Category: Myth

There are two sides to any myth.

Reality Turned into Fiction

Martine Stig likes to push your buttons.
Her photo book ‘Noir’ contains a series of black and white photos taken during some sunny days in Amsterdam. At first sight, the pictures show unremarkable, everyday occurrences: Birds sit in a tree, light reflects off a building, a car is parked by the curb.
But leafing through the book, you’d be hard pressed not to feel like something nefarious is going on: Faces are obscured. People lay on floors. Even the architecture seems threatening, the birds an ominous presence. The book’s title appears like a double entendre; alluding both to heavy blacks in its monochrome images and the uncanny nature of the famous film genre.

Film Noir is known for its surreal montages, and the same is true here: Throughout the pages, Martine keeps showing us the same pictures over and over again. Each recapitulation puts a picture next to another one, and thereby into a new context.
It’s a disorienting effect, exemplified by a clinical shot of a spiral staircase: Just as though you were on the steps yourself, flipping through ‘Noir’ can feel like going in infinite circles. Pictures reappear in different sizes, next to other shots, and you’re left pondering the meaning.
That disorientation, of course, is exactly what Martine intended: “It’s a game I like to play”, she admits.

“The order determines meaning.”

The artist has a deep-rooted passion for film, and how image patterns create narratives: “I have studied the rules of montage, how connect images in cinema,” she explains. Indeed, the only words in the book are a quote by Soviet film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein: “The essence of cinema does not lie in the images, but in the relation between the images.”
Martine wondered “What if I applied those rules to documentary reality?” She sketched out the motifs she would need to tell a story and then went out into sunny Amsterdam to capture them with a telephoto lens. That means the things we see in the book aren’t at all related, but tied together by aesthetic, cadence, and—most importantly—your own assumptions. “This way, you can turn documentary into fiction”, Martine says. “The order determines how a viewer interprets their meaning.”

Working with designer Hans Gremmen, she edited the shots into what she individual scenes, each reusing previously shown pictures. “What we discovered is that we could create a new reality without having to stage anything.” That’s also where ‘Noir’ departs from other photo books, and their usual fare of carefully-selected works: The scenes send viewers on a journey to discover connections—right before challenging those connections by mixing the order back up.

Martine Stig uses photography to research the perception of reality. She’s also a member of the artist collective Radical Reversibility. Martine lives and works in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

“We are so used to photography depicting the world that we forget that it is actually a construct,” Martine remarks. “I like the fact that you can see the meaning change in the book, because it exposes the effects of chronology and matching: We are accustomed to see certain images and fill in the blanks.” What looks like looming catastrophe really isn’t: “It’s just a another sunny day.”
’Noir’ cautions you not to jump to easy conclusions, but it could also be seen as warning against the seductive power of images. Photos are a powerful form of communication and seeing them out of context can give rise to completely unfounded meanings. Is it call for more vigilance not to be manipulated? Martine doesn’t want to be that direct: “I didn’t make the book to ring the alarm.” She’s more subtle than that.

"Poetry breaks through the bullshit"

Matthew Zapruder believes that poetry—often misunderstood to be obscure—is exactly what we need to find clarity this time and age.

Let’s get it out of the way first: I’m relatively unfamiliar with poetry, but drawn to it from my experience with prose and music. Is poetry a logical extension?
Yes and no. Music and poetry are different: Lyrics are written to function in relation to musical information. They have to work in that system, and music has a lot of emotional information in itself. Poems are really written in dialogue with silence. That’s why lyrics pulled out of music often sound like really bad poetry—not because they’re badly written, but written for a different purpose. Music isn’t unrelated, though.

“Some people get angry at poems”

Listening to music changed my idea of what good art was. The first time I heard The Velvet Underground, I didn’t get it. It took me several listens until, of course, I fell madly in love with it. When I came into contact with other art, I was prepared that it might take a little time. Not that something was wrong with the art but that I maybe wasn’t ready for it.

Matthew Zapruder is a poet, poetry editor of the New York Times Magazine, and associate professor, St Mary’s College of California.
Photo: B.A. Van Sise

That’s how you begin your book ‘Why Poetry’—by addressing the misconception that poetry is deliberately difficult. Why do so many people have that idea?
One reason is the way poetry is taught in school, at least in the United States: As a riddle, or code that you have to crack. Students are asked to figure out what the poem really means, what the poet is really saying. That makes them feel like they can’t know, or that they have to have all this background knowledge to read poems. Another thing is that poetry is different: It works differently, it looks different on the page than prose does. Anytime you come in contact with something new, it can be destabilizing. Some people get angry at the poems, using that terrible demand that they be more “accessible”…
Why is that demand so terrible?
It sounds as though poems were built in a way that makes it impossible to enter them. Which simply isn’t true. The whole point of my book is to explain how one might enter these poems. And it’s actually much simpler than people make it out to be. Just as in music, you need to have the right balance of confidence in yourself to stick with it, and also humility in relation to the art. And that’s something you get through experience.

“Language itself is corrupted”

Your fascination with poetry stems from a fascination with language itself. What can poetry teach us about the way we communicate?
An interest in the actual meaning of words is so bound up in the experience of reading poetry. That serves a kind of training. People who read a lot of poetry are not easily taken in by bullshit in language—whether that’s political or business language, or any of the euphemistic crap we’re always exposed to. Poets or people who read a lot of poetry catch onto that stuff pretty quickly. That’s true for a lot of really good writing.

Matthew Zapruder’s book ‘Why Poetry’ was released on August 15th, 2017.

What sets poems apart?
They preserve a very individual free space in my imagination. They make me feel that I can resist a lot of the misuse of language and abuses of concepts. When I read a poem, I suddenly feel like life is not hopeless. That it’s not all capitalist politics and monstrous business people trying to eat our souls.
I’m curious about that political implication. You explain that poems use poetic language. They redefine words we’re overly familiar with for an emotional effect. That means: Something false can be true, or at least feel true in a poem. Isn’t that dangerous?
That’s exactly Plato’s critique of poets in ‘The Republic’. He argued for kicking these people out because they were such convincing liars. I think that’s true! There are lots of things poets say in poems that are total exaggerations or lies or contradictions. If you treat poems like life advice, like political manifestos, then you’re likely to be mislead. But that’s not what they’re meant to do. Language itself is corrupted, that’s what allows people to behave in monstrous ways.
One would think we needed more clarity, then, not less.
More clarity is exactly what poetry brings. I went back to read ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ where Hannah Arendt describes the trial of the Nazi official Adolf Eichmann. Things would come out of his mouth that were clearly untrue, and he would contradict himself from one moment to the next. She uses that example to trace how language had been corrupted and degraded by the Nazis, and led them to a space where one would no longer think about what words actually meant. Poetry does the opposite. Adorno famously said “There can be no more poetry after Auschwitz”, but I think he was mistaken about what poetry is. He has the same Platonic idea of a poetry that somehow…
…obfuscates reality?
Yes, that poets are hiding the true meaning of things. That poets write in a coded, deliberately obscure language. The opposite is true for the vast majority of poems. The poet means exactly what she or he says on the page. If you read Rilke, whose work is very abstract and conceptual, each word still means precisely what he wants it to say. When Rilke says “Every angel is terrible” then that is what he means! He means: Every. Angel. Is. Terrible. Nothing else. He is precise in an airy, abstract way.

“Poetry can put you into the consciousness of another person”

That brings us right back to the misconception of poetry being an abstract thing just trying to be beautiful. In your book you argue the precision is necessary, likening poems to machines designed to put us in a specific state.
Exactly. And that is due to the experience of reading a lot of poetry from a lot of different time periods. I have been reading poetry for decades now, and I don’t think it’s coded language.
I find the idea fascinating that a poem is like a machine, making us think a certain way. Why is that mode of thinking so useful?
Lots of reasons. Firstly because it’s awesome to feel that way. It’s a different kind of experience of what our minds and lives can do. I also think that it’s inherently free. And just in a world in which we’re constantly boxed in by obligation and capitalist or financial imperatives, it’s just liberating to be in a free space of the imagination, to be free of those concerns and considerations.
After the most recent presidential election, it also occurred to me that the problem isn’t people not having enough information. I don’t think the reason why people are racist is because they haven’t been told that black people are equal to white people. It is because they can’t imagine what it’s like to be another person and the effects of their actions on those people. Or maybe they can’t truly imagine, and see, themselves. All literature, all art, serves the purpose of helping us understand the perspective of others. But poetry in particular can literally put you in the consciousness of another person.
If you’re reading a poem and it’s working for you, their mind works in unison with you. You go along with them. It’s a very instructive experience that makes you think differently and that changes you. And I feel like that’s something we can use more of.
Being more empathetic?
That’s the effect of it—but it’s true on a more affective level, since reading itself takes us out of the solipsism of our own mind, our own limited consciousness. I read a lot of ancient Chinese poetry, from the 9th century, for instance. Even though I’m reading it in translation, it’s such an amazing experience to read along and be more or less haunted by a 9th century Chinese poet. It breaks me out of my own bullshit, and that’s a great experience to have. We could use more of that.

“The only thing that will save us is imagination”

When I first saw the title of your book, Why Poetry, I first thought it was missing a question mark. But as I started reading, I realized I had fallen into the old trap of thinking every art needs to have a use.
Well, I think it does. The first lecture I gave, which became part of the book, was called ‘Useful Poetry’. People laugh when they hear that. But it does have uses, even if it doesn’t need to. In the end of the book I write about the limits of our understanding, how poetry itself comes up against the limits of language, which is what makes it feel so exciting, so scary, so powerful.
The reason, by the way, that the title doesn’t have a question mark is mainly because it is attempting to provide some answers. But of course, along the way, asking as many questions as answering them.
Speaking of uses: You also make the point that poetry could help us regain our attention span. We live in distracting times, not only because of hyper-connectivity and the drumbeat of the news, but also because as a society we seem to be suffering from collective FOMO—fear of missing out. You write about a ‘the scarcity of silence’ and sound hopeful that engaging with poetry can help us be more mindful overall.
I think the constant exposure to bad news is paralyzing. Another hour of reading Twitter about the latest thing Donald Trump said or about climate change isn’t going to change anything. In general, I find that it’s hard to not do something, but easier to do something else instead. If you want to break a habit, like browsing the internet for hours, replace it with a better habit.
The good thing about poems is that they impose a certain kind of concentration and difference between how we experience the world. I find that helpful—particularly when I am really overwhelmed. I will shut off everything, put away the phone, close my door, and just pull out one of my books. And if just for a few minutes, be in that different space. And it really is renewing–a bit like meditating or exercise.
In preparation for making a difference?
To refocus, get your mind together to get the energy to do something. To have some interesting thoughts, to be in community, to demonstrate, to resist. Lord knows, the world out there can get you to a point when you’re just paralyzed. But the only thing that’s going to save us is imagination: People are going to have to have some different thoughts. Right now, the thoughts we’re having are not enough.

The Myth Maker

A New York City performance artist called Zardulu claims to be behind many of the most outlandish stories of the past year. A deep-dive into causing amazement and wonder in an age of fake news.

In June this year, the digital newswires briefly lit up with the photo of a raccoon riding on the back of an alligator. The picture was featured on countless publications, among them even the venerable BBC. But “Gatorboarding”, as the incident came to be known, wasn’t without controversy. After having being called a fake, fact-checking site Snopes took up the matter, ending their investigation with the ominous line “Time will tell if Mr. Jones surfaces to provide corroborating evidence for his Gatorboarding photo.”

Which facts can you trust?

In many ways, the fact-checking is as absurd as the story itself. Here was a perfectly harmless – if unlikely – incident, a nice story for the slow summer months. But in hindsight, the story stood for what would become a much bigger controversy: In the fallout of Donal Trump’s election, the internet became embroiled in a fake news scandal. If even the animal pictures were staged, which facts could you still trust? And who would go through the trouble of setting up such an elaborate hoax?
The answer to the latter question – if one is to believe it – is a New York City performance artist called Zardulu, who has claimed or been revealed as the mastermind behind this and other stories. It’s a person that vehemently rejects the term hoax, and instead prefers the term “Zardulism”.

An alleged Zardulism: The infamous Pizza Rat that delighted the internet in late 2015.

The artist is completely anonymous. On the internet, she inhabits the personality of nefarious-looking wizard, with the bio reading “I am the Mythmaker. Writer. Artist. Founder of Zardulism. (…)”. Even by the internet’s standards, it’s an eclectic appearance – and to our knowledge nobody knows the true identity behind it.
That, of course, is all part of Zardulu’s mission. The artist believes that myths are sorely lacking in our 21st century existence – and that new ones need to be created. In her self-authored “The Founding and Manifesto of Zardulism”, the artist writes:

“In their classical sense, myths are dead. (…) They were once messages in bottles from shores our ancestors had visited, how they made the passage and what beauties awaited us along the way. We no longer gain these valuable lessons from mythology. It is produced with the sole purpose of exploiting us and has stripped out lives of substance and forced us into a repetitive and automated process of life.”
“In Zardulism, the imaginary streams into the actual and washes over it, flood it until it has been engrossed. (…) Zardulism asserts that the creation and perpetuation of myth is art of the highest form. (…) Zardulism is the master we crave in an attempt to counter our mastery and understanding of the world.”

You can read the Manifesto here

Zardulu’s story isn’t just intriguing, it’s also timely: Both in the U.S. and Europe, political polarization is on the rise, and the battle lines that get drawn between opposing factions are often based on the question of what is factually correct. That’s why we reached out to Zardulu with some questions.

Where is the line between a myth and a lie?
Well, by definition, a myth is a lie. However, referring to something as a lie creates a negative connotation. It’s the same with the term hoax. One difference I think is the intent and the consequence of the lie. To lie for financial gain is fraud. To lie in an effort to defame someone is slander or libel. To lie simply to establish a sense of wonder in the world, that’s mythology.
The difference is authorship: A myth exists without there being one specific person that we can attribute it to. But once we know who is behind it, we start to wonder about the purpose or the intention of that person. Do people misunderstand you sometimes and think that you do it for attention or financial reasons?
Every myth was written by someone. Unicorns, mermaids, dragons. They didn’t just enter the collective consciousness. Someone put them there. I’ve never made a dime off of what I do. Quite the opposite.

The internet is a hype machine: It skews towards the scandalous or the unexpected, spreading the most outlandish news at lightening speed. In this game, Zardulu isn’t just training rats and setting up alligators, the artist is effectively gaslighting: Calling in question our collective sanity as the animal kingdom around us behaves in unexpected or unlikely ways.
Of course, making such claims is a whole lot easier than verifying them. The artist, after all, hides behind an opaque identity, a mask, and a wacky nom de guerre. But if their mission really is to delight and surprise, it’s the very mystery that enables it.

Would you prefer that people would not know that you are behind the rat and the racoon on the alligator?
That’s really why I hadn’t come forward. However, I’ve learned a lot since I first suggested that no one reveal the works of Zardulism.
The raccoon riding the alligator was sent out on news wires around the world. It appeared in the largest papers in China, India, Russia. Everywhere. Tens, maybe hundreds of millions of people saw it. When I told the Washington Post that I fabricated it, the story got a few hundred shares. No one cares about the reveal so, no one ever hears about it”

What makes a myth so appealing is that it makes for an engrossing story. A good myth also plays on our confirmation bias, reaffirming the belief that there are truly astonishing things in the world – a perfect escape from the “repetitive and automated process of life” as Zardulu called it in the manifesto.

Zardulu, posing with the props for “Gatorboarding”.

But that quality of a myth is a double-edged sword: As much as a myth is wondrous, it is still a lie, only exponentially more powerful because of the way it is delivered. The internet is awash with ideological battles about “fake news”, right down to the double whether such a thing exists or simply serves as an excuse to silence inconvenient opinions. Sharing the picture of an alligator and a raccoon suddenly seems to stand for a much more dangerous tendency: That of buying into a hype because it sounds good.

One myth’s revelation can lead to a whole other myth. I guess you are the prime example of that.
For me, I wanted to be in the conversation about fake news. No one was covering any other aspect of it than the divisive political mythology. For me, there’s a trade-off: I’m exposing a myth I wrote but I’m getting the Washington Post to publish an interview with a wizard. For me, that’s an artistic sacrifice that I’m willing to make
Did you also mean to highlight how easy it is to lead people to believe in things once it is on the news or even just social media?
The “gotcha” aspect has never been my motivation. It’d be like a painter who is painting something just based on what they think would be a positive reaction. It’s creatively vapid.
There is the danger that it brings people to the point where they doubt everything – even the real maybe danger is too judgemental but you get what I mean. The belief in the fake can make us disbelief in the real and thereby take away all enchantment
People used to rail against Rene Descartes and Cartesian philosophy for the same reason. The idea of a Dues Deceptor, or evil demon, that could alter our sensory information and control our reality. In the end, it didn’t cause society to crumble but it did lead to a lot of interesting philosophical discussions and still does.
I agree. I mean I want to believe in what I know is not real.
Does it hurt children to believe in fairies? No, no more than it hurts adults to believe in a raccoon riding an alligator.

The self-proclaimed mythmaker puts a focus on staged animal behavior that leaves the rest of us amazed and puzzled. Animals inspire her, she says. To her, a subway rat taking a selfie is as inspiring as Adele Bloch-Bauer was to Gustav Klimt. But it is about more than pure aesthetics or the viral characteristics of a pizza-carrying rat in an age of trending animal videos.
Zardulu thinks of her work as true myths, the way the ancient Greeks or Romans did. The raccoon riding the alligator is absurd. But so was Sisyphus attempt to roll up that rock.

“Perhaps the alligator represents the mythological boatman, Charon. Hermes acted as psychopomp bringing souls to Charon for passage into the netherworld. Of course, Hermes was also the trickster, like me. You could also look at the raccoon and alligator in archetypal patterns of love and cruelty or bravery and sacrifice.”

Ultimately, this could be her rebellion against an age that has exchanged deeper meaning and narratives for memes and gifs. Zardulu says, that there are still about 60-70 myths that she has not yet disclosed. Some she cherishes and wants to share them with the world. The biggest mystery however, remains her persona. In the movie The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey’s character Verbal Kint says that the greatest trick the devil had ever pulled, was to make the world believe he doesn’t exist. “I suppose it’s the problem with being anonymous is that you can’t really prove you’re real”, she says. Could Zardulu’s ultimate trick be to convince the world that she does, in fact, exist?


"Nobody is safe from psychosis"

Have you ever believed that you are already dead or the star of a Reality-TV series? Psychiatrist Joel Gold has seen his fair share of delusions and believes that our culture has more impact on it, than we might think. A conversation about Donald Trump copycats and our vulnerability to insanity.
In your book Suspicious Minds, you describe how culture shapes madness. How does it?
Throughout the history of mankind, our culture has influenced the content of our delusions. There are many forms of delusions such as paranoid or religious delusions. The forms stay largely the same but the content of the delusions changes over time. In post-revolutionary France, many people that suffered from the grandiose delusions that they were Napoleon. Today a person with a grandiose delusion might believe he is a TV celebrity. Thirty years ago, some paranoid people might have believed that they were being targeted by the CIA or KGB, today it might be ISIS or the NSA.

Photo by Elizabeth Graham
Dr. Joel Gold is the author of a new book, “Suspicious Minds, How Culture Shapes Madness.” He’s giving a talk about the book at Greenlight Bookstore on the 24th.

Madness is always updated?
Yes, but the more controversial question is: can the environment actually induce madness when it would not have otherwise manifested itself in a different environment? Are there circumstances or environments that are likely to cause psychosis? These are fundamental questions.
Distressing situations are obviously fostering mental illness but can they induce it then?
There is actually evidence that shows that the opposite can be true, that in very stressful or painful situations like war, some people with mental illnesses actually do better. They pull themselves together. There are a lot of theories about this but I think that if somebody’s external and internal world match, things make more sense to them. In situations like these, your suspicion or your fears are legitimate, not irrational. But of course in many people war can induce anxiety or depression. In our book, my brother and I argue that environments like the surveillance state and our culture in which seemingly anybody can become a star without any special talents, might be prone to induce delusions. I think the Truman Show delusion could be such a manifestation.
You coined the term the Truman Show delusion which is the belief that one is the star in a reality-TV series and that the world surrounding you is completely fake – just like in the famous movie The Truman Show.
It might be an old delusion in a new guise but the content is new. That specific belief did not exist 200 years ago. But I don’t think that the movie caused the delusion. Some people with this delusion had it before they had ever seen the movie – if they had seen it at all. But many people who have this experience feel it confirmed when they see the movie. It perfectly encapsulates their feelings. The movie is a scaffolding around which the delusion is built.

“Delusions are social in nature”

Delusional people often share the same stories or beliefs. What is it about a certain narrative that makes it so credible for delusional people?
My brother and I believe that delusions are social in nature; our minds are wired to negotiate the social world. There is a part of our brain that we have labelled for descriptive purposes the suspicion system. The suspicion system is meant to monitor the environment for social threats. When the suspicious system is disconnected from the reflective system of our brain, the part that analyses a situation and counterbalances the suspicion system, then delusions can form. Another factor is social interaction. We are not suspicious of furniture but of other people and today there is a huge variety of ways in which we are connected to others. At the core of most delusions is the belief in the malignity of other people. Police, co-workers and family can be the perfect cast for such scenarios. That’s why certain themes recur in delusions.
Is the form of delusion a decisive factor in choosing the adequate narrative?
I think so but as I pointed out, most of them are linked to our social surroundings. That is the common denominator. Take the Napoleon delusion: It is not necessarily a paranoid delusion but more a delusion of grandeur. But it is also social in a way: if you think you are superior, you are less likely to be in danger. You put yourself in a position of power to escape social threats. Today we are surrounded by some people who are famous for no particular reason. That can give the impression that power and fame are easy to acquire.

I hope there won’t be too many cases of Donald Trump copycats.

It would not be surprising if more people with grandiose delusions report that they are Donald Trump. In fact, a colleague of mine told me that he has had some patients of late that believed just that or that he is spying on them. He is the most famous person in the world right now and he is ubiquitous.

“Madness is an experience we are all capable of having”

Delusions are a different perception of reality. Usually that reality is an isolated and unique perception but if a delusional reality spreads and enough people believe it, it can quickly become an alternative reality all together.
That is a valid point. We have criteria to diagnose certain mental illnesses. The problem however is that if a large enough number of people believe something, it is not necessarily recognized as a delusion. Conspiracy theories are good examples. Some of these theories are completely fact-free but we don’t categorize them as delusions but as conspiracy theories because many people hold the same beliefs. The line between the two is very thin.
Myths are another thing that could qualify as delusions but are considered important narratives for our existence.
It’s often said that if you can prove something, it is not a delusional idea. But you can “prove” a lot to back your claims. People can be led to believe a lot, so myths and conspiracy theories are extremely hard to debunk.
Myths not only influence the delusional mind. There are also a lot of myths when it comes to how to cure madness. People used to believe that the “stone of madness” caused insanity or that “black bile” – a humor of medieval physiology believed to be secreted by the kidneys or spleen – caused melancholy and depression.
This is not just true for mental illnesses. There were a lot of medical myths at the time because people didn’t know about viruses or bacteria and so came up with other explanations. Instead doctors used things like leeches to cure patients. Today that would be considered malpractice. When knowledge is absent, people come up with ideas that might seem strange later on. But if many people believed it, it was considered science. Consider the example of vaccinations: A British researcher published an article in the renowned medical journal The Lancet that stated that vaccines could cause or at least increase the risk of autism. People still hold on to that idea well after it has been debunked. Now there is a highly charged controversy surrounding vaccines and his theory is still gaining traction.
Society has a very strange view on mental illnesses, it seems to me. On the one hand, people don’t want to interact with mentally ill people but on the other hand, we cherish the myth of the manic genius or the tormented writer. It could be concluded that we only accept mental illness if it enables you to produce something good from it, if it propels you to another level of creativity.
That’s true. Madness is something we are very afraid of because it is an experience that we are all capable of having. Nobody is safe from psychosis. On some level, possibly unconsciously, we realize that. The right conditions can drive almost every sane brain into madness. If we see a person with mental illness on the street, we find it uncomfortable because we know on some level that it could happen to us. On the other hand, we almost envy some people with mental illness because we believe that their illness has enabled them to do something we are not capable of. Think about somebody like the brilliant mathematician John Nash who suffered from schizophrenia. We tend to think that because of his alternative view of reality, this geniuses realized things that are beyond our imagination. And sometimes that is true, but there is a price you have to pay for that. People with bipolar disorder can show great creativity and productivity during their manic phases but that is by no means guaranteed. In most cases, you pay the price without getting the benefit.
Over the years, you have seen and heard about so many delusions. Is there one in particular that still fascinates you?
Two actually: The Truman Show delusion of course because it was such an important influence on my work. But I also find the Cotard delusion fascinating. It is the nihilistic belief that one is dead but still walking the earth. It is amazing to me because it is such a wild contradiction. Somebody is telling you that he is dead. “But Sir, you are talking to me. How can you be dead?” The belief sticks regardless. New delusional contents might be added to the list but the old forms remain. Still, the list grows.

"Of course I want to turn away from sin"

Ezra Furman is a gender-fluid rock musician and practicing Jew. To him, that’s not a paradox but an empowering identity.

Religion seems to be very central to who you are as an artist and private person. A lot of your lyrics deal with God and you describe yourself as a religious Jew. That is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think about a self-proclaimed gender-fluid rock musician.
I don’t see any contradictions there. Music and religion have always gone hand in hand. Gospel and other church music are the most obvious examples but also Blues was hugely influenced by the musicians’ faith or interest in god. Music has the power to bring people into a state of transcendence in which they experience extreme joy or sorrow. Music gets you to think and act beyond your regular and mundane state of being. Religion has that power too. To me, these are just the two things that I care most about. My purpose in life is connected to both of these things. I think God wants me to use music to improve people’s lives.

“It is tough to be a religious Jew and a rock musician”

Other rock musicians like Little Richard became extremely religious to turn away from what they considered a sinful life. With you, it seems that you embrace both religion and the sins that come with the life of a rock musician.
I wouldn’t put the two in such opposition. It’s not like every rock musician leads a sinful life or that you can’t sin and yet be interested in religion. Especially in blues and early rock, the devil was a very important and widespread symbol of the temptations of everyday life. But I come from a Jewish background and the devil is not that central in Jewish mythology. In Jewish tradition, there is no personified master of evil. We believe that there is only the evil inclination in each and every one of us, and that is something I concern myself a lot with. Of course I want to turn away from sin. That was the impetus for my song One day I will sin no more. But when I think about sinning, it is mostly not related directly to my profession. There is a culture of heavy drinking and casual sex in rock and although that is not necessarily sinful, I am morally weary of these things. It is tough to be a religious Jew and a rock musician, but mostly so because of clashing schedules.
You never played shows on Fridays to observe Shabbat.
That is one example. It’s hard to follow the rituals if you are constantly on the move. That is the biggest problem.
But the mythology and rituals of rock music seem so at odds with how religion wants us to behave.
I don’t necessarily agree. I know what you mean but consider that rock is about disobedience and so is a lot in religion. Yes, religion often wants us to live in a certain way and to obey rules but my belief is that there is only one judge of humankind and so nobody apart from god has any authority over me. The more religion becomes a strange thing rather than the mainstream of society, the more it becomes a revolt against that same mainstream. There are many variations of religion and therefore many ways to practice it. I don’t come from a conservative background; there was never any pressure to live in a certain way.

“Religion is empowering the underdog”

Would it be correct to argue, that you are more interested in god than in religion?
Yes and no. I do practice my religion but I think religion should be for god’s sake and not for its own. The Bible is full of examples of pious people that worship god but act immorally outside of the temple. That is a performance of religion. That is not what I want. If you practice religion truthfully, it is about justice and compassion. That’s another thing that it has in common with rock music: it’s empowering the underdog.
Do you feel like Judaism gives you more liberties than another religion would? There is no high authority like a pope in Judaism, so the religion is a bit more open to different interpretations. 
That’s a bold statement. I partially agree that Judaism is often against hierarchies in the way that it is about empowerment and freedom. At the same time, the religious texts are clearly based on a social hierarchy: men are more important than women for example. Having said that, I think that any religious text is an ongoing process. The Bible is not a definite guide to modern society. These texts need to be repeatedly, even constantly re-interpreted to fit into our real lives. Religion is—can be—progressive. We shouldn’t let fundamentalists convince society of the opposite. That’s why it is so important that people like me don’t walk away from it but embrace it and improve it. I understand that some people just want to reject religion all together but that’s not for me.
Do you feel welcomed when you go to the synagogue or do you feel prejudices because of your appearance?
I go to a very liberal synagogue, so there is not a lot of stigma. I know that’s not true for every church or synagogue. Many Orthodox places wouldn’t want me to attend their services, at least not dressed the way I tend to dress. There is a lot of shaming going on in some places because of how people look or behave. But where I go, embarrassing or shaming fellow believers is a sin, it’s almost as bad as murder.

“The Bible is not a finished guide to life”

You describe your music as a healing process for the downtrodden that do not believe in traditional gender categories. Religion very often propagates and cements the latter. How do your fans react to your religious beliefs?
I see what you mean but at the same time, it’s not like every religious institution is the same or oppressive. There are gay churches that are there to welcome gender-fluid people. Sometimes people criticize me for being religious and being a champion for gender freedom at the same time. They show me religious texts that are homophobic or misogynic and ask: “How can you support this?” A lot of text passages are deeply disturbing but the majority of religious people don’t take them literally. I mean we don’t slaughter lambs every day for instance. Jewish texts are always read with the understanding that it they are meant to be expanded upon and continually adapted, keeping our principles and moral intuitions intact above all else. The Bible is not a finished guide to life, ancient or modern. It was always missing details and intended to be interpreted. The same goes for the U.S. Constitution. It is the foundation of our political system and lays down a set of rules – many of which are incomplete, completely outdated or morally wrong. But we try to keep it updated and make it better.
Is there a religious narrative or part of mythology that is especially sacred to you?
I like King David’s psalms a lot. As a songwriter you have to look up to him. I like Psalm 34 in particular. He wrote it when he was being persecuted by the king at the time and he pretended to be insane so that they would not kill him. He pretended to be crazy to escape a dangerous reality – that’s something I can relate to.
Ezra Furman’s latest release is called “Big Fugitive Life”. He is currently working on a book about Lou Reed’s album “Transformer” for the 33 1/3 book series. Check out his website at

"Punk has been bastardized"


Penelope Spheeris chronicled the wild days of punk and captured a movement that has become a teenage myth. She talked to us about the last revolution in music.

In your acclaimed documentary-trilogy The Decline of Western Civilization, you portray the punk and metal scenes in California. Each movie has a different focus but they are all characterized by an extreme intimacy between the camera and the protagonists. Have you kept in touch with some of the people you portrayed?
Yes, absolutely. I am still in touch with Eugene for example – the young punk from the first Decline. But it’s especially the streets kids from the third part that I consider my punk-rock family.
How so?
There is the professional side of documenting their lives but then there is also something personal. I never just wanted to use them for my movies. I feel a very strong connection to these kids. I even met my boyfriend through the third Decline movie. He was one of the gutter-punks and was homeless for 10 years before I met him.
What was it that drew you to the punk scene in the first place?
I think my upbringing played a big role in it. I grew up in a dysfunctional family – to put it mildly. I grew up in a travelling circus; my father was shot when I was a kid and my mom was a hoarder who married one guy after another. There was a lot of physical and psychological violence and chaos in my childhood and early adulthood. I think that is something I share with many punks. People often ask me, how I managed to feel safe as a woman among all these brute characters that the punk scene attracted. But I felt right at home because it reminded me so much of my own family.
I guess for somebody with your background, the notion of an outcast or freak is something else than to the rest of society.
Exactly. I never considered the punks freaks or different from myself. Punk was always very closely linked to a certain style and you could spot a punk from far. I remember that when the first punks walked the streets of LA, people felt offended – afraid even. In London, that was a bit different. It wasn’t so shocking over there because it was more pervasive. Here, you were a complete outcast.

”Self-promotion is for the Kardashians”

You once called punks the “termites in the woodwork of society” …
They are! The reason I said that is because termites are very powerful, yet barely visible. I think that is also what true punk is about.
That seems at odds with the general notion we have of them as people that dress and behave in an extravagant way to shock and catch people’s attention.
True punks don’t promote themselves too much. They don’t care for that. Of course they might wear a yellow Mohawk but they don’t instrumentalize it. Self-promotion is for the Kardashians.
The punk movement started forty years ago and it has evolved from an underground subculture to a self-marketing opportunity for rebellious teenagers. Is punk dead?
No, I don’t think so. I just think that the label “punk” has been misused by many bands or people. I mean punk has always attracted the chaotic and the troubled souls but it was never really marketed as such. Punk has been bastardized by people that want to be associated with this radical movement but are in no way open to live the life that punks lived in the 1970s.
The myth of punk has destroyed the actual scene?
In a way, yes. At its core, punk is extremely moral, socially vigilant and politically active. These are the values and principles of punk and I don’t think they are being respected today. It pisses me off but there is nothing I can do about it. Punk is the ultimate sign of teenage revolution but it has been commercialized to a degree that it can no longer revolt against the system because it has become part of it. Maybe punk in the 1970s was the last youth culture that actually changed something.
In music or within society?
Both, really. I mean maybe the grunge scene after that but I don’t really care too much for it. Punk was just so unique and completely changed how we think about music and its place in society. Punk was never just about music but tried to go against the mainstream in every way.
In the first Decline, there is a scene in which the editor of the punk-fanzine Slash says that punk will be the last revolution. Did you think that too at the time?
It’s always easier to argue these things in hindsight. In that moment you consider it extremely important and unique but you not always know that this moment is going to have some special significance later on. I think most people in the punk scene thought they were part of something that defines their generation. We were clueless that it would also shape all the following ones.

”The Internet has annihilated the underground”

The title of the trilogy hints at a radical and decisive process or moment in time. How did you come up with it?
People are always curious about it. I was at a party on the rooftop of Slash. At one point Claude Bessy, the magazine’s editor, mentioned a book by Oswald Spengler called The Decline of the West and when I was driving home the title came back to me and just seemed very fitting. Of course it is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek title but there is some truth to it. In the third part, Ron, the singer from the band The Resistance, points out that every culture has its rise and fall. And I think that the Western culture peaked a long time ago.
The irony is that in all three movies we see a subculture that is actually in decline. By the time the first part was released punk had peaked. When the second part about the metal scene was released, grunge was just around the corner.
There is some truth to that, yes. But when I did the movies, it was more than just the music that attracted me. I never thought, “this is the next big thing, I have to document this”. To be honest, I was more interested in the human aspects of punk than in the music. The punk scene was a treasure trove of extreme human behavior.
These characters are missing in today’s music scene, I would argue.
Everything has become homogenized and once you mix everything together, it becomes hard to be authentic. Today’s music scene seems very blunt. The Internet has annihilated the underground. Everybody knows everything. That’s why we miss and long for the days, when there was still authenticity and some edge to a subculture. We cherish this idea or this myth of punk because we lack an equivalent. That’s also why I stopped making music documentaries. What should I document? It has become easier for young people to romanticize punk than to create something new.
Also because subcultures like punk felt very holistic in the sense that they included fashion, art, music and everything else. The Slits-guitarist Viv Albertine even argued that Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren started punk through their clothes and then the music followed.
I spent a lot of time with the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten and he complained a lot about that because he claims that he invented punk. But in true punk spirit, it doesn’t really matter who invented it. We should be happy that somebody did. And yes, it was a very complete subculture because there was some kind of shared codex that dictated how you had to look or how you had to go about things. It was not as chaotic and anarchistic as people might think. We lived by our own set of rules.
Commercial self-marketing was obviously something that was frowned upon. How did you as a director handle this? Did some people from the scene distrust you?
No, not really. I was one of them, so there was no feeling of exploitation. When I did the third part, I walked up to some punk-kids on the street and told them that I was working on a new Decline movie and they replied in anger that I couldn’t do that because Penelope had to do it. When I told them that I am Penelope, they all agreed on the spot to be a part of it. I earned their trust because they knew from the first two movies that I am not doing it to expose or capitalize on something.
For the premiere of the first movie, the LAPD sent 300 motorcycle cops to prevent a riot and the chief begged you to never again publicly show the movie in his city. It is very hard to imagine something like that today.
I never thought about it as a potential for riots. Looking back, I think we involuntarily invented the first flash-mob back then.
Punk is closely linked to trashy aesthetics but there is something extremely beautiful and gracious about the aesthetics of the movies. You almost glamorize the filthiness of the scene. Was that your intention?
It was a deliberate choice, yes. Not only the aesthetics but also the content was not meant to propel the notion that punk is about living in dirty squads and shooting heroin. That is nothing that I want to put on a pedestal. There is sensationalism and shock value in that but I don’t want to show that to young adults. I never wanted to provoke those sorts of feelings.
The movies also find a good balance between tragedy and humor. The protagonists tell their tales of anger and despair but they do it in the most uplifting and humorous way.
They don’t beg for pity and that makes the difference. That makes it more emotional and profound. They rise above self-pity, which is characteristic of punk. Are you a punk Max?
I am definitely not. I used to dress up as punk for the local kids carnival celebration but that’s about it.
I hope you have pictures of that, it sounds adorable! What music did you listen to when you grew up?
Techno for the most part.
I know very little about that scene actually.
Berlin is very notorious for it. When the wall came down, clubs just popped up over here and there was a growing underground subculture of ravers. Today, the city still lives off of that and the time is often romanticized as the last revolution in music – much like punk in the US.
I just remember seeing the band Einstürzende Neubauten from Berlin. It was a spectacular performance. I was on acid. Maybe that had something to do with it.

"We accept a reality that is slowly killing us"

Moby’s newest album proclaims that “These Systems Are Failing”. We spoke with the musician about why it’s worth putting up a fight.

You have named your latest album „These systems are failing”. It sounds very dystopian but actually the lyrics make it seem as if you are almost relieved that everything is crumbling. Is that true?
It’s tricky because the systems that we have created are working, but they are not contributing to our long-term benefit and well-being. It’s not obvious to everybody but once you realize how the systems – economic, political or social – are failing, it’s an ostensibly depressing thought. But our man-made, broken systems need to fail in order for something new to rise. So yes, there is optimism in the current catastrophe. It’s similar to going to the doctor maybe…
In what way?
Say you eat a lot of junk food and your health deteriorates and you have to see a doctor: he will tell you to change your diet to avoid chronic or deadly diseases. It’s a wake-up call and we often need one of those to see what’s going on around us.

”We are sponsoring our own demise.”

There is almost something like a myth of “the broken system” that everybody is well aware of but only few know what it translates to in reality or how to do something about it. You pointed out that as a musician, you can not fix the problems but only hint at them. Does that not evoke a feeling of helplessness?
Not really, because I can do something about it. We all can. There are so many ways to look at a problem. You can look at it from an anthropological or political aspect and it changes accordingly. There are three very easy things we can do to avoid humanity heading for calamity: stop subsidizing industries that destroy us. Animal agriculture, the tobacco industry, the arms industry – they all receive trillions of tax dollars. We are sponsoring our own demise. The other two things we should do is stop using oil and stop eating animals. If we would do these two things, climate change would be reduced by 75% and human health would skyrocket. People think that systems exist in a way that they can not be changed. Have you looked at old globes?
There is one in my living room, I am looking at it as we speak.
I collect old globes and one of the things I like about them is that they represent geopolitical shifts. A globe from 1920 will show a very different order. The status quo is in a way only temporary. It only takes democratic will to change it. I know this might all sound very naïve, but I prefer naïve optimism to depressed resignation. Throughout history people have made really good changes, it’s just hard if we believe the myth that everything is fine.

”We have become confused about what our needs actually are”

Because a reality has been created that distracts us from seeing an alternative, less shiny reality?
Absolutely. Do you know the boiling frog theory?
I hope it’s just a theory and not something somebody tried but the idea is that if you take a frog and throw it in a pot of boiling water, it will do everything to escape the boiling water. But if you put the same frog in a pot of water at room temperature and slowly raise the temperature, the frog will not try to escape and eventually die. We become so accustomed to the false beliefs and myths that everything is fine that we accept a reality that is slowly killing us. The underpinning issue here is the human condition. Every political or economic system exists to meet our supposed needs. But we have become extremely confused as to what our needs actually are. We have alienated us from ourselves.
There is a difference between power and cultural hegemony. If you exert power over somebody, that person will notice. Cultural hegemony however means that a ruling elite can establish their rules as cultural norms and thereby conceal their exercise of power or oppression. It sounds like that is what these systems you refer to are about.
Yes, no doubt. But that tactic means that there is also the possibility to use it for a good cause. Think about racism in the US: Here, like in so many other countries, racism was and still is a huge problem. But the ruling class can introduce legislation that can then shape social norms and beliefs. You can provoke a lot of change in society with some comparatively minor decisions in politics. The thing is that we want the system to change and we want people’s hearts and minds to change. Very often, the latter is the more difficult one but there is a connection between the two. Changing legislation on marriage equality in the US lead many people to reconsider their views. In a perfect world, we could just lean back and wait for people to realize that they are digging their own graves but we are in a dire situation that needs concrete action now. (pauses) I guess this is a bit different than most new album music interviews.

”Music needs substance, not just sounds”

Usually the Anthropocene does not come up that much, no. So on the more musical side…
Oh no, I’m perfectly happy not talking about music. I mean one of the reasons why I gave the record this name is because I really wanted an opportunity to talk about this stuff because it is so important to me. It begs the question: If you are a 50-year old musician and you make your 15th record and you don’t plan to go on tour: why make an album?
I’m listening.
There is the selfish aspect which is that I love recording new material. But there is also the activist aspect. A new album is an opportunity for me to give interviews and write articles.
Why not just write a book on these issues? Why record an album?
At the core of everything is the individual and we are an emotional species. As an activist, I want to reach people emotionally and I think music and visuals are far more effective in that respect than plain text. A few years ago, I put out a very dry academic book called “Gristle” that analyses the consequences of animal agriculture and it sold around 5.000 copies. There is place for academia and textual analysis but that place is not the mainstream. I believe music needs substance and not just sounds.

”Producing hit-singles just seems dull to me”

You recently said that a lot of your fellow middle-aged musicians are making too many compromises to be commercially successful but that you don’t see the point in that.
Again, I wish we would live in a universe where we have the luxury of being selfish. If we had a life expectancy of 500 years and infinite natural resources and everything would be fine, we would be in a position to make art that has no deeper meaning. But everything is not fine. I don’t mean to say that we only need strident didactic art and culture but at the very least it seems almost unethical to me to be like Nero as Rome is burning and we are all just fiddling. To me, the only thing giving my life meaning is trying to figure out this world and make this huge place a little bit better. Nothing excites me more than that. Producing hit-singles and making millions of money just seems very dull to me. You end up feeling like a self-involved pop star that has lost touch with reality – I’ve been there.
That is the big myth of show business: that fame and money will lead to happiness. You recently told the story of how during the height of your success in the early 2000s, you were staying in the most luxurious suite in Barcelona next to the likes of Madonna and all you could think about was killing yourself because you felt miserable. The next day you won an MTV EMA and it was back to business.
It was horrible. This again ties in with what I said earlier: at the core of everything is always the individual. But we individuals often overlook the facts. We don’t look at things based on evidence. We keep doing things without an empirical understanding of what we are doing. I thought to myself: I am a successful musician now, I draw huge crowds and make a lot of money – I should be happy. But I never looked at the evidence that all of this could not make me happy. I desperately tried to avoid looking at the truth. We all do.

”It’s better to fight and fail miserably than not doing anything at all”

The systems are failing because we are failing?
I don’t want to be too hard on us. We have a hereditary component, we evolved in very adverse situations. Think back to who we were thousands of years ago: we were just trying to survive, not starving or getting eaten by a predator. Therefore we still think that if we have enough calories and a place to sleep, everything is ok. Our brain just wants that. We are not conditioned to want a better system as long as the current one works for us. But we need to change our mindset. We still respond to the world like we’re crocodiles. It’s a bit like Don Quichote, I go out fighting in a way that might be completely pointless but I feel it’s better to fight and fail miserably than not doing anything at all.
Moby & The Void Pacific Choir – These Systems are Failing is out on Mute Records.

"We’ve all become expert time travelers"

In his newest book, author James Gleick explores the history of Time Travel. And its future. A conversation about fascination, regret, and killing Hitler.

Early on in your book, you write that time travel isn’t possible. That it can’t be. Did you go into this research wondering if it was?
No. The honest truth is that I thought from the beginning on that it was just a fantasy. And I know very well that there’s something perverse about expecting people to read a book about time travel by someone who doesn’t believe in it. I worried about that at first. And I’ve discovered, as I’ve been talking about the book, that many people are disappointed that that’s my opinion. I have to reassure them that to honestly represent the view of mainstream physicists, I have to say that they don’t want to rule it out. They like to believe in time travel. If you’d like to imagine that some day we’ll have a time machine and go to any year that we want, you’re free to do that. It’s just not something I believe in.


James Gleick is a historian and science writer, who most recently published “Time Travel – A History”. He often writes about the impact of technology and has published titles such as “The Information” and “Chaos”. Previously, Gleick has worked for The New Yorker and The New York Times. Find out more about him on his website.

I wasn’t expecting the revelation that traveling through time would be possible, but I didn’t expect your sober reasoning either: “You can’t go into the past. Because you didn’t.” Is it really that logical?
No, it’s not. There is something complicated about my approach to the question. When I talk about philosophers making that sort of argument, I find myself making fun of it.

”You can’t logically prove time travel”

Why is that?
A lot of philosophers have said “time travel isn’t possible” and proved it logically. My view is different from that. I don’t think you can logically prove it. It’s a matter of having a consistent view of how the universe works. The logical arguments are kind of silly and have become word games – like the one you mentioned. But I actually end up giving a lot of thought to what time is, which is what the books turns out to be.
You also talk a lot about how language is insufficient in describing time – the sentence I quoted seems convincing but doesn’t necessarily reflect the physical reality.
That’s true. But also: The way physics works is not the be all and end all. It’s not an absolute representation of reality. Physics makes models of things and uses them to predict real-life events. That works very well. Yet it’s very different from making an absolute statement of what is and what isn’t real. So to put my view into a simple way: If you believe that the present is real, and that the past is not real because it’s already done, and the future is not real because it hasn’t happened yet, then you have what I’d call a normal sense of time.
That means?
This is what people think before they start to worry too much about the details. The past is gone, we don’t have access to it. The future hasn’t happened, and maybe we have some degree of free will and can make choices about the future. I can have cheese for lunch or I can have ham. Until I do one or the other, that future is not yet determined. That’s a common sense view of things and lots of philosophers have considered that that’s not how things really are. And more recently, so have lots of physicists. They have created mathematical models in which it’s possible to view the universe as a four-dimensional space-time continuum. A complete package. In this mathematical picture, the future and the past are every bit as real as the present. They look exactly the same in the equations of physics. But in my view that doesn’t mean we have to accept the mathematical view as a statement of reality – and I think many physicists would agree with me.

”Time isn’t like space”

Because of the impression of free choice? You certainly don’t feel like it’s been predetermined for your to have the ham for lunch.
Right. We don’t have to settle the question of free will, maybe my choice between cheese and ham isn’t as big as I think I do, but at least it feels as though it hasn’t happened yet. The whole notion of time travel implies that this common-sense view of time isn’t right. That you can go back into the past and even change it. You can go into the future and walk around there as if it exists now.
When H.G. Wells invented the first time machine, he realized when he was constructing what he knew to be just a fantastic story, that he was saying something that was different from our common sense view of time. He was saying that time is a fourth dimension, that time is like space. So when we talk about time travel, we are saying that time is analogous to space, that it is a thing you can travel through. And when you stop and think about it, come back to earth, that’s not what I believe. I don’t think is like space, I think it is quite different from space and we all know that quite well, deep in our bones.
It’s funny you’d use that expression, because you also wrote “time travel is in our bones” and that time travel “is a sexy idea”- Is that why we embrace it, despite of its shortcomings?
Let’s talk about the good news – we’ve been focusing on the bad news that there’s no such thing as time travel in a literal, mechanical thing.

”We are imagining new future all the time.”

Of course there is such a a thing as time travel and we’ve all become very expert and efficient time travelers. My book is not meant to just debunk this idea that’s so much fun but rather to celebrate the idea and to appreciate how powerful it has been in our thinking for more than a century. We have a relationship with the past and the future that is very exciting and very rich – even if it’s largely a matter of imagination. That’s ok, because imagination is who we are. We’re imaginative creatures. We have knowledge of the past and a kind of foreknowledge of the future – whether is it based on anticipation or terror. We are imagining new futures all the time.
Is that fascination with the past, for instance, due to our regretful nature or rather our aspiration towards perfection – going back to fix what went wrong?
Both of those come into play. People who create time travel stories, for books, TV, or just in their own minds, are motivated by different things, and you have just mentioned a very important one: Regret. You think about something and you want a do-over. We can all think of great time travel stories that are based on the idea of wanting to do something over and over again. Remember the great Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day: That’s not just a version of the story where he doesn’t want to do it again but finds himself trapped and gradually realizes that he has to live this one horrible day over and over again, until he finally does it right. It’s a variation on the theme.

”Killing Hitler has become a meme”

What does the it mean, then, that our society is so enamored with time travel.
It means we think a lot about history and about how things might have been different. It’s not an accident that one of the great memes of time travel of the late 20th century is “What if the time traveler would go back to kill Hitler in a timely fashion?” Nowadays – at least over here – you hear people wondering if it might be possible to go back and teach manners to Baby Trump. Can we change history? Is the world we’re living in the only possible world? Or might it have been different. Is it just an accident that everybody is driving around in automobiles with internal combustion engines or, if one little thing had happened in the early nineteen hundreds, would we all be driving around in electric cars instead? To pick just one trivial technological example…
In the book you reveal the role technology plays in our thinking about time travel: The idea of the time machine is directly linked to industrialization. But at the same time, it seems that there’s more to it: We’ve come to accept that machines can solve so many problems that thinking they would break the laws of time doesn’t seem too far off…
Of course we have a love-hate relationship with our machinery. I have always been interested in connections between technology and the rest of our culture. The way we live and think about the world is often unconsciously a consequence of devices and machines that are part of our life. That’s true about my last book, The Information, which was all about advances in information technology. And it’s certainly true with how we deal with time. It’s not just that H.G. Wells invented time travel at a time when there were railroads and steam engines and electric telegraphy synchronizing clocks around the world; it was also when Einstein reevaluated physics and reshaped scientists’ sense of time. And that’s not a coincidence. Our cultural understanding of how time works was being reshaped by the availability of clocks, high-speed transportation, new kinds of light speed global transfer of information.

”A paradox in many guises”

A development that has continued.
Now it’s all happening again. And this is where I found an ending for my story. It looks as though our sense of time is undergoing a new revolution. Where that’ll lead isn’t quite clear but we can already tell that in our highly-networked world, where so much of our experience comes to us through screens of different sizes and shapes, our relationship with the present, the future and the past is changing again, in tricky ways.
You mean: There’s time-shifting going on across the culture?
Right. We’re expert time-shifters. We’re watching TV with instant replays, tape-delayed version of an instant replay. We’ve gotten very smart about this and I think that occasionally we can forgive ourselves if we suffer a little bit of confusion as well.
Speaking of confusion: What is your favorite paradox that you encountered during your research?
In a funny way, it’s all one paradox that keeps turning up in different guises. There’s one – that I won’t try to explain: the central kind of loop in the movie La Jetée by Chris Marker, which not many people know, but which some people have seen the remake of, 12 Monkeys.
A lighter version of the paradox appears in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. His time traveler goes back to the 1920s and meets Louis Buñuel, the film director. He says “I have a great idea for a movie for you” and pitches him his own movie. And the young Buñuel says “That doesn’t make any sense!” It’s a paradox: If Buñuel did make the movie based on what the time traveler had told him, the question becomes: Where did the idea come from in the first place?

Essential Love

The eclectic relationship between Jean-Paul Satre and Simone de Beauvoir was too good to be true. Or was it?

In 1990, a collective gasp could be heard around the world: Simone de Beauvoir’s letters to Jean-Paul Sartre were published. In contrast to Sartre’s letters to Beauvoir, published a few years earlier after Sartre’s death, these letters were unedited – now everyone knew what the relationship of the famous couple really looked like. While Beauvoir-and-Sartre aficionados were deeply disappointed, others were full of schadenfreude: Finally there was proof that this relationship always sounded too good to be true! Somehow or other, the myth of the perfect intellectual couple was shattered. Why?
Well, instead of exchanging philosophical ideas and talking about the world’s problems, Beauvoir and Sartre discussed their numerous affairs, including the best ways to get rid of them. It was an existentialist soap-opera. In her memoirs Beauvoir had always stressed the fact that those books didn’t tell the whole story about Sartre and her: “There are many things which I firmly intend to leave in obscurity.” Like her bisexuality. In interviews, Beauvoir had always denied having sexual relations with women – in the letters to Sartre, she described those in great detail: “I’ve a very keen taste for her body”, she wrote about one of her female lovers. Is that really the legacy the glamorous philosophical couple leaves us with: Petty discussions about who bedded whom?

Small and not exactly good-looking

When Jean-Paul met Simone at the Sorbonne in 1929 it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. At least not for her. Jean-Paul Sartre was an unlikely womanizer: He was small and not exactly good-looking, but he made up for it with his bright mind, humor and entertaining qualities. The ladies loved him. For months, the 24-year-old Sartre had been keeping track of Simone de Beauvoir: a restrained, beautiful and clever student three years his junior. Both were studying philosophy and preparing for the prestigious and difficult exam called agrégation. Passing it – which few students did – would allow them to teach at secondary schools. Sartre desperately wanted to make Beauvoir’s acquaintance, but she kept her distance. Not surprising, given the fact that Beauvoir came from a sheltered and conservative household –and Sartre and his inner circle had a bad reputation: they smoked, they drunk and they were fond of silly jokes and pranks. Bro culture at its best. However, a month before the agrégation’s oral examination, Sartre proposed to his friends to invite Mademoiselle Beauvoir to join them during their studies.
The rest, as they say, is history. Soon, Beauvoir and “the little man”, Sartre, became inseparable. Beauvoir was happy: For the first time in her life, she felt intellectually dominated by another. Sartre challenged her, treated her as an equal. She knew for certain: This small, brilliant, slightly megalomaniac man was the companion she had already imagined as a young girl. For Sartre, Beauvoir was his equal as well: a fiercely independent woman who was able to keep up with him intellectually, supplementing his own thoughts.

A relationship with no precedent

Both Sartre and Beauvoir passed the oral exam: He came in first, she second. Soon the two lovebirds started discussing their mutual future. Sartre made it clear that he wouldn’t want to pass on affairs with other women. “What we have is an essential love”, he told Beauvoir, “but it is a good idea for us also to experience contingent love affairs.” It is hard to imagine that Beauvoir was immediately into this proposal. She was in love – and now the object of her love was asking for a complimentary ticket to bestow his favors on other women? But Beauvoir trusted Sartre and she was prepared to live a relationship for which there was no model to build upon. Willing to offer her a way out, Sartre even proposed marriage. Beauvoir declined. Instead, they agreed on a two-year lease, a pact: During Sartre’s military service, they would see each other as often as possible. Beauvoir, instead of directly entering the teaching profession and probably being send to the provinces, would remain in Paris. At the end of those two years, both would apply for jobs in different countries, separating for a few years, meeting again, separating again. That way, their relationship would never get boring. During the two-year period, there would only be no “contingent love affairs”. But they would still tell each other everything and never lie to each other. Their relationship would always prevail over routines and relationships with others. Later they revised their two-year pact, this time it was for life.
And this time, “contingent love affairs” were very much part of the plan. Beauvoir and Sartre were especially fond of a constellation they called “trio”. In 1936, they started their first “trio” with Beauvoir’s former student Olga Kosakiewicz (Beauvoir processed this experience in her debut novel She came to stay). Beauvoir’s proposal to Olga was this: She and Sartre would take care of her by supporting her financially and teaching her. Beauvoir soon started sleeping with Olga – Sartre pursued the girl relentlessly but never succeeded in seducing her.

Sex, without being into it

Beauvoir and Sartre would repeat this pattern over and over again. They acted as parents, adopting a young girl, supporting her, teaching her, seducing her. The relations within the “trio” were uneven: Olga, as later Bianca Bienenfeld and other girls, were financially and often emotionally dependent on Beauvoir and Sartre. As long as the couple found someone interesting, they were charming and amiable – but if they had had enough of them, they turned aloof and cruel. In Paris, Beauvoir and Sartre gathered a group of close friends and acquaintances, “la petite famille”. This “family” was a complicated network, overseen by Beauvoir and Sartre. Most of the time the members of the family didn’t know the whole picture – Olga had no clue that Beauvoir had an affair with her boyfriend (and later husband) Jacques-Laurent Bost, Sartre’s girlfriend Wanda (Olga’s sister) was oblivious to the fact that Sartre was sleeping with Bianca. And so on, and so forth.
This all sounds quite stressful. Still, the sneakiness and the schemes seemed to have amused Beauvoir and Sartre. Their letters are full of stories about their respective conquests and affairs: Bianca is jealous, Bost and Olga are fighting. Oh, these spoiled kids. The letters and exchanges can be seen as a sexual ersatz: Sartre might have pursued sex, but he wasn’t really into it. He preferred the process of seduction to the act itself. Beauvoir on the other hand was a very sexual woman. The family, with all its smaller and bigger dramas allowed Beauvoir and Sartre to have sexual relations even after theirs stopped. Sartre might not have been a great lover – but he had a way with words.
Beauvoir and Sartre were thus oversharing long before oversharing even became a term. Their letters make them seem condescending and exploitive. To their credit, both of them knew this. When Sartre dumped Bianca in March 1940 – he was stationed as a soldier at that time – Beauvoir later wrote him:

“I never blamed you for making the break, since after all that’s what I’d advised you to do. But I blamed us – myself as much as you, actually – in the past, in the future, in the absolute: the way we treat people. I felt it was unacceptable that we’d managed to make her suffer so much.”

Sartre often used Beauvoir to end relationship he no longer wanted to pursue. Either as the bearer of the bad news or as means to an end: His women almost never knew of each other – but they all knew of Beauvoir, whom Sartre presented as the reason why he had to end his “contingent” love affairs. Put the blame on her, Mesdemoiselles! Beauvoir was the real deal, he would never leave her.

Trying and failing

Which doesn’t mean the pact was never threatened in its 51 years of existence. Both Beauvoir and Sartre fell seriously in love with others, Sartre even considered marrying one of his girlfriends. But in the end, the pact survived – and lasted until the end of their lives (Sartre died in 1980, Beauvoir in 1986). It may not have been the perfect relationship between equals it was often seen as; but nor was it a farce, only constructed to hide a dirty truth. Beauvoir and Sartre were both complicated characters, so why should their relationship have been easy? They might have been a unique intellectual powerhouse, but in the end they were still a man and a woman committed to one another – no matter what. Colette Audry, Beuavoir’s teacher colleague in Rouen, remembers: “Theirs was a new kind of relationship, and I had never seen anything like it. I can’t describe what it was like to be present when those two were together. It was so intense that sometimes it made others who saw it sad not to have it.”
From the beginning, there was more at stake for Beauvoir: In the 1920s, deciding against marriage and children might have been okay for a bourgeois man like Sartre, but it wasn’t for a bourgeois woman like Beauvoir. When she chose a life with Sartre, she chose a life radically different from the one she was brought up to lead. She jumped, hoping that the risk would pay. In the end, it did. She got her freedom, even if she wasn’t free from jealousy. Nor was Sartre, for that matter. Sartre and Beauvoir had no archetypes, no models to base on their relationship. They had to learn that freedom isn’t just given once, but that in a relationship, it is an ongoing process. They tried and yes, often they failed – mostly other people. But isn’t trying and failing always better than not trying at all?

Rock it like Soviet Russia

During Perestroika, the Soviet Union was briefly lit by a Rock’n’Roll craze. Photographer Igor Mukhin was there to document the wild years.

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Your photos show a very brief timeframe: Those couple of years during Perestroika when underground rock music culture was born in the Soviet Union.
Yes, it was just a short timeframe, which makes this an important document of a state that no longer exists.
What makes the photos so captivating is that they document a very short timespan.
Exactly! The underground scene was truly underground. Home telephones were tapped, and so all important calls had to be made from public telephones. I went to concerts where the frontman of the band would pick up the ten audience members in the subway. Or sometimes you had to ask around for the address of a concert. Of course, this tactic was later repeated by Pussy Riot. I was fascinated by this culture and how it lived in the shadows, before journalists and professional producers discovered it.
I assume that rock music represented freedom in the same way as it did in the West…
For many bands, the music was an open protest that began with illegal concerts in basements, bomb shelters, kindergartens… and spread out as the music was copied on home recorders and illegally distributed. The government had stopped restraining this kind of expression and so it started happening.
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The Cold War hadn’t ended yet: Was there something mythological about this music? After all, you didn’t otherwise have much contact with the West…
It depends. In the Soviet Union, it had become a tradition for poets to turn into bards, pick up guitars and start playing. So some of the music was in the tradition of ancient Russia – like the band Калинов Мост (Kalinov Most). Others rigidly copied western stars. There was new wave – Странные Игры (Strange Games), punk – Чуто – Юдо (Chouteau – Yudo).
My favorite artists are the musicians from the band АКВАРИУМ (Aquarium) and their mysterious poetry, the band ЗООПАРК (Zoo), which played the autobiographical diary of a punk musician, and the group КИНО (Cinema), who started out as teenage schoolboys. During the revolution, this band was accused by parliamentarians of the Duma of treason, saying they had been playing songs with lyrics written by the CIA.
But to come back to your question: There was actually lots of contact with the West! People brought in music and books that they illegally copied and distributed. For a while, I worked in an illegal recording studio. And records were exchanged all the time. In the forests outside of Moscow, there was a huge clearing where music lovers came to from as far as Odessa and Riga to exchange music; and where you could buy belts and leather jackets.
There were also radio shows we could tune into: The BBC, Voice of America…: All radio stations had rock music programs. The Air Force offered a weekly hit list that played rock.
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What does it mean to you?
Well… I didn’t learn German or English in school. Psychologically, I had no idea how I could get in touch with foreigners in my city, where they only drove around in vehicles between embassies. It’s quite a pity: I went to a dinner to a Parisian restaurant with Robert Doisneau, and at one point Henri Cartier-Bresson came to one of my exhibitions – yet I was essentially deaf. My generation’s deprived of the language needed to understand foreigners and English-language music.
Your photos are full of contrast between tradition and youth culture. How did people react to this new wave of music?
There were lots of festivals, which people from across the USSR attended. But the venues usually only fit around 1000 or 2000 people. Later on, as it all became legalized, the industry quickly professionalized and musicians played in huge stadiums, which I found much less interesting. I was interested in the reactions to this new culture, which is why I photographed many of the people witnessing it.
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Igor Mukhin is a Russian photographer based in Moscow. See more of his work on his website and follow him on Facebook, where he posts a new photo every day.
Many thanks to Ksenia Les and Lora Todorova for their help with some of the translation.