Hints of Life
by Kevin Bruyneel
The city is loud, dirty, and reeks of a sweat poured through the weathered pores of frustrated faces. In short, the city smells. The city dirties your soul, your dignity, and your very physical presence. It dares you; try to keep me off you, just try it, you can't, you want me because I am you . . . you made me what I am.
Nature whispers intimidation. It penetrates your hubris, punctures your self-esteem, and amplifies your meager worth in a world that didn't need you before you were born and won't miss you when you're dead. Nature beckons you; give up the fight, you can't get away, be with me, after all, you came from me and some day you will return to me . . . forever.
The city and nature are all this and more; in both cases they can signify that which grounds most of our fears. I'm not referring to death. We don't fear death so much as we fear life, or more specifically, the facts which life so harshly forces us to face every waking day. Life tells us, perpetually and mercilessly, that we are not the ones in control, that our existence has no unalterable meaning or essential worth, and that we are inescapably pinned under the lowering swoop of a pendulum that waits to sever our relationships from all that keeps us sane, placing us into complete emotional isolation. Such isolation, by that I mean a social death, is a death worse than any other because it is a death we have to live with and can never change because we lack the control, the sense of meaning, and the bonds with others that can bring us back to social consciousness. If all this is true, then what are our options?
For some it is to embrace the city; embrace it because it is a product of the very people it envelops. The city can give a cruel slap with one hand, while reaching out to proffer aid with the other. The city is not rational because we are not rational. So some embrace the irrationality of it all, and through that embrace they may not gain control, or even much meaning, but they have something to hold onto: that they share their tragic existence with others, and that sharing can give birth to a form of joy known only to those willing to take a chance: to take a chance on the city, in other words, each other.
Others, however, embrace nature itself. They seek refuge and a form of community with a world untouched by humans. This world of nature is the other side of the city. It lacks humankind, but in no way does it lack life. Nature, at base, is life. At one moment, nature can be beautiful and serene, and in the next violent, cruel, and unresponsive to the crying pleas of the weakest of creatures. Yet some embrace it all the same. In so doing, they accept that lack of control, and tenuous sense of meaning characteristic of life. Out of that embrace, however, emerges a form of community, a liberative association, which empowers such people to enjoy - to say yes to - life. For a good part of human history, the city and nature were the prevailing options for those who sought to respond to life's challenges with something other than slashed wrists. This is no longer the case, as now a third option has come to predominate the western world; the Suburb.
The serenity, continuity, and consistency of the suburbs mask, or truer yet is created by, a hatred and violence which, in its ideal form, seek to compress the freedom of movement for all that is life. The suburbs are about one thing and one thing only, control. As we know from history and even a vaguely conscious nod to the present, however, control is not possible, control is a fantasy. So what is this fantasy by which the suburbs seduce its prey into a life of name only.
A plot of land is carved out of the chaotic wilderness terrain. It is cultivated, a house built in the center and the landscape around it carefully coiffed and groomed like a Tuesday show dog. The landscape - the lawns, the shrubs, the ever-present barkmulch - becomes the suburban version of nature with its every movement carefully directed, its cyclical creeping agenda ever tabled till the next meeting. A lawn of grass two-feet high is considered unsightly in the suburbs- your neighbors tell you it makes the block look bad. But it doesn't really make the "block" look bad, it makes you look bad and by extension and juxtaposition it makes your neighbors look bad. You all look bad because you show everyone that you've lost control, you've lost control of your lawn and thus you must have lost control of yourself. You're weak, lazy, and worst of all . . . it looks like you don't even care. 'This isn't the city you know, we have community pride!' And thus we see the necessary cohort of the fantasy of controlling nature, the control of people. More specifically, control of ourselves.
Suburbanites don't fear crime, they don't hate the noise and the pollution, they fear themselves and the deep demons and desires within themselves, and they hate themselves for having all this life inside them. To deal with it, then, they attack it, they crush it, and they enact an unacknowledged violence on their fully human selves. And this gets to the core of the inherent evil of the suburbs. Whereas the city is often characterized by random acts of violence between people and nature is very much defined by the cold-blooded violence it will enact on any who don't respect it, the suburbs live under the myth of internal psychological and social order. This order is founded upon acts of violence more terrorizing than a six-inch blade in a slow dead end alley or hurricane run through the core of a community. It is more terrorizing because of its serene face, its unnameable reality, and its unforgiving approach to contingency.
Contingency, the unknown, the fluidity and unpredictability of the everday of existence that makes it even worthy of the title life. But what now, what now with the suburbs creeping in like a sorry sad self-pitying luckynot Uncle living on the third string couch? Blow up your neighbour's house. Blow up your own house. Kill yourself. If these choices seem too harsh then just get the hell out before a beige sweater, a super-grande box of Frosted Flakes and a really comfortable love-seat seem not only like good ideas but actually rather important for what you call your life.
Kevin Bruyneel is representing Brooklyn, but he was raised out in Coquitlam.