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 – to be less 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, although I have no answer. Sedartis does not expect me to: ‘You talk about inequality. You talk about democracy and a fairer society. And yet you blind yourselves to the evil that trumps all: you lull your masses into stupidity 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 an 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 they ever they latched on to how they were enslaved by you.’

I sense a pause. It doesn’t last. ‘You feed them what they already know and shore up their prejudices, you belittle intelligence as “too clever by half” and smirk at anyone who thinks in public. (How can you even hold on to an expression like that?) 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 schooled in handling knowledge, when you know that knowledge is power.’

Is knowledge power, still? ‘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. Flossing is a pain, but we do it, even if reluctantly, to hold on to our gums. 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.’

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 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. You constantly ask: what is the story, what is the narrative. Because you are too lazy 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 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’ve elevated to a tiny emperor and allow to terrorise your existence, you yourself throw your toys out of your pram and expect somebody else to bend down and pick them up for you and hand them back to you. Everything is somebody’s fault. It’s the government’s fault. It’s the neighbours’ fault. It’s the immigrant’s 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 close 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 in their development. But that doesn’t make them categorically different. It just makes them slower at something you can not take credit for. What you can take credit for is this: your culture. That’s 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 it 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.’

∞² Revival

I resolve to dive in. Not the water – that’s way too cold for me, this time of year, early summer, just after the solstice and before the sea has been warmed by long days in the sun – but into the experience of it all. There, inside the experience, may lie a clue. If not a clue, then perhaps an insight, a truth. It could be random, it could be real. My research has yielded nothing. I have spoken to cafe owners and life guards; to beach goers and hut holders. To dog walkers (where they’re allowed, the dogs) and to joggers. Hoteliers, I spoke to, two of them. And two police officers, one a young woman, the other a young man, both attractive, both friendly, both clueless as to the origin of this tradition that is still, after all, fairly new; but a tradition nonetheless. Age has no bearing on the soul of a matter, be that a culture, a person, a people, a place: roots burrow deep, far deeper, we know, than the living thing that we see may suggest.

Everybody, of course, has a story to tell. Most of them charming, some of them harrowing, all of them sad, in a way. I’m surprised to find that is so. No matter who I talk to, and for how long, there is always, always a moment of sadness. How did I miss that, in my perception, and for so long? How sadness seeps through the seasons, irrespective of who you are. Here, many remember, with a scarred sense of fondness for how it all brought them together, the Solstice Spectacle several years ago now, when two youths had set fire to almost all of the beach huts along the seafront in the most brazen, most wanton, act of arson anyone could recall. Nobody refers to it now, as some ‘newspapers’ did at the time, as a ‘massacre’; and few people, though the sadness over the girls does prevail, the twins, who’d perished, aged five, having been put to bed in one of the larger huts, while the parents were sharing a rare moment of intimacy, just outside, in the twinkling night of summery stars, are weighed down now by sorrow.

So into each other, so absorbed by their bodies, the parents were at that time, that they didn’t notice the bangs, or the heat, or the flames from the beach in the distance at first, or the smoke: they took it for fireworks in the sky, for being at one with each other for the first time in ages; and the chain lit up so quickly, by the time the Calor gas bottle exploded and they’d rushed back to their hut, just a few yards, a few steps really, no more, it was way too late. The devastation still registers in the young mother’s eyes; the young father holding her hands, as they sit, outside their new hut, overlooking the sea. They are no longer young now, these two, but they do have a son and a daughter, aged twelve and fourteen. They are not happy, but they’re content. And they have no anger now in their hearts, and no hate. Then, they did, they tell me, they wanted them dead, the two youths who had done this to them, who had taken their daughters. Now? Now they feel a kind of resignation, and calm. Life is like that. ‘Life is like that,’ the young father, no longer young now (maybe a little young, still), but proud of his son whom he shows me a picture of, after he’s shown me one of the twins, and before he shows me one of his daughter too, ‘life goes on; has to, really.’ The young mother, who I know, although she doesn’t tell me, feels guilty for having left the girls in the hut while stealing, for the first time in weeks, maybe months, a bit of time just with her man, to enjoy, to inhale, to taste and to have him, in the freedom of the seaside air and after the long struggles for daily survival, in and out of the sun, smiles a wan smile of undying regret. She could have saved them, her eyes – though they be adorned by kind lines after all – tell me, pleading for my forgiveness. I have no need, nor do I have any gift of forgiveness for her, it has nothing whatever to do with me: I only feel love for these people, and thank them their honesty and their trust. ‘Thing is, we couldn’t have saved them,’ her husband, squeezing her hands, so in tune he senses her anguish without needing to ask any question, tells me: ‘it was just too quick. When this kind of catastrophe strikes you down you have to, if you can, just get up again. Kids die in accidents. In a car crash. If we’d been lying there with them, and had fallen asleep, we’d both be dead too?’ His voice inflexes a question. The doubt. The ‘catastrophe’. It sounds a little incongruent now, but true. Maybe he wants to be sure, more sure than he is. Who can blame them. I salute them, I wander on.

‘Boscombe & Bournemouth has had its fair share of tragedy,’ the old lady tells me, ‘maybe more than.’ She sits further down the beach, in front of her own hut, that is hidden a little, tucked away behind a bit of a bluff, and she nods at me sagely. I expect her to go on, but she doesn’t. There’s something in my memory that I can’t recall that makes me think that I know what she’s talking about, but the look that she gives me suggests that the time isn’t right. And so I don’t ask, and she doesn’t tell. Some things are best left unspoken. Yet for a while. 

And so I take the plunge. The Boscombe & Bournemouth Nude Beach Stroll. I have never been naked in public. I’m innately shy. People don’t think so, they think I am confident, bold even. I’m not. It’s the last Sunday in June and I’m curious: will it happen. And how? The weather is glorious, hot: more than thirty degrees. I shower, smear sun cream all over my body, wear shorts and a shirt and flip-flops; the near compulsory hat, and the shades, and head out. It’s just gone lunch time and I expect to be disappointed. For a while it looks like I might be; and then, suddenly, unnoticeably almost at first, then more and more obviously and quite naturally, it happens. Here a naked person, another one there. A couple, a group, some talking, some smiling, without exception all sunning themselves and their bodies in the luxurious heat, they are strolling along the beach. As I get there, they are vastly outnumbered by clothed people, but the clothed people don’t bat an eyelid, with the exception perhaps of the odd tourist. I am on my own and I don’t know how to do this now, where should I stop to undress? I feel lost, I must look it, too. I need not fret, it turns out. A big burly man with a lot of hair on his chest and a belly protruding far over a very small penis beams at me baring the broadest of grins: ‘you look just like someone who’s come to stroll in the nude.’ For the duration of half a thought I want to say, ‘sorry? Who? Me? Oh no, don’t worry about me, I’m just looking for a place to buy ice cream.’ But his friend smiles at me too and I like her for that. She’s generous, kind. Their mutual friend, I assume, seems to be thinking about something, but he too gives me a nod of encouragement, and so I say: ‘Yes. I am.’

‘I hope you’re wearing sunscreen?’ the big man, who steadies my arm as I step out of my shorts asks me, and his friend cocks his head a little as if to comment, not strictly approving, but not dismissing either, my soft cotton trunks. I take them off too. And the shirt, and I put them all in a little backpack I’ve brought along for this purpose, and I step back into my flip-flops and put on my hat and say: ‘thank you. My name is Sebastian.’ We shake hands and they tell me their names and I put on my shades and we stroll.

78 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 entirely certain 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 digital 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 “value” of itself?’

I have no immediate answer to that. 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 will always 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 that we can begin to aspire to wish to become able to consider ourselves an advanced society.’

I like the way Sedartis uses the first person plural when 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 can not 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 a delicious tingle down your spine each time he tops up your glass of rosé, any less good a waiter than one who is super efficient but essentially dead behind the eyes and just doing 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 – 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 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 making and selling something shoddy that will make people angry because it is not fit for purpose, or taking advantage of somebody’s situation and taking more of their time, their mind, their emotion, their being, than you deserve, in return for less than they need – then stop doing that immediately: you’re not “making money”, you’re taking from somebody 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.

109809803459080138948908093049693049609349601346940384 Theory

Sedartis sits and speaks to me slowly.

‘Let me posit that there is no conspiracy.’

Where did you get your name from? I wonder. I don’t ask. 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 that, 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 sincerely, 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, think 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 yet met? Are we to consider the worst that people do? Why? Sedartis thinks yes.

‘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 me or our neighbour or our friend Jason, except in what they are doing at this particular time. Why do we find it so hard not to think of the other as other? Because it is exactly the same as us. 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 any human being is capable of, any human being is capable of; and it overshadows, for a time, for a period, in our eyes, the realisation, the hope, the belief, the truth that – is it not a truth? say it is the truth – that they, this self-same man, that identical woman, the person that 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 our nature to be one or the other it is only and only our culture.’

But we are not victims.

‘No we are not victims, not of our culture, we are the makers of our 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 our hand and our head and say: I am here, count me in, when noble deeds are done. 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 the culture we want to create.’

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

‘Let me posit that there is no conspiracy,’ Sedartis speaks slowly, ‘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: this is just the way it is, 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 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 scold for wielding their power against us; and if we think they are evil that hold this power, we forget that we would have 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 you live in: culture. Let me posit that there is no conspiracy, there are not categories of people, there are not those that are good and those that are bad and those that are ugly, nor are there those that are different, nor are they indifferent, there is your human conscience and there is the culture that we create.’

Now I would like an ice cream.

‘So would I.’