17th October 2007
You’ve all been to New York. Even if you haven’t. That will be the subject of this chapter. You’ve all been to New York, but you haven’t, and all of this at the same time. Promising eh? Indeed. Let me explain.
My town, the name of which I will not utter, has never appeared in a major movie or a novel, or even a song, or anything whatsoever that you may have heard of. My town does not exist in your mind, but New York does, even if you have never been there.
If you suddenly won a ticket to fly to New York, you’d be excited because you would know where you were going; you have seen this city in so many movies, read stories that took place there, and countless important historical events happened there too. In a very real way, you’d be walking in your imagination when you’d go to New York. If you went to my town, everything would be new to you, and everything would have that pesky strangeness to it. New York will always feel somewhat familiar to everyone because we have all imagined it from the movies, novels, poems, songs, paintings, photographs and whatever other media that we have experienced in the course of our lives.
This becomes more important than commonly thought when people start to feel depressed for living “nowhere”. Suppose you live in Gdansk, a city that I don’t even know where it is – I’d venture it’s in Poland or somewhere in Eastern Europe, but with absolute incertitude – then you’d be living in something that has no worldwide exposure and that doesn’t ring many bells to the average human living on earth. I apologise for everyone living in Gdansk: see my taking of this city as an example on behalf of my own personal lack of knowledge rather than anything to do with Gdansk per se.
In our age, it has become sadly important to feel we exist, and why? Because some of us, and all of us to some extent, live under the impression that you only exist within the TV, movies, songs, and other things. A lot of people dream of being famous. Not of doing something great and worthy of attention, just being famous. Perhaps because of this state of affairs, if you live somewhere unknown, you feel nonexistent. And if you live in an American shit-hole, that doesn’t count, because American shit-holes exist a lot in everyone’s imagination. If you don’t think so, consider this: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The X-Files, in which the proverbial American shit-hole is the setting of a large number of episodes, Courage, the Cowardly Dog, and the list goes on and on. In fact, just living in America makes you exist on the worldwide imaginary level. Say you live in Viet-Nam, a lot of people couldn’t even place you on the map, and I can only do so because I checked after having spent enough time being upset for not knowing where Viet-Nam was.
Moreover, if you lived in Viet-Nam, the one and only thing people would think of when it comes to you is the Viet-Nam War, and they’d think of all the American movies made on the subject. You can’t say “Viet-Nam” without those images coming to mind. Some countries bring no images at all. Some countries you didn’t even know the name of. America, since it has the largest cultural exposure of all nations, is the one country whose many facets are exposed. When you think of America, you can think of thousands of things, from McDonald’s to Edgar Allan Poe, to the Viet-Nam War. But think of Senegal. What comes to your mind about this one?
If this sounds like a shallow subject to you, I demand you to reconsider. We are talking about the power of imagination, and image. Consider the following fact: there was no anorexia problem before advertising. Images are much more powerful than believed. Think of all the black women of Africa who think that being white is the hip thing. Think of the Asian people who get their eyes operated so they look like Westernly ones. Don’t tell me images and global representation, and imagination, don’t matter, because they do, and I tell you.
When I walk in my town, I only walk in my town. When you walk in New York, you walk in your own imagination, and more than that, you walk inside the imagination of millions and millions of people. That is quite something. I know it probably shouldn’t matter, but it does.
Perhaps Americans can’t quite understand what I’m on about here, because they’ve always been living in their own imaginations: American culture is mostly American. Let me show you something.
In my country, 70% of the movies showed on the big screen are American movies. The remaining 30% are French movies, and perhaps once or twice a year, you get a local movie, but in my life, I have never seen a local movie at a local theatre. Imagine, American, if 70% of the movies proposed to you were French, and the rest Canadian. Imagine if you knew more about Paris than you did about New York; if Gdansk evoked more images in your mind than Washington. I can’t place my capital on a map, but I can place so many American cities on the US map that I feel ashamed.
Because of the media expansion and the technology, images, sounds, and culture in general have no limits; and because of this, New York exists more than it ever did, and so does everything else that is communicated through whatever media. And consequently, Gdansk all the less. And I won’t even mention my town. 1’500 inhabitants inhabiting a place that doesn’t exist in any of your imaginations.
We need to live in our imagination, that’s one thing I believe, because when we don’t, we’re not happy. This ties in with my theory that life is literature, that we structure the raw material of “reality” into readable stories. We’re all the writers of ourselves. You can’t keep everything you live in your mind: you divide the human body that utters words to you into a “friend” and you make this person a character in the story of your life. You highlight things from it, you shape things into plots where people do things. We all do this, and we do this because life per se, the raw material of reality, is too wild and unreadable and undigested for us to take as is. We need to write it to ourselves so it makes sense.
Now, when you live in Nowhere City, it’s hard to come up with a good story. That’s why those of us who do live in shit-holes usually conceptualise that element as “living in a shit-hole” and suddenly they’re not so alone, because we all know movies and books with characters living in shit-holes. In a detoured way, even shit-hole inhabitants can put that element of their raw reality into a readable story.
Perhaps Americans think that while they have Britney Spears, other countries have their local version of it. Wrong, we have Britney Spears too, the very same, the very American Spears. And I don’t mean to say that Spears is the epitome of American culture, just that our culture is your culture.
When I went to America, in 1999, I truly had the sensation that I was walking in a movie. Everything I saw around me I had seen before, on TV, in movies. I was not in unknown territory; this was no terra incognita even though I had never set foot there in my life. Similarly, when I went to school, in my country, I was in unknown territories. Schools never looked like that in movies, on TV. Somehow this made my school look suspicious; was it a real school?
The divide between the imaginary world and the one you face daily can be traumatic. When nothing in your dream world resembles your world, you begin to wonder. You wonder if you truly exist, or if you don’t happen to live in a fake world: something that’s not the real thing.
When culture doesn’t echo and reflect your world, it gives you the feeling that you don’t exist, that the world in which you live has no recognised existence. The world doesn’t know about it, and can’t place it on a map. Much like a ghost, you live your life like a secondary employee on the set of a big movie; always in the backstage, always on the set, but never seen, never felt.