Sometimes I can’t help thinking that I might have distanced myself a little too much from the material world so that I am now rather remote from things that were a part of everyday life not so long ago.
I keep away from rough housing estates and I never go into town late at night. I don’t own a dog or have kids so I don’t have to clear up either animal poo or human vomit. If I see a spider I won’t pick it up with my hands but instead need a duster or tissue or glass to catch it in to throw it away. If I hear of a recent shark attack in Australia I won’t go into the sea in Skegness. I neither do gardening nor play rugby so I never get my hands or knees dirty. I don’t work in a hospital or an old people’s home so I never come into contact with sick or senile people. In fact I almost never touch anyone. I can go entire weeks or even months without touching a single person and then it is usually just a handshake. No wonder I am so happy when a Japanese shop assistant, in giving me my change, places her hand under mine and in doing so sometimes touches me.
Just as I don’t want to physically touch disgusting things, neither do I want to look at them. If there is a documentary showing starving African children I watch it through my fingers or not at all. If there is a TV program about accidents or hospital operations I change channels. If I see dog poo when I’m out on my walks or a dead animal in the road or a child’s snotty nose, I look away. In short, I have quarantined myself off to an amazing degree from yukky stuff in the world.
All these thoughts reminded me of the White Plains song, ‘When you are a King’. The boy in the song is poor, dirty, scruffily dressed and always fighting, but happy. The song says that when he grows up he will become a king (it doesn’t explain how or why). Here is the song.
What has always struck me about this song is how much more attractive the boy’s life sounds than the king’s. True, the king never does a thing and his feet never touch a thing, but is this really the description of a good life? The boy is almost invisible to himself and he simply isn’t aware that he is dirty and his shirt is torn. He is so busy with the world that he has no time to reflect on himself.
A king on the other hand sees himself almost as a decorative ornament. The boy experiences himself as a subject while the king thinks of himself as an object.
The boy’s trajectory is a little like mine, even if my childhood was a lot less dirty and I’m not at all rich now. Yet the retreat from an earthy, unself-conscious world to a remote self-conscious world is the same.
I sometimes think about how modern lives are more luxurious than those of past kings. We have dry, centrally-heated houses with soft beds and TVs and computers. We can eat exotic foods like bananas and curry. We can buy raspberries almost all year round since they are being grown somewhere in the world. We also have modern medicine which works pretty well.
Kings on the other hand lived in drafty, cold, damp castles. For entertainment they could either watch a pathetic minstrel play the lute or see a court dwarf make an arse of himself. Or for a change the king could order someone’s head to be cut off. If he became ill it was best for him to keep quiet about it in case a so-called doctor treated him and killed him in the process.
By any normal standards, modern life beats that of an 18th century king hands down. Even so, I’m not sure that either a sterile modern life or a king’s life beat the down to earth human existence that most people lived not so long ago.
Mystics always bang on about how there isn’t really a divide between subject and object. I personally think that this is just wishful thinking made up by lonely people. However, I do think that the divide between yourself and the rest of the world can be either wide or narrow, depending on your outlook. My guess is that if you are a dog-owning nurse who does gardening in her spare time and has two young children to look after then the subject/object divide will seem much narrower to you than if you have shut yourself off from everything that can touch you. I think people need the physical contact of dogs, cats, children, rugby balls, garden trowels, patients and elderly parents to keep them human. Otherwise they tend to be come precious about themselves. It may be yucky at times to have to clear up someone else’s vomit but in terms of staying human I think it knocks being a king into a cocked hat.
I am a rock by Simon & Garfunkel deals with pretty much the same topic.