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I was at Subway the day of the Boston Marathon bombings. It was obviously big news, my Facebook feed brimming with sympathy and counter-sympathy. The murders were a predictable opportunity to discuss gun rights and the War on Terror, after all. Still, at Subway, there was only a tinny radio tuned to Triple M or Nova. The announcer faded out her last song, ready to close the drive time shift with a few final words.

“And that’s it for me,” she announced. “Obviously a truly devastating day for everyone in the studio. I know at times like this, it can seem like nothing will ever be the same. What is the world coming to? Absolutely shocking and devastating.”

Those words stuck in my head. They rang completely false – like somebody reading a script – but that wasn’t the real issue. Old news reels also involved scripts; they were painfully, obviously staged. And why not? Statements are important. We always look to the media in times of crisis, partly searching for the right collective response.

However, if older reports feign a militant, cheerful bravado, contemporary responses are very different. Our announcers seem weirdly welded to a childish innocence, an implausible naivety or cowardice.

“What is the world coming to?”

 

I remember the Columbine school shootings. My grade six teacher had the entire class in inter-continental lock down, whispering sadly to her colleagues and eyeing the kids with a new-found (if completely unjustified) wariness. We listened to the radio, Eric and Dylan’s kill count building throughout the day, and collectively lost our innocence.

Or was that September 11? I remember talking to my friends at lunchtime. We were all chattering and excited, awestruck, faintly concerned that terrorists would hit the tallest structure in town – a four storey water tower.

Of course, it was only a 10 second spot on commercial radio – what more did I expect from Triple M (or Nova, or whatever)? We can’t all fight them on the beaches with Winston Churchill. The poor lady just wanted to finish work, drop by Coles on the way home, and hopefully catch the start of My Kitchen Rules.

Here’s my problem: we’re kidding ourselves. It wasn’t a devastating day in the studio. Nobody there thought the world would never be the same. What happened in Boston was horrible, but we already know horrible things happen. We’re all grown up now, and there’s only so many times you can come of age.

Bad things will happen in the future, but we’ll always keep heart. To pretend otherwise, to constantly feign such punctured innocence, would “condemn us to hope alone.” And hope is not enough. Every tired platitude of shock diminishes our agency ever-so-slightly, gradually infantilising the west, narrowing our possible futures.

The next time something horrible happens (because it will), take a moment before jumping online. Are you really devastated? Shocked? Honestly, are you even surprised?

Take a moment to feel your true emotions. That steely resolve isn’t callousness – it’s honesty. Believe me, the victims don’t want your teary fake prayers.

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I ended the last post praying for serenity, courage and wisdom – and promptly failed at each, trapped in a caffeinated bender of anxious nights and long, slow days. I have slept with a black dog.

But wasn’t it enough to drive anyone to ketamine, that gaudy procession of electoral pundits barfed from the gratest nation in the world?*

Sure… it’s fun watching news anchors try to whip the presidential equivalent of wheat juice into an olympian fistfuck (or at least some ominous portent of Australian politics yet to come – anything but the turd sandwich of indifference and bleak inevitability the foreign correspondents must have phoned in) but it probably doesn’t matter who won the election.

Obligatory liberal disclaimer: Romney showed all the charm and patience of a Victorian dildo (basically a wooden dick for the upper crust).

It’s just hard to rekindle the kind of post-Bush relief that flickered around Obama after the last election. On the international stage – where American excess is most likely to ruin my day – both shared a pathological need to condemn and control the sprawling march of human history now uneasily defined as “the situation in the middle east.”

Actually understanding that situation – much less articulating it meaningfully – appears a Sisyphean task best left to universities. After all, it’s exactly the kind of political-religious-ethnic-economic-historical-demographic clusterfuck that’s always kept academics in Moleskins and comfortable shoes: basically the Nazis without having to learn German or collect such incriminating books.

Israel-Palestine are just the bupkes drizzled on top.

Luckily for politicians, understanding is always less important than (the appearance of) acting – remember the primary debates? Romney’s healthy will to power eclipsed even basic geography, happily talking tough on Syria while also claiming they were “Iran’s route to the sea”.

When can we start the war on maps?

I spent nine days in a Georgian hotel with a cold and cavernous lobby on the outskirts of the capital, Tbilisi. A piano man played all the latest hits: ABBA, The Eagles, even some of that classy stuff you hear on hold.

Jet lagged volunteers shuffled through the disorientation program while nurturing a fragile Stockholm Syndrome for our new captors. There was safety advice for the young ladies (don’t be either) as well as a crash course in post-Soviet road rules and daily, incredibly basic Georgian lessons.

“What do you call Russians?” asked one of the TEFL veterans, a classically American DJ just out of Seoul. “You must have some names for them.”

The instructor stiffened; I shifted uncomfortably in the silence.

“Why would we have names for them? My grandmother was Russian.”

Joseph Stalin was actually born in Gori, just over an hour from Tbilisi, with the typically Georgian surname of Dzhugashvili (ჯუღაშვილი). Austere marble columns now cradle the cobbler’s house he was raised in, part of an an unflinchingly revisionist tourist trap pushing kitschy mugs and shirts – the hipster’s natural playground.

Russian fighter planes dropped irony-seeking munitions on the city in 2008. Cluster bombs peppered Stalin’s birthplace with shrapnel and fire while pro-Russian militia torched cars and kidnapped villagers, barbarians at the gates.

I travelled Georgia from Black Sea to the snowy, backwoodsy tips of the Caucasus Mountains, where nights (just possibly) crawl with Spetnaz and shotguns from across the border.

Not once did I find any hatred of the Russians. What can you do? Putin may be a bad man… but Russians?

Such grand pragmatism has a transcendental quality somewhat humbling – it is a negative capability.

The term stems from Romantic and serial muser John Keats:

… several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

Yes! We reach for fact and reason, at worst a lazy, basically religious idea that the world makes sense. Everything is controlled – for understanding is really an attempt to stand over – but what if we’re wrong?

Keats’ negative capability refuses to silence the unknown, gazing into the abyss with a grin and a strong gin.

But politicians seem to have forgotten their borders, obsessed with venturing into the wilds and bringing sense to the world – bludgeoning history into shape, killing uncomfortable thoughts before they have a chance to arise.

We’ve had the first black president; perhaps we need the first dead one: Keats-Wilde in 2016!

___

* I may also have developed an unhealthy symbiotic relationship with ABC24’s Planet America, strangely drawn to all those awful graphs…

The Imam Khomeini International Airport outside Tehran felt like an old library. That is, not a truly old library – with extravagant staircases and philanthropic sponsors – but something built in the ’80s, just before computers arrived on the scene.

Strange little hallways terminated in locked doors while most walls were plastered in the Imam’s “wizened” face. Skinny soldiers dressed all in olive green eyed over travelling Iraqi families, their touchingly normal children running up and down stairs or annoying each other with little games.

It felt like a particularly exotic episode of JAG.

I met Aydin when a bureaucratic cock-up from the Tbilisi end meant my luggage wasn’t being transferred to Dubai. For a couple of hours either side of midnight, it seemed I would need an Iranian visa just to get my backpack on the right plane – a visa worth hundreds of dollars, completely impossible.

Strangely, I’d already met another Iranian on the flight over, a talent scout for the Iranian Basketball Super League. (I originally mistook Ali for a Mexican frat boy, genuinely thrown by his backward baseball cap and surgically attached iPad.)

In an act of kindness I’ll never forget, he spent nearly half an hour explaining my plight to Iranian officials, who eventually shepherded me into a corner and left me to think long and hard about what I’d done (which was trusting in Georgian customer service – an obvious rookie mistake).

In the hours before my connecting flight to Dubai, I became friends with Aydin, the hapless Iranian soldier whose sole assignment seemed to be keeping watch over a disused escalator. Aydin was 18 and both shorter and lankier than me, with naturally smiling lips that probably ruled out a career in the Revolutionary Guard.

Between his English and my Farsi – both zero – we struck up a stilted conversation on life, the universe and everything. He explained that Iraqis had no love for America, and that he didn’t drink coffee but started every shift with a shot of whiskey.

Alcohol became something of a theme for the night, Aydin’s commanding officer even proudly announcing that he, along with everyone in Iran, drank constantly.

In fact, explained the officer, the only reason he spoke English was to escape the government’s spies – an irony so rich it felt unnecessary to point out. Here, chatting with Iranian soldiers on their cultural front line, I seemed to have stumbled into a bastion of radicals and whiskey-chugging enemies of the state.

For all the flags and patriotic posters, the Imam Khomeini International Airport felt like a realm of quiet, conversational rebellion.

The state was failing before my eyes.

I’ve recently finished reading Robert Bellah‘s Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. It tracks the development of religion from biological predecessors to the time of Plato and Confucius – an era we are still, in a very real sense, struggling to deal with.

In part, this evolution of religion is really the evolution of politics, the two synonymous until quite recently.

Such deep history has a strange quality to it, more alien the longer we investigate. The first city was a bold experiment; the roots of logic may be ritual. From this perspective, the questioning, fundamentally malleable nature of humanity becomes obvious.

We’re honestly making this up as we go along, and the modern state is just one more experiment in social organisation, arising under specific cultural and technological circumstances.

I think the trouble with Pax Americana is not the grandeur of its vision, but the smallness of it.

Many seem struck with this poverty of imagination, unable to conceive a truly multi-polar world: not just between different nations, but different worlds, with fundamentally different ways of being.

What we call a failed state is really a successful something else – not exactly a tribe, perhaps something even older or stranger.  Maybe vast, centrifugal forces are whirling the modern state apart, old centres of power returning once again to the city or the family.

Maybe it doesn’t matter.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

There’s this myth of the lonely kingdom.

We catch it like a disease, and I do mean “we” – the scared weird little guys, who don’t trust Twitter and sometimes wonder where chalk comes from. We’re prone to it. We’re prone to a lot of things.

(Once I even caught conspiracy. It’s a terrible sickness, conspiracy – all hallucinations and cold sweats, rich white men everywhere. You start arguing with the television.

Don’t worry. I got better.)

But if these really are lifestyle diseases, what hope do we have? Our “style” is storms and pictures of bombs, news stories about the banking industry. We imagine concrete a hundred years in the future, ragged and useless. This is life-without-style. We’d rather play Angry Kurds.

Such heavy brains, soggy with the gloom of it all, have always attracted strange ideas – sometimes quite the collection, like mounds of jagged little shells. No wonder we’re anarchists and libertarians, fascists and acid-munchers, all just blips on the fringe radar.

But we all, at some stage, contract the lonely kingdom.

It thrives amongst doomsters, ever more baroque with each re-imagining.

Someone from the IT department – or, like, insurance – wants to buy a shotgun. They want a little place in the mountains with fruit trees and plenty of water. They’ll build a lonely kingdom up there, safe at last.

It’s all planned.

The first year’s the hardest. They’ll have to clear a bit of land, sort out the fences, get started on a veggie patch before the shops close forever. Just start off slowly, you know, easy stuff like potatoes and herbs. Then it’s time to step it up, plant some trees, look into getting solar panels. Find some chickens.

It’s grim (that gun isn’t just for rabbits, you know?) but refreshingly real.

Whatever appeal the lonely kingdom may have, it isn’t a new phenomenon. The urge for solitude, for hermitage, has always been with us. Life amongst others depends on compromise, an enormously sensible give and take. It’s boring.

Pilgrims? They dream of progress. The roots will set them free.

So why do I call the lonely kingdom a myth? It’s certainly possible to live off the land – in fact, that’s been the default mode for much of human history. Old skills may be bleached and forgotten, but they can be relearned; muscle memory dies hard.

This isn’t about failure, about the lost science of water purification, the dying art of fire-starting. If you actually want a lonely kingdom, you probably know all about that stuff.

No, this is about the cost of success.

I’ve spent the last six weeks living with a host family in the Republic of Georgia. While perhaps lacking the resolute solitude of a lonely kingdom, life in Georgia remains… kingdom-esque.

Marabda is a village of subsistence farmers. Several generations live in each house, and it’s quite possible to go weeks at a time without spending any money. Every meal is prepared from scratch using food grown right outside, from beans and cheese to apples and juice.

With a few exceptions (flour, salt, sugar) Georgian villagers are profoundly self sufficient. They are also, by any measure, extremely successful. My host family keeps hundreds of litres of wine in the basement, along with a massive, terrifying barrel of cha cha – moonshine so strong I’m sure it’s a fire hazard. Only the gypsies go hungry in Georgia.

Like I said, this isn’t a post about failure. It’s about success.

The land truly can be bountiful. The Georgian Orthodox Church celebrates Easter this Sunday and, for the first time in my life, I’m beginning to understand. Chocolate isn’t a metaphor for Jesus; Jesus is a metaphor for soil, dark and rich, born again.

I spent an afternoon in the graveyard drizzling wine over dead ancestors.

The first vineyards in the world were Georgian. Here, grapes represent the truth of life – the abundance of time, of land, of effort and friendship and love. But the dead are thirsty.

The past can be sticky.

My host mother hasn’t left the village in the last six weeks. I once talked to a shepherd who, in his entire life, had never been more than an hour from home. Every geography has a flavour and nothing comes for free.

The moneyless economy is built on relationships, blood and promises, a certain firmness of character. You can work the land for twenty or thirty years, but what then? You’ll need children, and those children need the knowledge. Little by little, family emerges as a natural bedrock. It swallows small rights.

But enough exoticism. You know what this looks like.

Eventually, life close to the land always demands total commitment. It implies an implacable conservatism. All those freedoms – of speech, religion, even simple movement – were never really free.

In the future, they may become ever more expensive.

So you can always have your lonely kingdom, but never your loneliness.

Sheer force of context nudges and hints, demanding ceaseless compromise. Shot, starved, or traded piecemeal for the next meal: the modern west cannot, by definition, survive its apocalypse.

Still… plant a tree.

Perhaps my mind is a splinter chipped from the world around it. Perhaps, in some way, I echo the conditions of my birth – a caesarian at the end of the Cold War.

These bones are certainly born of my parents’ DNA, not to mention their ability to provide milk, exercise, et cetera. But what if it’s more than that?

What if Queensland’s humid north also dripped along my spine, slowly warping its fibrous timbers? What if my fingers ring still with the thunderclaps of cyclones, and corrugated iron thrown against the trees?

We could all be weather vanes. And when the Europeans first escaped to the sun, finding lands free of the old cycles – winter and summer, death and rebirth – what did they think? Where did their souls settle?

I recently made this journey in reverse when I landed in the ageing capital of Georgia, Tbilisi.

The descent from Istanbul was in a little 737 with tired attendants, absolutely dwarfed by the monster I’d taken earlier from Hong Kong. Old Soviet smokestacks peppered the landscape – each belching wispy little puffs – and patches of snow still sat on the brown earth. Shit was grim.

In the airport, a Japanese businessman noticed my unhinged, jet-lagged excitement: “You like it here?!”

I shrugged – who could say?

 

Georgia, in a nutshell, is a somewhat hapless corner of the former Soviet Union, sandwiched between Turkey and Russia. Such prime real estate has seen the Georgians relentlessly conquered throughout history, from the Romans and Mongols to the ever-present Russians.

Most recently, of course, Medvedev’s 2008 invasion annexed nearly 20 per cent of the country. (Why? Oh, I don’t know – something to do with ethnic divisions and checkpoints. Let’s call it a hangover from the Soviet Union and move on.)

The point is, surely in Georgia I’d find the apocalypse, the living reality of life after a fall.

It’s a country to put modernists to shame: a truly ancient and turbulent past, all largely for nought. Georgia simply bobs on history’s long tides, sometimes freezing in Muscovite gales, other times basking in Mediterranean breezes.

But some things will never change – they can’t actually sail away on those winds of fate, and Russia will always be Russia. The country’s past fails to inspire any real confidence in its future.

In short, I was expecting gnashing of teeth in the bleak northern wastes. After all, 70 years of Russian occupation has to leave its mark on a country. The Soviet Oppression Museum in Tbilisi features a bullet-riddled train cart, its wooden planks once stained with the blood of 1921. Medvedev’s forces came within kilometres of the capital.

Instead (four weeks is plenty of time for sweeping generalisations!) I have found a people often bent but never broken. Apocalypse-veterans, Georgians live close to soil and family, tough as weeds. They may even offer a glimpse into our own future, far away in the decadent west.

So, what news from the front?

I live with a host family in a little place called Marabda.

Although only half an hour from Tbilisi, the village is populated entirely by subsistence farmers, extended families working tiny plots of land for potatoes, cabbages, and so on. The Georgian Orthodox Church reigns as benevolent monarch – a cultural more than theological anchor – and women are still expected to serve their men.

But what’s really striking is something I didn’t expect, deeper and older than any occupation: the weather. Georgia’s poverty leaves its people exposed to the wind and the snow, the blunt reality of living somewhere cold.

Family life revolves around the wood stove burning throughout the winter. And, because heating the rest of the house is impossible, three generations are forced around it – and therefore each other – for months at a time.

When I didn’t return home as expected (a shepherd had me drunk), my entire host family took to the streets, somehow afraid wolves had struck again.

Basically,  each Georgian family is besieged by winter every year. Everyone goes to ground, all together around the fire. The air outside becomes hostile, somewhat cruel.

I’m sure this sounds bizarre (downright histrionic) if you were raised in the cold, but the Australian experience is very different. Children are forever shuffled out of the house, away from the family, into the world. The fundamental benevolence of the outdoors is Australian gospel.

Our entire orientation – helped in part by a historical longing for England – is directed away from home and hearth. In countries like Georgia, however, where that hearth is necessary for survival six months of the year, this simply isn’t possible.

Or is it? The chillier frontiers of the decadent west seem to have de-fanged their winter. Wealth and electricity render the outside context abstract, a glorified irritation. The English do not huddle.

But what happens when the power goes out? Suburbia spans the world, but it is a system on life support. Were that plug ever pulled (due to peak oil, major war, et cetera) we may all remember our heavens.

We may all become Georgians, shaped and weathered by the specifics of place.