Twelve Ten is a first step
It’s a space to look at
write and talk about
the world we live in
in all its myriad forms.
Twelve Ten ist ein Experiment
in Wort und Schrift
in der für Beobachtungen
wie es denn um uns bestellt ist
in dieser Welt in der wir leben
ein Platz gegeben wird.
Twelve Ten’s first edition is a thoughtful one, precipitated by recent events that have proven to be historic in their disruption.
Our written contributions are supplied by two of our writers, Laura and Georg. Laura’s piece is on Thaddeus Phillips’ inspiring one-man play about border-crossings, travelling, and the sense of place and safety we oftentimes take for granted. Georg’s piece is a look into Cormac McCarthy’s dark cosmos, a world where entropy reigns, yet human kindness and generosity are still possible, even when survival by all means possible seems to be the only option. Considering current events in several parts of the world, the utter chaos humans are capable of creating is something that needs to be considered – a glimpse into the abyss that seems to be steadily looking back.
That is not all, though. Both written pieces are interspersed with Julia‘s snapshots of Dublin and Istanbul, reminders that we, as humans, are capable of beauty and peace when we put our mind to it, never mind the layers of history buried underneath.
On a final note: it’s a crisp -2°C in this beautiful city today, but the sun is shining bright in a clear blue sky. People look happy in a quiet way, going about their business as they are, living their lives, working through shopping lists, entertaining toddlers, advising clients and drinking endless cups of coffee. There is, after all, such a thing as peace. The trick is to be aware of it.
Don’t give up.
Keep on writing.
Twelve Tens erste Ausgabe ist zugegeben etwas nachdenklich geworden, was viel mit den jüngsten Ereignissen zu tun hat, die sich als zunehmend verstörend herausgestellt haben.
Die Beiträge wurden von unseren beiden Autoren Laura und Georg bereitgestellt. Lauras Beitrag befasst sich mit Thaddeus Phillips’ inspirierender Ein-Mann-Show über Grenzgänge, Reisen, und das Gefühl der Zugehörigkeit und Sicherheit das man oftmals als gegeben hinnimmt. Georgs Beitrag handelt von Cormac McCarthys düsterem Kosmos, eine Welt in der die Entropie die stärkste Macht ist, menschliche Güte und Großzügigkeit aber trotz allem möglich sind, auch wenn das Überleben um jeden Preis die einzige Option zu sein scheint.
So wie es zurzeit in unserer Welt aussieht, ist es wichtig sich die menschliche Zerstörungskraft etwas näher anzusehen – ein Blick in den Abgrund der stets zurückzublicken scheint. Aber dabei bleibt es nicht allein. Zwischen den Beiträgen sind Julias Dublin und Istanbul Schnappschüsse zu finden, kurze Erinnerungen daran, dass, wenn wir uns bemühen, wir tatsächlich fähig sind Schönes zu erschaffen, und ein friedliches Miteinander zu gewährleisten, auch wenn der Geschichte oftmals schwer zu entkommen ist.
Ein letzter Punkt noch: Es sind frische -2°C heute in dieser schönen Stadt, aber die Sonne scheint hell in einem wolkenlosen Himmel. Die Menschen sehen auf einer ruhigen Art glücklich aus, gehen ihres Weges, leben ihr Leben während sie Einkaufslisten abarbeiten, Kinder unterhalten, Kunden beraten, und sämtliche Tassen Kaffee zu sich nehmen. Es gibt tatsächlich so etwas wie Frieden. Man muss sich dessen nur immer wieder bewusst werden.
Of Gates and Gaps in Barbed Wire
There are all kinds of shows that you can see at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This year’s programme offered the usual broad range, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to a look behind the scenes of a brothel. I have a slight suspicion as to which of the two attracted a larger audience… There was one show, however, that I found particularly thought-provoking: Thaddeus Phillips’ 17 Border Crossings.
This brilliantly performed one-man play was remarkable for its clever use of lighting as the main element of stage setting, and Phillips’ excellent story-telling. The narratives, seventeen in just over an hour, are packed with insight despite their brevity. The borderlands scenarios Phillips evokes are as absurd as they are painfully realistic, (and often very funny).
I have to admit that, when the performance started with a monologue from Shakespeare’s Henry V , claiming that Henry V practically invented the passport, I immediately wanted to check the history of passports and almost switched on my phone to do just that. I know, I know. I could restrain myself, though, and left googling for after the show. Turns out that something that might be considered a passport is mentioned as early as the 5th century BC in the Bible (of course… what’s not mentioned in the Bible…): Nehemiah 2:7-9. There, reports of “letters […] to the governors beyond the river that they may convey me over till I come into Judah,” are mentioned. Whatever your take on historical accuracy in this case, Thaddeus Phillips’ monologue on the invention of passports made a fair point: This little booklet in which we collect stamps like primary school kids once collected stickers holds a lot of power over our lives.
For some border crossers it might merely be a question of prestige regarding what and how many stamps their passport has. Travelling the world has become the number one goal in life for many people (see, for example, #addictedtotravelling), especially now that travelling is becoming more and more affordable. Ideally, today’s travellers aim for a good mix of “must-see” trendy places (like the USA or several famous places in Europe), well-known, sort-of-significant but “exotic” places as far away from home as possible (this obviously depends on where home is, next to what you perceive as “the usual”), and really random destinations that are adventurous, perhaps even a bit dangerous, and not obviously appealing to go to on first glance. Some even have the luxury of having multiple passports to choose from. A friend of mine has a choice of three, and prefers to use her neutral Swiss passport rather than her British or Canadian ones when travelling to Palestine.
Evidence of having entered one country might make entering another more difficult: 17 Border Crossings’s main (and only) character, for example, was relieved to discover Cuban immigration had punched a stamp of a green toy train into his US American passport instead of the official Cuban stamp, (this was before the recent changes in US-Cuban relations). For very many people, travelling is not as easy as a matter of toy train stamps. Those privileged to travel with ease tend to forget that visa restrictions regarding the duration of one’s stay or work permit regulations are not the worst problems one can encounter with respect to visas. For those who have the most pressing reasons to leave their own country a visa might not even be an option.
17 Border Crossings covers a great range of reasons for and circumstances of crossing borders. I’d like to share three of the stories I found particularly moving, since they gave glimpses into what crossing borders can mean in this day and age:
Italy. The local authorities have assured you that the part of Croatia you are about to visit is safe. Ace of Bace’s “All that she wants” echoes through the air. (Please take a second and remember the song. Not because it is particularly relevant to the story, but because I enjoy reminding readers of 90s songs). Isn’t it strange how we can remember random details about our travels precisely, like a pop song, the smell of a certain spice, or the taste of a particular local dessert, but we can easily forget our next-door neighbour’s name? Well, anyway. So, you finally cross the border by ferry and arrive in a small town in Croatia. As you wait for the friend you were supposed to meet there, you watch somebody scatter money, which is basically worth less than trash now, into the sea. A funny feeling creeps up inside you that makes you want to return to Italy asap, but the next ferry is scheduled four days from now. Doing your best to blend in with the locals, you drink alcohol that will probably make you go blind with Croatian soldiers. They’re wearing second-hand German and Austrian uniforms, and at some point they very casually happen to mention that, in just a few hours, they will be fighting Serbians a couple of miles from where you are. Right. And all you wanted was for it to be reasonably safe…
El Paso, TX. You walk across the bridge to Mexico and are greeted by the scent of cheese-stuffed chilies that are being sold at a stall midway across the busy main road. While having a few chilies you meet Pablo. He has tried to cross the border to the US several times, but he always got caught. He would just like to go and visit his family in Chicago, but apparently he has the wrong last name to be granted a visa. You have a few more chilies and as you turn around again to say something to Pablo – he’s gone. Before he left he paid your bill.
El Paso, TX. It’s night. You sit in your border patrol Chevy Tahoe watching the desert. Then, suddenly, you see something move behind the cacti. You flash the lights of your car. The shadow moves. You make a call and order for the floodlights to be switched on. Nothing. You call for the floodlights to be turned off and change the radio channel.
Angola. Near the airport’s runway. José Matada from Mozambique slips through the little gap in the fence and watches the planes roll by, make a turn, speed up and leave the ground. And then, when the cargo plane with the particular logo he recognised from his online research approaches, José starts running towards it while counting the seconds until the plane will accelerate for take-off. And before you know it, José is hanging onto the plane’s under-carriage. The plane takes off and the little figure dangling from below its belly is soon swallowed by the big bird. Phew.
Mortlake, near Heathrow International Airport. A man of African descent has been found dead on the pavement in the otherwise peaceful London suburb. Police report the deceased must have fallen from great height, and that he had suffered from severe frostbite. There is speculation he might have fallen off the Angolan plane that passed over the area that morning, as Angolan currency was found with the body.
At the time I watched the Fringe show I didn’t even consider the latter story to be possibly true. Sadly, it is. Just a few months ago, for example, there were two stowaways on a flight from Johannesburg to London. One man was found dead, while the other was hospitalised with severe injuries. The world is witnessing border crossings that seem far too cruel to be invented by any dystopian playwright.
Let me add another border crossing to the collection, the eighteenth, if you want.
Budapest. You hold your daughter’s arm tightly with one hand to keep her close; you’re holding a bundle of Euros with the other. A man you don’t understand grabs the money and pushes you into the other corner of the room. With you: around 70 other people of different nationalities. You wait. After several hours you hear a truck, beeping, reversing in front of the storehouse. The doors of the truck that advertise Slovenian poultry open and five men push you to board your means of transport. You don’t trust them, but what choice do you have, exactly? The loading area is full of people. Too full. You feel the heat of nervous bodies. You smell the cold sweat, the shock of urine, even blood. They keep stuffing people into the truck. Your ribs hurt. You hear moaning and crying. The doors close and the engine starts. You feel the truck move. You feel pain. Fear. The air is getting thinner and thinner by the minute. You try to move your head towards the truck’s wall. You try to lift your daughter. There is a tiny hole. You move your face towards the hole and breathe. You suck in the exhaust-infused air and it feels so fresh. You finally manage to lift your daughter. You show her where to breathe.
After what feels like ten hours but must have been two or less, the truck slows down. You assume you must be crossing the Austrian border, just as the men assured you. You made it! It’s almost over! You feel hope rising. Your daughter is asleep in your arms. After another hour or so the truck finally stops. It has become quiet and only a few people around you realise you must have arrived. You can’t wait for the doors to be opened. You have a hard time breathing, but soon, soon. It must be dark outside. When will they open the doors? The rush of blood intensifies in your ears. You feel dizzy. Your daughter is asleep, at least. She normally doesn’t sleep so deeply, but this time, at least. Your legs go as you close your eyes, your body sags, but you don’t fall.
Little Lights in a Vast Dark
I once talked to a colleague about how I love the Cormac McCarthy novels I’ve read, and she just shook her head and said that it’s all “men’s literature,” and that was that. If you’re familiar with McCarthy’s novels, you may probably agree with her assessment, and what you’re about to read may throw you off. If you’re new to McCarthy, here’s the short version: people die. So do animals of all sorts. A lot of or all of them. Gruesomely. Senselessly. Sometimes, somebody survives.
And yet, in spite of all the death and mayhem and the rivers of blood that characterize McCarthy’s books, I find them, somehow, heartwarming. In the bleak and uncaring universe McCarthy throws his characters and us readers into, every little spark of light is all the brighter, and, I’d argue, carves out a message about human kindness that no feel-good book about dying teenagers, crippled lovers or whatever else makes readers cry — much to Hollywood’s dollar-stained tears of joy — ever could.
Not that I’ve studied McCarthy’s work comprehensively, but The Border Trilogy — All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain — and the stand-alone No Country for Old Men, The Road, and Blood Meridian, share enough features to speak of a McCarthy cosmos. In Blood Meridian, for example, almost everybody who speaks dies, as do countless others in spectacularly gruesome ways, their dead bodies mutilated, eaten, or otherwise abused. In The Road, almost everybody is dead to begin with, and the few survivors spend their time either killing, eating, or escaping from each other. Feel free to see a pattern of cannibalism and cruelty in this.
No Country for Old Men is comparatively tame, and most characters — of course most of them die — at least have a swift death. The killings in the The Border Trilogy are not even that profuse — a number of those who get to speak eventually survive — but in the Trilogy McCarthy characteristically chooses to destroy the surviving characters’ souls anyway. Additionally to all the deaths, add rape, structural injustice, cruelty against wild animals, dogs, and horses, an utter disregard for human dignity, and the onward march of progress-that-is-nothing-but-entropy into the mix, and you have a fair picture of how McCarthy’s cosmos works. Game of Thrones’ Westeros is probably a much nicer place to live in than the North America of a McCarthy novel.
In a universe this bleak, evil seems like the smart choice, and indeed, McCarthy’s roster of characters is full of highly memorable, eloquent antagonists who are extremely good at the ‘surviving a McCarthy novel’ thing. There’s none of the frailty and flawed humanity that burdens the ‘good guys’ — a relative term in a McCarthy book — let alone the monsters that emerge from these pages. That said, the Mexican lords and pimps of The Border Trilogy seem at least human when they tell poor John Grady Cole and Billy Parham to stop loving those they love, to stop struggling against the inevitable injustice of the world; they seem to at least be able to feel basic human emotions. This relative mildness — after all, they do slit throats and order other people’s deaths — is limited to The Border Trilogy. Anton Chigurh, the uncanny antagonist of No Country for Old Men, kills with an abandon and a stunning level of coldness, backed by a personal philosophy that explains every one of his murders as an inevitable result of fate.
And yet, Chigurh at least allows his victims a measure of chance, making their lives depend on the toss of a coin. No such option exists in The Road. Morality or any set of rules do not make any sense in The Road’s post-apocalyptic world of ashes, where survivors roast newborn babies over campfires and keep human prisoners for food, slowly killing them bit by bit, or rather, bite by bite. In the utter bleakness of that book’s nuclear-wasteland-USA, survival trumps any other consideration, as the Son — the characters do not even get name — has to find out when his father surrenders to the cruelty the world has forced upon him. Then again, the slaving and murdering Blood Tribes of The Road, the cannibal bands and harvesters of human flesh, and even the Father’s lack of mercy all can be explained as a result of their situation. They all represent humanity brought to its knees, a world where humans are victims of the world’s inevitable hurtling towards entropy and into the abyss. It is in such a world where any morsel of human kindness shines like a beacon.
Blood Meridian is a different matter altogether. The killers here are men who have freely chosen to turn into what they are, creating a hell they’re ill equipped to reign over. The protagonist “the kid” — later he’ll be the “the man”— joins a gang that slaughters anybody in their path for the mere fun and joy of it. Cheered on by the philosophical musing of child-killer and probable pedophile Judge Holden, the Glanton Gang is McCarthy’s most abject creation. Through the sheer volume of their killing, their indifference to suffering, through all of their choices, they almost happily throw themselves into the abyss, creating a river of blood in which they’ll eventually drown. And then, of course, there is the Judge himself.
Scholars have theorized about how supernatural this particular character is, and the novel certainly encourages the reader to see the Judge as more demon than man. This makes him even scarier than Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, as he points towards the larger cosmos. And that is why, for me, McCarthy’s novels are genuinely horrifying. The universe could be understood as uncaring and cold because there is nobody and nothing to care after all. Yet the Judge clearly belongs to some order beyond the human. The cosmos might, then, have a creator after all, and that creator leaves the playing field to demons, but does not seem to care much beyond that. Whatever or whoever the demiurge, humanity is left to its own devices. As McCarthy makes amply clear, we are then, through some flaw in our nature, destined to tear each other to shreds and to destroy the world we live in. At worst, we have to contend with beings that revel in slaughter, chaos, and destruction, destined to live forever, as the Judge proudly claims.
I can’t help but see an argument for humanity right at the center of this bleak and horrifying cosmos in which all we as humans have is each other and whatever we make of it. As Stanley Kubrick said, “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; […] However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” It ultimately doesn’t even matter if this is the cosmos of an indifferent demiurge or cold space that isn’t even in the position to care. All it leaves the humans thrown into it is to make their own choices, and, if they choose to do so, provide whatever warmth and care they can. As cruel as McCarthy’s cosmos is, with its cannibalism, sexual violence, mutilation and inescapable chaos, and as utterly pervasive and without respite that darkness is, that very background makes every single ray of light in the books significant.
Thus the power of the Father and Son relationship in The Road: they do not carry the fire of civilization in the face of utter chaos and anarchy. Rather, they carry the light of a love so basic, raw, and archaic that the Father would rather shoot the Son than leave him to those who have abandoned their humanity. Though one may argue that it is a love the Father could not escape from if he wanted to, the novel presents the choice of suicide as an alternative. The father’s will to live in order to love his son thus becomes all the more an act of choosing to love, to fight against the entropy and darkness that is there.
Weary Llewelyn Moss and his wife in No Country for Old Men have no illusions about the world they live in, either. But they, too, find whatever warmth and protection they can in a desperate love for each other. No Country for Old Men may leave its survivors scarred and disillusioned, but it highlights the value of whatever kindness there can be, because the choice to be kind is a brave assertion of one’s independence, the only way to rage against the dying of the light, so to speak. It is the ending of Cities of the Plain that illustrates this the best. Dispirited, beaten, and part of a culture that is dead, protagonist Billy Parham, an old cowboy America has no place for, is nearing the end of his life. It would seem fitting for McCarthy to end The Border Trilogy on said old man shuffling off into the sunset, carrying with him the memories of all those he felt for and lost to the inevitable chaos, death and hopelessness of the world he lives in. Instead, in an unexpected act of kindness, Billy Parham is taken in by a family, given shelter, and shown the basic humanity all too rare in any of McCarthy’s books. In the end, the woman of the house takes care of Billy:
She patted his hand. Gnarled, ropescarred, speckled from the sun and the years of it. The ropy veins that bound them to his heart. There was map enough for men to read. There God’s plenty of sign and wonders to make a landscape. To make a world. She rose to go.
Betty, as the old cowboy calls her, could play the game of making sense of the world, reading the signs, and philosophizing about the cosmos and humanity’s purpose in it. It’s the game of terrifying Judge Holden and ruthless Anton Chigurh. Instead, Betty simply takes care of an old man, giving him a measure of dignity and a quantum of solace when nothing forces her to. Hers is the free will that Chigurh and the Judge make a mockery of; it is what Betty uses, for a brief moment, to improve the world.
In McCarthy’s bleak cosmos, such little gestures are all that’s left to humanity. They are the only way to allow for such a thing as humanity to even exist. Exactly because of all the darkness, these little lights in No Country for Old Men, The Road, and The Border Trilogy shine all the brighter. Call me a romantic sop or a horrible reader of literature, but this is the kind of thing that warms my heart and gives me hope for humanity.
As intros go, Twelve Ten’s is a short one, yet we hope you enjoyed it. Twelve Ten, No. 2 will be published in January 2016, so, if you enjoyed No. 1 and are interested in contributing to No. 2, don’t hesitate to send us your suggestions (English or German, we really are interested in both!) by 12 December 2015 at:
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We look forward to hearing from you!
Your von reuth Team
Zugegeben, Twelves Tens erste Schritte waren nicht viele, aber wir hoffen es hat euch gefallen. Twelve Ten, No. 2 wird im Januar 2016 herausgegeben. Falls euch No. 1 gefallen hat und ihr gerne zu No. 2 beitragen möchtet schickt uns eure Vorschläge bis zum 12. Dezember 2015, (Englisch oder Deutsch, wir sind wirklich an beide Sprachen interessiert!) an folgende Emailadresse:
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Traut euch, wir freuen uns!
Euer von reuth Team.
Images source within the written pieces: jaymantri, unsplash & public domain