The search for reality
I was in a taxi the other day and the driver wanted to talk. ‘Wasn’t it you that wrote that piece in the paper yesterday?’ he asked. ‘Could be,’ I said. ‘Yeah, well,’ he said. ‘You were going on about some places up in the highlands that are supposed to be under threat and you were encouraging us to go there before it’s too late.’ ‘That fits,’ I answered. ‘OK, you writers can write, maybe, but you’re just not in touch with reality. Where are we supposed to get the money to go travelling? Do you want us back living in turf cottages again?’ ‘There weren’t any turf cottages in the article,’ I said. ‘What are we actually supposed to live on? Where do we end up if people completely turn their back on progress?’ he asked. ‘We can’t all be writers, can we?’ ‘No,’ I answered, ‘I suppose not.’ ‘We can’t all go to university, can we? We can’t all live off selling each another stocks and shares or psychoanalyzing one other!’ ‘Maybe not,’ I said, but I couldn’t seem to come up with any particularly compelling reply. ‘We have to have something to live off! We need real jobs! How are we expected to live here when there’s no one left except psychologsupposed to live on? Where do we end up if people completely turn their back on progress?’ he asked. ‘We can’t all be writers, can we?’ ‘No,’ I answered, ‘I suppose not.’ ‘We can’t all go to university, can we? We can’t all live off selling each another stocks and shares or psychoanalyzing one other!’ ‘Maybe not,’ I said, but I couldn’t seem to come up with any particularly compelling reply. ‘We have to have something to live off! We need real jobs! How are we expected to live here when there’s no one left except psychologists and stockbrokers? What are all these people supposed to do? What are we supposed to live on when no one wants to work in the fish?’ ‘People are bound to create opportunities for themselves if they study what they’re interested in,’ I muttered and tried to sound convincing. The taxi driver shook his head. ‘Yes, and be like my cousin who went to Denmark to learn design!’ ‘For instance,’ I said. ‘Can you live off design? How are people supposed to get the money to buy all this design? What’s everybody supposed to live off? You people are out of all touch with reality. You need to get real!’
So when I got out of the taxi I had a look around me to see if I could see reality and came to the conclusion that no one I know does anything that is real. No one in my household comes anywhere near reality, no one next door, no one in the family, none of my friends. There are people in computers, marketing, advertising, languages. There are stockbrokers, artists, photographers, students, kids and old age pensioners, journalists, economists, pilots, psychologists, air hostesses, ministers of the church, architects, teachers and accountants. I have one childhood friend who sells fizzy drinks, another who gets people to watch more television. That hardly counts as ‘real’. An engineer with the telephone company. Is that reality? Icelandic teenagers send text messages for fifty million dollars a year. A real need? For that you could buy a year’s supply of flour for the whole of Iceland. Give us this year our yearly bread, literally.
My family is made up almost entirely of doctors and nurses. Yes, fair enough, they are dealing with real problems and there’s a bright future for people like them. In Living Science my eyes hit on the words, ‘In the future it will be the healthy people that take the drugs.’ It was an interesting piece about the so-called Barbie pill that makes people slim, makes their skin go brown and increases the libido. What could be better? Slim, tanned, and up for it.
My grandfather came presumably from the last generation that was born into absolute reality. His family had a clear overview of all aspects of its life and every single minute was spent in direct contact with reality. The family caught fish, collected down, burned driftwood, milked cows and herded sheep. Food was life and in a house of 1400 square feet there were twenty to thirty people, because the land yielded enough food for precisely this number. Everything was cut and dried. One sheep was a month and a bit of human survival next winter. His brother took over the farm. He bought himself a
tractor and produced ten times as much food as had ever been produced there since the dawn of time. His machines cut the grass, brought in the hay and dug the ditches. ‘Ha ha!’ he cried. ‘Plenty of food for everybody! A hundred litres of milk a day!’ But his voice echoed hollowly around the house. Everyone had moved away. What did it mean? Ten times more reality, ten times fewer people.
At one time people feared that machines would steal their jobs and put us all out of work. For some, the machines seemed to promise a life of endless leisure: they would see to the fishing and haymaking, feeding the animals, milking, filleting the fish and heating the houses, carrying the water and wringing out the washing. But strange to relate, rather than technological progress creating contented unemployment, allowing us to lie in bed and take it easy while the waterworks pumps and the heating utility heats and the trawling machine scoops up the catch and brings it back to land, no sooner has unemployment reached 3 per cent than the papers are full of shock!horror! headlines:
‘Downturn’, ‘recession’, ‘crisis’ – these are charged words. They mean different things to different people. Are we talking about a crisis like the one when granny, at the tender age of eight, was forced to leave the family home in their little fishing port out on the east coast? Or does it count as a crisis when someone has to cancel his subscription for cable TV? Or when there’s an overtime shortage and people have the time to meet their friends and the energy to read their children a bedtime story? Or can you call it a crisis when people don’t actually notice any change in their own circumstances, for all that the papers tell them that some Central Bank indicator is showing down instead of up.
Last year my domestic electricity bills came to 400 dollars. For lighting, cooking, the washing machine, vacuum cleaner, computer and television, to name but a few. The phone bills were something over 2500 dollars, and that was before I got broadband. The crisis will have to cut pretty deep before it has any effect on anything that really matters.
‘You writers are out of touch with reality,’ said the taxi driver. Maybe to some extent he was right. But the truth is that the reality has been stolen from us. The machines stole it. Every day a new machine turns up to take away yet another slice of reality. And every day another machine appears that has no
connection with reality whatsoever.
We can try to turn back. This summer I made an honest attempt to feed myself from what I could catch. I stood on the banks of Iceland’s most renowned salmon river, Laxá in Aðaldalur, for four days and came back with one lousy sea trout. Aðaldalur in fact operates a ‘catch and return’ policy when it comes to salmon. I had to sell a hundred and fifty books of poetry to cover the fishing permit, or the same price as 200 kilos of filleted haddock.
‘You can’t live off design,’ said the driver. So I decided to discard everything ‘you can’t live off’. I had a look around me and cut out all the fashion clothing, all films, all music, all theatre and the internet. I jettisoned football, travel and religion. I emptied out Benidorm, Disneyland and Las Vegas: people don’t live off tinsel like that. Coffee is a luxury, completely surplus to requirements, despite its being by far the biggest trading commodity in the world today after oil. Whole continents, whole millions of people, live off other people’s desire to drink the stuff! What kind of a reality is that? Alcohol, entirely expendable, let alone poetry or taxis. Having pared away everything unneeded from society, I was left with the following:
One 20 foot container/tent
100 kilos of fishmeal
100 kilos of flour
one sleeping bag
one thermally insulated skisuit
Reality – that’s about the size of it