It’s not purely because I like the Queen track of the same name that I chose the tagline of my blog, and nor is it because my own house-cleaning activities bear a passing resemblance to those of Freddie Mercury in the music video. It’s because this simple, existential scream captures best what I want to talk about, and my own feelings of being trapped in capitalism. I want to break free, and I intend to work out how to do so.
Henry David Thoreau, when he wandered the few miles from his cabin by Walden Pond into Concord, Massachusetts must have felt the same way I do when I look around me in 21st century London.
I have travelled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. What I have heard of Bramins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging suspended, with their heads downward, over flames; or looking at the heavens over their shoulders “until it becomes impossible for them to resume their natural position, while from the twist of the neck nothing but liquids can pass into the stomach”; or dwelling, chained for life, at the foot of a tree; or measuring with their bodies, like caterpillars, the breadth of vast empires; or standing on one leg on the tops of pillars — even these forms of conscious penance are hardly more incredible and astonishing than the scenes which I daily witness.
Each morning, my housemate and I engage in a wearied mockery as we wish each other a fun day at our respective jobs, knowing full well the tedium which awaits us. I have friends working hours that wouldn’t have been permitted in 19th century cotton mills at present day law firms, trapped in a job they find joyless by the cage of a mortgage. Further afield, other people return to work for which they openly express their lack of enthusiasm, leaving at home a new-born child for whom their enthusiasm is boundless. I see acquaintances building their identity on the aluminium trinkets issued by a certain firm in Cupertino, and every one of us has spent far too much money purchasing those clothes, furniture and holidays that advertisers convince us are indispensable to our sense of self. My own career consists of a decade in jobs I find contemptible at best and rage-inducing at worst, so I’m not any better. Astonishing forms of conscious penance indeed.
I do not feel free in all this, and I’m not really sure anyone else does either. Our very physiology forces to sell our labour for money in order that we may buy food and live under shelter, and our psychology is turned against us by skilled manipulators, creating insecurities and needs most certainly not innate, which by sheer coincidence can find their resolution in the products produced for profit. The place of free will and agency in all this is small indeed, which is why the forces arrayed against each of us so often succeed in holding us to the one responsible path of “education”, wage slavery, consumption and debt.
In The Republic of Silence, Jean-Paul Sartre evocatively elicits the consequential nature of authentic freedom:
We were never more free than during the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, beginning with the right to talk. Every day we were insulted to our faces and had to take it in silence. Under one pretext or another, as workers, Jews, or political prisoners, we were deported en masse. Everywhere, on billboards, in the newspapers, on the screen, we encountered the revolting and insipid picture of ourselves that our oppressors wanted us to accept. And, because of all this, we were free. Because the Nazi venom seeped even into our thoughts, every accurate thought was a conquest. [...] At every instant we lived up to the full sense of this commonplace little phrase: “Man is mortal!” And the choice that each of us made of his life and of his being was an authentic choice because it was made face to face with death, because it could always have been expressed in these terms: “Rather death than…”
It might be objected that the stark relief into which reality was cast by the Nazi occupation doesn’t exist in these more carefree and peaceful times. This is to miss the point: it wasn’t the external threat of death at the hands of the Gestapo which forced the French to reckon with the awesome consequences of actions taken in genuine freedom; it was death itself – the Gestapo merely made it impossible to ignore.
And death, to state the obvious, will come to us all, and not necessarily in the 50 or more years time we often assume. Even as you read this, a cell may be undergoing carcinogenesis to become the cancer that will kill you, or the beer is being brewed that will intoxicate the drunk driver who runs you down. Yet we don’t consider this daily; death is put in a box stored forgotten on a high shelf, left to gather dust, while we risk having entire bolts torn from the fabric of life without confronting our responsibility to it, dabbling only in the inconsequential freedoms of the market and capitalist culture.
It’s not even a case of not wanting to find myself on my deathbed wishing that I’d done more meaningful things, to have worked less to buy shiny things I’ll have then long forgotten. The ennui is more primal: I see the state of the world around me, and the future in to which I’m expected to step, and all I can do is ask: Is this all there is? Is this it?
The incorrigible Dan Nolan is even more profanely succinct than me:
Some days I feel like that one lemming wondering why those other cunts like that cliff.
— Dan Nolan (@dannolan) May 11, 2012
This is my project. I reject the path laid before me and choose to venture through the undergrowth of life, metaphorical (literal, if necessary) machete in hand, willing to help anyone else who wants to come along for the journey. This will require, I think, hard thinking, and also hard action, but to do anything less is to shirk the existential responsibilities of life.
I want to be free.