On the secret seashore
white like a pigeon
we thirsted at noon:
but the water was brackish.
“ΑΡΝΗΣΗ” (“Denial”), George Seferis
trans. Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard
I’ve been thinking of this post ever since I heard the policewoman’s statement about the scene of Pavlos Physsas’ murder. It was on the radio and I was on my way to the metro. I could so easily not have heard it. So much seems to happen “by chance” these days. The accumulated stress makes it a challenge to keep concentrated. Then the reprieves, like these sun-washed fall days, make our ventures away from it all somehow necessary. I once read that Simone de Beauvoir and JP Sartre spent large amounts of time going to the movies during the Nazi Occupation of Paris. They received some major criticism for sitting in cinemas while others were fighting guerilla warfares – I wonder what they saw when all was censored, horribly romantic melodramas, propagandistic clips of an Aryan empire? It probably didn’t matter, the pall and weight of their world perhaps impossible to distance themselves from except in such absurd and overt perversions of their present.
Last weekend I met a friend I hadn’t seen for a while for coffee. It was another gorgeous day with people out in cafés. A passerby might be hard put to see signs of the country’s despair on a morning like that. The graffiti crowded surfaces of often stunning artwork and the now-familiar signatures of voices like “Βασανίζομαι” (suffering) and “FOLA” (poison) are reminders, as are the begging homeless. But in the square where we had coffee there were also people laughing, balloons being sold, pigeons being fed, lovers kissing. My friend had just bought Patrick Morrissey’s Autobiography; it got us talking about individuals and outspoken lives, how it seemed like it would be harder and harder to be just that as social networks were being used to surveillance behavior. He had mentioned that in the UK there were millions going off Facebook that had started a bizarre counter-inquiry into “Why wouldn’t you have a FB account…” It sounded far-fetched, but then again so much does these days. We got ourselves imagining a next breed of human kind that he named “Homo-Econ” a descendant of “Homo-Faber,” driven by production and concrete measurable outcomes. There would be few opportunities for spontaneous behavior, and if pigeons were being fed and lovers kissing they would be on plasma screens as images of our past. Public spaces, particularly in western cities, are increasingly spaces where kinds of behavior we might still take for granted are monitored or prohibited. The sign at the entrance of Washington Square Park for example has a list of all you can’t do, after it tells you, “This is your park” though one that prohibits “bike riding” and “feeding squirrels” among other things.
When “all of us as we know ourselves to be die out” my friend went on, in our places will be “people who will take all these forms of interventions and control for granted.” It was not unimaginable; Bradbury, Orwell, and Huxley had already described that world. The thing is what is outrageous to some to others is being denied, maybe as a way to survive? Though the joke is on us since survival, or survival as tied to certain basic values, is also about the ability to think independently and take initiatives.
The policewoman on that September night that Pavlos Physsas was murdered decided on her own accord to follow the skirmish that had broken out on a street in Keratsini. She reported the fact that she and others on duty had been told of the skirmish where some 30 people were in a street fight. As they approached men on motorbikes called out to them as “colleagues,” saying “it’s been taken care of, there’s no need to get involved. The fight’s over.” She said the group had broken up, and those with her left when she noticed there was still shouting from one of the streets. She went toward it on her own, down “a dark side street,” as she described it. All she could see were two bodies fighting. As she approached one of the men moved away from the other, the person she was going to arrest seemed to have been the more energetic; it was Physsas who had just been stabbed. He managed to shout, “Grab him he’s stabbed me!” It was only because of Physsas’ ability to point out his murderer that the policewoman arrested him as he was getting into his car. “We don’t use knives,” she said when she took him into custody. Physsas died some hours later. What is stunning about the story is that he could have died without anyone having known the culprit, or culprits. We may have all suspected but there would have been no evidence without the policewoman’s eyewitness account had she not taken the initiative to continue down the street after her colleagues left. Finally, it took Physsas’ murder for the government to do anything about the violence of the Golden Dawn party and their criminality.
As the country lives its tragic dismantling, set adrift and seemingly protected by none, least of all its so-called saviors which includes its governing bodies whose sole aim seems to be to keep itself from being implicated in the drama of its own making, these human moments are all the more resonant for what they express of individual integrity and responsibility. Sometimes I think people like that policewoman represent the few who are not in denial of our circumstance, with enough courage to do her job despite its costs. It’s more than we can say for the government, and the larger realities of late capitalism’s dead-ends. Yanis Varoufakis continues to post on the continued cartography of our economic demise, and while people aren’t “shooting the messenger,” they are for the most part ignoring the message.
What is moving to me in our coming-apartness is the humanity that is still human, that we are not (not all of us) ignoring each other in our vulnerability (again excepting members of government). Someone walked by a café where someone had left a plate of food (meatballs) half eaten; he stopped and picked one off the plate. The owner packaged the meal and gave it to him. When I make some Xeroxes I am short of a euro, and have to break a 20-euro bill, and am told to give it to him when I come by again. But when I do give the euro a little later the owner smiles as if I’m giving him something he never expected. I generally leave a 10 or 20-cent tip when I get coffee in the morning, and one morning Martha, the young woman who makes the coffee offers me a sandwich she says is on her. I’m surprised and she says, “You always leave me a tip.” I find these gestures almost overwhelming because they recognize our mutual dependencies in a time when those dependencies are being denied by people who could do something about the situation on the level of policy. Late capitalism’s brute indifferences to individual lives, that they are individual lives and not simply numbers to crunch or behavior to surveillance remain signs of life in a landscape of death; maybe de Beauvoir and Sartre needed to escape their world of death in those darkened cinema spaces, maybe they found opportunities for subversive conversations, a pretense at life as they hoped it might be again one day?