The Grand Design

By: Peter Goodchild

1

I don’t really know what I’m expected to teach. The classrooms are nearly impossible to find. Like other teachers, I spend hours every day trading small scraps of information, since there is no means for all the teachers to have access to all the basic information. Everything is closed at the most inopportune moments. At the end of every day, I’m totally exhausted, although I have accomplished very little.

The average laborer in places like this lives in a milieu of poverty, overcrowding, misery, and injustice. On the weekends I get up before sunrise, avoiding the heat, to go for long walks, encountering laborers on their way to work. Most of them are heading toward construction sites. At houses and similar buildings, that means working entirely without machinery, even on the hottest days. Their bodies are so thin that their clothes flap like flags. Their faces are devoid of any expression save that of fatigue. I am up early because I need exercise; they are up early because they are getting too much exercise.

They will never initiate a greeting with me, because they know they mustn’t speak to me until spoken to. I am certainly physically safe among them at all times, however, partly because they realize that if there is ever a confrontation they will be fired. The class structure is rigid, and no one would ever dream of questioning it.

With my preconceptions and prejudices, I had hoped for something more impressive when the landlord moved us teachers into the new building. At the north end of town, where we had lived before, although there were no shops to relieve the monotony of what a friend called the “plastic-bag trees,” the goat-tortured thorn-bushes hung with windblown garbage, I could at least walk across a vast but dead river valley.

I had been hoping, nevertheless, for a change from a year of solitude, and in comparison the new building seemed at first quite metropolitan in setting, but it is not. All I see around this building are about twenty other buildings in a tight cluster between the town’s main road and some steep hills of sandstone rubble.

Along roads that run south and west from this cluster of houses and apartments, however, there are small businesses run by foreigners. Economically and socially these shopkeepers are somewhat above the manual laborers whom I pass on my walks, although they are well below the doctors and lawyers who compose the upper class — relatively speaking — of foreign life in this town.

Many of the shops, if they can be called such, sell only broken and rusty junk to those who are too poor to buy anything else. The motto, “Reduce, reuse, recycle,” has here become a reductio ad absurdum. What kind of vehicle would run with the bits of iron that are lifted and shuffled within the ubiquitous concrete-walled yards advertising “used auto parts”? I ask myself a riddle: How many times should garbage be resold?

With all my elitist expectations, there is generally nothing for me to buy in this neighborhood. Even if I do, it is quite a gamble, because there are no rules regarding fair-trade practices, or at least none that are enforced. As it was a thousand years ago, trading and robbing are roughly the same thing. I buy some printer cartridges, and after hours of struggle with an already-ailing printer I realize that the cartridges I have paid for are far too old to work, and that they are probably items that were meant to be discarded. When I take them back and complain, I am treated to a sleight-of-hand that gets me nowhere. But another shop later sells me the same brand, and the owner, as I discover over the months, is quite honest and remarkably adept at recreating an electronic utopia in the midst of this vast and unforgiving wasteland. Generalizations are always hard to make, or rather they are easy to make in a moment of anger but hard to unmake in a rational manner.

The sun’s great yellow globe makes mile-long shadows, and I continue on my way. It is unfortunate, of course, that these impoverished and sad-eyed laborers can never understand that they are pouring into this land only because they are packed so tightly in their homelands. A foreign laborer has no kingdom except that of his family. He has no police and no army, and no retirement home, except what he creates by having children. His wife might be more than happy to renounce the false wealth of children, and the pain of childbirth and child-rearing, but the laborer must be a man, and to be a man he must produce children, no matter what the final result may be.

2

About a month after I come here, after many hours of puzzling over this unique society, I temporarily summarize my findings by saying to myself, “This is a place where nothing works properly.” A few months later, I am talking with someone who’s been here a few years, and he says, “My first impression was that this is a place where nothing works properly.” The same words.

Everything remains elusive. The issue of “liberal education” comes in here: some countries have the objective of offering their citizens an education in which they learn about the history, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy of many cultures, exposing them to these matters in a way — at least, ideally — that is not twisted to suit a crude dogma. When I was a child, we were taught not only the facts of “the democratic ideal,” we were taught also the purpose behind it. The American Constitution and its Bill of Rights were put there for a reason. And all of that recalls Popper’s concept of “the open society,” whatever that may be.

The layers of the onion never seem to stop receding, but gradually my theories can be reduced to a few simple principles. At one level, it can be said that the government and the religion  conspire to keep people stupid. At another level, it can be said that the political system here resembles Soviet communism specifically, a world in which responsibility and incentive are always crushed, and that more generally it resembles the governments of many countries in Eastern Europe. Unlike here, however, many of the European countries have abundant arable land and other resources, but the resources there are not utilized because all ambition and planning are discouraged by the forms of government, which can be described by the well-known terms of laziness, greed, and corruption. On the third level one can say that the society here is one in which there are almost no rewards and no punishments. There is neither positive nor negative reinforcement. There is no sorrow and no joy. As a result, people do nothing. They can stare at a wall for hours at a time for the simple reason that the result is the same as if they got off their chairs and actually did something.

One result of my detective work is the discovery that the form of government has a profound effect on one’s life. I had never really thought much about government, never really explored the depths of the concept. I had never thought about government for the same reason I had never thought much about the engine in a car. I had never had much reason to wonder about car engines, and I always assumed that any mechanic with a good reputation could deal with any of the minor problems that occur, leaving me free to think about other matters.

The only resource with which we are left is embarrassment, when the newest towns are clusters of tents below overpasses along the highway, cars blackened by rust, skeletons huddled together, when the last farmer watches his seeds blowing away, mingled with the dust in which he sowed them. This is the way the world ends. The lips drawn back, the eye sockets hollow, the smell of honey and shit that drifts far downwind.

This is the way the world ends. Horses sweeping down the steepest hill, their riders speaking a language that is not quite Spanish. This is the way the world ends. Cannibal hordes stumbling across a windswept plain.

3

When I reach the college in the morning at what is supposed to be opening time, there is always a fair chance that I will not be able to get through the gateway, perhaps because the guard hasn’t arrived at work, or he has wandered off to get a cup of coffee. One morning he presents me with his sidearm, complete with holster and belt. I am pleased with the gift. Then I decide he wants me to shoot him. Finally I realize that he merely wants to point out that he has not completed his attire.

Not long after starting my job at the college, I go home one day feeling utterly burned out from the stress of teaching hopeless students. I walk into my apartment with a sigh that means “home, sweet home.” I turn on the cold water in my kitchen, and the cheap metal fractures, so that the tap falls into the sink. Water begins gushing out. I find a roll of tape and wrap several yards of it around the tap, reducing the flow somewhat as I hunt for the main valve, unsuccessfully because it is on the roof.

The new building, on the other side of town, is also rarely “home, sweet home.” For weeks at a time, the walls are shaken by laborers hammering away at the pipes and concrete. Yet the prostitutes, who live on the ground floor, are less fortunate than I, because at least I can be awake and at the college before the noise begins, only having to deal with it later as I try to prepare my dinner.

Before I came here, I had almost never thrown out an item of food, but a fair amount of what I buy at the local supermarket now ends up in the garbage: fruit that goes from unripe to rotten with no stage in between, lettuce that crawls with unidentifiable insects beneath its plastic wrapping, meat that is mostly gristle and fiber, unsuitable even for feeding to a dog. The aisles of the supermarket have large signs above them, bearing no relation to the actual products below, and stock is frequently moved, so it takes a good deal of walking to fill a shopping cart successfully.

In a very small way, the portraits I have drawn above are those of the “failed state.” Not failed in any dramatic way, but failed in the sense of being grotty, seedy, squalid. A land where plumbing problems alternate with electrical ones. A land where “corporate structure” means one band of low-lifes conspiring against another. This place is a good education. It has taught me, at least to some extent, to become inured to the type of day that I would once have regarded as one of non-stop disasters. Things I would formerly have denounced as totally acceptable are regarded here as nothing remarkable.

This is my preparation for saying goodbye to the world I knew most of my life. I am adjusting to an environment of perpetual noise, overcrowding, and hostility. I am learning to live with the paradox that in a society in which everyone is mentally ill, the term is nearly meaningless.

I suppose I’ve generally been lucky, since I’ve had little in the way of family or home for most of my life, although I suspect my case is far from rare. I have no wife or children, most of my relatives are scattered broadly over the globe, and I am not on speaking terms with any of my closer relatives. I have a superstitious view that madness can be transmitted like the common cold, so I confine my studies of kinship relationships to the reading of a few textbooks.

My luck, such as it is, consists mainly in the fact that being married and having children can be stunningly expensive, and there often seems little hope that an enlightened person can explain to other members of the family that a B.A. in fine arts is not an adequate preparation for a future that is coming down like mortar shells.

Nevertheless, I live with a vast self-contradiction, because I know human society has always been based on the fundamental unit of husband, wife, and children, that larger units are based on the basic one, and that as we start giving up our silly fantasies it will be families that will coalesce as centers of survival. The dissolution of the western extended family, which might be largely dated to the 1960s, was not so much a new phase in cultural evolution, but simply a big mistake, one that will eventually be amended. Families are scattered nowadays, not because we are freeing themselves from the past, but because capitalism and its attendant mayhem are crushing us: the work-week is longer and the wages are less, and merely to survive one must wander the earth, pretending that each jolt in one’s chronic unemployment can be given the grandiose title of a career change.

4

One Saturday there is construction going on again, up on the roof of my apartment building. I am on the top floor, and this concrete building is utterly unsoundproof. Construction here basically means hammering. But I don’t notice the noise until about 10 a.m., when I am back from my usual five-hour walk in the hills. I finally can’t take it any more, so I call one of the other teachers at the college, to see if she wants to go for a walk. We have a reasonably pleasant day. When I get back, more hammering and crashing. It dies out by about 7 p.m.

I complain that day to my recruiter. As if with great sympathy, he says he’ll talk to the landlord. But at 8 a.m. the next day, there is more hammering. I go and stay at my teacher friend’s apartment until 3 p.m., but when I get back the noise is still going on. There is no quiet until about 8 p.m. In the meantime, I go up to the roof and shout and threaten several times, but they all just stare at me. If I punched somebody, I would get either fined or fired, and the worker would just carry on working. With a large family to take care of back home, a laborer will not stop hammering even if he is given a thorough beating.

Anyone who comes to live in a place like this may be suddenly crushed by an inexplicable feeling of mourning and despair. In spite of the reasonably high pay, tax-free and rent-free, the average teacher at the college lasts about six months, I estimate, before being defeated by the unnameable. In the arts of many cultures, humans and angels are depicted with similar faces, but most people do not live as if they had any kinship with such heavenly beings. Observing the prolonged degeneration of humanity can be truly crippling, but one must accept the fact that Conrad’s “conquering darkness” has already overtaken a great deal of the world. In a land where human life is not just cheap but valueless, salvation is largely a matter of delaying all grand ideas of education and reform, and learning first to pay attention to one’s own small and uncertain steps.

5

I grew up in New England, a world of sailboats, private schools, huge university libraries, and suburban houses with stereos playing diluted jazz, among adults who would have been horrified by any breach of the upper-middle-class code of honor, although actually there was no code, we were just honorable. In my grade-school days, the most shocking member of my community was a woman who had divorced and remarried. It was quite a glass bubble I lived in. I not only didn’t talk to people from “the other side of the tracks,” I was only barely aware of their existence.

That world was an illusion. My mother was slightly mentally retarded and somewhat crazy. My father never spoke. Little by little, I left that privileged world behind. In grade school I was younger than most of my companions, but when I passed childhood and spent a few years visiting liquor stores, I was a generation older than most of the people I spent my time with. I managed to lurch my way out of that long road to nowhere only when I realized I had been conned into thinking I was an inferior being. By the time I came here, however, trying to replenish my life savings, I was still struggling to sort myself out.

To a large extent I have given up caring about all the chaos, stupidity, cruelty, and ignorance. At the college, all rules come down to one: that the teacher is always to blame; in that way, no one else can be dragged in for questioning. The entire college is just a sham, but I am willing to accept that situation largely because the consequences after I leave will not be my responsibility. Instead of feeling that I’ve been captured by beings utterly unrelated to myself, I try to look at my neighbors with anthropological detachment. But it isn’t easy, and I’ve always preferred my social science between the covers of a book.

I am only slightly worried about the permanent effects of this land on my mental health. Will I be like those soldiers who come back from wars and spend the rest of their lives undergoing psychiatric treatment? I ask a friend of mine if, after leaving there, I will be able to forget this place. He says, “Yes, but there will be a scar.”

6

During the summer, the sun fills the sky, and under it silver creatures move very slowly in a landscape without shadows. I don’t leave the apartment very much during July and August. After several weeks of sprinkling ant poison, I begin to hear voices.

I seem to be one of the few teachers at the college who don’t have a PhD. It’s frustrating to deal with their free-form interpretations of English in particular and linguistics in general. A casual remark about spelling and I’ve started gangland warfare. How is it possible for all these “doctors” to make such a mess of the English language? After two years here I suppose I can consider myself a veteran, though.

I have given up on the definition of “girlfriend.” It’s easier just to be grateful for a woman’s company, even if we speak little of each other’s language. Staring at a wall during the weekend, with nobody to talk to, unable to go for a walk except in the earliest hours of the morning, can make a day seem like a hundred years. The brain shrinks away from the skull, shrinks and hardens, so that when I shake my head it sounds like a bell, but only bone against bone, not the attenuated reverberation of metal. It’s better to deal with her verbal legerdemain.

I was once reminded that the biggest concern here isn’t heat or lack of water, but getting too close to a house and encountering a pack of dogs. Such creatures are thin, all legs and teeth. They spread out equidistant in the light, traveling at great speed, trailing a cloud of dust, as if the whole desert was their territory. Lacking the social skills of wolves, dogs are just killing machines that pretend to be man’s best friend until the food runs out. Last year, I left one panting at a cliff top while I walked away shaky-kneed.

The smallest particle of food on the floor, and the next day the ants are there like iron filings around a magnet. Years ago, I once slept on an enormous glacier-scarred rock, and I later told someone that ants were the dominant form of wildlife there. His laughter seemed excessive, as if he knew more than he was telling me, but perhaps my mumbling had merely taken him by surprise.

Nevertheless I wonder if it is ants that control the universe. Perhaps humans are merely an accident, irrelevant to the grand design. White powder, boiling water, I turn them into motionless black dots, but the next day there are more of them. There are always lines of them coming and going. I play an old game of trying to watch one to see where it goes, but the lines sway and swerve, interweaving, and I lose track almost immediately.

About the author: Peter Goodchild is the author of ‘Survival Skills of the North American Indians’ (Chicago Review Press). Click here to mail him.