I saw them from behind. Each carrying a black attache case. The right one had his attache case in his left hand. The left one in his right. A pair of devout souls divided by attache cases; two holy people in the most unholy of places.
They were two orthodox Jewish boys walking through a shopping centre. A garish, dimly lit shopping centre with dirty white walls. The architect had made no effort to cover up the fact that the owners were money-stooges: willing to sacrifice pleasantness for economy. All was bare and industrial and efficient. Shops cowered in the corners selling astonishingly cheap clothes — prices procured from the money-god by sacrificing the rights of foreign children. I was in a shopping centre like any other. A temple of mass consumption. And there they were, walking side by side.
I watched their black hats bob along as they turned their heads. Glancing at everything, but never interrupting their voluble conservation. Did they perceive, as they looked, the extent of secular degeneration? The soullessness of our time? The sadness? Perhaps not. Perhaps they saw only a shopping centre: they had seen it before. They will see others. After all, they are in this world, even while they cherish the idea of being apart from it.
But no one is apart from the world. I am not apart from the world. And I hated the shopping centre. I felt defiled by it, saddened. I envied the Jewish boys: because they have an exit. Like me, they can frown and sigh at this world. But they have the reassurance of feeling separate from it all. They have communities and ideas to which they can readily escape. Will they not soon return to their families and synagogues? To their days of rest and their challah eating? They will have candles and bread and automatically timed light switches. And there will be not an H&M in sight. I was jealous.
Later, I saw a nun. Walking slowly and rigid and bent to the left. She was alone. No one at the convent had offered to accompany her. Or perhaps she had turned down several offers: preferring to walk by herself. She shuffled amongst the hoards of people; she felt the heat of the midday; she heard the cries of children deprived of toys; she coughed in the dust stirred up by construction workers. I wondered if she felt separate from the world.
If I were this nun, I would be compelled to feel a modicum of superiority. I would look at the buzzing crowd and judge myself ever so slightly above them. I would be bustled by people with eyes stuck to window displays and cellphones: ready always to launch themselves towards whatever distraction suggests itself. I would gaze on, in my nun’s habit, and think, but never admit, that I know better than them. And that I, therefore, am superior.
But the nun herself didn’t think this. She wandered down the large Parisian boulevard just as she had done before. She had walked busy footpaths many times. She will walk others. After all, she too is in this world. She must buy socks and soap and medicine. And so there she was. There was nothing special about that particular outing during that sunny hour on that wide boulevard.
Glistening shops were everywhere to be seen. Glass-steel buildings rose above our heads. Inside these one can find still more rows of shops: layers upon layers of shops containing shoppers. Neither the nun nor myself went inside. We stuck to the boulevard. Picking around road works and jumping out of the way of a fast walking woman who, having just exited one shop, was in a fantastic hurry to get into another one.
The nun and that fast walking shopper-woman. What’s there between them? Are they so different? I suspect that there is little to commend either’s life. Both the nun and the fast-walker will have their happinesses and sorrows. The nun will carefully stoke her life-long fetish for Jesus. The fast-walker will forever itch her impulse to buy things. Viewed from this vantage, both the nun and the fast-walker have similarly unenviable lives.
It could be said of the nun that her life is better since it is more resource efficient. An environmentalist might commend the nun for her frugality while denouncing the fast-walker. But I feel unable to condemn the fast-walker for her excess. Yes, she probably buys clothes that she doesn’t wear very often. But she and her peers are responsible for sustaining the consumer-driven markets that have created the enormous material abundance of developed nations. I depend on this abundance. It is relatively easy for most people to obtain food and water and clothing. These were not always so easily procured by so many. All this development has created human tragedies on a harrowing scale. But the achievement of the consumer-driven markets cannot go unmarked.
However, consumer-driven economies cannot go on as they have been. It will become increasingly difficult to sustain this way of life. Change will come. How will people respond?
Jehovah’s witnesses visit in pairs. One rings the doorbell; the other stands back holding a bag full of pamphlets and smiles lugubriously. The doorbell-ringer launches into an animated explanation about how he or she is looking forward to the coming of an age of peace: in which the world is restored to a state of splendour. The trees will be magnolious and burdened with fruit. The rivers will run clear. The children will play nice games and not swear at each other. They ask me, don’t you want this too?
I send them away. And they walk, side by side, on to the next house, and to the next rejection. Here, my imagination fails me somewhat. I can almost peep inside the minds of young hasidic yeshiva students, or of nuns, or of busy shoppers. But what could possibly be inside the minds of these fervent Jehovah’s witnesses while they unsuccessfully proselytise?
I know this much: they feel separate from the world. Just like conservative Christians or Hasidic Jews or the wives of Daesh fighters. And, like these, they anticipate an apocalypse. They salivate at the thought of the end of the world: the coming of a messiah; the burning of the earth; a cleansing fire from heaven (or, perhaps, their own rocket launchers). And I wonder whether, in coming decades, they will only redouble their fervour as they watch the secular world struggle to protect its swollen populations from plagues and droughts.
As much as I wretch at consumer culture — and pine to leave — I refuse to renounce my citizenship. I am just as much a member of this society as the fast-walking women. As the children who cry for toys. As the pedestrians whose faces are glued to cellphones. And we will all, together, bear the weight of the coming decades. If it means the demise of consumer-dominated economies, I will be there to bemoan the consequences alongside everyone else.
And I will be there to watch those who think that our pain and our suffering is prophecy of an impending divine massacre. I will watch those who wish for fire and death. I will watch as they walk: their two feet on the same ground as my two feet; their minds ensnared in myth.