It’s been almost three years since I came back to Jakarta, for good. For someone who is obsessed with cities, with how deeply melancholic Orhan Pamuk writes about Istanbul that he never wants to depart from, it’s kind of odd that I haven’t even once stopped, looked back to those almost three years, and wrote about it.
Now I know why. And it took me quite a while to realise it.
It’s just too scary.
At first I was too scared to admit that this is all real, that here is where I end up in. Back then, thinking of going back and leaving all the people I care about in Berlin used to give me night sweats and anxiety. Thinking about going back was not pleasant, for it was full of uncertainties, doubts and one thing I hate the most, changes. But I had to do it anyway. However, once I landed here on 3 May 2013, I knew that I was not meant to get bored (I was informed that my luggage was still in Abu Dhabi while I had to attend a job interview in 1 hour, at rush hour).
I didn’t even have the time to reflect and evaluate how I’ve lived here. I no longer write. No melancholy. No effort of romanticising nature. No nature in sight to admire. No park bench to sit on to write poems. No ducks swimming in a pond. There are only cars, people, motorbikes, and lots of Alfamart. Before I make it sound so terrible, let me tell you that it’s actually not.
And here I am now, thinking. Hey, this isn’t bad at all. I have, in fact, survived my fears, my what’s-it-gonna-be-like-in-Jakarta. Just last Sunday a friend who is in Berlin asked the most FAQ, “Do you miss Germany?”. In less than three seconds I replied, “Sometimes I do, but not often.”
I even found my next sentence surprising, “It’s more lively here.”
Oh brother I can’t, I can’t get through I’ve been trying hard to reach you ’cause I don’t know what to do Oh brother I can’t believe it’s true I’m so scared about the future and I wanna talk to you Oh I wanna talk to you.
Been trying to come up with several lines to express how I feel, to no avail. Been thinking of how all the saying is wrong, that blood is thicker than water. Good family relationship isn’t something that exists just like that. You have to work hard and earn it, just like any other relationships. Some last, some just don’t.
Guess I’ve missed him, more than he’d probably ever know, or care.
I’ve always thought that being born into a dysfunctional family is the hardest blow, especially if you care too much.
A mother that is not in the capacity of being one, a father that is weak in will and far from being a protective fatherly figure, mediocre defect yet disastrous elements of parenthood. But I realize, I never chose any of those things and sooner or later I’ll just have to move on. Yes, I never thought that moving on from my own family is even a, if not the cure.
But it’s not. It’s not the hardest blow.
The hardest blow for now is, despised for being who I am, what I am, how I live my life. Despised for being true to myself, being gay, by people I once thought would accept me no matter what. It’s a passive aggressive kind of behaviour: I am being avoided, kept distance from, silently. And boy, it feels – how should I put it – different than any other heart-wrenching emotions I have ever experienced.
Yet I was surprised by what’s left.
I found nothing inside me that resembles hatred to fight back. Instead, I feel so alive. Nothing has ever made me feel so alive than having my own true identity confronted. An identity that has gathered courage for years to finally speak out – no matter what the consequences are – simply because I had to, you know, truly live.
Sunday afternoon, I was reading D.H. Lawrence Mornings in Mexico, a book that describes Mexico in day-to-day early stages. As I arrived at Chapter 4 – Market Day, it captivates me in such a way that I began to read it audibly. At some more difficult parts, I had to stop and reread silently until 2-3 times. It starts with a thesis:
To buy and to sell, but above all, to commingle. In the old world, men make themselves two great excuses for coming together to a centre, and commingling freely in a mixed, unsuspicious host. Market and religion. These alone bring men, unarmed, together since time began. A little load of firewood, a woven blanket, a few eggs and tomatoes are excuse enough for men, women, and children to cross the foot-weary miles of valley and mountain. To buy, to sell, to barter, to exchange. To exchange, above all things, human contact.
It continues to emphasize on how the act of bargaining’s sole purpose is not to acquire money. There’s more to that:
It is a bargain. Off you go with multicoloured pinks, and the woman has had one more moment of contact, with a stranger, a perfect stranger. An intermingling of voices, a threading together of different wills. It is life. The centavos are an excuse.
The marketplace, which fulfills each of its participants, is more pleasant than religion.
It is fulfilled, what they came to market for. They have sold and bought. But more than that, they have had their moment of contact and centripetal flow. They have been part of a great stream of men flowing to a centre, to the vortex of the marketplace. And here they have felt life concentrate upon them, they have been jammed between the soft hot bodies of strange men come from afar, they have had the sound of strangers’ voices in their ears, they have asked and been answered in unaccustomed ways. … There is no goal, and no abiding-place, and nothing is fixed, not even the cathedral towers.
The chapter closes by leaving me a substance of contemplation between the value of the tangible and the intangible. Lawrence uses the term “spark of contact”, or perhaps in my term, cycle of memories.
Nothing but the touch, the spark of contact. That, no more. That, which is most elusive, still the only treasure. Come, and gone, and yet the clue itself.
The money gained from the transaction “will disappear as the stars disappear at daybreak, as they are meant to disappear. Everything is meant to disappear. Every curve plunges into the vortex and is lost, re-emerges with a certain relief and takes to the open, and there is lost again.”
Only that which is utterly intangible, matters. The contact, the spark of exchange. That which can never be fastened upon, for ever gone, for ever coming, never to be detained: the spark of contact.
Like the evening star, when it is neither night nor day. Like the evening star, between the sun and the moon, and swayed by neither of them. The flashing intermediary, the evening star that is seen only at the dividing of the day and night, but then is more wonderful than either.
Fascination based on mere intelligence is as shallow as on mere beauty, but the latter is more lasting and justified.
Beauty is powerful and wild while intelligence is boring and domestic.
Beauty is born with claws of a raptor. Beauty speaks to the eyes of the beholder, rushes the blood flow, releases endorphins, lulls the mind and creates painstaking details of motives.
While intelligence, which five of the senses does it tempt? How far does one venture with a tremendous longing to acquire intelligence and beg night and day to be enslaved by it? What does intelligence produce but sheer sensation? Has one ever had trouble sleeping envying his neighbour’s intelligence? Intelligence doesn’t even possess any degree of temptation. Intelligence coupled with ugliness, beauty rests upon stupidity. Those are the perfect pairs, if wealth doesn’t count.
Beauty won’t work effectively without stupidity as intelligence without ugliness, all there is left is mediocre intelligence or mediocre beauty, or in other words unnoticed mediocrity. One can tolerate stupidity when it dresses to kill. Ugliness is visibly invisible like colours in air, air in wind, wind in storm.
Beauty blinds, intelligence awakes, and nobody wants to see and be awake.
Stupidity is genetic, ugliness is mendable like untrimmed filthy nails.
Stupidity is some sort of amusement, ugliness disgusts both gods and infants.
Beauty is the highest of all virtue.
Intelligence fills you with a desire to pursue beauty, while beauty, as the senses are fully concerned, never a second drives you to pursue something other than itself.
A city is built upon a concept, an abstract idea materialised into something visible, something street-like, people-like, dam-like, park-like, housing-like. The concept lays the foundation, paves the threshold, applies rules and protects its own inhabitants.
You enter a certain city, you begin to introduce yourself to a new concept. You drink its water, you breathe its air, you eat its dust, you smell its trees, you stare at its clouds, you ruin its language through your tongue.
You begin to recognise which part of the city that evokes your concept of boredom, and which part of it that rouses your concept of fascination. You sleep with the foreign concept while masturbating with the image of your old stripped concept.
You think of other cities and you care not to dream of certain others.
Your mind is filled with different concepts, and the homelessness of your soul starts to disrupt the very being of your existence.
Then you start to see yourself as a concept, as a clay reshaped, reformed, and recoloured by the intermingling of those concepts of cities.
You are a vessel that holds constantly spinning disfigured concepts.
You don’t know how it all started, and you wonder at which point it’ll end.
I can’t help but to look back to the day I first arrived here on Monday, 16 July 2007. It was the hottest day of the year, weather-wise. The journey began in the Summer with warmth and up til tomorrow, there are 5 years 9 months and 16 days spent here.Last time I checked, Berlin is still the largest city in the country, Berlin is currywurst, Berlin is the most vibrant of all German cities, Berlin is the “man” when it comes to local art, Berlin ist wunderbar. Berlin to me, is all of you reading this.
And no, this isn’t a goodbye note. It’s only a thank you note written from the very bottom of my heart.
Thank you Berlin, for preparing a mosaic of family that open their arms wide to welcome this poor soul. Thank you Berlin, for these family-like friends who are extremely different than me, but then I learn that I am welcomed, listened to, prayed for and cared for. Thank you Berlin, for the scenes that I learned to capture each day. A week ago, I thought I would miss this city terribly, but then as time drew nearer and nearer, this city grew smaller and all I can think about is nothing but the people in it. And I can’t help but to yield to this overwhelming feeling of gratitude. So thank you, thank you and thank you.
Thank you for the time we’ve shared and cherished. Thank you for the generous helping hands. Let the journey begin and end as well with warmth. Jokes, laughter, may they all fill your memory of me. And as we meet again someday, we never are strangers.
How uneventful were sunless days. What a joy of today for being otherwise, a promise of blooming flowers delivered by a humble appearance of green buds on thirsty soils. Awaken from a deep sleep, the entire city animated as the spell met its end and Winter tore its ornaments down. Workers unapologetically hurried home, wearing a glowing smile that misguidedly christened them all as loving. Enlivening force was cascading from above, the day was tailored to be a gift. No death, no sorrow, or at least we thought so. No addition to what there is, no subtraction from what was there. At a glance, sunbeam gently stroked people’s hair, transforming their head into waves of manifold emotions. The blondes fit the scene gorgeously but it took the brunettes to reflect gold on the spectator’s eyes. Shadows no longer stuttered, turned into benevolent boldness: lines through inner walls, trees on buildings, and of a man walking with a stick. For a split second or three, we hesitated in doing whatever we were doing. Then out of a whimsical urge, we tried to make sense of the magic. Frühling, we said, welcome.
(Of possessing Beauty by understanding it and asking yourself enough questions in the process)
Why are some of us so drawn into drawing/painting and writing, even before an idea of being good or not good enough at it ever dwells in mind? According to John Ruskin (1819 – 1900), mainly known as a watercolourist and an art critic but also a writer, the twin purposes of art is to make sense of pain and to comprehend the sources of beauty. For the latter, there are five central conclusions of human’s interest in beauty and in its possession:
Firstly, that beauty is the result of a complex number of factors that affect the mind psychologically and visually.
Secondly, that humans have an innate tendency to respond to beauty and to desire to possess it.
Thirdly, that there are many lower expressions of this desire for possession, including the desire to buy souvenirs and carpets, to carve one’s name in pillars and to take photographs.
Fourthly, that there is only one way to possess beauty properly and that is through understanding it, through making ourselves conscious of the factors (psychological and visual) that are responsible for it.
And lastly, that the most effective way of pursuing this conscious understanding is by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, through writing or drawing them, irrespective of whether we happen to have any talent for doing so.
Since his early childhood, Ruskin had had an unusually peculiar sensitivity towards observing details of the visual world, recalling himself at the age of 3 or 4 as being “contentedly in tracing the squares and comparing the colours of (my) carpet – examining the knots in the wood of the floor, or counting the bricks in the opposite houses with rapturous intervals of excitement.” To him, the matter of drawing is neither about doing it well or becoming an artist. He values the act of drawing as a higher conduct than becoming a good sketcher or a skillful artist itself, because he believes in the act of drawing as an act that has value even when it is practiced by those who have no talent. Above the act of drawing, the beauty of the object of drawing is what matters more to love: “I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.”
Often irritated by how seldom people noticed details, Ruskin told his fellow students in what way he wanted them to see things:
Now, remember, gentlemen, that I have not been trying to teach you to draw, only to see. Two men are walking through Clare Market, one of them comes out at the other end not a bit wiser than when he went in; the other notices a bit of parsley hanging over the edge of a butter-woman’s basket, and carries away with him images of beauty which in the course of his daily work he incorporates with it for many a day. I want you to see things like these.”
At another occasion, he describes two kinds of persons going out for a walk: one is a good sketcher, the other is not familiar with that of any kind:
There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals. The one will see a lane and trees; he will perceive the trees to be green, though he will think nothing about it; he will see that the sun shines, and that it has a cheerful effect; and that’s all! But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the case of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. He looks up, and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light. [...] Is not this worth seeing? Yet if you are not a sketcher you will pass along the green lane, and when you come home again, have nothing to say or to think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane.”
I find that there’s often a close acquaintance between the act of drawing and writing, with the latter being termed by Ruskin as “word painting”. This explains how Orhan Pamuk describes his obsession with drawing/painting in most parts of his autobiographical book Istanbul but ends it in a way that left me speechless for about 5 minutes pondering over the last sentences he said to his mother:
“I don’t want to be an artist,” I said. “I’m going to be a writer.”
Both (drawing and writing) are the most effective tools in understanding beauty. Photography is often chosen as a “lower” means of expression, as a less powerful visual mean to possess and carry the beauty of a scene in our mind effectively since “the camera blurs the distinction between looking and noticing, between seeing and possessing; it may give us the option of true knowledge but it may unwittingly make the effort of acquiring it seem superfluous” (de Botton). Although respected for his drawings in his lifetime, it was Ruskin’s word-paintings that ignited his admirable fame in the public sphere during the late Victorian period. From a younger generation than Ruskin, Virginia Woolf shows this similar obsession in observing details, a great asset she always trains to apply her stream of consciousness techniques in writing. She found great delights in looking at blossoming flowers and most things that people fail to notice or even don’t find as worth observing:
“I adore looking at blossoming flowers though for the most part, it emotionally drains me. I like getting a sense of the world constantly reborn and enhanced; yet I am melancholy because such beauty is untouchable. Such beauty is chaotically intolerable.” Virginia Woolf, aged 15, from The Early Journals 1897-1909.
“I spent an hour looking at pots and carpets in the museums the other day, until the desire to describe them became like the desire for the lusts of the flesh.” -Selected Letters.
Ruskin reveals a simple key to opening the sensitive part of our physical senses in observing the details and the causes of the beauty by doing something meditatively intimate with oneself. We need to ask ourselves questions while observing something that fascinates us, a series of questions that a trained sketcher usually raises and tries to answer in the process of sketching: ‘How do the stems connect to the roots?’ ‘Where is the mist coming from?’ ‘Why does one tree seem darker than another?’ ‘What in particular is attractive about this stretch of water? What are its associations?’ ‘What is a better word for it than big?’
Failing to ask ourselves these series of questions in the process of understanding beauty leads to the thread of sloppiness: of not being precise in analyzing what we had seen and felt. And not being precise in analyzing them leads to the failure of making sense of things and to preserving the lasting effect that beauty is supposed to have on us.
In a much simpler way, Woolf taught the little Nigel Nicolson, the son of her lover Vita Sackville-West to go further with himself and to understand what he has experienced by asking questions in order to describe his morning (skip to minute 07:10)
“I remember once she said, ‘What has happened to you this morning?’ And I would reply, ‘well, nothing.’
‘Oh come on, come on,’ she would say. ‘What woke you up?’ And I would reply, ‘It was the sun. The sun coming through our bedroom window.’ ‘What sort of a sun?’ she would say. ‘A kindly sun? Angry sun?’
-For more, see Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, as all the quoted parts on Ruskin are from there.