Sunday, 31 January 2010

No Context Needed

Could we do without context? For moments, we can and we do. When we are in the real, that is. As Sharon Cameron put it in Beautiful Work: A Meditation on Pain (2000): "It is possible to think this: without a reference point there is meaninglessness. But I wish you'd understand that without a reference point you are in the real."

In order to feel not lost in this world we have created belief systems. We believe what helps us to feel safe. And above all: we believe what we want to believe. We have created a variety of systems - think of the legal system or of bureaucracy, for instance - that do what they are supposed to do: to make us feel safe and provide jobs and income for lawyers and bureaucrats "Tony Blair's government has created more than 3,000 new criminal offences during its nine-year tenure, one for almost every day it has been in power" reported The Independent in August 2006. Or think of money. Like the legal system or bureaucracy it does not exist out there in the real, it exists only in our created reality. As Robert Wilson in A Small Death in Lisbon put it: "We are all mad, Inspector, for the simple reason that we don't know why we exist and this ..." he waved his hand at the tissue of existence before him, "this life is how we distract ourselves so that we don't have to think about things too difficult for us to comprehend."

Excerpt from my essay "No Context Needed".
Afterimage, Rochester, NY, November/December 2008.

Friday, 29 January 2010

On psychoanalysis (2)

The patient leaves the analysis older, and wiser about analysis. It is finally borne in on him that the object of analysis is not to make sense of his life but to make nonsense of his neurosis. Through repetitive enactment of the neurosis in the transference, the neurosis loses its edge.
Janet Malcolm: Dora

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Brazilian Impressions (2)

These photos were taken in December 2009 in Curitiba, Paraná.

What to some untrained Swiss eye might look like a minaret is part of a Christian church.

Walking across one of the many squares, I suddenly saw a lot of people streaming out of a building that, when I got closer, turned out to be a place where supposedly miracles happen.

I thought it rather peculiar that a part of this church would host an Internet Café but was told that, although part of the same construction, it was separate from the church.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Speaking a foreign culture

The popular impression that a man alters his personality when speaking another tongue is far from ill-grounded. When I speak German to Germans, I automatically shift my orientation as a social being, I spontaneously adapt myself to the atmosphere characteristic of their status, outlook prejudices. The very use of the customary formulae of politeness injects a distinct flavor into the conversation, coloring attitudes and behavior. Some of these modes of expression, to be sure, are merely meaningless formulae, but by no means all. The retention of titles, in European fashion of example, colors mutual relations, as does the free and easy American way of dropping them altogether … Language is intimately interwoven with the whole of social behavior that a bilingual, for better or worse, is bound to differ from the monoglot.
Robert H. Lowie

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Medien als Abstumpfungstraining

Man muss die Medienzivilisation wohl einmal für lange Zeit - für Monate oder Jahre - völlig verlassen haben, um bei der Rückkehr wieder so zentriert und konzentriert zu sein, dass man die erneute Zerstreuung und Dekonzentration durch Teilnahme an den modernen Informationsmedien bewusst bei sich selbst beobachten kann. … Wir halten es inzwischen für normal, dass wir in den Illustrierten - fast wie in einem alten Welttheater - alle Regionen hart nebeneinander finden, Berichte über Massensterben in der Dritten Welt zwischen Sektreklamen, Reportagen über Umweltkatastrophen neben dem Salon der neuesten Automobilproduktion. Unsere Köpfe sind dazu trainiert, eine enzyklopädisch breite Skala von Gleichgültigkeiten zu überblicken - wobei die Gleichgültigkeit des Einzelthemas nicht ihm selbst entspringt, sondern seiner Einreihung in den Informationsfluss der Medien. Ohne ein jahrelanges Abstumpfungs- und Elastizitätstraining kann kein menschliches Bewusstsein mit dem zurechtkommen, was ihm beim Durchblättern einer einzigen umfangreichen Illustrierten zugemutet wird; und ohne intensive Übung verträgt keiner, will er nicht geistige Desintegrationserscheinungen riskieren, dieses pausenlose Flimmern von Wichtigem und Unwichtigem, das Auf und Ab von Meldungen, die jetzt eine Höchstaufmerksamkeit verlangen und im nächsten Augenblick total desaktualisiert sind.
Peter Sloterdijk: Kritik der zynischen Vernunft

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Brazilian Impressions

These pictures were taken in December 2009, and in January 2010.

Praia da Armação, Florianópolis: The view from my pousada room

Chapecó, Santa Catarina: The view from my hotel entrance

Curitiba, Paraná: The window of the Confeitaria Neuchatel

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

I am because we are

It was a Ted Talk that made me aware of the photographer Kristen Ashburn: I liked the way she looked, I liked the way she talked and I liked that she presented her pictures of Aids victims in Zimbabwe by letting them speak for themselves: they moved me deeply.

"I am because we are" is a book about Aids in Africa. Aids, as we know, is a preventable disease. In the last twenty-five years it has killed about 30 million people in Africa alone and has created, as the book states "an entire generation of orphans. More than 12 million children have experienced the death of a parent from aids. These children face incalculable odds. The fortunate find shelter with distant relatives or elderly grandparents. Others are left to fend for themselves."

"The children. Malawi's Orphaned and Vulnerable", reads the title of the first part of the book. The photographs were taken in Malawi. I had once worked there as a Red Cross delegate and I somewhat feel that I know the place but Kristen Ashburn showed me not just another Malawi, she made me see human dignity in the face of tragedy. Had I really not seen that when I was there? Sort of, yes, but not by far as intensely as when I was contemplating these photographs for beautiful photographs (and the ones in this book are aesthetically magnificent) have the power to make your constantly moving eyes stop for a while.

The cover photograph hit me first, I deem it extremely powerful. For the composition, for the colours, for the fact that it made me curious: I wondered what was going through the minds of these kids. I didn't see just a whole bunch of African youngsters, I looked at individuals, at personalities.

Photo from "I Am Because We Are" by Kristen Ashburn, published by powerHouse Books

Madonna, the singer, states in the foreword:

"As you read the following pages and look at the breathtaking photography of Kristen Ashburn, I hope that you too will be inspired by the paradox of beauty and tragedy that exists today in Malawi, and in many other countries in Africa.

I have been moved to tears by the ravaging effects of hiv/aids, malaria, and poverty, and by the pain I have seen etched into the faces of so many vulnerable children who are wise beyond their years. But I have also been moved to laughter and joy by the inner strength shared by these beautiful people who stand together in utter defiance of their hardships."

I sympathise with what Madonna expresses although "breathtaking" is not a word that comes to my mind when I look at these photographs. To me they are, first of all, beautiful, very beautiful; they express dignity, thoughtfulness, joy and, as Madonna rightfully points out, an impressive inner strength. Some of the photos are in colour, some in black and white - I've found it a convincing mix.

These photographs radiate an intriguing presence - they made me feel like I was there in Southern Africa, not only in spirit but physically. It seemed to me that Kirsten Ashburn, by photographing daily life in the face of Aids, showed me something universal: the sad and happy (yes, you will also find pictures of happy people in this tome) human condition.

The portraits come with words, a few simple words that stayed with me long after I had stopped looking at the pictures. These words made these images appear again in my mind. And they made me turn once again to the pictures in the book.

My name is Wezi.
I’m nine years old.
My mother is dead.

My name is Fred. This is our house.
My father’s name is Mr. Fred Forty.
My mother passed away. She was very sick.
No one chooses to lose their parents.
I would have been happy if she lived to an
age when I could have taken care of her.
She only suffered for us and never had the
chance to enjoy the fruit of her labor.
The future? The way I see it?
I can’t see anything because right now
I have too many problems.

The pictures in the second part of the book "The Crisis. Aids in Southern Africa" are all in black and white and they don't come with captions (you will however find captions next to smaller versions of these pictures on the last pages of the book) - they do not need any. What these photos are all about is this:

"Without a safety net, many orphans drop out of school to find work. The eldest are often forced to become parents to their younger siblings. All of these vulnerable children are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty that exposes them to higher risks of contracting the virus themselves.

In 2007 alone, 1.6 million people died of aids in southern Africa. Only a quarter of those needing medical care actually received it. With the advent of anti-retroviral drugs over the last decade, aids is no longer a death sentence. However, for the overwhelming majority of the 22.5 million hiv-positive Africans and their children, these life-saving drugs remain out of reach."

The last pages (accompanied by colour photographs) of this tome introduces Raising Malawi, an organisation cofounded by Madonna and Michael Berg dedicated to bringing an end to the extreme poverty and hardship endured by Malawi’s one million orphans.

Kristen Ashburn
I Am Because We Are
powerHouse Books, New York

Sunday, 17 January 2010

On psychoanalysis

The whole point of psychoanalysis, Jung said, was that society's prohibitions were ignorant and unhealthy. Only cowardice would make men submit to civilized morality once they had understood Freud's discoveries.
Jed Rubenfeld: The Interpretation of Murder

Friday, 15 January 2010

On the road (7)

Brazil is a hot place - apart from the winter in the South, of course - and many people in the cities dress as if they were either going to, or coming from, the beach. The only other place where I noticed that was Havana.

I have never been to a country where so many women sported tattoos - or is this because you see more exposed flesh in Brazil than in quite some other places?

A good Brazilian hotel is one that serves a good breakfast. Here's the one of the Copa Verdes in Cascavel: a buffet with various types of bred, dried meat, ham, cheese, melon, water melon, mango, papaya, pineapple, bananas, grapes, scrambled eggs, sausages in tomato sauce, a variety of cereal, yoghurt, waffles with maple syrup, cookies, a wide selection of cakes ... this is what I remember. The only thing Brazilians do not seem to start their days with is ice cream.

At the Ibis in Curitiba a couple - he was in his late fifties/early sixties, she in her mid-forties - arrived at breakfast strategically prepared. She put a mid-sized round metallic box (that consisted of two boxes, one on top of the other) on a table next to the buffet, unscrewed the upper box, placed the two halves neatly next to each other, checked whether there was any staff nearby, went to the buffet, came back with large quantities of fruit and lots of crackers, put them in the two boxes, screwed them together again and was now ready to go for her regular breakfast.

At the bus station in Passo Fundo, a man in his thirties, with an athletic build and a double-chin, wears a T-shirt that says: Psycho Surfers.

"É obrigatório o uso do cinto de segurança", it says in some buses (maybe in all of them but I only noticed it in some) but I never saw anybody wearing it save for one woman sitting next to me from Passo Fundo to Lajeado. I had made the mistake of asking her where she was travelling to: she gave me such a detailled account that I dozed off after a few minutes.

Due to an accident near Lajeado, my return to Santa Cruz was two hours late. I called Ricardo (who, together with his wife, Takako, runs Schütz & Kanomata Idiomas), who had offered to pick me up at the bus station, that I would be late and take a cab. I hardly ever go to bed before eleven, Ricardo said, so just give me a call once you arrive. I did and a couple of minutes later Ricardo picked me up. Takako had put a cold tea and a sandwich into my fridge and my place so thoroughly cleaned that I had quite some problems finding my things - it felt like coming home.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Na Arábia Saudita

- Preciso ir, estou atrasado.
- Você me telefona?
- Não tem telefone. Na semana que vem, por Alá - ele parou na porta. - Eu detesto quando me pego falando assim, mas todos falam. Se Deus quiser isso, se Deus quiser aquilo. Isso parece tão frustrante. Eu a amo, Fran.
- É - ela levantou os olhos para encontrar os dele. O que tem Deus a ver com a companhia telefônica?, pensou.

- Existem regras diferentes para nós - disse Parsons, quase sem tirar o cachimbo da boca. - Nunca se esqueça, Andrew, de que, como indivíduos, não somos nem um pouco importantes no esquema das coisas sauditas. Estamos aqui apenas por tolerância. Eles realmente precisam dos peritos ocidentais, mas é claro que eles são um povo muito rico e orgulhoso e é a contragosto que admitem precisar de alguém.
Isso tinha o aspecto de um discurso que havia sido dito antes.
Andrew perguntou:
- Você quer dizer que eles são ricos e orgulhosos, ou que eles só são orgulhosos porque são ricos?
Parsons nâo respondeu.

Expatriados têm mesmo esse hábito de rir de tudo. Acho que é o modo mais seguro de mostrar discordância.

Hilary Mantel. Oito Meses na Rua Gaza

Monday, 11 January 2010

On the road (6)

Rozeno, my taxi driver in Foz, says his cousin does haircuts for 6 Reais. Was I interested? I must have looked rather skeptical and so he pointed at his own cut. She did my hair, he smiled. Apart from the fact that his hair (straight) and mine (curly) are completely different, it clearly did not look like a cut that I would want for myself.

I planned to travel through the province of Missiones in Argentina but no travel agency in Foz seemed to have a map or an idea how it looks like on the Argentinian side.

So back to Cascavel where all shops are huge - the ones that sell refrigerators seem to have hundreds of them on display, the same goes for shops with furniture and ..., well, you name it. The town makes you think that it was built by the Soviets or by an American distribution center. Everything looks functional here, I didn't note any beautiful old buildings (like in many other Brazilian towns), the place felt absurd, I loved it.

I bought my sandals in Sri Lanka - a young girl can't take her eyes off them: she looks amused that a man is walking around in such footwear. They are old, well-worn and on the brink of falling apart. The shoemaker I go to see is originally from Italy and loves to philosophise, especially about Brazilian politics - what, on the negative side, distinguishes Brazil from other countries is the violence, he opined. He reminded me of another shoemaker in Mendoza who also hails originally from Italy and who, to my surprise, was full of praise for Nixon (until then I had never heard anybody praising Nixon).

I look at the map. Francisco Beltrão looks like a three-hour-ride. Pato Branco is much nicer, says the travel agent. Another look at the map. It does not seem too far, maybe an hour from Francisco Beltrão, so that would be, all in all, about four hours, right? The travel agent checks and says it is six hours. How come? She checks again. It is a local bus, 56 stops, "para em toda esquina", but this ticket we do not have available here, you need to buy it at the Rodoviaria.

Later in the afternoon I walk into another travel agency. I explain to the travel agent that I do not want to be more than four hours on the bus. She looks into several possibilities, to no avail. Four eyes sometimes see more than two, she says, and walks off to consult with a guy in the back of the office who suggests Barracão at the Argentinian border for that would be just about four hours. I'm happy and buy the ticket.

When, the next day, I arrive in Barracão at three o'clock in the afternoon, it is pouring. I step into the Rodoviaria and ask for the next bus to Chapecó. Oh oh oh, says the guy behind the counter, there is only one, at three o'clock in the morning. From São Miguel it would be easier. And when is there a bus to São Miguel? It is the one you came with. Okay, then I will go to São Miguel right now, is that possible? The guy behind the counter shouts at the bus driver who nods. It is possible.

Buses that run through midday often stop for a lunch break at some huge churrascaria somewhere in the pampas. Not all of them though. The lady at the Rodoviaria in Chapecó explains that this depends on the bus company. My bus to Passo Fundo, for instance, runs through midday but doesn't stop because it will arrive at 1.30 pm which is still considered lunch time.

Passo Fundo. In the local paper I read that doctors refuse to go to certain bairros to treat patients because their cars were vandalised while they were going about their work.

In the cathedral on the main square. A woman in her forties with two big grocery bags and, I assume, her two daughters, one about six, the other about four. The woman goes down on her knees at the back of the church and proceeds kneeling to the alter in front. The distance is considerable. The elder daughter takes the two grocery bags and runs with them past her mother and sister towards the alter where she waits for them. The younger daughter first stays back but then runs after her mother. When she reaches her, she also goes down on her knees and proceeds in the way her mother does until the two of them finally reach the alter and pray to, I suppose, Nossa Senhora Aparecida, as the cathedral is called.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Die Freiheit der Presse

Im Grundgesetz stehen wunderschöne Bestimmungen über die Freiheit der Presse. Wie so häufig, ist die Verfassungswirklichkeit ganz anders als die geschriebene Verfassung. Pressefreiheit ist die Freiheit von zweihundert reichen Leuten, ihre Meinung zu verbreiten. Journalisten, die diese Meinung teilen, finden sie immer. Ich kenne in der Bundesrepublik keinen Kollegen, der sich oder seine Meinung verkauft hätte. Aber wer nun anders denkt, hat der nicht auch das Recht, seine Meinung auszudrücken? Die Verfassung gibt ihm das Recht, die ökonomische Wirklichkeit zerstört es. Frei ist, wer reich ist. Das ist nicht von Karl Marx, sondern von Paul Sethe. Aber richtig ist es trotzdem. Und da Journalisten nicht reich sind, sind sie auch nicht frei.
Paul Sethe, 1901 - 1967, deutscher Journalist

Thursday, 7 January 2010

On the road (5)

My hotel in Cascavel is right in the center of town; it is spacious, functional in a sixties-style and reminds me of the Riviera in Havana. "Só alguns minutinhos", the receptionist said when, after twenty minutes, I got impatient waiting for my taxi that after another ten minutes finally arrived - I would not call that "minutinhos".

A waiter in Cascavel, who had previously worked in a hotel in Foz do Iguaçu, said that Foz, at this time of the year, would be almost empty and that the high season was in June/July. Well, Foz was almost full and it was definitely the high season when I got there. It goes without saying that we all live on different planets and some are so different that I am not really sure that I want to contemplate that.

Iguaçu Falls. The trail felt like a sauna. The young couple next to me is from Paraguay. Very hot, they comment. I assume that is not very different in Paraguay, I say. Yes, indeed, they moan. What impresses them about Brazil is that it is very well organised. I had never associated Brazilians with organisational skills but the entry to the Iguaçu Falls is indeed well managed - once you had payed however, it became a different matter: the long queues to get out of the National Park were, well, pretty impressive.

Never again I will do one of these must-do tourist trips. To be herded around with thousands of others is definitely not my thing.

Rozeno is 70, works for a tourism agency and offered to drive me around - for agency rates, I eventually learned - when I could not find a taxi at the Rodoviaria. He drove much too fast for my taste. I told him to slow down. I used to drive an ambulance, he said, and I have never had an accident. That is not because of you that is because of the others, I told him, after he had almost overrun a dog - had I not shouted, he would not even have seen it.

Before he started working for the tourism agency, Rozeno had been a taxi driver. Four times he was assaulted - he showed me the mark the bullet had left on his neck. All assaults happened in the night, one was by a woman in her mid-forties who attacked him with a kitchen knife.

Some Brazilians have a disconcerting habit of jumping the queue. At the travel agency in my posh hotel in Foz, I was in the process of obtaining information from the agent when all of a sudden a guy approached the desk and started to speak to the agent who in turn responded - it seemed that I simply did not exist. It had happened to me many times before and so I knew what to do: I simply turned around and left.

At the Highway Police posts in Paraná battered cars that were involved in accidents are on display.

The lady sitting next to me on the bus to Cascavel was in her sixties and asked whether I was Italian. She was a "Paulista" and had lived in Italy and in Argentina and thought both countries much more cultured than Brazil where people were only mindlessly running after money. When I told her that I had worked in Rio Grande do Sul, she asked: is your wife from the South? No, I said, my ex-wife is from Cuba. In Curitiba there is a whole street full of Cubans, all dreaming of a Cuba that never was. I once had a Cuban lover, she whispered. So what do you think of Cubans? I inquired. "Péssimos", she said. In what respect? "En todos. São mentirosos." Well ..., I interjected. Not all of them of course, she said.

On the bus from Foz to Cascavel I felt occasionally like being on a road in the US - straight highways as long as the eye can see in wide-open landscapes.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Rearranging reality

We are perpetually smoothing and rearranging reality to conform to our wishes; we lie to others and to ourselves constantly, unthinkingly. When, occasionally - and not by dint of our own efforts but under the pressure of external events - we are forced to see things as they are, we are like naked people in a storm. There are a few among us - psychoanalysts have encountered them - who are blessed or cursed with a strange imperviousness to the unpleasantness of self-knowledge. Their lies to themselves are so convincing that they are never unmasked. These are the people who never feel in the wrong, who are always able to justify their conduct, and who in the end - human nature being what it is - cause their fallible fellow-men to turn away from them.
Janet Malcolm: In the Freud Archives

Sunday, 3 January 2010

On the road (4)

Edson is 44, trained as an accountant and works in the tobacco industry; he is also one of my students. Before he left Santa Cruz for his Christmas holidays in Iratí, he said that I should keep him posted about my travels for we might meet in Curitiba. I never thought we would but actually did and went to see the botanical garden together - the city skyline in the background made me feel like I was in New York City´s Central Park - and to a churrasco, together with his extended family who lives in Cuitiba. A Brazilian churrasco means that you sit at a long table and the waiters and waitresses do their rounds offering you all sorts of meat, polenta, pasta ... actually almost everything that you can put on a fire ...

I had quite often heard of Iratí (where Edson and his wife hail from) during class and was curious to get to know the place. Iratí is a two-hour drive from Curitiba, has a population of 60´000 and feels very much way out there; I was introduced to Edson´s parents and the family of his brother-in-law and enjoyed animated conversations over excellent fish from "pesce e pague". I had never heard of "pesce e pague" (fish and pay) and this is what it is: you go to a fish farm that has several ponds where you then fish your own fish that you can eat in the restaurant there or take with you.

As usual, I do not know what I want in the padaria in Guarapuava and also do not always know what I am looking at. I ask the young and very pretty woman: What is this? And that? The young woman smiles and explains and, I all of a sudden realise, is flirting with me - and I feel enchanted. Your are not from here, right? I am asking because you have an accent. I let her know that, a few days ago, my accent had been qualified as a missionary accent and that I had not known that there was such a thing ... she bent over the counter and whispered that people who are closer to God have it. The expression on her face made clear that she did not mean it too seriously. Eventually I made up my mind what to buy. She was all smiles, wrapped up my pastel and my chocolate croissant, wished me a good trip and a Feliz Ano Novo and I felt just great.

The young man at the reception of my hotel says that the Portuguese spoken in Paraná is the most pure of the country. No wonder everybody thinks I speak with an accent for here everybody who is not a local has one. I did of course argue with the guy. In other words, I lectured him that there is no such thing as "the purest Portuguese" (who would define this anyway?). I am however not sure whether I was successful. I am a foreigner after all and foreigners, as we all know, do not really count.

Do you have internet in the hotel? On the first floor but it is very slow, said the young woman at the reception. That must be terribly slow, I smiled, when a Brazilian (who usually says it will take a few minutinhos when it takes half an hour or more) says that it is slow. She smiled back and said: I think it is better to tell the truth because it is really slow. And it was really slow indeed.

The next day, it was windy and cold and I needed to put on a sweater. During the first part of my bus ride to Cascavel, it was beautiful and sunny and I listened mostly to classical music on my iPod, the second part was rainy and overcast and my iPod music seemed out of place - it never ceases to amaze how profoundly the weather influences my soul.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Tao Te Ching (2)

The little book the Tao makes me calm and it is sitting near my bed. I sit down on my bed and I open the book at random and I start to read. Fifteen. Be as careful as crossing frozen water, alert as a Warrior on enemy ground. Be as courteous as a Guest, as fluid as a Stream. Be as shapeable as a block of wood, as receptive as a glass. Don't seek and don't expect. Be patient and wait until your mud settles and your water is clear. Be patient and wait. Your mud will settle. Your water will be clear.
Sixty-three. Act without doing, work without effort, think of the large as small and the many as few. Confront the difficult while it is easy, accomplish the great one step at a time. Don't reach and you will find, if you run into trouble throw yourself toward it. Don't cling to comfort and everything will be comfortable.
Seventy-nine. Failure is an opportunity. If you blame others, there is no end to blame. Fulfill your obligations, correct your mistakes. Do what you need to do and step away. Demand nothing and give all. Demand nothing and give all.
Twenty-four. Stand on your toes and you won't stand firm. Rush ahead and you won't go far. Try to shine and you'll extinguish your light. Try to define yourself, you won't know who you are. Don't try to control others. Let go and let them be.
As I read this book it calms me without effort, fills in the blanks of my strategy for survival. Control by letting go of control, fix your problems by forgetting they're problems. Deal with them and the World and yourself with patience and simplicity and compassion. Let things be, let yourself be, let everything be and accept it as it is. Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing more.
James Frey: A Million Little Pieces