Day on Earth

Michal Pawel Markowski

Illustration by Guillaume Gilbert


So I ended up going to India. I never particularly wanted to—I had never felt particularly drawn to India—yet I now found myself there by chance, by a fortunate coincidence. Immediately I knew that I would be coming back. I don't know when, I don't know how, but I know that India is a place that really begins with repetition, with return. But I also know that India is indescribable, unphotographable, and that you can produce thousands of words and thousands of pictures and yet produce nothing: under all that talk and all those images there floats a murky sediment that will never fully dissolve.

When one says that something is indescribable, inexpressible, what one generally means—whether consciously or not—has to do with the sublime. Since Kant, the sublime has been understood as the unassimilability of experience by means of reason and discourse, as the tendency of the infinite to be striking and of what follows from the finitude of our own lives. God is sublime, because there is no way to express Him; nature is sublime, because in the face of it man is revealed to be a tiny little piece of ephemeral material. Sublime is experiences that our paltry means of expression cannot encompass. Sublime is what surpasses our understanding. The headline of an English-language Indian newspaper: "Indian Children See More than They Can Comprehend." The sublime, then, is a part of our lives, even here, from our very childhood.

But I see it differently, which doesn't mean clearer or better. I do not see the sublime in India and do not photograph beauty. I always walk down little side streets, now the narrow alleyways of the so-called Pink City of Jaipur and its surroundings, way off the beaten track, far from the temples and the monuments, amidst garbage, rather than splendor, and I see nothing here that could be made sublime, that would sail aloft into the incomprehensible, into a sky of meanings. I see instead absolute collapse, the slumped substance of life, which I could, of course, use readings, facts, mythology to make meaningful, but I don't want to do that—I can't, I have no way to. Here where I'm walking, in the filth, in the stuffy, stifling air, there is no sublime. There is—there is more intensely—collapse. This is what cannot be articulated, what makes representation an impossible undertaking. I could create a series of snapshots, an anti-aesthetic album, weave in a mini-narrative, but what purpose would it serve? The collapsed quality that I see here makes the picture turbid, though the blinding light ought after all to make it transparent. What I see cannot be expressed adequately because it is too distinct, too close to the earth.


Meaning? Everyone who has been there asks the same question, but no doubt those who haven't been even more so. What about the vast expanse, the uncontained cities? And the spiritual center of the world? The Yogis? Inner transformations? Ashrams? Pilgrimages in search of one's self? The journey to the East? Jung, Grotowski, Julia Roberts? Beautiful (really beautiful) women, sutra on desire, sexual liberation? Perhaps, perhaps. An entire spiritual (and erotic) library is just waiting to be applied to what you see, to be subtly slipped in between glances and to raise up the viewer into a heaven of contemplation or else lure him down into a frenzy of love. But I assure you that I, going out into the streets of Jaipur, see neither loftiness nor the fire of passion that has ignited India since the Vedic Period. A tumultuous, roaring storm hails down upon me. I barely escape being killed by a bus; I am deafened by horns, cries, exhortations; I am engulfed in human waste; I am assailed on all sides by chaos. I get disoriented. The ordered world, imported from elsewhere, collapses within me, shatters into little pieces, rolls down these streets and disappears from sight, falling off into some gutter somewhere. No sublime. Collapse.

But maybe that's not right, either. A collapse requires prior cohesion, the once-sublime. In India I did not see a fallen angel, for there is nothing here that harkens back to an earlier glory, and the poverty is neither an effect of the greed of the West, nor the ruined fragments of long-lost magnificence. The shrines, of course, clamber upwards in lacy grace, burnished and glimmering, but the whole time I have the feeling that nothing that rises up from the earth here, in the hopes of reaching the sky, can do it, falling back, instead, into the abyss of dust produced by daily life. Nothing that attempts to cast off its earthliness, to wriggle out of its temporariness, can do it.

No, that's not right either, that's not what it is, nothing falls into any abyss here because there is no abyss here, no effort to get beyond the temporary. Here, on every corner, loud and clear, the earth gives its discourse. In India—as I can tell from the very first day, from the first hour—they celebrate earthliness and earthiness. But it isn't that people celebrate that earthiness and earthliness, but rather that the earth is celebrating, not people, not at all, but itself. Celebration is perhaps an overstatement, however, an overly artificial denomination. Here normal life—street life—takes place in earthly crevices, in nooks and crannies, in the sighs and outbursts of the earth that contains everything in its embrace and that never lets itself be forgotten. Of course, life moves at an incredible speed here, movement devours everything, guzzles it down, really, and spits nothing back up, but that movement, you can see this clearly, is an illusion, maybe an illusion also imported from elsewhere. Because life here is instead given over to waiting, to restrained gestures, to motionless gazes. On the streets, where I walk in all directions, without a guide, without company, unhurriedness prevails. Of course, the muddled river of traffic—bicycles, cycle rickshaws and auto rickshaws, Piaggio scooters in every possible variation, cars, buses—swallows up everyone, driving away any quiet that might ever have existed, but this river does not erode the fundamental substance of the street, which is waiting. The clamor deceives no one, the noises intensify to the point that they die away, and deathliness emerges upon their upturned underbelly. And that deathliness affixes itself to the earth, accumulates upon it, effloresces upon it into people waiting. What are they waiting for? I wonder, because it isn't the bus, it isn't a bowl of soup, it isn't pieces of rotten bananas, it isn't work. Their waiting is something else, unpurposeful, but not more profound, not awaiting, either. No one is awaiting a miracle, no one is awaiting salvation. People, thousands of whom I see on the streets of Jaipur, are submerged in timelessness and motionlessness devoid of any sort of end. When I survey their faces, my gaze gets lost on the surfaces of them, without penetrating into their thoughts, which it is utterly unable to divine. The question of what they are thinking gets bogged down in the black tangle of the creases in their faces, in the brown suspension of their eyes.


This country sits on its haunches. Of course there are a lot of bodies, reciprocally sullying one another, and cast-off carcasses, and sleeping—regardless of the time of day or night—old men, abandoned to the hostility of the elements. The streets are full of makeshift cots, out of which emerge incomplete limbs, and from which you can barely, barely make out a head of matted hair. People make their beds anywhere and everywhere, right there by the rushing traffic that somehow does them no harm, that passes them by with caution, as if ashamed of its own motion, as if knowing it had come from that, from motionlessness, as if it were sorry to have betrayed its homeland. So of course people are lying down everywhere, lying dying, leaving themselves, but they do it in such a way as if that leaving of themselves were not a start toward heaven, but a return to the earth, as if that humble wrinkle on the skin of the earth that had been their life were now going to even out and disappear, entering into a subcutaneous stream. Lying down is tied to death here, with undoing, with return, which is why here—in the country of dissolution—you constantly come up against one horizontal body after the next as you walk, which you go around out of respect for the earth.

Between lying and standing there unfolds a gray area of existence: squatting. Of course they also sit here in a—so to speak—sitting position, in the classical manner, with folded legs, leaning up against the wall, rocking back and forth or frozen, but really, life here originates in squatting. I didn't understand why exactly, in the West no one ever squats, unless it's really necessary, but here everyone does it. I came to understand this simple question only when, as I was traveling by rented rickshaw through the Old City, I saw a little girl of three or four who was going down the street—everyone very conscientiously made way for her, but no one was surprised by her, as if a big snail had crawled onto the road and no one wanted to step on it—and squatted and took a big—there's no other way to say it—dump. She swayed for a moment on her slightly contracted legs, as if meditating upon the release of her impurities, and then she got up and left. Because squatting is in between lying, which draws you to the earth, and standing, which wants to be free of the earthly sounds. People squat here in uncertainty, in suspension, between heaven and earth, between their own waste and the rushing world, between excretions and ecstasy, between the scatological and the eschatological. Squatting comes from possessing the earth, creates a symbolic inhabitance suspended between heaven and earth, which builds a bridge between nothing and nothing.


Because inhabitance here is really a bridge between two voids. The West has turned inhabitance into the home, I suggest, into the fortification, has lent it the hard substance of the building, which is why homelessness in the West is the calamity of someone who has lost his house and must, in despair, create its substitute in order to resist the inhospitable world, in order to be able to close some kind of door. Here it's different, here nothing has been lost, because nothing was ever had. Here—as I see it—homelessness is not a state of loss, but of gain, as in the times we can't remember and that precede the writing of history. One gains a piece of the earth, even if this is in the middle of a busy intersection, and this tiny little sliver in the body of the gluttonous city having been carved out, communal life begins, the village grafted onto the organism of the city. A man squats, a woman kneads some dough, a little child lies in rags, an older child scrubs pots with mud. There is no apparent logic in their choice of a place, you can sit anywhere—and they sit anywhere here—wherever, on the curb, at an intersection, against a wall, and you can inhabit anywhere, wash yourself anywhere, eat, appease the needs of the body. That "anywhere" is crucial. Here everything is anywhere, wherever. Philosophers refer to the contingency of existence. Of course, but that's not a good categorization, because one hears in it all too intensively the absence of a plan, of logic, of design, of foundation. This Indian contingency is not based upon lack, but neither does it arise—I think—from excess, although on the surface everything here is brimming over with excess. It's a certain form of self-propulsion, an imposition of the self upon the world itself—people impose upon the world of their own accord, by their own impetus, and people impose upon the very world, the world itself. In both cases, what upsets the balance of existence is aloneness. Although there are clusters, groupings, throngs everywhere, if you look more closely into people's eyes (which I see best by zooming in on the pictures I took covertly, indirectly), what peers out is a poignant solitude, the loneliness of throwing oneself into existence without any hope of anything greater.


In Sophocles' Antigone, the chorus sings the praises of civilized man, who     "[a]nd speech, and wind-swift thought, and all the moods that mold a state, hath he taught himself; and how to flee the arrows of the frost, when 'tis hard lodging under the clear sky, and the arrows of the rushing rain; yea, he hath resource for all." As man carefully walled off his home from the world, closing the door on chaos (as he taught himself speech to protect against the influx of unarticulated sounds), so next he carefully divided the space, so that everyone would have their place, to give everything the topology of the molded state. But that molding does not apply to everything, however. Here, in India, every place seems to be not one's own, on display, not walled off from the space occupied by others. First, of course, man puts his body on display, which is most apparent when the handicapped shove the stubs of their limbs under our eyes, as if that alone were supposed to convince us that nothing is hidden here, that everything is accessible to the eye. We experience a feeling of revulsion and of inappropriateness when someone back home shows us a rotting body, when he puts it on display. We have the expression "public view," but that is pleonasm, as every view is public, there are no private views, what can be viewed can be viewed by everyone, even if they're not actually physically present. Here there is no revulsion at the sight of a rotting leg, because everything here rots, and everything is displayed in its rotting, revealed. This rotting liquidates the divide between the private and the public, so powerfully established in our thinking. For us, rotting, the dissolution of the human body, is indecent, locked out, put away, hidden by the umbrage always taken when the body is denuded of the symbolic. The public sphere came into being in the West not through affirmation, but through the gesture of repression, forgetting, pushing away what is most private, that is, the earthly and the human, which returns by way of the kitchen steps in the act of collective peeping. First it was necessary to drive what was most intimate out of the realm of the collective gaze, package it securely with a ban on displaying it, in order to next convince everyone that the most interesting thing is what is not seen. Here the public sphere (which thus ceases to be the public sphere, because the distinction loses all significance) becomes infected (in our understanding) with indecency, unacceptability, impossibility. The street is privatized to its core, although it had never been made public. The human body on this street is a public body, although it had never undergone the arduous process of privatization. The traveler from somewhere else does not know how to behave on this kind of street/non-street, he is afraid that he is invading someone else's privacy, that he is peeping, but he forgets that no one asks for that privacy here, that India did not go through Calvinism, or—more importantly—capitalism, the two strongholds of Western privacy. The two strongholds of modernity.


And that is why, walking down an Indian street, in any Old City, one begins to understand what modernity is, and more specifically, one begins to understand what the pre-modern was like. On the street in Jaipur, in the alleyways of the Pink City, I begin to understand what the world looked like before the birth of the subject. Subjectivity is a class question: the more you have, the more you are able to achieve autonomy; you erect a border between the self and the world, hold on tightly to property rights. It's not just things. Property rights begin with the body, because your body is a fortune that has to be managed sagely. Man becomes a subject not when he begins to think but when he begins to keep the world at a distance, when he does not allow the world (or his own body) to come too close, when he puts all worldliness, physicality, earthliness in brackets. Here, on the streets of Jaipur, among people lying down, sitting, squatting on the earth, among other bodies, among refuse that has not yet taken on the character of refuse, because no one has refused it yet, in the filth of human waste, inseparable from the other odors, among rags indistinguishable from clothing and clothing indistinguishable from rags, among animals that are sleeping alongside people, here, on the streets of Jaipur, subjectivity does not exist yet. The landscape is still dominated by earthliness, and no one has any distance from this, no one even suspects that there are various ways of closing oneself off to it, because that closing off relies upon subjectivity. Of course, I am the victim of an optical illusion here, too: the wealthy, modern India is a country of subjectivity many times over, which has closed itself off to the impurities of the earth and created the caste system. But right here, in the alleyways of the Pink City, I don't see distance, don't see brackets—thanks to which the world ceases to be so painful. Here holy cows have their muzzles plunged into trash.


A subject is not man, and vice versa: man is not the same thing as a subject. If on the streets of Jaipur you see no subjectivity, that does not mean that you do not see people. Man becomes a subject at the moment in which he puts untransgressable dividers between himself and the world, between himself and his body, between himself and the earth. And putting those dividers there, that barbed wire, those borders between himself and the discomfiting world, man is transformed into a subject, into the indomitable base for the world around him, and he steps with head high into modernity. Because modernity is not a chronological category, but rather a topological one. As I immersed myself in the streets of Jaipur, I kept thinking to myself that this was what the world looked like in the Middle Ages in the West. Not as it has been stylized by popular imagination, which since Romanticism has seen the Middle Ages as the beginning of all wonderful things and as extraordinarily charming, but instead the real, fetid Middle Ages, of village and town, outside the borders of castles and monasteries. But I quickly came to understand that right here, around the corner of the very same street where it is with such difficulty that one escapes earthly dirt, there exists a modern Jaipur, subjectified, cleansed of dirt, the earth shaken off it, sterilized, a technologized Jaipur, attendant to the improvement and perfection of the world, an extremely wealthy and astute Jaipur. Because modernity starts with sterilization, cleansing, delimiting, which means that modernity (and subjectivity) are not modern inventions, but rather that they have belonged to the human condition from the very beginning. To be modern is to be a subject, and to be a subject is not to lie in the dust, it is to take possession of one's body, guard the borders between oneself and the world, divide the private from the public, one's own from other people's. Modernity in the historical sense came into being only when subjectivity became institutionalized and found—in the seventeenth century—its own (nomen omen) language that it could use to talk about itself: the language of the industrial revolution, the language of objective science, and the language of thought devoid of doubts. In this sense modernity, as a historical process, is irreversible. Too many promises made and too many comforts known for history to be put into brackets, for languages that have been so effectively learned to be forgotten. To reverse modernity is impossible, this is obvious, and it would be foolish to decry it, but that does not mean that there are not places in the world that are completely unmodern or that there are not people holding fast to their unsubjectivity. If both modernity and subjectivity were invented in the West, then it is obvious that you need to go elsewhere to see a world that news of these two key inventions has not yet reached. Not at all, because they lay beyond the reach of Western modernity, totally remote, secluded, far away from civilization. In the alleyways of Jaipur, of a city in which there are more people than there are in the main cities of my own country, Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk, Wroclaw, and Poznan combined, life is dictated now by modernity, now by unmodernity, ruled now by the subject, now by his absence. Maybe there is nothing surprising in this, maybe that's just the way it is in our daily lives, as well, but sometimes you have to get away from your daily life in order to see it more clearly.


If Martin Heidegger, to whom we owe the (otherwise apposite) critique of modernity as a metaphysical project, had ventured out of his own little hut in the Black Forest and gone not to Greece in his old age, but rather to India, then he would have understood that the opposition he created, pitting Western reckonings against the original Greek thought that was uncontaminated by calculation, or pure Being to the crazed multiplication of beings, was false. Between pure Being and pure Nothingness there is no difference. Heidegger could have been read with great delight by the mystics of the East and West alike, as they happily fraternize in their fascination devoid of words, fraternize in the sublime. But here—in the little streets of the Pink City—against all expectation, there is no trace of the void. I see here no mystical voiding of existence, no life eviscerated of meanings. Quite the opposite: life unfolds here on the surface, does not aim toward anything, does not calculate anything, does not calculate Nothingness, bears its burden, thick, black, festering. For Heidegger the salvation before the modern metaphysical subject, who conquers the world and changes it into his own image, was mystical desubjectivizing, a leap toward the source of pure existence. If he had, as I did, walked the fetid streets of Jaipur, instead of reveling in the glow of a forest clearing, he would know that these sources of existence are dirty, forever dirty, smeared with excrement, pegged to animal life.


I am leaving Jaipur now. On the streets of the Pink City I spent just a dozen hours or so, altogether. I don't know anything about this city beyond what I saw on the street, I didn't read about its history in any guidebooks, I didn't get any postcards to send. To be honest, I don't even know where I was, because I never checked it against a map. It's funny: I homed in on the life of this city for a moment, unnoticed by anyone, or if noticed (snot-nosed kids hollering for a couple of rupees, a boy looking at me with his sad eyes through a window), then forgotten by now, nonexistent as far as the city is concerned. My subjectivity, my modernity, had nothing to do with what I saw in the shadows of Jaipur. A stone thrown into water that rapidly closed its dirty wrinkles over it. Just one more day on the earth.

translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft