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The nihilism of heat - click opera
February 2010
 
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Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 08:45 am
The nihilism of heat

Earlier this week the mercury hit 38 celsius here in Athens, which is 100 fahrenheit. Shuffling along slowly in my salwar kamiz, radically reducing our plans for the day, I found a phrase forming in my head: the nihilism of heat.

Western novels -- particularly books with a colonial or post-colonial setting -- are full of this "nihilism". There's Mersault, the "outsider" in Camus' novel of the same title, who feels an inner void during his mother's funeral and is finally led to murder an Arab out on the sand, spurred on by the sun itself: "All I could feel were the cymbals of sunlight crashing on my forehead and, instinctively, the dazzling spear flying up from the knife in front of me. The scorching blade slashed at my eyelashes and stabbed at my stinging eyes."

In hot places, human life seems to be worth less. Iraq is a place where an army of Mersaults in the form of soldiers and "contractors" are constantly on the brink of breaching their own culture's taboos, driven to acts of violence by the murderous heat. Under the sun, nothing matters any more.

In hot places people drive like maniacs. According to the European Council for Transportation Safety, Greece has the highest rate of traffic accident fatalities among all EU member- states, followed by Portugal and Spain. I'm not surprised: our taxi driver on Sunday evening drove with just one hand on the wheel, the other clicking worry beads. Greek driving tends to mean overtaking on blind corners, assuming the Orthodox saint dangling from the rear-view mirror will see you clear.

It's not just human life which is cheap in hot places, but animal life too. Dead feral dogs and cats litter the roadside. There's also little respect for the idea of pavements or sidewalks. In cooler, more northern countries a fundamental sense of fairness informs the idea that sidewalks are for pedestrians, roads for cars. In hot countries, though, cars hog the pavements too, using them for parking and completely blocking them, forcing people -- even mothers with prams -- out into the highway.



Graham Greene is an excellent chronicler of the dreary nihilism of life in hot places. Tench in The Power and the Glory is a seedy washed-up dentist with lax anaesthetic habits, desperate to get back to England from Mexico. He opens the window and "immediately the sun came in like a white-hot bar". Later, Tench hunts for an ether cylinder in "the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust" and "memory drained out of him in the heat". Again and again, heat saps and empties the characters in novels like this. In Conrad's Heart of Darkness the northerner's inner void is replaced by "the horror, the horror".

In hot places things rot, literally and physically. Hygiene goes by the board, and you experience an inner void in the form of the sudden expulsion of your lunch, the victim of "holiday tum". But the inner decay is not just literal. There's corruption, political and financial corruption, everywhere. It goes to the very top. Everyone is on the take. No-one is incorruptible, and only a fool would try to expose the baksheesh-takers. Life can only go on if you pay a bribe into the right hands, a bribe that will turn the eyes of scrutiny away and deflect the laws that actually apply in more northerly climes (laws, perhaps, devised in Brussels).

Some say that cultural psychology changes as you move closer to the equator. In Discovering Psychology with Philip Zimbardo, a precis of a film about cultural psychology made for the University of Stanford, James Jones of the University of Delaware argues that a way of being has evolved near the equator featuring particular uses of time, rhythm, improvisation, orality, and spirituality. What he describes is a failure to defer gratification:

"Time in mainstream America is a commodity used to control the future, regulate our economy, and shape our behavior. But time ticks differently in the West African cultural context where time is often focused on the present. The closer you get to the equator the more you describe people in terms of present time orientation. In some cases people call it social time. Time is defined by behavior and by feelings and by being in the world so time doesn't have an independent meaning that imposes itself on our behavior from moment to moment. Our behavior actually determines time."

That might be the best take on the inner void created by heat: that it places us firmly in the now and in the here, and forces us to improvise and impose our will, directed by our desire. And you can't fault weather that makes women take so many clothes off.

34CommentReplyShare

ataxi
ataxi
Tom
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 06:56 am (UTC)

"And, if we meet, we shall not ’scape a brawl;
For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring."


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 07:41 am (UTC)

Paradoxically, hot places are also the location of Divine revelation and the science of morality. Maybe they needed it more.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 07:47 am (UTC)

PS If you think baksheesh is a hot-climate thing only you obviously haven't tendered for contracts in western Europe or the US. Brussels itself is massively on the take. Every time you buy something you pay 17.5% baksheesh. What were WW1 and 2 about for that matter?


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angiereedgarner
angiereedgarner
angiereedgarner
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 08:13 am (UTC)

IAWTCx100


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 09:31 am (UTC)

But come on, this "plague on both their houses, they're all as bad as each other" cynicism is too easy -- it's what I call "Procrustean thinking". Why should people all over the world be exactly as corrupt as each other? Is it some kind of negative version of PC wishful thinking that makes you say so? Are corruption indices meaningless? Is VAT sales tax really "as bad" as having to pay several thousand to stop building inspectors coming to see whether your house can resist earthquake codes? Are government employees taking money to ensure regulations are NOT enforced really no worse than government employees taking money to ensure they ARE?

Such cynicism may play well to the stalls on the imternet, but the world isn't like that. Your wished equality of evil is just that; a wish.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 09:34 am (UTC)

http://www.transparency.org


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 01:18 pm (UTC)

The common denominator is human beings and human beings are by definition corrupt to some degree or other.

I'm not suggesting that all people all over the world are as corrupt as each other, merely that extremes of corruption (and bad driving) are just as likely in climates other than the one you are in now. The idea that people become a bit dodgy when it gets hot is ludicrous (if that is what you were suggesting).

Palm-greasing is basically extortion hence the connection with tax which is largely wasted on unnecessary or even destructive things. Warfare is just a means of robbery and who are the world's specialists in that?


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spanghew.wordpress.com
spanghew.wordpress.com
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 09:27 pm (UTC)

Why would you say that "the idea that people become a bit dodgy when it gets hot is ludicrous"? Things affect people: their state of mind, their patience, their sense of what's appropriate. Extreme heat is a very present, powerful force - and I would think it's ludicrous to presume it does not affect people! I can only speak to hot summers in my life when I lacked air conditioning at home: I was definitely more temperamental, cranky, impatient, and just plain unpleasant - particularly when a hot spell dragged on for weeks with no relief even at night. One particularly hot summer (1988), my then-girlfriend and I spent most of our time at public libraries, movie theaters, and bars or restaurants with air conditioning, just to save our sanity.

I'm sure you can't make any globally correct statements about hot climates and behavior - people, after all, differ in what they consider "hot" (I've known folks who glory in extreme heat and humidity that makes me feel like someone's aimed a blowdryer at my entire body after covering me with an inch-thick layer of liquid glue) - but to suggest that heat is just plain not a variable at all is even sillier.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Jun. 20th, 2009 12:01 am (UTC)

you think folk get more corrupt when it gets hot?


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kineticfactory
kineticfactory
this is not your sawtooth wave
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 09:55 am (UTC)

Are you a Libertarian by any chance?


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petit_paradis
petit_paradis
erik
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 09:42 am (UTC)

I always wonder if you just pull out a drawer in your head with instant quotations from literyary works, in this case graham greene, joseph conrad etc., or you go home and quickly scan the books you like to refer to in your posts for the quotes??

I always loved divine comedy's song "the booklovers" with the list of classic authors with snippets of "literary dialoque" (or in the case of katherine mansfield just a cough) to each name.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 02:33 pm (UTC)

This time I used Google Books to track down heat refs in books I'd read.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 11:06 am (UTC)

I love the British weather! What I can't stand is the predictable complaints and 2D way of looking at / experiencing it.


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pay_option07
pay_option07
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 01:17 pm (UTC)
Socialist brothers!

http://www.volunteerinchina.org/kunming.htm

It is lacking the western exploitation, but

Eternal Spring!


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 11:25 am (UTC)

i walked down sonnenalee today for the first time in a long while after having been in morocco and was shocked at how much like any shopping street in morocco is, and how frustratingly unlike it too


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 11:58 am (UTC)

Suddenly that old Noel Coward Song pops up in my head: "Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun..." ;-)


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steveharvey
Steve Harvey
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 12:44 pm (UTC)

And yet... knife-wielding child gangs, pub brawling, psychotic stranger-on-stranger violence, child abduction/murder - these things wilt away significantly in the heat of Europe's south, or Greece, at any rate (Greeks are amazed by the yearly crop of child murder in the UK - I don't think there's been one in Greece for at least a decade, if not more - apart from the one killed by the police).


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 12:49 pm (UTC)

In the colder climates, you had to keep moving to stay warm. You had to take your survival more seriously. I think in general it bred a more business-like attitude which has carried over to the present day. I twas also easier to get work done with women covered up for 75% of the year. Also, as the colder weather allowed people to wear lots of layers, robes, capes, furs, suits, etc., these important-looking outfits reinforced the seriousness of authority.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 01:24 pm (UTC)

This is a crackpot theory, it's like someone from the nineteenth century wittering on about heat weakening the brain or something. I mean, really, do cooler countries have a "fundamental sense of fairness" that hot countries lack? Is there really any correlation between corruption and climate? What about Russia and all the Eastern European countries? Or is it that for myriad historical and economic reasons Northern Europe has tended to build stronger institutions? How do you account for Australia being hot yet relatively uncorrupt? Why is so much safer to go out and have a drink in Lisbon or Madrid than it is in London or Glasgow?


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 02:08 pm (UTC)
people in the so called not so great britain are depressed ignorant poorly educated drunken asses

western christain slobs


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 02:11 pm (UTC)
stupid stupid stupid

Agreed. It is a crackpot theory. Enough to make me reconsider whether I want to continue reading this blog. It's not just wrong or stupid, it's boring, which is far more damning in Momus' case. I'll chalk this one up to the heat killing some braincells. We'll see how you fare once you get back to a cooler climate.
And yes, obviously women are usually covered up in a colder climate than, say, Iraq.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 02:11 pm (UTC)

Oh get with it man, we stopped taking his 'theories' seriously years ago!


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Jun. 20th, 2009 11:34 pm (UTC)

I've never taken it seriously. It's the boring bit that worries me.


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fishwithissues
fishwithissues
jordan fish
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 03:02 pm (UTC)

can we get an x-axis on that takes humidity into account please??? i need more science-y feelings!


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fishwithissues
fishwithissues
jordan fish
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 03:04 pm (UTC)

PS this just happened to've been in the new york times this morning: In New York, Number of Killings Rises With Heat


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 03:42 pm (UTC)

I suspect there's a bit of a cultural rift here between science-statistics types and arts-humanities types. The latter make statements like "Colonial and post-colonial novels tend to link heat and corruption" and the former splutter "But where's your statistical correlation? And why are your data sources so old, and so imaginary?"

How people from cold countries act when they're in hot countries has been a theme of lots of art, from Death in Venice to songs of mine like Hotel Marquis de Sade and Monsters of Love. "The siesta of reason breeds monsters". To this day, if northern hemispheric powers want to do something brutal, they do it near the equator, beyond the reach of their own judicial machinery and their own principles about human rights. The resulting corruption often "blows back" to the northern hemisphere, though. Obama is currently dealing with the nebulous judicial status of Cuban internees, for instance. And UK cities are now likely to see riot policing first tried out in Hong Kong.


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aberranteyes
aberranteyes
I'm Mister Cellophane
Sun, Jan. 31st, 2010 02:42 pm (UTC)
Here via the follow-up.

The latter make statements like "Colonial and post-colonial novels tend to link heat and corruption" and the former splutter "But where's your statistical correlation? And why are your data sources so old, and so imaginary?"

See, the problem with that, squire, is that that's not really the statement I saw you making. It may have been the statement you meant to make, but you came across to me as describing a real-world phenomenon and literary accounts thereof, not an artistic trope. If you'd put the second paragraph of this comment in the main text, it might've defused a lot of misunderstandings:

How people from cold countries act when they're in hot countries has been a theme of lots of art, from Death in Venice to songs of mine like Hotel Marquis de Sade and Monsters of Love. "The siesta of reason breeds monsters". To this day, if northern hemispheric powers want to do something brutal, they do it near the equator, beyond the reach of their own judicial machinery and their own principles about human rights.


Very much that. (Arguably, see also Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo" with its "yell of Leopold's ghost / Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host", even if its larger racial politics tend to the dubious.)


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obliterati
obliterati
Night of the Living Dave
Sat, Jun. 20th, 2009 01:43 pm (UTC)


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steveharvey
Steve Harvey
Fri, Jun. 19th, 2009 06:32 pm (UTC)

Speaking for Greece, the institutions here are far weaker than in the UK, hence there's more corruption and less organisation ( they're weaker because the country has only known a few decades of democracy). But the Greek family as an institution is far stronger than the UK version, hence the negligible youth crime. Still, I'm sure the heat plays its part - a friend here is convinced that Greek men are too content sitting in the sun scratching their balls to be bothered with raping and slaughtering little children, just as it's too much effort to use more than the heel of one palm on the steering wheel of a car or indicate more than a couple of times a year.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Jun. 20th, 2009 10:09 am (UTC)

I'm from the east of Spain and the weather is, at this time of the year, quite hot. The sweat sticks to whatever you're wearing. I can't stand it, I would rather be anywhere else, at least during summer. The only relief is what you said about girls taking clothes off. I get lazier, I can't work, read, or even f*** properly. Cars stand on the sidewalk, people drive like they don't care about anything, everyone is a fucking outlaw.

I think weather definitely affects people, more than we would want to consider. I've lived in Italy for some time and I spotted a lot of similarities with spanish behaviour. But, as in Spain, you go north and that's entirely a different story. Not to say hot weather brings only negative things, though. Filth wins every time.


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magick_temple
magick_temple
magick_temple
Sat, Jun. 20th, 2009 02:35 pm (UTC)

Well this is my first year in a very hot climate and circumstantially I agree with everything Momus has observed. That said I wouldn't change it for the world. The last paragraph makes up for all the shortfalls.

I think the issue is more to do with a relaxation and contentment, coupled with a draining of motivation, than an actual nihilism though. When it is hot, tight social infrastructures, adherence to rules, precise organisation and bureaucracy become not only more difficult to maintain, but are largely exposed as ludicrous and futile compared to the transience of existence. Living in the here and now is not a choice but a necessity in extreme heat, and it is certainly a healthier and more divine state of being, albeit less morally driven or civilised in a strictly modern/Western sense.

Comparing it to behaviour during short hot periods in more temperate countries, or the behaviour of those not acclimatised *from* cooler climates is irrelevant.

If that doesn't make any sense, I apologise. Blame it on my brains bubbling in the heat.


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kineticfactory
kineticfactory
this is not your sawtooth wave
Sun, Jun. 21st, 2009 02:58 pm (UTC)

It's a lot less fun when you're waiting for an intransigent phone monopoly to get around to hooking up your internet connection. (My mum and stepdad are in Italy at the moment, and finding it impossible to get the local phone company to be bothered to actually hook them up.)


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magick_temple
magick_temple
magick_temple
Sun, Jun. 21st, 2009 04:09 pm (UTC)

Yeah OK kineticfactory, I'll certainly agree with that one.

Waiting for any sort of maintenance or service industry here is Spain is a bit of a nightmare too... but they need their Siestas y'know


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