Fascism and Self-Care #3

Continued from the last post

Slowing it Down and Doing Your Thinking With Your Hands

Bohumil Hrabal once wrote, in Amor and Psyche (1952) “We unlocked Europe in Prague, in Libeň”. A week or two ago, I walked back from a Libeň Hrabal would not recognise and would struggle to love, to Stromovka Park and then Bubeneč with Woodstock, a friend, dita, and the two dogs, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, she has been regularly sitting. On the way to the ferry that has replaced the footbridge that collapsed a couple of days ago, I saw a kayak slalom on the side of the river. It had been drained and beneath the vertical metal tubes draped from the wires running over the river to make the gates the normally submerged solid blocks used to create eddies and rapids in the flow were visible. These gates, and the whole artificial concrete channel alongside the river, seem to me now to symbolise what passes for thought and conversation in the age of surveillance whose rapids we are descending through. Yes, some handful of adepts can master the strokes and wield their paddle skillfully, recovering with an “eskimo roll” when they make an error, but if you the gates you are navigating have been set up for you, then the route you take through it – if you should do so successfully – is more or less all determined.

I came to smoking a pipe a number of ways. By something I read from Tony Benn years ago about how, though he does not drink, a pipe has been a comfort. By an utterly revealing interview I read with the pipe smoker, George Simenon, in a collection of Paris Review interviews the other day. Via the recollections I have of an essay I once read by William Styron on cigarette smoking, but, crucially, specifically cigarette smoking. It came on as something of a compulsion and I found myself, perhaps on a day I had something of a hangover, going to a shop by Naměstí míru to buy a pipe I could barely afford and, from there, and just as Christmas silly season and its many confected duties of consumption was piling on the pressure and stress, buggering about trying to light the thing while walking back to Národní divadlo through an area of the city I used to know and love when I was really finding my feet in my own little appartment in Vršovice by Bohemians football club. It was on account of that air of compulsion about all this that I would later feel defeated and “autistic” and would trigger a handful of those cerebral auto-immune responses I have where I curse myself for a hundred failings including an incapacity to handle money. But in truth this was not so much a compulsion as something that had bubbled up over a number of months, returning periodically with recollections of, for example, Jaffa, a guy who used to work on the steel in the West Midlands when that was a thing, who had been a bouncer and a Hell's Angel, and who I had worked alongside in a forest in the West Midlands with young adults with what the bureaucrats call “special educational needs”. He used to smoke a pipe as he was handling his chainsaw. What did he used to do there? Falconry for one, but then also bow making and archery, which we will get onto in a minute though it has been with us from the very beginning of my day as we will see. The forest, defunded now, and its artificial skansen-like interdependent craftspeople and routines of woodland maintenance, cooking on a log burning stove, pottery, blacksmithing, charcoal making and the simple act of sharing toast and tea around an open fire, did a great deal for those vulnerable people. Jaffa is now struggling to make a living in Wales working a chainsaw in the Age of Austerity David Cameron inaugurated before he shafted the whole country, condemning it to fall apart in a fit of self-sabotage and various mutual loathing and buggered off to put “his trotters up”.

Rolling a cigarette or a joint involves something in the way of manual dexterity and that, as many a smoker will tell you, is one of the most addictive things about it. Smoking a pipe is more sensorial still. The pipe must be prepared, which is something of a process, and one involving at least something of that essential and too-often overlooked interaction between the hands and the brain; essential, that is, to thought, not merely to some second-order good like the craft of making a bow, one which might be refined, that is, rendered more efficient, by cutting out much of the skill and substituting plastics. William Styron shows precisely what the shift to cigarettes did in the way of sterilising and rationalising an activity which, though it has been the number one all-round winner of all things that have been sold on the FTSE 100 in its history, is, whatever way you look at it, utterly irrational. You walk with a pipe and reflect for a while. You bugger about with it and nurse it. You feel the heat from its bowl in your hand, or you may feel its stubborn refusal to catch. And then you savour the taste and sensation (though you may well be told you stink) rather than inhaling it “deep into [your] lungs with bladelike, rhythmic savagery”.

I went through a brief period of thinking of the pipe as a failure, a capitulation to a needless need of the kind capitalism throws up for us all the time, but I have more or less by now figured that the pipe may be a way of smoking less, since I have been smoking of late and using marijuana more than meditation and the like to try to handle the industrial mental pollution of our current age, or equally, it could be a habit I take up, which gives me routines of mental digestion. Either way, it doesn't seem to hurt and the bigger picture is this feeling one's way back into the senses and getting further away from the equally bladelike, rhythmic savagery of the gestures and addictive more-is-more stimulation of what we have built up as the current winner in the winner-takes-all of the FTSE and the Dow Jones Index: that ubiquitous evil, surveillance capitalism again for the most part, but more generally the way we interact with the world through our screens and ear buds.

Anyway, I was around the park with the statues to forgotten heroes of the forgotten and long-lost South American independence struggle when Woodstock rang. This park, with its statues of Simón Bolívar, Benito Juárez, and Bernardo O'Higgins had been one of the influences as I was thinking over Marginálie, the conceptual precursor of the forthcoming reboot of the web zine; below the bust of Juárez, one of his quotes, one worth reflecting on these days: “Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace”. Typically I would go for a walk without my non-smart phone but I had had it to speak to her father. I said I was trying to puzzle through my day. I had archery in the evening over on Střelecký ostrov, which is near to my office at her friend's place, but could equally travel by tram from home in the evening. All of which is fine but that there was no food at home. At the disused Bubeneč station where I walk by sometimes watching the freight trains go by, I had texted her suggesting we go for a meal in the evening after archery. She would not make it to archery, she said, as has been typical of late. And so she suggests we go for lunch. I'm getting better but sometimes I need a little help getting my day straight – I am autistic after all and these things matter – and this sounded just about right. I head back home, pack the shoes, shoe lace, and padlock I need for archery in the evening (the shoe lace is placed around the bow, tied to thumb and forefinger of the bow hand to train one not to grasp it), pack up my laptop, charger and oversized headphones, and head back out.

Reading Lao Tsu

I took delivery of two copies of Lao Tsu's Tao Te Ching maybe three weeks ago and have been travelling with one or both ever since. I first read the book in a Czech composite translation compiled by a non-Chinese speaker with rather heavy-handed annotations back in 2014. I had come to it via Bohumil Hrabal who had written almost all of his life outside of the considerations of the market whose distortions Simenon discusses in his interview in The Paris Review. I know it must be two or three weeks before this Friday 13th because, fortuitously, Woodstock picked it up at the Post Office on a Friday and brought it to me in a tea house ran by an English guy not far away. I had chosen to start my day with a tea house because I have been approaching archery in part through what I have picked up of zen buddhism and taoism, my having read about archery and its connection to zen in Zen and the Ways by Trevor Leggett back when I was living in a Buddhist Meditation Centre in North Wales, the last place I lived in Britain. I find that the longer I spend trying to slow down and be in my body through cooking and baking and walking and reading, the more able I am to shut out everything but the target while I am shooting. While this may be bullshit or all in the mind, I suspect it isn't quite – the “mindset”, for want of a better word, of archery is closer to what people think is the mindset of yoga than yoga itself as it is most often practiced judging by the classes I have been to where I have therefore often been disappointed – and then besides everything is more or less all in the mind from a certain perspective so if it works it works. Fridays now for the last few weeks, have been all about closing in on this mindset as you may close in on a target. I can feel the weeks where I get all of this right – with the right balance of yoga, good posture, cooking, baking, using and being in my body, and slowing down my mind – and though as a beginner that is not the main determiner of the success of a given session (the problems and the knots in the grain of my shooting tend to skip from, say, my shoulders, to one or the other of my hands, and an adjustment of one element of posture can throw one I had began to nail the session before) but there again if I hadn't got it straight it might be. In any case archery, being on a Friday evening, had been exceptional for helping me to slow down from the frenetic pace of the working week digesting concepts of liberty, Europe, democracy, the limits of free speech, surveillance capitalism, value pluralism, and fascism alongside the skills requisite for web development.

The Tao Te Ching was important this last Friday not only because of the above but because, to return to the theme we have forgotten about largely because the work is all about forgetting about it, it was going to be important for me, if I were not to waste months to existential crisis, to forget or at least contextualise the election in terms of the genuinely timeless, something I have got from Bohumil Hrabal and from his Lao Tsu.

I was describing some of this with a couple of friends in Nusle a couple of weeks back. I had travelled there with my two copies of the Tao Te Ching, one translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English with Toinette Lippe and the other a version by Ursula K Le Guin which I was to lend out and have missed since. Sadly for me, we had been talking about Jordan Peterson, an eddy in the polluted class VI waters running down to us from the sluices at Google, Amazon, and Facebook. I have come across Peterson, who is certainly impressed by himself. I have seen fan boys label videos of him “destroying” female journalists. My friend is impressed by him, if not for this reason. I say I'm not going to devote time and attention on him because everything that is trending is subjected to what I called lensing. Even if it were the case (I was being very generous here, granting a possibility I do not in reality give much credence), that Peterson is on to something, I said there was almost no chance of my getting anything from it because of this lensing that takes place with trending topics, where money and power and influence are used to manipulate our opinions of the things everybody is talking about.

More on that another time, no doubt, but as I opened my copy of Gia-Fu Feng's Tao Te Ching on the number 26 heading to Dlouhá třída, the intention was to use this text, a version of a text that is two and a half thousand years old, to get a kind of a bearing. This text is time worn and proven both in our own era (Toinette Lippe tells the story of how she came to edit the work in 1971) and in all of those that preceded it up to that imprecise bookend where Lao Tsu whoever he was or was not, first wrote it sometime between the 4th and 6th century BC.

I have a talent for scepticism. Many a bible reading, almost all homilies I have experienced, perhaps all but a fraction of one per cent of newspaper columns throw up something I find it hard to metabolise. A good edition of the Tao Te Ching seldom throws up a passage that triggers my usual antibodies in this way. Instead, there tend to be passages I puzzle over, wondering if they hold wisdom or only tricksy koan-like paradoxes which, though they may throw us out of the arbitrary convictions of our age and experiences, do not replace them with anything coherent. Of course, this was a day of reeping a harvest of crops grown up on neonicotinoids and the humanure of some tens of millions of kebab munchers and some few hundred gourmands with a penchant for Russian beluga caviar. I didn't struggle with it as such, but, though it was pure, I felt myself off balance. I did not fully believe it was enough.

Give up ingenuity, renounce profit And bandits and thieves will disappear

There are many threads of ruminations Lao Tsu can set me off on relating to Hrabal and his short twentieth century, the possibility of my working on a vineyard, consumerism, gentrification, and capitalism. Ursula K Le Guin, who astutely tells the reader to ignore her annotations if they get in the way, follows one key passage with the note “so much for capitalism”. The essence of the thing is in the passage above and the following:

Ever desireless, one can see the mystery Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations

Boris Johson, that self-styled Great Man of History, is a manifestation. I got that much, at least. So I get off at Dlouhá some ten, fifteen minutes later and there are Christmas decorations everywhere and the streets are busy. I see around me all of the nonsense I frankly despise about contemporary capital cities and, on the short walk to the restaurant, I'm getting notifications pinging up in my mind relating to all of the miscellaneous crap I still have to do to be on top of things. Woodstock has been wrapping countless parcels full of trinkets for friends. Her friend, who I work with throughout the day, has recently published a Christmas book on Minimalism and has been going on morning television to talk about how to have minimalist Christmas. Good luck with that. I have twelve hundred tasks listed in a multiplicity of org-mode files to get to the point I can finally launch an ambitious media project optimised for ethics more than the exigencies of the market. I have brake fade going into every corner and I'm aware how hard it's going to be not to slam into the back of the safety car when it pulls out on me, and I've been reading Lao Tsu with his leitmotif that “Precious things lead us astray” while seeing all the Masaratis and BMWs and motorbikes in the garage at Dita's place in Libeň some few hundred metres from where Hrabal lived his beatnik in an old blacksmith's forge. I want to push on with my project to do my thing to fight fascism, and also to finally find a way to use my talents and temperament to find a role for myself in this world at the age of 41 as I will be in a few days' time. Winter is coming. Christmas is a mindblock I don't need.

I get to the restaurant, a Korean place we used to go to a lot. I ring Woodstock who says she's going to be late. After lunch I will have little enough time to work and whatever Lao Tsu said in the fourth or sixth century B.C. about doing without doing, he doesn't count on the time and motion bastards condemning Amazon workers to death by dehydration and the way things go at the current moment where we are on the one hand obliged to fill our lives with bullshit and then attend compulsory weekend bureaucratic Davos-approved courses on mindfulness to detoxify our minds and get ourselves ready to produce again in what little time remains to us. I see a little shop and go in.

Talking to People

I could go in and read over a cup of green tea but on the way I have been looking in the windows of the little shops that surround the joint and waiting makes me nervous and irritable, especially if I begin to read something only to be interrupted as I get into it. I know this about myself. Across the road is a little boutiquey place selling what look like handmade clothes and, as I see looking in the window, jewellery. The Tao, as I understand it, is about letting things flow, and so there seemed every reason to believe there was a choice I could here manage to sort a little additional present for Woodstock in the time I had rather than writing down another task in overengineered task management system.

I am nervous about little shops. They always seem to demand something in the way of interaction, and that is something I have not always been gifted at.

You're certainly here for Zásilkovna” says a young woman sat behind the counter as I greet her on my way in. Zásilkovna is a company that handles distribution for e-shops, permitting people to pick up goods at small shops. I have seen them all over the place, and once with characteristic guilt picked up a boxed set of Futurama Woodstock had ordered from what I assume to be a struggling fashion shop down the road.

The only person in the shop, I tell her that, no, I'm just looking around and, rather surprised that a shop full of what looks to be tastefully handmade goods should struggle to attract customers, ask her if it has been quiet at Christmas. Apparently so. I express my hope that she is at least getting some money from it. Not so much is the predictable response. I tell he I am looking for some jewellary or something for my girlfriend and she comes over to open up a cabinet. A handful of pieces have taken my eye. They are made of achát, she tells me. I tell her I don't know what it means, that I am from Britain, but that there is a good chance I don't know the word even in English. She looks it up and it is “agate” which, though I know the word, has no specifics for me.

I look around some more and a guy comes in in medieval garb: a fleece smock, some solid wool-lined boots, and a sturdy leather bag of sorts by his side. He asks if she has boxes for rings. She finds one and suggests another place in a mall not far away. He takes two. She asks him if he makes things. He does, in leather for one, but he also runs a blacksmithing stall in old town. He is a kind of renaissance man, he says, and leaves.

“Dobrý týpek”, I say, which I would struggle to translate into English. Google, with its feeling for nuance, offers “good guy”. Seznam's dictionary suggests “dude” for “týpek” which is at least the right register if it fails to capture the demographic.

I vacillate between a bracelet which seems a little too bulky and a necklace and finally go for the latter which seems a little oversized for Woodstock's build but otherwise seems her kind of style.

I hear you've had an election.” she says. By now she knows my girlfriend will be coming to the restaurant across the way and we have chatted a little about the shop and who runs it – a couple of sisters who make things.

Yep,” I say, “the place is, excuse my French, absolutely fucked for the next fifty years.” I talk about food banks, how there is one in every town, depended upon by the working poor. I tell her about child poverty, which may soon reach 40%.

Isn't it in a better state than over here, though after all?” she says. I tell her it is all connected, and that Johnson and his band of ideologues has been supporting Orbán and the illiberal authoritarians of the V4 for years.

She sorts out a box for me, I put a business card from the shop under the necklace and she puts a ribbon around it, asking for my finger to tie a knot. Were I single, this one, I might think of her as my type. As it stands, I put the same thought in parenthesis. Now that we are talking politics, she puts the giftwrapped box in a kind of wrapping paper made from a current affairs magazine I occasionally read and periodically disdain. Woodstock rings having failed to find me in the restaurant, which is full. I tell her to close her eyes in thirty seconds and watch for her in front of the restaurant. Which is when the till, which runs on Android, refuses to print out the receipt that will permit me to exchange the necklace if Woodstock doesn't take to it. I say “EET”, which is the name of the controversial compulsory system of on-line registration of every transaction in the Czech Republic pushed through in 2016, currently operational in ten European states. She laughs. It works and I bid her good day and creep up on Woodstock who has her eyes closed outside the restaurant.