Week 31: 5 April 2012
Columnist for The Guardian
Roll up your sleeves
Oh dear. I feel like this is going to be an unwanted letter. And I apologise for that. Apologies for being a bit of a party pooper. But I’m not going to join you as a resident. The thing is, I have never been a fan of nowhere. I am suspicious of the whole mythology of starting again, suspicious of the philosophical Tabula Rasa. I am a resident of somewhere. I want the particular not the general.
This week I move house. The place where I am headed is a small patch of South East London called the Elephant and Castle. It has a history. In 1941, German bombers reduced a great deal of the place to rubble. Planners decided that it was the perfect opportunity to start again. In one big act of the imagination, they conceived of a new way of living. This was modernity and it was breathtaking it its ambition. The planners and politicians were to create a complete new world and the past could be left behind. But less than a century later, everything is being pulled down. Another new world is being planned. Like the shiny new toy that my son was so excited about over Christmas and discarded a few weeks later, I worry about the new. I want the world where feet have made their mark on the ground for centuries. I want churches where the polish and marks of the wood show the layers of activity that have gone on over the years. I want an uneven world that has an emotional archaeology, one that is layered with human experience. I want a piece of land that has been watered with tears and sweat and blood and love. My beef with the Enlightenment is that it looked at all this complex layering and, unable to make sense of it, got out the whitewash. Forget history, they said. We have reason.
Modern philosophers have often been the worst at all this starting again stuff. Descartes, the so called father of modern philosophy, wanted to escape from the messiness of the middle-ages by starting again with an intellectual a blank canvas. And so he built a whole new intellectual edifice that began with self-knowledge. Cogito ergo sum. It ended up being a very small world, with human beings epistemologically trapped within themselves and unable to connect with the full reality of others. Which is why philosophers wasted so much energy trying to prove the existence of other minds. It was a foolish venture. For out in the messy world, those people who were buying a pint of milk from the man in the corner shop or making love to each other were in no doubt about the existence of others. Community precedes subjectivity.
I won't be a resident because I believe the abstract to be some sort of fantasy. It seems like an act of running away. Emerson once had a go at the desire for new lands by saying that “the problem with travelling is that you take yourself with you.” However much you try, you cannot escape yourself. I know my world is messed up. And it certainly has its many problems: inequality, war, hatred and division. But you won't do anything to tackle all these simply by starting again. You will just recreate them. And when Nowhereisland goes wrong, there will be those shouting out for another fresh start. Another new and pristine piece of paper. Another blank canvas. But the great artist doesn’t do that. She works the canvass even when it is going wrong. She keeps at it, working and reworking the colours and shapes. Great works of art have layers. So do societies. One needs to stick with it. So please. Don’t throw in the towel. Don’t run away. Roll up your sleeves and stay here. There is so much to do and we need people like you.
Dr Giles Fraser resigned from St Paul’s Cathedral in October 2011 in protest at the Cathedral’s approach to the Occupy movement. Formerly a lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford, he is currently working as a leader writer for the The Guardian and is interested in issues of contemporary thought, ethics and art. He is also a regular broadcaster on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.