Wintery Berlin, epiphytic ferns and “healthy doing”

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 and 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.

But a few hours later I was drinking hot ginger tea in a Prenzlauerberg bar with a couple of friends and 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.

Adrian has built his robust career on honing his skill as a ‘maker’ and he spoke of an 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.

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 a panache with vegan chocolate and home-made 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” 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 a doubly wonderful. The flesh and bone of being human as a joyful activity.

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 but 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 and 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.

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 terrible 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.

Making ends meet, planning your great start-up, securing your big art deal: these are the typical activity 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 and people have to make it in the real world of big roots, thick trunks and winter weather.

3 Comments

  1. Deborah O'Brien

    February 29, 2016 at 12:45 am

    Thank you, Alistair, for this insightful and entertaining article. I particularly enjoyed your metaphor about epiphytic ferns. I think I’m in danger of becoming one!
    Best,
    Deborah

  2. uggbootdiva

    March 17, 2016 at 11:50 pm

    you are very very wise Alistair which possibly comes from a lot of “thinking” which appears to be then refined by conversation with others – the interpersonal context.
    I really like the balance of doing – something practical and physical as almost an antidote to anxiety. Thanks for sharing your thoughts – this is what I do love about the Internet – despite starting at my Shiney screen right now.

  3. Jo

    March 26, 2016 at 6:33 pm

    Yup, totally agree Berlin for me is raw & authentic, harsh and at times beutiful in its authenticity, no amount of ‘lipstick & blusher’ is likely to be sustainable…there is still an air of depression & deep sadness on the streets (for me)….and in many of the people. It was so refreshing though to see so many different nationalities living there, I honestly wouldn’t of known I was in Germany had the plane not taken me there.

    Great article, thank you for sharing.

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