Monday, August 24, 2015

Mohsin Hamid - Living in the age of permawar

NB - This beautifully written meditation on the contemporary human predicament demonstrates the nihilist quality of time as we live it today. Perhaps it has been with us longer than the writer believes, but that is immaterial. For as Hamid says, we humans have built great superstructures of law, belief, politics and violence out of our fear of the Death we see reflected in ourselves. This is the reign of annihilation, or what he calls permawar. It is entirely up to us as to how long we allow this insane situation to continue.. DS

These are anxious times. Terrorism seems an ever-present threat. We watch porn on computers. We are addicted to our phones. For some, religion offers answers … The novelist reflects on what bonds him with the rest of humanity

Chapter one: fear of cannibals
You occasionally think living in Pakistan is an advantage. Since so much is obviously unsayable, you have developed a heightened sensitivity to the ways in which power operates on speech, not just there but everywhere. It is like living in a desiccated nook on the cliff wall of some dry, desert valley. Looking out from your nook you can see the forces of erosion at work. Erosion reshapes everything. One day soon, though hopefully not very soon, your nook, too, will be gone.

You see from your nook that humanity is afflicted by a great mass murderer about whom we are encouraged not to speak. The name of that murderer is Death. Death comes for everyone. Sometimes Death will pick out a newborn still wet from her aquatic life in her mother’s womb. Sometime Death will pick out a man with the muscles of a superhero, pick him out in repose, perhaps, or in his moment of maximum exertion, when his thighs and shoulders are trembling and he feels most alive. Sometimes Death will pick singly. 

Sometimes Death will pick by the planeload. Sometimes Death picks the young, sometimes the old, and sometimes Death has an appetite for the in-between.

You feel it is strange that humanity does not come together to face this killer, like a silver-flashing baitball of 7 billion fish aware of being hunted by a titanic and ravenous shark. Instead, humanity scatters. We face our killer alone, or in families, or in towns or cities or tribes or countries. But never all together.

Death divides us because often it assumes human form. It makes of one of its future victims a present instrument. And so we humans have come to fear each other. And, because we humans can clearly be beaten, as adversaries we are far more attractive than Death itself, and so we humans have come to plan and scheme to defeat us humans, to build great superstructures of law and belief and politics and violence out of our fears of the Death we see reflected in ourselves.

There is no shark, we 7 billion shimmering fish say, there are only cannibals.

Chapter two: the permawar
You do not know when it began. Perhaps it commenced at the end of the northern summer and southern winter of 2001. But when it started does not matter now. What matters now is that it is upon you.

It is there when you go to your favourite cafe for your morning coffee in Sydney, or to your local supermarket for your day’s groceries in Paris, mindful of the bearded fellow with a backpack who enters after you, shutting the door behind himself carefully, almost – could it be? – with excessive politeness, transforming in your mind’s eye the rectangular plate glass of windows into bits of shrapnel, just for an instant, before you banish the thought.

It is there when you drop your children at school in Peshawar, watch them troop off through a single fortified gate in a high, razor-wire topped wall, as a sniper gazes down upon you, not a scene from a school, surely, but from a penitentiary, a maximum security prison for the most violently insane, an inside-out jail that asserts that it is the vast world beyond that has gone ravingly homicidal, and only the tiny space within that remains humane.

It is there when you board an aircraft and are limited to liquids in containers smaller in size than your fist; when passengers who look like one another are randomly selected for additional screening.

It is there when you sit on a hillside in Yemen or Afghanistan and hear the sound of a flying machine somewhere overhead, unseen in the night sky but not unseeing in the night sky, and you count your breathing, one two three, and hold your child close and wait for it hopefully to pass.

It is there when you turn on your television or your computer to the sight of shattered glass and kicked-in doors and the slice of a blade along a human throat and robotic factories assembling robotic killing machines and a white police officer shooting an unarmed black man in the back as he runs away.

It is the state of fear you slip in and out of, curated by the entertainment business that is the news, produced by politicians who feed on division, and starring artists who understand that horror is the true medium of the avant garde.

It is everywhere and never-ending, returning with renewed force whenever it seems to have begun to ebb, the greatest trick ever pulled by the greatest mass murderer, Death, who has convinced his victims to fear themselves.

This is the permawar.
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