Alexei Sayle on what makes us human: We need to realise that the best things in life are not things

Continuing our What Makes Us Human series, Alexei Sayle reflects on the time Paul McKenna planted a suicidal post-hypnotic suggestion in his brain, and how our restlessness has been exploited to devastating effect.

Several years ago I attended a summer party where one of the other guests was the stage hypnotist and motivational speaker Paul McKenna. For some reason we got talking about environmental issues in which I know he has an interest. I was talking about how so much of my own and other people’s supposed environmental activity such as recycling wine bottles or buying organic bread is just a mask for continuing rampant consumerism and he replied, “Yes, if you were truly serious about trying to save the planet then what you would do, would be you would kill yourself.”

I had never heard this opinion expressed before. As the child of communists and a vestigial Marxist myself, my belief had always been that mankind’s depredation of the planet was as a result of our exploitative economic system. I had unthinkingly subscribed to the view that capitalism was the problem and if we had a different, fairer economic system – such as socialism – then we could heal the scars we have inflicted on the earth in pursuit of the wilder excesses of capitalist consumerism. Socialist man would walk arm and arm with nature into a kinder, greener future.

But what McKenna seemed to be saying was that what makes us human also makes us destroyers of the earth, and that – given human nature – there is no way that we could live in harmony with the environment. Therefore the only hope for the planet was if mankind disappeared completely. Once we had disappeared from the face of the planet a great peace would descend – wars would stop, the destruction of the rainforest would be halted and gradually green growth would cover the landscape scarred with our buildings. The beauty of this wonderful blue-green planet would be restored and its only inhabitants – the animals –would live in harmony with Gaia.

A few days later I was having my breakfast and I was chewing on a piece of toast when the unbidden thought popped into my head, “This toast is a bit dry. I might as well hang myself.” Of course, this was Paul McKenna who at the party had clearly planted a suicidal post-hypnotic suggestion in my brain. I managed to avoid committing suicide but continued to wonder whether to be human means that I will inevitably be part of destroying the natural world. Or is there some way in which we can live in harmony with the earth?

Given that every other creature except us has always had a benign relationship with the planet, and that before the invention of agriculture we did, too, and that there remain tribal societies in a few remote corners of the earth that still do no harm to the biosphere while the vast majority of us live profoundly unnatural lives, how did this come about? And can we reverse at least some of the worst effects of what it is to be part of the disease that makes us human in the 21st century?

Pascal said: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And that has got to be at the root of what has gone wrong with our relationship to our environment. We can’t leave well alone; we are never satisfied. This perpetual search for novelty may have made us reach for the stars but it has also led us constantly to seek the better, bigger exercise bike. Capitalism has seized on this flaw in our make-up and refined it so that we think that happiness will come from the next thing – the very next thing – that we buy. Our last phone did not make us happy but this new one with a 13 billion-pixel camera will. Or, if only I had the £300 pair of trainers instead of these crappy ones that I bought last week for £129. Why did I ever imagine they would make me happy?

What obsesses all industrial societies is ceaseless growth, making more and more things, building more and more buildings, eating more and more food. Without continuous expansion, all manufacturing economies will collapse. And in order to continue this expansion, people must be convinced that their happiness lies in buying new stuff. So what makes us human right now in the industrial economies is to be permanently dissatisfied, because, for our economies to grow, we must believe that it is not any of the things we own but the very next thing we buy, the very next holiday we take, that will finally push us over the top into serenity.

Of course, as soon as we buy the thing or finish the holiday, that sense of dissatisfaction returns. The happiness doesn’t last but what is continuous and increasing is the brutal excavation of the earth’s finite resources.

Millennia ago, in pre-agrarian societies, one day was much like another and people lived together in harmony with each other and with nature. There existed a primitive form of communism: since there were no surpluses, nobody could accumulate more possessions than anybody else. And without more possessions there was no incentive to grab more power; decisions were reached more or less by consensus.

We are never going to get back to this Garden of Eden but surely it should be possible to live more in harmony with both our planet and our better, truer selves? The thousand-year experiment to see if happiness can be bought, if possession of more and more stuff can give life meaning, has failed. We need to realise that the best things in life are not things. Perhaps we need to look at and learn from the animal world: few animals living in freedom fail to reach their full potential. To quote D H Lawrence: “If men were as much men as lizards are lizards/they’d be worth looking at.”

Alexei Sayle is a comedian

This article is the tenth in our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in association with BBC Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine show

A dump for rubbish from across the world in Accra, Ghana

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism