I was reading Paul Bowles’ travel writing, Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue. Much of it diary entries. The following passage provoked me somehow. Bowles and his traveling companion Abdeslam, a devout Moslem, are visiting Turkey, still relatively young in modernization.
Material benefits may be accrued in this worldwide game of refusing to be oneself. Are these benefits worth the inevitable void produced by such destruction? The question is apposite in every case where the traditional beliefs of a people have been systematically modified by its government. Rationalizing words like “progress,” “modernization,” or “democracy” mean nothing because, even if they are used sincerely, the imposition of such concepts by force from above cancels whatever value they might otherwise have. There is little doubt that by having been made indifferent Moslems the younger generation in Turkey has become more like our idea of what people living in the twentieth century should be. The old helplessness in the face of mektoub (it is written) is gone, and in its place is a passionate belief in man’s ability to alter his destiny. That is the greatest step of all; once it has been made, anything, unfortunately, can happen.
Abdeslam is not a happy person. He sees his world, which he knows is a good world, being assailed from all sides, slowly crumbling before his eyes. He has no means of understanding me should I try to explain to him that in this age what he considers to be religion is called superstition, and that religion today has come to be a desperate attempt to integrate metaphysics with science. Something will have to be found to replace the basic wisdom which as been destroyed, but the discovery will not be soon; neither Abdeslam nor I will ever know of it.
Miriam — great quote.
Not sure that I understand Bowles’ description of modernity as a “…worldwide game of refusing to be oneself.”
The idea that one ever is “oneself ” is questionable to me. In my view, Bowles’ friend Abdeslam can be a traditionalist and superstitious about the tenants of Islam, and… well, okay, he certainly won’t be alone in that position. Or he can adapt, along with the “younger generation in Turkey” Bowles speaks about, turning instead to the tenants of individualism, hedonism, a belief in progress, human rights talk, what have you. Either way, he is not “refusing to be himself.” Either way, his actions, his daily commitments, are an expression of himself. Everyone suppresses certain impulses — selfish or ecstatically self-sacrificial, they range all over the place — to conform to the expectations of others. Abdeslam did this in traditional Turkey; he would do this in Las Vegas at a casino. We are never some pure “self.”
There is so much heedless thinking about the alienation caused by Capitalism, etc. You hear it all the time. I want to point out that the alienation is not unique to capitalism; it is unique to the human mind and the way we take raw data and structure it into creaky narratives in order to survive. The narrative of Islam is creaky — I would agree with Simon Blackburn in characterizing all religions as “fossilized philosophy.” But the newest narratives of the modern world are creaky too — since they do not offer, could never offer, perfect, harmonious solutions to the conflicts of our own natures either.
Is a panther driven out of the trees into the plains “refusing to be itself”?
The key for Abdeslam, for Bowles, for the panther, for all of us? Don’t get nostalgic. Don’t play the victim. Adapt. What did you expect, everything would stay the same? We’ll all get plenty of that when we die.