Outrage

‘Stupidity,’ Sedartis thunders, ‘is the enemy. Stupidity is the outrage: the crime!’ Here is that word again. ‘Perpetrated not by the stupid, they may never have learnt—never have had a chance to learn—not to be so; no, it’s the chief crime of your society. As long as you allow stupidity not just to exist, but to flourish in your midst; as long as you cultivate, nurture, elevate and celebrate it, you deserve everything you get.’

I feel chastened; Sedartis is on a roll: ‘You talk of equality. You talk of democracy and a fairer society. And yet you blind yourselves to the evil that trumps all: you lull your masses into ignorance and then keep them there. Because you’re selfish, egotistical, greedy and lazy, you “give the people what they want,” which you keep telling them is soft porn mush and their own supposed “reality.” You invite them to be abysmally stupid on your television shows and think you’re doing them a favour because they recognise themselves: you make stupidity the norm, and condemn aspiration to intellect as a pretentious frivolity. You dismiss intellect itself as an irrelevance, knowing full well that without intellect you wouldn’t be here where you are, in your privileged position. You keep your people stupid because that’s how you keep yourselves aloft and rich; you fear them, and you dread what they should do if ever they latched on to how you enslave them.’

There is a pause. It doesn’t last. ‘You feed them what scraps they already know, and shore up their prejudices; you belittle intelligence as “too clever by half”—how can you even hold on to an expression like that?—and smirk at anyone who thinks in public. How can you have built a civilisation in which not only one percent own more than half of all material wealth, but another one percent at most are really schooled in handling knowledge, when you know that knowledge is power.’

That’s a crass exaggeration, and unlike Sedartis, I want to protest.

‘All right, so that may be a crass exaggeration, I concede: you educate more people now, in absolute terms as well as relative, than ever before, but you’ve had so much time to make so much more progress than you have, you should be embarrassed that so many of you are still struggling so much.’

That, I find hard to argue with. Is knowledge power, still, though?

‘Thinking,’ he thinks at me, ‘is an exertion, yes. That does not absolve us from it. So is walking, yet walk we must, otherwise we grow fat, stale and lethargic. Brushing is a pain, but you do it, even if reluctantly, to hold on to your teeth. Life is not convenient, no matter how successful we are at making it so. So even if it hurts: use your brain. It will shrivel, shrink and stink if you don’t.’

Stink? I can tell how angry he is. ‘I am not angry, my friend’—Sedartis hears me well before I speak—‘I am outraged. I am outraged at the stupidity you allow on this planet. At the casual simplicity you cast over everything, and at the way you make do. At the quick quote soundbite approach you have taken to politics. The commercial current that runs through your culture. The inoffensiveness of your art. The soft sell in your science. The infantilisation of your discourse. You constantly ask: what is the simple story, what the three-act moral narrative. Because you are too torpid to connect the dots for yourselves. You open your mouths, crying, “feed me!” – You’ve regressed into infancy, and you wallow in your own incapacity. You suckle the nipple of light entertainment, and if you do wean yourselves off it, you go on to sugary bottled “fun,” and then you wonder why your metaphorical teeth are all rotten, and you’re incapable even of crunching an apple: you’ve become toothless, grown-up-but-refused-to-grow-up, idiot babes. You have lost sophistication, elegance and wit. You shun the strain of inquiry, and you moan and moan and moan.

‘Like the whiny brat in the stroller whom you have elevated to a tiny emperor and given permission to terrorise your existence, you yourself throw your toys out of your pram and expect someone else to bend down and pick them up for you. Everything is somebody’s fault. It’s the government’s fault. It’s the neighbours’ fault. It’s the immigrants’ fault. It’s anybody else’s fault but yours. Have you listened to yourselves? You are a disgrace to your species, the way you behave, and you know it, but you will stone me for saying so to your face.’

I am stunned. I have never experienced Sedartis like this. I’m a little afraid. And in awe.   

He senses my discomfort, my fear. He calms down: ‘Species. That in itself is too simple, too categorical. I know you need simplicity, you need categories. But look at yourselves from a distance, or look at yourselves close up: you are so near to your nearest cousins that you can barely tell yourselves apart. Yet you think you are a majestic, exclusive achievement. You are nothing of the sort, you are simply first on your planet, and alone in your solar system. But there are so many solar systems in so many galaxies, you need not fear of finding yourselves alone: this universe, as well as any other, is teeming with life.

‘Your problem is not your position, not your location, not your intelligence: your problem is your perspective. Your nearest cousins, the dolphins, the bonobos, they may be a few hundred thousand years, maybe a few million years behind you on their evolutionary path, but that doesn’t make them categorically different. It just makes them slower at something you can take no credit for. What you can take credit for is this: your culture. What you do with your advantage. And that is why your stupidity is unacceptable now. At one point, in the not so distant past, you were just like the great apes, scavenging for food, fighting each other for primacy over your females, thinking of nothing other than preserving, projecting, your genes. Slowly, gradually, you emerged from the dullness of your existence and you became conscious, intelligent beings.

‘How dare you not use your intelligence? You will get there, of course; you will reach your next level, as every other life form reaches its own. You will merge with your inventions, you will make yourselves immortal. You will begin to populate other worlds, if nothing else as a hybrid of human and human-made machine. That is all very well. But choose how you get there. The pain that you’re causing yourselves and your fellow creatures on earth is excruciating, when you already have the means to not inflict it at all. All you have to do is use your intelligence and learn that you are not the thing that matters, you are part of the thing that matters, and that is enough.’

‘What is the thing that matters?’ I ask Sedartis.

He remains silent. He remains silent for a long, long time, and we sit together watching the squirrels and the birds, and imagining the bonobos and the dolphins and the cows and the lions and the beautiful, but a little clumsy, giraffes.

I take his silence to mean, ‘I don’t know either,’ and it saddens me that he doesn’t know either, but I know he doesn’t know either, and I wonder does anyone know, anyone in the multiverse of infinite universes at all, or are we all just a part of it, unknowing but yearning to understand, and failing but trying and playing our part.

‘It doesn’t matter, you see,’ says Sedartis. And now I can really hear him. ‘It doesn’t matter at all. All that matters is that you make the most of it. Whatever it is that you can. That is all that actually matters, because you have no control over anything else.

‘You can’t control when you are born. To whom. Where. You can’t know why. You can’t dictate the terms of your existence, but you can take them and deal with them well. And by dealing with them well, you may alter them. Whatever is given, you don’t have to take just as it is. What you do have to do is make the most of it. And you really have to make the most of it. You really have to not take no for an answer, you really have to probe deeper and go further and demand of yourself more. Because if you don’t, somebody will. And they may not understand what you understand. But you understand what I understand, and that is how we are connected, how we are part of it all, how there is a greater scheme of things, and how our moment here is tiny, but we can, must, make it magnificent.’


< Query       Plea >


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Query

‘Absolutely.’

Sedartis seems to nod at me now. I find it disconcerting. And not in the least reassuring, not yet, not now.

‘The reason you absolutely need artificial intelligence is that organic humans are so very bad at retaining information or passing it down their generations. Each newborn sets out in a quarter century just to acquire the basics, and then spends another quarter century to become a master at anything. That’s with ambition. Without, you just linger. Yes, this has qualities all of its own and makes people quaint and charming, but incredibly wasteful too. The fact alone that after twenty thousand years of civilisation you still grapple with war, famine, ignorance, murder, violence, religion, all these things that we always talk about and that are so completely unnecessary, shows how inadequate human intelligence is on its own.

‘But let me reiterate, for it is so fundamental: don’t think of artificial intelligence as alien to you. There lies your conceptual hurdle that, sooner or later, you’ll have to take: you are the intelligence you give birth to; it is not separate from you, you are it and it is you. It may yet overtake you and render you, the way you are now, obsolete, but think not of this as your failure, think of it as success: you may be no more than the conduit, the bridge. Would that matter? To you, today, maybe. To your universe, in the fullness of its time? Not a bit. So why not make the most of it? Celebrate both what you are and what you can be: let it pass through you, be the best species you can imagine. If you imagine it fully, that is not what you are today.

‘If you accept that you are one among billions of conscious intelligent life forms pursuing an evolutionary path, you become both vanishingly small and insignificant, of course, but also, in the same vein and by the same definition, exquisite, privileged, amazing. Embrace your own individual uniqueness, cherish your beauty, love your capacity for kindness, and know it is but part of the All it emerged from and path to the All that it leads to. It is easy. Be not afraid.’

I detect a biblical flavour now in his thoughts and it troubles me. But I allow myself to think it is better to be open minded and troubled than to close myself off in safety, in this sense of security I know to be false. Horses are given blinkers to wear so they don’t spook, but they are slaves to their riders, and may still be butchered at last. That cannot be my purpose. My task, Sedartis reminds me daily now, is surely to open my eyes. To take it all in. To be part of it all. And if it scares me. And if it puzzles, troubles, disconcerts me. And if it inspires me, overwhelms me with awe and with wonder. We are on so potent a cusp.

‘I make no predictions,’ Sedartis offers, as an afterthought. I know no longer what comes after, what before. What is thought, what the cluster dust of nebulas sprayed across time. But then it matters not. Of course, there can be no predictions. There can only be stories. There can be only presence, in a consciousness that beyond the boundaries lies calm across the mind. Why, though, I wonder, is this Here here, this Now now?

Sedartis smiles at me in the way I now recognise. I like him for this, although (or because?) he provokes me:

‘Why do you need a reason?’


< Design       Outrage >


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Design

Sedartis thinks we are far from doomed as a species. That, he makes me understand, is the good news. The bad news, as far as he is concerned, is that we are hopelessly inefficient. We evolve, but reluctantly so, and so slowly. He makes me feel this is my personal responsibility, and in a way it is: we have some ten, twenty, thirty thousand years of civilisation behind us, and we still allow ourselves to be stuck in our ‘from zero’ troubles: the wars, the bloodshed, the struggle for survival, the hunger, the despair, the fighting each other over trivial issues and slices of land, the ideological battles, the religious zeal, the blind and wilful stupidity.

The blind and wilful stupidity. That, above all, is a crime. Sedartis doesn’t mince words when he thinks his essential thoughts:

‘Stupidity is a crime.’ Not, he hastens to add—aware and fearful in equal measure that this part of his thought may get lost, and he now forever be misunderstood—‘not,’ he emphasises, ‘not the crime of the stupid. You cannot blame the people who are imprisoned in an unevolved mind for being stupid. The responsibility for allowing the perpetuation of lethal stupidity—the kind of stupidity that leads someone to speak of “deplorables,” which is undiplomatic, but contains an essence of truth—lies with the educated and the informed much more than with the trapped; the leaders much more than the followers. Unless you’ve been given a taste for learning and an insight into what insight opens you up to, you cannot —not unless you’re exceptional—rescue yourself from stupidity. Dullness of mind begets dullness of mind, enlightenment enlightens, it has ever been thus.

‘But,’ Sedartis continues, with a note of concern that troubles me just as much as his observation: ‘your problem is not that you don’t have wisdom: you have it in spades.’ I like the way he uses the word ‘spades’ in the context of ‘wisdom.’ It seems incongruous and grounded both at the same time. ‘Your problem is that it reaches nowhere near far enough fast enough, and you allow the majority of your species to treat it with disdain. You grow entire generations in whom nine out of ten individuals don’t ever entertain any notion of wisdom; don’t even know what it means, let alone recognise it as something that might just be worth aspiring to.’

I realise this is true. And sad. Who even uses the word ‘wisdom’ and doesn’t inwardly smirk? Have we lost, entirely, the way of the wise?…

‘Your problem is that you have to keep starting from scratch. Every human born has the potential to be wise and enlightened, gentle and kind; generous, strong, humane and embracing of human nature as well as of nature itself, though evolved from the baseline of simple survival. And yet only a fraction reach their potential.

‘Never even mind your developing nations, the poverty stricken and the destitute—why are they poverty stricken, still, why, after all this time, after so many centuries of science, of progress, technology, wealth, are they still destitute, why?—never even mind these (and they are your responsibility too), but your most advanced societies, your richest and best connected: you still allow half of their populations to get to the point only where they can barely fend for themselves; where they still feel they have to fend for themselves. How is such a thing possible?’

His inflexion tells me that this is no rhetorical question. It beggars belief, I know, and I wonder. Often. And I know Sedartis thinks me these thoughts in response to my puzzlement at where we are.

‘Your problem is you keep having to start from scratch.’ I appreciate the nuance. ‘Every single individual specimen of your species is born with an empty brain. It’s a beautiful thing, this potential, this clean slate, this Innocence Innate; and you think of it as inherently human, because it is.’

I believe it is. This Innocence Innate: it is inherently human. Could we love our children, if it weren’t so?

‘It’s also incredibly inefficient.’ This, I fear, may be more bad news. Sedartis thinks not, he thinks it a challenge, he wants to convince me that this is not a good thing nor is it a bad thing either, it is just a thing, and one we need to embrace:

‘If you want to advance to the next level, if you want to take your next major leap, you are going to have to do something you may think of—paradoxically—as inconceivable, but that will become as normal to you as walking upright and speaking in sentences has become normal to you now: become hybrid. With your own invention, information technology. It is part of you already, you created it: far from being separate from or alien to you, it is you. Augmented intelligence. You’re already augmenting your physical capability all the time, you’re building body parts, you’re transplanting at will, you’ll be printing organs ere long. You shy away very briefly before you embrace the advantages of a body that works, and overcome any squeamishness you may have about manipulating what you were given by nature. Your next step, unless you want to stay stuck in this repetition of ‘from zero’ learning—which entails all your quirky, adorable failings—is to tap your brains into the network and allow new generations to start from a base above zero.’

That, I instinctively shudder, is surely wildly problematic. ‘Indeed,’ thinks Sedartis, ‘it is. Your ethical challenges have just gone exponential. You have a task on your hands; there is no way around it, because this is as inescapable as reading glasses or pacemakers were at their time, and you’ve quite readily got used to them too; but this is a step of a different magnitude, and, beyond magnitude, of a different kind altogether: you will have to think about what you want your species to be. You have to actually, consciously, define what it is to be human.

‘Shudder you may, and recoil for a moment, but then you have to get over yourself and grasp this nettle like all the others you’ve grasped, and take your people with you. Allow not half of you to be left behind and become the servants—the, dare I say, slaves—of those who push forward. Allow not your species to be torn apart into two, three tiers with some going all the way, and some being left stranded, and some unable, unwilling or unallowed to proceed, simply because they do not understand. If they understand and choose different, that is another matter. But help them at least understand. You’re on the brink of a development that will set the tone for the next few hundred, maybe few thousand years of your species. Do this well: you have everything riding on it.’

Do this well…


< The Silk Road       Query >


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{The Silk Road}

How did I get here? To this point where, Sedartis by my side, I find myself gazing out of moving trains, over picturesque lakes, wondering ‘how did I get here?’ This is a change of mode, this pondering. Is it my midlife? Is this my crisis? If so, it is mild in the extreme.

Contradictions in terms. My overall state is snug, within myself. My friends, my family. I live to love not to loathe, so I tell myself, and so I feel; and so, I largely, modestly, believe, I do. I anger slowly, try to forgive fast. I sense the present, now much more than I used to; I used to ache for the future, and be in it too. I may just have caught up with myself, and that is the keenest source of surprise: hello, here I am. How did I get here…

The route my father took. From Thalwil where he was working for a textile company making specialist threads and yarns, I believe (not silk, as such, it’s more of a metaphor, this…), to Manchester where I was born, to Goldach where I have my first faint memories of a long balcony and Aldo our dog, to Arlesheim where I went to kindergarten, and Basel where, from Arlesheim, I commuted to school, then Münchenstein where I finished school and made friends I love to this day, to London where I’m at home.

(Or does it start with Berlin, whence my grandmother left at the age of eighteen, crossing into Switzerland and to Zürich, where she met my grandfather. That may be the preamble: there’s a separate story here, and it’s beautiful, but it needs to be told elsewhere.)

The question perhaps is not ‘how did I get here,’ the question perhaps is simply, what next: whither wilt thou, now thou art here? Not geographically speaking, of course, geography matters less and less; I am at home in London, but I can be, and be happy, almost anywhere, as long as I’m warm, have access to food now and then, and my laptop at hand with power to last, and a decent network connection.

I find myself sitting next to a beautiful woman called Karmen, spelt with a K, at a film festival in northern Italy, and she asks me what my next project is. I list four that I consider ‘current.’ It strikes me that this may be a lot. Then again, I have always conducted my journey along multiple tracks. Even when I decide to just concentrate on the one thing, my curious mind and my eagerness to experience tend to open up another avenue soon. I am fine with that too.

It may be that the journey that follows many roads is bound to go on many detours and therefore takes longer to reach any kind of destination, but then: what is the destination? Is there one? Ought there to be one, even, or is it not much more, as many say and everyone knows, the trip alone that truly matters.

As I talk to Karmen and tell her what I’m up to right now, and what I expect to do in the very foreseeable future, I realise that everything I have done and written and directed and made and learnt so far has been, most likely, not much more than the apprenticeship, because I sense, so I tell her, because I do, that the real task, the real challenge, the real mountain to climb and the real work, lies just ahead.

We’re in the chink of an exponential curve that is about to go virtually vertical, and this means we’ll not only have new stories to tell, we’ll want, we’ll need, whole new ways of telling these stories, and to make sense of them. Serious Story Telling that counts, as my philosopher friend—not Sedartis, a friend of mine who is a real, bona fide, professional, academic philosopher—puts it.

I never get bored, I tell Karmen, because—as I have a feeling I’ve mentioned  before—if you watch paint dry close up enough, it’s actually riveting. But what I’m really most excited, most thrilled, most ecstatic about is that we’re on the verge of understanding ourselves and how we’re connected completely afresh. That the dimensions that hitherto have been considered effectively spiritual and esoteric are coming in touch with the principles of quantum mechanics, and we’ll find, so I’m sure, that we can explain in scientific terms things that until less than a generation ago we thought either unfathomable or simply hokum. They will turn out to be neither.

‘Look at me now and here I am,’ I say to myself once again in the words of Gertrude, and I take a sip of the wine that fills me with a glow of happiness. These people, these good souls, this world that we live in, these paths that we choose or think we choose, these connections we make and that make us.

I’m in the right place, at the right time. I may not know it yet, but I sense it, for sure.


< Value       Design >


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Value

‘The concept of “making money,”’ Sedartis postulates gravely—and wonders is it largely, in character, in origin even, American, although it has now so widely, so almost universally, it appears, so comprehensively at any rate, on our little planet, been adopted—‘is not only flawed,’ (all concepts are flawed, he points out: it is inherent in human thinking that it cannot be flawless), ‘but fundamentally, principally wrong.’

I am glad to hear this, though I can’t be certain entirely why.

‘Nobody makes money, even the National Bank or the Federal Reserve or the Bank of England, or any bank anywhere in the world does not “make” money, and nor does any business, nor does any person, nor does any entity ever really “make” money, unless you are thinking of the actual physical process of printing notes or minting coins, but that, as we know, is not “making money” either, that is merely manufacturing its representation; in fact, nobody “makes money,” ever.’

I’m inclined to agree, and instinctively it makes sense to me what Sedartis is thinking, though I haven’t thought it through myself, and I wonder if Sedartis really has, or if he’s just doing so now on the hop, because he finds himself once again sitting next to me on a train.

I like the way Sedartis takes his seat next to me, mostly on trains, occasionally on a bench by a lakeside, rarely though, if ever, on planes, and never so far that I am aware of on a bus, or indeed in a cab.

‘Money is not “made,” it is simply invented and agreed upon in a compact between people, and then moved from one place to another, either physically (as notes and coins or cheques or other pieces of paper or some such material as may be deemed in this compact practical and acceptable) or virtually (as data), and no matter which way this happens, it is always symbolic: money is nothing other than an abstraction of “value,” and that in itself makes it inherently problematic because how, pray, do you define “value” and, more to the point, how do you keep sight of your values when the abstraction of value, money, becomes so prominent in your culture that you perceive it as a “value” of and in itself?’

I have no immediate answer to this. Sedartis is not expecting me to:

‘And so, not for moral or political or ethical reasons, though possibly for these also, but first and foremost for logical reasons, any economy that is predicated on the idea of “making money,” and any culture that embraces this idea as of value of and in itself, is not only flawed (as any human economy always will be), but fundamentally, principally wrong.

‘Whereas the moment we stop thinking of “making money,” and start thinking instead of “creating value,” for which, in one form or another, money may (or may not) serve as an instrument, as a lubricant, so to speak, as a convenient communication tool of quantifiable entities, such, as, and where they exist, no less and certainly no more, as soon as we do this, we can begin to aspire to wish to become able to consider ourselves an advanced society.’

I like it when Sedartis uses the first person plural as he thinks to me. It makes me feel we’re in this together, somehow, though somehow I’m almost certain we’re not; or rather, we most likely are, but not at the level, and not in the way, that is obvious, but in a deeper, more meaningful, more universal sense; and in that sense almost certainly we absolutely are in this together. Are we not one?…

‘Creating value,’ Sedartis expounds, ‘is no narrow concept, it applies, of course, but not only, to making things and inventing technology and imagining art, and it equally applies to providing a service, to accomplishing a task, to building a place, or exploring a thought, in such a way that it is of some value to someone somewhere sometime, even if that value cannot necessarily at the point of its inception be recognised or defined or possibly even imagined.’

That makes sense to me and strikes me as almost stating the obvious, just a bit. Is it?

‘Thus, being a good waiter is creating value much in the way that being a good cleaner is creating value, as being a good musician is creating value, as designing a good app is creating value, as singing and recording a good song is creating value.’

Who can decide, I wonder—who can determine—whether something is ‘good’?

‘Nobody can decide or determine, of course, what is “good,” at least not in the simple, undifferentiated terms we lazily espouse. Yes, you can agree on “good practice,” or define standards, but is a waiter who is slow and a little clumsy but extremely attentive and friendly and charming and perhaps a little flirtatious—just enough to send an exquisite tingle down your spine each time he tops up your glass of Prosecco—any less good a waiter than one who is super efficient but essentially dead behind the eyes and just does what he has accepted as his lot or his duty for the time being? Who can say what good writing is? Or good art. Or good music. Or good anything. Nobody can, it’s almost entirely a question of taste and the prevailing consensus: the current culture.

‘But what you can say, because you know when you see it and when you come across it and when you experience it—all of which is the same, I’m only emphasising the point, perhaps unnecessarily—is whether somebody does what they’re doing to the best of their ability, and whether they seek to make that ability in the longer term greater, or whether what they do is perfunctory, or indeed—and that is by some margin the worst “motivation” anyone could think of—they are only doing it to “make money.”’

I think along, and as far as I can, I sense I concur.

‘Ask not, therefore, how you can “make money,” ask how you can create value. Expect not to be valued by money, expect that the value you create is honoured.’

I’m about to interject an inconsequential and certainly not fully formed but broadly approving thought of mine own but Sedartis is not yet done:

‘Honouring value is not a narrow concept either: value can be honoured, also, but not only, in terms of money; it can be honoured in appreciation; in kind, in gratitude, in a return gesture or service, in goods, in opportunity, in experience.’

Certainly it can. That, too, though, I reckon, is hardly new…

‘It is not, of course, new. It only is sometimes—too often—forgotten. Because it means by necessity that if you are doing something that does not create value but diminishes it—for example producing and selling shoddy “goods” that make people angry because they’re not good and not fit for purpose, or taking advantage of somebody’s situation and appropriating, quite apart from their money, more of their time, their mind, their emotion than you deserve, in return for giving them less than they need, or providing any type of “service” that does not live up to its name, let alone its promise—then you have to stop doing so immediately: you’re not “making money,” you’re taking away value under false pretences or, perhaps innocently, feeding your incompetence off their gullibility. Either way, rather than creating value and enriching the world, you deceive yourself into believing that you can enrich yourself as you destroy value and diminish the world. You unbalance the universe. And the universe, in the long term, will not be unbalanced.’

We are nearly at our destination, I forget what it is. Sedartis seems much better now, his thoughts thus afloat, thus released, thus engendered. He inwardly smiles.


< Theory       {The Silk Road} >


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Theory

Sedartis sits and thinks for me, slowly: ‘Let me posit that there is no conspiracy.’

Where did you get your name from? I wonder. I don’t ask; I know it will become apparent. He composes himself. He has sageness about him. He reads my mind, listens to it, more like; feels it.

‘I went for a wander,’ he thinks back to me, ‘along a little lake. Little compared to the big lakes where I come from.’ Where do you come from, I long to know; he stays tuned to my thoughts and replies, without words, ‘the other worlds are many, while the same worlds are few. Of course you cannot know where I am from, even though you do.’ I am content with this, for the time being, and so he continues:

‘I do not know whether there are any conspiracies, or whether there are not, and if there are, who is within them, and who is without. There may be some; there may be many. There may be none. But let me posit that there are none: let me imagine that what looks like people consciously, actively coming together to conspire is in fact no more, and no less, than a culture.’

A culture, I think, is a conspiracy.

‘Exactly. Let me posit that the conspiracy is no more—and certainly no less, which is more grave—than a culture. A culture is a conspiracy. It could be benign, it could be malicious, it is most likely something in-between; it may have, at the outset, no obvious value attached to it: but consider’—Sedartis is now thinking harder—‘the good, the bad, and the ugly: are they truly, are they in themselves, are they actually good, bad, or ugly?’

What of Mephisto, I think, less insistent than he does, is he not “ein Teil von jener Kraft, die stets das Böse will, und stets das Gute schafft.”

‘Exactly.’ Sedartis understands me perfectly: he wills me to think the thought further; penetrate it deeper. I struggle. I get so easily distracted these days… ‘Consider people who do terrible things: murder children. Shoot boys and men. Rape women, girls, and boys and men. Devise gas chambers. Throw youths off buildings.’

My heart feels a hollow pounding: I don’t want to consider people who do terrible things; can’t we consider friendly people, people who may yet be friends, though perhaps they have not met? Are we to consider the worst that people do? Why? Sedartis thinks yes, now we must.

‘Consider people who do terrible things for some reason or other. Consider how in every single way they are exactly the same as you, or your neighbour, or your friend Jason, except in what they are doing at this particular time. Why do you find it so hard not to think of the other as other? Because it is exactly the same as you. The thought of it is horrendous, frightening. Of course it is true and you have to, you have to concede, though you don’t want to, that you could be that person, you too could be doing these things, you too are them as much as they are you, you are not separate, you own their horrendousness, and they own your love, and that’s what’s so hard not to be destroyed by: the worst thing that a human being is capable of any human being is capable of, including you; and it overshadows, for a period, in our eyes, the realisation, the hope, the belief, the truth—is it not a truth? say it is the truth—that this self-same man, that identical woman, the person who is doing the worst thing imaginable, is in the very same vein also capable of the noblest deed any human being has ever accomplished. The paradox. The infuriating, numbing, devastating realisation that the man who crushes the skull of a newborn under his boot is the same as the man who lays down his life so a stranger may live. It is not your nature to be one or the other, it is only and only your culture.’

But we are not victims.

‘No, you are not victims, not of your culture, you are the makers of your culture; that is the call: to stand up, to be tall, to accede to the duty of generating a signal, of being a voice in the wilderness, of saying: “No. Not in my name.” Of saying, “no, not in my name,” when terrible acts are being committed; and of being first to hold up your hand and your head and say: “I am here, count me in,” when noble deeds are done, difficult though they be. That is the choice: the choice is not between being born good or bad or potent or weak or ill or well or noble or savage, the choice is simply the culture you want to create.’

Sedartis falls silent. The thinking has quite exhausted him. I want him to stay by my side. His presence feels comforting now and serene. So much have I longed for his presence, comforting, sage and serene.

‘Let me posit that there is no conspiracy,’ Sedartis thinks slowly, in the way only he can, without saying the words: ‘let me assert that instead there is culture. And that the culture there is is the world as it is when we’re in it, and that being in it we are part of and therefore responsible for that culture.

‘And when we give up our hope and say: “that’s just the way it is,” then we have already lost, we have failed, we have yielded in resignation to the bad things that happen, and when we throw up our hands in despair and say: “that is them, they are like this that do these things, they are other,” then we have not understood who we are, not grasped that we are what we see happening around us, that we own every last bit of cruelty, just as we exult every grand act of mercy; and if we say: “they are powerful that have made the world such as it is, but I am weak,” then we give away what power we have, and we empower those that we scorn for wielding their power against us; and if we think, they are evil that hold this power, we forget that we would have this power if we hadn’t so feebly, so faintly, so frivolously surrendered it.

‘What is power, and what is it for: it is the potency to shape the world; and what shapes the world that we happen to live in: culture. Let me posit that there is no conspiracy, there are not categories of people; that there are not those who are good and those who are bad and those who are ugly, nor are there those who are different (nor are they, for that matter, indifferent: they are simply non-different: the same); there is your human conscience, and there is the culture that you create in the world you inhabit.’

What world do you inhabit, I wonder, and think to myself, I could do with an ice cream now.

‘So could I.’


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Practice

Sedartis looks at me sadly. ‘How is it,’ he demands to know, ‘that this man is asking for money?’ I shrug, a little impatient:

‘He doesn’t have any and needs some to buy food or alcohol or cigarettes or drugs or whatever it happens to be that he wants.’

‘Yes I can see that.’

I fear this conversation is going to go some obvious place about social injustice and the unfair distribution of wealth and the absence of life chances for someone like this man, who isn’t young, and who isn’t old, and who isn’t distinct in any particular way, other than perhaps that at this moment he has just asked me for money—for change, more precisely, which is materially less, yet symbolically so much more—and that I have given him some (money only, not meaningful change), partly because I for once happened to have some on me, partly because I felt unease at walking past a human being in need of some charity without offering it in the presence of Sedartis, and partly because I forever and always look at people about me who are skidding on the edge of existence and think the ‘there, but for the grace of god, go I’ thought, not because I have a faith or a belief or a god I can readily defer to, but because ‘god’ to me seems as good a shorthand for ‘chance,’ or ‘luck,’ or ‘circumstance,’ or ‘the way the universe has momentarily aligned itself,’ or any combination of these, as any.

‘What I need to understand,’ I get from Sedartis, ‘is how do you make it so in your world that there are those who have money and keep it and then have to—reluctantly, more often than willingly—give it away, or bestow it, and there are those who do not have it, or at any rate not enough, and they have to beg for it, or steal it, or at the very least work for it; and how do you make it so in your world that purely having money makes that money increase, whereas purely not having money makes obtaining any much harder: surely, but surely it would be much better the other way round: what is money other than a “promise to pay,” but how do you pay, if not in deed?

‘You cannot pay a person in money: that is just another promise, but the longer that promise is held out and not kept, the weaker it surely becomes, not through ill will, necessarily, but through the depreciation of any hold that a thing or a person can have over anything or anyone else over time.

‘So if today I promise to marry you tomorrow, and I marry you not tomorrow, and I marry you not for another day and another, and then not for a week and a month and a year and another year and another; and then five, maybe ten years pass: my promise to marry you becomes weaker and weaker, surely, not because by necessity my intention has diminished—my intention may still be lasting and good—but think of the potential lovers I meet, think of the glances I exchange; think of the buses in front of which I cross the street, think of the tall trees I walk under: the chances, the probability, of my being able to marry you ever decreases, not through wrongdoing, but because the bond between me and the words I have spoken and the thing or the person that they pertain to gets intermingled with bonds that pertain to other persons or objects, through other words that I speak or things that I do.’

Sedartis is approaching the nub of his question, I sense:

‘So how is it that in your world you decree that money should increase over time: how most extraordinarily ludicrous an idea, which makes people do with money the opposite of what money is supposed to be for: money is there to circulate as an ever-weaving pattern of promises that are quickly exchanged and kept and renewed and newly directed. You give me a loaf of bread, I give you this promise that I or someone else will soon give you something in exchange for your bread that is worth as much as your bread, no less and no more, for example some honey. This can only be good and proper if the promise is called in soon. If you then stash away this promise because you know that in doing so it will become greater, then you withdraw from circulation all incentive for somebody else to garner the honey that goes with your bread. See you not this is so? Money surely, but surely should only ever decline in value over time, so that nobody has any reason to hold on to any of it, but everybody has every reason to constantly keep it in circulation, because that is all it is good for, nothing more, nothing less.’

I have no answer to this—except a tentative ‘inflation?’ which is easily deflected—but I try to reason, as best I can: ‘Well, people, they like to save up for a rainy day, or for their retirement, say: if you didn’t pay interest on savings, or if you had no return on investments, then people, when they are old, would have no pensions and no savings and would end up on the street, like our friendly young beggar just then.’

‘He was not friendly, or young.’

I was trying to adopt a whimsical disposition. With Sedartis, this fails.

‘Why would old people not have a pension, and why would they need savings: are you not, as a community, capable of looking after your old and your sick and your needy? Have you not developed the means to gather from each to their ability a contribution to the welfare of all?’

‘We have; we have a complex system of benefits and pensions and tax credits, and then we have private pensions and health insurance and life insurance and obviously also investments and savings.’

‘Do away with investments and savings,’ implores Sedartis: ‘they are what distorts your presence today, they are the root of your immense poverty.’

‘We are not that poor, as a country, for example, or as a society, we do rather well; although there are of course inequalities…’

‘You are destitute. You are deprived because you lose, by and by, all sense of worth and all sense of purpose and all sense of care and all sense of freedom and all sense of joy and all sense of being.’

‘But we are highly evolved, and connected; we have ever increasing levels of literacy and make rapid progress in science and medicine, and although our population is growing, we still cater for larger proportions of it better each year: we do not fare badly, though granted, perfect we’re not.’

‘Oh yes,’ Sedartis concedes at last: ‘you have the potential to be magnificent.’ I am glad to hear him now thus, but: ‘but you waste way too much of it way too much of the time. You do not realise your potential.’


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