Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Human Condition

by Isabel Stark

When my family moved from our island (ultimately we returned) I found myself truly connecting to books like The Alchemist and A Season of Migration to the North and questioning: what is home? Can we truly detach ourselves from our roots and be satisfied? These moves, four in one year, have felt like fundamental changes but how would I cope if I had something hanging over me my whole life, affecting each decision I made? A genetic disorder. The choices from choosing to find out whether you had the gene or whether to have children. Or just the simple choice of whether to dwell on your condition and feel existential or to try to live a happy and full life.  

My life has been shaped unknowingly by looking and trying to understand the human condition.  In Josh Taft’s ‘Alive and Well’ documentary film (http://aliveandwellthefilm.com/), which follows seven Huntington's sufferers over six years, one being my godfather Charles Sabine, I realise the truth behind the human condition has to manifest a complex honesty. My godfather's journey has been inspirational. Seeing his father through good health to the shaky onset and then the inevitable and painful death, which will eventually take him and is rapidly consuming his older brother, John Sabine, a first class honours Law graduate and rower from Oxford. Charles also led a fruitful life, being an NBC war correspondent. He says “I’ve been shot in Chechnya, I’ve been blown up in Iraq and I’ve been taken hostage in Bosnia but nothing has installed more fear, dread or terror in me than the personal battle I now face”. This honesty he applies has enabled him to overcome what may seem like a pointless losing battle.

The subconscious battle between contradictory views on life’s true meaning (signifiance juxtaposed with the existential and brutal) meaning presents, for me, a direct link to physics and the vast cosmological world. The philosophies of physicists like Feynman and Sagan have inspired and allowed me to see the clear dependence and link between sciences and the arts. For the limitlessness and uncertainty of physics is mirrored in the expression of the truth in art. Pure art explores the truth. Art tries to own up and express honesty and feelings behind the human condition. Therefore my fascination with the cosmos and the way in which it can be perceived stemmed not only from Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ but from watching Chris Marker's La Jetée and La Belle et La Bête, Jean Cocteau’s classic surrealist film: 

The blackness and limited use of soft light in Cocteau’s film really does make Belle seem suspended in space. In both films, the notion of sound, time and motion is explored through avant-garde techniques, the beautifully crafted physical exploration of these more conceptual ideas and the deconstruction of the everyday processes are fascinating just like Susan Sontag’s essay ‘On Photography’.

Sontag breaks down the simple act of taking photos: why do we? For her, some cultures are inherently attuned, it is part of who they are, their brains have been wired like this. The Germans or Japanese, each are hardworking cultures, their instinctive need to work and inability to relax when not working is fixed by the simple act of photo taking.  Or in more frugal societies where very few photos are taken or little admiration placed on a child are simply overcompensated for later on in life with their very own ‘Leica’ camera.  The notion of your culture being hardwired in your brain would be disagreed somewhat by Carl Sagan who believes you can re-wire and re-train your brain.  Snapping away may seem trivial in comparison to the heavy genetic disorders but the concept of having inherent mindsets is very much on point. All sufferers I know, whether Huntingdon's disease or Marfan's syndrome all have the same carry-on attitude. I can only imagine what emotions they face.

One can never truly express emotions fully as they are personal and subjective. Yes, the majority share the base line of what certain emotions are. However, that shared knowledge will never extend fully though, as all of our emotions really are personal knowledge. Many of us find it hard to rationalise something conceptual so the works of Tracey Emin and Bill Viola are important, they have given us a physical interpretation to incommunicable emotional turmoil. Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ revolts many a person with the used condoms and detritus surrounding it (may I say it sold for £2.2 million this July?) and Bill Viola's particular use of sound in his films makes audiences uncomfortable but each artist has done their job. They have exposed the audience to a new emotion and haven’t shied away from their own honesty and integrity. They aren’t trying to glamorise or produce a superficial, generic feeling we can all relate to, that not what their prerogative is. This is why it is sometimes hard for the average human, like you or I, to really connect to modern art as we don’t have the surrounding and supporting knowledge -many of these artists have experienced totally life changing illnesses or events which makes their work all the more candid. A photo of Charles Sabine with his healthy family, wife Nicole, daughter Breezy and son Roman will say more than any words to close family members and friends but it is hard to really contemplate all the emotions and depth behind that photo.

'My Bed' by Tracy Emin (source: BBC)

What has struck me most is at the core of true art there is a recurring theme of honesty and fate. Charles Sabine knows he will die from a terrible disease but accepts this, as must we all. We all will die. So, is life empty and are we just here by accident, made up of borrowed time and star dust? Is there any point when we don’t matter, with an infinite, icy ocean of time and space out there with the only comfort of companionship twinkling in the night sky?  

As an anthropologist-to-be, I say: Yes. In any case ‘Your eyes look earthward, mine look up’, while the human race can ponder the possibility of life in the ocean of the night sky or the pointlessness of life when we are but a mere speck, it’s the anthropologist's job to look earthward. We have, as I’ve been trying to say, a built-in ability to find happiness even in the face of turmoil and oblivion and I often wonder why that is but I feel the poet Robert Frost speaks true on most topics regarding the human race; we all can feel like life is too much like a pathless wood. However, contemplate the world for a moment - not too long or you will never be able to return but not too little or it won’t be sufficient - but, when that moment is over and you see the troubles other fellow beings face and their ability to adapt to a situation, you will be able to focus on humans' natural instinct: to feel happiness. After all earth is the right place for love.

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