Recently I was reading a blog which declared, in so many words, “Thank God we have a recession.” Apparently we had been labouring under the unbearable halter of prosperity; the Irish race had spent long years wandering, lost, through the desert of economic success and political tranquillity.
Things are much better now, this thinking goes. More meaningful. More real. We’re happier now that our eyes have been cleared of the cataract of materialism. We’re less pampered but more fulfilled, because life has become a greater struggle.
What utter rubbish.
I’ve even seen people claim they’d like to have lived during war time, which is even more ridiculous; you feel more ‘alive’ then, or some such nonsense. (I suppose this is an extension of that bizarre urge felt by insecure men to take up white-collar boxing. You only fully know yourself when you’re in the boxing ring, they say. Really? Well, you know how good you are at giving or taking a punch. What else?)
I literally can’t understand this mentality: this belief that surviving in times of penury, conflict or misery are somehow better than living in a pleasant, stable, comfortable society. It glorifies and romanticises what is Other, and constructs an entirely false equation: struggle = fulfilment and authenticity (that most misused of words).
I despise mindless consumerism as much as anyone else, and it’s right that we criticise and strive to make our country better; and yes, modern life is fundamentally dull and futile and unfulfilling. But so what? That’s what life is: a set period of vague, monotonous ennui, interspersed with heightened moments of beauty or dismay. Nobody promised it would, or should, get any better than that.
And how, by any logic, can war and plague and grinding poverty be considered desirable? Certainly, violence and drama make for great entertainment, but 300 or Enemy at the Gates are not real; they’re just actors and clever effects.
Real war is blood and pain and faeces and rats and tedium and depression and horror. Only someone who fetishises militarism and the vampire cult of battlefield nobility could think otherwise. Indeed, I often suspect there’s something a bit simple-minded about men who lionise war; they seem infantile, emotionally retarded.
You don’t even need actual warfare to descend into hell. A while back I read about a city in Mexico called Juarez, which has an incredible crime and murder rate (because of poverty and gang wars): last year alone more than 3,000 people were killed. This is absolutely staggering for a city considerably smaller than Dublin. And the details are truly horrifying: torture, burial alive, disgusting and unimaginable slaughter, scarcely believable.
And this is somehow a better or more fulfilling existence than shuffling along in our relatively peaceful, affluent, dull little country, where we can live some kind of normal life, whether happy or not? I don’t think so.
I’m happy to live in a boring, safe environment. More than that: in some senses I believe that coffee shops are one of the high-points of civilisation. I mean that literally: to while away an hour, drinking coffee and eating a cake and reading the paper…how blessed and privileged we are to be able to do something like that. How fortunate to live in a society that has reached such a pitch of civilisation.
The choice and freedom and security and luxury of it: medieval peasants or Soviet workers would have thought it fantastical, impossible. That anyone bar the tiny gilded minority could savour such earthly delights: how could such a thing be?
A cup of coffee and a slice of cake in a nice quiet environment, that’s all it is; and yet, what an unattainable dream it must seem to a Bangladeshi farmer mired in drudgery and destitution, or a Colombian mother wondering if her child will learn something at school today or be murdered on the way home.
There’s nothing more or less ‘authentic’ about being shelled or tortured, about having your humanity ground down and squeezed dry by economic exigencies. There’s no nobility in all of that. It’s just ugly and horrible and totally needless.
Anyone who actually does struggle for survival in such awful situations would kill to have a bland, unexciting, suburban existence where they won’t be hacked to death or raped or starved out of existence. And it’s immoral and disgusting for us to romanticise any of it.
It’s also hugely self-indulgent, and on a broader level, symptomatic of a particularly insidious strain of soul-sickness in the affluent west, prevalent among certain men. Returning to the war-fetish theme, these sad creatures believe that the modern world has been overly feminised; that there is no place anymore for ‘traditional’ male virtues (whatever those may be); that we are rearing generations of namby-pampy, pampered wimps who don’t know how to be a real man.
Apart from the fact that it’s weird and illogical to define yourself by gender anyway, there is a perfect solution for these gung-ho wannabe Iron Johns. If they honestly feel that safe, feminised, bland western society isn’t ‘real’ enough for them, there’s nothing stopping them from joining the marines and heading off to Afghanistan or Iraq.
They’ll find plenty of life-on-the-edge ‘authenticity’ and manly, musty brotherhood while crouched under heavy fire from 200 blood-crazed jihadists. I’ll just sit here and enjoy my coffee and cake, thanks.
First published in the Irish Times, April 2011