Dying of a broken heart

Reading Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Serotonin’ (2019) in eternal lockdown

3 A.M. is an odd thing. You’re sitting on the toilet simultaneously wired and tired, thinking about a factoid you saw that claimed that men’s sperm counts will decline so low as to reach zero by 2045, which is really not that far away. And you’re thinking that everything you do in life is just cope — from the work you do, to your writing, to the things you post on Instagram, to the movies you watch and books you read. Everything is just a method of distracting from the weight of existence. A few weeks ago you re-read Michel Houllebecq’s novel Serotonin. And at 3 A.M. on the toilet thinking about global declining sperm counts, you’re thinking that you might understand then how someone could literally die of sorrow.  

As of the time of writing this, I’m experiencing my fifth (?) week of a full homebound isolation, because the country has gone into another full-scale lockdown again. Lately, memories have been flooding back to me in a terrible wave. At one point in Serotonin, the narrator Florent-Claude is reminded of his ex-lover and the memory nearly knocks him out. This is how memories have been coming over me too, bowdlerising me at vulnerable times in the night, or when I’m trying to focus on a paragraph in a book. They come in a complete package with their attendant emotions — mostly shame or sadness — and they paralyse me, they force me back into time with them. Maybe I’m not old enough yet to have the accumulation of memory as hopeless as the ones that completely wind Florent-Claude, but if it’s already this difficult now, I tremble at what’s in store for when I’m older. 

I’ve been remembering everything. Staying home for so long, not receiving the sun, you start to feel dry and ashy all over. The other night I caught myself picking at dry skin on my lips, a habit I abandoned when I was in primary school, and the pain when I pulled off a ribbon of skin transported me back to memories of the girl I used to be. All the years are so awkward and painful, and — sorry to be melodramatic — existence really is full of pain, the most abject pain. Work, exercise, entertainment, culture, society, all of these offer much needed fictions to silence the horror of consciousness. Otherwise, as I’m realising now during lockdown, the weight of it all becomes too much to bear. As to how much of these distractions actually feed into the widening abyss, I don’t know. As to whether we were better off before, I don’t know. All I know is that memory in combination with stagnancy is a real killer.

By the end of Serotonin, its central middle-aged narrator Florent-Claude has resigned himself to a desperate solitary life in a high-rise apartment on the outskirts of Paris. The city of lights and romance is dead to him. He has no friends, lovers, or family, but he has a generous inheritance on which he lives off the rest of his days. He doesn’t leave the house, he nourishes himself “with the new food delivery service that Amazon had just launched” and is delighted to discover that the apartment comes equipped with a garbage chute, so that he really never has to leave the house. He spends his days watching television, hardly leaving the bed let alone the house, until he gives up on even television and feels himself starting to rot to death. It was all a mere matter of time. He has a few capsules left of Captorix, a fictional SSRI that had been prescribed to him months earlier, which had done a good enough job in numbing him and allowing him to achieve little feats like maintaining personal hygiene, but which has also made him impotent and shot his cortisol levels through the roof.

But, hang on. Record scratch, freeze frame. How did he end up like this? What was the great tragedy that brought him so low? 

It’s too bad this isn’t a late-90s/early-00s comedy, because if it were, Florent-Claude might have an American accent, look something like Chandler from Friends, emit a few drunken burps, and then there would be a satisfactory narrative for it all – because surely such an exaggerated ending can’t have come out of nowhere, right? Well, that’s the difference between Europe and America maybe; Americans have so much optimism, even when they think they don’t. The great tragedy of Florent-Claude’s life is just that he is alive. 

Well, there was some action in the book. Michel Houellebecq somehow has this talent of writing the most outlandish, extravagant, and extreme things in the most banal manner.  The thing one remembers most from Serotonin isn’t the revolutionary facedown and shootout in the middle, nor even the attempted murder of a child; the thing that leaves the greatest impression is Florent-Claude’s utter hopelessness and inability to control his life. Similarly, in Submission, Houellebecq’s previous novel, the thing one remembers is not so much the speculative fiction of France becoming an Islamic state, even though that is the entire point of the novel. In fact, it hardly takes place at all. Most of the time people are doing nothing except thinking about their sad POS lives. 

I guess it’s time now for a proper introduction. Serotonin is the eighth and latest novel by French author Michael Houellebecq. On the global stage, he’s somewhat of a controversial figure, but the French seem to love their own, and he’s been dubbed France’s greatest living writer. His novels contain what some might consider sexist and racist screeds, but always towards the purpose of illuminating a difficult truth about 21st-century Western society. In Serotonin, for example, there is a brief scene at the beginning in which Florent-Claude meets two young women on a road trip in Spain, a scene that could, with some mental gymnastics, be construed as “sexist” given the lascivious ways he describes their youth and the inspiration they provide for his masturbatory fantasies later, but the masturbatory fantasies are really just redemption fantasies. There are later a few passages reflecting his musings on the conflict between the sexes, which, again, you could call “sexist” but which I think he provides sufficient reason for, and which are at times even inspiring. 

Houellebecq’s controversial novels have covered hot (read: sensitive) topics like prostitution, third world sex tourism, Islamic fundamentalism, and such like. These controversial topics are entry points into the real questions, about globalism, late-stage capitalism, the war of the sexes, the dissolution of then traditional family, the scientific revolution, all of which underlie the major conflicts of our current age. Have we really learned to live with women entering the workforce? Has progress so rapid, the pace of which has never been matched in the entirety of human history, actually set back the overall happiness of the species? The real heated topics that are heated because of the resounding silence over them in the liberal agenda — because we’d rather talk about, uh, body positivity or workplace micro-aggressions or whatever — are the transactional and convoluted nature of heterosexual sex in the modern age, and the replacement of older forms of moral guidance such as religion and the family by impersonal market dictates and professional psychologising. And also the dissolution of clear boundaries between nation-states under globalism. 

Serotonin is the third book of his that I’ve read, the other two are The Elementary Particles/Atomised (which the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani called “a deeply repugnant read”) and Submission. Personally, I don’t find anything about these books repugnant because nothing repugnant actually happens; they mostly consist of the melancholic ravings of sad, sexless, middle-aged men. And yet, Houellebecq remains controversial enough to the people who matter that he’s stacked up a nice little collection of lawsuits against his books (all of which have led nowhere, btw), along with a reputation for being an enfant terrible. The publication of his “controversial” novels always seems to precede some sort of disaster that is depicted in his books: the 2002 terrorist bombing in Bali (after Platform), the Charlie Hebdo attacks (Submission, the aforementioned book about an Islamic transformation of France, was coincidentally published the same day), and the 2019 Yellow Vests movement in France (after Serotonin). Reading his Wikipedia page and considering the uncanny resonance his books end up having to real life, you might think he was some major terrorist leader announcing his plans in plain sight, or some bizarro prophet. 

I first read Serotonin when it came out in 2019 and thought that it was just alright. But reading it in 2021, after nearly two years of living with the legally-enforced nationwide lockdowns, curfews, and declarations of emergency brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, the force of its despair really takes your breath away. The book follows a first-person narrator, rather sissy-ly named Florent-Claude, who opens up the book by whining about how he doesn’t understand why his parents gave him such a foppish, florid name, then immediately conceding that he had never taken any measures to change his name, not even by taking on a nickname. His name is just the first of many things about his life that he’s failed to assert any control over, not because he’s lost control but rather because he’s never made much of an effort in the first place. Anyway, the novel then continues in such a fashion as Florent-Claude, 46 in the novel, deeply depressed, an executive lackey in the Department of Agriculture, not so much trapped as bitterly resigned to a loveless, sexless relationship with his Japanese art-world adjacent socialite girlfriend who’s half his age and openly cheating on him, as Florent-Claude finally makes the first conscious decision of his life by choosing to disappear off the face of the Earth. 

The process of disappearance is terrifyingly easy. Within a day, he submits his resignation to his supervisor at the DoA (a governmental department only in name, since it had long submitted to the totalising forces of globalism and given up on protecting the rights of French farmers), ends the lease on his condominium, creates a new bank account, and, by clicking a few buttons online, effectively settles all his outstanding bills and obligations. He doesn’t even see his girlfriend before he leaves. Apparently, as he learns from a documentary titled Voluntarily Missing, it is not a crime to abandon one’s family in France, and in 2013 the French had stopped conducting missing-person searches on behalf of families. In France, it is perfectly legal and permissible to drop all responsibilities and leave to start over again as someone else somewhere else. 

It was startling that, in a country where individual liberties had tended to shrink, legislation was preserving this one, which was fundamental — in my eyes even more fundamental, and philosophically more troubling, than suicide.

Serotonin, Michel Houellebecq

Though the technical aspects of his life are easily settled, Florent-Claude finds that renouncing all other responsibility over his life is not as easy as it first seemed. After his “voluntary disappearance”, he loses himself within a labyrinth of memory. He whiles away his time watching television in hotel rooms, smoking, and sometimes going out for a walk to the nearby Carrefour. (Hey, at least he got to go out for walks.) The Captorix he had been prescribed by a quack doctor helps greatly with damming up his despair, allowing him to execute a few simple daily tasks. For most of the book, this pill saves him from sliding into the insectile existence he eventually succumbs to by the end. 

Like the Spanish college-aged nymphettes he meets at the beginning of the novel, Florent-Claude’s “psychologist” Dr Azote is another saving grace in un-PC disguise. By many modern standards, he would be considered a “quack”. On top of breezily signing a Captorix prescription before even assessing his patient, he also gives him the contacts of a few prostitutes: cutting past any bullshit about therapy or SSRI’s and prescribing what he intuits to be Florent-Claude’s problem. What our narrator is suffering from is a spiritual malaise to which there is no chemical solution. While Dr Azote may horrify today’s science-worshipping liberals, he performs a greater service as a doctor by not pathologising Florent-Claude or selling him on false promises. 

The journey through the labyrinth of memory becomes actualised when Florent-Claude gets overwhelmed with loneliness and starts dialling up people from his past. He first calls up an old girlfriend from his early 20s who, he discovers, has wound up in as dire straits as his — in fact, worse, because she’s morbidly alcoholic. Then, as Christmas and the New Year approach, Florent-Claude makes a visit to Aymeric, his old college mate from Agricultural college. 

Aymeric is the only one from their graduating class who actually pursued farming instead of a bureaucrat job with the government, or an exec job with a private corporation. (Florent-Claude, for his part, had gone to Monsanto after college.) When Florent-Claude travels to the Normandy countryside to spend Christmas with his old college buddy, he finds everything in an utter mess. Despite his aristocratic lineage and extensive lands, Aymeric is doing very badly indeed, as production at his farm is unable to compete against cheaper South American imports and the totalising force of agricultural monopolies like Monsanto. His inherited land is no longer valuable for farming, and he’s forced to develop kitschy AirBNB bungalows to be rented out to tourists. Because the French countryside is now the province of scenic tourism—a green getaway for the urban bourgeoisie when they tire of their concrete playground—and not agriculture. The great line of kings ends at Aymeric. 

(This castration of once-noble professions can be seen in other titles too, like those of scholars, artists, and even global leaders, many of whom are still imperial leaders. Back in the days, kings would hang people in public gallows, dismember them, and skewer their heads on sticks if they even so much as thought about betraying them. The other day though, Emmanuel Macron got slapped in the face and the guy who did it only got four months in prison. Think about it, all our leaders now are spineless nerds in suits, many of them not even as young as Macron is. The revolution doesn’t need guns or Molotov cocktails or Bolsheviks. These days, you can just slap people.) 

Is it possible to live a dignified life that’s also a solitary one? Yes, I think so, but it’s difficult. You don’t get a choice these days. Somehow, despite being more populated and better connected than ever, more people seem to be living alone than at any point in history. And not out of some ascetic spiritual mission or because they’re a modern-day Diogenes; no, this loneliness isn’t the kind that’ll make you stronger. 

Alone, with nobody to watch you, nobody to care for you, nobody to even check on you… the terrible part is how easy it is. In fact, it’s even rewarded, if French law is anything to go by. The worst part is that you’ve done it to yourself, for no reason, for no purpose; you just seem to wake up one day in the middle of your life and find yourself profoundly alone. By the age of 46, Florent-Claude has weathered so many disappointments and failures, most tragically of all in the arena of love. 

The incident with Aymeric is dramatic and tragic, but only because it is enacting on a political and national scale the spiritual erosion that is already happening on a personal scale. The most genuinely heartbreaking parts of the book are the ones where our narrator remembers Kate and Camille, the two great loves of his life, and how they came to a sudden inexplicable end. Of course, on the surface of it, their endings are very explicable — in both cases, FC cheated. Both times with some ethnic broad in what was clearly mutually narcissistic and pointless sex. But the gaping mystery that remains unsolved is what it is that makes people hijack their own happiness, and why they seem to do this over and over and over again. This reflects the farmers’ crisis on a personal level: Western man sacrifices what is simple, local, flavourful, and fulfilling — something that has proven to work for decades if not centuries — for something cheap and exotic. 

Why?

Just to experience it. Just ‘cause it’s there. Just ‘cause white girls and nationalism are so last season. There’s a parallel to be made here between FC’s heading straight into Monsanto after graduating and his failure to remain loyal to his girlfriends. We would like to think that we stand for certain principles, but the truth is that real life turns us all into repeated traitors. To the point where anyone who “believes” in anything at all — let alone enough to die for it, as Aymeric does — is considered a naive schmuck. It’s part of being human in the modern age. Just the act of getting by requires such a tedious amount of effort that leads us towards choices that provide short-term pleasure but leave us with a long-term emptiness. We inevitably succumb to that reality and as we age we know that we had not stood for anything, that we had remained loyal to no one. 

The relationship between Florent-Claude and Camille disintegrates when she has to return to university in Paris (they had met in a rather un-PC way, when Camille arrived at his company as an intern). Here, a heartbreaking passage (well everything is heartbreaking in this drippy and deeply painful book): 

I could have suggested that she give up her studies and become a housewife, my wife in fact, and in retrospect, when I think about it (and I think about it almost all the time), I think she would have said yes […] But I didn’t, and I probably wouldn’t have done; I hadn’t been formatted for such a proposition, it wasn’t part of my software; I was a modern man, and for me, like for all of my contemporaries, a woman’s professional career was something that had to be respected above all else — it was the absolute criterion, it meant overtaking barbarism and leaving the Middle Ages. At the same time, I wasn’t entirely a modern man because I had, even just for a few seconds, been able to imagine the imperative of her leaving it; but once again I didn’t do anything, didn’t say anything, and let events run their course, while I essentially placed no trust in this return to Paris: like all cities, Paris was made to generate loneliness, and we hadn’t had enough time together, in that house, a man and a woman alone and facing one another; for a few months we had been the rest of each other’s world, but would we be able to sustain such a thing? I don’t know; I’m old now and can’t really remember, but I think I was already afraid, and I’d understood, even then, that society was a machine for destroying love.  

What are we crying for — it’s always been like this, hasn’t it? The only constant in life is its cruelty. But it wasn’t always so easy to leave people, to betray each other. Now, if someone wants to just disappear off the face of the earth, we’ve somehow all agreed as a society that the right thing to do would be to just leave him be. The lonelier you are, the more painful the memories are when they come, and the more painful they are, the less inclined you feel to ever dabble in human relationships ever again. 

In this phase of Malaysia’s lockdown, the government has just announced a string of new areas to be placed under “enhanced” lockdown, which is a stricter form of lockdown reserved for cluster areas and where a resident can only leave the house to get essentials or to get vaccinated. Many of the areas under this “enhanced” lockdown are working class neighbourhoods or flats. At the same time, a “white flag” campaign has also taken off on social media which calls on desperate Malaysians not to suffer silently, and to place a white flag or cloth outside their house if things are getting bad, as a way of reaching out without having to say anything. Everyone is encouraged to check up on each other and to keep an eye out for any white flags flying in their neighbours’ windows. There is something about this that is deeply sad, despite the genuine and good intentions behind it. If we really cared for each other, maybe we shouldn’t have allowed it to get to this. In the past few years, online crowdfunding and charity have become widely mainstream, and there is something about this that is good and empowering, but something else that makes me think that the betrayal has already been completed, if this is what our social relations have become. Some part of me thinks we shouldn’t have allowed each other to be siloed so easily, that we embraced the initial lockdown and the urgent messaging surrounding Covid-19 a bit too readily. (I implicate myself in this.) That there was a line last year we shouldn’t have crossed, but which we did, without questioning it, and that has led us to where we are now. No matter the cause or rationale for it, people should not be so alone for so long. 

I don’t know the degree to which Florent-Claude is autobiographical (and because Houellebecq likes to write so many sad losers for his protagonists, I assume that all of them are, to an extent, autobiographical), but in his role as an author, Houellebecq is also Dr Azote. He intuitively senses the deep, inconsolable frissons between humans in the modern century, and he is reflecting (rather vulgarly sometimes, for effect) ourselves back to us so that we may see what we have become, and potentially understand ourselves better, if not save ourselves. Lorin Stein, in Salon, testifies on Houellebecq’s behalf with words as generous as many of us can only hope to one day hear spoken about ourselves by those whom we love (let alone those who barely know us), 

Houellebecq may despair of love in a free market, but he takes love more seriously, as an artistic problem and a fact about the world, than most polite novelists would dare to do; when he brings his sweeping indignation to bear on one memory, one moment when things seemed about to turn out all right for his characters, and didn’t, his compassion can blow you away. 

Lorin Stein in Salon

In the end, Florent-Claude literally dies of a broken heart: one of Captorix’s side effects becomes too alarming to ignore. His cortisol levels have shot through the roof, slowing down his metabolism and making him gain an unhealthy amount of weight. Slowly but surely, his life and body lose all their contours, and he becomes this sludge alone in his apartment, the last thing to push down the garbage chute. 

He came to his own isolation after decades of trial, failure, heartbreak, and bitter sadness. Sure, he never amounted to anything, but at least he had a few years of freedom to disappoint himself. (*Insert “Catskills” joke here from the opening of Annie Hall*) Under a pandemic lockdown, especially one as extensive as this, the isolation is embraced seemingly by everyone… By this point, in Malaysia, it’s only natural. It’s as if we never left, like we’d never known anything else. 

What I’m wondering is the following: how can we live a meaningful life under lockdown? How can we continue to be apart, ostensibly for each other’s own good, but still care for each other? Is love actually incompatible with the idea of individual freedom? What can I do with the memories? Where can they go? What is the connection between memories and the present; what are we supposed to do with them? How can I live through this and still have the strength to continue as normal? If lockdown is a dress rehearsal for what old age will be like (tired, lonely, confusing, with nothing truly to our name except our memories, and our failures), then how should we prepare ourselves? Is it possible to create a society where memories and failures don’t induce such a gut-wrenching desire to flee? How can we learn to embrace the pain and the suffering? How can we avoid people slinking off into the void, disappearing forever? Is it true that society destroys love?  

I have a lot of questions. 

As a narrative, nothing much happens in Serotonin. Some dramatic events happen, but the things that happen don’t seem to matter as much as the things that fail to happen, or the things that could have happened differently, as a result of Florent-Claude’s failure to take responsibility for his own life. This is why it has been the book I’m turning to for answers during this lockdown, because Serotonin is also about a man who spends most of his time not-existing within the four walls of his room.

The lockdown has given me an inordinate amount of time to think. Most of the time I’m finding ways to distract myself. The answers I sought from Serotonin turned into more questions, but the vision of a future that it presents is believable and vivid enough to be a sort of answer. The critics who ignore it, alleging “racism” or “sexism”, do so at their own risk. Just as how racial and sexual differences aren’t morally real (they’re only real as biological technicalities, like the fact that some people have more/less melanin than others), racism and sexism are also not real problems. They’re superficial problems that will sort themselves out with time. The problem of loneliness and the self-hating tendency to hijack one’s own happiness, however, feels very much more real to me. 

You plunge into the past, you begin to plunge into it and then it seems as if you’re being engulfed by it, and nothing can put a limit on that engulfment.

Serotonin, Michel Houellebecq

Selected Ambient Work #2

Day 4 of Malaysia’s third movement control order. All economic sectors are closed except for essential services.

Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes (including boiling the pasta)
Movie run time: 2 hours
Eating time: < 5 minutes
Cleaning up time: > 5 minutes 

And so it goes, the interminable self-subsistence that will last for at least another two more weeks (most likely longer, perhaps months longer) as the nation enters its third (or is it fourth?) “full” lockdown.

Well, it’s not all bad. I get more time to sit in bed reading before I start work for the day. (If I do indeed start work at all.) I get to watch more movies and amuse myself with little new interests like, for example, Shakespeare. I’m currently reading James Shapiro’s The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, after having watched Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, Ian McKellen’s King Lear by the RSC, Roman Polanski’s and Orson Welles’s productions of Macbeth, and a local production of King Lear on Zoom by the KL Shakespeare Players. I like to watch interpretations of these two stories over and over because their poetic violence offers so much for actors, directors, and stage designers to work with, and I also tend to like things where everyone ends up dying. One interesting thing I discovered from reading the Shapiro book is that, even as late as the 17th century, people were still disembowelling traitors in public and sticking their heads up on stakes, exactly like in Roman Polanski’s production. I had thought that his version of Macbeth, made in 1971, was just particularly violent because the 60s was over and his wife and child had just been slaughtered, and that Macbeth’s 11th-century setting had offered him an excuse for barbaric catharsis, when in fact people still retained all these medieval rituals even up till the 1600s. Next on my watch list is Throne of Blood.

I was never taught Shakespeare in school, and I’m discovering that Shakespeare is one of those perfect things to get lost in when you’ve got way too much time on your hands, because there’s already such a glut of content related to him, from the extensive original source material to the ever-expanding amount of interpretations. When people ask what I’ve been getting up to, I tell them I’ve been watching movies. When they ask what sort of movies, I say samurai movies. Saying that I’ve been watching a bunch of Shakespeare productions sounds not only nerdy but also kind of juvenile: oh, you’re only having your Shakespeare phase now? 

Anyway, aside from that I just bought one of those ergonomic laptop stands, the ones that will prop up your laptop so that you can look straight at the screen instead of bending your neck too much. I got it in pink, just to feel something. It cost RM 7 on Shopee, it would have been more with shipping but I used one of Shopee’s infinite free shipping vouchers (their vouchers are an entire stable of gift horses, and it feels immoral). It hasn’t arrived yet, but, buying it, I felt like a total loser — buying anything ergonomic feels like a concession to techno-capitalism’s global enslavement. I wish I could be a hot underaged TikTok star and never send an email or open a laptop ever again.

Two weekends ago, I ordered fried chicken and it arrived in an oily mess, the fries had spilled out of their fry holder and gone everywhere, they were crushed. I didn’t ask for a refund, but I did write a review on Grab: “Received in an oily mess. Fries everywhere. Unsure whether fault of driver or vendor.” It doesn’t and won’t do anything, but I am running so short on feelings that I just pick up on any little thing, just to hold on to it for a moment. Just to talk to someone, maybe. The other day, I sent an email to an editor of a newspaper, which I’ve never done before. I feel like a deranged castaway, marooned on a desert island, turning over rocks to talk to the insects. 

People have written about the depression of lockdown, the one that stems from being separated from the emotional support of your friends for a long, unnatural period of time, and people have also written about their experiences of paranoid anxiety at the thought of re-entering the world again after lockdown, but I haven’t stumbled upon an article yet that combines the sentiments of the two to talk about how lockdown, whether you support it or not, actually creates a depressive ecosystem that makes you never want to re-enter the world again. Not for fear of the virus. I guess a separate article doesn’t need to be written about it, because this is an obvious defining feature of depression, which is a dull cycle. All it takes is not leaving the house for a few days for you to never leave the house again, to not even be capable of imagining leaving the house again. It’s as if you’d been born here, and you’d always been here, really: everything else, all the other moments had just been lies, fantasies to help you cope, when the truth is that you’ll always be here even if you’re somewhere else, and eventually you’ll realise this, stop chasing all those illusory elsewheres, and give in to your fate, which is here. Sometimes I feel bad because I haven’t made any effort to check up on any of my friends since this lockdown started, not even by replying to their stories. But then I realise that nobody’s asked for me either, and I feel a sense of relief.

I actually like lockdown, I wanted it. When the cases were climbing up to 5000, I echoed what many people in the comments section on The Star’s Facebook page were saying, that the country should go into lockdown until the case numbers come down. Isn’t it the case that you always want things to be another way, and then when things go that way, you wish they could go back to the way they were before, etc. I never learn from all this. But I’ve experienced enough lockdowns to know by now that I’m an inconsistent dumbass and I should just admit that I like lockdown, and I enjoy this stagnant depression too, it’s calming and mechanical. Days pass without event, sometimes I go an entire day without saying more than one or two words. My brain is a gentle confused fog. I have more time to read books, watch movies, and to just spend time alone with myself. I don’t feel anything towards any piece of breaking news or fresh conflict happening around the world, I don’t have “takes”. I’ve really cut down the amount I post to my Stories now. There’s not much I care to say. 

Before the lockdown, I went for a last cycle with P — gentle P, another friend of the abyss. We get along well because, at the end of the day, we’re both very lonely. Sometimes a successful relationship just depends on understanding that, and not asking anything from each other beyond that understanding. 

I arrived late, I left my house at 10 when I said I’d arrive at 10. When we set off, it was probably already approaching 11. Right behind P’s house is an entrance into the sprawling Kwong Tong cemetery compound, and we walked our bikes up because the incline of the hill leading there is way more than I’m capable of. Sun was out, no sign of rain on the horizon: a late morning that’s testament to how nice the weather must have been just a few hours earlier, if only I’d bothered to wake up earlier. 

The cemetery is the biggest Chinese cemetery in Malaysia, acres upon acres of headstones as far as the eye can see; and then the Kuala Lumpur skyline beyond a horizon of trees, with the awkward, brutish PNB and TRX buildings sticking out. Yap Ah Loy is buried here, and he has a great big black marble commemoration plaque where his grave is. The graves have pictures of the deceased on them, some have many Chinese words on them, some have illustrations that represent the Twenty-four Filial Exemplars. Some of the graves are larger than others, practically pavilions really, and better maintained. Some other sections are just thickets of tall grass and weeds that scratch you when you try to walk through. There’s a narrow road for cars, and it’s fringed with a number of interesting trees and shrubs. Frangipani, hibiscus. I’ve been to the cemetery multiple times with P, but each time I feel like I discover some new section of it that I don’t remember noticing before. Near the edges of the cemetery, where it opens up onto the Japanese War Memorial and Alice Smith School, there’s a building that looks like a ramshackle old mini mansion, seemingly unoccupied, except that there used to be a little cafe operating from the corner where some friendly Chinese folks would sell you cold beer in bottles. It was called the “Graveyard Bar” on Google Maps. That bar is closed now though the building still stands, and dogs fill the compound, barking at you if you cycle too close. I just followed P blindly and I still don’t really know where all everything is, and we were the only living people around except for the occasional Foodpanda rider. 

It’s hilly and bumpy up there, with a bunch of minor potholes. Each time I pushed myself up a slight hill I would be rewarded with the smooth decline on the other side of it, and then P would turn around because we’d reached some dead end, and the decline that had been my friend now became an inimical incline. We made a few circles before I ran out of breath, and the entire time P hardly broke a sweat. I love cycling, and up in that cemetery among the mottled sunlight and the rows of still grey stone, utterly alone, I felt like I was in Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo when the moon-change of tides turns the entire city into a Paleolithic forest. It was peaceful and regenerative, the breeze upon my face felt clear and pure. 

To tell the truth, the intermittent lockdowns have hardened my heart, and I go through the days not feeling anything except boredom and some low-level despair. I don’t miss seeing my friends much, my soul is too tired to miss anything or to hope for anything. But I miss cycling. 

Signing off for now, ‘As a cyclist’,

☾ Some tale of marvel to beguile the night

Day 48 (???) of Malaysia’s Movement Control Order (MCO); Day 2 of its Conditional Movement Control Order

In times of crisis we instinctively turn to the past for instruction, if not for a solution then at least for how to manage suffering. During the on-going Covid-19 pandemic, one point of common reference has been Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, with its gathering of friends telling stories to pass the time while they quarantine themselves from the Black Death. Instead of picking up the Italian Decameron, I picked up the Arab-Persian-Indian smorgasbord, Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, the 1972 version translated by N.J. Dawood and published by Penguin Classics. I picked it up in search of inspiration for a writing project, but really it was a way to procrastinate from that project, then the procrastination transformed into escapism.

The Nights are an unparalleled piece of escapism, a sublime world of vernacular story-telling that transports you into another time on the back of a djinn, in the twinkling of an eye: the medieval world but with shades of mysticism and supernaturalism, a world that existed but now does not, a world with different ethics and values, a simpler and straightforward yet also procedurally complex world, a world where all forms of the fantastic are possible, but strictly within the immutable hierarchy of kings.

Stories have elaborate twists that, as a writer trying to extract inspiration, make me jealous at the prospect of the disavowal — or perhaps transcendence — of logic required to even start imagining them. It seems ridiculous that a tale could turn simply on a chance meeting in a foreign land, or the fortuitous discovery that leads to safety after a shipwreck, or in the inexplicable magic and existence of djinns. Not to mention the endless racket of superlatives, the infinite riches of one story always being doubled by the next. Everyone must be ‘wealthier and more generous than any King or Sultan who ever lived before.’ Riches are described with a sort of fractal effect, starting with the construction of a magnificent palace, then an enumeration of all the richly-decorated halls within the palace and the extensive slave network to serve the palace, then zooming in on the fine detailing of the furnishings and the magnificence of each slave’s livery, and so on and so forth. An evocative example is the ‘unfinished window’ in “Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp”, a single bejewelled window set in a magnificent dome in Aladdin’s new djinn-magicked palace that he leaves unfinished so that he may challenge the King to finish it in the same style as the other windows in the dome. The King empties his coffers of precious jewels, but they are not enough for even a fraction of the window. He seizes the jewels of his Vizier and courtiers, then orders for the seizure of all jewels owned by prominent men in his land, and yet after days of work the window isn’t even halfway finished. From a fraction of the window we can extrapolate the magnificence of the other windows, the dome, the surrounding room, and ultimately the palace. With all the jewels in the city used up, Aladdin bids the craftsmen undo their work and return them to the rightful owners, and has the djinn complete the window overnight. 

If you don’t believe the stories, an excuse can be given by reverting back to the Master story, that of King Shahriyar and Shahrazad (a story quite incredulous in itself), who, remember, is simply telling ‘a tale of marvel, so that the night may pass pleasantly’. All the Tales are framed as bedtime stories, like those of our youth, but unlike us modern adults who choose to wholesale import our capacity for imagination from Disney instead, the adults in the Nights continue to have an earnest indulgence for bedtime stories. And unlike Disney’s stories (which also include Marvel and Star Wars now), the Nights do not censor life’s passionate extremities. All forms of bodily punishment are inflicted and all sorts of sexual dalliances take place across its pages; the tales don’t dwell on these either, but rather simply describe the action as yet another bead clicking into place on Fate’s thread.

In the Nights, psychology doesn’t exist, not like in our modern fixation on the Individual. Barely any of the characters are more than words on the page, simple vehicles for their story and their destiny. Stock figures abound and within the stock figures are also stock dichotomies. There are the Caliphs and Kings, who are often just and munificent, but who can also be foolish and greedy; there are the Viziers, either loyal or traitorous; the “Moors”, often deceptive pagan (= bad) sorcerers or contradictorily God-worshiping (= good) sorcerers; the everyman, who could be a porter, cobbler, fisherman, or any other from the range of jobs lower than a merchant in the marketplace hierarchy, foolish and aggressive but just as often obedient and worthy; and then there are women, fair and naive, but also wise and cunning, but also calculating and deceitful. And then, of course, there is the omniscient but invisible force of Allah, the bearer of fortune and life, but also the Destroyer of all earthly pleasures, the Annihilator of men.

This lack of psychology and, to a lesser degree, reason and justice (often, fools can become wise overnight, and even the most dastardly of characters can be redeemed and rewarded if they can spin a good yarn), is one of the most compelling escapes that reading the Nights offers. For all our self-inflicted loss and misery, all the mental lashes and beard-rendings we deal ourselves as punishment for our own foolishness, the Nights does not dwell long on these nor on the question of whether they are deserved. Often, self-inflicted suffering is tossed off with a compression of time, as for example, ‘In this way he suffered for one year’ with no other elaboration, or through a total outright passing-over (“not interesting!”) by bluntly rounding off a character’s story with, ‘so much for him’ so that another, more interesting sub-plot can be followed.

All wickedness and suffering can be redeemed in the Nights if you can produce a good story from it. All claims of injustice and inaccuracies can be silenced by pointing to the nature of story-telling itself (it’s all made up; we already told you so from the start). In the end, all will perish and the only survivors will be our stories and Allah. Thus the Nights offers a perfect escape — unlike, for example, our more contemporary equivalent of “escaping” into Netflix entertainment, which isn’t very escapist considering they still rely on our common shared ethics and a background knowledge of real, current events. The Nights is pure, uncut story, hitting like a potent drug.

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It is easier to imagine the end of the world

Two quotes: 

“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

— Famously attributed to Slavoj Zizek. 

“Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.”

— Friedrich Engels. 

In the past few years, I’ve been observing the encroachment of socialism into the political establishments of leading first-world nations, specifically the United States of America and the United Kingdom. In America, I watched Bernie Sanders battling to battle Trump, and in the UK, I watched Jeremy Corbyn battling David Cameron (then Theresa May, then Boris Johnson, and their lapdogs in the media). 

The left and the right moved ever towards their extremities, and it seemed like a final decisive battle was being waged between humanity, as embodied in socialism, and barbarism, as embodied in the barely-there corpse of capitalism we insisted on dragging around. I watched UK and US electoral politics from a distance yet I always felt certain, right up till the very end, that our candidate (the people’s candidate) must win. There’s no way that he can’t win — conditions are so obviously terrible all around us! How could anyone be blind to that? How could anyone at all vote for anyone but him, unless they’re voters from 1% who only make up 1% anyway so who cares? 

Both times I’ve been proven wrong and both times, the idea that anyone would vote to maintain the status quo (or even to fight the status quo by moving right, as with Trump 2016) seemed shocking to me only up until the last minute. Maybe I just live in an echo chamber, maybe it’s difficult for me to separate what I want from what’s realistically possible. Campaign period is a huge frenzy of passion, hope, and propaganda, but the day before the election, when nothing is possible anymore, reality seems to return in a rush and settle heavily as the results come in. I thought Jeremy would win until he didn’t, and then his loss made sense; I thought Bernie might win the nomination until Joe started sweeping delegates, and the possibility already seems dead. 

In the first few days when lockdown measures started taking place all over the world and we started to feel the consequences of measures imposed desperately and recklessly in a state of crisis, I felt hopeful that this could be the start of something. With confused shock, the world watched every single thing that capitalism previously claimed was impossible become possible. Momentarily, it became easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the world. 

In Malaysia, some state governments started offering allowances to laid-off workers or one-off payments to their citizens. In a news piece I read today, the state has also stepped in to requisition face masks from a company accused of price-gouging (paralleling a case with an individual “entrepreneur” in the US). Spain has nationalised hospitals, while France and the UK have started housing homeless people in hotels, and the US Senate just passed an economic stimulus deal which proposes an emergency monthly allowance cheque of $1200 for certain individuals. Over Twitter, we watched how communist governments in Vietnam and China efficiently organised essential services during their lockdown. Vietnam put in place a centralised food production and delivery system instead of leaving it to individual businesses, which would have allowed cracks for exploitation to seep through. Doctors from China, Cuba, and Venezuela — all socialist/communist countries — were sent all over the world to help fight the pandemic. 

Momentarily, it seemed as if the contradictions within capitalism were exposing themselves faster than the virus. Graffiti appeared in London proclaiming, “MAKE THE RICH PAY FOR COVID 19” and “NO RENT” and “HANG RICHARD BRANSON”, punctuated with the hammer and sickle. People are becoming increasingly, aggressively aware that capitalism, and the governments who are colluding to protect capitalists, is incapable of dealing with a crisis. 

Where are the protections for workers? Why is the state, supposedly a “democratic” representation of “the people”, not overriding the will of landlords and employers to impose rent relief and unconditional sick pay? Why doesn’t the state provide a universal allowance, or if not that, then follow Vietnam’s lead in producing and distributing food to everyone who needs it? Many countries are announcing “stimulus packages” to alleviate the burden of Covid-19, but a lot of this money is going into ailing ventures like airline companies and the stock market. When will we stop prioritising businesses over individuals?

To start thinking in this way is to start thinking about a total revolution of all social relations. The energy is clearly there, all over the world, as governments and corporations are shown up by community efforts and soup kitchens. But just like the waves that Corbyn and Sanders rode in on, I feel like this one is going to abate. 

A friend asked me what my predictions for the aftermath of Covid-19 are, how I think this crisis may shape the new normal. I don’t think it will. (Besides perhaps an increased concern about hygiene.) Some people will be laid off, some businesses will close permanently, but this is already part of our everyday normal. All of the “socialist” measures now in place are crisis measures that will predictably be lifted again as the threat of the virus subsides and people try to square with the amount of carnage we’ve just lived through. We now know that full housing and an end to profiteering are within the realm of possibility, but the total structural change required to maintain this isn’t possible. We will most likely continue the way we were before, which is what many people want, but it means that we will never really be prepared to face another crisis without losing the same amount of people. 

When the lieutenant governor of Texas proposed that elderly people should be OK with sacrificing themselves to get the American economy back on track, or when Boris Johnson drew up his “herd immunity” plan, we should not see these as accurate reflections of the scale of the crisis. Rather, they are simply the limits of capitalism’s logic. Death and suffering are already written into capitalism’s programming code. In one of his coronavirus commentaries, Zizek points to a strange yet believable observation made by an environmental resource economist that China’s lockdown probably prevented more deaths from air pollution than which died during the entire Covid-19 outbreak there! By staying home, the amount of pollution that would have been generated by vehicles and factories decreased dramatically.

A funny point, but a reasonable one once you realise that capitalism needs to kill, pollute, and destroy in order to live. Under capitalism, people already slip through the cracks anyway. When people say that “capitalism is the only system that works”, they are saying that homelessness, destitution, discrimination, and violence are requirements for their system to function properly. As an economic philosophy that puts individual gain over collective safety, capitalism operates on profit first and humanitarian feelings second (and then only insofar as they serve or at the very least do not damage the increment of profit).

Migrants are also a “by-product” of capitalism because their labour can be bought for much cheaper than domestic labour; put in competition with domestic labour, both wages are forced down, which benefits no one except their bosses. This phenomenon of tenants being threatened with eviction by their landlords is also another symptom of capitalism, as only those with the initial capital to do so can buy up property and then squeeze tenants for rent despite performing minimal labour beyond covering some maintenance (some landlords do not even do that). Another one of capitalism’s direct products is the phenomenon of price-gouging — it seems cruel now in light of the crisis but private pharmaceutical companies make their money precisely in this manner with other essential medicines everyday. 

Socialism is the basic notion that nobody should have to struggle simply to live. Absolutely nobody. This is controversial to some. In my belief, everyone should be guaranteed, at the most minimum: food, a roof over their heads, basic education (at least literacy) and healthcare. This is not even to say that everyone should get their own house! (Even though I’m sure there are enough empty floors in all the pointless hotels, serviced apartments, and new phallic developments to house everyone.) Even just a communal apartment. Ho Chi Minh lived modestly in a traditional Vietnamese stilt house. Anyone who works really hard can get a better home or better food, whatever, but at the most minimum nobody should ever have to die just for being born, and if there are other luxuries that the elite few should give up to ensure this, then I think it is worth it.

Many consider this controversial but the bigger controversy should be capitalism and its requisite suffering. It is impossible to imagine its end because we have all been living under it for so long, but we must be able to try. We must question ourselves mercilessly about how badly we could want to hold on to our current way of living if someone has to die for it, or if the environment has to go to waste for it. (Nor is it a question of individual effort — while recycling and reducing one’s carbon footprint is admirable, the immense sacrifice of the environment requires an immense sacrifice in kind from us if we want to save it.) The lives we lose to coronavirus will not have been a failure of the doctors or nurses — they will have been a failure of the imagination. Many people fail to imagine how we could possibly save more people even as they refuse to do anything for the newly destitute. They keep asking how we will pay for it. Once you can start to believe the basic principle, all the answers will follow.