“Are we there yet?”
Now there is a classic question. It usually issues from impatient children in the back of a car but could equally well be asked of humanity as it hurtles from one self-made crisis to another in the name of progress. Personally, I ask the question in relation to hitting rock bottom: “Am I there yet?” The way is poorly signposted. It typically points down, a gradual decline spiralling into a headlong plummet that ends in the proverbial gutter (where the stars, it is said, twinkle brightest). This implies that we fall from a height, a quasi-religious notion that feeds into our obsessive need for symbolic directionality. Rock bottom is where you land with a metaphorical thud after a prolonged fall from the lofty heights of consciousness you usually occupy. Let me tell you, I have been plumbing the depths for as long as I can remember but am yet to have met with rock bottom. I would love nothing more than to finally reach the terra firma of certainty that there is a physical limit to mental and emotional suffering. We naturally incline towards spatial metaphors, orientate ourselves by them, conceptualize our lives by them. But they are dangerously misleading and have little relation to reality. While most are busy with their wild goose chase of self-betterment, I like to think of Rock Bottom as my personal Shangri-La or El Dorado (it is certainly evocative of a frontier settlement). I was keen to discover this delightfully named state of mind for myself, but years of prospecting for it brought me no closer to this mythical granite gutter.
In films people toss a stone or shine a light into the abyss (usually a well, crevasse, chasm or pit) to get a sense of how deep it is. In Mars, a six-part docudrama produced by National Geographic, a small crew of scientists travel all the way to the Red Planet to set up a base camp as a first step towards colonizing Mars. After landing 75 km away from the supplies and equipment left for them by robotic rovers on a previous mission, they are frantically looking for a place to hole up away from the lethal radiation of the planet’s surface. Things are looking bleak; time is running out. Then someone at mission control has a brainwave and directs the scientists to a hidden subterranean larva tube. So far, so good. Oops, one woman almost plunges into a vast, cavernous pit but catches her balance right on the craggy edge. She lights up a few glow sticks and throws them in. Success! Rock bottom is only a short way down: let’s set up Humanity 2.0 there.
Note: I have the utmost respect for the venerable National Geographic but the show was almost unbearably bad. I watched it because I was interested in the scientific problems facing any such future expedition but the ‘human’ side of the story was embarrassing enough to make the real Mars blush. Are we really going to export our hoariest clichés half way across the solar system? Are we really going to establish an interstellar colony founded on the misconceptions and hubris that were the ruin of earth?
Today is Monday. Yesterday was Sunday. Everything seemed tremendously bleak. G, J and I were in exploratory mode. “I want to suck in the bleakness,” J said. We come across a male pigeon mounting a female surrounded by garbage. It lasts for a couple of fluttery seconds. She wanders off; he looks dazed: “That’s it?”. A public advertising campaign warns teenage girls against sexting. The poster shows a pair of breasts covered with fragments of textual abuse arranged to resemble a (34C?) bra. We pass by the high wall and barbed wire containing Lukiškės Prison. I think with a shudder that I am only a few hundred metres away from some of the most dangerous and brutal people in the country. Opposite the narrow street there is a kindergarten. It resembles a little prison in itself with its own relatively high metal fence. J notices a length of rope dangling from a tree and makes a tremendously dark joke.
Rock bottom never comes. It no more exists than a gloomy Sunday or black Monday. I see a man in a village. He is drunk, passed out in a ditch. It is early afternoon. Is he there yet? Of course not, but his prostrate body makes a convenient arrow pointing in the right direction. Rock bottom notionally exists to delimit our suffering, to lend it the promise of an end. Because few people can stand the awful truth that they are no one, going nowhere, meaning nothing. Despair is more bearable when it is dramatized and what sounds more dramatic than hitting rock bottom?
There is, I like to imagine, immense relief when you finally reach the bottom. You know that you can’t fall any further, or feel any lower, or delude yourself any longer. In reaching this symbolic nadir of existence you perversely reach an inverted peak, where you finally feel above everything, albeit in an upside down sort of way. You can breathe freely. The intolerable burden of self-belief is lifted from your shoulders. The crushing gravity of self-importance disappears. Words carry no weight, no charge, no prick. It feels like a homecoming, as when you slip into sleep. You mercurially seep into everything around you. There is no more need of pretence, where thought has no echo and feeling no form. You are still conscious but it’s a warm sensation lapping against you. Your jigsaw-puzzle limbs melt away, your self-murdering memories dissolve. You wish it could always be like this. You dimly understand that this is bliss, before immediately forgetting that you ever had such an idea. All you want is to sink into the blissful nullity in which you are suspended.
“Are we there yet?”
No, my father impatiently snaps back. No, my curriculum vitae (that most horrible of all fictions) blankly attests. No, my grieving heart murmurs. No, my sorry dick grumbles. No, my separatist feet avow. No, the chasms of the days and caverns of the nights echo back at me. No, the slowly melting glaciers burble. No, the future genetic underclass wheeze. No, the soil doesn’t speak. No, the millions even billions to die gripe and swipe. Where rock bottom is a levelling out, a turning point for the better, we are clearly nowhere near there yet. Well: we’ll always have Mars.