...hence the progress of european civilisation
I orientate my day by this riverside promenade, taking advantage of the abundance of trees and warungs selling iced juices, to play hide-and-go-seek with the sun. And this heat and this mugginess! It throbs and slows the senses, so my malay only returns slowly and sometimes as Arabic. It confuses everyone. Alexandria was also built by the water. I remember walking along the corniche blinded by the sun and the image of a crowd praying on a large blue straw mat at the bus stop, in simple humble unison. A fat arab, tanned red, bellyflops the Mediterranean in green bike shorts, pulling the fishing net in and prouncing around for the gathering crowds, his body a slobbery mass of folds and protusions. I was dizzy then, smoking too much argileh, eating too little and reading too much Camus. For three long days, existence became a blinding, swollen, naseau, with no Arabic to communicate, abstract thoughts took form and precedence to the world around me, until solitude manifested one afternoon as vomit in my third-rate hotels’ toilet. There i was bent over the toilet bowl, and out my window primary coloured boats traced thin arcs through the water's glare. And whether it came to me from across the mediteranean or from the collection of plays I had just finished reading, I heard voices. Said Caligula to Scipio: “Solitude! What do you know of it? Only the solitude of poets and weaklings. You prate of solitude but you don’t realize that one is never alone. Always we are attended by the same load of the future and the past.”
It were these lines that drew me to the waterfront and as I looked over the flat surface squinting for Greece across 3,000 years, I saw the fisherman splash in, his massive forearms floating like logs on the surface as he treaded water, conscious of our gaze. Here was pure being before my eyes sewn into everything, between sea and land, direct and fulfilling connections with community and work, the fat man caught fish and the others were fed by it, he made some money and felt some sort of worth, some sort of collective dependency on him. The red arab found himself in relation to others. Everything blended, thrusting on me a fullness my belly had not felt for weeks. And I realized that this, proud, persistent ‘I am…’ constantly trying to free itself and separate from being, at the very moment it achieves such a break forgets the source of separations importance. It self-sterilises - I needed community like the affected fisherman needed our gazes.
I opened my eyes to the humidity and the Sarawak river. I had walked maybe ten steps with my eyes closed and two young women, pretty like Chinese gymnasts, giggled in acknowledgement of my peculiar behaviour. They held hands as they passed, their eyes white in the clouds shadows.
I am reading Gogol between walks, and he creates a biting comedy of the tragic existence of nineteenth century Russian civil servants. He reduces them to quill sharpeners and paper-pushers drawing solidarity from the absurdity of their lives. But this time it is different, there is no swelling naseau. In Alexandria the Mediterranean cured me with my past, the history of my mother, the recognition of some of myself in cultural protocol, I felt solidarity bend and bow with the backs of those praying at the bus stop, I felt it stretch back through my family tree as generations of them played out their lives at various spots along the southern banks of the this salty blue sea. I felt the interconnectedness of the ‘I am…´with a ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘why’. There is a fullness to this. Here on the western tip of Borneo I feel only the presence of the future, as I stare across to the thickness of jungle. Conrad was completely wrong. Here in Malaysia, there is not the confrontation with some sort of inner, primitive self. There is no Europe stripped bare to its core, no laconic solitary sailors all enigma and dark hearts. There is only the future in the confrontation with the other, as a sense of possibility. If actions serve to reveal our image, then acting in the face of the other takes it a step further, as the relational dialogic allows both participants the possibility to change without the need for synthesis (no ‘…hence the progress of European civilization…’).
The wind began to swirl the rain loose from the leaves above. I had stopped again, leaning against the iron railing, watching the tiny little hut of the kampung conglomerate opn the far bank. The shift in weather meant it will rain soon. I waited, as a young boy approached. He was missing many teeth and the ones left were coated in a brownish film (Earlier I had walked past the Islamic cemetery next to Kucing’s biggest mosque, there the simple graves were marked with short pillars of wood and stone jutting out at every angle but the perpendicular, and all of them decaying and cancerous with moss. Now, his teeth reminded me of those graves of the pious.) He wore a shirt too big for his skinny frame. We talked, both of us distracted and gradually he became frustrated at my inability to notice that he wanted something from me. This young boy, slightly fidgety and perhaps too neurotic for his 13 years didn’t stop just so that we could compare our hungers, and no he had never read Gogol (though he got my demonstration of the absurd as I talked of the foibles of nineteenth century St Petersburg desk clarks while he rubbed his belly and rolled his eyes). In desperation he lifted his shirt and twisted his hip to reveal a gun cut crudely out of Styrofoam and tucked into the elastic of his pants. It stuck to his protruding bones, but he yanked it free and aimed it right between my eyes. I put my arms up and told him not to shoot, and then we laughed together, he a little hysterical as we suddenly remembered the rain which had already began to fall from both the sky and the trees. And he dashed ahead along the path, the gun held in both hands under his shirt. Occasionally, he would reveal it to the faces of Chinese gymnasts who pulled their umbrellas low over their vision, and quickened their pace. He hopped along, dancing from puddle to puddle until gradually he disappeared into the grayness of the rain and the river and I looked for a kedai kopi to wait out the downpour.
It is the ambiguity that sticks around. I kept searching for the boys form in the monsoonal curtain ahead, never wholly convinced that he wouldn’t re-appear. In the same way that the mountainous spine of Borneo disappeared and reappeared in the backdrop north-east of the city. When the sun burned it hung in distant mist and dark silhouette – the whole city felt luminious in comparison, and when the clouds gathered and the river shimmered it was gone the vista condensed into a one dimensional projection reaching only as far as the tangle of trees clinging to the rivers bank. I was left playing with this space between presence and absence, toying with the idea that there is real potential in this ambiguity.
By way of an afterthought: There is a short story written by Camus toward the end of his life. An artist, alone, paints and paints, becomes famous, loses the ability to paint as he becomes embroiled in debates and arguments with the town’s art scene, he marries and has kids. Years pass and he can’t paint the way he used to, he divides himself from his family, locks himself in his mezzanine above the living rooms and refuses to let anyone see his work - his last great painting. When he dies, they enter the mezzanine for the first time and see a single white canvass, blank except for one word scribbled in an illegible handwriting. So messy, in fact, that no one can make out if it says ‘solidarity’ or ‘solitary’. The critics love prioritizing one over the other, they say camus was an isolate who knew the power of solitude, or camus, when it came to a choice, chose solidarity and fought in the underground resistance to the Nazis. I am beginning to see the strength of the ambiguity not the dichotomy. Writing is undecidable, it lies between reality and imagination without ever being either/or.
‘Even if, militants in our lives, we speak in our work of desserts and of selflish love, the mere fact that our lives are militant causes a special tone of voiceto people, with men, that desert and love. I shall certainly not choos the moment when we are beginning to leave nihilism behind to stupidly deny the values of creation in favour of the values of humanity, or vice-versa. In my mind neither one is ever separated from the other and I measure the greatness of an artist (Moliere, Tolstoy, Melville) by the balance he managed to maintain between the two. Today under the pressure of events, we are obliged to transport that tension into our lives likewise. This is why so many artists, bending under the burden, take refuge in the ivory tower or, conversely, in the social church. But as for me, I see in both choices a like act of resignation. We must simultaneously serve suffering and beauty.’ –Albert Camus