a world without good will

Thinking that I should really reaquaint myself with Marx, I picked up at a secondhand book-dealer’s Marx: His Theory and Its Context “Politics as economics: An introductory and critical essay on the political economy of Karl Marx” by Angus Walker. Leafing through the pages in the car outside the shop, I discovered a postcard. The above image is not it. But there’s a connection. As there is to the image that follows and possibly also to the image which follows that.

The postcard has a photo on it, not of Los Alamos but of the “Road to the Hill, Los Alamos, New Mexico.” This, its legend, is printed at the top of the picture. On the back, which is otherwise filled with the tightly packed script of the sender’s message, written in blue fountain pen and running perpendicular to it, we read the printed description: “Leaving the main gate at Los Alamos one passes the Otowi Mesa. On the south side and at the base of this mesa are numerous cliff-dweller ruins which were occupied over five hundred years before the Atomic Bomb era. Nearly thirty miles away are snow covered peaks of the Sangre de Christo Mountains.” The phrases I’ve italicised are underlined in blue fountain pen. It says it has been “a marvellous holiday.” The senders “skinny dipped” near Los Alamos in something that looks like “106 Hot Spring.” “Trinity” or “Timothy” “got out and rolled in the SNOW. It was terrific!”

The photo on the front shows the black-top curving to the right, a low crash fence at its edge, while the Otowi Mesa dominates the shot. At its base, in the valley below the road, a dark green stripe of coniferous trees follows its curve.

Apart from the road and the information that, invisible in the photo, “numerous cliff-dweller ruins” mark the mesa out as having been occupied, if at a distance of “five hundred years” from “the Atomic Bomb era,” there is no indication of a human presence, of a “marvellous holiday.” In the background of the photo we see the cordillero, the snow-covered peaks barely seen, of the Sangre de Christo.

The road is grey, the low fence grey; the muted fir-tree-green, then the dull grey of the rising mesa; a faded duck-egg pale blue sky is set with vestigial ink-white, text-white, clouds. A white border frames the view. Whether it was taken today or fifty years ago, the photograph would still look dated, tonally.

It looks, in fact, as far away as “the Atomic Bomb era.” An air of imminent threat still emanates from it, rather intensified than decreased by sense of place, Los Alamos, and by the sense of the sender’s holiday fun there, and by the shot’s depopulation. Should we think looking at it that it is a postcard from beyond the pale of the Atomic Bomb era? It could come from some imaginable aftermath.

For this, from this, I’m put in mind of an over-riding imago of the 1950s, an idea wedded to the incorrigible provincialism of New Zealand, its architecture, its very light, its marvellous post-war holiday.

I’ve sat in the same light recently, at the Birkenhead ferry terminal, looking back on the harbour bridge and the city, drinking coffee. The coffee had the same washed-out flavour. I felt sick in the winter sunshine, hung over by the long white cloud.

– photograph by Laurence Aberhart

Several months ago, a friend of my daughter turned up on our doorstep in tears. Her family lives around the corner. We’ve known them for about a decade, not that we know them well. It’s a small community with one primary school. The connection has largely been through the kids. They also have another daughter the same age as our son and a son inbetween. The younger siblings are the half-sister and half-brother of my daughter’s friend. It’s a familiar modern family set-up: mother finds new partner and has two further children by him while keeping child from previous relationship.

The real complication comes from the fact that the friend has been treated as an outsider for many years in her own family and has progressively been excluded from family activities, such as, on one extreme, music camps, on the other, hugs, and kisses goodnight. At the point where she turns up distraught at our place, things have reached a head. Her mother has thrown her out, locking the door on her.

A normal family pathology, then, and given the friend’s age, perhaps indicative of the ordinary rites of passage of a fifteen-year-old girl. However, not at all ordinary or normal for our family!

At the receiving end, we find ourselves with an opportunity to play the good samaritan. But how do so, and, taking cognizance of this unfamiliar turn of events, maintain our neutrality? That we are neutral is important on several scores. It is the main reason the friend has come to us. But how do we not take sides, knowing that her family has – for years, in fact – acted unfairly towards her?

Well, we don’t leave her crying on the step. We open our doors to her. She is welcome to stay with us for as long as she wants. Or until the situation resolves itself. We put to one side the latter eventuality. Because to accept that the situation can resolve itself means committing ourselves to neutrality in a way that simply remaining silent about it does not.

We are not entirely silent about it, of course. The friend does stay. We include her. And her inclusion is a protest vis-a-vis the pathological unfairness of her exclusion at home. We joke that we’ve adopted her. We represent and speak about our actions, as ‘doing a good thing.’ The part remaining silent is contained in the reactive force of ‘adoption.’

In taking in one who is in need, we clearly take ourselves in, not simply in the way that our intentions are compromised or that we have agenda (which may be summed up as selfishness, a selfish need, to possess, and a self-serving desire to have taken possession of, ‘to hold and to have’). We deceive ourselves not just in that we are disinterested and non-judgemental of the pathology, of a possible evil in others but, at the level of our own goodness, fairness and ethical well-being, that we can claim or afford to be anything like neutral or disinterested.

The problem of this anecdote is to be found neither in the slip-of-the-tongue ‘adoption’ nor in our not wanting a bad situation to resolve itself. We can confess to the flaw in our nature, as if it were at bottom its truth. (God knows there are plenty to listen to this kind of news.) Its problem comes rather from crowing fair than in crying foul.

To be guilty of the very sort of charitable act that is supposed to characterise the christian is to find no ear into which to confess. The role of what Slavoj Zizek, following Lacan, calls the Big Other the christian defers onto and unto death. (Christ, the Living Word, may be the source but not the recipient of Good News.)

What moral authority do we call on? What Big Other do we make recourse to? In doing any good? There’s none to hand but the process of the world. In order that it prove itself neither square nor white, out of necessity, but round and dark, pregnant with the possibility that what we put in will return. And even to us. As if the Karmic Wheel could counter-command (in ‘vice-diction‘), for want of a divine act of grace, that our world is necessarily without good will.

Here, you say, is another picture with nothing to do with the image presented. Look again, past Mt. Taranaki, as the sign suggests, to the snow-topped peaks of the Sangre de Christo. Some blood has leaked out, out of the passion. And each of us wanders alone, under high cirrus, and dies alone, with the knowledge that the sponges are soaked in vinegar. And here’s a small provincial church, no doubt built under the empire in some colony, brought down by the weight of bearing witness.

If it were a dead world, as Jean Baudrillard suggested in Forget Foucault, in the immanence of this eschatology, whereby each wanderer or viewer is the last, I could speak directly into the ear of death. And in doing so (the doing would be in the saying and the saying in the doing), say I do a good thing. But these landscapes and arrangements of being human are lacking grace, giving it to each of us as if the last, but finally lacking grace, which would, if the world were touched by it, be a kind of deadpan irony.

It’s not this. This is a world without good will.

– photograph by Sam Hartnett