05 April 2010

Reflections in the Pool of Bethesda

Easter Monday, out for a walk on the streets of Dublin, I have the city to myself. A low grey cloud is draped over the bunkered rooftops, a shawl covering the hunched shoulders of broken and battered men. The wind that follows me through the lane, whispering in foreign words just behind my ear, is warm and urgent, pushing me along to my destination with a rattling can of impatience, tumbling down the street behind me in haphazard haste.

I pause in a shop for an indifferent coffee brewed by an equally indifferent woman. Though no sign or signal passes between us we are inexorably joined together by a shared and forced obliviousness to the ragged man at the table behind me talking loudly to himself. He exists but does not exist, money is exchanged, thank-yous are proffered in a normal tone of voice despite the incoherent cacophony and random castigations that erupt just outside my peripheral vision.

We see but unsee.

The night before the Good Man Jesus is betrayed, Philip Pullman's Scoundrel Christ seeks redemption at the Pool of Bethesda. Surrounded by the lame, the infirm and the diseased, he strains to understand the true nature of human goodness, asking the most wretched of the beggars around him for an answer. "Companionship" comes the answer, a kiss, an embrace, a moment of human warmth, "the touch of a kindly hand is worth gold". The Scoundrel Christ overcomes his nausea and revulsion and embraces the man, kissing him lightly on the head, before disgust forces him to flee. Later, as he reflects on his actions, the realization dawns that in their clumsy embrace his purse was stolen by the beggar. Shame and revulsion drive him on to the pivotal act in his life, and that of his brother Jesus. The course of human history is forever altered.

From the magazine rack looms the turtlenecked face of Steve Jobs on a hundred copies of a dozen magazines; is this what Jobs would see if he entered his own head through a portal on the 7½ Floor? In a week of bombings and earthquakes, racial attacks and NAMA, commemorations and commiserations, the story everyone leads with is a plastic box that fills a need that eight weeks ago nobody knew they had. A manufactured desire, two months of pain and notions of inadequacy and finally a $499 panacea, or 64Gb for $699. A pain so deep that people queue in New York for 48 hours to have themselves healed in a great glass tent.

"And finally...", the News proclaims over the ceiling mounted speakers hidden throughout the shop, still not loud enough to mask the ragged man's frenzied discourse with companions vanished and unknown. "And finally", a joke and a giggle at the end of so much gloom and despair to brighten your mood before the ads come on so you're not too upset to buy things. "And finally", the News proclaims, smug-superior and condescending, the last bastion of the white man's burden dispensing colonial wisdom as they weep over helpless Africans or gnash their teeth at mistreated Afghan women, with sadly no time left to report on injustice and inequality at home. "And finally', the News proclaims, let's all laugh at Japan, where they marry computer game characters and wear white gloves to push passengers into trains. Where everything is sold in vending machines and they prostrate themselves before giant robots and pink plastic cats. "And finally", the News proclaims, we turn to Japan, where people are buying hugging pillows for elderly relatives and lonely singles, because they're all too busy working to offer each other a kiss, an embrace, a moment of human warmth. An arm-shaped pillow to replace the absent Other. Look at Japan, the News proclaims, isn't it all so strange?

48 hours the people of New York queue outside a glass tent for a $499 panacea to take away the pain, to mask the symptoms, to help them forget how they miss a kiss, an embrace, a moment of human warmth. 'Companionship' is all they long for, 64Gb for $699. 300,000 units sold in a single day, "The touch of a kindly hand is worth gold" thinks Jobs.

An edge of desperation has entered the voice of the ragged man, debating the injustices of life with himself over a now cold and still indifferent coffee. His words slurred and incoherent but all in the shop can hear the secret layer carried underneath. All in the shop can do nothing else but hear the secret layer carried underneath. "Look at me", his hidden words say, "talk to me, see me, recognise me as you. Stop for just one moment in your lives of self-anointed consequence and offer me a single kiss, an embrace, a moment of human warmth"

I walk on, unseeing, fearful for my purse, back into the sticky caress of a warm breeze that whispers somewhere behind my ears no matter which way I face, back into the streets that crouch low and brace themselves for the next blow that will inevitably come, back into the indifference of Easter Monday.

Shame and revulsion are the echos in my footsteps.

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