Posts Tagged ‘Psychopathology’

The Lotus Eaters

Monday, February 6th, 2012

“I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of nine days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-Eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.”
Odyssey, IX


The sun stops half way through its descent towards the abyss. He wonders where it will go, as he moves his eyes away from the dark horizon. Beyond it, somewhere in the night, his comrades are still rowing through the uncharted sea. By now, if everything had gone according to plan, they should have approached the island… The island… Which island? It was home, long ago, but now he can’t even remember its name. Doulos slips a finger between his belt and the cloth he has around his waist. Carefully, he extracts one soft, fleshy petal. He puts it on his lower lip, and with his tongue he moves it inside his mouth, feeling its smooth surface turning thicker, then slowly dissolving. When he first tried the flowers, the overwhelming sweetness coated his tongue, and it was only out of courtesy for his kind hosts that he had kept on chewing. But now, so many flowers later, now that nothing distinguishes him form his hosts, now… Now… Oh, it’s gone. That thought is gone. No point in chasing it. And his comrades, yes. His comrades at home, wherever it is. But they are not at home, he knows it. Without proof, he knows it for sure.

It was that guy, their master. The man of many ways and no regrets. Like they turned the oars in their hands, he turned their lives in his. And enchanted them, even more than the penetrating juices of the petals of lotus. And now that the sun has started again its descent, in the coming darkness Doulos can see their mouths wide open, as the jaws of the unforgiving sea close on them. The monsters, on the shores, in the caves under water, and in the sky above the waves, they were nothing compared to him. The man who deceived Troy, the trickster who didn’t have to threaten his comrades to obey him, as they did so out of their misplaced love. Him… The king… Doulos squints in the agony of the day, and slowly walks back through the shrubbery. The rising wind swirls the sand around his worn-out sandals. In the distance, behind the olive trees, the lights of the village shine along a wide stretch of land. A few lazy crickets greet his stumbling steps toward his hut. A dog is sleeping in front of his door. Doulos kneels down in front of him and gently caresses his head. The dog growls sleepily, raises his head, licks Doulos’s fingers, sweetened by the lotus.

Behind his hut, beyond the lemon grove, and the stream, and the patches of maritime pines, a pile of enormous rocks cut the wind with their edges. He had hidden there, the day his comrades had come back to look for him. The villagers were still gathered around the fire, methodically chewing on their flowers, looking unimpressed at the foreigners’ frenzy. His comrades had searched the village, running from one hut to the other, shouting his name. The two who had accompanied him in the exploration tried to escape and were dragged back to the ships, in tears. Doulos was hiding behind the rocks, still short of breath. He could see the scene, from that distance, as one looks back at a fading dream just after awakening. He remained in hiding, almost motionless, throughout the night, until, at dawn, the new winds filled the sails and the wooden shells of the Greeks started moving away from the shore. As the ships moved further, Doulos tightened his grip on the rocks. That would have been the last time he would have seen his comrades, heard their voices, the sound of his native tongue… At last, as a final farewell, he heard Ulysses shouting, ‘Doulos, you traitor, you’ll be forgotten!’

Doulos stands up, walks towards the door, opens it. A woman is lying on a rug, chewing her portion of petals. She smiles at him, invites him to lie next to her. Doulos takes off his sandals, dusts off the sand on his feet. He goes to the table and pours two cups of water. He sits at her side, and passes her a cup. She ruffles his hair, gives him a petal. As the juice of the lotus envelops his mouth and teeth, memories get lighter. The dog comes in, and licks the water left in his cup. He looks at him wondering around he room, approaching the door and finally lying in front of it. Doulos reaches for another petal and slips it in his mouth. The woman, next to him, stretches her arm and takes his hand, rubs her fingers on his scars, on the long white marks that made him a soldier, on the hard layers of skin that made him a oarsman, on the painful joints that made him a subject of his master.

Doulos closes his eyes, and the sound of another dog, from another hut, faintly reaches him. There, someone else is reversed on the floor, near another half empty cup of water, far away from any memories. Oblivion. Even remembering oblivion is hard, once the lotus has enveloped you. The land around them, with its sand, the present darkness, the coming light, and darkness again, the distant ships, the wind singing through the rocks, the trees… Like fallen trees they all lie, protected from the sufferings of the world. Like corpses they live, so remote from life they could live forever. And forever forget, about the cares of the sailors, the soldiers, the kings and their ambitions, and their flocks of servants, reversed in the sand, lifeless, at the end of the battles, as the smoke of the sacrifices feeds the gods.

Years before, on the shores of Troy, memories of long-past wrongs possessed bodies much younger than the offenses they had been called to vindicate, and through their veins turned into the terrifying power of armed fists. The smile of the swords, at dawn, as the battlefield presented itself as the last day of the many, the memorable eve of the few. And the unbearable weight of the helmets, as burning as the sun, melting away the remnants of the fallen and the minds of the living. Once the dry plains in front of the burned gates of the city had drank more lives than they could stomach, the spectre of other plains, and other lands, came back to haunt the survivors. Home, as a curse. As a destiny, once again, calling them all to take up the challenge of death. And then, had they passed the swirls hidden between the waves, back again to the chains they used to call their own. The kings, always magnificent, raised they voices over the rowing crews. Home! they ordered. Triumphant commanders, on the deck of their ships, they showed no hesitation in taking the sea again, towards the beds in which their queens laid still, chained to their memory.

Sinking deep towards the boundless realm of the gods, the arrogance of those entitled to glory, the crowned few, pushed the ships away from the shore, back to the native fields and prisons. For Doulos, towards the mountainous pastures of Ithaca, where sheep and shepherds share the same thirst. Swapping the armor for the wooden stick, the sword for the whistle, the obedience in the face of death for that of an entire life. Back, back again. Like a winter that follows an unforgiving summer. Between the sea and the shore, craving a corner to sleep on the crowded deck, on the fields of sheep and tributes, hiding from the wrath of the gods as from that of the king, his face in the sand, his hands, older by the day, gripping on the same myths. Lost in an oblivion in which he only would have remained awake to himself, to his forgettableness.

Until, they took shelter in the land of the lotus eaters, after many days of tempest. The woman starts singing softly, in a language he still does not understand. But is there anyone who understand it? People don’t speak, in the land of oblivion, as they don’t remember their own names, and their debts fade into nothing, as the dogs that move from hut to hut, without fidelity. Is this his woman? He cannot say, and in her dark hair there is no place for the mark of anything but of his fingers, caressing her, rhythmically moving along the riffs of her skull. Is this life at all? He places another petal between his lips and presses in with his teeth. The juice trickles, underneath his tongue, between the molars. Memories get lighter. But he has already thought that. But it doesn’t matter. Thoughts die and are reborn, in a swirl of seasons passing so rapidly, as if the countless days that make the world were comprised in those very moments. And then they die, each and every instant, leaving him motionless, perfectly clear, polished like the bark of an old tree. And behind him, beyond the lemon grove, and the stream, and the patches of maritime pines, a pile of enormous rocks are still cutting the wind with their edges. He has been there, one day, many years ago. He had gone there to look at the sky, and the sea, and had fallen asleep. And he had a dream, and had awakened. And again.
And again.
And again.
Until all the seasons would have run out.

A modest proposal for wiping out isolated tribes

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

I know there is one where women rule. Perfect matriarchy, with women sleeping with everyone and men looking after children. It is in some jungle in Africa, or maybe in South America. I heard there is another one where everyone shares everything, in some sort of perfect communism without bureaucracy or secret police. And there must be another one where people with mental or physical disabilities are treated like gods. Not sure where that one is, or how many people are there. Anyway, all of them, all these isolated tribes lost in jungles, I am sure, live in perfect harmony with nature, their spiritual selves, each other, the universe, animals, women, wealth…

On this side of the planet, where isolation is just an urban disease, newspapers and magazines pullulate with stories of isolated tribes. Nobody can resist the beautiful melancholy of pictures of naked man in the wilderness, threatened by deforestation and by the advance of civilization. Nobody, not even charities or governments. With unanimous emotion, western civil societies do not save on tears and petitions to save the last few members of these mythical, uncontaminated tribes.

It was not with a cynical prejudice, but rather with mere curiosity, that I started asking myself what was the reason behind this interest, which seems to me (at least numerically) disproportionate to that granted to the huge masses of the local dispossessed in the ‘non-isolated’ world. If not a measured calculation of the ‘greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people’, to quote Bentham, then, what other reasoning is there behind such an obsession with saving isolated tribes from destruction and from us?

Like in detective stories, we must return to the crime scene to understand who killed whom, and why. This is a very strange case of murder, though. One where the investigation aims at uncovering what reasons the murder had for trying so hard not to kill his victims, but actually to keep them alive as long as possible. There is something morbid in this paradoxical attempt. And morbidity itself is the clue that might lead us to the real crime scene, miles and miles away from jungles and deserts. In fact, in a completely different universe.

Following the path of the morbid desires of western societies, we will soon find ourselves in the middle of a dangerous place, crowded with all sorts of impulses and desires, which we might call the collective mind. Although it is difficult to move through this cloudy landscape, it will not be too hard to find the responsible of this collective obsession. After all, its size is notoriously huge and its name is known to most: frustration. Like most criminals, it often uses other names as well: impotence, excuse, procrastination.

What has this collective feeling of justification and frustration to do with the interest in protecting isolated tribes? It might help to have a look at the way another detective, before us, named some of its victims, those which Lacan called ‘the subjects supposed to believe’. According to Lacan, it is common practice to attribute to others certain beliefs which we do not want to fully take upon us, and yet which we do not want to fully give up either. Think of Santa Claus and the way children are supposed to believe in it. Or, to get to the point, think of our isolated tribes and the extraordinary qualities they are supposed to have.

Common sense states that there is no such thing as selflessness. This all-encompassing selfishness, though, should also include that of the masochistic type. What is the role, or better the use, for western civil societies of these uncontaminated jungle dwellers? How is this masochistic for us? In our search for answers, we can start interrogating our main suspect, that morbid feeling of the collective mind. What is it trying to hide? By its nature, frustration (aka impotence, excuse, procrastination) is an internalized self-justification of the inability – or of the lack of will – to perform certain actions and achieve certain results. Frustration is the declaration of a defeat, the transformation of a temporary failure into a permanent condition of existence. If we put it in front of the pure-hearted natives ‘supposed to believe’, we can have a glimpse of what is the motif behind this obsessive, murderous care: hiding a defeat.

However, even if we now know that it was defeat that commissioned the murder, we still haven’t found who was the real victim of this homicide. Because this is indeed a strange case, one where we have, on the one hand, a victim forced to survive, and yet, on the other, we have another one forced to die. Defeat is a serial killer, and its targets are always the same: any imaginable possibility. Keeping alive those isolated tribes, defeat secures its paralyzing domination over the collective mind through the perfect balance of frustration and sublimation. Who needs to panic about our lack of harmony with nature, women, wealth or each other, if there is someone, somewhere in the jungle, who is doing it so well for us? The world would be a very dark, hopeless place, if it wasn’t for those beautiful, uncontaminated people who are living the dream. Our dream. It is thanks to them that we can sleepwalk through our days as if it didn’t really matter, as if our constant inability to concretize possibilities wasn’t a murder of our own nature, but just a slightly disturbing procrastination.

Samurai, in Medieval Japan, used to live according to a strict discipline, the first principle of which was that of waking up every day as if already dead. For the dead there is no hope, therefore there is no fear. But getting rid of hope doesn’t only mean doing without fear. Most importantly, it means to be forced to face the urgency of what does not exist. In a world without hope, what does not exist will never appear, unless it is purposefully brought into life. Such a realization infallibly leads to panic. However, despite its frequent interpretation as a state of paralysis, panic, if brought to its highest peak of existential anxiety, can have the effect of an incredible stimulus. In the pinnacle of panic, action, however impossible, becomes necessary. In other words, put in front of the realization that alternative lifestyles and alternative political systems are not in place at the moment, that there are no isolated tribes performing for us all those ideal practices that we are endlessly procrastinating, we will not have any other option but to realize them ourselves. Unless we decide to keep living in an abyss of complete existential desperation.

It is a choice that we must make. Either to keep dreaming or to awake to darkness. It is a choice that requires a sacrifice. That of our innermost oases of hope. We should be grateful that such oases also exist in the physical world. They are in the heart and in the soul of those wonderful, mythical, uncontaminated tribes. Let’s sing with joy at the advance of bulldozers through the virgin rain forests, at the spreading of fires in the deepest areas of the jungle. Let’s hold together the rifles of death squads, as they are hunting down natives along tropical rivers. Killing isolated tribes will kill our dreams. Destroying them will destroy our hope. As the Amazon forest will choke to death under tons of concrete, it will be the very possibility of other, greater wildernesses that will be reborn. As the last, pure hearted native will bleed dry, it will be our very blood that will start to flow again.