Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The battle for the future is worth fighting

Despair is typical of those who do not understand the causes of evil, see no way out, and are incapable of struggle. (Lenin)

I had forgotten how hard the way up can be. The literature on bipolar disorder repeatedly stresses how the moment when the mood vector turns and begins to point upward again can be one of the most dangerous: energy returns much faster than thoughts and feelings can start to move away from the bottom of the pit. It's a hell of a ride this heavy lift off.

It comes at a good time though, to give me a fighting chance to meet some deadlines: ICM talk to write, nice and very patient collaborators rightly expecting to see some answers (unlike those two former collaborators who'd rather see my obituary ... you won't get it, you hear me, not so easily: I am still alive!), long stalled projects to jump-start again, new ones that need to get going. Four months of hibernation to catch up with, and quickly.
Life again, in short, life on the fast lane.

Struggle is the key word. We are born with it, raised and educated in the glorification of struggle as the only existential state worthy of consideration. Who knows? Maybe all that Leninist propaganda of our youth did pay off in the end. Maybe it really taught us to never let go, to accept that struggle is, after all, a way of life.

So I am at it again, climbing up the well, gaining ground slowly night after night. With the decreasing need for sleep that accompanies the rising mood phase, I have been giving a good push at finishing writing some papers, including the text of my talk for next summer's International Congress before the March submission deadline.

There are not all that many occasions for reward in the life of a scientist. Most of the time it's a constant struggle (yes, there we go again, comrade Lenin, back to your favorite occupation) lashing out blindly at an incomprehensible universe, trying to bring it down to the size of the human mind. A struggle against our own limitation, against ourselves, in the attempt to reach beyond the boundary of human nature and intelligence. To go one small step further, to push back ever so slightly the frontier of the unknown. The scientific community creates, among its rituals, that of providing occasional gratification to its practitioners. These officially sanctioned rewards are few and far between, and they all consist of highly symbolic gestures, which would have no meaning at all outside of this strict circle of adepts, but around which too much attention seems to coalesce among those who belong to the relevant community. So it happens that quite a bit of anticipation builds up around certain especially prestigious conferences that take place once every few years and are supposed to present the state-of-the-art in our international research community, therefore inevitably sanctioning with a much coveted stamp of approval the inevitable arbitrariness of the selection process.

In my field, or what is considered to be my field (not that I feel any particular sense of belonging there), the last such event was the European Congress two years ago and the next, broader and more grandiose in scope, the International Congress that will take place next summer in Hyderabad. Thanks to my mind getting finally unstuck from the marshes of desolation it got marooned into four months ago, I could somehow manage to put together the text for what should be my ICM talk of next summer, and even submit it in time before the deadline. It wasn't exactly smooth. Given how a good part of the work I have been doing over the past few years got inextricably entangled with the painful breakdown of human relations with my former collaborators, my first attempt at putting down some kind of a text for my future lecture nearly landed me in the emergency room. That taught me two very important lessons: the first is, indeed, that one should never underestimate how rough the coming up from the bottom of the pit can be, and the other, perhaps more important, is that one should teach oneself how to avoid the continuous sliding down of thoughts and action into the same repeated memory traps.

I cannot help thinking of Max Ernst's painting "Garden, airplane trap" as a powerful symbolic view of those memory traps lying in wait, ambushing passing thoughts, like airplanes trying to catch flight, caught in a web of entangled memories, holding them down. The oppressive perspective of a landscape with no access to the sky, the obsessive thoughts that keep returning to the mind, keeping it from freeing itself, from taking off on new voyages: the portrait of a mind forever trapped into the labyrinth of painful memories that refuse to let go.

So I started all over again and tried a different approach. Just as with dream analysis in psychotherapy one always approaches the unconscious dream images from the point of least resistance, I tried the same strategy applied to the preparation of my lecture. I chose as my center focus a paper I wrote a couple of years ago, no coauthors, a limited amount of entanglement with painful memories. I slowly built context around that focal point, moving backward in time to less painful periods of work I can talk about without suffering too much, then forward again to new things in the making, again hopefully free of pain. In between, I even managed to give a balanced account of some of those aspects that are more closely associated to now painful memories. In the end I tried to focus on the future more than on the past, on the assumption that there is a future worth fighting for. If this extremely painful experience with my former collaborators managed to largely spoil my experience of the European Congress two years ago, I am determined not to let it destroy this coming ICM experience as well. I am not overly thrilled by the resulting fifteen pages or so of text I managed to put together now - I could have produced something better in other circumstances - but at present the fact itself of having made it to the end in a single stretch of two days and one night of uninterrupted writing, without getting too sick again in the process is a success. Moving on, moving away from memory traps. Moving to safer ground.

Wer noch lebt, sage nicht: niemals!
Das Sichere ist nicht sicher.
So, wie es ist, bleibt es nicht.
Wenn die Herrschenden gesprochen haben
Werden die Beherrschten sprechen.

(Bertold Brecht)

There is something about that old idea of struggle as the focus of life. We were indeed taught never to let go, no matter how hopeless the future looks. That was an ideological standpoint designed for the "wretched of the earth", whose future did look bleak in the world then as it does in the world today. Even in the most desperate circumstances, the idea was, the battle for the future is worth fighting. We scientists of today live generally in very comfortable material conditions: interesting jobs, good salaries, a lot of freedom to pursue our interests. Nothing that can possibly compare to the hardness of the struggling working class. The lesson, however, is still useful as a guide through the debacles of life. There is still a battle for the future worth fighting. It is not unrelated to that same old struggle for progress of our communist upbringing. The sense of despair does come ultimately from the same sources of oppression that are at work in the society at large: authority, patriarchy, conservative societies. My own breakdown had its origins primarily in the oppressiveness of German society and the toll it took over a few years of nearly continuous exposure to it, witnessing day after day its load of xenophobia, of overt sexism, the mistreatment of anyone who is in a more vulnerable position, like the systematic ethnic discrimination towards those foreign students who had come to work with me there. That at the crucial time, when I was holding myself together by a very narrow thread trying to make my escape to a more stable and comfortable environment, I was also forced to face the collapse of a human relation I had hoped would help me through that moment, was indeed what made the collapse happen in the end. Perhaps without that last traumatic event I would have made it to my new life without having to go through all this, but the fact remains that the struggle for the future is primarily the struggle against those same oppressive forces that still mold our societies.

Our best struggle is in the strength of vision. To maintain the capacity to dream, to enjoy the beauty of the science we are doing, despite of the ugliness of the human beings involved with it. There is in what we are doing something which belongs to all humanity, something which lives on beyond the monsters that created it and acquires a life of its own, a beauty of its own. It becomes the collective consciousness of humanity at large, delocalized, international, common heritage of all. This is what science truly is. This is the future worth fighting for.

In den finsteren Zeiten
Wird da auch gesungen werden?
Da wird auch gesungen werden.
Von den finsteren Zeiten.

(Bertold Brecht)