"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

25 Feb 2012

A Philosophy of Tramping—Beckett's Tramps

I want to continue the theme of tramps that I introduced in my last post by discussing the ultimate vagabonds; the characters of Samuel Beckett's fictions, stripped of any identity or relationship, leaves the writer free to explore what it is just to exist in the world. More than any other modern writer, Beckett captured the ascetic and abject side of the true Diogenean Cynic. Beckett’s heroes (or anti-heroes) are the dispossessed, banished to the absolute margins of society, sometimes contriving elaborate techniques for begging but more often abandoning any responsibility for their own survival whatsoever, obsessed only with their bodily functions. By placing themselves at the very threshold of death (one even encounters monologues from the already dead) Beckett’s characters affirm life as only the true cynic can. Unlike Robinson Crusoe (of which there are some odd parallels) where Defoe’s hero attempts to create civilisation from the wilderness of his desert island; Beckett’s unnamed creature in his novella The End, seeks less than the minimum necessary to sustain life. Several passages are included below from this one novella to demonstrate Beckett’s empathy for the itinerant cynic. In the opening scene of The End, our hero is ejected from an institution where he has been incarcerated for many years and left to fend for himself with no more than the clothes he stands up in and a small amount of money for food and lodgings. Seeking no more than a place to lie down, perhaps to die quietly and peacefully on his own, he is denied even this luxury. After handing over most of his money to a woman he believes to be the owner of a rat infested basement, he is then ejected by the real owner:

He said he needed the room immediately for his pig . . . I asked if he couldn’t let me have another place, any old corner where I could lie down long enough to recover from the shock and decide what to do . . . I could live here with the pig, I said, I could look after him. . . . A bus took me to the country. I sat down in a field in the sun. . . . The night was cold. I wandered round the fields. At last I found a heap of dung. 

Just as the Cynics sought inspiration from the lives of animals, Beckett’s character has to give up his abode to a pig only to find warmth and shelter in a dung heap. He is then further shunned by society for his unpleasant appearance and odour:

One day I met a man I had known in former times. He lived in a cave by the sea . . . I reminded him that I wasn’t in the habit of staying more than two or three minutes with anyone and that the sea did not agree with me. He seemed deeply grieved to hear it. So you won’t come, he said. But to my amazement I got up on the ass and off I went . . . little boys jeered and threw stones, but their aim was poor, for they only hit me once on the hat. A policeman stopped us and accused us of disturbing the peace. My friend replied that we were as nature had made us, the boys too were as nature had made them. 

In this account we find shades of the Cynic Crate’s view that even Diogenes’ barrel was a luxury. We are then presented with the stoical manner in which the insults of others are endured and dismissed by the Cynic’s philosophical response that man made laws are at odds with the natural laws of human nature.

What he called his cabin in the mountains was a sort of wooden shed. The door had been removed . . . The glass had disappeared from the window. The roof had fallen in at several places . . . The vilest acts had been committed on the ground and against the walls. The floor was strewn with excrements, both human and animal, with condoms and vomit. In a cow pad a heart had been traced, pierced by an arrow. . . . Nevertheless it was a roof over my head. I rested on a bed of ferns, gathered at great labour with my own hands. One day I couldn’t get up. The cow saved me . . . She dragged me across the floor, stopping from time to time only to kick me. I did not know our cows could be so inhuman. . . . she dragged me across the threshold and out into the giant streaming ferns, where I was forced to let go. 

The absurdity of life is a hallmark of Beckett’s writing, but if Diogenes and Nietzsche mix humour with ridicule and sarcasm, Beckett’s work is always presented with a gentle humility and resignation to the bitterness of life. Having already been dispossessed by a pig, our hero is almost thankful for the cow’s intervention in removing him from his hovel.

I unbuttoned my trousers discretely to scratch myself. I scratched myself in an upward direction, with four nails. I pulled on the hairs to get relief. It passed the time, time flew when I scratched myself. Real scratching is superior to masturbation, in my opinion. One can masturbate up to the age of seventy, and even beyond . . . I itched all over, on the privates, in the bush up to the navel, under the arms, in the arse, and then patches of eczema and psoriasis that I could get raging merely by thinking of them. It was in the arse I had the most pleasure . . . Often at the end of the day I discovered the legs of my trousers all wet. That must have been the dogs. I personally pissed very little. 

With little else to give meaning to life, the functions and obsessions of the body now become the sole preoccupation of our heroe’s attention. The pleasure of scratching is acknowledged at the bottom of this post in an anecdote concerning the Cynic Crates by Marcel Schwob.

I found a boat, upside down. I righted it, chocked it up with stones and pieces of wood, took out the thwarts and made my bed inside. The rats had difficulty in getting at me, because of the bulge in the hull . . . I made a kind of lid with stray boards . . . it completely covered the boat . . . I pushed it a little towards the stern, climbed into the boat by the bow, crawled to the stern, raised my feet and pushed the lid back towards the bow till it covered me completely.

The various dwelling places of Beckett’s character had been secured from necessity rather than deliberate choice as in the case of Diogenes’ barrel. He is oblivious to the rest of the world but neither does he ask or expect anything from it. He survives the absurdity of his situation by being totally at one with no more than his own existence and immediate surroundings.

There were times when I wanted to push away the lid and get out of the boat and couldn’t, I was so indolent and weak, so content deep down where I was. . . . So I waited till the desire to shit, even piss, lent me wings. . . . Arched and rigid I edged down my trousers and turned a little on by side, just enough to free the hole. To contrive a little kingdom, in the midst of the universal muck, then shit on it, ah that was me all over. The excrements were me too, I know, I know, but all the same.

Beckett succeeds in transcending completely what it is to be human. He has crossed that border that separates the living ‘I’ from the waste of our own mortality. Diogenes likewise, in his indifference to the waste of his own body, marks himself out from the pretensions of human beings’ sham sophistication. He lays bare his own mortality, and in so doing becomes the living embodiment of the mortality and madness of people in general. He reinforces his own position on the margins of society, a society which in turn rejects his Cynic lifestyle as base and inhuman in order to reinforce its own higher level of functioning. When Diogenes pisses, farts, defecates and masturbates in public, he is doing no more than ridiculing the artificial conventions of society around him. 

The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk gets straight to the point of this whole issue regarding the Cynics’ relationship with human waste:

As children of an anal culture, we all have a more or less disturbed relation to our own shit . . . The relationship that is drummed into people with regard to their own excretions provides the model for their behaviour with all sorts of refuse in their lives . . . Diogenes is the only Western philosopher who we know consciously and publicly performed his animal business . . . Those who do not want to admit that they produce refuse . . . risk suffocating one day in their own shit. 

Crates of Thebes

And so the last word on this scatological digression goes to the writer Marcel Schwob from his fictional account of the Cynic Crates:

He lived stark naked among the sweepings, and he collected crusts of bread, rotten olives and fish bones to fill his wallet . . . an unknown skin-disease covered him with swellings. He scratched himself with nails he never trimmed and remarked that from this he drew a double profit, since he wore them down and at the same time experienced relief.  

19 Feb 2012

A Philosophy of Tramping—The Right to Tramp

Consider for a moment what might occur if Diogenes the Cynic were to miraculously reappear today and was encountered masturbating and shouting abuse at passers by in one of our city centre parks. Our hero would almost certainly be whisked away by the forces of law and order for an urgent psychiatric assessment. How LESS civilised are we today than Athens of 200 B.C., and what would Diogenes make of the current fate of the Greek people? Asceticism as a positive choice of lifestyle, such as that demonstrated by Diogenes, Jesus or the Wandering Jew, has a long and honorable tradition. But as Jack Kerouac observed as long ago as 1960, society’s increasing intolerance of the tramp or hobo is proving a challenge for those who choose to live on the margins of that society:

“In America camping is considered a healthy sport for Boy Scouts but a crime for mature men who have made it their vocation.  Poverty is considered a virtue among the monks of civilised nations -- in America you spend a night in the calaboose if youre caught short without your vagrancy change.”
‘The Vanishing American Hobo’ from Lonesome Traveler

Such are the themes discussed in my book in progress, a study made all the more pertinant by my recent decision to downsize my own lifestyle and devote more time to writing. Coincidently, my wife Angela is also addressing these themes in her current book in progress, Windows, an autobiographical tale of obsession and surveillance. Bettie passes Angela’s writing window most days but we also frequently encounter her tramping around the neighbourhood. We don’t know if she has a home to return to, as although we talk to her, she has few words of English, neither do we know if she tramps out of choice or necessity.
     Homelessness, joblessness, poverty, isolation, vagabondage, etc., can be both cause and effect of the subject under discussion. And if it’s tough these days for those who choose poverty as a lifestyle, how much tougher for those who have poverty thrust upon themthose who, like Yosser Hughes in my last post, attempt to end their life rather than face a life without work, partner, kids, home, and ultimately one’s own identity. For the millions of people today facing the personal catastrophe of joblessness, homelessness and loss of selfall because of the personal greed of those who already had more than is dignifiedsociety itself must change.
'No direction home'
     But if it refuses, and there is no other way of maintaining one's personal integrity in the face adversity, maybe we should rehabilitate the more positive notion of the tramp (from the Middle English verb meaning to ‘walk with heavy footsteps’  hence trample or go hiking). The Vagrancy Act 1824 (and subsequent amendments) makes it an offence to sleep on the streets or beg for sustenance, hence it's a crime in England and Wales to be a homeless beggar. And we do not have to look that far back into European history to see just how advanced cultures respond to certain groups of those citizens it regards as socially unacceptable. For along with the yellow star and pink triangle, we can include the black triangle identifying vagabonds also for extermination in the Nazi death camps. How we love categorising peopleand why those who have any sense at all should refrain from ticking boxes on ethnic monitoring forms in the ridiculous belief that this equates to a fairer society. 
     The diminishing number of those who reject society for a more ‘real’ experience (the tramp), are lately having their ranks swelled by those who reject society for political and ideological reasons (pitching their tents outside St Paul’s, the New York Stock Exchange and other public and private spaces), and increasingly, those rejected by Governments in their belief that sacking thousands from their jobs will help to fix  what? The economy stupid! The more society attempts to force it’s citizens to conform and fit in with its bankrupt rules and prohibitions, particularly when it demonstrates that rules of acceptable behaviour do not apply to those in power themselves, the more likely it is that many of those citizens will start to find ways of occupying their own space, in the edges or even outside the margins of society altogether. 

5 Feb 2012

Return to the Black Stuff

Today I celebrate my sixty fourth birthday. Celebrate, because I have only one year before collecting my State Pension and escaping the indignities and ravages of the job market. Last year I took the further opportunity of early retirement from a 35 year career in the public sector, feeling confident that I would pick up some part-time work to see me through to giving up paid employment andever the cynical optimistenjoying the virtues and obscurity of old age.
     Not so easy. I now find myself competing with thousands of other public sector workers for an ever diminishing pool of job vacancies. Many of whom, thrown unwillingly into the job market, have young families to support and may be struggling to hang onto the family home, even long standing relationships. The salutary lesson for me has been that, having years of experience at a senior level, an impressive CV and proven track record backed up with strong references, is no guarantee of getting an interview for a jobeven one requiring considerably less experience. In spite of legal safeguards to protect older employees, ageism is alive and well; it’s the turn of the beautiful people, celebrity rather than substance is the order of the day.
     Given this scenario, it is seriously screwed up that the Government thinks they can now drive thousands of disabled and unemployed people back into work by cutting their benefits. One could be forgiven for believing that we are witnessing the final revenge of the ruling and governing classes on centuries of social reform. Completing the work Margaret Thatcher started over thirty years ago, George Osborne’s unforgiving cull of the public sector (a group in society vilified for ‘enjoying’ job and pension security deniedif one believes the rhetoricto those in private industry) sends out a clear message. Survival and selfishness rule. Just look across the Atlantic for a glimpse of our future.
     We all know the rallying cry of British Conservatism: apply free market economics to health and social care, education, transport, criminal justice, etc., cast out the parasites of the State by opening up the former public sector to private sector entrepreneurs and the growing number of unemployed prepared to work longer, for less money, and pay a larger percentage of their diminishing salaries into private pension schemes to the delight of the greedy insurance sector who, like the bankers before them (with the support of their political cronies), help themselves in their undignified stampede for personal enrichment.
     But, while captains of industry might feel reassured that their interests are safe in the hands of their mates in Government, it is a myth to think that private sector workers will fair any better than their public sector colleagues. In reality, the current British coalition government are too incompetent to even deliver their intended strategy of stripping out what they regard as a bloated public sector to stimulate private sector growth. 2010 Treasury estimates were claiming that over the next five years, Osborne’s spending cuts would result not only in a loss of at least 2,000 jobs a week in the public sector, but up to an additional 2,800 jobs a week in the private sector. And in those regions of the Country where local economies depend on public sector jobs, the economic and social effects will be devastating on all sectors of the community.
     Enough of the diatribe. Why, you might ask, don’t I stop whining, give up gracefully, and exit the rat-race while I’m ahead? The decision to start my family later in life has caught up with me. My two youngest sons, aged 19 and 20, are still in university, one in his first year, andunlike my generation who enjoyed a free education and professions in high demandare faced with massive debt and little hope of finding work. Not that we don’t enjoy their company around the home, together surviving the worst ravages of the recession. But, like many parents, I fear for my children’s future, well aware that we are probably the last generation for a century to enjoy a better quality of life than our parents!

With memories of the last recession, I sat down recently to watch again the early 1980s TV drama series Boys from the Blackstuff, a poignant reminder of the Thatcher legacy. Many of us have yet to wake up to the kind of stark realities enacted by Yosser Hughes and his mates in Alan Bleasdale’s remarkable dramatisation: the disintegration of community, family and the self. Yosser’s iconic 30 year old catch phrase, ‘gis a job’, has come back to haunt a new generation.