy; her interaction with us was completely free of emotion. She offered only a stone façade coupled with a withering, bitter smile. Perhaps she was some form of android – or perhaps she is merely a simple human devoid of love of life and damned to the eternal hell of LAX customs.
What should we do? What should we do? We decided to try and run back up to our arrival gate to find the invisible orange coat, but halfway up the stairs were overwhelmed by a stream of new arrivals pouring down. We ran back towards customs, and approached the help desk bleary-eyed. They suggested we speak with the Android of Stone once more. When we protested we were smuggled into the express customs lane by our helper, earning her the ire of her fellow staff. Rule number one is to always follow protocol. Do not let weak human emotions stray you from The Path laid down by the most holy TSA. Your fleshly weakness sickens us meat-ape.
As another man ushered us through the line, I asked him if he thought we could still make our flight. Forgoing all tact he simply burst out into loud, hysterical laughter right in my face. Empathy and courtesy are apparently not in the American national character.
Brutalised and thoroughly disheartened, we waited for half an hour to clear the ‘express’ lane. Our flight had already begun boarding as we cleared customs. We picked up our luggage to walk through yet another visa checking point at the transit desk. This section followed an anarchic process; people swarmed chaotically while a single lady simply yelled and pointed at humans she deemed worthy of clearance. This did little to calm us. When we finally reached her, she refused to take our bags since all hope of making our flight was lost. She sent us trudging off a few terminals away to book ourselves on the next flight. By now it was 7:30am. Truly we were doomed.
We walked a good ten minutes to the terminal. After some stumbling around, we found the Delta Airlines service desk. Surely here we would find help and understanding? Not so. The blunt ‘customer service representative’ behind the desk told us we would have to get on the next flight to Cancun – which was in 24 hours. We did some calculations; this new flight would mean we would miss our Cancun-Havana connection, and would have to wait an extra three days in Cancun for the next available flight to Cuba.
When I asked whether we could simply book another airline to get to Cancun today, our Delta Airlines rep lost her temper and growled “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Not if you want to go home. We’ll have to cancel your return flight.” Surely this was a jest? Surely no airline would cancel expensive flights and strand us out of mere malice? I tried reasoning with the woman, but she was not interested. The answer is no – you’ve heard my threat, now please stop wasting my time sir.
Exhausted, dehydrated, and with mouths agape, we’d truly been battered by the attitude of staff at LAX. They were obviously completely unfeeling as to our plight. We were sleep deprived and slipping into a state of extreme despair, heavily cursing our travel agent for dropping us into this mess with unforgivable incompetence.
After a quick brainwave, I found us a United flight leaving at 10:30am for Cancun. We called our travel insurance provider to see whether we could reclaim these new flights (and resolved to worry about this whole “cancelling our $4,000+ return flights” bullshit later). Our insurer told us that missing a flight due to customs was a grey area, and could not advise us on whether we would be covered. I knew that if I told them the truth about why we missed our flight they would have rejected our claim on the grounds of travel agent incompetence.
We bought the United flights ($540), then decided to check one more time with Delta to see if they could not manage not be total jerks (though at this stage I was half expecting one of them to throw a powder bomb of anthrax in our faces if we dared challenge their Supreme Airportly Authority). We made sure we spoke to another rep; a severely confused geriatric who moved with almost comic slowness to complete each task. As we explained our situation to him once more he stared blankly at us; hands shaking, mouth open wide, half stuttering, before simply repeating our verdict of doom.
Alright, fuck these people: we are getting out of LAX today, and you aren’t stopping us. We left for yet another terminal change. While we were overjoyed when our booking registered at the United check in desk, our hopes were quickly quashed as a big error sign flashed on our screen. We were sent once more into yet-another helpdesk queue. After another twenty minutes of waiting, we were told that although the online travel agent had taken our money for our flight leaving in 2 hours, our ticket status was still pending – and that it could take up to 48 hours to be confirmed.
That is just fucking great. Thank you.
Somehow this saviour of a woman managed to con the system, get us our boarding pass and check our luggage. While we were given no explanation as to what exactly was done, we were too relieved to care.
We passed through yet another queue into yet another another scan and security checkpoint. Our fatigue was getting severe. We found an American style diner and got some greasy food. I rewarded myself for managing not to kill anyone with a giant beer. Our waitress looked at me strangely when I placed my order. It was 9am in LA.
The entire airport seemed to be filled with obese Americans waddling around in a half-daze, loudly and proudly proclaiming banalities;
“OH YEAH, LETS JUST SIT THERE, JUST SIT THERE. OH I’LL JUST TAKE THAT SEAT THAT LADY ISN’T USING IT — ARE YOU USING THIS CHAIR? OH GREAT, GREAT! THAT’S GREAT, WE’LL JUST SIT DOWN HERE. WHAT DO YOU WANT TO EAT? I DON’T THINK I’LL GRAB A STEAK THAT’S TOO HEAVY. I FEEL LIKE A COLA, MAYBE A BURGER…”
…and on and on and fucking on. It’s as if they need to constantly reaffirm that they are indeed sentient human beings — or perhaps they think the mere fact they can think will profoundly impress those around them. Well I can tell you that we are not impressed and we hate you; we haven’t slept in two days, and we would just love you to shut the fuck up.
Blissfully it came time to board. We made our way to our gate only to find our gate had been changed. We arrived at said new gate only to discover that our flight had been delayed by an hour. We wandered LAX aimlessly for a while before collapsing in a seat near the gate. Two kids behind us decided to serenade us with excessively loud video games on their phones, which I was supremely thankful for.
Time passed slowly until our gate was changed once more (just for kicks!). We sat down at the new gate, desperately fighting the urgent to sleep for fear that we would sleep through our boarding call. Right on cue our flight was delayed by another ninety minutes. Fate chuckled heartily. We looked at each other and held back tears. By now our tiredness was extreme; neither of us could keep our eyes open. We were sinking into a deep sense of hopelessness and futility. There were already a few points which threatened to break us. Right now all we dreamt of was boarding the plane and slipping into sweet, sweet slumber.
After an eternity it came time to board. We made our way through to the desk, and smiled an exhausted smile at the attendant. A loud noise bore into our skulls as our tickets were scanned. “Oh, sorry sir but it looks like your ticket has been cancelled.”
My brain could not process this. We were both overwhelmed and on the verge of tears. We were told we had about twenty minutes to buy new tickets before the plane left without us. We ran over to yet another service desk where we were informed the flights would actually cost us $870 (the failed travel agent apparently had access to a cheaper price). I shoved my credit card in his face, heart racing, soul sinking. We were finally handed our new tickets and boarded the plane — but not before receiving a courteous email from the agent notifying us that our booking had been cancelled for absolutely no discernible reason.
On the plane we immediately fell into a deep sleep, awaking only to find ourselves landing in Cancun, Mexico.
There was no relief to be found there. Cancun is a revolting capitalist playground. It is the embodiment of everything wrong with America and the crusts of the earth that it conquers and desecrates through cash; a sordid mixture of Disneyland and downtown Vegas which somehow manages to be tackier than both and is populated by frat movie caricatures; a full 28km strip along the Mexican-Caribbean coast crowded with monstrosities and monoliths with every building, every room and every speaker relentlessly blaring out trance music regardless of the hour while sheltered Americans strut along the streets loudly observing how “THIS IS JUST LIKE VEGAS MAN”.
Dear sweet Lord deliver me from this fucking agony; rain forty days and wash these jerks from my life.
On the importance of mindfulness
The human mind is a strange thing. The degree to which we are consciously aware-of, and involved-in the activities that make up our daily life can vary immensely.
For instance, some tasks can occupy our minds so completely that we can lose perception of time and awareness of our surroundings. This is the experience of ‘flow’; a psychological state observed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that represents the height of creative/mental immersion in an activity. This is the peak experience of a performing musician, or creating artist – a highly desirable and enjoyable state, and a testament to the joy of purposeful, conscious focus.
Alternatively, we can undertake other tasks in a purely automatic sense. Consider the experience of being lost in wandering thought while you undertake a mindless activity like brushing your teeth or walking to work.
It is as if we possess a robot that can take over our body to perform menial tasks. The robot is infinitely useful in some respects; it is able to provide us psychological relief from uninteresting or repeated activities. The risk is that, left unchecked, the robot can take over tasks that you would like to be (or should be) fully immersed in. You can see this in people whose have lost the ability to take joy in music or nature or family; their familiarity with something disables their conscious enjoyment, and their engagement becomes automated.
The real concern is that, should this condition develop to a sufficient degree, we could tune out of some of the seminal, joyous experiences of being human. I shudder to think of where this could lead — to an individual’s complete disconnection with the human race? The inability to feel empathy? To depression, existential woe and suicide? (I wrote about this nightmare scenario in ‘The Delusion of Separateness‘, which tries to understand nihilism as disconnection from the universe.)
How can we stop this robot from taking over and sucking the joy out of certain activities in our life? Well, we must monitor the robot, and influence or disable it when we want to increase our focused awareness on a task. The key here is mindfulness, which can loosely be explained as possessing an awareness of your psychological state, and being attentive to the world around you.
Mindfulness has been described as “being in the moment” – a state whereby the ‘robot’ is disabled to such an extent that we increase our receptivity to everyday reality, and are able to see the world with all the wonderment and intensity of a child. This capacity the poet values above all others, and represents the extreme end of a spectrum stretched between cold disconnection and overwhelming embrace of the universe.
This sort of self-reflection and awareness is highly valued by psychologists and many schools of Buddhism – and it’s easy to see why. By watching our thoughts we can better understand our shifts in mood; our psychological triggers; our strength or flaws in personality and habit; and give us a more accurate conception of how we appear and relate to other human beings. Through practise we can learn to de-escalate or avoid negative states of mind, and work towards gaining mastery over the self and our life.
In short, the training of self- and world-consciousness is a key to self-betterment, and to a more fulfilling life.
Sometimes I find myself wondering what level of self-awareness can be attributed to the ‘average’ human being and what the cost to society could be. I assume the average level of would be rather slight; and this is certainly no minor manner.
Whenever you see an individual lose control of themselves in a flight of anger, it is an indication that they are unaware of their emotional triggers, and are unable to step back, reflect and question whether their emotional response (and their behaviours thereafter) are actually valid or justified.
Such a human might lash out at a loved one, or belittle a friend out of their own psychological insecurity. If they lack that separateness from their immediate emotional responses, they will likely be unable to see that their own emotional reaction is unjustifiable. They tend to justify their actions in terms of their emotional reaction – “I hit you because you frustrated me. Why are you always frustrating me?” Of course, they never ask why they are getting frustrated. The emotional response is deified as a form of truth.
Sometimes I wonder if society could benefit from the roll out of exercises of mindfulness and self-reflection in schools
Perceiving shadows of the self
What is interesting about self-reflection is that even I (who I guess possesses a somewhat elevated capacity) can only perceive some of my psyche second-hand. Even to me psychological changes can appear as reflections or shadows. It is a truly bizarre and fascinating situation.
For instance, a few weekends ago I noticed a certain change in my mind. Having felt this undefinable sensation before, I instinctively knew I needed some quiet time alone – perferrably with a book – to help order, relax and clear my mind. When I was unable to do this for the following six hours, my psychological situation escalated. I then felt a very powerful drive to spend some extended time alone. I cancelled my plans for the evening and dedicated the rest of my day to playing music, reading, cooking and reflecting.
Now, at this point I was completely oblivious as to the cause of this psychological state, but, being a fairly reflective individual, I knew what was needed to help defuse this state.
It was only some days later that I began to identify the cause. I had noticed that my sense of cynicism was peaking; as was my frustration with broader humanity. Things that would usually mean nothing were starting to get to me. I was emotionally raw.
What opened up my awareness was observing the way I interacted with a few of my good friends — I behaved very distantly; and used stock, detached phrases to communicate with them. I didn’t particularly want to talk, and I certainly wasn’t in the headspace to open up my mind to them.
At this stage I knew something was wrong, and began searching my mind for the cause. I looked back on the past few days; on how I was feeling, what I was thinking, and how I interacted with friends and family. The experiences of that Saturday came back to me; and I – almost subconsciously – started making connections and began to assemble possible reasons for my state of mind.
The reasons are perhaps too personal to go into detail here, but let it suffice to say that a close family member is quite ill. I’ve had to confront their mortality – and in fact have had quite open discussions with them on this subject. I had thought that I was completely adjusted to this dynamic; but the psyche operates in strange and shadowy ways. It was not immediately apparent at how this had affected me.
There were other events too. Within the same fortnight a close friend had shared with me a difficult medical diagnosis. I had also had (positive) interactions with a few people who, though once close to me, I had fallen out with had not spoken to for years.
Surely all of these things can take a heavy emotional toll; and, as I am ever re-affirming, their psychological affects can be very difficult to directly divine.
What is even more interesting is that, as I became conscious of these psychological pressure – and spoke with a few friends about them – the pressure eased. I understood what was taking place, and began working through those issues. The mere identification of these dynamics was enough to greatly alleviate the suffering and emotional chaos they caused.
This roughly follows Jung’s treatment of neurosis; to bring sub-conscious fractures to the surface so that they might be resolved and integrated by the conscious self.
But that we can be such a mystery to ourselves is still a source of great wonder. We inhabit the shadowy work of the psyche; and should always strive to increase our awareness of what is taking place.
I have always had this great inward focus, and experiences like the one above constantly vindicate it, for how can we hope to relate to other people, or to change the world for the better if we lack this fundamental understanding of our own mind – let alone the minds of others?
The answer is poorly – and so once more the importance of reflection is reinforced.
I am twenty-eight today.
That number is almost completely devoid of meaning. It is divorced from any sense of self I possess, other than the recognition that, as time moves forward, the more I am able to better respect and understand myself; the less that confusion, pain, ignorance and selfishness rule me; and the more that I am able to embrace and enjoy life, increasingly freer from the obsessive anxiety questions of existence impress upon me (or, perhaps more accurately, the questions I impress upon existence).
One phrase seems to sum up the progress in my life over the last decade; I was once a nihilist, but I got better. Life negation threatened, and has now been reconciled.
Ten years ago I made it a point of rejecting the more obvious paths my life could take – an early marriage, kids, a mortgage, a secure corporate existence safely devoid of passion and allowing me to enact some sort of breast-beating masculine ritual of competitiveness in a suit and tie. I held goals like financial security in contempt; and strongly questioned the assumptions of capitalism and the view of life as a pure accumulation of wealth.
The passion with which I held those vaguely-defined ideas now seems quite childish, but I can also understand why I had such a strong reaction; I instinctively understood that if one was to jump to these ready-made life decisions without treating them with the gravity they deserve, they were a sure-path to misery – and I had observed countless people trapped inside miserable lives.
Above all I wanted to avoid the failure of my life; of becoming a man hollowed out at fifty years of age; wretched, powerless and left with nothing other than to wage a bitter, petty war against those around him. I sought power-over and consciousness-of my existence. I felt then – and still feel now – that choices in life should not be made out of obligation, subservience, laziness or lack of creativity; to do so is a disrespect and an abhorrence to life.
My goal has always been to try and know myself better; to cultivate peace within myself and with the world. I’m sure for many people my stating that could seem absurd – I am certainly no enlightened being yet. I’ve slowly begun to understand what contents me, and I am very slowly becoming aware of the nature of my relationship to the universe and other people.
All I can say is that am incredibly grateful for my comfortable existence; for my friends and family, many of whom have stuck by me when I was a rather difficult and unsatisfied human being; and for the opportunities I’ve been given.
In the years ahead I will strive to reduce the mental noise clouding my judgement and perceptions, to open myself further still to new ideas and experiences, to – paraphrasing Goethe – roll up the rock of my life again and again and every day until my energy finally gives way; until my form decays and is reclaimed by the earth. There is peace and understanding ahead, but it must be earnt.
I still hope to take a sabbatical in the Tibetan regions of Nepal and north east India – a period where I can detach myself and think clearly about the ideas that preoccupy me, and that now only shine through in rare periods. I want to take that opportunity to write, and bring back with me some insight or new understanding that will allow me to live a better and more content life.
I do know I will be back. I feel there is self-delusion in many life upheavals, and I have no wish to run away from where I have spent my life.
If you have read this and you know me, thank you for what you have given me. Every experience, good and bad, is necessary and valuable.
In the words of Charles Bukowski; may we all get better together.
I can’t help but feel a little dulled. Of late I have been entertaining no philosophic contemplation – not that I can notice in any case. Perhaps my mind is dutifully working away at a sub-conscious level to lash together different aspects of my experience and learning; or perhaps I am simply not engaging in existential musing – what I consider to be the highest form of reflection possible.
So why the silence? Well, let’s start with the question: what ideas have I been filling myself with?
Twice this year I have read John Gray’s The Silence of Animals. It was a somewhat strange book, oozing negativity and cynicism. It’s basic premise is this: “remember, fool, that we are but animals.” Of course this seems like a completely natural and valid perspective to reinforce; mankind as a species tends to delude itself into thinking it something more than an animal; more than organic matter; more than a product of this universe. The only true reason we have to think otherwise is sheer egoism, a rejection and fear of being ‘merely’ another lifeform on earth.
For me this is clearly an absurd idea, and one that starts to stir within me a feeling of contempt. I see so much evil in egoism – in a failure to identify with other human beings, other animals, and other forms of life. We would all dearly love the believe we have been given divine stewardship over the earth – and that if we destroy it, scorch it’s face, or poison it, that a) we have permission to do so, for it is there for us to use, and b) somehow that isn’t the end of the game of life on earth. Such ignorance is pathetic.
You can sense a similar undertone in all human affairs – politics in particular. Politics is a messy affair; it’s never easy to reconcile idealism or morality with politics. Perhaps one problem is there are simply too many minds, ego and universes that have to sync up for appropriate political change. Still, it is worth noting that our current political system places little to no stress on the rights of animals, on environment concerns, on the exploitation of third world labour, on the finite resource of fossil fuels – and certainly no one is entertaining any sort of revolution that would see our economy less obsessed with economic growth, and more focused on providing meaning and fulfilment in life within a sustainable society.
The above leaves me no doubt; I have been thinking of politics lately. It’s a sickening business, and I have no heart for it. I’ve seen politicians engage in the most brazen abuses – and yet they pay nothing for it. It is true all over the world; most politicians dare not call judgement upon another country, lest their own dirty secrets be made known. If all politicians were to be held to account by all others (rather than exploited or manipulated for political purposes), well, where that leave our vested interests?
If anything, I wish I could isolate myself further from politics. The issues are petty. The events uninspiring. Unfortunately I experience a tension with this thought; that of the duty of civic engagement; cynicism and withdrawal from politics is a luxury, and one that is entirely self serving. It is in this begrudging manner that I attempt to engage, as if it were a rock that I must roll up again forever.
I’ve also begun reading some George Orwell. I recently finished his Down and Out in Paris and London, which, while interesting in short bursts, ultimately gave me little to ponder. I have moved now to a collection of his essays, and already I have been floored by the progression in his writing style. These essays are supremely powerful and affecting; his portraits of small events like a hanging in Burma tend to reveal so much about the psychology of mankind, and of the injustice we wreak. At this early stage, I find his form inspiring; and I hope that it might encourage me to write more words of my own.
I have faced a long standing problem; that while I enjoy writing occasionally, that I do not have a more meaningful outlet for my words. Philosophic musings likely entertain only myself. My distaste for politics poisons any enthusiasm I would have commentating on recent events – the space itself is one of polarisation, pettiness and open hostility; hardly the sort of high-minded discussion that I seek.
I would love to write and publish more regular entries. Book reviews have engaged my mind, but I still have further work to do to develop my style and concept. Perhaps this collection of Orwell’s essays holds the key.
Down and Out in Paris and London is George Orwell’s first published book, which saw a print run in 1933.
It is a sort of memoir of the period in which Orwell returned disillusioned from his time as a police officer in Burma, and intended to make his living as a writer. He spent two years struggling with poverty across the two cities.
Down and Out is a fairly slight read at 228 pages. Orwell’s style is clean, clear and crisp, following a sort of detached, journalistic style whereby conversations and events are reported with little of Orwell’s own character or judgement bleeding into the page. We can also see at this early stage of Orwell’s career his trademark dedication to the integrity of his written work.
The bulk of the book tracks Orwell’s struggle to find work, budget his meager finances, his experience with starvation, his work in a Parisian hotel kitchen, his time tramping in London, and a retelling of the conversations, attitudes and interactions along the way.
At one point he goes without food for three days. On the experience he writes:
Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. It is as though one had been turned into a jellyfish, or as though all one’s blood had been pumped out and lukewarm water substituted. Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger…
His character-portrait of his boisterous, larger-than-life Russian friend Boris was particularly fascinating. At one point, when there were trying to find work together, Boris provides this sage advice:
It is fatal to look hungry. It makes people want to kick you.
The man is a walking contradiction; starving, though of enormous appetite – bursting with enthusiasm one minute, and crushed by utter despair the next. His mind is something to behold.
As we might expect, the book closes with some thoughtful reflections on the nature of poverty; on the systems which keeps people trapped in the cycle of poverty, and on preliminary ways in which the cycle might be addressed.
Orwell meditates in particular on the absurd uselessness of a tramp’s life – the system in London effectively forces him to stay idle, waste time and continue tramping from shelter to shelter:
The evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and sexually… the problem is how to turn the tramp from a bored, half-alive vagrant into a self-respecting human being.
His solution is beautifully simple – rather than have tramps spend their time either locked into soul-destroyed, stimuli-deprived shelters for hours each day, or tramping to another shelter (for they cannot stay in the same shelter twice in the same month), he proposes tramps spend their time contributing to communal shelter gardens or farms. Not only would this solve the crippling boredom and inertia, but help tramps take steps towards being productive members of society once more, and gaining crucial confidence. Of course, the food they grow can ultimately help feed them, too – and far better than the stale bread and cheese provided at such shelters.
Orwell’s final analysis of poverty is almost an afterthought to the bulk of the book; he does not spend a huge amount of time analyzing all he has experienced, which is a shame, but it keeps this book a simple, easy read that can help provide an insight into the nature of poverty. It also provides a clear indication of the great man Orwell is to become; a champion of free society, and justice.
This is a fascinating book.
In the opening pages I was struck by the similarities in Batchelor’s teenage years and my own. In high school we were both baffled by our fellow pupils and teachers lack of interest in the meaning of existence. For us, the quest for existential resolution overrode all other concerns. We were (or still are) obsessed by the search for meaning.
Batchelor too shared my love of Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts, and also possessed a strong drive to reject the complacency and spiritual-intellectual sterility of those around him. Unlike Batchelor, however, I never wandered off to India to smoke hash and join the company of the Dali Lama (well, not yet in any case).
I assume Batchelor’s trajectory is far from rare; certainly this would explain why so many Westerners are drawn to his work. His story may be a common one, but it is made far more interesting given Batchelor’s many years experience in delving into various forms of Buddhism – Tibetan Gelug and Korean Zen in particular.
Batchelor’s many decades of study, coupled with his interest in existentialism makes Confession of a Buddhist Atheist a most excellent reference for fellow ponderers. Since Buddhism is still relatively new to Westerners, Batchelor has saved many of us decades of brutal legwork in de-mystifying Buddhism; stripping it of its metaphysical additives to lay bare what secular/rational value remains, and providing a humanised and historically-accurate portrait of the life of the Buddha.
But the greatest value Batchelor can offer is the clear manner in which he articulates his sophisticated form of sceptical, spiritual agnosticism. His fusion of Western philosophy and Eastern spirituality has inspired me deeply, and I will be picking up more of his work in the future.
The point is not to abandon all institutions and dogmas but to find a way to live with them more ironically, to appreciate them for what they are – the play of the human mind in its endless quest for connection and meaning – rather than timeless entities that have to be ruthlessly defended or forcibly imposed. – Stephen Batchelor