Monday, March 05, 2007
monday musing: fragments from Curaçao
I was sitting for maybe half an hour in the main room of the plantation house watching an old green and white painted door swing lazy in the gusts of ocean breeze. The door was too heavy to slam. It was creeping open slowly of its own weight and then another gust of wind would blow it back. I knew the gust was coming because I could see it in the trees through the crack in the door. I was watching those trees and I could see the branches shake and the bits of green would start dancing around. And then, I knew that the door would begin to swing closed again. Every time, for half and hour, I braced myself for the inevitable slamming of the heavy painted door. But it never slammed. The door was too heavy, the rusted hinges offered too much resistance. The gust would catch the door in a moment of promise and then give up, indifferent to the door, indifferent to the stubbornness of the door, indifferent to the wobbly frame of the old plantation house and the scraggly grounds with intermittent explosions of bougainvillea and the softer pink of the orchids; orchid, I'm reminded by my wife, meaning testicle in Greek, no doubt referring to the root of the orchid, which dangles off the stem and terminates in a couple of wrinkly little sacs that are normally hidden under the earth, the secret source and sustenance for the vulvic spread of the furry flower above.
At around 10:00 AM every morning a small bird that we have named Shelly flies down to the veranda. He is a hopper. He also likes to perch on things, the rim of a cup of coffee, the edge of a book, the screen of a computer. He has a friend we call Fatty but Fatty keeps his distance. Shelly is the guy who engages the world. On the second day, we discovered that Shelly is particularly fond of small containers of jam and if you open one and leave it on the table he'll eventually make his way over, stick his sharp little beak into the container, and dart his tongue out ten or fifteen times in rapid succession.
Heidegger once said that animals are poor in world. It is a step up, I suppose, from the viewpoint of someone like Descartes, for whom animals were at an infinite remove from human beings, the latter having souls. Still, Heidegger's comment is more about finding the distinction between animals and men then seeing the lines of continuity. I say this only because I've gotten to know Shelly. It is not difficult to say that he has a personality and it differs from that of his dour pal, Fatty. Fatty, I have come to realize, fears rejection and it has made him bitter. Shelly is open to the world, intoxicated by experience, you can see it in the way he pokes his head into the coffee cup and cranes his bird neck back up to look at you and then takes off in the other direction to inspect new developments around the base of the aloe plant.
I suspect that, like many things, it all has its roots in Christianity and the problem of theodicy. We needed to explain how there could be evil in the world since God is good. We hit on the solution of man's free will. To be good, man needed also to have the capacity to do evil. But this solution left the animal world in an odd and uncomfortable position. Not capable of free will, they none-the-less were fated to suffer in man's world. They were condemned with no possibility of redemption. That strange problem has been carried over into contemporary discussions about consciousness and philosophy of mind. More often than not, the basic premise is that the problem of consciousness is a human one, and that there is an infinite gap between the way we experience the world and the way that other creatures do. We're uncomfortable about the way that our own modes of experience overlap with those of creatures like Shelly, who is currently trying to figure out a way to force his entire body into a green bottle sitting along one of the garden walls.
May I reveal to you that there is a secret city hidden inside the city of Willemstad, Curaçao? There is only one picture of Willemstad, reproduced thousands and thousands of times. It is taken from Otrobanda looking across the inlet toward Punda. A row of Dutch colonial buildings make Willemstad look like it is just emerging from the seventeenth century. Otrobanda and Punda are at the Southernmost section of a road that is known simply as The Ring. But what does The Ring, ring? That is the secret of Willemstad. I will tell you that this inner city burns and belches. At night it throws strange flames into the air that can be seen for miles. Its color is the dull grey of tankers and silos. Its infrastructure is pipes, little pipes, massive pipes, intertwined pipes, networks of pipes, whole families of pipes, generations of pipes, a universe of pipes onto itself in which one could find, no doubt, pipes whose sole function is to pipe things from one kind of pipe to another kind of pipe. These pipes have forgotten of the world of man and nature and live in an ontology of pipeness where the only kind of being is to-be-an-enclosure and to-be-flowed-through day and night. Inside this planet of pipes and metal husks? Oil. The secret Willemstad is a city of oil. It is my favorite city.
The Dutch Caribbean would not be the Dutch Caribbean without the specific combinations of sounds that make it so. There is color, of course, a certain look, and there is feel, primarily the heaviness in the air of heat and the sea but always also there is sound. Typically it comes in the rushes of the wind that sweep across the islands of their own volition paying little heed to the insignificant patches of raised land that make up the landscape of the Dutch Caribbean. And then there is the twittering of the birds who jump around in the swaying branches of the trees and bushes that catch the wind and make of it a rich and fulsome rushing sound, almost like water and the pounding of the tide such that, at the sea, one constantly hears the rushing of the ebbing and flowing of the tide and further inland, one constantly hears the rushing and flowing of the wind. The point is, there is always some kind of rushing. Then there is the sound of one solitary car. You start to hear it from far away and then the sound grows, passes you and slowly fades away. There will always be that one car and no part of any of the islands is really far enough away from any road not to hear it. The car will come and the car will fade. And then the birds will twitter. Birds twitter everywhere, but in the Dutch Caribbean they twitter in mysterious syncopation with the rushing noises of the sea and the breeze that is itself constantly punctuated by the sound of the one car, approaching and passing. These three sounds weave together into one interrelated thing; the lengthy crescendo of the one passing car layered over by, the shorter burst of rushing sound from sea and breeze layered over by, the staccato punctuation of the twittering of the birds. You could graph it something like this:
Sssshhhhhh ssssshhhhhhh ssssshhhhhhhh ssssshhhh
Pip pip pipipip pip pip pip pipip pip
A thesis: The Caribbean is terrible and sad. That's why it is so beautiful. If the people were happy here it would be unbearable. These happy islands would mock the nations of the earth. Nothing would make sense anymore; our daily toils and strife would be stripped of whatever faint meaning we are foolishly able to attach to them. We would all give up, find a lonely niche somewhere to go die in. Luckily, the people of the Caribbean are not happy. They are a wreck. There is something brutal here that will not go away. Plunder, murder, slavery, the basest things, the slow progress of evil that worked its way across every island. There is nothing abstract about this. To cast your eyes around the Caribbean is to see plunder still in progress, the legacy of slavery right there in the racial divides along axes of wealth and power. Let us be honest friends, the Caribbean is a nightmare and because of that we can enjoy it. Merely a thesis.
I haven't told you of the secret within the secret, the ring inside the ring. In the fifteenth century the Catholic Church in Spain decided that it was a good time to get more serious about Christianity. The Jews, sensing that this new direction boded rather ill for them, cast their eyes about the globe once more, looking for safe haven. The Dutch were a good prospect. A basic premise of toleration seemed to govern their internal affairs. And as time went on the Dutch began to establish their colonies, the Dutch Caribbean being one example, Curaçao in particular. And so they came. The Jews sailed the high seas to Curaçao. They lived and died in Willemstad and in the smaller towns, on the beaches and in the craggy coves. They ended up with names like Chaim Aron Henriquez. Linguists say that the language of the Dutch Caribbean, Papamiento, has its roots in the Ladino of the Sephardim and thereby can be traced directly back to the Jews who fled the Inquisition. As they lived and died they built a cemetery. They put it in a place outside the city of Willemstad. And then the city grew. And it continued to grow until, in 1919, Shell came to town. There was oil beneath the waters of Curaçao, and a deep water port in the center of Willemstad where it could be processed. There was also a Jewish cemetery dating back to the seventeenth century.
Today, you can take a turn onto a little used road off the northern section of The Ring. A drive of a couple hundred yards brings you into the heart of the city of pipes. The smell of oil and burning gases is overwhelming. There is a sound that can only be described as a deep mechanical belching. Giant chimneys and exhaust pipes stretch high into the sky letting out a thick white smoke. Here is the final resting place of the Jews of Curacao. Thousands of wind swept graves on which the names and stories of the deceased can barely be discerned. They are being wiped away here a second time, in what seems almost like the concerted effort of man and nature to obliterate this place of memory.
As a postscript, the early modern philosopher Spinoza lived in Amsterdam and was from a family of Marrano Jews who fled Spain. He could easily have ended up in Curaçao. Indeed, his half sister did, and she is buried in the cemetery at the center of The Ring. We know almost nothing of Spinoza the man, and it seems that he wanted it that way. We have only his writings, some of the most powerful and lucid thoughts of their time, any time. In his Ethics, Spinoza wrote, "a free man thinks of nothing less than death."
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