The Big Issue : Edition 448
12 THE BIG ISSUE 26 DEC 2013 – 9 JAN 2014 RAZER YOURS TRULY WHENEVER I AM tempted to compare myself with history’s best thinkers, I am nearly always disappointed. I imagine they’d probably be a bit disappointed by the comparison, too. Anyhow, this exercise always ends unprofitably for all concerned. There are few qualities with which I can say both Enlightenment philosophers and myself are endowed, but, nonetheless, every so often I try to enumerate them. What do we have in common? I ask myself, sometimes, when trying to sleep. We can say that Kant and I are both mammals whose first names employ the letters ‘e’, ‘l’ and ‘n’. We can say that Diderot and I both have ‘issues’ with authority. That’s about it, though. With the exception of one quite striking connection: common to all these men and myself is the mild but persistent panic that asks, what do we know that is true? What do we know that is true? Not that much, say the greatest Western minds. And so does mine. Especially at this time of the year. Perhaps it is when I am trapped, as now, in the armpit of the Australian summer that this question becomes more difficult to ignore. Heat wraps itself around my head like a drunk bully, and I am more open to vulnerable thoughts. And then, through the season’s open windows, the question is carried in on the air. “I don’t know who I am any more,” I hear carried through the air and across my backyard. “I don’t know who you are any more,” I heard on the way home from the train station. “I just don’t know what to believe.” Life, it seems, starts out rich in truth. When we are very small our parents appear to us as all-knowing gods. Then we get a little older and decide that, while our parents may not be the keeper of all truths, then surely somebody is. Possibly somebody in a lab-coat. And then we might continue to keep faith of a sort that asks us: what do we know that is true? Life starts out rich in truth and, you could reasonably suppose, should just get richer from there. It seems to me, however, that we are poorer for truth not only as we age as individuals, but also as we age as a culture. This closes the window on men like Kant who dare to ask: what do we know that is true? But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s pause before crossing to the side of the road that has done away with truth. About a year ago, I was walking with an acquaintance who had lived for a time in New York. We stopped to press the button at a pedestrian crossing and he said, as we waited and waited, “just a placebo button”. When I asked him what he meant, he described the widely held belief among New Yorkers that pedestrian buttons were just dummy controls hooked up to nothing and producing no result. They existed solely to give pedestrians the impression of control. The weather was warm and the uncertain conversations of neighbours were still fresh in my ears. And this observation, I’m afraid, sent me into some sort of Enlightenment binge-thinking episode. An age that allowed placebo buttons to exist unchallenged, I thought, was surely an age that would no longer ask questions of truth. What, I wondered, if we all accepted that the impression of certainty was enough and not certainty itself? What if truth has forsaken us and packed up its bags sometime in the 19th century? WHAT IF WE NO LONGER CARED WHAT WAS REAL BUT WERE SIMPLY APPEASED BY LITTLE SYMBOLS OF REALITY THAT FLASHED AND WINKED AND, OH GOODNESS... And there I was on a traffic island, growing older with every thought and less certain with every inch of ageing. And as the truth whizzed past at speed, I was struck by the thought that it is not that we no longer care for the truth, it is just that it has always moved so fast, it takes our most high-performance days to chase it. “Heat wraps itself around my head like a drunk bully, andIam more open to vulnerable thoughts. ” » Helen Razer is a writer, gardener and wearer of hats. Which is a good thing, as her mind would not benefit from any further heating. Let’s not tell her there are several more months of summer still to come.