The Mediterranean Sea has a very distinct turquoise tint. It is a smoky opaque blue that seems to reflect the rays of the sun with its full mass so that the whole harbor appears to glow with diffuse light. Visible from the shores of the Lido and the outer islands is the open horizon, hidden behind it are Slovakia, Croatia, Kosovo and finally Greece. The city radiates its ancient magic with an air of perfect calm, as if nothing could disturb its serene aura.
At the core of this calmness is a lump – a tight little knot hidden inside my body where there was nothing only a few months ago. It sits there innocently as if it had always been there, this little thing that suddenly has the gravity of a black hole, pulling everything towards itself. From this hole life slowly leaks out, leaving me stripped of agency, helpless and dependent on others for survival.
In the minutes, days and weeks that follow, the desire to live grows all-encompassing, primitive. I no longer care about animals in laboratories. I no longer care about ethical discourses, or the pain of others. I need to live. The selfishness of this desire is isolating. I become the last knight protecting a precious secret no one else knows of, a jewel that has value only to me.
This light I guard.
This light that harbors a whole universe of small details: the particular taste of early morning coffee on the island, where familiar scents have become part of how I exist in the world. The feel of a lover’s chest underneath my hand in the slow, warm bliss of the early morning. The lonesome moments of exploding joy, the embodied memories of my deepest griefs, the emotions and visions that continuously wash the landscape I inhabit and endow it with radiance: the whole fabric of life, a kingdom of buildings and forests and animals and people and futures and pasts given to me to protect from disappearing forever. And the painful, acute realization that this kingdom is inhabited only by me, seen, known only by me, significant only to me.
There is nothing quite like the faces of the living seen by one who fears for one’s life. I see compassion, empathy, and helplessness, and, underneath, their unquestioned readiness to protect themselves from that void, from the boundary they are not prepared to cross. The fear of the void is so ferocious that if my condition were contagious, my every cry would merely push them further into the compassionate distance. Where I am in danger of going they cannot follow. They carry their own voids. What I witness is how despair evokes that same primitive terror in others, an urge to secure one’s escape. This is the essence of pity. Inside, latent but already activated, lurk repulsion and rage, the necessary means of survival.
There is nothing to forgive. This is just one of the facades of the world. Now I know.
During my temporary isolation I cannot relate to the politics of migration, the complexities of warfare, welfare and identities. I watch them struggle: climb shores, fight waves, cling to moving trains. People organize, establish Facebook groups, debate. The only thing I can relate to is the muted agony on the faces in the pictures that fill the newspapers. They, too, are escaping their voids. They might as well be running from zombies, from biological warfare, from cancer: it is as if the pull of gravity had revealed itself to them and now they were contaminated by this knowledge that so mercifully conceals itself from those busy living. What I see is the fear of death so obscenely exposed that if we let these fleeing people in, whatever it is they’re fleeing from might follow and eat us alive as well. The industry of fear feeds on this primitive rage, fuels it, orchestrates an orgy. There is an unbearable abundance of voids inside fragile bodies, too many to carry, too many to care for. I watch all this through the silence that my own vulnerable existence has created around me. In this silence all I can share is their terror, but that is everything.
The only thing I have in common with the masses of bodies migrating through the corpus of Europe is the structure of regulations, warnings, meetings and officials one needs to follow. Saving bodies is a path of bureaucracy. Rescue comes in the shape of A4 size letters and automatically opening doors and orange and green and blue stripes on the floor. I am not late for a single appointment. Punctuality and waiting becomes a routine to which I submit without protest. I become tame, obedient; I do what is expected of me in order to remain within the matrix of rescue.
The distanced professionalism of institutionalized help is a relief: help in the form of practicalities, tubes, screenings, paperwork, a system that allows me to preserve my dignity at a time when I am forced to surrender myself into the hands of strangers, dependent on them for everything, without any leverage, without a single card in my hand to negotiate with. Institutionalized help never looks me in the eye when I am on my knees willing to do anything (anything!) to survive. This help is so far removed from any notion of pity that it allows me to preserve my self-worth; I do not have to convince anyone of my life having value. This is how it feels to be inside: inside a helicopter, a bus, a train, a flooding boat reaching the shore of safety, a barrier; in an asylum. (“It’s nothing personal. We’ll just save you.”)
Later, I wake up from surgery with a sensation of being attacked. I vividly experience myself as a child who is subjected to something it doesn’t understand and has no power to reject. I declare in clear English (as I’m later told by the nurses) that this is my body and these people have no right to transgress its boundaries. What the invader does – be it illness, war, flood – is strip you of agency. You don’t need pity, because pity is merely a reinforcement of your lack of agency and in pity there resides a seed of rejection: what you need is to have a say in the things over which you still have control. Agency is what defines my humanity, my sense of self, and when in danger of losing it in the face of the void, I hold on to whatever agency I can. The violation of the boundaries of my body and of my intimacy is so profound that the negotiation of managing what is left of my integrity becomes a fierce battle. What choice do I have among the options at hand? What and how will I communicate this situation? Do not touch me without permission. Do not treat me like a thing. I have worth. I am someone.
When it turns out that you won’t die after all, everybody goes back to normal. It all turned out to be nothing more than a minor inconvenience. But nothing is the same. An earthquake occurred and every meaning has shifted. How do you re-signify the world when you are 40? Or 65, or five? How do you go around and fill the little holes through which a great void looms? Don’t they know that the darkness didn’t leave you, that it has shaken the whole foundation of your being and armed you with this heaviness you knew nothing of before – that you’re fighting not for survival but against gravity and if you fail, you’ll die just the same. In every small thing the same void is hidden, as if cups and tables and newspaper stands and cars and clerks in shops were all just an empty facade for the same eternal night. Even the future has shifted; its relation to me has moved so radically that I have to use conscious will to relocate it. Nothing is for sure any more. This becomes a permanent condition: as if a solid path forward were now a mirage, held together only by my own faith. And whenever doubt finds me, I fall, into the arms of darkness again.
How do you come back from nothingness? First you recognize the absence of pain. Then, carefully, you let fear dissolve. And then you let yourself sink back into this sweet, merciful lie that life has meaning. You let your mind become occupied with tasks; you decorate your days with joyful trivialities. But you live in finitude, now. There is no other party to go to after hours. The open horizon has materialized as a distant wall. This is it.
The body that recovers is not the same as before. It has a new sensitivity to suffering, as if it couldn’t tell healing pain from violence anymore. It has new pride, a new kind of self-possession, and a new kind of fragility. One’s senses are heightened, the animal is awake. And, underneath, a new kind of solitude has taken hold.
Everything will be taken away.
I have seen how the great void will one day eat the world and all its miracles. I have seen how my spirit will dissolve and nothingness will eventually erode the roads and office buildings and small insects in the grass and the veins inside my body; the entire fabric of the world, the small details stitched together by my experience, will disappear like a magic trick. The memory of my insignificant, brief presence will fade in days, months, years, pushed away by the vivid life of others. And my being is soaked with this sadness, this almost unbearable longing for the world. It is love, but the kind of love one feels when looking at the face of someone precious and realizing, in one painful moment, how they, too, and everything that makes them so beautiful, their inner gardens that they so carefully nurture, their pains and aspirations, will vanish. Everything will be taken away, eventually. Love and mourning become one.
I sit in a bus on a rainy November day, watching the horizon flicker by. The bus plows through the landscape and I let a great wave of unidentified grief flow over me.
After the machine has ejected me into the corridor of the hospital I watch the back of a nurse who is pushing an old man in a wheelchair. A faint cloud of old age lingers in the air behind them: medicine, sanitizer, textile dust. It’s not as if the nurse cares for him. The system doesn’t either, these machines. They know nothing about his inner experiences, or mine for that matter. But it moves me that society has built up this complex machinery of working shifts, calibrations and transportation to keep alive these inner spaces that are worth nothing to the world but precious to those who inhabit them. That this grand machine is put to work for something so fleeting, so immaterial, so profoundly unshareable and uncommodifiable as an individual’s private existence is to me proof of nothing less than the foundation of love.
‘Welfare state’ sounds so dusty and grey, as if everybody existed in a condition of equal dullness. I would prefer to call it an ‘Organization for the Protection of Invisible Gardens’. Because isn’t this at the core of this complex apparatus: pure poetry, a wonder that everybody knows by heart but no one has words for. To live. To sustain life. And at the core of that lies the mystery of subjective experience: the fact that it is like something to be someone. The immeasurable treasure of preserving one’s life, and such depths of fear. Terror and light underlie all our daily tasks.
Later, when all is over, I sit in my car and a sob wells up from deep within me like an earthquake. I have received mercy, mercy so profound that it purifies my whole existence. For the first time in my life I understand the true meaning of that word: my absolute powerlessness, my total submission, and the absolute power for someone to save my life. It is beyond gratitude and debt: it is mercy exactly because what has been given is of no worth to anybody else. I have been allowed to live.
When the fear dissolves there is a future. There will be life after three years. Five years. Plans, prospects, time to communicate, to share. The palace still stands; the solitude of mortality is again overcome by speech and action. The fact of a tomorrow saturates every detail of the world and it opens up like a flower, outwards.
Refugees are accused of fleeing for material reasons, to improve their prospects, and not to save their lives. But when you flee the void, when you flee a paralyzing fear, you flee for life itself, because where there is fear there is no future, and without a future there is no life. Without a future the mind collapses; its fundamental structures give in. Without a future there is only gravity: an inert, inhabitable place.
A strange discussion on the subject of tolerance emerges as anti-refugee protestors take to the streets. Should the cultures and habits of asylum seekers be tolerated? The very idea that someone assumes they’re in a position to ‘tolerate’ someone else’s existence exceeds my understanding. The very notion that the right to be rescued is dependent on someone’s tolerance of difference betrays such complete obliviousness to what is at stake that my logic fails to grasp it. There is no difference. That’s the unbearable truth.
There just is no difference.
This essay was written in 2015 during the migration crises in Europe.
With gratitude to and in resonance with Adrian Piper’s series “Everything”, on view in the 55th Venice Biennale.