Dear West, thanks, but no thanks
Carlo Pizzati Carlo Pizzati | 17 Feb, 2023
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
ON A SUNNY AFTERNOON last spring, while I was working on a new novel in a study overlooking the Bay of Bengal, I got a call from a head-hunting agency in Boston tasked with hiring executives. The job seemed stimulating—I would divide my time between Italy and New York as the executive director of an American cultural foundation.
But why leave India, I wondered, where I have been feeling so well- adjusted for over a decade? I lacked for nothing, since during summer I returned to the Italian region of my youth, the Veneto, to be with relatives and friends. Yet, I was tempted by the allure of what I still called my New York. I sensed a distant glimmer of a place and a feeling that had been familiar to me, and that I had imagined would continue to be a part of me: Americanness.
This is perhaps because for 11 years I grew up studying first in Florida, then in Washington DC, and finally in New York City, where in my early twenties, as a Columbia University Journalism School graduate, I was hired as a foreign correspondent.
After a few interviews on Zoom, I was flown to Manhattan for two interviews. I hadn’t returned to the city since 2019 for the 30th anniversary of my class. That visit had been drenched in melancholy because I hadn’t found ‘my’ New York of the eighties and early nineties. At a Class of ’89 party in an Upper West Side apartment, I confessed to my old pal Jack that I didn’t recognise the city of our youth. He replied: “It’s not you. You’re not being an old fogey. America has changed, maybe forever. It was Trump.”
It wasn’t just that. In those pre-pandemic months, the city already seemed dull, too conformed with the rest of the world, devoid of its “weirdness”, that mysterious strangeness that had made it a global legend. Today? Just a glossy, open-air shopping mall where the Rockefeller Center, Central Park, Washington Square and Fifth Avenue stand as ancient monuments of a reality dissolving in the collective memory of the middle-aged.
I never felt alone on my strolls in my solitary Indian dawns, chased by the sound of the waves. I realised I missed the diaphanous light of southern India, that tropical heat which at first I had found difficult to bear. I longed for the chirping of the funny bul bul, the golden orioles, the calm white cranes, the crickets, the songs from the temple in the distance
In 2022, the city still bared the scars of its record pandemic deaths. Streets which had infused jolts of energy at every step now looked wounded. Too many shops shut “due to Covid”, ancient paper napkins crumpled in the dust, overturned chairs, window glass thickened with accumulated grease. New York will rise again, I thought. Then I began to doubt.
What had happened to my dangerous, shiny metropolis that many defined as “when New York was still fun”? When I arrived in 1987, as a penniless boy with nowhere to stay, looking for a job and squatting in a room in Greenwich Village, many were saying the “real” New York had ended with the disappearance of Andy Warhol, when his Factory had faded along with the wild parties at Studio 54.
But the nights were still filled with possibilities: in neo- Victorian clubs like Nell’s, I found myself chatting at the bar with Mike Tyson, dancing next to Prince, or bumping into actor Nick Nolte. In those roaring years, when I found myself driving until dawn in a limo with architect Jean Nouvel, debating art history with Jeff Koons, or sailing at night around the Statue of Liberty with the descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, I also remember a chat I had with Bret Easton Ellis in his house near Union Square, talking about the city where his “American Psycho” roamed. Easton Ellis had already remarked the full bloom of an unbridled American Zeitgeist with little ethical or moral compass, something born during Ronald Reagan’s first presidency—a political system based on the cult of a conformist individualism that still hasn’t ended.
I discovered Reagan’s America in 1982, arriving in Florida at 16 as an exchange student. What did that reality mean to some of us pro-America foreign youth born in the 1960s and 1970s? How different was that fortress of neoliberalism from today? Like so many of my peers, I grew up on a diet of 1970s rock, Motown, soul, blues, jazz and disco, plus movie hits like American Graffiti, Grease, Saturday Night Fever, and the series Happy Days. That cinematic imagery nurtured in us the impression of a 1950s American Eden embellished in 1970s Technicolor, where vibrant young people were always chomping juicy burgers, roaming free on loud motorbikes, and throwing around a frisbee or a baseball—there was a taste of adventure in the air, a superficial freedom from political, social, and family constraints. You didn’t need to be a conservative to absorb the magnetism of that “Stars and Stripes” power, within the complex dichotomy of the Cold War. It was a pro-democracy enamorment, not a pro-Reagan stance. We were reading Faulkner, Twain, Melville, London, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Salinger, and Vonnegut.
Some of my peers and I looked to America as the way of the future, while on the other side of the Berlin Wall began the end of freedom, shrouded in the Soviet greyness of an excessive power of the state, economic depression, and social oppression, as Milan Kundera told us in his novels. The capital of our future was New York—a sacred, magical city capable of transforming anyone’s destiny. I still experienced this feeling when I was still living there in 1989, when that Wall fell. From being less than zero, everyone could join the bright lights of the big city.
But what does New York, the capital of the Western world, represent today, apart from being a monumental showcase for consumerism? That’s what I asked myself last November, as I nibbled on a croissant in front of the Citibank headquarters in Tribeca, in the first months at my new job. Filming the Christmas lights with my smartphone, my lens slipped over commuters hurrying stiffly to the office, fleeing the icy wind and the tardiness. I watched the slow-motion video, wondering what future they were running towards, with those unbending legs and clenched buttocks. Their movements reminded me of the goatherds on the beaches of Tamil Nadu.
IN 1911, THE GERMAN philosopher Hermann von Keyserling circled the world to understand the dynamics and differences between Asia and the West. For him, it was the relationship with nature that characterised a strong distinction between Indian philosophy, which has influenced me over the last 15 years, and the American mentality which formed some of my values as an adolescent. His philosophical diaries describe the West’s coercive relationship with the environment. Indians, in Keyserling’s somewhat naïve view, are internally freer than Westerners because, through the concept of Maya, they reject the idea of subjugating nature. We Westerners are too concerned with taming nature and “in order to conquer this power, have temporarily given up our inner freedom.” An irreversible act: attempting to adopt a less domineering stance with nature would bring only decadence. “There is no longer any alternative: either us or Nature. Our path to freedom passes through victory over nature.” Did it, though?
Two World Wars later, and 47 years after Keyserling’s journey, the Swiss photographer Robert Frank published the photographic book The Americans, with texts by Jack Kerouac, illustrating a muscular and carefree cowboy-biker-rockstar glamour (with its ubiquitous loneliness) at the climax of an American triumph exported via TV, Hollywood, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, blues, and literature.
However, in the new century, when it comes to producing cultural prototypes triggering a strong imitative process, that American charisma has faded, universally threatened by K-pop; manga; Bollywood, Kollywood and even Chhollywood; Global South TV series; Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Sri Lankan and South Korean literature; and artists like Ai Weiwei or Anish Kapoor. All these factors contribute to a cosmopolitan culture freer from American domination, even though the US keeps cashing in, as owners of lucrative content providers such as Netflix, Amazon, HBO, Disney, Twitter, Meta, and Apple, while also maintaining economic and military primacy, with bases all over the world.
The model of continuous development of the economy, at the expense of growing inequalities and pollution levels leading to apocalyptic global warming, on top of a social system humiliating those who fail, rewarding mostly those economically successful, and feeding a dehumanising obsession for work, appears today as a worn-out export standard. The systemic byproduct of these values is American loneliness
IN HIS BOOK America, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard analysed what the US represented in the 1980s: “America is neither dream nor reality. It is a hyper-reality because it is a utopia that has behaved from the beginning as if it could be realized.” This explained the unease I now felt in New York. I grasped how magical the city is precisely because it is a perfect simulacrum. “The Americans,” Baudrillard argued, “have no sense of simulation because they are themselves simulation in its most advanced state, but they have no language to describe it, since they themselves are the model.”
I found echoes of this analysis while contemplating the sense of unnatural isolation many foreigners feel in the States, and that is experienced also by some Americans, the people most affected by profound loneliness I have ever known—so much so that they made an existential goal of the “lone rider” trope, promoted to ideological benchmark. John Wayne and James Dean are icons of the tragedy of this archetype, declined later in Matt Damon’s action-heroes or, now, in the raving solitude of Kanye West, aka Ye.
While in New York, I was invited to lunches and dinners in very exclusive clubs revealing to me an America that has aged but has not matured, nor is it free from its worst defects. It was the season of donations, an aseptic penance that often allows the better-off to adopt a deceitful posture of benevolent dominance over the needy. I was at a dinner in a selective club of “one percenters” overlooking the East River on the Upper East Side, a den of the Old Money, generations that watch over a treasure of billions often accumulated on the blood of African slaves and indigenous peoples.
I was surrounded by White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, the increasingly covert racist WASPs who still dominate American economics and, thus, politics. Among the laughing blond kids in white V-neck sweaters running around the corridors with tennis rackets, I perceived an antiquated New York steeped in perverse nostalgia for a white England which faded a century ago. Not a brown-skinned person to be seen, except for the African American coat checker lady. It made me think of the British Colonial Clubs with the infamous signs against dogs and Indians…
Here is that America which, despite a well-designed egalitarian system, remains imbued in racial, religious and gender discrimination. Because even among certain billionaire Democrats, the way of seeing people of colour as less acceptable in the circles of power still persists, unless it is a symbolic tokenisation that doesn’t bring any lasting equality.
In his journey at the dawn of the Reagan era, Baudrillard wondered if perhaps America had not reached its midlife crisis, becoming a victim of hysteresis, a process by which something continues to develop by inertia, where an effect persists even when its cause has disappeared, due to the dependence of a system on its history. Forty years after Baudrillard’s trip, after the collapse of the Towers, the 2008 subprime financial crisis, and the recent pandemic management disaster, when America indeed became Number One, but for Covid deaths, I wondered if the US isn’t now gradually entering its age of retirement.
The model of continuous development of the economy, at the expense of growing inequalities and pollution levels leading to apocalyptic global warming, on top of a social system humiliating those who fail, rewarding mostly those who are economically successful, and feeding a dehumanising obsession for work, appears today as a worn-out export standard. The systemic byproduct of these values is American loneliness which, as the most acclaimed American author George Saunders admits, “[I]s exacerbated by the competition that capitalism inspires and makes compulsory.”
It is the loneliness of a society where success attracts friends who opportunistically hope your luck will infect them, but where failure causes a sense of isolation often numbed chemically, explaining how the rise of opiates consumption caused so many deaths that it lowered the average age of Americans by two-and-a-half months, according to the medical journal JAMA. Food stamps are now used to buy Fentanyl.
For German philosopher Hermann Von Keyserling, it was the relationship with nature that characterised a strong distinction between Indian philosophy and the American mentality. ‘the Americans,’ French philosopher Jean Baudrillard argued, ‘have no sense of simulation because they are themselves simulation in its most advanced state, but they have no language to describe it, since they themselves are the model.’ I found echoes of this analysis while contemplating the sense of unnatural isolation many foreigners feel in the states, and that is experienced also by some Americans
I WALKED UP THE Hudson River, wrapped in a giant duvet, with woolly hat and gloves, thinking of my Tamil Nadu beach. I never felt alone on my strolls in my solitary Indian dawns, chased by the sound of the waves. I realised I missed the diaphanous light of southern India, that tropical heat which at first I had found difficult to bear. I longed for the chirping of the funny bul bul nightingales, the golden orioles, the calm white cranes, the crickets, the songs from the temple in the distance…
Now that I experienced it again closely, this American ‘Happy Days’ fantasy seemed less seductive than I remembered it. It didn’t say much to me now, in my fifties. It looked more like slow-motion consumeristic decadence, trapped by its hysteresis, surrounded by the solitude of transactional, racist America, where everything is based on give-and-take. It keeps running without knowing where, like Forrest Gump.
I had thought it was time to leave India. And I was wrong. That job wasn’t for me. For several reasons. So, I resigned. I missed the nature, here. Yes, it can feel overwhelming with its increasingly violent cyclones, out-of-phase monsoons, more frequent floods, and traumatic droughts. The pollution in big cities, excruciating. Colourism and casteism, still rooted.
Cinematic imagery nurtured in us the impression of a 1950s American eden embellished in 1970s technicolor, where vibrant young people were always chomping juicy burgers, roaming free on loud motorbikes, and throwing around a frisbee or a baseball—there was a taste of adventure in the air, a superficial freedom from political, social, and family constraints
I’ve returned to that house by the Bay of Bengal, in the company of adopted beach dogs and the fauna in the casuarina woods. As I look again through the palmyra trees at the turquoise sea, sitting on the veranda, I think of what Pankaj Mishra said to me in this very house about the West’s inability to understand itself and its contradictions. Until World War II, the literature of European authors such as Rilke, TS Eliot, Paul Valéry, and Virginia Woolf investigated the crisis that the previous World War had triggered, disappointing the expectations of the Industrial Revolution on the concepts of universal prosperity and development. That spirit of constructive self-criticism was stifled by the ideological Manichaeism of the Cold War. That’s where the decadence begins, with the invention of Americanism and Western exceptionalism as the great hope for all the peoples of Earth. Which, at this stage, seems no longer even interesting.
In India, a Gandhi has just finished walking through the entire country to make a political point. The government is about to host a G20 discussion about how the multilateral world will be structured, while entertaining a savvy diplomatic waltz with Washington, Brussels, Moscow, and Beijing. An über-billionaire stumbled, haemorrhaging a fortune, and is trying to get up again. Here, despite the shockingly strong inequalities, the unfair poverty, and many increasing limitations, I feel part of a continent, Asia, pointing to a future that will not necessarily develop according to Western parameters. I look forward to witnessing it all, from here.
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