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This is why I hate intellectuals

Month: November, 2018

An empty tomb

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You don’t remember the dead of the First World War.

Nobody does, now, or almost nobody. At most, you might remember the ones who survived. There’s a photo, hidden away somewhere, of great-grandad in his old army uniform, and if you look at it you might notice with a kind of sickly horror that he looks a bit like you did at that age, that you’re now already so much older than this old, old man. Maybe there’s a box with some old medals, or even a decommissioned revolver. Pieces of someone who died much later, surrounded by TV and pop music, dreaming the blanketing dreams of the nuclear bomb. Someone who lived to see a different country, one that throbbed in full colour. The hole left in the world by those bullets and shells and clouds of poison gas one hundred years ago was not left in your world, or mine either. The people who had their heart ripped out by a stranger on the Somme are almost impossibly rare; we drag them out into our televised ceremonies now, so everyone can see what a fully incomplete human being looks like, so they can do our remembering for us. Trembling, a few last strands of thin hair limp against a crusting pate: I still miss my Arthur every day, every day it’s like he’s just been taken from me. That’s what it means to really remember: to be a seeping wound in a world that’s been bandaged up and gauzed into blankness. For the rest of us, there’s GCSE history, supermarket Christmas adverts, an immersive experience at the Imperial War Museum. For you, the dead of the Western Front or Gallipoli may as well be the dead of Sevastopol, or Agincourt, or Hastings, or all the nameless battles fought by our hooting ancestors, brachiating grimly through the canopies. We have nothing in common with the millions who went whistling into a barbed-wire void. If we did, we’d be a little more like the ones who came back out again, the ones the war turned into madmen or revolutionaries.

We don’t have memory. We have remembrance. Organised hypomnesis; a set of stony symbols. We remember that we ought not to have forgotten. The past is on the tip of your tongue, but it can’t be spoken; any word that could have contained it is an empty tomb. Non est hic. What remains are signifiers, gnawing at each other’s heads. A poppy is a symbol; it symbolises the Cenotaph. The two minutes silence has meaning, it means a wreath. The flag is a code for the national anthem. None of these things mean the mud and terror of the war, or the millions dead, because none of that is an object in our experience. There’s no shared referent other than the ritual of reference itself: the objects of remembrance stand, mutely, for themselves. Forgetfulness, made concrete, and misnamed.

This isn’t bad or wrong: it’s just space and time. We are where we are. Today marks the end of four years of official commemoration, an attempt to hang the shadow of the Great War over our own century, to turn time into a palimpsest. These have been four very strange years. On June 23rd, 2016, we voted to leave the European Union; one hundred years ago that day, a million Germans surged over the frontlines at Verdun and overran the fort at Thiaumont, only to be pushed back over days and weeks to where they had been. Endless, uncountable thousands dead. On June 8th, 2017, the Tories threw away their parliamentary majority in an act of blinkered authoritarian arrogance, a century after the British army accidentally shelled its own lines, killing three hundred colonial troops. In June this year, one hundred years after two dozen German divisions plunged deep into France in a last desperate effort to end the war, Germaine Greer asked why Beyoncé has to ‘have her tits hanging out.’ There’s no symmetry. Trump is not the October revolution. Weinstein is not the Armenian genocide. It doesn’t map. It’s no more present than the wars going on now, the thousands dying in Syria and Yemen and across the world. What can we do for the people of the Middle East, starved or disintegrated by British bombs or British military expertise? Build another monument for them, put it up on the fourth plinth, and forget them into symbols.

There are still ways to make the past breathe again. Mostly, by digitally altering and colourising old Pathé newsreel, and putting it in 3D. The effect is impressive: it looks so much more real. The war is no longer fought by spindly, jerky automatons, low-resolution flesh-robots. Computers have generated the missing material in the gaps within movement, to bring the footage up to 24 fps, which is the flicker rate of consensus reality. Now these soldiers look like actual human beings, which is to say that they look like all the other cinema-screen simulacra. Now the propaganda of the early twentieth century can be raised back up in the fullness of its authenticity, because now it looks more like how we lie in the twenty-first.

Again, this isn’t bad or wrong. There was a time in which we could remember, in which the war was something other than the mud-caked origin myth of modernity, but now is no longer that time. There are other ways of remembering. We can remember in the present: I remember when I came out of the land of Egypt and the house of slavery, and – historically speaking, at least – that didn’t even happen; I can remember it in solidarity with those on the boats setting out across the Mediterranean, or those sleeping on the ground as their caravan twists slowly up over the Mexican plateau. We can remember the war the same way. We’ll never know the trenches, but when those that lived returned home, the fight didn’t end; so many of them, across Europe and across the world, took up the struggle against the ruling classes who had sent them there to die, and we can fight for life and dignity too. For obvious reasons, this is not the kind of remembrance we usually get.

What we get instead is a strange kind of rage. This year, and every year, the poppy wars. (Not unlike those other flower wars, fought between the Aztecs and their ritual enemies: both sides agree on a time and place, and neither seems to expect to actually win.) Who owns the past, now that it’s wordless and as transferable as any other debt? Is this year’s the most politicised Remembrance Sunday yet? Might Eid be getting more Islamic? Can we stop the commercialisation of Black Friday?

The anger of the poppy-scorners is fairly legible. Never Again, we were promised, but it keeps on happening; maybe we can sit in silent quietist remembrance once the war is actually over. The anger of the other side is thornier. A violent hatred for those who won’t wear the poppy, sing the national anthem, support the Legion, the ones who insult the memory of the dead by insisting that the war that killed them was Actually Bad. In other words, those that try to remember something specific, instead of remembering the process of being unable to remember. It can only be parsed as an externalised guilt. No, it’s not wrong or bad to not remember the dead of the First World War, it’s only distance and time – but the rituals of the state command memory, and there’s nothing in the memory to grasp. You have failed, because you’re living now instead of dying then; you’ve failed because you couldn’t stop one hundred years washing over the world that was. Seething indignation against the people who refuse to remember, because you, too, have forgotten.

This post is, once again, dedicated to those ten thousand soldiers who were killed in the six hours between the signing of the Armistice and its taking effect, one hundred years ago, who gave their lives so that schoolchildren could learn that the war ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

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There she goes

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

My closest friend died after a short illness on the 5th of October, 2018. She was twenty-seven years old.

Five years before that, I woke up one morning to find forty or so postcards wrapped up with elastic bands on my doorstep. Over the course of a Spanish holiday Anna had written to me dozens of times. Some messages were quite long, describing what she’d seen and what she thought of it. Others were extremely brief. (Tengo spinach in my teeth. A brownish smear across the cardboard. There it is.) A few were poems. On the back of a postcard showing a morose-looking nag in front of an empty buggy, she wrote:

Here is a horse in sepia.
He stands proudly, turgid with purpose
but blind.
The coachman is his compass, the tightening of reins
his guide.
“Why?” You ask. He is trapped by the spinning wheels of time.

I was deeply touched by all this kind and creative effort, and when Anna got back I told her so. She was profoundly disappointed. She hadn’t expected me to receive a heavy brick of postcards all at once: because she’d set them off haphazardly, two or three a day, she’d hoped that they’d arrive in the same way. She certainly hadn’t wanted me to enjoy them as sincerely and sentimentally as I did. They were meant to be a kind of benign harassment campaign; a slow daily drip-feed of banality and insanity that would eventually drive me to madness. If she’d known that I’d love them, she wouldn’t have bought so many stamps.

I dug out those postcards again recently. I don’t have much of hers. A few photos, some books, a t-shirt she bought me at Moscow airport featuring a stern and shirtless Vladimir Putin. And things like these: notes and messages, ephemera, incidental records of a life in a thousand pieces of strange genius.

It’s hard to say, now, what Anna was like without collapsing into barbarism. I started to get frustrated by some of the consolatory descriptions people would offer me – she was so unique, they’d say, she was so different, she was so vivacious, she had a real spark. These were, in the end, only ways of saying what she wasn’t, that she wasn’t dull. Weeks later, with someone who knew her as well as I did, and with no idea of what I could possibly begin to say, a provisional apophatic eulogy was drafted, going something like this:

Anna Reinelt was someone who wanted to leave the world a better place than she found it, and she achieved this through her innumerable acts of small and dutiful kindness. She touched the lives of everyone she met with her warmth, her charm, and her deep generosity. She was always there for her friends in times of need, a shoulder to cry on and a firm helping hand…

And so on. The joke was that she was nothing like that at all, and the description would have mortally offended her, but that’s not entirely true either. In the middle of October, some of Anna’s oldest friends came together at a pub in west London, and what struck me was that everyone there could say, without having to consider it for even a moment, that she was their closest friend. And this wasn’t through any connivance on her part; it was just that once she was there in your life nobody else could really match up. She really was the first person I’d go to in times of need. Not despite the fact that she’d respond to my crises by suggesting that I get a job at the zoo, mucking out the elephant enclosure, but because of it. That was why I’m far from the only person who’d fly across the world just to see her, wherever she was. And that world was a vastly better place for having her in it. Without her it’s diminished; it’s lost the incredible ability to know itself in new ways through her eyes.

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Anna was a photographer; she made films, wrote stories and screenplays. She was the last of the adventurers. She wanted to live out of a desert motel and paint strange landscapes nude on the forecourt. She wanted to live in Bangkok, or on a boat, or to take portraits of serial killers and gun owners. She loved pirate ships, dinosaurs, outer space, big musical numbers, tornadoes, lost cities in the Amazon, monsters in the oceans, utopias in the wastelands. She loved the things that fascinate children, when they first realise just how big and how impossible the world they’ve been born into really is; things too magnificent to be properly digested by the shrunken tastefulness of adulthood. She chased after her passions. Sometimes I’d get a photo of a dead bird perfectly preserved in salt on the shores of a dried-up sea, or a Texas thunderstorm, or dizzy jungles. She was the funniest person I’ve ever known, equal parts unfiltered obliviousness and sheer acid brilliance. Being in her presence was always giddying precipitous fun; even dismal hungover mornings were full of mania or apocalypse. She could break out in fits of terrible wisdom; she was the keenest and sharpest critic of my own writing; her judgement – on art, on cities, on people – was piercing, and carried heft.

Part of this was written to be read at her memorial service; part of it, obviously, was not. The thought of Anna’s funeral was unbearable – not because it was such a shockingly alien concept, but precisely because it wasn’t. She spoke a lot about death. She spoke a lot about her own funeral. She had plans. One idea was that if she died unmarried, she should have a wedding-themed funeral, buried in a white dress, pirouetted around for the first – and last – dance. She left instructions. On being sent an unflattering picture from the previous night: If I die before you I give my permission to use that photo at my funeral. “Anna was a delusional drunk with giant turnip hands.” Years ago, she asked me to write her obituary (Anna, I tried), and had me compose a funeral elegy. I came up with an obscene quatrain, and she made me promise to read it for her, against the screaming objections of her family if necessary. I didn’t. It wasn’t for anyone else.

Anna’s highest term of praise for someone was that they Got It. The nature of It was undefined but very much understood. It was the black joke at the heart of things, the absurdity and cruelty of existence, the senselessness of a world that killed her. To Get It meant that you could see that joke, follow it through to the punchline, and find it funny. That’s why it’s so hard to reckon with the facts: because the loss of her is so terrible, and so inhumanly unfair, and because if she could have outlived herself, she would find the whole thing – the rituals of grief, the sobriety of her own memorialisation, all the earnest mawkish statements like this one – to be utterly hilarious. She would, and if she were still here I would too. But she’s not, and I can’t. There’s no consolation in the fact that she would be laughing now. It’s only another thing to mourn.

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Anna was not only a friend, not only someone I loved. There are some people in life that you meet, get on with, hang around with, and drift away from, left with a few objects and a few memories, to moulder or fade away. There are others who cause you to realise, years later, that you’re not at all the same person that you were when you first met them. Their friendship has changed the language you speak, the way you behave, the angle in which you jam yourself into the world. They created you, as much as your own parents did. Anna was that person for me. This might be why losing her feels like being blinded, or having the words seared out of my mouth. A decade’s worth of jokes and thoughts and shared memories left dangling, reduced to private whimsy; a way of being with another person in which it’s no longer possible to be; a facet of myself that’s been smashed open. I lingered, for a long time, over the small and stupid things. When Anna and I spoke on the phone, our conversations could sometimes begin with a full five or ten minutes of us making strange croaking noises at each other. Or we’d repeat the names of the cities from Hiroshima Mon Amour. Hi. Ro. Shi. Ma. Nevers. That obscene funeral poem. Things which are gone, which no longer make sense.

We say of objects or people that they mean so much to us. There’s no point asking what exactly it is that’s meant. It’s a meaning without words, that’s only apparent in the dried-up words that remain after it’s gone. But it survives in the wordless things that will always, in some small and private way, be hers. Pirate ships and tornadoes. Sunlight and undergrowth, fire and the ocean.

But words are what I have. Some of this was written to be read aloud, and some of it was written just to have been written. In the days after Anna’s death I found myself thinking about something else, something that had happened weeks beforehand: how, during the Yom Kippur service in synagogue, we had prayed that our names might be written in the Book of Life. (Years ago, Anna had insisted on coming to my brother’s barmitzvah service, because it would be cultural. She did not enjoy the experience: apparently, I hadn’t warned her that it would be three hours long, and none of it in English.) I thought a lot about the irrevocability of time, how the present moment sometimes stops spinning in wheels and opens up like a sinkhole beneath us, to swallow everything solid and leave us with only memories. Somewhere, everything that happened must be written down for eternity. There has to be a recording angel, there has to be a Book of Life, so that what has been doesn’t simply pass away. I felt the desperate urge to write it all. How once, in Prague, her shoes started falling apart and her feet started stinking, and she fixed it by stopping at a park bench to smear her toes in toothpaste; how I dragged her halfway across the city to see the world’s largest equestrian statue, and how it started pouring with rain as soon as we discovered that the thing was covered in scaffolding. Or how, when we were living together in our last year of university and had gone entirely mad from the final few days of dissertation-writing, Anna decided to inflate a plastic bag and put it on her head, with a scrunched-up receipt bouncing around inside. Wait, she said, I know what it needs. She disappeared into the kitchen, and came back holding a knife. Now it’s perfect, she announced. Kate – our compadre and third flatmate – and I armed ourselves with empty wine bottles to fend her off. Or later, the three of us in Brighton on a miserable blank grey morning beach, belting out the lyrics to Blink-182’s I Miss You in a yowling chorus of Californian vowels. Demented songs in New Orleans, manatees in Tokyo. Or the hospital, the last days of hope, the unreality of it all. All this needed to be indexed, every living detail.

But if there is such a book, none of us can read it, and I can’t reproduce it here. All I have are a few scraps torn from its pages. Photos, messages, and postcards. On one side a horse, on the other side a poem. And for a moment she’s in the sunshine again, not here, but not so far away, writing to me, and guffawing loud as she imagines how annoyed I’ll be.

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