Gangnam prison

I couldn’t sleep last night for the idea, or question, really, that was buzzing around the inside of my skull. I was thinking about the final moments in Steppenwolf when he is waiting to be executed in his prison cell and there’s that stunning passage that I try to live by now.

Shadows of window blinds fall upon private eye Jake Gittes, performed by Jack Nicholson, in Chinatown (1974).

My thought-train leapfrogged to the influence of German expressionist film upon film noir, particularly in the use of a single harsh light blazed through a set of horizontal blinds. Strips of dark and lightness are used to heighten the claustrophobia of fast-encroaching modernity – every individual is caught, literally, in a prison of his own making.

Then I was struck by this thought: what if you could choose your claustrophobia?

What if you could choose for your cell to be in any 6m by 10m space?

If you had to look at one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Would you choose the main belly of a train carriage, for constant variety?

Or would you choose the edge of the sea?

A library jam-packed with books?

Or the kitchen of your family home?

Of course, all these options are to do with space rather than company. It is this distinction that brought home to me the key to imprisonment: it is not about restricted boundaries so much as your inability to cross them.

No matter what space you choose, whoever enters it has the ability to leave again, whereas you do not. And would you condemn another human being to live with you forever in a 6m by 10m box, no matter how bright the paint, or how real its colours? It is almost like a condensed form of immortality – you will outstay (rather than outlive) the people that surround you; although they may share some patch of time with you, isolation will be the defining state of your existence.

I guess your prison may as well be blank and bare; being imprisoned elsewhere may let you believe, momentarily, that you are free again, and the memory that you are not would make the plunge in the pit of your stomach all the more deep.

Also, I came across this video of inmates in a Philippine prison performing a mass dance routine to Gangnam Style and it sent chills down my spine.



Reading Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf earlier this year was like taking an ice-bath – it shook me awake to ideas that I had never articulated before but which must have been lying dormant within me.

The book is almost a treatise on the multiplicity of the self, a concept that I have found fascinating ever since first-year-philosophy, where I first met it as a concept. There is a stunning passage where Hesse exhorts us to understand that we have no ‘essence’ – if you peel back the skin-layers there is no solid core underneath that is the ‘real’. (Imagine if this was so, though. It would be like when you catch a splinter in the palm of your hand and your skin, rather than rejecting it, grows over it instead. We humans would be a group of flesh-embedded splinters, protecting our realness with epidermis.) Hesse tries to capture the sense that we are a compilation of multiple selves, few of which have dominance over each other, by describing a group of animals sitting, roaming, inside our rib-cages – a tiger, a peacock, a snake, a mouse, an eagle. We are all each and every one of these at once.

Obviously, he articulates this in a far more breath-taking and eloquent way but I cannot place the exact passage so a paraphrase will have to suffice, for now.

I did find this page, however, whilst re-skimming.

This Steppenwolf of ours has always been aware of at least the Faustian nature of the two-fold nature within him. He had discovered that the one-fold of the body is not inhabited by a one-fold of the soul, and that at best he is only at the beginning of a long pilgrimage towards this ideal harmony, He would either like to overcome the wolf and become wholly man or to renounce man-kind and at last live life wholly a wolf’s life. It may be presumed that he has never carefully watched a wolf. Had he ever done so he would have seen, perhaps, that even animals are not undivided in spirit. With them, too, the well-knit beauty of the body hides a being of manifold states and strivings. The world too, has his abysses. The wolf, too, suffers. No, back to nature is a flase track that leads nowhere but to suffering and despair. Harry can never turn back again and become wholly wolf, and could he do so he would find that even the wolf is not of primeval simplicity, but already a creature of manifold complexity. Even the wolf has two, and more than two, souls in his wolf’s breast, and he who desires to be a wolf falls into the same forgetfulness as the man who sings: “If I could be a child once more!” He who sentimentally sings of blessed childhood is thinking of the return to nature and innocence and the origin of things, and has forgotten that these blessed children are beset with conflict and complexities and capable of all suffering.

There is, in fact, no way back either to the wolf or to the child. From the very start there is no innocence and no singleness. Every created thing, even the simplest, is already guilty, already multiple. It has been thrown into the muddy stream of being and may never more swim back again to its source.”