Europe had its Little Ice Age, a cold snap which lasted for about three hundred years between the end of the Middle Ages and the mid-nineteenth century. The conditions of the period were such as to result in denuded forests, a kind of “wood peak”, the phrase Adam Gopnik uses in “Winter”, his Massey Lectures on representations of the season. That “wood peak” began the coal economy, and the Industrial Revolution which followed it, have now given us, by a long and complicated series of events, a climate altered from the one we have relied on for a hundred centuries to produce this thing called ‘civilisation’ we are so addicted to.
Alas, one of the effects of ‘civilisation’ is discontent: Sigmund Freud reminded us of this less than a century ago. Freud was of course concerned with the larger canvas, whereas most of us sketch our discontent with and in civilisation on very small canvases. This is one such tiny canvas, even smaller than the ones Jane Austen thought her work constituted.
That arch-villain, Shakespeare’s Richard III, the Stefano di Mera of the early modern English stage, opens his repertoire of villainy with reference to the “winter of discontent” ended by the ascendancy of the Yorks. In 1970s Britain, the phrase would gain new currency as the post-War social welfare state began to fray at its edges and collapse at its centre.
In South Africa, we are still in the middle of Doris Lessing’s “winter in July”. It has been a winter of unease, and mild discontents on the large political canvas. Power outages and energy apportionment labelled “load-shedding”; the release of the Farlam Commission’s findings on the Marikana massacre; the executive arm of government defying the judicial arm’s order on Omar al-Bashir in relation to the state’s obligations as a party which had ratified the Rome Statutes by incorporating them into domestic law … and the debased and debasing shenanigans in the National Assembly have hardly helped lift the spirit.
On the international stage many of us have had to be frustrated witnesses to the crisis in Burundi; the frightening revelations of state failures in relation to African-Americans in the world’s most powerful state, headed by a man who is himself the son of an African man and an American woman; the continued conflict across the Levant and southwest Asia, the fertile crescent in which ‘civilisation’ was born; the trouble with tribbles approach to the migration crises across the planet, whether in the Mediterranean, the far eastern Indian Ocean, Australia, or across African polities … the list goes on. And then there is Fukushima, still.
The world can seem and sound like “one huge deep vowel of horror” to quote Margaret Atwood. The anxieties induced by the macro-aggressions in the world, however distant, on the conscious and thinking human being, often lead to outbursts at the micro-aggressions of the world. To move from the sacred to the profane, from violations of the sublime to violations of the ridiculous, one often finds oneself frustrated by forces large and small, but, unable to take on the Goliaths and Leviathans, one’s rage is triggered in interactions with dumb Davids and the moronic minnows.
In this bleak midwinter, coddling my midwinter bleakness, my irritation levels reached breaking point as a consequence not of the large political and historical forces sweeping through the world, but because of the series of tiny, usually manageable irritations in everyday suburban life. Minor things that have grated my liver this winter include, but are not limited to, the following.
The gas delivery company employee who called at 7h30 (yes, in the morning!) to inform me that they will drop the gas off “sometime today, I can't say when because we have so many deliveries”. What is the point of going through the bureaucratic processes to place the order if this is the best they can do? One longs for that summer in Sweden when the yearlong train timetable indicated that a train scheduled for a specific Tuesday the following February would be three minutes later than usual. And incidentally, if Sweden is known by you - you know everything is not cheap. We were there on a trip once, and a resort overcharged us. We had to end up doing something called här only to get home. What a memory. If that is possible, surely it is possible to indicate which part of the day a gas canister will be delivered?
Then, having to obtain the cash to pay for this gas delivery, one finds that the cash machines inside shopping centres only dispense R100 notes, and the gas deliver company charges R189 rand and wants exact change. Going to the supermarket to buy naartjies to try to get change, one finds many of the products are not clearly priced, and the scanners at which one can supposedly check, do not work. The closest supermarket employee, when asked, then makes up a random price for the product, which has no relationship with what the product costs when scanned at the cash register. The cashier then hands over change in the largest denominations possible; when asked for smaller change, she holds out a wad of R20 notes over a cash-drawer brim-full with R5 and R2 coins, stating that she has no smaller change. The box in which the naartjies have been packed then breaks. Throughout, one has been able to smile, to giggle, but now the tether snaps. But the Kafkaesque suburban experience is not yet complete: the escalator, the only way to get from one floor to the next at that point in the shopping centre, has broken down.
It is Friday, and now one knows it is the winter of one’s middling discontent, and one needs an infrared heaterin all rooms! But it is July, south of the Equator, so the wait will be long. Meanwhile, it is a dry white season in Johannesburg, and the micro-failures are indistinguishable from the micro-aggressions in the moment of experience, and the bathetic and inane become the focus of rage because of the feelings of individual impotence in the face of the larger sweeps of history’s ugliness.
So, given that it was sunny outside, though bleakly wintry, one just had to share the naartjies over a joke about malfunctions and systemic dysfunction with the security guard to improve one's mood. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, but laughter, at oneself, in the sense of Anne Sexton, at the absurd, while not the best medicine, does keep in abeyance, like the deal proposed by the IMF-ECB-EU to avoid “Grexit”, immediate collapse into despair.
While one may agree with Yanis Varoufakis on the unsustainability of “extend and pretend” on the large canvas of human history, in the bleak midwinter one does extend one’s tolerance for the failures of post-industrial ‘civilisation’, and one pretends that until the Sun of summer returns, it is better to rage than to act, and it is better to laugh than to rage against the dying of civilisation’s lights.
Europe had its Little Ice Age, but things improved before the current threat to worsen. We have the mild winter of our middling discontent. But, Spring is coming, and the next Summer may be better than the last, not worse. In the absence of aspidistra to fly, let’s keep the buchu brewing.