Chapter 3: Isolation
Para no sentirme solo
Por los siglos de los siglos
All we have in common is the illusion of being together. Against the illusory official remedies for isolation the only countervailing force is a general will to break its bonds. Neutral relationships are the no-man’s-land of isolation. Isolation is a death sentence signed and passed by the present organization of society on itself.
It was as if they were in a cage whose door might as well have been wide open, for they could not escape. Nothing outside the cage had any significance, for nothing else existed any more. They stayed in the cage, estranged from everything except the cage, without so much as a flicker of desire for anything outside the bars. It would have been peculiar—indeed impossible—to break out into a place with neither reality nor significance. Absolutely impossible. Inside the cage, in which they had been born and in which they would die, the only tolerable framework of experience was the real, which amounted to an irresistible instinct to act so that things should have significance. Only if things had significance could one breathe, and suffer. It was as though there was an understanding between things and the silent dead that it should be so, for the habit of acting so that things should be significant had become a human instinct, and a seemingly eternal one. Life was the important thing, and the real was part of the instinct that gave life some slight meaning. The instinct did not try to imagine what might lie beyond the real, because there was nothing beyond it. Nothing significant. The door stayed open and the cage became more and more painful in its reality, which was significant for countless reasons and in countless ways.
We have never left the age of the slave traders.
On public transport, where they are thrown against one another with statistical indifference, people assume an unbearable expression of disillusion, pride and contempt—an expression much like the natural effect of death on a toothless mouth. The atmosphere of false communication makes everyone the policeman of their own encounters. The fight-or-flight response haunts the knights-errant of wage-labour, who now depend on rapid transit and suburban trains for their pitiful wanderings. If human beings have mutated into scorpions who sting themselves and each other, is it not really because nothing has happened, and human beings with empty eyes and flabby brains have ‘mysteriously’ become mere shadows of humans, ghosts of humans, and are now in some ways no longer human save in name?
All we have in common is the illusion of being together. Certainly the seeds of an authentic collective life lie dormant within that illusion itself—there is no illusion without a real basis—but real community has yet to be created. The power of the lie sometimes manages to erase the bitter reality of isolation from our minds. In a crowded street we can occasionally forget that suffering and separation are still in force. And since it is only the lie’s power that makes us forget, suffering and separation are thus reinforced; but in the end the lie is hoisted by its own petard, for a moment comes when no illusion can match the enormity of our distress.
The malaise assails me as the crowd around me grows. The concessions I have made to stupidity, under the pressure of circumstances, rush to meet me, surging around me in hallucinatory waves of faceless heads. Edvard Munch’s famous picture The Scream gives me a feeling I experience ten times a day. Carried along by a crowd which only he can see, a man suddenly screams out in an attempt to break the spell, to call himself back to himself, to get back inside his own skin. All the tacit compliance, all the fixed smiles, lifeless words, cowardice and humiliation strewn along his path suddenly coalesce and possess him, driving him out of his desires and his dreams and exploding the illusion of ‘being together’. People rub shoulders without meeting; isolation accumulates but is never totalized; emptiness pervades people as their density increases. The crowd drags me out of myself and allows thousands of tiny surrenders to colonize my empty presence.
Everywhere neon signs blink out the dictum of Plotinus: All beings are together though each remains separate. But we only need to hold out our hands to touch one another, raise our eyes to meet one another, and thanks to such simple actions everything will become at once close and far away, as if by magic.
Like the crowd, like drugs or love, drink has the special power to bewitch the most lucid mind. It can make the concrete wall of isolation seem like the kind of paper curtain that actors can tear open at will, for alcohol places everything on the stage of a private theatre. A generous illusion—and all the more deadly for that.
In a gloomy bar where everyone is bored to tears, a drunken young man breaks his glass, then picks up a bottle and smashes it against the wall. Nobody gets excited; disappointed in his expectations, the young man lets himself be thrown out. Yet everyone there was in silent sympathy with his gesture. He alone made the thought concrete, crossing the first radioactive belt of isolation, namely inner isolation, the inward-looking separation between self and outside world. Nobody responded to a sign which he thought was explicit. He remained alone like the hooligan who burns down a church or kills a policeman, at one with himself but condemned to exile as long as other people remain exiled from their own existence. He has not escaped from the magnetic field of isolation; he is suspended in a zone of zero gravity. All the same, the indifference which greets him allows him to hear the sound of his own cry; and even if this revelation torments him, he knows that he will have to start again in another register, more loudly—more coherently.
A common doom will be the only thing people share so long as isolated human beings refuse to understand that a free gesture, however weak and clumsy, always embodies an authentic communication, an adequate personal message. The repression that comes down on the anarchist comes down on everyone: the blood of all flows with the blood of a murdered Durruti. When freedom retreats an inch, there is a hundredfold increase in the weight of the order of things. Excluded from authentic participation, human actions are waylaid either by the fragile illusion of being together, or else by its opposite, a brutal, total refusal of all social life. They swing from one to the other like a pendulum turning the hands on the clock-face of death.
As for love, it too fertilizes the illusion of unity. In general it miscarries or sinks into triviality. Fear of taking the well-trodden and only too familiar path to solitude, whether as a couple or as a small group, casts a chilling pall over love’s symphonies. What drives us to despair is not the immensity of our unsatisfied desires, but the moment when our fledgling passion discovers its own emptiness. Insatiable desire for passionate knowledge of one pretty girl after another stems from anxiety and from fear of love, so afraid are we of never encountering anything but objects. The dawn when lovers leave each other’s arms is the same dawn that breaks on the execution of revolutionaries without a revolution. Isolation à deux cannot prevail over the isolation of all. Pleasure is broken off prematurely and lovers find themselves naked in the world, their actions suddenly ridiculous and feeble. No love is possible in an unhappy world.
The boat of love breaks up on the reefs of ordinary life (Mayakovsky). Are we ready, so that our desire may never come to grief—are we ready to breach the reefs of the old world? Lovers must love their pleasure with more earnestness, and with more poetry. It is said that Prince Shekur captured a city and presented it to his favourite in exchange for a smile. A few of us at least have fallen in love with the pleasure of loving without reservations—passionately enough to offer love the sumptuous bed of a revolution.
Adapting to the world is a trick coin-toss where heads always comes up: it is decided a priori that the negative is positive and that the impossibility of living is a prerequisite of life. Alienation never takes such firm root as when it passes itself off as an inalienable good. In its positive disguise, the consciousness of isolation is simply the private consciousness, the unforsakeable shard of individualism that respectable people drag around like a piece of cumbersome but cherished property. A sort of pleasure-anxiety prevents us from settling thoroughly into the illusion of community yet keeps us locked up in the dungeons of isolation.
The no-man’s-land of neutral relations is the territory between the blissful acceptance of bogus communities and the total rejection of society. Its moral principles are those of the shopkeeper: ‘One hand washes the other’; ‘There are good people everywhere’; ‘Things are not too bad. Not too good either. It’s up to us.’ In short, politeness—the art-for-art’s-sake of non-communication.
Let’s face it: human relationships being what social hierarchy has made of them, neutrality is the least tiring form of contempt. It allows us to pass without needless friction through the hopper of daily contacts. But it does not prevent us from dreaming—far from it—of such superior forms of civility as the courtliness of Lacenaire, on the eve of his execution, urging a friend: ‘Above all, please convey my gratitude to Monsieur Scribe. Tell him that one day, suffering from the pangs of hunger, I presented myself at his house to worm some money out of him. He complied with my request with admirable deference; I am sure he will recall. Tell him that he acted wisely, for I had in my pocket, ready to hand, the means of depriving France of a dramatist.’
The innocuousness of neutral relations, however, offers no more than a moment of dead time in the ceaseless battle against isolation, a brief stopping-place on the road that seems to lead towards communication but that in fact leads far more often to the illusion of community. Which probably explains my reluctance to stop a stranger for the time of day, for directions, or simply to exchange of couple of words, for I am loath to seek contact in this dubious fashion. The pleasantness of neutral relations is built on sand, and empty time never does me any good.
Living is made impossible with such cynicism that even the balanced pleasure-anxiety of neutral relations may function as a cog in the machinery that destroys people. It seems better in the end to go straight to a radical and tactically worked-out rejection rather than knock politely on every door looking to swap one kind of survival for another.
‘It would irk me to die so young,’ wrote Jacques Vaché two years before his suicide. If the desperation of survival fails to join forces with a new consciousness and transform the years ahead, only two ‘options’ will be left for the isolated individual: the potty-chair of political parties and pataphysico-religious sects, or immediate death with Umour. A sixteen-year-old murderer recently explained: ‘I did it because I was bored.’ Anyone who has felt the drive to self-destruction welling up inside him knows with what jaded insouciance he might just happen to kill the organizers of his boredom. One day. If he was in the mood.
After all, if individuals refuse either to adapt to the violence of the world or to embrace the violence of the maladapted, what path is still open to them? Unless they elevate their will to achieve perfect union with the world and with themselves to the level of consistent theory and practice, the vast silence of social space will surely confine them to a palace of solipsism and delusion.
From the depths of their prisons those who have been convicted of mental illness add the screams of their strangled revolt to the sum of negativity. What a Fourier in potentia was consciously destroyed in a patient described by the psychiatrist Volnat: ‘He began to lose all capacity to distinguish between himself and the external world. Everything that happened in the world also happened in his body. He could not put a bottle between two shelves in a cupboard because the shelves might come together and break the bottle. And that would hurt inside his head, as if his head was wedged between the shelves. He could not shut a suitcase, because pressing the effects in the case would exert pressure inside his head. If he walked into the street after closing all the doors and windows of his house, he felt uncomfortable, because his brain was compressed by the air, and he had to go back home to open a door or a window. “For me to be at ease”, he would say, “I must have wide open space in front of me.... I have to be free in my space. It’s a battle with the things all around me.”’
The Consul paused, turning. He read the inscription: ‘No se puede vivir sin amar’ (Lowry, Under the Volcano).
ContributorRaoul Vaneigem, A new translation from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith
RAOUL VANEIGEM was born in Lessines, Belgium, in 1934. A leading light in the Situationist International in the 1960s, he is a prolific writer and a relentless critic of late capitalism.
His Traite de savoir-vivre a l'usage des jeunes generations, known in English translation as The Revolution of Everyday Life, was written during the Cold War in 1963-65. It is one of two influential books, the other being Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, published by the Situationist International just months before the May 1968 upheavals in France. The extract presented here is from a completely revised translation forthcoming next fall from PM Press (www.pmpress.org).
DONALD NICHOLSON-SMITH is a longtime resident of Brooklyn who has translated Guy Debord, Henri Lefebvre, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Jean-Patrick Manchette.