Monday, 31 May 2010

On temperament

Knowledge of a person's temperament allows one to predict with confidence what they will not become, but is less able to predict the persona they will develop. Predicting the exact location where a rock will land after rolling down a mountain provides an analogy. Knowledge of the location, size, and shape of the rock, analogous to a temperament, permits an observer to eliminate many places where it will not rest, but it is impossible to know its final location because one cannot know the gullies and obstacles it will strike on its way down. These events are analogous to the diverse experiences each person encounters as they grow to maturity.
Jerome Kagan in Born worried: Is anxiety all in your genes?

Saturday, 29 May 2010

The Canyon Chronicles

"The Canyon Chronicles" happen to take place from 1845 to the beginning of the 20th century and "tell the story of the Gentile Nicholsons, the Mexican miner Juan Alicante and his son, and their long-running feud with the Mormon Apostle Ephraim Taylor, his son Ezra, and other assorted 'prophets' and Danite assassins." Since I'm not really into historical novels, I'm probably not the right person to review this tome - and so I don't. Instead, I will convey a few impressions.

It was the dedication that made me curious: "This book is dedicated to the indomitable spirit of Ann Eliza Young, who fled the Utah Territory in 1873, escaping from the clutches of her polygamous husband to write 'Wife Number Nineteen,' narrating her years of bondage as one of the multiple wives of Brigham Young." What made me even more curious was an excerpt of Young's Journal of Discourse from 1856 that said "Suppose you found your brother in bed with your wife, and put a javelin through both of them, you would be justified, and they would atone for their sins, and be received in the kingdom of God. I would at once do so in such a case, and under such circumstances."
How come this made me curious? Well, I expected the book to teach me quite a bit about this religion that advocated such practice, and why, yet it did not, at least not on the first hundred pages or so ...

Although I felt slightly disappointed (for I would have liked to learn how somebody justifies polygamy ... well, come to think of it, maybe not), I thought it a well-written text that occasionally provided a glimpse into the thinking of the leaders of the Church of Latter Day Saints: "Iron mining was allowed, because things could be fashioned from that metal that were beneficial to the visions of the Prophet and his apostles."

Being Swiss-German myself, I thought it particularly interesting to come across Johann Augustus Sutter, the pretty ruthless Swiss-German business man (sometimes referred to as German and sometimes as Swiss-German - editor, please note: the two are not interchangeable) that I so far only had known as a fabled gold digger: "Sutter was making a fortune off the miners and used his considerable influence to maintain his riparian holdings. His greed, however, knew no bounds, and he insisted that his cut from the works along the stream be 70 percent."

"K. Gray Jones is in the forefront with the best writers alive today in his ability to capture the essence of a heart-rending situation, a tense confrontation, and the description of a scene, whether it be a shootout in the streets of Salt Lake City, the dining salon of a 19th Century Western Hotel, or a wild canyon," Penelope Leight is quoted on the back cover. I readily admit that I have no idea whether K. Gray Jones belongs "in the forefront of the best ...," but he surely knows how to render tense confrontations. Here's an example:

"Something was definitely not right. Now, thoroughly sobered by the sense of impending danger, David pushed away from Rachel and stood up in the loft. The ladder creaked and he felt something rough and abrasive wrap around his ankles. It was a rope, and someone jerked on it. His feet were yanked out from under him and he slammed down on his back on the platform of the loft, clutching at straw. There was another jerk, wrenching him out of the loft and into dark space surrounded by beams. He thumped onto his back on the dirt floor of the barn. Rachel screamed ..."

K. Gray Jones
The Canyon Chronicles
Alondra Press

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Swimming to Cambodia

Ever heard of Spalding Gray? For The Sydney Morning Herald he is "an unholy cross between James Joyce and Hunter S. Thompson", for The Minneapolis Star and Tribune "a new wave Mark Twain", and for me he is the guy whose Swimming to Cambodia and Impossible Vacation gave me some really good hours. Here are two excerpts:

Some say that the Thais are the nicest people that money can buy, because they like to have fun. They know how to have fun and, perhaps due to their very permissive strain of Buddhism, they don't have to suffer for it after they have it.
From: Swimming to Cambodia

I was awake the whole next night straining on Air India to see anything, any glimpse of the wildly imagined landscape below. Meg slept while I pressed my nose to the window and saw a portion of my face, reflected, which I first mistook for Turkey or Saudi Arabia ...

... Like the trip from the airport into Amsterdam, the ride into Delhi was confusing; but there was no time to reflect on it. We both held on for dear life as the cab careened through streets of chaos. I only had time for two thoughts: one, how Gandhi had ever imagined he could bring peace and order to such a place, and two, that I did not want to die here and that was what I felt was about to happen.
From: Impossible Vacation

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Photos & Paintings

I thought of oil paintings when I looked at these photos for the first time - a good illustration of the importance of background that my friend, the photographer and painter Blazenka Kostolna, who, this year, took some of her annual pictures of me in her studio, always stresses.

Copyright @ Blazenka Kostolna

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Wir sind alle süchtig

"Nicht die Droge ist's, sondern der Mensch" enthält Beiträge von Walther H. Lechler (Nicht die Droge ist's, sondern der Mensch; Wir sind alle süchtig), W. Seidenwerth (Rückfälle und menschliche Natur), Berthold K. (Vom Nutzen der Sucht für das Leben), Ambros Wehrli (Behandlungskonzepte für Drogensüchtige), Karl A. Geck (Suchtgesellschaft kurz vor dem Entzug) und Karl M. (Münchhausen lässt grüssen) und ist uneingeschränkt zu empfehlen. Um diese Behauptung zu illustrieren, will ich im Folgenden ganz willkürlich aus den verschiedenen Beiträgen zitieren. Auch deswegen, weil ich keine Veranlassung sehe, mit eigenen Worten zu sagen, was andere schon treffend ausgedrückt haben:

"Drogen machen nicht süchtig. Alkohol verursacht nicht den sogenannten Alkoholismus", mit diesen Sätzen leitet Walther Lechler seinen Beitrag, "Nicht die Droge ist's, sondern der Mensch", ein. Es versteht sich: Das sehen die meisten im Bereich Sucht arbeitenden Menschen (und von dieser Sucht ganz gut lebenden - man denke an die Pharmaindustrie, Therapeuten, Sozialarbeiter, Politiker, Anwälte, Soziologen, Beistände etc.) ganz anders: "Wehe dem, der sich offen oder versteckt anschickte oder heute versucht, die heilige Kuh eines bereits fest institutionalisierten, wissenschaftlichen Glaubens zu schlachten oder ihr nur das Recht ihrer Stellung abzusprechen!"

Aufklärung ist von Nöten: "Die Metapher 'Alkohol' heisst übersetzt nicht allein C2H5OH oder Äthylalkohol, oder aqua vitae, sondern ist ganz schlicht Synonym von Lebenslüge, Selbstbetrug und Selbsttäuschung. Sie bezeichnet alles, was dazu dienen kann, unseren Blick vor der Wirklichkeit zu verstellen." Und was die Hilfe für Süchtige angeht, da zitiert Lechler u.a. Konstantin Wecker:

"Einem Drogensüchtigen kann man nicht helfen, höchstens Brücken bauen. Er traut nur Gleichgestellten, die ihn nicht in ihr eigenes Lager führen wollen, sondern einfach mal liebevoll die Hand ausstrecken und ihn dann auch nach seinem eigenen Willen und Weg weiterziehen lassen."

"Wir sind in dem Wahn gefangen, dass wir die Sucht besiegen können - doch wir alle - der Süchtige und wir - wissen, dass es nicht stimmt, aber wir tun so als ob", liest man bei Berthold K. Und weiter: "Der Süchtige glaubt im Stillen immer noch, dass er die Sucht in den Griff bekommt ... und so wird der Kampf der Drogenbekämpfungskämpfer fortgesetzt", obwohl: "Keiner weiss, was hilft - keiner kann sagen, was Süchtige zur Umkehr zwingt - darum muss man die fragen, die es geschafft haben." Und was sagen die? Einer von ihnen, Berthold K., sagt dies: "Ich weiss, dass meine Genesung da begonnen hat, wo ich den Kampf gegen die Droge Alkohol endgültig aufgegeben habe - wo ich auf der ganzen Linie kapituliert habe ... Süchtige geben ihr Spiel - ihren Kampf mit der Droge - dann auf, wenn kein Gewinn mehr erkennbar ist ... wenn sie etwas gefunden haben, was ihnen mehr bringt als das Spiel mit der Droge. Wenn ihr Leben wieder einen Sinn hat!"

Ambros Wehrli drückt "diesen Kampf aufgeben" so aus: "Bei den meisten Süchtigen besteht erst eine echte Chance zur Umkehr, wenn sie 'gegen die Wand' laufen, also an einen Punkt kommen, wo es nicht mehr weitergeht."

"Ich gehe von Folgendem aus", schreibt Karl Geck: "Im Heideggerschen Sinn sind wir Menschen in diese Welt geworfen und müssen, ob wir das nun wollen oder nicht, uns verhalten, Antwort geben durch unser Leben auf Fragen, die wir nicht beantworten können. Und unsere Antworten haben Folgen, die wiederum auf uns zurückwirken, unsere Realität bestimmen." Diese Antworten (und damit unsere Realität) können ganz verschieden aussehen: man kann sich mit diesem Hineingeworfensein ins Leben, mit der Wirklichkeit also, auseinandersetzen, sich ihr stellen; man kann versuchen, sie zu kontrollieren oder man kann sich ihr verschliessen, indem man sich betäubt (durch Drogen, politisches Theater, selbstgeschaffene Probleme etc.). Die Kontroll- und Vermeidungsvariante sind die beiden gängigsten; die Auseinandersetzung mit der Wirklichkeit, die am wenigsten übliche, denn diese setzt eine "neue" Art zu leben voraus. Nochmals Karl Geck: "Es geht um Veränderung, ja mehr, es geht um wesensmässige Veränderung: um Transformation."

Walther H. Lechler (Hg.)
Nicht die Droge ist's - sondern der Mensch
Santiago Verlag, Goch 2009

Friday, 21 May 2010

Luck & Talent?

Listening to the rumble of the surf he'd tried to imagine the moment when Beethoven had thought of the theme for his Ninth Symphony, alle Menschen werden Brüder - surely one of the greatest thoughts anyone had ever had. It had changed the world; the world had been just a little different after that theme had been composed. But what had happened? Where had the thought come from? He wondered if the world itself had changed, cracked, or decomposed, thereby permitting Beethoven to think that particular run of notes. Or had he, truly, thought it up all on his own? Or was it chance? Perhaps his theme was already out there and he'd only stumbled on it, like Columbus discovering America. When you got right down to it, he considered, it was the question, Did God exist? If Beethoven had merely found his theme, God must have been its true composer; whereas, if Beethoven had created it himself, he was God, or so near it made no difference. Which people hated to admit, so they thought up words like luck and talent.
Anthony Hide: China Lake

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Until Today by Ralf Peters

When I asked Hatje Cantz for a review copy of Ralf Peters's Until Now I did so because I felt attracted to his photographs of petrol stations. I liked that they were framed in such a way that they seemed to stand alone out there in the nowhere, I also liked their colours, and I liked their sterility.

Since I'm not really a fan of photographs that were basically done on a computer screen (for that, to me, is painting and not photographing), I wondered why I felt drawn to these pics. In search for answers I started to read Renate Puvogel's "Towards an Aesthetic of Cycles?", a text that can be found in the book and from which I learned that Peters "works almost exclusively in series" and that his pictures "are already conceived as series when he takes them." Renate elaborates: "The series Petrol Stations is an instance of how Peters is constantly examining symptoms of the Zeitgeist. And the serial form is particularly suited to posing questions about the standardization of daily life, globalization, and the loss of identity. The sense that we have lost control over our lives, that they have been reduced to a kind of anonymity, repeatedly features in Peters's work."

While I do agree that "the serial form is particularly suited to posing questions about the standardization of daily life, globalization, and the loss of identity", I'm not really sure how this connects to a photograph of a petrol station that has been altered with the help of a computer. In other words, I fail to see how a willfully decontextualised and altered picture can be a symbol of the Zeitgeist. Moreover, "the sense that we have lost control over our lives, that they have been reduced to a kind of anonymity" did not really come to mind when I was looking at these petrol stations.

Nevertheless, there was an expression in Renate's text that I felt was capturing something essential in regards to these photographs. She writes of "this rather Hopperian theme" - solitude - that these photographs radiate and I guess that this is indeed what they convincingly illustrate.

Yet this tome not only shows petrol stations but also supermarkets, portraits by night, a series called men/women, and much more; in fact, the 198 works in this volume provide "an overview of all the artist's series from 1995 up to the present day."

The ones that I liked best are the airport series (Salta, Seoul, Sar) that show views seen through the reflective window panes (not an easy task at all) from the arrival hall. Again Renate Puvogel: "The composition makes one think immediately of the artists of Constructivism or De Stijl (despite the fact that Piet Mondrian, for example, generally avoided green). In this series it becomes particularly clear that although an individual can work by itself, a series is a better way of developing a basic idea." I couldn't agree more.

Ralf Peters
Ed. Bernhard Knaus
Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern 2010

Monday, 17 May 2010

Portuguese Impressions

Ten days ago, my flight from Faro to Geneva, due to volcanic ash, did not take off. The next Easyjet flight leaves a week from now, the lady at the airport counter told me and added that I would have more options in Lisbon - and so I took the next train and spent some unplanned days in the Portuguese capital, a stunningly beautiful city although pretty much in decay, as a German tourist aptly described it. This has to do with our bureaucracy, the receptionist of my hotel said: you need permissions for everything.

Hotel breakfasts are served from 7.30 hrs to 10.00 hrs. I thought this rather late and asked how they accommodated business people who surely had to start work early. Well, offices open at 9.00, I learned, dinner is between 21.00 and 22.00, and prime time televison starts at 22.30 hrs.

Most of my time I spent wandering around town and sitting in pastelarias drinking café com leite while observing people coming and going. Two scenes I remember particularly well:

A guy, in suit and tie, in his fifties or sixties, who upon entering immediately demanded loudly a brandy, waited impatiently at the bar, got it, and gulped it down - then he was ready for church (it was across the street and I saw him heading for the door).

A young man, dressed in a sports jacket, waited in a sandwich place until the employee preparing a fruit juice turned around, then took an orange from the pile and left while several people, including me, were watching him. When a young woman let the employee know what had just happened, he just shrugged.

There must be a nest of Africans near the Praça Rossio because at one end of the square lots of them are hanging out; the few women among them, some in wonderfully colourful dresses, are sitting on cardboards under trees chatting.

In Albufeira I spoke to an African who grew up in Zimbabwe until he was 18, from 18 to 30 he lived in London and for the last three years he was residing in the Algarve. Why the Algarve? It is the closest to Africa without physically being there, he explained: the trees are the same, and the flowers, and the blue sky; also, things usually take a lot of time and rarely work very well ... it's pretty much like in Africa but safer. Similar things I heard from a British woman who grew up in Kenya.

In Faro, I asked an older man for a taxi rank. He told me (in French - in the touristic South, but not in Lisbon, most of the people, when I addressed them in Portuguese, responded in English) to come with him to the house next door but the neighbour (a taxi driver) was not in.

One morning, I walked into a hairdresser's place. The place was empty, except for the woman at the reception. She showed me her schedule (that to me looked not exactly full) and said it is full today.

Later in the day, I asked a middle-aged woman for a taxi rank. You need to call a taxi, she said, do you have a cell phone? When I said no she took me to her nearby office where she asked her boss whether he could call a taxi for me. Her boss quite obviously thought this a rather peculiar question and instead showed me a taxi rank just a few meters away ...

Last but not least, in some supermarkets I found my treasured Guaraná, a soft drink I had thought would only be available in Brazil.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Frida Hyvönen by Anna Wahlgren

Frida Hyvönen @ Anna Wahlgren

I'm not always sure why I like a certain photograph. I react to photographs instinctively and then find reasons for my reaction. In other words, I interpret, I rationalise. Sometimes, however, I do not feel like rationalising my instinct. And this was the case with this pic of Frida Hyvönen by Anna Wahlgren that, after I first set eyes on it, made me want to look at it again and again. And while I did not, for once, want to guess (for this is what interpreting and rationalising really is - guessing), I did wonder how the photo came about, and so I asked Anna for some background. Here is what she wrote:

The photo was taken at a music festival in the south of Sweden called Siesta. At that time I worked for Sydsvenska Dagbladet and covered the festival. Frida Hyvönen is a Swedish musician with a very special style. Her music has a very personal tone with thoughtful and smart lyrics. You can listen to her music at myspace. During this festival I took many concert photos, something I enjoy but it can also become very stereotypical and boring sometimes. What I like the most is to capture a feeling of the music and expressions of the artist.

For more of Anna Wahlgren's photography, go to

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Mein weiser Narr

Im Februar 1986 erstand ich mir (zu der Zeit schrieb ich immer in die Bücher rein, wann ich sie gekauft hatte) Jacqueline C. Lairs und Walther H. Lechlers "Von mir aus nennt es Wahnsinn: Protokoll einer Heilung". Lair, die in Bozeman, Montana, lebt, hatte Alkoholprobleme und war medikamentenabhängig und suchte Hilfe beim Mediziner Walther H. Lechler in Bad Herrenalb im Schwarzwald. "Ich kann einfach keinen Grund sehen, weshalb ich lebe", schreibt sie und lernt bei Lechler, "dass man alles über Bord werfen muss, um das zu finden, was man braucht." Es ist ein Buch, das zu meinen intensivsten Leseerfahrungen überhaupt gehört.

Im Santiago Verlag sind nun unter dem Titel "Mein weiser Narr" Lairs "Nachgedanken an eine Therapie" erschienen. Es ist ein gelungener Text, weil er einen zum Nachdenken über Dinge bringt, die man in der Regel einfach zur Seite schiebt. Über Wut, zum Beispiel, die es, so der weise Narr Lechler, zu akzeptieren gilt: "... nimm einfach diese gewaltige Energie wahr, die sie auslöst ... man muss lernen, diese Energie und die innere Unruhe, die sie mit sich bringt, auf konstruktive Art und Weise auszudrücken, das ist alles."

Das Aussergewöhnliche an diesem Buch liegt darin, dass man erfährt, wie Lechler zu seinen Einsichten und Überzeugungen gekommen ist: er erzählt von Privatem und Schwierigem und lässt damit den Leser an seinem Leben teilhaben. "Ich war wütend auf das Leben, auf viele Menschen und überhaupt auf diese ganzen Lebensumstände. Ich war wütend, dass ich überhaupt geboren worden bin und deshalb eines Tages sterben muss. Ich fand das einfach unfair! Ich war auch wütend, weil meine Mutter so früh starb, also ich noch so klein war ... Auch heutzutage bin ich immer noch auf mich selbst wütend, wenn ich an alle die Versuche denke, meine innere Wut zu verleugnen und zu verdrängen, nur weil ich soviel Angst vor dieser Wut hatte ...".
Schon mal von einem Arzt oder Therapeuten derart Persönliches gehört? Ich nicht. Doch wozu soll das gut sein? Weil viele Alkoholiker und Drogenabhängige erst dann bereit sind, zuzuhören, wenn sie merken, dass da einer weiss, wovon er spricht. Aus eigener Erfahrung, nicht nur aus Büchern. Das meint nicht, dass man Alkoholiker sein muss, um Alkoholikern helfen zu können (Veterinäre wären sonst arbeitslos), das meint, dass Klienten/Patienten spüren müssen, dass emotionale Identifikation (einer der Schlüssel für eine Genesung) möglich ist.

"Den Weg über die Wiederentdeckung der Gefühle hielt sie (Jaqueline Lair) für zu einfach, für zu simpel, zu närrisch", liest man auf dem Schutzumschlag. In Gesprächen mit Lechler erfährt sie dann, dass dieser dem Intellekt, der meist als Instrument des Rationalisierens eingesetzt wird, skeptisch gegenüber steht: "... mehr als alles andere habe ich gelernt, intellektuellem Wissen, das gleichzeitig gefühllos ist, zu misstrauen", denn "all' dieses Verstehen und all' dieses Wissen haben mir nie meinen eigenen emotionellen Schmerz genommen. Die einzige Hilfe für mich war, diese verdammte, negative Art und Weise zu verändern, wie ich über mich selbst dachte. Und selbst das war nicht die ganz grosse Hilfe, wenn ich ehrlich sein soll. Was mir noch am ehesten geholfen hat, mich wohl zu fühlen, ist das simple Akzeptieren aller Höhen und Tiefen, die mein Leben so mit sich gebracht hat. Ich bin wie das Wetter da draussen, wie die Natur. Ich gehe durch meine Jahreszeiten und wenn ich einfach akzeptiere, welche Jahreszeit da gerade auf meinem Herzen liegt, dann kann ich mich damit abfinden und mich damit arrangieren. Ich musste lernen, den Versuch aufzugeben, aus einem grauen Wintertag ein Sommererlebnis zu machen - und zulassen und aushalten lernen, dass das manchmal wehtut."
Ich finde dies eine ganz wunderbare und hilfreiche Maxime, nicht nur für Alkoholiker, Drogenabhängie oder Depressive, sondern so recht eigentlich für alle.

Akzeptieren ist das Eine, Handeln das Andere und im Gegensatz zu den Therapien, die auf eine Verhaltensänderung durch Einsicht hoffen, schlägt Lechler den klassischen 12-Schritte-Grundsatz vor, dass richtiges Handeln zum richtigen Denken führen wird: "Du musst lernen, 'so zu tun als ob' - so zu tun, als ob du bereits wüsstest, wie man ein liebevolles Leben lebt, selbst, wenn du noch gar nicht daran glaubst. Denn irgendwann wird dieses Verhalten ein Teil von dir und dann kannst du wieder in vollem Umfang zu deinem Nutzen an der menschlichen Gemeinschaft teilhaben." Auch wenn ich vorbehaltslos zustimme, sprachlich (es handelt sich um eine Übersetzung) ist das schon ziemlich hölzern.

Was es auch noch braucht, um zu gesunden? Den Mut aufzubringen, gegen unsere Hauptsorge "Was sollen denn die Leute denken?" anzugehen. In Lechlers Worten: "Diese Spielregel hat mehr Menschen in einen Tiefschlaf versetzt und mehr Beziehungen ruiniert, als jede andere, die ich kenne."

Übrigens: "Von mir aus nennt es Wahnsinn" ist ebenfalls beim Santiago Verlag erhältlich.

Santiago Verlag
Joachim Duderstadt e.K.
Asperheide 88
D-47574 Goch

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Adrian Mole and the WMD

Remember the weapons of mass destruction and all the other lies that were used to justify the invasion of Iraq? I can't think of a better way to expose this tragic absurdity than the one employed by Sue Townsend in her novel "Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction":

Wisteria Walk
Ashby de la Zouch

Private and Confidential
The Right Honourable
Tony Blair, MP, QC Leicestershire
10 Downing Street
London SW1A

September 29th 2002

Dear Mr Blair

You may remember me – we met at a Norwegian Leather Industry reception at the House of Commons in 1999. Pandora Braithwaite, now the Junior Minister for Brownfield Regeneration, introduced us, and we had a brief conversation about the BBC during which I opined that the Corporation’s attitude towards provincial scriptwriters was disgraceful. Unfortunately, you were called away to attend to some urgent matter on the far side of the room.
I am writing to thank you for warning me about the imminent threat to Cyprus posed by Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction.
I had booked a week’s holiday in the Athena Apartments, Paphos, Cyprus, for the first week of November for me and my eldest son at a total cost of £571 plus airport tax. My personal travel advisor, Johnny Bond, of Latesun Ltd, demanded a deposit of £57.10, which I paid to him on September 23rd. Imagine my alarm when I turned on the television the next day and heard you telling the House of Commons that Saddam Hussein could attack Cyprus with his Weapons of Mass Destruction within forty-five minutes!
I immediately rang Johnny Bond and cancelled the holiday. (With only forty-five minutes’ warning, I could not risk being on the beach and out of earshot of a possible Foreign Office announcement.)
My problem is this, Mr. Blair. Latesun Ltd are refusing to refund my deposit unless I furnish them with proof that a) Saddam Hussein has a stockpile of Weapons of Mass Destruction b) that he can deploy them within forty-five minutes, and c) that they can reach Cyprus.
Johnny Bond who was, according to his colleagues, ‘away from his desk’ yesterday (I suspect that he was on the Stop the War march), has dared to question the truth of your statement to the House!
Would it be possible to send a handwritten note confirming the threat to Cyprus so that I can pass it on to Johnny Bond and therefore retrieve my deposit? I can ill afford to lose £57.10.

I remain, sir,
Adrian Mole

PS I wonder if you would ask your wife, Cherie, if she would agree to be the guest speaker at the Leicestershire and Rutland Creative Writing Group’s Literary Dinner on December 23rd this year. Will Self has turned us down – rather curtly, in fact. We don’t pay a fee or expenses but I think she would find us a lively and stimulating group.
Anyway, Mr Blair, keep up the good work.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Default-setting & choice

Here's an excerpt of one of my all-time favourite texts ever; it is from a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College.

By way of example, let's say it's an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired, and you're stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home -- you haven't had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job -- and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the workday, and the traffic's very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store's hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it's pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can't just get in and quickly out: You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store's crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough checkout lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can't take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn't fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid g-d-people.

Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious form of my default-setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just twenty stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks, and so on and so forth ... Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do -- except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to rush to the hospital, and he's in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am -- it is actually I who am in his way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Running around Lisbon

How do I get to the train station from here? I ask the guy at the reception of my hotel in downtown Lisbon. Where to? he asks back. Tunes, I let him know. OK, then it's Santa Apolonia, he says. And how do I get there? By metro.

In order to make sure, I ask the same question again the next day. This time another guy sits at the reception. He checks the timetable and says the train leaves from Entre Campos, then he says, no, it leaves from Campo Pequeno. Are we talking about the one that leaves at 13.30 hrs and arrives at 16.46 hrs? I inquire. That's the one, he says.

Two hours later, I take the metro to Campo Pequeno. On leaving the metro station I ask a middle-aged woman where the train station is. She answers in English. I usually don't mind when people want to practise their English with me but I'm not very keen on doing it when I have to catch a train. Besides: Although my Portuguese is far from fluent it was still about a hundred times better than the woman's English. Anyway, the woman is really kind and helpful and informs me that there is no train station at Campo Pequeno and that I probably will have a better chance at Jardim Zoologico or at Entre Campos, both very near from here. Where would I have the very best chance for trains to the South? I now ask. Definitely at Santa Apolonia, she says. When I eventually arrive at Santa Apolonia, the guy at the ticket counter tells me: Here's your ticket but the train won't leave from here, it will leave from Oriente. And how do I get there? By train. There is one in five minutes ... I started to run and just made it ...

The first stop after Oriente was at Entre Campos ...

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Clarice Lispector

Eu escrevo sem esperança de que o que eu escrevo altere qualquer coisa. Não altera em nada... Porque no fundo a gente não está querendo alterar as coisas. A gente está querendo desabrochar de um modo ou de outro ...
Clarice Lispector

Monday, 3 May 2010


Fabrizio Gatti, ein italienischer Journalist und, gemäss dem 'Nouvel Observateur', "der neue Wallraff des Journalismus", beschreibt in diesem grossartigen Buch, seine Reise als "Illegaler auf dem Weg nach Europa" (so der Untertitel dieser aufschlussreichen Reportage).

Immer mal wieder frage ich mich, wie Leute ohne Papiere es wohl aus Afrika in die Schweiz schaffen. Aus Reiseschilderungen von Asylbewerbern, von denen ich schon einige gehört habe, konnte ich mir noch nie ein wirkliches Bild machen - so hatte ich bisher überhaupt keine Ahnung, wie gefährlich das Durchqueren der Wüste ist - , Gatti hat nun diese Lücke gefüllt. Das Buch sollte Pflichtlektüre sein. Nicht nur für Leute, die sich mit Migration beschäftigen, sondern für alle, denn Gatti schildert eindrücklich den Lebens- und Überlebenskampf von Menschen, die nicht das Glück hatten, in materiell privilegierte Umstände hineingeboren zu werden.

Der Mensch hat die Welt geordnet, um sich darin nicht allzu verloren zu fühlen. Eine dieser menschlichen Ordnungsvorstellungen drückt sich in amtlichen Dokumenten aus. Praktisch heisst das, dass wer weder über eine Geburtsurkunde, eine Identitätskarte oder einen Reisepass verfügt, so recht eigentlich keine Rechte hat. So hält Gatti über einen Afrikaner, der gerade von Italien in sein Herkunftsland abgeschoben werden soll, fest: "Dabei fehlt ihm nur ein Stück Papier, damit er in Europa bleiben könnte: 25x15 cm, ein Lichtbild, ein bisschen Tinte, ein Stempel." Dass sowas wirklich entscheidend sein soll, ist jemandem, der sein Leben riskiert hat, um nach Europa zu gelangen, kaum zu vermitteln. Ehrlich gesagt: mir auch nicht.

Gatti hat es unternommen, von Dakar mit dem Flüchtlingsstrom über Niamey, Agadez und Dirkou nach Europa zu kommen. "Eine schwarze Rauchwolke verkündet, dass der Motor angelassen worden ist. Zweimal hupt der Fahrer. Man muss schnell hinrennen und sich wie ein Seemann beim Entern über die Bordwand hinaufschwingen. Der Lkw fährt los, obwohl es noch nicht alle Passagiere geschafft haben. Die letzten klammern sich an die Kanister und riskieren unter die Räder zu kommen. Jetzt ist es noch viel enger." Nicht nur, dass die Reise beschwerlich ist, die Reisenden werden auch von Polizisten und Soldaten (die selber wirtschaftlich alles andere als gut gestellt sind) nach Strich und Faden ausgenommen - es ist ein veritabler Höllentrip, den Gatti da schildert. Und dann sind da noch die Hauptverdiener, die Menschenschmuggler: "Endlich ist der Lastwagen voll. Mindestens hundertfünfzig Personen. Hundertfünfzig Tickets zu fünfundzwanzigtausend Francs macht drei Millionen siebenhundertfünfzigtausend Francs. Fast sechstausend Euro. Derjenige, der Achmed den schrottreifen Lkw abgekauft hat, hat die Unkosten schon herein. Mit einer einzigen Fahrt. Das ist, wie wenn eine Fluggesellschaft den Kauf eines Flugzeugs mit einem einzigen Flug abschreiben könnte. Doch die Einnahmen aus dem Menschenschmuggel haben im weltweiten Transportgewerbe nicht ihresgleichen."

Aus den Medien erfahren wir immer wieder von Flüchtlingen, die vor Lampedusa aus dem Meer gefischt wurden (von denen, die auf dem offenen Meer umkommen, hören wir selten), die Fernsehbilder zeigen uns dann jeweilen, wie den durchnässten Ankömmlingen Decken abgegeben werden, was wir jedoch nicht zu sehen kriegen, ist, wie die Geschichte dann weitergeht: "Auf dieser Insel hat Italien ein Internierungslager eröffnet, das bisher kein Aussenstehender ohne Voranmeldung betreten hat. Anwälte und Abgeordnete, ja sogar Vertreter der Vereinten Nationen müssen tagelang auf eine Genehmigung warten. Und wenn sie das Lager betreten, bekommen sie nur untadelige Verhältnisse zu sehen. Wenige Internierte. Saubere Schlafsäle. Reichlich Essen. Obwohl tagtäglich Boote landen. Was machen sie mit all denen, die dort eingesperrt sind?"

Als eine "erschütternde Odyssee von Millionen heimlichen Einwanderern" hat der "Corriere della Sera" Gattis "Bilal" treffend charakterisiert. Doch es ist mehr: es ist dringend nötige Aufklärung, da es nicht nur Schicksale aufzeigt, sondern Zusammenhänge deutlich macht ("Hier ist Zeit nicht Geld, sondern eine Dimension, die noch den Menschen gehorcht und nicht der Uhr ... die Komplizenschaft zwischen Heer, Polizei und der Menschenhändlermafia ..."). Zudem bringt es einen gelegentlich auch zum Lachen ("Ach mei, wenn wir unseren Humor nicht hätten", pflegte mein lieber Freund Wamse zu sagen): Als Gatti sich schwach und fiebrig fühlt und Malaria vermutet, sucht er in Agadez einen Arzt auf und sagt ihm, er habe Mefloquin dabei: "Mefloquin?" der Arzt runzelt die Stirn: "Das Mittel hat schwerste Nebenwirkungen. Wollen Sie in der Sahara Halluzinationen bekommen? Gegen Mefloquin entwickeln sich in ganz Afrika resistente Erregerstämme." "In Italien verschreiben die Ärzte Mefloquin." "Lassen sie das sein. Kaufen Sie in der Apotheke Artemisintabletten. Die Chinesen benutzen das Mittel seit dreitausend Jahren gegen Fieber. Kennen Sie es?" "Nein." "Es ist ein Pflanzenauszug aus dem Einjährigen Beifuss, der Artemisia annua. In China heisst er Qinghaosu." Der Arzt schreibt ihm ein Rezept auf den Namen Flagyl aus - es ist so ziemlich das einzige Medikament, das sie in der Apotheke haben. Der skeptische Gatti erkundigt sich per SMS bei einem befreundeten Apotheker in Italien, was es damit auf sich habe: "Flagyl gegen Vaginalinfektionen. Machst du eine Geschlechtsumwandlung?"

Fabrizio Gatti
Verlag Antje Kunstmann, München 2010

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Control & Surrender

I've just come across this fascinating interview with Brian Eno in the Guardian (28 April 2010). Here's an excerpt:

On one side of Eno's scale diagram, he writes "control"; on the other "surrender". "We've tended to dignify the controlling end of the spectrum," he says. "We have Nobel prizes for that end." His idea is that control is what we generally believe the greats – Shakespeare, Picasso, Einstein, Wagner – were about. Such people, the argument goes, controlled their chosen fields, working in isolation, never needing any creative input from others. As for surrender, that idea has become debased: it's come to mean what the rest of us do when confronted by a work of genius. "We've tended to think of the surrender end as a luxury, a nice thing you add to your life when you've done the serious work of getting a job, getting your pension sorted out. I'm saying that's all wrong."

He pauses, then asks: "I don't know if you've ever read much about the history of shipbuilding?" Not a word. "Old wooden ships had to be constantly caulked up because they leaked. When technology improved, and they could make stiffer ships because of a different way of holding boards together, they broke up. So they went back to making ships that didn't fit together properly, ships that had flexion. The best vessels surrendered: they allowed themselves to be moved by the circumstances.

"Control and surrender have to be kept in balance. That's what surfers do – take control of the situation, then be carried, then take control. In the last few thousand years, we've become incredibly adept technically. We've treasured the controlling part of ourselves and neglected the surrendering part." Eno considers all his recent art to be a rebuttal to this attitude. "I want to rethink surrender as an active verb," he says. "It's not just you being escapist; it's an active choice. I'm not saying we've got to stop being such controlling beings. I'm not saying we've got to be back-to-the-earth hippies. I'm saying something more complex."

For the full text go here