David Van Reybrouck – Odes
Ode to the dead who show up on my cell phone
I’m sitting in a Tokyo coffee bar, drinking thick, green tea. I run through the notes from my interviews and plan the days ahead. To friends who live hours in the past, I send messages. Suddenly my hand is staid. Suddenly there is the name of a friend who lived years in the past.
Every day I carry a graveyard with me. A fresh, well-ordered graveyard. Many of the dead aren’t even buried there yet. More gravel than gravestones at the moment, more grass than ash.
But in the graveyard of my address book I come across them more often all the time. I look for a living friend and my telephone suggests a dead one. I scroll through the letter G and suddenly run into Gerrit. The rumpled face, the Portuguese area code. O, Gerrit, long time no see! Come on, let’s send you a text. How many years have you been lying there, anyway?
What happens to our phone numbers, email addresses and Facebook profiles when we die? Will my dead body still receive fashion suggestions from Zalando? Will galleries go on thinking that I should attend their vernissage? Will I still be receiving Nigerian inheritances, absolutely free of charge?
“Hilde has left this group.”
I scroll on. One dead friend brings the other to life. O, Tsjebbe, dear friend. Thinking of you, the beach still knits its brow. The shallows still curse. The dunes shake their heads and gnash their teeth. Your collected works will be appearing soon. Do you remember us talking about that in Brussels? You were sitting in my kitchen, eating mussels. You’d never eaten mussels before, you said, but your fingers found their mark. Just like your poems.
Tokyo is suddenly so far away. I long for Friesland and the old days and smoked eel.
My most precious dead don’t lie in this digital address book. In 1998, when I lost five friends at a single blow, no one had a cell phone. And far into the 21st century, my father was perfectly content with our fixed line at home. But that number ((050) 35 58 07), the number which became as much a part of me as my own birthday, no longer exists either. My mother has made the leap to the world of providers and operators. The days when we put parentheses around our area codes are gone forever.
And so I scroll between many of the living and a few of the dead. This digital graveyard, too, will slowly become full, until there is no one left. In much the same way that, here in Japan, there’s almost no one alive who experienced the war in Indonesia. I track down the survivors, go by and talk, they are all at least 97 years old.
I put my phone away. My tea has grown cold.
I just can’t bring myself to delete them. Why should I?
Show up again sometime, I want to say to them. Drop by every so often. Cut the disease from the body. Loosen the rope. Cough yourself back to life. Be here, now and then.
Ode to being offline
Last summer I planned to walk the Cambrian Way, a three-week hike through Wales. But within a week I found myself back in Brussels. I hadn’t enjoyed myself at all. Rained out? No, in fact Wales was experiencing a heat wave at the time. Disgusting food? I was prepared for the worst, and reconciled to frozen peas at 30o C. Monotonous landscape? The loveliest stretches still lay ahead, but Llanthony Abbey, depicted by Turner on several occasions, was glorious by evening light. So what was wrong?
It was the first time I went traveling with a smartphone.
I had bought the thing six months earlier and thought it would be handy for checking B&Bs, bus schedules or the rainfall radar along the way. Besides, it meant I didn’t have to take along a camera: that saved me an extra 300 grams, easy.
Well, forget it. It didn’t make me any lighter, it weighed me down. Lying in my tent at night, I read all the things my friends had shared on Facebook. Instead of the time-honored and much-loved poring over the topographic hiking map, I abandoned myself to chatting with semi-acquaintances, outshining the rest by virtue of my fantastic one-liners and hilarious comments; after all, I’m more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Blech.
And crawling into my sleeping bag afterwards, I no longer felt the divine fatigue prompted by a day of walking in the out of doors, only a strange sort of excitement, as though somewhere behind my breastbone, close to my stomach, a tea-warmer was lit at all times – a battery-operated tea-warmer.
I wasn’t in Wales. I was in my screen. I was everywhere and nowhere. Maybe that’s precisely what’s so miserable about being permanently online: you’re never really anywhere anymore. It all becomes here. You unravel, to a point where a thin layer of “you” lies stretched over Europe and points beyond.
And the peculiar thing was: I couldn’t do a thing about it. Even though I usually maintain a moderate to extreme degree of discipline in my life, this time I was unable to put that damn smartphone aside. I was on vacation, I was alone and I was on-line: a deadly combination. It felt too nice, that endless flow of cordial messages. It was worse than a TV screen in a waiting room: I couldn’t not look.
What a difference with two years earlier, when I traversed the length of the Pyrenees on foot. I took the train from Brussels to Hendaye, the last French town on the Atlantic coast. Upon arrival, I took my SIM card out of my old-fashioned cell and sent it home in the mail. There would be no network reception on the high trails anyway. I had the time of my life.
Why is it so difficult for us to withdraw from that which distracts us, prods us and, in the long run, even makes us less happy? The answer is simple: because in the short run it makes us euphoric.
I, like everyone else, think I have just as much willpower as the next guy. But my primate brain, the result of a few million years of natural selection, has clearly not yet adapted to this 21st century. It pricks up its ears at every little message, it’s happy with every app, it looks forward to every new ping – the modern equivalent of Pavlov’s bell. I suspect that my heart rate and respiration even speed up when something new comes in. Maybe that’s precisely the problem: my prehistoric brain thinks that whole Internet business is awfully homey.
Does that have something to do with me? With my profession? With my generation? According to the Belgian neuropsychiatrist and publicist Theo Compernolle, we all have the same thing, including the youngest of the young. In his fascinating Unchain Your Brain, he strips bare the myth of the effortlessly multi-tasking child. Let one half of the class send and receive text messages during the lesson, and keep the other half from doing so. Then quiz the children on the content of the lesson: the text messengers score significantly lower.
He cites a spectacular study, held in the United States among 3,500 girls between the ages of eight and twelve. The children felt significantly unhappier and unsure of themselves in proportion to the amount of time they spent on social media. Do less happy girls tend to go online more often, or does being online make them unhappy? “The idea that online communication creates a rich social space, one which promotes the social and emotional development of young girls, is contradicted by our data,” the researchers conclude.
Compernolle collated the results of more than 600 such scientific publications, in much the same way that Al Gore bundled the results of climate research. His conclusion is a truth that is every bit as inconvenient: permanent connectivity is not good for us. Yes, we can track down information at lightning speed and tune in to a number of channels at the same time, and that’s wonderful! But our concentration, our well-being and our creativity suffer under it. “If Steve Jobs had been messing with his iPhone the whole time, he would never have invented the iPhone.”
No, Steve Jobs swore by hiking.
Long ago, when that relentless bombardment of psychosocial stimuli was yet to be unleashed, a shot of happy feeling was undoubtedly useful for something. But for many of us, in times of oversupply, the mechanism seems to go haywire. It’s like sugar: because it occurs only rarely in nature and the body has a certain need of it, occasional consumption provides us with a happy feeling.
In fact, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp achieve exactly the same end-result as Coca Cola and Pepsi: addiction. By drawing your attention with bright red dots, by making your photo pop up before you’ve even decided to respond, by employing the language of “friends,” “followers” and “likes,” by means of “activity reports,” “notifications” and personalized statistics, they take advantage of our misled brains to generate the greatest possible dependence on something that we don’t always need and that can even harm us.
For the last nine years I’ve rented office space in an old factory in Brussels, simply because it’s a place where I’m offline. That is where I’ve written all my recent books and plays. What I find there has become a rarity: slow attention. The days feel longer, I’m more focused and relaxed. When I cycle home in the evening, I know what I did that day.
But because it’s not always possible to be in the office, last month I installed Freedom on my computer, an app that allows you to completely or partially block Internet access for the number of hours you choose. I still have to experiment with it a little, but writer Zadie Smith was already lyrical about it. Dave Eggers, Philip Roth, Naomi Klein, Jonathan Franzen: they all retire to the latest offline corners in order to work in peace. At the same time, though, we allow Internet to infiltrate even further. WhatsApp can already tunnel its way behind Freedom’s wall of defense. And in a city like Luxembourg, everyone can be online everywhere, at all times.
I hesitated to write this essay. I’m sure there will be comments along the lines of “crybaby, just turn that thing off.” But I suspect that I’m not the only one. That it’s more a matter of collective muddling than of individual weakness. Nevertheless, a culture of shame seems to be on the rise. “It’s probably just me,” you hear people say. Then I think: every failure of society is initially seen as an individual’s failure.
And there are bound to be a few smart alecks who’ll say: “An ode to being offline on an online platform? How credible is that?” But that’s not the point. There is no need to oppose the Internet, only to oppose the uncritical acceptance of the dogma that being online everywhere is always better. Maybe what we need are Internet-free zones, along the lines of the Car-Free Sunday. But what we need most of all is the courage to face up to a number of tough questions.
Do we feel that it’s normal for the Internet to so appropriate our lives and our minds, unbidden? Do we feel that it’s normal for technologies, ones we’ve come up with ourselves, to run away with us like this? Shouldn’t we start asking ourselves more often what technologies do to us, and not just what we do with technologies?
By the way: I still have that smartphone, but I’ve chucked the permanent online business. I stick to Wi-Fi. And this summer I’m planning to go to Greenland.
Ode to the ex
And suddenly, there we were again. Last Monday, a Brussels cafe. The day was done and we sat beside each other, just like we used to. Watching people, squeezing each other’s thigh, thinking about that sentence from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Aimer, ce n’est pas de regarder l’un l’autre, c’est regarder ensemble dans la même direction.”
Yes, we often looked in the same direction. For six years. Committed to so much, astonished at even more, and sometimes simply content with the apple – carrot – ginger juice we made for each other on Sunday mornings.
And now, here we were again. After a three-month silence. She ordered port. Funny, she never used to do that. Everything had changed, yet still it seemed like old times.
Who are these people we once loved so much? The word “ex” doesn’t do justice to the intense, multilayered relations we’re left with from our former loves. The relationships with former lovers are perhaps the most enduring in our lives. The love went, the past remains, something along those lines. But why does that often have to be so unbearable? Why go on being so bitter? Sorrow disguising itself as severity. Loss expressing itself as animosity. A crying shame. Just because a relationship is over doesn’t mean the friendship ends, does it? Just because the mold no longer fits doesn’t mean the contents have evaporated, does it?
Sometimes lives flow together, sometimes they flow apart again. Rodaan Al Galidi wrote the loveliest farewell poem in all of Dutch-language poetry about that very thing:
Ga ik naar de vrouw van wie ik hou
En geef ik haar vleugels terug.
I’m going to the woman I love
To give her back her wings
Even better, of course, if the wings are never taken away during the relationship, but wings are so light, you often don’t know whether you’re wearing them or not.
I never had sisters, but former lovers must be close to that, I think. Women who know me through and through, from whom I have nothing to hide, who I still adore. Not sure whether I would want to start all over again with one of them, but very sure that I wouldn’t want to have missed my time with them for all the money in the world. As far as I’m concerned, all their names can be printed at the bottom of my obituary.
She gets up to order something else at the bar. You think about that time, long ago, when you tried to seduce a woman with the words “come on, let’s start something together, I’ll make a fantastic ex,” a promise you lived up to as well. You think about that time with someone else, when you saw them again for the
first time in a long time: at the start of the conversation you realized all over again why you’d once started something with this person; by the end of it, you knew perfectly well why you’d had to go your separate ways.
A time-lapse of the relationship.
She stands at the bar. I see her in profile. I have to do my utmost not to notice her beauty. It doesn’t work. So bring on the torment. Some of her lingerie is still hanging in my closet. Bought for her once, in Paris of course. I don’t know what to do with it. Give it back? But then, will she wear it for someone else? Should I give it to someone else? No, that can’t be, then I’d be betraying two people at once. But another person can’t wrap themselves up in our desire, can they?
Maybe I should just send them off to Zagreb. That’s where the Museum of Broken Relationships is located, probably the most poignant one in all of Europe. It was set up by an artist couple, after they broke up. What, they wondered, are we supposed to do with our common property? You know what, they figured, instead of painfully divvying up all those CDs and books and lugging them around like a permanently open wound, we’ll put them on display, as a memento of our time together. That appealed so much to people that they began sending in things of their own after a breakup. A cassette tape, a sweater, an axe, a boarding pass, a pair of pink handcuffs. The ever-expanding collection is heartrendingly beautiful.
So where is Europe? There, that’s Europe. We are the continent of exes. I haven’t actually gone and counted, but I suspect that we are the continent with the biggest ex population. That’s the price we pay for the individual liberty we’ve cherished ever since the Renaissance, and the romantic love we’ve professed ever since the Romantic era. But the Museum of Broken Relationships is also a place we can go to in our floundering, where we can find comfort in the familiarity of other people’s botch-ups and heartaches. That museum is a chapel, a place of pilgrimage for all those ruttish, bleeding hearts that are us.
She walks towards me with that guilelessly sensual walk of hers. She has her purse tucked under one arm, and she’s carrying a glass of beer in each hand. That weird port was only a caprice, I think. I take one of the glasses from her, she settles down beside me, we raise a toast, we smile, we taste. And in the back of my mind I hear crickets and Satie, and the turbines of memory roar while all the skin on my body asks itself whether I, whether that whatchacallit, whether that apple – carrot – ginger juice, whether I’ll ever be able to drink that with anyone else.
(Source of the ode below: Pen International website)
Ode to the most beautiful human being (‘Ode aan de mooiste mens’)
Remembering Lobsang Chokta
Let me tell you about the best man I have ever met.
It was a year and a half ago.
And I have only known him for a week.
We met on the day of my 42nd anniversary and he gave me the strangest birthday present, probably because he did not know it was my birthday: a booklet with the names, pictures, biographies and last words of young Tibetans who in the past couple of years had set themselves to fire, to protest against China’s policy of occupation. “There are more than 120 now,” he said with a soft smile, “two of my cousins did it.”
Speechless, I was looking at him in the big glass theatre building overlooking the fjord and the snow-covered mountains in the distance. This was Reykjavik. This was September. We were here as delegates at a PEN conference.
That night, I decided to have dinner by myself. In the cosy, dimly-lit restaurant I started reading his booklet. Nineteen-year olds who had taken to the streets, not to riot, but to sit in a meditative pose while they covered themselves with petrol and silence.
42 in Reykjavik, I thought.
Over the next couple of days, the conference went on in the way conferences do. At times exciting. At times exhausting. At times exhilarating. All along, Lobsang was active talking to people, listening to them, exchanging experiences and e-mail addresses. His way was gentle, kind, and wise. An old soul in a young body. During the breaks, we would pick a sandwich and have some tea. I was eight years older, but I felt so young next to him, so terribly young and even insignificant. I am not sure he would have wanted that.
I guess I was probably not the only one. He made an unforgettable impression on all those he met. There was melancholy on his face, but his sadness had not embittered him. He had been a buddhist monk in Tibet. He had crossed the Himalaya to join the Dalai lama in Northern India. He had not seen his mother for almost twenty years. He was a scholar and a free speech defender and had recently become vice-president of Tibetan PEN in exile. He had lost friends, family members, his native country, his love. But despite his sadness, his was a voice of peace.
And he was exceptionnally kind-hearted. Not just nice, or friendly. But deeply compassionate about others.
Yes, freedom of speech is about the right to speak your mind, even for utterances that may “offend, shock or disturb”, as the European Court of Human Rights has it. But it is not because you have been granted a right, that you have the duty to use it – let alone that it is courageous to use it. Compassion requires sometimes more courage than conflict. “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world,” says the Buddha, “by non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.”
After the conference, we went on a trip to see some of the highlights of the Icelandic landscape. I had not wanted to join the post-conference excursion, he and his friend had found it too expensive, another delegate had forgotten to register. So off we went in the rotten car that I had rented. We drove away from the city and saw waterfalls, lava, moss, geysirs and souvenirs. We drove, we walked, we stopped for food along the road and drew maps of our respective countries on table-sets. We talked about politics and poetry, love and friendship, literature and liturgy. And we soaked in the surrounding. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking. We didn’t say much. No, we didn’t say much as we watched endless landscapes of endless beauty. I guess we were simply filled with gratitude and infinity. This, too, was the Earth.
Last February, for reasons that are still unclear, beneath a flyover bridge under construction in the city of Delhi, he was stabbed to death by another Tibetan monk with whom he was working on a translation. Jealousy? Passion? Political elimination? Contract killing? The man in case committed suicide right after, slitting his throat with the same knife he had just used on my friend.
All I have is the white silk scarf Lobsang Chokta gave me in Reykjavik. No, that’s not true. All I have is the memory of his light. He carried so much light with him. He carried so much light.
Translated by Sam Garrett