“Being incarnate is a business”, Iris Murdoch.

Mindsprings blog post

This is another find from the archive. It must have been more than 7 years ago that I revisited Berlin. Post pandemic the idea of international travel for no other reason than to visit people seems incredible. And the reflections about doing things rather than conceptualising them also seems salient to our lives as we exit the solitude of lockdown (where many of us did things with our hands and re-discovered crafting). Funnily, I am also reading an Irish Murdoch novel at the moment, so her glorious quote seemed doubly apposite.

Just back from a quick weekend visit to Berlin, my old home town from 1992 to 1998.

It was grizzly, wet and cold weather and the city was looking as forlorn and unappealing as it possibly could. Lots of my friends were sick and ill. I wondered as I wandered across the bleak wasteland that is the ‘Regierungsviertel’. Why on earth I had come back in the dead-end of winter.

My Berlin had been overwhelmed by an influx of English speaking ‘hobby-Berliners’

But a few hours later I was drinking hot ginger tea in a Prenzlauerberg bar with a couple of friends. Enjoying the sort of serious but animated conversation that Berlin still thrives on.

I was puzzling the fact that ‘my’ Berlin had been overwhelmed by an influx of English speaking ‘hobby-Berliners’. Drawn there by the international glamour of the city and cheap(er) rents. The old, grumpy German-speaking Berlin (which I experienced as ghastly-hard but authentic) has been covered up by a much more friendly, tourist-inflected confection of coffee bars, graffiti art museums and more coffee bars. This makes the city a much easier place to hang out. But somehow seems to have comotosed the rude recalcitrance of Berlin into something much more compliant and consumerist.

Adrian, an artist, art fabricant and magician of wood, pointed out that thousands of very talented people are drawn there by the art scene but only a tiny fragment will make it. This is largely due to a shift in the art market towards the ephemeral and ‘fashionable’. Which is actually a society-wide shift towards the consumer mode. Previously, artists and gallerists would have a long-term relationship which would pay off in a long career of varied work and stably rising prices. Now the “market’ has become the driving mechanism. And, as everywhere, the market is interested in the new and instantly saleable rather than long-term investments. This means that even among successful artists there can be a terribly short shelf life.

Because thinking is so fast and erratic, one is always anxious about breakage

Adrian has built his robust career on honing his skill as a ‘maker’. And he spoke of a book by Hans-Ulrich Obrist about how in the long run only people with ‘skills’ will flourish. In a world of conceptual art, the ability to work with wood. And marble and metal and often hard-to-access ‘stuff’ becomes a lasting anchor. Adrian has made a decision to stay put, to hone a skill. To work day by day to improve that skill and he knows that it’s a good bet. Concepts are too cheap. The speed and ephemerality of ideas make them particularly prone to consumer erosion.

This ties in with what I was saying in the last post about the tick-tock of anxiety. Placing your existential eggs in the basket of thought is a perilous decision. Because thinking is so fast and erratic, one is always anxious about breakage. There is much to be said about resting in the concrete, staying put and honing a skill.

Translating Adrian’s professional aperçu into my world, then it becomes about people rather than materials. The skills I have to hone are teaching and therapy and my workstuff is the human mind and its wellbeing. But his decision to hone and engage with stuff is inspiring in other ways.

For a long time, I’ve suspected that daily engagement with the actual stuff of the world rather than our thoughts about it, leads to mental health. Our consciousness according to Alva Noë arises because we have brains in bodies that move in a world. The essential component of heightened consciousness is that the body is emplaced in a vibrant and ever-challenging and refreshing world. Not a stale simulacrum of thoughts. In short, too much thinking kills us.

There is a certain kind of doing that is not addictive workaholism but is a virtuous generator of connection

I was staying with my very action-orientated friend Tamsin who juggles a magnificent family of children. A challenging journalistic career, a novel-writing strand and panache with vegan chocolate and homemade cosmetics. That level of relentless doing makes me quail a little – but as she points out: the doing breeds energy. Just as thinking makes us anxious, there is a certain kind of doing that is not addictive workaholism. But is a virtuous generator of connection. So although Tamsin is working non-stop. The daily interaction with children, colleagues, cocoa butter feeds back into her consciousness and enlivens it.

I would hazard a guess that this kind of doing (like Adrian’s daily battle with steel and oak) is tempered or made wholesome by interpersonal context. This is what stops “healthy doing” from becoming “anxious doing”. We need to stay rooted in the world and other people.

Reading Iris Murdoch’s letters she writes to her French lover, Raymond Queneau: “ I don’t care a hang this evening about anything theoretical. I care so much more about people, indeed I always do.” Elsewhere she says: “Being incarnate is a business”. Which strikes me as doubly wonderful. The flesh and bone of being human is a joyful activity.

The ‘business’ of the embodied brain moving in the world creates consciousness

This may seem to run counter to the thrust of meditation as ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. But this trip to Berlin, damp as it was, has pointed out that too much ‘being’ (especially when it actually involves endless thinking) can make you liable to paralysing anxiety. And thence selfishness. The ‘business’ of the embodied brain moving in the world creates consciousness. Not just an embodied one but a socialised one. I suspect that that “world context” contributes to a sense of inter-subjectivity that is crucial for well-being.

Perhaps it was just the gloomy weather and a fluey headache, but when I stepped into a coffee shop to escape the rain on Saturday I was surrounded by a host of dozens of young ‘Berliners’. All staring at their glowing laptops. I felt the city had become depressingly unsocialised in the way that swathes of London and Manhattan have.

Being ‘awesome’ without actually being anything in the real world

Adrian’s boyfriend was telling me about epiphytic plants which are not directly parasitic on the tree they dwell on but rather hop on the branches and commit ‘resource piracy’. Not eating the tree but taking up a lot of the airspace. One of the disturbing aspects of New Berlin is that it is becoming, – like so many places – full of people who don’t directly drain the place they live in but don’t seem to connect to it either. Most of the international “Berliners”, for example, don’t speak German and have created enclaves where it’s not necessary. This self-soothing bubble existence can be terribly selfish. That’s not true of the trunk of German Berliners who have shown, for example, inspirational welcome to the Syrian refugees. But more to the international epiphytic ferns that have come to nest in Berlin’s branches.

An enormous sense of disappointment when the “Berlin” bubble pops

Making ends meet, planning your great start-up, securing your big art deal. Typical activities of your 20s these days and they are hedged around with anxiety. But how much more anxious are they in the epiphytic atmosphere that has no real roots in the otherness of the world. And wants to create a ‘safe’ bubble of curated space. Planning without doing. Being ‘awesome’ without actually being anything in the real world, sipping lattes instead of getting things done. It’s alarming to me – because (of course) it reminds me so much of me. But also because it is going to lead to an enormous sense of disappointment when the “Berlin” bubble pops. People have to make it in the real world of big roots, thick trunks and winter weather.

I’d love to know your thoughts about Berlin. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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  • Janet G says:

    Hello Alistair,
    A curious coincidence? Several days ago my memory of visiting Berlin simply fell into my mind. I have no idea as to what caused this recollection, and today, I am reading your article about your days in Berlin. My visit was during the east-west separation, not able to travel behind the Iron Curtain resulted in a one day fly in and out. I remember a very grey and gloomy city sort of lifeless. Buildings with no architectural merit. On my way to visiting the Wall Museum, I saw the Berlin Wall which was grim. Even worse, a building scarred with bullet holes, these were aimed at human flesh. I felt the terror and pain as these people were treated as being less than human. Inside the Wall Museum I was astonished by the human spirit, the ingenious ways to escape to the West. Every now and then the memory of bullet holes come to mind. Since that experience I have discovered that I am ‘highly sensitive’ which explains the lasting impression.
    A very different experience from your own.
    Is it possible to be paralyzing anxious and not be selfish, to still have empathy?
    Best wishes,

    • alistairappleton says:

      HI Janet, sorry for the slow response to your lovely comment.
      It’s an interesting point you raise about increased sensitivity sometimes leading to a retreat from connection.
      Sometimes, I imagine that connecting to people and checking whether your sensitivity is grounded in their experience or just an amplification of your own could be beneficial in clarifying.
      I had the experience of spending most of my time with East Germans in Berlin who were actually rather dubious about the benefits of the ‘West’. While no one wanted to go back to a police state, they were far from in agreement with the narrative presented in the Wall Museum. So perhaps that made me rather interested in what it was that they enjoyed about the peeling, crumbling Eastern half of the city.
      They spoke about a sense of community. A freedom from worry about work, childcare, competition. About art and creativity (underground or above ground). They felt that those things were being lost with the increasing McDonaldisation of the west.
      I can’t comment about things there now since it’s such a long time. But I was glad that I had time to settle in and make friends and try and see the ‘history’ from their side.

  • Amina says:

    What I find particularly interesting is the reference to skills, in this age of digital technology, so much is created or heavily influenced by computers but it is the true skills and crafts which will prevail. I spent the best part of 20 years as a freelance photographer before digital imaging kicked in, an entirely different way of working, which ultimately made me change tack, firstly into horticulture and then animal care.
    To my mind, real creativity is a kind of meditation, when I’m totally engrossed in painting, printing or more recently copper work, it’s a kind of bliss. What’s interesting though is without a connection to people, it becomes quite insular. Also, the point about everyone glued to computers and phones, this is the digital age and I guess having grown up in an era where we needed skills, I find it despairing. Have you noticed, I wonder, how people are now lacking social skills, even before the current crisis. I also taught for some years but those subjects, which were considered skills, are now obsolete. Advancement through technology seems in some ways to have resulted in regression of true communication and interaction. It seems to me that the more simple life is, the better.

    • alistairappleton says:

      Hi Amina. I think I’m a little less pessimistic. I happen to work with a lot of Millenials and Gen Z folks who are very good at communicating. Often alarmingly so. Growing up in a provincial Hampshire town in the 1970s didn’t give me much in the way of preparation for human-to-human interaction. I, like you, would retreat into the insular ‘bliss’ of creativity or reading. But that didn’t burnish my social skills much.
      I often think this generation that is maturing around us has had a tougher ride: economic insecurity of the sort we never had; no chance of a job-for-life; little chance of a house in their own name; the future of a planet in peril. Many of these are things that our unthinking generation has created. After all it was Baby Boomers and Gen X people who invented the mobile phones and 24-hour-news world that this generation have been born into.
      Social connection has always been a challenge. In some ways, I find younger people are more able to share emotion and vulnerability than people my age. It’s touching.

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